The curious case of the missing Mobile mariners: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 18

What really happened aboard the Gloria Colita so many years ago?

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all. Today, a tale from the old seafaring days of yore …

Tales of maritime disaster always creep me the hell out in a way that no haunted house can match. Something about being out there in the midst of the vast ocean, alone, adrift, has always gotten under my skin, whether it’s the horrors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis or the grim mystery of former NBA player Bison Dele.

To that list, I’ll add the strange tale of the Gloria Colita.

There are facts about the Gloria Colita, and there are legends. I’ll go with both. Built in the late 1930s on the tiny Grenadine island of Bequia by a shipwright named Reg Mitchell, the Gloria Colita was the largest vessel of its day in the Caribbean. (That’s its maiden launch in the photo above.) A wooden ship measuring 165 feet and weighing 175 tons, it was a majestic sight at every port.

So, too, was Mitchell — if you believe the legends, he stood seven feet tall. Beginning in 1939, he piloted the ship on a circuitous route from South America to Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. He’d ship rice to Cuba, pick up sugar cane, sell the sugar cane in Alabama, load up with lumber, and return back to Cuba and South America. It was arduous but profitable work.

One trip, Mitchell loaded up with rice in British Guiana (now Guyana) and sugar in Havana. He sailed from there to Venezuela. And it’s there that things got weird.

For some still-unknown reason, Mitchell fired his entire crew and hired a new Spanish one. He set sail for Mobile to pick up another load of lumber to sell in Cuba. He left Mobile on Jan. 21, 1940 … and that was the last time anyone ever saw Mitchell or his crew. (Perhaps.)

The Gloria Colita never showed up in Havana. Two weeks after the ship sailed out of Mobile, U.S. Coast Guard plane spotted the Gloria Colita, clearly damaged, floating 150 miles out from shore in the Gulf Stream. The ship’s rigging and rudder were gone, and it was completely empty, save for — again, according to legend — the ship’s lone dog. You can see the ruined remains of the ship in this news account of the day:

So what happened to the men of the Gloria Colita? The conventional explanation holds that the ship was caught unaware and battered by a rogue wave — perhaps as high as 100 feet — and all nine crew members were swept overboard.

But there are other tales about the seven-foot-tall captain and the mysterious abandoned boat. Darker tales.

One theory holds that the Spanish crew rose up and killed Mitchell, only to die themselves on the ship’s tow boat. Another theory wraps the Gloria Colita in with the ongoing Bermuda Triangle mystery … although it’s a bit of a stretch to count the Gulf of Mexico in the Bermuda Triangle.

Still another theory brings the Nazis into the mix: a German U-Boat patrolling the Caribbean during World War II may have captured Mitchell and forced him to act as their guide. This tale came about following reports of a tall individual, not in uniform, visible on the deck of a German submarine.

What really happened aboard the Gloria Colita? Nothing good, that much is certain. Just keep that in mind, the next time you’re out on the water. You’re only one bad storm, one blown motor, one snapped mast from drifting out there, all alone.

(Sources: British Virgin Islands Maritime Museum; Clean Sweet Wind, Bequia Tourism)

If you’ve got a strange Southern story to tell — peculiar legends, secret family lore, the real reason your uncle ended up in prison, that kind of thing — drop me a line and let me know. I’m always up for a good tale.

Street art of the Week

“Visionary for Justice,” MLK Jr. Boulevard, Atlanta: Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson was an activist, an organizer and an utter badass, working alongside MLK and other leaders during the civil rights movement. She rode buses throughout the South as a Freedom Rider, she spent weeks imprisoned in Parchman State Prison in Mississippi, and she did whatever she had to do to push the cause of integration forward. Read more about her here.

Recommended reading

Okay, technically I can’t really recommend this because I haven’t read it yet, seeing as how it just came out this weekend, but many of my favorite writers just released a novel entitled The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA. I have no idea what it’s about or how those words in the title all fit together, but I like football, westerns, sci-fi, novels and all those writers, so I’m going to gamble it’s pretty good. Buy your own copy right here. We’ll figure out what the hell it’s all about together.

Can I interest you in some day-old writing?

With sports coming back all over the place, I’ve been busier than a one-armed blackjack dealer on a Mississippi riverboat, or something like that. Anyway, I wrote about how the NBA’s new social justice ethos is opening up a generational divide — the “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” approach — and I also rhapsodized on how opposing pitchers are going to exact their own form of justice on the cheatin’ Houston Astros. That led one reader to paint the above painting from one of my lines in the column. That was new.

Read all my stuff at Yahoo here, and subscribe to our daily sports newsletter, with more sports and less Southernin’, right here.

And finally …

If I were going to break out separate state-by-state versions of F&AB, Midway Minute style, I can guarantee that the Florida one would have a larger subscription base than all the rest put together. Seriously, where else but in the Sunshine State are you going to get scenes like this:

That’s in Miami, on Interstate 95. The gentleman rode on the hood of the truck for a good nine miles before being detained by police and sent to a local hospital for “further evaluation.” Say what you will about this Florida Man, he didn’t lack for tenacity.

That’ll do it for this week. Y’all keep a tight grip on the hood of the speeding 18-wheeler that is 2020. See you back here next week.


For a complete archive of all Flashlight & A Biscuit dispatches, from creepy swamp legends to old baseball players to civil rights heroes to hot wings that’ll burn your soul, click right here.