A Winter’s Tale

A local writer remembers the SS Dominator and its fateful encounter with the shores of Palos Verdes.

You could say 1966 was a boring time to be a kid living in Palos Verdes. Parents didn’t overbook their kids then like they do today. There were no soccer games, scholastic tutoring, orthodontia appointments, dance classes, piano practice or anger management counseling. 

The smog was really bad too. The ocean view was tarnished daily with a dark brownish-bronze layer that ran along the horizon from El Segundo to Catalina Island—and your lungs knew it. It was every kid for himself or herself, and we got quite good at humoring and amusing ourselves during the tedium we endured growing up. 

You get really creative when you’re that bored. Have you ever thrown a 45 record off the cliffs? We did (I don’t want to hear about the fortune in collectible vinyl we left shattered on the rocks where the water was breaking below), and we also learned how to Frisbee the discs until they were out of sight.

I had lived here for a few months when one of my mutually bored friends suggested we hike to a ship that had crashed near Rocky Point a few years before. This sounded like it might successfully kill the after-school doldrums, so we were on our way. 

There were several paths to take from the cliff tops to the tide pools, each one a bit more tenuous than the other. We chose one that started near the high school and wound its way sharp and steep, dusty and dirty, loose and shaky to the jagged hard rocks below. 

A short and precarious southern hike landed us in front of the SS Dominator, between Lunada Bay and Malaga Cove as the pelicans fly. The giant freighter had been there for five years exactly. 

It looked like it could have been a century though, the way its monumental presence commanded the terrain. It had ground itself extremely deep into the rocky ragged shore. 

Things weren’t so boring any more. This was a truly surreal vision, most notably in context with it being so close to the houses and people that lived just a 45 record’s throw away. 

Though it was only half of its original structure and size, the majestic appearance it must have had the day it was launched was still very present. It had deteriorated much—every bit of its surface was deeply covered in rust and decay. 

It was still a ship! The juxtaposition of the man-made wonder amongst the nature that had grabbed it and held on to it forever was startling. This was quite something to see and behold, as they say, and we had it all to ourselves. 

It’s one thing to study something and appreciate its beauty and grandeur from afar, but to be able to explore it inside and out without anyone around to tell us different was beyond expectation. This was exactly what we needed. 

We crawled in the first opening we could find and climbed up metal-rung ladders that conveniently took us from one level to another. Each deck’s quarter was only slightly different from the next in size and space, but everything still looked incredibly fascinating. You can’t walk through a ghost ship without your imagination running wild. 

It was very dark inside the ship, even though the 4 p.m. sun was clear and bright on the outside while we snuck around, looking for something and anything to discover. There were no more treasures to be found—after five years it had been picked dry. 

We continued to investigate the wreck and frolic away our afternoon. I wondered what had originally happened—how this gigantic ship came to land here and why. 

“The immense ship instantly came to a complete and thunderous halt. Whatever had gashed the ship open reached up and grabbed it by its bowels and held on with uncompromising determination.”

Monday, March 13, 1961. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” by The Shirelles had been on the radio a lot, rotating in between countless plays of Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” 

The previous night, Ed Sullivan’s annual St. Patrick’s-themed Sunday evening show was broadcast, with a list of performers too banal to mention. President Kennedy had established the Peace Corps just the week before. 

Locally, things were pretty boring, save for the righteous surf in Redondo. It was 5:30 in the afternoon, and the fog was so thick it was literally blinding. Traffic usually comes to a halt when it’s that bad, but how do you stop a Dominator? 

The freighter was on its way from Vancouver (after having stopped in Portland) with a final destination of Algeria, North Africa. At that moment it was heading for Long Beach to dock and refuel. 

Originally a World War II American Liberty ship (and sold immediately after the war), the 441-foot long, 5,000-ton gargantuan changed hands and names several times before becoming the SS Dominator, stationed in Greece, in 1953. From then on it would be used exclusively as a freighter. 

It was carrying close to 10,000 tons of cargo on this voyage—mostly wheat and some beef—totaling the craft’s weight to around 15,000 tons. A ship gets old fast; there was no “state-of-the-art” navigation package in the control room. Neither had there been any modernization or technological improvements made, let alone radar. 

This was a 17-year-old, battle-weary, worn-out workhorse that might have been better scheduled for shorter trips. When wind and incredibly strong currents occur like they were at this point, it helps if you can at least see and be able to check for the threat of lethally destructive rocks near the water’s surface. The fog blocked any light that might have still been around before sunset, so seeing was not an option. Blinds-ville.

Captain Charitos Papanicolopoulos, age 64, was in command of the voyage—his very first West Coast trip. (And it would turn out to be his last according to the rules of the sea.) 

He had reduced the ship’s speed to just above 10 knots due to the zero visibility. Notwithstanding his 20 years experience at sea, he inadvertently mistook Point Vicente Lighthouse for the entrance to Long Beach Harbor. That’s where it got bad. 

Just before 6:00, the Dominator struck the intensely jagged and immense rock formations close to shore that had been hidden by the huge waves and dense fog. The immense ship instantly came to a complete and thunderous halt. Whatever had gashed the ship open reached up and grabbed it by its bowels and held on with uncompromising determination. It had crash-landed in an unfortunately vulnerable position. 

It couldn’t have been worse. It faced, broadside, directly toward the waves that smashed into the crippled boat relentlessly. Each threatening wave was wide enough to reach from stern to bow and powerful enough to go up and over the deck. The constant pounding by the sea made it impossible to get away. 

It was high tide at the time of the crash, so things would only get worse if they couldn’t get back out to sea immediately. Each blazing gush of water smacked the side of the ship as if to make sure it wouldn’t escape. The ocean can be a very mean and vicious force—stronger and more deadly than its beauty might ever suggest. 

Captain Charitos sent a distressed-at-sea call to the Redondo King Harbor staff that was on duty at the time, which was around 6:00. The crew on hand rushed down to PV and saw there was nothing they could do until the fog lifted and the waves died down. They offered to send rescue boats, but the 35 or so crewmembers and their captain chose to stay on board for the time being. There were no injuries. 

Local Rocky Point residents thought there had been an earthquake. The ship’s distress horn could be heard on land, but no one could see the disaster from the shore’s vantage point. 

“Around midnight on the 15th, 70 mph winds made things even worse. The captain finally Morse-coded an SOS to abandon ship.”

For several days there were many attempts to free the freighter from the earth’s defiant and tight hold. Tugboats tried again and again to pull it away from shore, only to find that when the tide lifted the vessel up so it could be freed, it was pulled even further toward land by the huge swells, suffering further damage from the rocks. 

The crew made an effort to work from inside, dismantling the engines at one point in hopes of loosening the hull from the furious and fatal grip. Several compartments had taken on water. 

Around midnight on the 15th, 70 mph winds made things even worse. The captain finally 

Morse-coded an SOS to abandon ship. 

As the Coast Guard helped the crew get to Los Angeles Harbor in small boats, the Dominator’s hull began to split and crack, creating an eerie, threatening clamor. The immense cargo of wheat had begun to escape after the wreck, floating south to San Pedro and north to Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach. The grain had absorbed tons of additional weight in salt water, which had greatly increased its volume, threatening to burst the hull wide open. 

This happened, although not as dramatically as has been rumored. The ship remained essentially whole, albeit on the brink of breaking apart, for the next months while efforts went on to salvage it and its holdings. 

The immense amount of cereal-like muck created by the spill began to ferment and attracted billions of flies, causing much unpleasantness and complaint among the townsfolk. The rotting meat only added to the disgusting mess. 

The flies were more than a nuisance, but nothing could be done about them or the noxious odor. The stench was so strong, it could be smelled inland for miles. The insects and rotting grain unintentionally created a long-lasting benefit for the area: They attracted lobsters and squid, which were (up until then) unheard of in the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s coast. 

The lobsters fed on the tons of porridge, making them much in demand for decades to come. Grain-fed lobster tail anyone? 

Squid boats are seen still today, just off Rocky Point, fishing at night while attracting the calamari with intense bright lights shined straight down into the water. Lobster traps are ever-present nowadays too, set along the shoreline from Torrance Beach to Portuguese Bend.

Some local high school kids and others swam out to the abandoned ship to investigate, see what they could find, party and sightsee. Others thought that by boarding the vessel, they could claim and take possession of the wreckage. 

The amateur pirates, looking for a free ride or just a good time, were suddenly rudely awakened. They became stranded when the tide rose and the treacherous weather returned, causing the Coast Guard to have to rescue them all by Marine helicopter. Nearly 100 similar rescues took place in the weeks to follow. 

A week after the wreck took place, a 25-year-old Inglewood man was killed while skin-diving below the hull to see what was holding on to it. There were several additional deaths reported in the months following the disaster. The local authorities had their hands full with the aftermath caused by the Dominator’s destruction for many years. 

The freighter split into two halves in early November after the remaining final tons of salvageable wheat had been removed during summer and early fall. About 100 gallons of fuel oil spilled during the salvage effort, drifting and attaching itself to the Redondo and Hermosa Beach shoreline. 

The investor that hoped to refloat the Dominator after it had been emptied was only able to salvage its steel and brass. Additional plans to salvage whatever was left were ultimately abandoned, and the SS Dominator was finally allowed to rest in peace. 

During the following decades the ship continued to break apart, scattering and littering its decaying rusty debris along the coast and out along the ocean’s floor. The ship was host to many partying daredevil locals during the ‘60s and ‘70s, adding to its lore and legend. 

A small portion of the stern can still be seen today on shore during low tide. Baby blue sharks can be seen swimming through the dark, spooky debris, along with the lobsters that continue to make the wreckage their home. Scuba divers enjoy finding other hidden parts of the wreckage some 100+ yards from shore, although the weather conditions can still be as treacherous as they were on the 13th of March 1961. 

Imagine having been on a flight departing Los Angeles Airport and seeing a 440-foot World War II ship stranded just off the PV Peninsula shore. Some people did. And for a once-bored kid living in ‘60s Palos Verdes, his hometown suddenly became a much cooler place.

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