Was strange cargo sent from Russia to Cuba an elaborate hoax?

STRANGE CARGO ... was it all a hoax?
STRANGE CARGO ... was it all a hoax?

LAST week’s column about the millions of Lego bricks which have been washing up on the beaches of Cornwall, Wales and Australia provoked a few responses, and reader J Riley drew my attention to another aquatic enigma.

This is just as much a puzzle, although in this case we’ll probably never get any satisfactory answers.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 27, 1967, something strange was found floating off the coast at Hallandale, Florida. It was a wooden crate, 18in square.

Lettering on the box indicated it had started its journey in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in Russia and had been destined for Havana, Cuba.

On the side of the crate, in English, were the words, “MADE IN U.S.S.R. TO: THE INSTITUTE OF MINERAL RESOURCES, CUBA. 50kg.”

Incongruously, when the box was opened it was found to contain nothing but seven yellow balloons, all inflated. With the Cold War at its height anything connected to either the USSR or Cuba was viewed with extreme suspicion.

On inspection, the coastguard decided that the degree of barnacle accretion suggested the crate had been in the water for around two months.

Two days later, on June 29, another crate was found floating off the coast at Marathon Key, 133 miles to the south.

The second crate was identical in every respect to the first, except that it was empty.

John L Pilling, information officer for the Coast Guard, told the media: “We are investigating the boxes and the balloons, but we have not reached any conclusions as yet,”

It’s a long time after the fact, but we do have a few clues to work with.

For example, the balloons were not the sort you’d find at a children’s birthday party.

They were made of industrial-grade rubber and the inflation apertures were plugged with sturdy black stoppers.

As far as investigators could tell, the balloons contained nothing but air.

Perhaps of greater significance was that the weight of the crates were said to be 50kg according to the stamp, but in reality they only weighed just over 13.5 kgs.

The crate found at Hallandale was very slightly heavier due to the balloons, but the difference was really negligible.

What we do know is that something weighing approximately 36.5kg seems to have been missing from each crate.

But what of the balloons? “Air sacks” were sometimes used as packing in crates back in the ’60s, before the invention of bubble wrap.

They were sturdy balloons which could be inflated to just the right size to protect delicate objects in shipping containers.

What we seem to be left with, then, is the wrapping and not the objects it once protected.

There are certain aspects of this case which are truly baffling.

For example, when one allows for both the size of the crate and the size and shape of the balloons, the object they were cushioning must have been no more than one cubic foot in size, and weighed around 80lbs.

One cubic foot of dry, loose earth weighs just under 80lbs, but we know that the material in the crate was a manufactured object, as the crate contained the words, “MADE IN U.S.S.R”.

The use of seven protective air sacks also suggests that the object may have been pyramidal in shape – although we can’t be absolutely sure – as seven air sacks is the ideal number to safely cushion a pyramid-shaped object; four underneath, one on each of the three sides and one on the apex.

Officer Pilling told the press: “We can’t explain it. It’s a mystery to us. No one yet has come up with a reasonable explanation as to why seven inflated yellow balloons were being shipped from Russia to Cuba.”

And why was the lettering on the case in English, and not Russian or Spanish? It’s a mystery. A hoax?

John Pilling was sceptical. “I doubt it. If it is, it’s a mighty elaborate one.”

* Seen something strange? Tell Mike at wraithscape@mikehallowell.com