Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mariners In Review: Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast

It was 2:10 AM on October 25, 1918. The steamer Princess Sophia (pictured above) had been three hours late leaving Skagway, Alaska Territory southbound. Visibility was poor in Lynn Canal due to snow swirling around the ship, but Captain Leonard P. Locke kept the speed up, hoping to make up lost time. According to Robert Belyk, author of Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast:
Under unfavorable conditions, it seems likely that either Captain Locke or his first officer, Jerry Shaw, made a navigation error, taking the Princess Sophia on a mid-channel course that ended abruptly on Vanderbilt Reef...in the center of the channel, more than a mile off course.

A rocky outcropping rising rising about fifteen feet above the water at low tide, Vanderbilt Reef's flat surface is submerged under high tides or heavy swells. The only warning of the hazard then was a buoy placed at the south end of the rock. Many regular travelers along Lynn Canal had petitioned authorities for a lighted buoy, but their requests had been ignored.

The Princess Sophia struck with such a force that some of the passengers were thrown from their berths. Alarmed, women still dressed in their nightclothes rushed on deck. According to a letter written aboard the ship and later found on the body of the victim, the captain ordered the lifeboats readied and swung out over the side in preparation for launch, but it was clear no one would live in the stormy sea.
And no one did. Locke kept everyone on board. The lifeboats could not be swung out far enough to clear the reef, and in the worsening weather it was suicide to jump into the water. Locke told rescuers that Princess Sophia was sitting safely on the reef. But it was only temporary safety. Fifteen hours later wind, waves and tides washed Princess Sophia beneath the waters of Lynn Canal. All 353 people on board were lost, making this shipwreck the deadliest in West Coast history.

The story of the Princess Sophia is one of ten Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast that Belyk chronicles. Using original letters of passengers and crew members, newspaper reports, and official documents, Belyk looks at some -- but certainly not all -- of the major maritime disasters between 1854 and 1929, the so-called "Golden Age" of the West Coast liner trade. The excerpt above typifies many of Bleyk's themes: the financial pressure from shipowners to keep a schedule, failure of the bridge crew to know the vessel's position and operate according to conditions, the failure of local government to address hazardous conditions. Each theme remains, despite the particulars of the incident or the vessels involve: the 227 people killed in the collision between the side-wheeler Pacific and the square-rigger Orpheus all perished before the steel-hulled San Juan, which sank half a century later, was even built.

There was no one cause for any of the wrecks, but each had its "error chain" that eventually led to the loss of lives. Despite the reforms put into place since that era, mariners today will recognize many of the causes of these disasters: incompetence, mismanagement, laziness, corruption and, most of all, greed. Many of the vessels were obsolete, ill-equipped, or both. Many captains were under pressure to maximize the number of passengers or amount of cargo -- in those days there was often not a full manifest for either -- and to make the passage as quickly as possible. Captains were more rewarded for loyalty and profitability than prudence.

The themes are similar and the before and after details can be a little dry; readers might want to consider reading each chapter of Great Shipwrecks on different days to keep it all from running together. The first-hand accounts can be gripping, however, and often reveal that heroism or cowardice have little to do with rank or social standing. So often we think of shipwrecks as romantic and mysterious places being explored by scuba divers, treasure hunters, or Clive Cussler characters. Belyk reminds us that real people suffered and died in those wrecks.

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