I've never been in a shipwreck, but I've come close more than once. For instance, there was the time my dad and I headed for Wrangell on a stocking up trip in his 32 foot wooden boat the Sea Cucumber. It was a hot summer and the boat had been moored at the dock for a couple months without being used. Our passage was flat calm at first, but when we struck waves as we entered a radio dead spot very far from help we discovered that the seams in the bow had opened up from all the dry, hot weather. Soon we were taking on more water than the bilge pump could handle.
My dad had a second bilge pump but it wasn't hooked up and he wasn't sure that it was still in working order. He ordered me to put on a life jacket and get out on the back deck while he worked on the pump. If the boat went down he'd be trapped inside, but I had a chance of escaping the suction. (We had no lifeboat at the time-we did after that.)
It was a tense few minutes but he managed to get the second pump working and hooked up and the two pumps managed to keep us afloat until the bow seams closed up (from the planks swelling after immersion in the waves).
During the years that we had the Sea Cucumber the trusty little boat weathered massive, frightening seas; running aground on a rock; turning on its own wake in a thick fog; getting lost in a blizzard; and other dangerous adventures before my dad passed it on to a family member. Unfortunately, many other Alaskan boats didn't survive these exact same incidents. And the accounts of the boats that weren't so fortunate are reported in Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters by Captain Warren Good.
"Even at that I didn't hope and as much as possible tried to conserve my strength up to the end to try to save myself...because to be dead, I was thinking, would be lonesome." --First hand account of the sinking of the Umnak Native.
The sinking of the Umnak Native is a gripping story to read, especially for what is left out in the firsthand accounts. Reading between the lines I began to wonder if murder had taken place, if a Jonah situation had occurred. According to one account by an Aleut survivor there was a strong superstition that having a white man on an Aleut boat would bring diaster. So when the disaster struck...there are hints that the white man in question may have been killed to appease the raging elements, so that others would survive.
The author of Alaska Shipwrecks, Captain Warren Good, doesn't say anything like that about what happened aboard the Umnak Native. For the most part he lets his deep research speak for itself. The firsthand accounts, which he has in abundance, are dramatic enough without needing any editorializing. I found them so addictive that I would read far into the night because each wreck scenario seemed to top the next. (Trigger Warning: Many of these accounts are horrifying and heartbreaking.)
There was the chilling account of a crew finding a dismasted, half-sunk ship with a corpse in oilskins lashed to it. There was, literally, a dead man at the helm (p. 90). Then there's the story of the sinking of the Islander (one of the most famous shipwrecks in Alaskan history due to the reported $6 million--in 1901 dollars--in gold the passengers were carrying from the Klondike goldfields) in which it was reported that a baby in a blanket, tied to a life preserver, was found alive.
There are Robinson Crusoe stories of crews being forced to survive for months on remote, uninhabited islands with people dying all around them (one crew resorted to cannibalism). Incredibly, when more than one of these crews were rescued the ships that rescued them wrecked.
There are heart-wrenching stories of entire families being lost, or even worse, just one family member surviving. There's the account of one ship, the St. Patrick, being laid over in heavy seas and abandoned. All but two of the twelve crewmembers lost their lives...only for the ship to be found later, still afloat.
Many of these Alaskan shipwrecks and sinkings were familiar to me, but many more were not. In addition, I was suprised by history that I should have learned about in school. For instance, when we learned about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians and the battles fought there during World War II, the history books never revealed that these battles caused deaths and sinkings for more than a decade afterwards due to ships striking floating mines. I also never realized how many ships were sunk by Japanese submarines and how many submarines were sunk in this remote "theater of war."
Likewise, I never read about, in any of my school history books, only two weeks after the Russians handed Alaska over to the U.S. in Sitka that a terrific hurricane struck causing widespread destruction. Was it feared that American school children would look on this so-called Act of God as condemnation of Manifest Destiny's overreach? Captain Good doesn't say as much, but we're left to wonder.
Good also doesn't editorialize about the racism in some of the older reports--he allows the facts to speak for themselves. He exposes, for instance, that in one of the worst disasters in Alaskan history, the sinking of the Star of Bengal that officially killed 110 of 138, the Caucasians are listed by name while others are grouped under race with only the crew chiefs named.
The stories in this book aren't all completely tragic. Quite a few detail inspiring accounts of survival, of heroism, and of self-sacrifice that touched me deeply. There were also accounts that took me unawares because they had a personal connection to me. For instance, the elderly fisherman I corresponded with in high school when I was writing a report about the burned cannery where I grew up, had in his youth been involved in one of the shipwrecks described in this book. And, speaking of the cannery where I grew up, it's mentioned, too, as well as wrecks involving family and friends. Last, but not least, there's the account of a shipwreck--one of the most unusual in the entire book--that occurred on March 14, 1939 in Meyers Chuck, the tiny fishing village where I went to school and where I still get mail.
Captain Good's reasons for writing books about Alaskan shipwrecks, as well as maintaining his amazing website www.alaskashipwreck.com, are ones I'm in complete sympathy with: he hopes that these accounts will help give the families closure, make boaters be more cautious, encourage boaters to be better prepared for disaster, and help them avoid situations that could lead to yet one more tragedy in Alaskan waters.
I interviewed Captain Good for my column and you can read about how he came to be so famous for being "That Shipwreck Guy" that he was even consulted to help with the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989. You can read it here: http://www.juneauempire.com/life/alaska-for-real-that-shipwreck-guy/
Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters can be ordered from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/035914263X/ref=cm_sw_rShaCbTGNTHC0
He also has a 2019 calendar out that briefly describes 365 of the most disastrous Alaskan shipwrecks in the past 265 years with multiple accompanying photos. You can find it by Googling "2019 Alaska Shipwrecks Calendar lulu.com," or hopefully this link will work: http://www.lulu.com/shop/captain-warren-good/2019-alaska-shipwreck-calendar/calendar/product-23871087.html?utm_source=GeniusMonkey_VT
I love to hear from my readers. You can contact me through my blog or email me at email@example.com
Well, the daylight is dwindling and fall is heading into winter. I've gotten behind while dealing with combined health and technical difficulties which have conspired to keep me off-line. I'll use this post to get everyone caught up with life out here.
As usual, we're woodlogging all the time, and working on flotation projects, the typical floathouse year-around work. The weather is being oddly cooperative for the most part. At this time of the year we're usually getting pummeled by constant gales and hurricane force storms. It's a little unnerving how quiet it's been, but here's hoping it stays that way.
We had our usual fall stock-up trip. My brother Jamie took his fishing boat across the strait and allowed us to load it up so my dad was free to load the skiff with fuel. In addition to that, a local summer resident who didn't use all of his fuel has donated around 60 gallons of gas to our ongoing survival out here. So all things considered, we're feeling pretty good heading into winter.
Here's a link to the column about the fall stocking up trip: www.juneauempire.com/news/alaska-for-real-case-lot-stock-up/
Speaking of my column, I just received word that it will be terminated. The new editor is taking Capital City Weekly in a new direction and my column is no longer suitable for its new "mission statement." I've been told that two more columns will go up before the end of the year, and nothing after that. I'll be sure to link those on here, if they are, indeed, posted. (It's been hit or miss for a while, please accept apologies to those who look for my column and haven't been able to find it on its usual day.)
I've had such a fun time writing the column and hearing from readers over the last two years--it's been a delightful adventure, one I hope to continue elsewhere, as well as continuing to write about "Alaska for Real" subjects on here. Thanks to everyone who's helped and encouraged me to keep writing, even when it meant braving the elements to get to the good signal beach to send my column and photos in! Thanks especially to MC Martin who first hired me to write the column, and Clara Miller who has been a staunch supporter. Both of you have helped me to become a better writer, I appreciate you so much!
In other news, the floatplane company has switched our once-a-week mail day (weather permitting) to Thursdays! For as far back as I can remember, for decades, Meyers Chuck's mail day has always been on Wednesday.
It would probably be a bigger shock to the system, except that the plane is almost always late and we're accustomed to it being on Thursday. Still, such an epochal moment is worthy of notice.
Readers may also remember that the BBC contacted me about a possible show about the off-grid lifestyle in Southeast Alaska. A few producers even came out and did a film test and interview with my brother Jamie. Well, they've contacted me again and are interested in finding a large family in Alaska that lives off grid. If any of my readers know of such a family who would be interested in being part of a quality documentary-style TV show (the BBC does "Port Protection" and "Life Below Zero") please contact me through my blog, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That's it for now, folks! I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule in upcoming months.
All photos are of the Meyers Chuck Post Office area; landscaping by the post mistress Catherine Peavey.
Auris McQueen, a young soldier, wrote to his mother on October 25, 1918 about his "good luck" in securing a berth aboard a Canadian Pacific luxury liner, one of the Princess ships that were well-known throughout the Territory. At the time he wrote to her, the great ship with over 350 people on board, was perched atop a reef in the middle of one of Southeast Alaska's most scenic passageways, Lynne Canal.
"Now this ship," he wrote, "the Princess Sofia, is on a rock, and when we can get away is a question. It's storming now, about a 50-mile wind, and we can only see a couple hundred yards on account of snow and spray. We were going along at 3 a.m. yesterday when she hit a rock submerged at high tide, and for a while there was some excitement but no panic."
Although not well known outside of the Pacific Northwest, the sinking of the Princess Sophia was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for the tiny population of the Territory of Alaska. And even though it remains the single greatest loss of life in the Northwest Pacific, at the time it garnered little attention because the entire world was wrapped up in the end of War War I which was announced only days after the sinking. No one had time to mourn a ship full of people when they were giddily celebrating the end of global carnage. And even after the war ended, the story didn't gain much traction because by then the Spanish Influenza was grabbing all the headlines.
However, the sinking is well documented inside Alaska and Canada, with museum exhibits, and articles appearing every October in regional publications. Alaskans might well think there was nothing left to say about the "Titanic of the Northwest," but Captain Warren Good, a shipwreck expert who maintains the website www.alaskashipwreck.com, thinks otherwise.
"You seldom hear about the short life of the Sophia prior to her demise," he writes, "I believe that those six years and the insults that the hull of the steamer suffered through between her launch and her landing on Vanderbilt Reef likely contributed to her final disposition."
The insults he's talking about are the times the Sophia had previous violent encounters with the as yet still uncharted rocks and reefs of the Inside Passage. In fact, she wrecked previously near her final crash, which prompted her owners to presciently--however unsuccessfully--petition the territorial government to put a light on Vanderbilt Reef.
Captain Good maintains: "If you wish to break a pane of glass along a particular line, you score it creating a line of weakness along the surface of the glass.When you hold one end of the glass and bend the other over a fulcrum that is in line with the scoring, it will break exactly where you scored it. Hull damage can be similar.... If a vessel that has such a line of weakness is subjected to stress of just the right direction and strength...the hull can compromise or crack along the weakness. I believe that this is what happened to the Princess Sophia."
As he points out, the Princess Sophia was jammed onto Vanderbilt Reef heading almost due south. As the tide slowly lifted her by the stern, northerly currents, waves, and wind slowly spun her around, while her bow section remained jammed in place. After the sinking, her submerged bow section was found to be totally independent of her hull. The forward section of the Princess Sophia was still attached to the reef and approximately two thirds of her hull had slid off into deeper water.
"I would not be in the least surprised," Captain Good speculates, "to find out that the location of the separation of one of the two parts of the Princess Sophia is the same location where damage had been repaired in previous insults to her hull, two of which were substantial."
He adds that an entirely new understanding of the Princess Sophia's sinking could be had if a study of the submerged wreck was made, with focus on the known previous damage and on the quality of the weld jobs done to repair her and put her back in service. "A modern forensic evaluation of the Princess Sophia could change how we look at what happened. It could rewrite or at least amend and enlighten our view of Alaska maritime history."
And don't the passengers of the Sophia deserve for us to know what really caused them to lose their lives?
Auris McQueen, the soldier writing to his mother, was under the impression that they were safe enough, despite the ship being wrecked and a storm blowing. After all, ships were wrecked all the time in the wild, uncharted Territory of Alaska, with little loss of life. The Sophia herself had a history of wrecking quite forcefully but being safely floated off to head for harbor under her own steam, so why would this time be any different?
True, at first some "Nervous Nellies" thought they all might die--a few men went around wearing life preservers for a few hours until they apparently felt silly and took them off. One man even wrote out his will. A woman donned a black dress, assuming an air of high drama, but nobodly paid her much attention.
Their main concern, according to Auris, was that they had run out of soft sugar (though, he was quick to reassure his mother, they still had lump sugar). They had lights, heat, and electricty, a veritable high class hotel out there in the middle of nowhere on a reef in a storm. However, the main steam pipe had broken so they had no water for washing. He ends his letter, aboard the wrecked Princess Sophia, by cheerfully saying:
"The decks are icy and this wreck has all the ear marks of a movie stage setting. All we lack is a hero and a vampire. I'm going to quit writing and see if I can rustle a bucket and line to get some sea water to wash in. We are mighty lucky we are not buried in sea water."
Hours later he and over 350 people lost their lives. Only a dog survived.
NOTE: You can read more about the Princess Sophia and other famous (as well as little known) wrecks in the book "Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750-2015" by Captain Warren Good and Michael Burwell. In addition, Bjorn Dihle's "Haunted Inside Passage" includes a chapter on the Princess Sophia that focuses on the passengers and the aftermath of the tragedy.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)