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
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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.
Most long time Alaskans know about, even if it seems like the rest of the world never heard of them, the WWII battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands. And some might even know about the Japanese submarine I-26 that patrolled from British Columbia to the California coast, sinking at least two ships and shelling a lighthouse and radio-direction-finding installation at Estevan Point, B.C.
But even those who pride themselves the most on knowing their WWII history in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to find that there was enemy action and a small battle fought in southern SE Alaska off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in July of 1942.
At this time an airfield had been established on Annette Island, 25 miles south of Ketchikan, to defend Canadian and U.S. interests along the coast. The Royal Canadian Air Force's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was established on the island on May 5, 1942 becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" according to M.V. Bezeau in the book "Alaska at War."
Alaskans and everyone else living along the Northwest Coast were jumpy at the thought of Japanese subs prowling about seeking a target, particularly after the I-26 sank the 386-ton freighter Coast Trader as it left the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 7, 1942. The U.S. Government, fearing a panic, put out the word that the ship was sunk by "an internal explosion."
This official double-talk didn't calm everyone's fears. In the month following the sinking there were numerous reports of submarine sightings in southern SE Alaska, which, when investigated, turned out to be logs or whales.
Then, on July 6, a Coast Guard vessel patrolling near a small inlet on Noyes Island on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island, heard from a group of salmon trollers in the area that they'd seen a sub's periscope in open waters half a mile off Cape Addington.
The Coast Guard passed on the information to the RCAF 115 Squadron on Annette Island. At the same time, two patrol ships armed with depth charges, the CG Cutter McLane and the Navy-requisitioned halibut schooner Foremost were dispatched. The next morning RCAF Bolingbroke bombers conducted searches of the area, but found nothing.
Both the U.S. and Canadian forces took the sighting seriously, however, and despite bad weather and limited visibility the RCAF sent out another Bolingbroke later in the day. Once over the search area, the crew reported a line of churning water and what they described as white puffs of smoke.
They dived on the target and at 500 feet they were able to see, running just beneath the surface, the dark, classic cigar shape of a submarine. The bomber released a 250-pound anti-sub bomb.
The explosion from the hit sent a 60-foot plume of water into the air. As the bomber circled above, the crew noted that while no debris surfaced an oil slick two to four hundred feet in diamter spread over the area. After circling for two hours searching for debris or survivors, the plane was forced to return to Annette Island.
Meanwhile, the two patrol vessels the McLane and the Foremost arrived on the scene to continue the search. Although there are deep waters off Cape Addington, the chart showed a shallow area where it was thought just possible that a damaged sub could come to rest and even effect repairs if the hit hadn't been too catastrophic. In the absence of any wreckage, the ships were ordered to maintain their position in the area and wait for the sub to possibly re-emerge.
Day two into the search, the McLane picked up underwater engine noises and dropped a depth charge over the position, but it was a dud and failed to explode. The rest of the day was devoted to a typical cat-and-mouse pursuit as the McLane continued to pick up the noises of a zig-zagging sub and dropped more depth charges, not duds this time.
The sub, tiring of being harassed, launched a torpedo which the crew of the McLane saw clearly as it cleaved the water toward them. As author Pat Roppel reports: "The commanding officer [of the cutter] was standing on the bow and saw the torpedo coming, recognizing the yellow head and green body and hearing it hiss. It left a feather of 125 feet as it came toward the cutter. The vessel moved astern, and the excited crewmembers watched the warhead speed by within two feet of the cutter's bow."
Immediately, the cutter and the Foremost steamed toward where the torpedo had been launched from.
The Foremost, unable to get far enough away from the range of the depth charges it dropped, was already damaged by its own blasts when, in deep water, it hit what seemed like a sandbar. As it turned out, the old schooner had struck the submarine so hard that it knocked her false keel eight inches off center. The wounded ship hurried away, dropping a smoke bomb to mark the spot. The McLane moved in and dropped two more depth charges, which produced an oil slick and shortly after that, the appearance of the sub's periscope.
The cutter, knowing its light armor was no match for the sub's deck guns if it should be allowed to surface and use them, closed in on the sub once more and dropped yet more depth charges. This time not only did more oil reach the surface, but so did chunks of what appeared to be the sub's insulation.
The ships, accompanied by flyovers by the Navy, scouted the area but found no further trace of the submarine. On October 30, 1943 the U.S. Navy Department officially announced that an enemy submarine had been sunk off Cape Addington in a combined action between the RCAF Bolingbroke bomber crew, the Coast Guard crew on the McLane, and the Navy crew aboard the YP-251 Foremost.
It's not known for certain which submarine was sunk*, or why it was in the area, though a post-war report prepared by the US and British Navies noted that morale had become low in the Imperial Japanese Navy when so few important U.S. coastal targets were taken out by subs: "It was frankly impossible to believe that submarines could spend weeks on the US west coast 'without contacts'."
It's possible the sub was hoping to achieve something worth reporting. Instead, very far from home and loved ones, in a cramped, claustrophobic, and smelly vessel of war, it's believed that the crew pointlessly met their deaths on the bottom of the ocean just off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
*The submarine was officially cited, after the war, as the RO-32. However, the RO-32 appeared to be still in action throughout the rest of the war. Additionally, Japanese official records do not confirm that they lost any submarine in that area. It's entirely possible that the RO-32 was damaged and ejected oil and the insulation to fool its pursuers into thinking it had been destroyed and then, after the pursuit was called off, limped away to safety.
(This post was partially referenced from Historic Ketchikans 1992 book: "Spirit, pgs 113-116)
Tara Neilson (ADOW)