Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
Happy stories abound at this time of year, as they should, but I thought that a few tales from chilly local waters might be appropriate too.
Christmas can be a very special time for sailors. The sea can be a cathedral some days, silent as an empty church, louder than a pipe organ. Stark black and white or a picture window in full colour…. It seems the potential, ever-present danger of rocks and storms gives intensity to the senses, and occasionally a feeling of being closer to a greater power.
Christmas these days is often a two month season of commercialized narcissism, leaving many of us wondering where the good parts went. They’re still there, in places like children’s hospitals and church halls, and in homes and other places – once you peel away the layers of designer labels and trendy brand names. That’s my humbug rant.
Now, as we get ready for hot turkey dinner and lots of presents, reflect for a while on a not too distant time and imagine how Christmas must have been…..
On December 22, 1860 the bark Nanette was 175 days out of London for Victoria. She sighted Race Rocks at 8:30pm, in a growing fog and darkness. At midnight, she dropped anchor and sent a boat to confirm their position. The brand new Race Rocks light was set to go into service the next day. Early in the morning she attempted Race Passage, but tidal currents set her ashore and by 5am, she was nearly awash. HMS Grappler came out from Esquimalt and rescued the crew, but the valuable cargo of Hudson Bay Co trade goods was still aboard. Christmas came a day early for anyone possessed of a small boat, and much of the cargo soon disappeared.
In 1880 the lumber ship Glen Fruin set out from Australia for Portland, Oregon. The trip was a bad one, and the ship arrived off Barkley Sound – with all pumps going hard – on December 8. The Captain decided that there was no future for the old ship and ordered the 12 man crew to the boats. They spent a week on a small island until the storm blew out, then rowed around to Cape Beale where they spent another week with the lightkeeper. They were eventually picked up by a passing schooner, arriving in Victoria on New Year’s Day.
The big bark William Tell sailed from Simonstown on August 15, 1895 bound for Puget Sound. On December 13, landfall was made near Nootka Sound, and the ship turned to enter Juan de Fuca. By December 16, she had worked up the Strait to Dungeness light, but by December 19, she had drifted west in light winds to the area of Race Rocks. The William Tell continued to fight her way east in worsening weather, but at 6am on December 23 a violent southeast gale pushed her onto the rocks at Port San Juan. All aboard made it ashore, where they were rescued on Christmas Day.
In August 1905, the sailing ship King David departed Mexico for Victoria. She arrived off Nootka Sound on December 10. In thick weather (and with outdated charts) Captain Davidson thought the Clayoquot Light was Cape Beale. The ship was soon driven on a lee shore, and the crew took to the boats. On the desolate shore – before the West Coast Trail was built – they found little shelter. On December 23, Mate A. Wallstrom and seven men set out for Victoria in one of the ship’s boats…… they were never seen again. The remaining 18 men nearly starved before a passing ship noticed their signal fire on January 14 and made the rescue.
On Christmas Eve 1905 the four-masted ship Pass of Melfort with a 35 man crew drove ashore near Ucluelet, in the same storm that wrecked the King David. There were no survivors.
Christmas Eve of 1923 wasn’t particularly good for the 72 foot wooden tug Tyee. She departed Victoria for Port Angeles at 8 am, and set out the same afternoon for the return journey. As she made the crossing, a strong southeaster blew up, forcing Captain John Andersen to run for shelter at Pedder Bay. They didn’t make it. The Tyee was overpowered by waves and rip-tides off Race Rocks and sank. Only two of her six man crew survived.
This small sampling of cold, wet Christmas stories might help us all understand that this current Christmas Season is only possible because many people have put up with hardships we can only imagine. So hoist your glass and drink a toast to the memory of unsung heroes.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!
Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, Lewis & Dryden, Antiquarian Press, 1961
Shipwrecks of British Columbia, Fred Rogers, Douglas & MacIntyre, 1973
More Shipwrecks of British Columbia, Fred Rogers, Douglas & MacIntyre, 1992