After the storms, wreckage accumulates not only ashore but on the water, on the rivers and sands, the bays and wetlands of North Carolina. The Coast Guard removes the most harmful materials, the oil and fuel, but the wreckage is the responsibility of local governments, often the poorest counties in the state.
An abandoned sloop on Chocowinity Bay.
So the derelict hulls remain, rotting slowly. Steel and fiberglass take a long time to rot. The wreckage remains for years, sinking slowly into the muck, the earth rising to meet it, dark water lapping in dark places.
There’s something especially tragic about the wreckage of a boat, more than an old house or a collapsing barn. The boat is utterly abandoned, cast out of its element, exiled from the sea and discarded on the shore.
Someone once slept inside that hull, like a mollusk in its shell, rocked by waves, and dreamed of distant places beyond the curve of the horizon.
Boats weren’t made to be motionless.
Aground on the banks of the Pamlico River near Washington, North Carolina, after Hurricane Dorian.
Castle Island is only a stone’s throw from the Washington waterfront. It’s a few acres of sand in the middle of the Pamlico River named for the crenelated chimneys of lime kilns that once occupied the island. The chimneys resembled medieval towers. The kilns rendered lime from oyster shells to make cement.
History is piled on Castle Island like oyster shells. There was a shipyard once and a sawmill, Union troops and an artillery battery. Much later there was a whorehouse.
Through the years old boats were left to rot on the shore or burnt to the waterline for their metal fittings. The hulls settled into the mud like time. They piled up like cordwood upstream of the island, a ship’s graveyard. The bones of an oyster shell barge jostled a sharpie schooner, a motorized fishing boat from the early 20th Century, a bugeye schooner, and a barge or ferry boat. In all, 11 vessels were researched by the Eastern Carolina University’s Maritime Studies staff in 1998 and 1999.
Castle Island, Pamlico River in the fog. Boats moored up-current are near the location of the ship’s graveyard.
Then Hurricane Floyd struck in 2000. The Pamlico River rose 24-feet above flood stage. Houses, buildings, farms, even small towns were swept away. The river spilled onto the 500-year floodplain. And the current scoured the ship’s graveyard.
The remnants of vessels up current of the island are gone now. They may have been carried downstream or broken up and shot downriver by the force of the flood. Whatever more we may have learned from them is lost.
Boats are still being lost to hurricanes. The sloop Rebecca aground after Hurricane Dorian.
On a winter’s day between the world wars, the fog lay heavily upon the Oakland Estuary, the narrow water between the Oakland waterfront and Alameda Island. The fog obscured a fleet of wooden ships stranded upon the mudflats, the plumb bows of stream schooners driven hard against the shore. Paint peeled in patches from their hulls and ironwork corroded in the salt air.
Old men attended them, dawdled with their broken gear, and pumped the bilges dry. They talked to themselves or an obliging stranger about the days when the steam schooners dominated the coastwise trade, hauling lumber, passengers, and livestock from the dog holes and outside ports along the West Coast. And sometimes they hauled a more clandestine cargo, cases of liquor concealed between double bulkheads during Prohibition.
The old men recalled the likes of Midnight Olsen and Hog Aleck, Saturday-night Jack and Whispering Winkle, captains of the coastwise fleet, men as old as themselves or dead already. They recited ships’ names like a litany: Celilo and Bee, Chehalis and Svea, Idaho and Oregon, Wapama, Hanalei and the historic Lakme. There were at least 27 ships intimately associated with the Estuary where they first launched or finally came to rot.
A Graveyard of Ships
The Oakland Estuary first served as a graveyard of ships when the captains and crew of square-riggers abandoned their berths in the Gold Rush of 1849 and left their ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove or the San Francisco waterfront. Eventually, many of the hulks that hampered navigation were grounded on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove and to serve as warehouses and hostelries, jails and bordellos. Those with hulls and rigging still sound were towed up San Antonio Creek, the original name of the Estuary, and laid-up for better times. The same fate later awaited the steam schooners but better times never came, only teredo worms and dry rot, steel ships and diesel engines.
Unlike steel hulls that retain some value as scrap, not much could be salvaged from an old wooden ship, but it was wood that had given the steam schooners a purpose, wood for their hulls and lumber for their cargoes. Lumber was the primary product of the dog hole ports along the coasts of California and Oregon, named perhaps because they offered hardly enough room for a dog to chase its tail. Milled boards were loaded by a wooden chute led to the deck or a wire sling. The dog holes offered only a dangerous anchorage and often a lee shore upon which many a sailing schooner had wrecked. The introduction of the steam engine as an auxiliary provided greater maneuverability and independence to the coastwise fleet. The Lakme was among the first of the sailing schooner converted to steam in the 1880s. Her wooden bones probably still lay buried in the mud along the Estuary’s shore.
In command of the mud fleet was Captain Karl Rohberg who had served the Wilson Brothers as mate and captain for 35-years, 15 of those years as caretaker of the Svea, Idaho, and Oregon, all hard aground on the mudflats. He had been captain of the Svea, once towed through the Golden Gate bottom-side up. She had also earned the distinction of having 100 quarts of whiskey seized from her cargo in Grays Harbor, Washington.
The Oregon rotted near the hulk of the Svea. She had also sailed under the Wilson Brothers’ flag and was one of the coasting fleet that survived the night of February 4, 1921, when a gale, spawned among the Aleutians, battered the west coast with winds clocked at 75 miles per hour. The steam schooner Klamath wasn’t so fortunate. She stranded on the beach near Point Arena and broke apart.
Hull Full of Coffee Beans, Full Head of Steam
Another among the mud fleet was the Bee. She had also once capsized and towed to port. Returning with a cargo of Mexican coffee, with a full head of steam and coal smoke trailing from her stack, she labored heavily in a full gale on her return passage, shipping green water over her bows. She took water in her hold and the coffee beans swelled until they burst her decks. Eventually, she was salvaged and towed to San Francisco where she was condemned to the mudflats and never sailed again but remembered for an odd episode in her history when she hauled reindeer in the Alaskan territory.
In 1892, the Hay and Wright shipyard of Alameda, across the estuary from Oakland, launched the tiny Albion of 214 gross tons. Intended for the lumber trade, she was pressed into service as a passenger and cargo carrier in 1898 when the rush was on again for gold in Alaska. Overladen with passengers and freight, wallowing in the swells and with seas sometimes breaking on deck, the Albion steamed from San Francisco to Alaska and returned with a strongbox full of gold. That such a small wooden ship survived the hard passage was remarkable. That she even attempted it was foolish but the profits realized from the Alaskan trade tempted the more adventurous as well as the more acquisitive. The steam schooner Luella reportedly paid for herself on a single voyage north. The doughty Albion eventually stranded on Stewarts Point, March 21, 1913.
The Hay & Wright shipyard also produced the Phoenix which ended her days on the mud near the yard where she was built, and the Hanalei, which was not so fortunate.
Wreck of the steam schooner Fifield, Bandon, Oregon, February 21, 1916.
Wreck of the Hanalei
On November 23, 1914, the Hanalei was steaming down the coast from Eureka, bound for San Francisco. She carried 34 passengers, 26 officers and crew, and a cargo of lumber, cattle, sheep, and hogs. A heavy sea was running. Visibility was obscured by fog and rain when the watch on deck suddenly saw breakers directly ahead. The engine was backed hard astern and the Hanalei steamed clear but her position was uncertain. She circled in the fog, sounded her whistle, occasionally stopped her engine, drifting and listening and sometimes hearing surf breaking perilously close. Then she stranded with her stern on a reef off Duxbury Point. Her bow was only 300 yards from the shore but she was surrounded by surf boiling in a cauldron of shoals. The Hanalei carried no radio to call for help but the staff of the Marconi Wireless Station at Duxbury Point heard her distress signals. They alerted San Francisco.
The tugs Hercules and Defiance, the Navy transport U.S.S. Rainbow, and the steam Richmond all went to her aid but couldn’t press close enough to the reefs to be of assistance. Lifesaving crews from the Golden Gate and Fort Point Stations had their boats swamped in the attempt, their crews either drowned or washed ashore. Frustrated rescuers lit bonfires on the beach, their haggard faces colored by the fire, their hair damp from the fog, as the surf beat against the shoreline. They were helpless to aid the dying ship.
After 16 hours, debris and bodies began to wash up in the surf. Only 16 passengers of 34 survived.
Most of the steam schooners were fitted to carry passengers although secondary in importance to freight. The 200-foot Celilo was equipped to carry as many as 60 passengers, 20 officers, and a million board feet of lumber, no small accomplishment considering her small size.
On that winter’s day between the wars, the Celilo was among the best preserved of the mud fleet. The electric piano still stood in her main salon. The circular companionway leading to the dining room was still intact and the chairs remained, fastened to the deck, where 38 passengers could be accommodated at a single seating. The curtains still hung over the square ports, smelling of mold. The brass lamp was still secured to the bulkhead above the captain’s bunk, green with verdigris. The Celilo was kept ready to return to service when the shipping rates became more profitable but the Depression descended and the water level in her bilges continued to rise.
Of all the steam schooners that once sailed from San Francisco Bay, loaded redwood from a wire chute in some dog hole on the Mendocino coast, or stood across the Humboldt Bar, only the Wapama remains. She lies crippled upon the stocks at Pacific Drydock, her final disposition uncertain, but it seems appropriate that she is still only a stone’s throw from the Oakland Estuary which witnessed the beginning of so many of the coastwise fleet, and their ending.
Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.
A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.
The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.
A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.
The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.
Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.
They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.
Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.
There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.
The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.
My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.
She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.
And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.
There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.
The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.
A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.
It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?
A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.
A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.
There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.
I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.
There are pathways deep in the sea, boundary layers between thermoclines and haloclines where bodies of water differ in temperature or salinity and sound propagates effortlessly, echoing between layers, traveling around the world again and again with little loss of energy. Supposedly sounds have been captured by deep water probes lowered into these channels and by SOSUS buoys, the network of microphones deployed in major oceans to capture the passage of ballistic subs, the boomers that stay hidden in deep water with their payload of ICBMs intended to deter a nuclear war, or start one. Some of these sounds are old.
The sonar technicians peering into their oscilloscopes, intent upon their headphones, may actually be listening to the sound of battles fought at sea during the Second World War.
We’ve gotten used to the concept that the night sky is full of ghosts, the light from stars that have been dead for a thousands years, but the thought of ghost sound is still disturbing. It is unsettling to listen to the sound of ships breaking up under extreme pressure, bulk heads collapsing, hulls ripped by secondary explosions as the wreckage falls through miles of dark water, entombing the bodies of those who fought and died onboard, listening to the sound of their death as if they were occurring in the present and not a lifetime earlier. Uncanny.
The sea shall give up its dead and the sound of their dying.
It may be only an urban legend. I’ve been able to find only one reference and that in Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (perhaps not the most reputable source) but if it isn’t true, it should be. The world would be a more interesting place where such unsettling things still happen.
On November 18, 2006, an excursion vessel departed the Seattle waterfront before mid-day and steamed to a position off Duwamish Head where, at 12:00 pm precisely, a wreath was cast adrift on Puget Sound to mark the grave of a vessel that sank a hundred years earlier.
On that day in 1906, the passenger vessel Dix departed Colman Dock, Seattle, at 7:00 pm, bound for Port Blakely, a 40 minute passage to the far side of Puget Sound. She was steaming at 10.5 knots on a clear, calm night. At 7:42 pm the Dix was struck amidships by the steam schooner Jeanie and sank. The captain’s pocket watch stopped at the moment he was thrown clear of the deck into the Sound.