Ship sailed across two miles of sandy beach, rescued itself
Stranded four-masted schooner North Bend, the last sailing ship ever built in Oregon, was stranded on Peacock Spit; it worked its way through and, a little over a year later, launched itself in Baker Bay on the other side.
The four-masted schooner North Bend II under way shortly after its
launch in 1921. This ship was the last tall ship built in Oregon; it marked
the very end of the age of sail on the West Coast. (Photo:
https://tallshipsofsanfrancisco.com) [Larger image: 800 x 531 px]
By Finn J.D. John — August 28, 2011
The last tall ship ever built in Oregon was also the most famous. It was even featured in Robert Ripley's nationally popular “Ripley's Believe It Or Not” newspaper comic. What it did, most everyone agrees, was utterly unprecedented.
So, what did this wonder-schooner do? It “walked” across Peacock Spit, at the mouth of the Columbia River, and relaunched itself on the other side. With absolutely no help from human hands.
Here's the full story:
Last of a dying breed
The North Bend II was a four-masted schooner, 204 feet overall, built in 1921 at the Kruse & Banks Shipyard in North Bend. This would be the last sail-powered freighter ever built at Kruse & Banks, or anywhere else in the state either for that matter (one source says it was the second-to-last, but gives no further details). By the 1920s, steamers were far more cost-effective than windjammers as freight ships. They were faster, more predictable, less labor-intensive to operate and — especially on a lee shore, where the wind blows toward the coastline rather than away from or alongside it — definitely safer.
Although the odds were stacked against it, the North Bend had a successful career, and became a sort of bookend for the tall-ship era, marking the end of the age of sail. In 1926, it became the last wind-power-only tall ship to sail over the Columbia River bar and upriver to Astoria. And it was in the process of trying to repeat this historical event that the ship came to grief, on Feb. 5, 1928.
On that day, the North Bend achieved a third “last ever” event: It became the last windjammer ever to slip into a wind pocket on the bar, become becalmed and drift onto Peacock Spit.
High but not quite dry
Well, of course, almost every other time this had happened, the vessel involved became a total loss. Ships are built tough, but nothing can withstand the pressure and persistence of the sort of breakers found off the Oregon Coast. Ships in the water are fine, since they move with the waves, but once the sea has something pinned to the land, it can take a surprisingly small number of hours for it to be reduced to a collection of floating planks.
But that's not what happened to the North Bend. Instead, a stunningly lucky combination of tide and weather timing left the ship high on the sand, out of reach of the full fury of the sea.
At first, the ship's owners — a consortium of Coos Bay-area businessmen — considered this a bad thing, rather than a good one. Their attempt at salvaging the ship hadn't worked out, and now with the ship so high on the sand, there was no way it could be dragged off the beach.
The crew had already been safely evacuated. Now the owners admitted defeat, stripped the ship of everything of value that they could remove, and left it there while they pondered what to do next. So the North Bend sat on the beach for a while.
Hard aground, but still making headway
Winter mellowed into early spring. Then reports started to come in that the ship was on the move, sort of — “walking” across the spit, and doing it with astonishing speed.
What was happening was that the action of the waves swirling around the hull was actually causing the receding seawater to pull sand out from around the ship. It was actually carving a channel into Peacock Spit.
And, propelled by the constant southwest wind, the ship was making surprisingly good progress — especially during the heavy-weather months, when big seas and high winds lashed the coast.
Finally, in February of 1929, a year and a month after the ship went aground, the hull reached the fresh and calm waters of Baker Bay. It had traveled through 12,000 feet of dry sand — an average speed of just over 30 feet per day. And, by the way, a mile is 5,280 feet.
With almost no human intervention, the ship slipped out through the end of the odd little sandy canal it had carved, and relaunched itself on the other side — not much the worse for wear.
A second career, as a barge
But the North Bend's rigging and equipment had been stripped off, and to put the ship back into service it would have to be replaced. When everything was tallied up, the tab was too high for the owners to justify returning it to the seas. Put simply, the era of sail was over. It had really been over before the North Bend was even built, and not even the stubbornest old salt could deny its over-ness now.
So the owners had the ship dragged to Youngs Bay, near Astoria, and tied up to a pier for several years while they figured out what to do with it.
Eventually they cut the hull down and converted to a seagoing lumber barge. In this new and less glamorous role, though, the ship was far less successful than it had been as a schooner. It made — or, depending on how you look at it, didn't make — just one voyage.
The end comes — for real this time
Towed to Gardiner on the Umpqua River, it was loaded with lumber and pulled out of port for its maiden (sort of) voyage. On this trip, it didn't even make it to Coos Bay before it had sprung a big leak. The tugboat captain tried to make an emergency stop at Coos Bay, but the waterlogged North Bend sloshed into North Spit, and this time the damage was severe.
Luckily, lumber floats, so the ship wouldn't sink. So it was wrangled into port and unloaded.
Then the North Bend was towed back out to sea and set adrift at the mercy of the southwest wind. She washed ashore south of the bay, near the Cape Arago Lighthouse, where she was burned on the beach so that the remaining metal could be salvaged from the ashes.
For the ship that carried the last dying torch for the age of sail on the West Coast, it was a sad and symbolic end.
(Sources: Gibbs, James A. Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Peterson, Emil & al. A Century of Coos and Curry. Coos Bay: CCPHA, 1977; www.tallshipsofsanfrancisco.com)
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