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French sailors miraculously saved from death on the bar

As they hung in the riggings of the sailing ship Etoile du Matin waiting for death, they felt their ship start to break apart — but the piece that broke off first was the keel, enabling the ship to float upriver to safety.

This map of the Columbia River’s entrance, drawn by Harold C. Smith, shows the location of all 151 known shipwrecks of vessels over 25 tons, as of 1950 when the map was published in Gibbs’s book. It doesn’t include incidents in which the vessel involved was merely damaged. (Image: Binfords & Mort Publishers)

Back in the 1800s, when a sailing barque struck bottom while crossing the Columbia River bar, its chances of survival were very close to zero.

Sometimes a frantic throwing-overboard of everything in sight — cargo, cannons, livestock, anything — would lighten a ship enough to float free.

But it had to be done fast, because time was never on a stranded ship’s side. Ships usually crossed the bar at high tide. All too soon, that tide would start to ebb.

That had some unpleasant implications for a ship that found itself stuck on the sandy bottom of the shoal waters of the bar. Every minute that went by, the tide dropped a fraction of an inch lower, leaving the ship a fraction of an inch higher and drier. So trying to lighten a stuck ship was a race against time and tide — a race that the forces of nature usually won.

When that happened, the usual playbook involved the ship getting hammered against the sand for hours by the incoming breakers and swells, which would get especially powerful after the tide turned and started coming in. By the time the water was deep enough to float a stranded ship, it usually had spent a good nine hours being mercilessly worked against the sand, popping nails and tearing ribs and sometimes even breaking the ship’s back.

If the wreck happened during good weather, the crew stood a great chance of surviving the shipwreck, even though their ship did not. But add a high wind driving heavy seas out of the southwest, and all bets were off.

If the crew could just get the lifeboats launched, they could usually make it — most of them. But getting a lifeboat launched in a stranded ship with waves crashing into it is tricky even in the best conditions. Add a howling gale, and it’s nearly impossible. And once all the lifeboats were gone, the chances of any remaining crew members making it to shore alive were probably well north of 20 to 1.

But every now and then, a ship would beat those odds.

Such a ship was the Etoile du Matin, a French barque that found itself in terrible trouble on the bar in July 1849.

The Etoile du Matin — usually referred to by the English translation of its name, the Morning Star — had been across the bar a time or two before. This was the ship that had brought Archbishop F.N. Blanchet back to Oregon with 20 priests and nuns, who would found many of Oregon’s Catholic communities and even convert Dr. John McLoughlin to the faith. Its captain, a fearsome red-bearded man of florid face and volcanic temperament, was named Francis Menes.

On that particular day, Captain Menes and his crew had been tacking back and forth off the mouth of the river for a week, waiting for a pilot to come out and help them work the ship across the bar. They were coming in from Le Havre, a seven-month journey, and were all very much ready to get some dirt back under their feet again. And they couldn’t figure out what the delay was.

Then a coastwise schooner came up, making for the bar, and Menes hailed her. Her captain explained to Menes what the problem was: The bar pilot had, a few months earlier, piled a British barque up onto the Middle Sands for a total loss. Knowing this was going to lead to embarrassing questions and/or criminal charges, the bar pilot had thought the better part of virtue might be to run for it, and he’d left town immediately, apparently intending to lose himself in the gold-rush crowds in San Francisco.

We can only imagine the bi-lingual expressions of discontent that must have greeted this news. And Menes decided that, pilot or no pilot, he’d head into the river on the very first favorable wind.

His chance came on July 11, and so the heavy-laden Etoile du Matin, drawing 16 feet of water, turned into the bar and headed for the channel — or, rather, headed for what Menes’ two-year-old charts listed as the channel.

Just off Sand Island, the big ship shuddered to a stop, skidding into the edge of the shoals. The channel, it seems, had shifted. A raging Captain Menes ran to the taff rail and hurled his charts into the sea.

As (bad) luck would have it, the weather was freshening into a regular summer gale now, and the pounding wind-driven seas hammered the stranded vessel mercilessly into the sand, working the planks so that water started to flow into the bilge. Desperately the crew started trying to launch lifeboats, but as soon as they hit the water, they’d be dashed against the hull and knocked to splinters.

Finally a crew member volunteered to stay in the last boat as it was lowered, holding it in position with oars. But by this time, apparently, the tide was coming in, and the seas were getting huge. Just as the boat hit the water, a massive comber swept across the ship, tearing the boat away, and neither it nor the sailor was ever seen again.

Now the crew of the Etoile de Matin knew they were in real trouble. They proceeded to do the only thing they could do … climb up into the rigging as the ship settled into the sand, above the reach of the walls of green water that were now regularly sweeping over the decks, and hold out as long as they could, and pray (in French, of course) for a miracle.

They must have been praying hard, because a miracle is exactly what they got.

When the pounding breakers finally shattered the hull of the Etoile de Matin, it broke in an unusual way — and the entire keel came away from the ship.

Leaving its keel stuck in the sand, the battered ship, mostly full of water but floating because of its wooden construction, wallowed upriver with the incoming tide and drifted, as if guided by an invisible hand, into Baker Bay, as the exhausted and helpless Frenchmen dangling from its rigging stared around them in wonder and disbelief.

Crews from other nearby vessels hastened to the rescue, bringing the sailors safely ashore and then returning to help with the salvage operation.

After a full 24 hours of labor, the salvors had somehow plugged the leaks, cleared the water from the holds, and jury-rigged a box rudder to the battered ship’s stern. Then the ship was towed up the river to Portland — where they actually were able to sell some of its damaged cargo, thanks to the scarcity brought on by the Gold Rush. The hull was eventually sold to a California company, after which time the Etoile du Matin fades from the history books. So whether it was stripped down for a barge, or cut up to feed the Gold Rush-fueled demand for building materials, or even restored and put back out to sea under a different name — we’ll probably never know.

(Sources: Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binfords, 1950; Victor, Frances Fuller, writing as H.H. Bancroft. History of Oregon, 1848-1888. San Francisco: History Co., 1888)