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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Cruise-ship skipper wasn’t the first to “fall into a lifeboat”

Captains are supposed to be the last to leave their sinking ships, not the first. But that required act of valor has always been easier said than done — as evidenced by the story of the 1903 wreck of the S.S. South Portland off Cape Blanco.

The S.S. Czarina, photographed sometime in the very early 1900s. This 216-foot steamer sank with great loss of life off Coos Bay in 1910.
The 216-foot, 1,045-ton coastwise steamship Czarina was of similar
size and vintage to the 900-ton S.S. South Portland. In 1910 the
Czarina also came to a bad end, foundering in a gale in the outer
breakers off Coos Bay; only one person survived. (Photo: Superior
Publishing) [Larger image: 1800 x 1204 px]

The captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship gave a black eye to the reputations of sea-captains all over the world early this year when the audio tape of his panicky conversation with an Italian Coast Guard officer was released. “I tripped and fell into the lifeboat” has become an international punchline and Internet meme, and has helped make Captain Francesco Schettino the world’s most unemployable merchant mariner.

It’s nothing particularly new, though. That whole “going down with one’s ship” thing is a little like armed combat: It sounds brave and glorious and noble on a warm, peaceful day in the pub, but on the day a skipper’s number comes up, it’s pretty hard to stick to the program.

Case in point: The wreck of the 900-ton steamship South Portland in late October, 1903.

An old blockade runner

Originally the South Portland was named the Dawn, and was a British steamer built for the fruit trade in the West Indies. Sold to an American outfit, it worked the East Coast for a while as the Caroline Miller, and earned some notoriety running a French blockade to smuggle supplies to the beleaguered Haitian Republic.

Eventually the aging steamer was bought by a Boston outfit, renamed the South Portland and brought around the horn and put on the Portland-San Francisco run, under the command of part owner Captain James B. McIntyre.

Then, one late-autumn day in 1903, the South Portland put out of Portland Harbor for the last time with 14 passengers, a crew of 25 and a cargo of wheat — along with at least one stowaway.

The shipwreck

In heavy seas and dense fog, the ship made it as far south as Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in the continental U.S. — and then ran straight onto the rocks moving about seven knots. The stricken steamship immediately began to sink.

This was supposed to be Captain McIntyre’s moment of glory — his chance to stand on the storm-swept deck, helping the passengers get safely away before taking his place — maybe — on the last boat, or possibly going down with his ship.

Unfortunately, all accounts (except for his own) agree that he didn’t quite rise to the occasion.

Falling into a lifeboat

The S.S. Czarina, photographed sometime in the very early 1900s. This 216-foot steamer sank with great loss of life off Coos Bay in 1910.
This headline, in the Oct. 29, 1903, issue of the Portland Morning Oregonian,
seemingly left no room for doubt.

“The sailors … agree that he, McIntyre, rushed for a lifeboat as soon as it was apparent that the vessel was filling with water and he and the few men who obeyed his orders pulled away from the side of the ship as soon as the boat reached the water,” The Morning Oregonian reported on Oct. 29, 1903. “The boat could have held half a dozen more people, and the steamer floated for fully half an hour after the captain deserted her.”

This damning summary ran under a big eye-grabbing headline that read, “DESERTED THEM ALL: Captain McIntyre Looked Out Only for Himself.”

The article did go on to give the skipper’s side of the story, though. He said everyone was to have abandoned ship at the same time, each officer taking charge of one of the lifeboats. And indeed, the second mate also abandoned ship with him; the first officer, Charles Bruce, stayed on the ship even after the lifeboats had all left, trying desperately to beach the stricken ship before it sank out from under him.

This last item is, of course, what Captain McIntyre should have been doing.

The other great hero of the wreck was chief engineer Joseph Ward, who stayed belowdecks in the engine room as the water came up around his ankles, struggling to keep the power on as long as possible so Bruce could beach the ship.

Survivors, including one stowaway

The steamer didn’t make it to the beach, but with the aid of a life raft, Bruce and Ward did. Unfortunately, 18 of the people in the lifeboats did not. Two of the lifeboats (sources differ on whether there were two or three lifeboats in total) were capsized by the heavy seas, including the one Captain McIntyre was in. McIntyre managed to right the lifeboat and get it bailed out, then picked up most of the people who’d been in it with him. From the other lifeboat, there were no survivors. This adds an unusual twist to the story, in that the captain actually did save many people’s lives — a fact that, in the end, wasn’t enough to save his reputation from the repercussions of his decision to abandon his ship. And after all, if the skipper had made for the beach immediately, there’s a chance the steamer would have made it ashore before sinking, and everyone would have made it.

According to the Oregonian article, the survivors also included crew members T. Pozzatti, W. Hughes, W. Robertson, Joseph Driscoll, John McKeon, Joseph Alwood, Joseph Roemos, B. Johnson and Manuel Petsomonis; passengers L. Bailey and H. Webber; and stowaway William Wilson.

“A poltroon of the sea”

At the subsequent investigation, first officer Bruce tried to cover for his former boss by testifying that he had asked the captain to leave the ship and let him handle it. But the fact — to which every survivor testified — that the skipper had hopped into the first lifeboat and left them all behind gave the lie to this attempt, and McIntyre was found criminally negligent for leaving the ship.

The editor of the Oregonian, a few days later, summed up the whole story in one last stinging comment:

“The stories of Chief Officer Bruce and Chief Engineer Ward … make the tale of Captain McIntyre dark by contrast,” the paper wrote. “Verily, it would seem a poltroon of the sea has been disclosed by this disaster, which has also brought to light examples of its heroes.”

By the way, if you’ve ever been to the Boy Scouts of America’s Camp Meriwether, you might recognize the name of this ship. Its wooden nameplate, after the wreck, drifted all the way north to Cape Lookout, and is now on display at the camp.

(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; Portland Morning Oregonian, 10-29-1903 and 11-04-1903)