Storm-tossed ships shared a double date with destiny

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By Finn J.D. John
May 10, 2015

DECEMBER OF 1852 was a rough month on the Oregon Coast, in more ways than one. It was one of those years when storm systems chase each other across the sky, one right after another, for weeks on end, lashing the surf into a towering, foamy lather — and filling the Columbia River Bar with forty-foot-tall walls of green water.

Outside the bar’s entrance, being tossed about mercilessly by the serial storms, a small cluster of sailing ships tacked back and forth or rode at anchor. They’d come from San Francisco, working the new and profitable run back and forth to Portland to fetch supplies for the hordes of eager miners still working the Gold Rush diggings.

Of all the waiting vessels, the barque Mindora had been there the longest — four solid weeks. Its crew had spent Christmas being tossed around on the sea, wet and cold, thinking longingly of the warmth and seasonal cheer being enjoyed a few miles away in Astoria.

By Jan. 12, 1853, the cupboards in the ship’s galley were almost bare, and the captain was rationing the hardtack and beans. Water, too, was running short — as were tempers among crew members. The Mindora’s skipper, George Staples, was getting desperate.

But the day had dawned, and it was finally calm. The worst weather of the year had, it seemed, blown itself out. Capt. Staples lost no time in giving the order to trim up the sails for the crossing, then fall off the wind and head inland.

At least one other ship, waiting there on the seaward side of the bar, soon followed suit. That would be the barque I. Merrithew, also out of San Francisco. In fact, the Mindora and the I. Merrithew had been docked side by side in San Francisco the month before, being loaded for their respective journeys to Portland. The Merrithew had left a few days after the Mindora, so it had not been stuck waiting quite as long; but its crew’s Christmas experience had been similar, and its stocks of foodstuffs were also running out.

Unfortunately, those would not be the only things the crews of these two ships would share. The Mindora and the Merrithew had a double-date with destiny. They would follow almost the exact same path, on the same day, with the same results, and lay their bones within a few miles of one another on the shores of what’s now Washington State.

The trouble started with the Mindora, which was beating across the usual southwest wind making about four knots when suddenly she slipped into one of the elusive, unpredictable wind shadows with which the bar was plagued. Instantly adrift with drooping canvas and at the mercy of the river’s current, the ship started drifting to port with alarming rapidity, making for the Middle Sands. Desperately, the crew dropped anchor — but the current was so fast, and the bottom so sandy, that the Mindora was merely slowed down by this. Slowly, inexorably, dragging her anchor behind her, she drifted toward the Middle Sands and slammed onto the shoals.

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The locations of the shipwrecks of the Mindora and Merrithew, and the final locations to which they drifted, are marked on this map as A, B, C and D, respectively. (Image: Binford & Mort Publishers)

Like a swordsman delivering the coup de grace, the ocean now struck with full force: A series of giant foam-topped breakers thundered down on the Mindora’s decks, sweeping them clear of everything movable, smashing deckhouses and flooding the forecastle.

With remarkable discipline, the crew members stuck to their stations until Captain Staples gave the order to abandon ship; chances are, he was waiting for the tide to turn, so that the seas would be more manageable. When the time was right, they quickly got the lifeboat ready — somehow it had been spared the ravages of the boarding seas — and launched it.

The boat was badly overloaded, the weather was freshening and the bar was still rough. Wave after wave sloshed over the gunwales of the little open boat; eager hands bailed it out, barely keeping up, as darkness closed in on them. At the oars, sailors took turns pulling doughtily, driving the little boat upriver, all the way to Astoria.

Hours later, backs aching and muscles taxed to the limit, they finally arrived. Soon they were stretched out on the floor of the town hall around a glowing woodstove, drinking in the warmth and sleeping like men in a coma.

They couldn’t know it yet, but they weren’t alone. Even as they rowed desperately toward Astoria, the crew of the Merrithew was scrambling for its own lifeboats. The Merrithew hadn’t even made it as far as the Mindora when it had run aground, on Clatsop Spit.

The next day, Captain Staples got the bar pilot to bring him out to survey the wreckage and perhaps consider any salvage possibilities. To their astonishment, the mariners found only an empty stretch of sand where the wreck had stood. Over the evening, the tide had come in and worked the vessel free, and — abandoned, unmanned and derelict — it had floated with the river’s current out into the ocean again.

Nor was there any remaining sign of the Merrithew. It, too, had re-launched itself, abandoning all hands on the beach.

A few days later, the wreckage of the Merrithew was found. It had drifted back into shore and been dashed against the rocks near North Head, on the Washington side of the river’s mouth. The Mindora drifted farther; a day or two later, it arrived through the surf just a few miles to the north, near Shoalwater Bay, and stranded itself on the beach there.

No one was killed in either shipwreck. Both were total losses. It was an odd coincidence, this double-date with destiny on which these two ships had embarked when they sailed through the Golden Gate a month before — but its conclusion certainly could have been a whole lot worse.

(Sources: Gibbs Jr., James. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binfords, 1950; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binfords, 1984)

TAGS: #ColumbiaRiverBar #Mindora #Merrithew #Barques #Christmas #Astoria #CaptGeorgeStaples #Becalmed #Stranded #MiddleSands #Lifeboat #ClatsopSpit #DisappearingShipwrecks #NorthHead #ShoalwaterBay #NoFatalities

Background photo is a hand-tinted image of Tillamook Rock Light ("Terrible Tilly), published circa 1925 on a picture postcard.
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