BY THE TIME Captain Charles T. “Buck” Bailey of the tugboat Tatoosh arrived, the steam schooner Washington had been drifting helplessly toward Peacock Spit for 20 brutal, soggy, pounding, terrifying hours — and everyone but Bailey and his crew thought the 49 people on board were as good as dead.
The Washington’s troubles had started the day before, on the morning of Nov. 12, 1911. The weather was heavy, but not heavy enough to prevent ships from crossing the bar. Loaded down with a heavy cargo of lumber both above decks and below, the little 539-ton freighter was beating her way out to sea into the teeth of the southwest wind when a big boarding sea tore loose the chains that dogged down the deck load on the port side. The lumber washed away into the sea, leaving the little ship with a badly unbalanced load that resulted in a terrifying list to starboard.
The crew rushed to cut loose the starboard deckload to even out the weight and put the ship back on an even keel — but as soon as the lumber was gone, the ship’s steam engine suddenly came to a stop with a shriek of stressed metal. The deckload chains had fouled the drive screw, and probably torn off the rudder to boot — leaving the Washington dead in the water in the worst possible place. And to make matters worse, the wind had increased, becoming a serious gale.
The Washington drew 16 feet of water without her deckload on, and that’s about how deep the water is on most of Peacock Spit — shallow enough to catch and break ships to pieces, but still plenty deep enough to drown their crews. It juts out miles into the open sea, and the water there hovers around 50 degrees — cold enough to incapacitate a swimmer in 15 to 20 minutes.
Captain George Winkel ordered the anchors dropped. They caught, and they held better than expected; the ship was still drifting, but very slowly. If help could only come, the 49 people on board — 25 passengers and 24 crew members — just might survive. If not — well, life vests or no life vests, they were all as good as dead.
On shore, the old salts were watching the ship being eaten time and again by walls of green water, and sadly shaking their heads.
The all-night fight for life
ON BOARD THE steam schooner, there wasn’t time for thoughts of doom. The boiler fire had gone out, so the steam pumps were inoperative, and the water in the hull was rising with each wave that poured over the hull and into broken windows and hatches. Drenched and chilled to the bone, passengers and crew alike kept themselves warm by taking turns at the pumps, trying to keep the vessel afloat.
One of the passengers, 69-year-old Mary Fullmer, rose to the occasion like a one-woman U.S.O., leading songs and cracking jokes to keep everyone’s spirits up while they battled the rising waters and waited for the rescue they scarcely dared hoped the next high tide would bring. All the while, the pounding waves continued breaking over the deck as the wind howled in the remaining rigging.
Finally, around noon the next morning, as the tide reached full flood, the exhausted passengers and crew looked out through the flying spray and saw, steaming cautiously toward them, the salvage tug Tatoosh — Buck Bailey’s boat.
BAILEY'S TOP PRIORITY, of course, was to get the passenger and crew off the stranded ship safely. And that would have been a tough enough task under the circumstances; the sandy bottom near Peacock Spit was constantly shifting, and at any moment Bailey and his crew might feel the dreaded thump of their hull striking the bottom — the prelude to their own watery death, as well as that of the 49 exhausted souls aboard the Washington whose last hope for rescue they represented.
But after looking over the situation, Bailey decided he was not going to be satisfied with just rescuing the people. It looked to him like he could, at not much more risk and possibly considerably less, rescue the whole package — people, cargo, steamship and all. After all, the Washington wasn’t aground … yet.
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On the other hand, the more time he spent in the shoal waters near the Washington, the more likely the Tatoosh was to be stranded as well. Was it worth the added risk?
Captain Buck Bailey decided it was. He brought his boat in within hailing distance of the Washington to see about getting the crew to take a towing hawser.
“As I approached the Washington, I could see 12 or 15 passengers huddled together on the after end with life preservers on,” Bailey told author James Gibbs Jr., years later. “I asked the captain if he had any steam to use in heaving the hawser aboard. He told me no, that the fires were out. Then I called to the passengers huddled aft and asked them to go forward and help get the hawser aboard. They did so, all of them running over the debris like scared sheep.”
Many hands make light work, as the old German proverb says*, and four dozen pairs of eager hands proved more than a match for the massive, waterlogged hemp towing hawser. It took about 10 minutes to get it aboard the ship and fastened securely to the Washington. Then, Captain Bailey called for steam and pointed his powerful tugboat at the open sea. The water beneath its fantail roiled and frothed. The Washington gave a jerk; the crew members finished cutting the anchor chains; and slowly the Washington started to move.
“The passengers and crew acted like they were (crazy) when we got started — threw up their hands, gesticulated, and yelled at the tops of their voices,” Bailey recounted. “I looked over to North Head, and at the lifesaving station, and there must have been a thousand people there watching the rescue.”
Back on dry land
THE STRICKEN STEAM schooner, when brought to the dock, was a shocking sight.
“The deck of the Washington is almost a complete wreck,” the Oregonian’s reporter recounted. “Her visible lumber cargo is a mass of broken kindling wood, part of the bridge and wheelhouse is washed ashore, every window and door on the ship was broken in, with water three and four inches deep covering the floors.”
And yet the only casualty had been the ship’s cat, which had been atop the deckload when it was washed into the sea.
Once back on shore, Captain Buck Bailey was the man of the hour. The story of the Tatoosh’s daring rescue was still being repeated over schooners of beer decades later — although Bailey would have probably been the first to point out that had the Washington not been carrying so many passengers, and had the passengers not behaved so coolly and competently under the stress of the moment (thanks, perhaps, to Mary Fullmer), the rescue would not have been possible.
When all was squared away, Bailey learned that the Washington’s owners had not been carrying insurance. That meant that, rather than filing a claim with a federally regulated third party of known financial reliability, the Tatoosh’s owners — Puget Sound Tow Boat Company — would have to present a bill to the actual owners of the Washington, hope they had the resources to pay it, and quite possibly sue to make them do so.
For his part, Bailey seemed almost to relish the thought of writing off his actions as a pro-bono voluntary service done to save lives regardless of profit. He wrote to the manager of the tugboat company that he didn’t mind if he got not a cent for the job, but that he wanted his crew members to be rewarded for the great risk they’d taken at his command.
But as much attention as had been fixed on this case, the steam schooner’s owners had little choice but to make whatever financial arrangements were necessary to pony up. And by the time they’d done so, Bailey and his crew had all been rewarded with lifesaving medals as well.
* Loosely translated from “Viele Hände machen leicht ein Ende.”
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian: 13-14 Nov 1911, 12 Jan 1912, 21 Apr 1912, 15 Nov 1912; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950)