Mariner’s eerie dream predicted shipmates’ deaths
In his spooky nightmare, first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates; the next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters.
The stranded Mimi sits in the surf at low tide as her crew members
work in the rigging. (Photo: Oregon Historical Society) [Larger image:
By Finn J.D. John — July 17, 2011
Sailors are known as a superstitious bunch — which makes a certain amount of sense. After all, their business is one in which life and death are determined by sublime and inscrutable forces, and you never know when your number will come up. Sure, being careful to always step aboard with the right foot first probably won't help — but it can't hurt, and why take a chance?
Still, surely sailors' superstitions don't have any basis in the real world; it's not logical. But every now and then a story comes along that has to make you wonder. One such story is the disaster that befell the German barque Mimi, on the coast of Oregon in 1913, and the nightmare its first mate had the night before.
Gently running aground
The Mimi was an iron-hulled sailing ship home-ported in Hamburg. It was a four-masted 283-foot 1,984-ton behemoth, built in 1893. Under the direction of Capt. Ludwig Westphal, it wandered in the fog onto a sandy beach at the mouth of the Nehalem River on Feb. 13, 1913.
The Mimi in happier times, looking much more graceful under full sail.
(Image: Tillamook County Library) [Larger image: 1200 x 781 px]
And there it sat, parked on the beach like a stuck pickup truck, on a perfectly even keel, a model of Prussian orderliness even in shipwreck. At low tide, the crew could actually walk ashore.
Such an easy grounding, of course, presented a tricky question: Could the ship be coaxed back into the water — refloated and sent on its way?
"Captain" Charles Fisher of salvage firm Fisher Engineering figured he knew just how this could be done. So he essentially bought the ship from the insurance company and set his plan in action.
How not to salvage a beached ship
Another view of the stranded Mimi. In this pic, the photography studio
has seen fit to paste caption information directly onto the Mimi's
exposed bottom paint, an indignity that's especially eyebrow-raising
because it's false information: Feb. 13 was the date the Mimi was first
stranded. By the time this image was made, the ship had worked its
way well up onto the beach, a process that would take at least a few
days. (Image: Tillamook County Library) [Larger
image: 1200 x 785 px]
The salvage firm's plan sowed the seeds of the disaster: They started taking ballast off the ship. Twelve hundred tons of rocks were trundled out of the ship and hauled away. The idea was to make the ship lighter; once it was off the beach, the ballast could be put back in.
The trouble was, the ballast was there for a reason: To keep the ship from capsizing. This wasn't just the regular ballast that's loaded in a ship when it's empty — this was the permanent ballast, the ballast the naval architect who designed the ship specified must remain in the hull at all times. Four-masted sailing ships pack a lot of weight upstairs and their centers of gravity have to be paid attention to. And it was this fact that was most on the mind of Garibaldi Life Station keeper Robert Farley.
As the job went on, Farley made several attempts to warn Westphal and the salvage crew of the risk they were taking, but he was ignored. Crews were racing to get everything ready for the big day — the spring tide, on April 6, when the water would be higher than any other time of year and they'd have their best chance to winch the big vessel free of the sand.
A turn-of-the-century postcard illustration of a small crew launching a
surfboat to help a distressed schooner. The small size of both the boat and
the surf marks this scene as almost certainly on the East Coast; in Oregon,
the waves are far more formidable.
Unfortunately, when spring tide arrived, so did a gale warning. A big one was coming in. The ship would have to be floated quickly before it arrived.
This news must have caused something akin to panic in Farley. The salvage workers were pulling the ship off the beach sideways, so the incoming breakers would be striking it broadside. Farley was afraid the storm-driven seas would flip the dangerously lightened ship and he would then be forced to risk his lifesaving crew rowing out to rescue people just as the storm arrived — all this in the surf, with breakers crashing all around.
Farley got on the phone to Fisher Engineering headquarters, but by now there was too much money at stake, and too many people wanted to believe he was mistaken. The operation continued.
A nightmare that named names
An engraving from a mid-1800s British magazine showing a large rescue
launching its lifeboat on a foreboding day.
Meanwhile, someone else was having second thoughts, too: The Mimi's first mate, Frederick Fischer. Fischer, who was not privy to the discussions with Farley, had a horrible and very specific dream the night before the ship was to be taken off the beach. In his dream, Fischer saw the Mimi as a "dead man's hotel," completely submerged with bodies drifting in and out of hatches. He also, according to Gibbs' account, saw the entire crew with seaweed on their heads and clouds covering their faces — the entire crew, that is, except for the captain and two of the men.
When Fischer woke up, he was badly shaken. A nightmare is one thing; a highly specific nightmare that all but lists the names of those marked for death is rather another. After hearing his story, the second and third mates joined him in deserting the ship by making their way hand over hand while hanging from a cable connecting to the shore.
When the word reached the sailors on the ship, they would have been right behind the officers, but Captain Westphal got out a revolver and threatened to shoot the next man who left. Given the choice between death right now and death maybe later, the men stayed aboard — although some others slipped away when he wasn't looking.
Salvage operation begins … and ends
Then it was time for the salvage operation to start. Heavy anchors had been placed out at sea, and connected to the Mimi with thick cables. On board the ship, winches powered by steam donkey engines now started reeling in the lines. They tightened and inch by inch the Mimi started responding, grinding sideways across the sand toward the open sea.
Success was in hand. The ship was in deeper water. Any moment the sand would slide away and she would be freely floating. But the wind was already picking up and the breakers were getting bigger and bigger.
Suddenly the ship was free. She was afloat, for the first time in four months — and for the last time, too. The instant her keel was out of the sand, she started rolling in a particularly sinister way, with a looseness that caused onlooking mariners to catch their breath in horror. And then, with astonishing suddenness, the huge sailing ship was on her side, masts pointing shoreward, breakers crashing against her hull.
Heavy seas break over the steel hull of the doomed Mimi after the
disaster. The party on the beach looks sober and somber, like a funeral
procession -- and perhaps that's what this is.
Entombed inside the
and drifting in the sea nearby, are the bodies of 18 sailors
and salvage workers. (Image: Oregon Historical Society) [Larger
image: 1800 x 1133 px]
Farley was ready. Against the growing wind and mounting breakers, his surfmen rowed to the scene. But the Mimi's rigging was everywhere he needed to be. Try as they might, the boat's crew could not get anywhere near the Mimi's crew. Remember, there were seas breaking over the wreck this entire time; the boat couldn't go anywhere unless all the oars could stay in the water to hold its position. Some of the spars were flailing around dangerously, and at one point an incoming breaker stood the surfboat almost on its end — a whisker away from a disastrous pitchpole wreck that probably would have added Farley and his crew to the casualties list.
The surfmen spent the next 24 hours trying to get to the ship, resting on the shore and trying again. Meanwhile, some of the bystanders on shore were getting increasingly hostile and Farley was worried about fights breaking out. Exhausted, hypothermic surfmen were staggering around and slurring their words, leading some people to assume they were drunk.
The next morning the seas were much calmer, and Farley and his crew managed to thread the boat into a 10-foot-wide open channel to the vertical deck of the mostly submerged ship. There they found just three survivors of the Mimi's crew — the captain and two of the men. Fisher also survived.
The other 17 — well, they ended up with seaweed on their heads and clouds on their faces, drifting in and out of open hatches in a "dead man's hotel" at the bottom of the sea.
Only the good die young
Among the four survivors were the two men most responsible for the disaster: Captain Westphal and "Captain" Fischer, the head of the salvage firm. These two, throughout the following inquiry into the causes of the wreck, displayed a jaw-dropping ungraciousness toward the guys who'd saved their lives. Both tried mightily to distract from their own responsibility for the disaster by trying to throw their rescuers under the bus.
Farley and his men, they claimed, had been timid and lazy. Westphal went so far as to claim that the surf that had capsized his ship was "no rougher than the surface of the Nehalem River," and that he couldn't imagine why the rescuers had made him wait so long for rescue. Fisher went him one better, testifying in the hearing that the water was "quiet as a pond," accusing his rescuers of having been drunk, and attributing the delay in getting him off the wreck to inefficiency and cowardice.
It's at least a little gratifying that the investigators weren't fooled by this performance. "The charges of drunkenness were unfounded," their report concludes, "and the major portion of the (accusations) seems to have been voiced by the head of the wrecking firm, who must realize there was criminal carelessness on his part, or the barque would not have capsized."
That would have been cold comfort, though, to the 17 sailors and one salvage worker who died on the ship, and to their families.
(Sources: Grover, David H. The Unforgiving Coast. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002; Gibbs, James A. Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast. Portland: Binford, 1957; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)
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