Heroic Clayoquots rescue seamen, part 1

‘Marine Disaster – Total Loss of the Bark General Cobb’ -Colonist headline for Feb. 3, 1880.

Once again, Victorians read of a ship lost off Vancouver Island’s treacherous west coast. This time, however, the so-called Graveyard of the Pacific had been cheated of its human prey.

After a terrifying, days-long ordeal, the General Cobb’s crew had escaped when she pounded to pieces near Portland Point, between Long Beach and Clayoquot Sound, Jan. 15, 1880. But it wasn’t until almost three weeks later that the Colonist learned details of the American sailors’ miraculous rescue…

Capt. J.L. Oliver had cleared San Francisco Jan. 2, bound for Puget Sound in ballast. Rough weather hammered his 24-year-old command without pause and it took all of 12 days to reach Cape Flattery. When the winds shifted to the south-southwest, the 648-ton General Cobb found herself beset by thick fog and rain.

Now unsure of his exact position, Capt. Oliver struggled on, keenly aware that the gale was rapidly beating him northward, towards the dangerous shores of Vancouver Island. His lookout perched in the lofty crow’s nest and the deck watch strained against the gloom enshrouding their ship. Then it was night and a starless sky further reduced their vision.

When the main topgallant sail was carried away, two seamen scrambled up the slippery mast to replace it.

About 8 o’clock, the lookout discerned a thin white line in the murk ahead and hailed the deck, "Breakers on the starb’rd bow!" Frantically, Oliver tried to wear his ship about. But the winds pushed the empty Cobb’s hull ever closer inshore. Now the whole crew could see the surf breaking against the rocks. Minutes later, the ship’s keel splintered against a shelving reef and she wedged tight. She’d been breached, "bilged and filled" for the length of her hull, only the rocky shelf keeping her afloat. If the waves plucked her free, she’d plunge to the bottom like a stone, taking all with her.

To hold her in position, Capt. Oliver dropped both anchors and had his men chop down her tallest masts. Then all sought refuge in what was left of the rigging.

They knew that their situation couldn’t last, that, at any moment, the General Cobb could slide into deep water and sink. Yet it was "utterly out of the question to launch a boat".

Knowing that their only chance lay in making their way through the wild surf to shore, Oliver barked orders for his men to wrestle a spar over the side, to the rocks hemming the ship on either beam. He then called for a volunteer to tie a line about his waist, clamber down the spar to the rocks, make his way to shore and secure the hawser to the beach.

A seaman whose name was unrecorded, alas, mounted the pole with a rope right about his middle and slid downward as the breakers swept over him. With almost superhuman effort he made it to the rocks. But he couldn’t find a hold and, as he turned back towards the ship, he was carried away by the waves. Only the heavy line saved him, to be hauled aboard, half-drowned, by his comrades.

With that failed attempt, they were stranded on a ship that was breaking up beneath them. They could only hope that the gale moderated by daylight. When dawn finally did come, it brought them little cheer. The storm continued to rage unabated and the dying General Cobb continued to lurch from side to side, her timbers cracking and splitting beneath them.

(To be continued)