“She was flush fore and aft, and how she managed to keep afloat…”—Capt. Frederick Masher.
Of the thousands of shipwrecks that have occurred in British Columbia waters over the years, few were as exciting or as unusual as that of the American lumber bark Atalanta, which came to grief on Dec. 16, 1890.
Capt. Frederick Masher’s second voyage in command of the 40-year-old square-rigger was a nightmare from the start. Clearing Port Gamble, Wash. on Dec. 8, the ancient Atalanta struggled toward Cape Flattery astern of the tug Tyee.
But the entire Northwest had suffered heavy gales for days and, upon rounding the Cape’s protective nose, she was struck full force by the wind and snow squalls, her bulky cargo deck of lumber causing the ship to rear drunkenly.
Reluctant to cast off from the tug, Capt. Masher decided to return with the Tyee to Neah Bay to ride out the gale. When, finally, the weather abated somewhat, he cautiously slipped from the bay, waved farewell to his tow and set sail for San Francisco.
But a vicious sou’easter descended upon the labouring lumber ship, then shifted to the southwest, beating him towards land. Hours later, most of Atalanta’s sails had been shredded by the winds and she was making little headway.
By Dec. 14, five days after clearing Neah Bay, she was still off Cape Flattery.
That afternoon, Atalanta’s aged and battered hull could take no more. As the seas poured through her opened seams, Capt. Masher ordered the pumps started. They were able to check the inflow but couldn’t pump her dry and, to her frightened seamen, the trapped water splashing against bulkheads wasn’t just spooky but a death rattle. Echoing relentlessly throughout the hull with each roll of the ship, shifting cargo and equipment, its rumbling was like that of a monster prowling its den…
As Capt. Masher would later tell the Victoria Colonist, “The deck load was tossed about by the seas that dashed over every moment, and soon the masts — with every scrap of rigging — the forward house, the bulwarks, and the longboat, went over the side. The windmill pumps were disabled, and the water, unchecked, soon filled the hull to deck level.”
By then, the only thing keeping the Atalanta afloat was her deck cargo of heavy timbers. But even this was breaking up before the wind and, with daylight of Dec. 16, the main top mast crashed into the sea. Now her only canvas left was the lower main topsail.
By Masher’s rough calculations, they were about 120 miles southeast of Cape Flattery. In reality he was just 50 miles from the Cape. He set the one remaining sail and worried his protesting ship about, hoping by some miracle to beach her. But the wind, “veering so as to prevent me making Flattery, I then headed for the Vancouver Island coast. The ship’s deck was then level with the sea, which poured over her in torrents from stem to stern.
“She was flush fore and aft, and how she managed to keep afloat…”
Atalanta’s crewmen were in agony. Clinging to her exposed deck equipment, they were constantly awash. Sure that she’d sink under them at any moment, unable to reach the food and fresh water below decks, unable to help themselves, their lifeboat swept away, they could only pray and wait.
Wait for whatever the raging darkness held for them.
Painfully inching to his submerged cabin, Capt. Masher made a cheering discovery: a can of peaches, one of tomatoes and some biscuit. Ever so carefully, he opened the tins with his knife and passed the food around. Each was allowed one mouthful of the fruit to relieve his thirst, each shielding it from the salt spray with his hand. Then, a sudden lurch of the ship from a sweeping wave, and even this was gone.
More torturous hours passed. The sailors managed to free the ship’s small boat from its fastenings and secure it to the capstan. Then, with pieces of line cut from the collapsed rigging, each man lashed himself face down to the 84-foot timbers strapped on deck, almost in the stance of surf boarders, “to keep afloat when we went overboard, as we expected to every minute”.
At noon, Atalanta’s deck beams began to crack under the strain. By this time, their only hope was their lonely sail. Catching the gusts, it inched them toward land.
“The ship was breaking up fast,” Masher continued, “so, seeing that nothing else could be done, we lashed two men to the wheel to keep her before the wind, ate our last biscuit — not a word of complaint was made, although our lips and throats were so parched that we could hardly eat — and then lashed ourselves to the stump of the mizzenmast.”
The storm continued to rage.
Wednesday, the exhausted, shivering seamen wrestled with the ship’s tiny dinghy. Just as they launched it, a giant wave swamped the flimsy craft. Upon their baling it, Second Mate John Anderson and three seamen succeeded in boarding.
“It was swept away from us so quickly that we hardly had time to bid them goodbye,” said Masher of the seamen who simply vanished in the night. “A few hours later, the bark broke amidships, in halves, and eight [men] were left on the cabin roof astern.
“A little later, and the half we were on broke again, the bottom sliding from under us, and leaving us afloat on the cabin, with our clothes torn in ribbons, nothing to eat or drink for more than 38 hours, and the wind still blowing a hurricane…”
But the seamen continued to cling to life as they drifted throughout the long, brutal night and tried to keep their faces from the stinging waves. Some hoarsely exchanged addresses “in case any should get ashore”.
Dawn, Dec. 19, was kind to them: about 10 miles away in the gloomy distance, Vancouver Island!
As the overpowering cold attacked faces, fingers and limbs, the sailors couldn’t take their eyes from the promised salvation. The hours dragged by, their progress but a few feet at a time. The constant rolling of the waves forward and backward seemed to taunt them; some were sure they weren’t progressing at all, just hovering in a pitiless void.
Steward John W. Wilburn became temporarily insane and his condition further dampened the others’ spirits.
Noon came and went. Then it was late afternoon and darkness closed about them once more.
Suddenly, each became conscious of a sound above the wind. Straining to see in the dark, they listened intently. Then a rousing cheer upon the realization that what they heard was breakers — the beach was just ahead. Their raft grated against rock, rose on a wave, came to rest on the pebbly shore. As the almost skeptical seamen unlashed themselves and staggered ashore, they were met by the Clayoquot storekeeper, the captain and crew of the schooner Katherine — and Second Mate John Anderson and company who’d vanished in Atalanta’s dinghy. By uncanny coincidence the small boat had drifted ashore at the very same spot hours before.
Exhausted, drenched, near-frozen, hungry and thirsty, the half-naked seamen rejoiced. They were together once more, safe and sound, after drifting 170 miles. Not a single man had been lost in the ordeal which had lasted an agonizing four days and four nights. Only the steward, Wilburn, who was paralyzed by exposure, had had to be hauled ashore, and Capt. Masher had broken his wrist.
Taken to the nearby store each was given warm, dry clothing, fed hot food and put to bed. Later, with the sailing of the Katherine, they landed in Victoria.
They were just in time for Christmas Eve.