Monsieur Fresnel’s Brilliant Invention

In Washington at the mouth of the Columbia River, and along the coast of Oregon, there are many historical lighthouses that are open to the public. Built on prominent headlands in the late 1800s by the former US Lighthouse Board, these historic buildings not only command fabulous views, but also represent a classic period of American architecture. After installing automated beacons in the 1960s, the Coast Guard began transferring the old structures to local groups that have worked hard to preserve them for future generations.

All the lights have now been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The strongest light on the Oregon coast is Heceta Head, 205′ above the water and visible for 21 miles in good visibility. This is the only light that still uses the original Fresnel lens. This lens was a remarkable scientific breakthrough, and dramatically improved inshore navigation. The two Fresnel lens from the Columbia River lighthouses, Cape Disappointment and North Head can be seen in nearby museums.

At the start of the 19th century, European sailing ships brought raw materials from the colonies to feed the industrial revolution. New inventions like the steam engine and riveted iron construction were being tested by ship builders, but navigation still relied on simple daymarks and primitive lighthouses that relied on giant oil-burning wicks with polished reflectors. Only about 20% of their light was actually directed towards the horizon, limiting the range to a few miles.

In 1820, the French government commissioned a young engineer named Augustin Fresnel to investigate ways to increase the brightness of navigation lights. Fresnel (pronounced Frey-nell) had studied the new science of optics in his workshop and published a paper on the subject in a scientific journal. He realized that to achieve the necessary long range, a conventional convex lens of large aperture and short focal length would have been impossibly large.

Within a few months, he had found a “brilliant” and elegant solution that would make his name famous. He reduced the amount of glass required by breaking it into a set of concentric annular sections known as “Fresnel zones.” At each zone, the overall thickness of the lens was decreased and each prism had a different angle. Together, these zones magically bent the light into a narrow focused beam. His invention was a scientific marvel of its time: a complex array of dazzling concentric glass prisms with a bull’s-eye lens at its center, all mounted in a gleaming brass framework that looked like a glass beehive.

The first full-scale trial was in the Cardovan Tower on the Gironde River in southwest France. Tests the Fresnel lens was five times as effective in capturing the light and could produce a beam of 80,000 candlepower. The light could be seen from more than 20 miles out. The Fresnel lens was so efficient that is still in use today. A century later, when lights were electrified, it was found that a 1000-watt bulb shining through a first-order lens could generate a 680,000 candlepower beam! Fresnel’s system worked by bending and focusing the rays to form a single, concentrated beam of high intensity light.

The new lens was quickly put into production in Paris. It was so popular that it was offered in six sizes, called ”orders.” The weakest, the sixth order, was used in lights on lakes and in harbors while the largest, first-order lenses were used in major lighthouses on fog-bound coasts. A first-order lens, made up of over 1000 prisms, stood 12 feet tall, measured 6 feet in girth, and weighed 3 tons. It cost the huge sum of $12,000, plus shipping costs from France.

In Europe the new lenses were quickly adopted, but the head of the U.S. Lighthouse Board, Stephen Pleasonton, strongly resisted, feeling that it was just a fad. It was not until the 1850s that the first Fresnel arrived in the U.S, but its superiority was soon appreciated. It was not until modern CNC equipment could turn out large complex pieces that these lenses could be made from single pieces of glass. Today, the Fresnel lens is still used in optical devices like traffic signals and overhead projectors.

Lighthouses of SW Washington

There was a small ceremony recently at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse that marked its 150 years of service to mariners. Cape D was the first light on the entire west coast,

the government agency that built and ran the nation’s lights, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, disappeared long ago, Another agency, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, manned the shore stations that were equipped with seaworthy rowing boats. The first life-saving station was built at Willapa Bay in 1877, followed by Neah Bay in 1878.

All of the early lighthouses were built to the same basic design: a Cape Cod house with the tower rising through the center. The design was simple, but delivering the materials to the site was often a challenge since they were perched on cliff tops with no access roads. In the case of Cape Disappointment, the first load of materials arrived on the bark Oriole in September 1853, but the ship wrecked directly below the cape on and the entire cargo, including the precious Fresnel lens was lost. Two years passed before another ship arrived with the materials after weathering Cape Horn. A road was cleared to allow ox teams to pull wagons up the hill and construction began. The final cost was $38,500–a huge sum at that time.

Exposed to the worst of the weather, all these old light structures are showing their age, and the Coast Guard has found itself burdened with the task of historical preservation. However, this has begun to change recently, as they have been transferring ownership of all the lighthouses to the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission or local bodies. This has the benefit of allowing the lights to be open to the public for tours, which are already available at the North Head Light, two miles north of Cape Disappointment. Even during the coldest winter, I find a visit to either of these lighthouses reminds me why I can’t wait for spring and the chance to see the light from the water.

The tip of SW Washington is unique in having two major lights so close together. After the Cape Disappointment light was built in 1856, the entrance to the Columbia River was much safer, but captains of ships sailing south from Puget Sound to the Columbia complained that they could not see the light unless they stood far out to sea. In support of their argument, they cited wrecks of such ships as the Whistler (1883) and Grace Roberts (1887) on beaches north of the cape. In response, the Lighthouse Board in 1893 dispatched a lightship to the mouth of the Columbia. Lightship No. 50, built at San Francisco’s Union Works, took station four miles southwest of Cape Disappointment that same year. The 120-foot sail-powered vessel served until 1909 when replaced by steam-powered Lightship No. 88, which remained at the mouth of the Columbia for 30 years.

In the same year, the board also asked Congress for $50,000 to build a first-order light on Cape Disappointment’s North Head. Five years later, a 65-foot high tower of brick was completed. To distinguish the two towers in daylight, a distinctive black band was applied to Cape D in the early 1900s, reminding us that visual identification is still important. The first aids to navigation were only effective in daylight: a white flag on top of a hill or perhaps prominent trees with their branches trimmed and tops cut off.

Other lighthouses in Washington are also changing hands: the Westport Lighthouse with its elegant 107’ tower has been maintained by the local maritime museum since 2000. The West Point Lighthouse SW of Shilshole Marina, also known as the Discovery Park Lighthouse, was turned over to Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation in October of 2004. West Point opened in 1881 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. It was the first manned light station on Puget Sound and cost $25,000 to build. It was illuminated with a kerosene lamp until 1925, when it was connected to Seattle’s electric grid.

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8,000-Mile Cable to Australia Began in Astoria, Oregon

The launch of communications satellites by rocket makes for great imagery and headlines, but the majority of digital data still travels around the world via a vast network of undersea cables. In 2017, there was over half a million miles of submarine cables in service, a number that will grow by over 8,000 nautical miles with the addition of the new Hawaiki cable from Oregon to Australia. This connection is being laid across the Pacific this winter via New Zealand, American Samoa and Hawaii. It’s being laid by the CS Global Sentinel, a 475′ cable ship that is US-flagged and based at the Vigor shipyard on Swan Island in Portland.

Oregon’s Pacific shore is an important place on the global connectivity map. A lot of transpacific network traffic enters the US through the high concentration of submarine cable landing stations in the beach towns of Nedonna Beach, Warrenton, and Pacific City where the Hawaiki cable comes ashore at the Wave Broadband landing station. There are at least ten cables landing in northern Oregon and continuing east to a large data centers in the Hillsboro area.

Telecom isn’t the only use for this local coastal network. Part of it is leased to the University of Washington for their Regional Scale Nodes Project, a network of submarine fiber optic and power cables that is a component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. These instruments are used in scientific ocean monitoring, including areas such as earthquake detection and underwater volcanism, by researchers and educators across the globe.

These monitoring buoys are In shallow water, where the cable needs to be heavily reinforced. It is about as wide as a soda can, consisting of a delicate fiber-optic core covered with waterproof layers, insulation and helical steel wires for protection from abrasion. On the continental shelf, it is buried in a trench for protection from anchors, trawl nets, and even shark bites. In deep water, it is laid on the seafloor and is much thinner, around the width of a quarter, because there are few threats at great depths–except for subsea earthquakes and landslides.

The Global Sentinel was built in 1991 to a traditional design with the distinctive large cable sheave on the bow, a method that which has now been replaced on the latest generation of vessels by smaller sheaves on stern and computers controlling the pay-out speed of 1-3 knots. The crew can find and retrieve a broken cable or cable end from any depth using high-tech tools like an ROV with video cameras and remote-controlled arms with claws. Cable ships now carry a submarine plow the size of a small house to dig a trench for the cable and an ROV the size of a truck that moves along the sea bed on caterpillar tracks and fills the trench using water jets.

The Hawaiki cable requires repeaters to boost the signals traveling through the optical fiber. They look like small torpedoes and are spliced into the cable on the ship every 40-60 miles. They are are wired in series and powered by direct current running through the cable at up to 10,000 volts. The Global Sentinel is owned by TE Subcom, who also made the cable in its Newington, New Hampshire factory. The ship loaded the cable there and returned to the west coast via the Panama Canal.

The Global Sentinel has completed the sections from Oregon to Hawaii, and began laying cable south to American Samoa, which will be the hub for the Polynesian region. The system will include branching units for Fiji, Tonga, and the French territory of New Caledonia, and the company is positive that it will bring broadband pricing down in the region and increase access. This will allow cruising yachts in the south-west Pacific to connect with the web and communicate more easily with the U.S.

The southern end of the cable is being laid by TE Subcom’s second ship, the 346′ CS Responder, built 2000 and registered in Korea. Captain Dan Keneal said the biggest risks to cable-laying are the weather and fishing traffic in the area. “If we have a really bad forecast, we have to stop and just sit there and ride it out, which we did for a couple of days. Then we just get back on with it,” he explained. The two ends of the cable will be ceremonially joined in Samoa next summer.

150 Years Since First Trans-Atlantic Cable

Despite all the new technology, the basic techniques used in laying cables haven’t really changed much. This technology dates back to the 1850’s, when the first submarine telegraph link was laid between Britain and France. The first primitive trans-Atlantic cable was completed before the Civil War in 1858. It stretched nearly 2,000 miles across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland at a depth of more than two miles and took four years to complete. The first ambitious attempts were plagued by breakages before the manufacturers learned to build a cable strong enough without increasing weight.

Unfortunately, it lasted for less than a month and was incredibly slow by any measure: the first official (text) message sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan only had 509 letters but took over 17 hours to transmit! Nonetheless, the cable was still hailed as a technological marvel—the equivalent of the race to the moon a century later. By 1866, there were enough investors willing to risk their money on another attempt.

The 692′ British ship Great Eastern, the largest vessel afloat at that time, was converted from passenger carrying and succeeded in laying the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Both the ship and the cable were produced on the banks of the Thames in east London and made Britain the leader in the new sub-sea industry. While the first cables in the 1860’s could only manage a few letters per minute in Morse code, the latest fiber-optic type can transmit more than 85,000,000,000 words per second—a remarkable capacity that continues to increase every year.


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Cleveland Rockwell–NW coast surveyor & artist

Cleveland Rockwell had a successful 19th-century career in the military and the federal Coastal Survey. Educated as a cartographer and mechanical engineer, Rockwell started his professional life with the U.S. Coastal Survey, collecting survey data and drawing maps. In 1861, he was working on surveys along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts when the projects were canceled because of political tensions between the southern states and the federal government. When the Civil War broke out, Rockwell was appointed a captain in the Union Army.

His map-making skills helped the Navy capture blockade runners and the Army navigate roads and terrain. For four months in 1864, no records exist of his whereabouts, which point to the likelihood of a secret topographical mission. Rockwell returned to the Coastal Survey after the war and was transferred to the West Coast – first San Francisco, then the mouth of the Columbia River. But it was his after-hours hobby of painting the landscapes he scouted so intensely for his employers that brought him to renown and still keeps his name alive in art collectors’ circles.

Rockwell came to the Pacific Northwest in 1868 to survey the coast and rivers, and he became a painter and a chronicler of the Columbia. Astoria Harbor was Rockwell’s favorite subject for the variety of activity that was centered there-the coming and going of ocean clippers, river steamers, and the rafts and dinghies of salmon fishers and of loggers, which we see here. This painting was commissioned by Captain George Flavel, who ran the pilot and tug service that brought sailing ships across the Columbia Bar and towed them upriver from Astoria to Portland.

This is how Rockwell described the local scene: “The north (or Washington Territory) side of the river is very bold, almost mountainous. Cliffs and precipices occur at almost every point. Above the remarkable neck of land called Tongue Point, where the river widens into a large sheet of water known as Cathlamet Bay, there are again large areas of tide lands, or swamps, intersected by numerous channels. Some of these channels are navigable, and are used by the small steamers plying between Astoria and Portland.”

As part of the 2011 Astoria Bicentennial celebration, the Columbia River Maritime Museum presented an exhibition of Rockwell’s paintings – 36 oils and watercolors depicting the coastline of the Astoria area and the ships and people that plied the waters there more than a century ago. “We wanted to do something special as our part for the Bicentennial,” said Jeff Smith, CRMM curator. “This was appropriate for us, and significant for the celebration.”

His profession was not unusual for its day, noted Robert Joki, owner of the Sovereign Gallery in Portland and an acknowledged authority on Rockwell. Artists were often crucial members of exploratory expeditions, even in the mid-19th century as photography became a viable recording medium, he said. The glass plates used for processing the photographs were fragile and susceptible to breaking on the journey home. Even well into the 20th century, railroad surveying parties would employ artists to paint romantic depictions of the wilderness to entice investors.

“Coming out of the Coastal Survey expeditions, he had an eye for detail and precision,” Smith explained. “His seascape and landscape subjects are so well-rendered. He was a very acute observer, and that translated to his art … I find his work very skillful and pleasing. An 1870 navigational chart shows the south shoreline of the Columbia and the north shore at the mouth. If you look closely at where Astoria stands today, you see little black squares  – he’s detailed the platting of the town and the buildings that were there at the time.” Clatsop County Historical Society archivist Liisa Penner enlarged the chart enough so that Smith was able to find the spot where his house now stands.

“Lots of contemporary artists don’t have that drawing training,” said Len Braarud, a private art dealer based in La Conner, Wash., and guest curator for the exhibit. “He had great drawing skill. He also was conscious of the landscape – he knew the terrain intimately.” Rockwell painted in the Luminist style, depicting boats and shorelines in fine detail against wide expanses of water and sky. Especially in his oil paintings, the quality of light he captures – particularly in sunsets and sunrises – is remarkably vibrant.

The museum is clearing out all the exhibits in its Steamboat Gallery to make room for the Rockwell display. Well, nearly all. The scale model of the sternwheeler Harvest Queen in its glass case, will stay – so that visitors can compare it to Rockwell’s watercolor representation of the vessel in one of his many Columbia River paintings. The museum owns two Rockwell oil paintings and two watercolors as part of its permanent collection, along with one incomplete sketch.

The artworks in the exhibit were borrowed mostly from private collectors, with some coming from the Oregon and Clatsop County historical societies. “We’re very fortunate that they were all willing to part with the works for two months,” Smith said. Some of the paintings have never been shown in public. The Clatsop County Historical Society is loaning one of its two large oils. One hangs permanently in the music room of the Flavel House Museum. The other, which is being loaned for the exhibit, is displayed in the captain’s bedroom, but Smith said it’s rarely noticed because of the period lighting. “We’re excited to feature that one where people can see it with proper gallery lighting,” he said.

Most of the paintings are encased in the heavy, ornate gilt frames that were popular in the Victorian era. Smith said that the museum has attempted to find appropriate frames for loaned pieces whose frames didn’t do the pictures justice. The glowing gold leaf of the frames tend to accentuate the luminous quality of the paintings, he said. The print catalog that Braarud compiled contains a biography of Rockwell and some of Braarud’s own observations.

He considers Rockwell the best turn-of-the-century Northwest artist. “Others like William Samuel Parrott came here, painted a bit, and sold their works to collectors back East,” he noted. “Rockwell actually lived here. He wasn’t so dependent on the tourists for sales.” The 1870 U.S. Census lists Rockwell and his wife as residents of Astoria. He continued to divide his time between California and Oregon until 1892, when he retired in Portland and served as a consultant and a director on the boards of several banks.

The last time this many Rockwell paintings were collected for a show was in 1972 at the Oregon Historical Society. Franz Stenzel wrote the catalogue raisonné – an exhaustive book covering every known work of an individual artist – on Rockwell as an accompaniment to the exhibit. Since then, Joki says, more works have been discovered. Rockwell is believed to have painted around 500 works, but only a few hundred have been tracked down, Smith said. The artist didn’t always sign his paintings.

“Rockwell’s history is very much a part of historic Northwest art,” said Joki, who also volunteers as a curator with the Oregon Historical Society. “The OHS exhibit catalog in 1972 bemoaned the fact that he never got the credit he deserved,” agreed Smith. “A lot of people connected with this exhibit are now expressing the same attitude.”

“He doesn’t truly have a national market,” Braarud said. “Art writers puzzle over this. Even the Portland Art Museum doesn’t have a Rockwell.” Other museums including the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and the Anchorage Museum in Alaska own some of Rockwell’s paintings, and the Oakland Museum of California has the best collection of turn-of-the-century artists there is, according to Braarud. The Seattle Art Museum boasts what is considered Rockwell’s best work: “Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.” “I wish we had that for this exhibit,” Braarud said.

Given his part-time status as an artist, is Rockwell considered an “amateur” painter? “If you use ‘amateur’ in the purest sense of the term, he would not be,” said Joki. “He was as fine a painter as any painter in his style and period. Completely professional.” Prices for Rockwell’s paintings today are on par with works by the top professionals from that era.“Painting was his passion,” Joki said. “Documenting was his job.”

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Wreck of the Emily Reed at Rockaway Beach, OR.

Although there must be over a thousand ships lost along the Oregon coast in the last 200 years, only a handful belong in a category generally referred to as “mystery” or “phantom” ships. This is because they have the remarkable ability to suddenly appear for a short time then vanish! Now this might sound like a sailors’ yarn: a tall tale of a crew too long at sea or an Indian legend about a beautiful maiden and a young captain. But that is not the case at all. This winter of 2011, at least three mystery wrecks have recently been seen and photographed by dozens, perhaps hundred of people.

Having spun my own yarn so far, I will now confess that they did not appear out a fog bank when the moon was full, they actually exposed their bones to the world when the shifting sands that buried them were blown or washed aside by winter storms. The only documented “phantom ship” on the north coast is the Emily G. Reed, a 209-foot three-masted wooden schooner that re-appeared in January 2011 on Rockaway Beach. This time locals and visitors were ready with video cameras and the scene was soon publicized on the web and featured on local TV.

The ship had set sail in November 1907 from New South Wales, Australia, with a cargo of 2,100 tons of coal, bound for Portland. After 102 days at sea she sailed too close to shore looking for a landmark like the Tillamook Rock to fix the position. Other ships were in the area and reportedly saw the Emily G. Reed was off course, but she was blown onto the shore near the Nehalem River Bar early on a windy Valentine’s Day on February 14, 1908.

Seven or eight sailors died in the wreck. Four of the crew recklessly launched a lifeboat and rowed away from the surf, but they suffered terribly while they drifted north along the entire Washington coast and did not get ashore until they were in Neah Bay. But six of the crew, including the captain and his wife, clung to the poop deck until low tide allowed them to walk ashore. The hull of their ship soon broke in half and began to drift south down the shore.

Some of the cargo was spilled in the shallows as far as Tillamook Bay. Local families retrieved the coal at low tide and it kept their houses warm until spring. (A few pieces were preserved and are on display at the Coast Guard station in Garibaldi and the Pioneer Museum in Tillamook.) Parts of the ship drifted ashore in several locations, with the biggest section over 100′ long coming to rest south of the site of the “natatorium” (swimming pool) in Rockaway Beach—now a state wayside.

The hull laid on its side and was soon stripped of its valuable planking. It began to sink into the sand until only the topside frames were visible, and remained that way until the 1950’s, when the sand began to cover it for longer periods. Then it was lost to sight for around 35 years, according to Don Best, a longtime resident, historian and photographer whose pioneer family have lived in a beach house near the wreck since the early 1900s.

Best generously invited me into his house and regaled with stories of the early days of this resort town and showed me many of the finds he has made at low tide, which now decorate his garden. He was born in 1943, and recalled that at Christmas during his childhood people burnt the wood from the wreck that could not be re-used and the copper fasteners and sheathing gave off strange blue and green flames, so they called it ‘magic wood.’

The Emily G. Reed re-appeared briefly in 2008 after the Great Gale, then made another appearance around New Year’s Day 2011 after winter wave action had cut away the sand several feet deep. It was about 50 yards from the high tide mark, between the wayside and St. Mary’s by the Sea Catholic Church. Best, went to work to catch the scene in the best light and add another fine picture to his collection.

Earlier photos show him as a baby in his mother’s arms on the wreck, then him as a boy playing on the framework. One summer, at the age of eight, he decided to dig around it, found an air pocket, and he “scooted in under there on my belly and looked inside.” Another time, he found an object that turned out to be a pocket whistle. He also has pictures of an excavation he made of a large chunk of an unidentified wooden ship’s hull that he found protruding from the sand south of Rockaway.

The Emily G. Reed was built in 1880 on the Medonak River in Waldoboro, Maine by the Reed family, who assembled a small fleet of ships bearing their name. Its length was 209 feet, beam 40 feet and draft 24 feet. The ship had operated on the Pacific routes for many years and had been extensively repaired. The frames are probably oak and seem to be standing up to the elements quite well. Doubtless it will appear again one of these years.


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N.Y. Sailing Ship Wavertree in Portland 1907-9

The Wavertree was built by Oswald Mordaunt & Company at Southampton, England in 1885 for R.W. Leyland & Company of Liverpool. At 325’ long, she is one of the last large sailing ships built of wrought iron. Today, she is the largest of her type afloat. She had been commissioned by R.W. Leyland & Company of Liverpool but Chadwick & Pritchard of Liverpool purchased her before she was launched on December 10, 1885. The new owners named her Southgate.

In 1888 she was repurchased by R.W. Leyland and Co. and renamed Wavertree for a district of Liverpool. Wavertree was first employed to carry jute, used in making rope and burlap bags, between eastern India (now Bangladesh) and Scotland. When less than two years old she entered the tramp trades, taking cargoes anywhere in the world she could find them. Wavertree circumnavigated nearly 30 times with cargoes of coal, kerosene, cotton, tea, coffee, molasses and timber. She made one known call to New York, arriving Jan. 14, 1895, with a load of nitrate from Chile and departing March 21 for Calcutta.

She limped into the Falkland Islands in December 1910, having been dismasted off Cape Horn. Rather then re-rigging her, her owners sold her for use as a floating warehouse at Punta Arenas, Chile. She was converted into a sand barge at Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1947. She was discovered there by Karl Kortum, director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum and founder of the National Maritime Historical Society, in 1966. The following year she was acquired by South Street Seaport Museum. Wavertree was moved to the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires for restoration and in 1969 the ship was towed to New York. The vessel was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 13, 1978.and was acquired by South Street Seaport Museum in 1968 and has remained there ever since.

This ship is of minor interest to marine historians on the Columbia River because she called on Portland several times in the early 1900’s. We know about this because an able-bodied seaman named George Spiers had signed on in Chile and kept a diary. He described days spent waiting for a pilot to cross the Columbia Bar. Food was running low and Spiers was in charge of the rations.

“The pilot calmly surveyed the sea and the sky, then as if everything was all right walked up and down the poop, no mention of any reduction of sail; now and then as an extra pressure of wind struck her, the main t’gallant sheet would crack aloft as the chain in the sheave of the yard took a fresh nip. …finally we sailed over the bar and into the widening of the river opposite Astoria. … We were the only ship at Astoria for a few days, and it looked to be a comparatively small town, backed up by a range of hills, and as it was winter everything appeared gloomy and overcast.”

It was November and Wavertree dragged her anchor in the night during a squall as the skipper resisted several calls to come on deck from his bed; after paying out more chain and setting a second anchor, she blew onto one of the sand banks in the estuary. The crew was able to work the ship off the sand bank, and she joined the four-masted bark Duchalburn in tow up to Portland, one vessel on each side of a steam-powered sternwheel tug.

Wavertree was ordered to load grain for the United Kingdom. Wheat export was one of Portland’s most important economic sectors. “We heard that there were nearly forty sailing ships in port,” Spiers wrote. His ship was berthed by a bridge over the Willamette in downtown Portland. When she was loaded and ready to sail, Spiers observed the time-honored ceremony of departure and giving fare-well by those Limey ships, the departing ship would ring a long, loud “fandango” on the bell. “Then someone with a topsail yard voice,” would hail a ship, calling for three cheers. The outbound vessel’s crew would respond, often with a sea shanty, “sung by a stentorian voice,” with all crews joining in on the chorus. Each anchored ship would repeat the tribute. As the anchor was being raised, the Wavertree crew sang out with “ ‘Hooray Boys, We’re Homeward Bound.’”

“What a farewell reception we received from the crowds on the bridge,” Spiers said. “Men cheered and waved their hats, and women their handkerchiefs, and going down river the ships alongside the wharves each gave a fandango on their bells and a cheer.” Wavertree continued hauling cargo, appearing in Oregon shipping news column in 1908 and 1909, until 1910 and a storm off Cape Horn.




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NW Steam Society on Columbia River

Do you work in a “high-pressure” job? Feel the need to “let off some steam” occasionally? Well, you might be ready to take a ride in a steamboat and find out where these expressions originated. Over a summer weekend, seventeen boats gathered in Cathlamet, Washington for the Northwest Steam Society’s annual on-the-water meet. The club last met on the Columbia River in 2006 at St Helens, so this was a rare chance to see so many steamboats and steam enthusiasts in our area.

As any boater who has visited this historic port 60 miles downriver from Portland knows, Cathlamet was a very appropriate venue for this event, since it still carries the feel of bygone times with its traditional waterfront and town center. And the sights and sounds of commercial fishing and logging, which were both steam-powered in the early days, can still be seen and heard along the shore.

Norm Davis of Astoria, was the organizer of this meet, and he encouraged the visiting boat owners from as far away as Kelowna, B.C. and Tucson, Arizona to make the most of Cathlamet’s backwaters, which are perfect for steamboat gunkholing–at high water. The Elochoman Slough is a beautiful three-mile long sidewater that runs through the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge, and the Elochoman River is a 15-mile long waterway that flows into the Slough, making an extended steaming adventure just waiting to be explored.

I quickly learned that speed is not an issue for these open boats that range in age from the late 1800’s to the 2000’s and are typically from about 18’ to 24’ long. They are all displacement hulls, so run at a sedate 5-6 knots, whether singly or in a group. One notable advantage of steam is the amazing torque at any rpm—you simply cannot “stall” a steam engine! A steam piston is always on a “power” stroke whether going up or down, as opposed to a gas engine that only fires every fourth stroke.

A few are fueled by propane or diesel, but the majority are wood burning, which provides a visual check on how much fuel is needed to keep pressure up. Depending on the size of the firebox, this is likely to be a chunk of wood every 5-10 minutes. This observation soon led me to ask if you could fuel a steamboat by picking up drift wood off the shore. It is possible, I was told, but you would need a chainsaw that would spoil the almost-silent running of a steamer, and it’s preferable to burn dry wood.

Indeed, that was just the first of many questions that came to mind, because steam boating is so low-tech compared to an internal combustion engine. The difference in operation begins before the boats are even launched–it’s normal to light the fire and literally “warm” the engine up in the parking lot! Although some of the engines use a common design, each owner has finished his with a unique set of controls, pumps and gauges to suit the type of firebox and boiler he has obtained.

So there is no owner’s manual for these engines—each one is unique. You could see this easily because the engines are never covered by a box, they run in the open air at 200-300 rpm—with no more than a plexiglass splashguard around the sides to make sure that everything is in good order and all the moving parts are well oiled. So whether he is “picking up steam” or “running out of steam,” the operator must always be aware of the status of his engine: the amount of fuel in the firebox, the steam pressure, water circulation etc.

Most important of all is the functioning of the safety valve should some fault cause the pressure to build beyond the safe working load. (Every boiler used in a club meet must be inspected and approved by the safety committee.) So running a steam boat requires pretty much constant attention to the care and feeding of the engine, which may sound rather laborious.

But in fact, the owners appear quite relaxed and are able to hail other boats, chat with their passengers, and of course blow the steam whistle as they chug along. After a while, I realized they are actually similar to sailors who pay equal attention to their sails, the wind and the trim of the boat.

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1958: Lituya Bay, AK. Hit by 1700′ Mega Tsunami

When I moved to Astoria almost a decade ago, I began to enjoy the pleasures of living on the edge of the continent, like the short trip to the beach, and the ever-changing weather. But when I attended a community meeting arranged by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries this spring, I encountered a less appealing fact of coastal life: the prospect of a magnitude 8-9+ earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) 60-90 miles offshore.

I considered myself fairly well informed about this fault over a mile below the surface, having researched it for my story “Deep Sea Exploration” published in NW Yachting in January. I described how manned and remote-control submersibles have made some amazing discoveries of volcanism and strange lifeforms where the Juan de Fuca plate descends beneath the North American continent.

But this meeting wasn’t about the wonders of the deep….the subject was the major earthquake the CSZ will create when–not if–it breaks, how to survive it, and how to escape the resulting tsunami that will hit the coast, in less than 30 minutes. A team of state experts has actually been working to educate coastal inhabitants on this topic for several years, but the reason for this program was, of course, the devastating Japanese earthquake of March 11. The pictures of large boats and even small ships thrown up into city streets shows that this is a topic of vital interest to all boaters.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we also live on the “Pacific Ring of Fire”–as the 6.4 quake off Vancouver Island on September 9 showed. Luckily, this latest reminder did not cause any wave action, although the shock was strong on the sparsely inhabited outer coast. However, this barely compares with a local event on the Gulf of Alaska in 1958 that generated a short-lived wall of water about 1700′ high.

Lituya Bay, Alaska’s “Tsunami Alley”

Lituya Bay, seven miles long and two miles wide, is situated on the Fairweather coast of Alaska, and is the first inlet north of Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, providing the only secure anchorage for more than 100 miles in the Gulf of Alaska between Icy Strait and Yakutat. It has been swept by six tsunamis in 150 years. This incredible record is caused not by tectonic forces lurking far below the sea floor, but by simple landslides. The mountain side at the head of the bay is monumentally unstable, and has continued to peel off one huge landslide after another, making this the most thoroughly examined tsunami zone in the world. Not surprisingly, it is uninhabited.

Some of these slides may have been spontaneous, but In 1958, a 7.7 earthquake shook the entire region and caused a huge slab of the mountain to fall into the T-shaped end of the inlet. You could think of it as the perfect “geological storm.” It generated an unimaginably tall wave that raced across the mile-wide cove, crashed into the cliff and swept away the forest leaving only bare rock to a “splash” height of 1700.’ Miraculously, the crews of two of the three fishing boats anchored at the seaward end of the bay survived this calamity.

How to Survive a “Mega” Tsunami

The entrance is extremely narrow with tides running up to 13 knots and according to the Pilot should only be attempted in the short period of slack water on the bar—some 10 to 20 minutes. But the bay is the closest anchorage to the popular Fairweather fishing grounds, and on July 9, 1958, three trollers had anchored there because the fishing had been poor. It was a sunny evening, the water was calm, and the crews on the Edrie, the Badger and the Sunmore had no suspicion of what was to happen.

By 10 p.m., Howard Ulrich and his 7-year-old son, Junior, were in their bunks in the 38-foot Edrie, although it was still daylight. At 10:15 p.m. the boat began to shake violently as the water in the bay reacted to the quake. Ulrich reported hearing a deafening crash at the head of the bay. He stood on deck trying to see what had happened through clouds of dust.

After a couple of minutes, he realized there was an enormous wave heading down the inlet. He was slow to react until he realized he was observing: a wave around 300 feet high rolling over Cenotaph Island some two miles away. He leaped into action, putting a life jacket on his son, and starting the engine. He was unable to raise the anchor before the wave picked the Edrie up, but as it rose, the chain snapped and they were freed.

Ulrich had the discipline to grab the radiophone and yell “’Mayday! Mayday! This is the Edrie in Lituya Bay. All hell has broken loose in here. think we’ve had it. Goodbye.” He later estimated the height of the wave as 50 to 75 feet high His boat was swept over the south shore by the wave, then deposited back in the center of the bay by the backwash. The waves continued bouncing around the bay for half an hour before the situation eased.

Around 11 p.m., Ulrich started his engine and motored out to sea. He sent out another message saying he thought they’d made it through. Immediately, other boats on the outside began radioing back. But there was silence from the Badger and the Sunmore. Ulrich quit fishing a year later. He wrote a brief story for Esquire magazine entitled “What it Feels Like to Survive a Tsunami.” He continued to be effected by his narrow escape for the rest of his life.

On the Badger, Bill Swanson was also shaken out of his bunk. From his anchorage, he had a clear view of the head of the bay and the landslide. He reported seeing the Sunmore just about to turn out into the entrance when it was caught by the wave, flung over Harbor Point. Out of his sight, it quickly sank and the Wagners were lost.

The Swansons were more fortunate. The Badger, still at anchor, was lifted up by the wave and carried over the La Chaussee Spit at the entrance of the bay, stern first and riding the wave like a surfboard. Swanson reported looking down at the top of the trees, and estimated the height at about 80 feet. The wave broke and the boat hit the trough and began taking on water. They were surrounded by acres of wood debris – including a large tree that smashed through the pilot house and broke several of Swanson’s ribs – but they managed to get into the 8′ skiff wearing only their underclothes. Just before midnight, they were found by the crew of the FV Lumen who were searching through the miles of debris. (On the night of May 26, 1962. Bill Swanson returned to Lituya Bay for the first time. While there, he suffered a heart attack and died.)

Narrow Escape of Canadian Climbers

An hour before the wave struck, a seaplane took off from near Cenotaph Island (so named after the drowning of the 20 French sailors in 1786). On board were 10 Canadians who had just returned from the first Canadian ascent of Mount Fairweather. This was a day earlier than scheduled because the RCAF pilot was worried about fog. Another party of climbers was due that day by boat but they had been delayed.

Analysis of the Great Wave

The quake was later determined to be an 8.3; it was felt as far away as Seattle. At least forty million cubic yards weighing ninety million tons fell into 800 feet of water. The sound was heard 50 miles to the north. The weather also played a role as the bay gets up to 150 inches of rain a year. At Yakutat, 80 miles to the north of Lituya, three people out berry picking died when a small island they were on immediately dropped more than two dozen feet under the water. Later measurements determined that a nearby mountain had risen more than 50 feet at the same time. Overall, the earth had moved some 21 feet horizontally and 3.5 feet vertically along most of the fault line.

The French explorer Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse who is credited with the discovery of the bay in 1786, commented on the lack of trees and vegetation on the sides of the bay, “as though everything had been cut cleanly like with a razor blade.” He lost 20 of his sailors who attempted to row a longboat through the tide rip. Tlingit oral tradition contains several stories of giant waves and mass drownings in the bay. In 1936, a huge wave that uprooted and broke trees off as high as 500 feet around the bay, destroying evidence of previous smaller inundations.

A Distant Tsunami Will Arrive on the NW Coast in a Few Hours

Experts in the Pacific Northwest agree that the first step in tsunami awareness is to distinguish between distant and local tsunamis. A local tsunami originates in a seafloor fault close to shore, a distant wave travels across the ocean from Asia, Alaska or Hawaii.  On March 11, 2011 a moderate distant tsunami crossed the Pacific from Japan moving at the speed of a jetliner and reached the US west coast 9 hours later, causing serious damage on the Oregon-California border in Brookings and especially Crescent City, which is extremely vulnerable because of a local seafloor fault that runs west from the shore. A series of 8-foot waves tore out the moorings and swept fishboats and yachts into a tangled mass, sinking many. But it could have been much worse.

Even a distant quake in the western Pacific or Alaska can generate a much bigger tsunami that will flood all the low-lying areas of the west coast. This happened in 1964 when the 9.2 Anchorage earthquake caused the largest and most destructive tsunami on record to strike the mainland U.S. Along the Washington coast, waves well over 10′ destroyed houses, cars, boats, and fishing gear. The tsunami continued south, wrecking many Oregon harbors, then pounding California. Crescent City was hit by a 21′ wave that killed 10 people, destroyed 289 buildings, and crushed 1000 cars and 25 large fishing vessels. A tank farm near the port burned for several days.

The only comparable geologic event in the northwest since then was the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980. I witnessed the mushroom cloud of volcanic dust that rose to 60,000′ and remember news film of the angry land owners arguing with police at road blocks shortly before the explosion that took the top off the mountain. Volcanoes usually give some warning signs of an impending eruption, but earthquakes do not!

Today at the coast, with all the effort put into the international tsunami warning system with offshore buoys linked by satellite, forecasting has improved immensely, and the outreach effort—including sings, sirens and maps–means people living in coastal areas should be better informed. Those living in an inundation zone should be prepared to move to higher ground if the sirens sound. Note that an official Tsunami Watch is not an invitation to go down to the beach and “watch the tsunami.” This proved fatal to one uninformed spectator on March 11.

A Local Tsunami Could Arrive in 15 Minutes!

A local offshore quake and tsunami originating in the CSZ is an entirely different kettle of fish, and presents a far more deadly threat–one that is still not appreciated by the majority of the population. This is partly because of general apathy, the possibility of false alarms, and the fact that this prediction is based on new science. The revolutionary theory of plate tectonics that explained continental drift was not published until the mid 1960s.

The first evidence of a previous local tsunami originating off the northwest coast was gathered in 1987 by a Seattle geologist named Brian Atwater, working for the U.S. Geological Survey. He surveyed coastal lagoons by canoe, and identified sunken forests and isolated sand layers in soil profiles—all evidence of a tsunami. His research eventually led him to Japan, where he was shown contemporary records that noted a tsunami on January 26, 1700 without any earth tremors. (This also appears to be the source of Native American oral traditions describing a great coastal flood.)

Teams of researchers have continued this work and found deeper sand deposits and tree rings indicating over 40 great CSZ earthquakes during the last 10,000 years, spaced at intervals of 200 to 800 years. The good news is that Cascadia has been relatively quiet since 1700, so why worry? The bad news is that the Juan de Fuca plate grows by about 1 ½” of new seafloor every year, and after 400 years, that amounts to about 50 feet of new seafloor.

Theoretically, this excess seafloor may have caused a minute rise in the seabed until it dips under the North America plate at the CSZ. The best scenario is to have a steady slow motion movement over the centuries accompanied by a stream of small fairly harmless tremors. Unfortunately, what we have now is the opposite, a situation geologists describe as a plate that is “stuck.” When tectonic plates get stuck, pressure builds. Regular GPS surveys show that Highway 101 is rising over an inch a year.

The longer the wait, the bigger the quake. The latest research now suggests there is a 37% chance of the “Big One” hitting in the next 50 years, followed by a local tsunami of significant size. At the coast, the quake will probably do less damage than the tsunami, the opposite will be true inland. Everyone less than 50′ above sea level will need to move to high ground immediately. Having an emergency kit packed and a family rendez-vous arranged will make this easier. While the harbors of the Salish Sea are protected from the worst effects of a tsunami, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands are not. For boat owners, no matter where you are, this is not the time to check your mooring!

Distant Tsunami Awareness for Mariners

At sea: If you hear about an approaching tsunami, head for a depth of 50 fathoms or greater and monitor your radios for specific instructions from port authorities or the Coast Guard. Consider that you will be at sea for an extended period of time since tsunamis of varying size will continue for up to 12 hours. Carefully

manage all fuel, water, and other essentials. Port and marina facilities may be damaged upon return. If you’re in a smaller boat with a trailer in the marina, estimate how much time you have before the first wave strikes and decide whether you think you can get hauled out before the tsunami strikes.

In port: Your choices are to haul-out and leave, leave your boat moored and evacuate the zone, anchor upriver, or go to sea. The four factors to consider are the length of time before the tsunamis strike, local ocean and river characteristics, car and boat traffic, and the speed of your vessel.

At home: If you live in an inundation zone, you need to evacuate the zone for 12 hours. If you choose to deal with your boat at a marina, understand that you will be driving into an inundation zone under snarled traffic conditions and widespread confusion. You’ll need to negotiate heavy boat traffic and disarray in the marina, and on the river. Be realistic about how long it will take. Be sure to park your vehicle on high ground!

Local Tsunami Awareness for Mariners

You will have no question that it is the Big One. On land, intense shaking and earth movement will occur for four to six minutes, causing widespread destruction to structures, bridges, and roads.

At sea: If you’re at sea, you’re lucky. Head for a depth of 50 fathoms or greater and monitor your radio, Consider that you will be at sea for an unknown amount of time. Carefully manage all fuel, water, and other essentials. Your vessel may be essential in rescue and response efforts. When you return, expect dangerous debris in the water, limited facilities etc.

In port: You need to duck, cover, and hold on until it ends. After the shaking, you will have15 to 25 minutes to get to a site 50 feet above sea level. Do not return to or travel through the inundation zone for 12 hours. If you are just under way or in the bay, you won’t have time to get to 50 fathoms at sea. Your choice is to run aground and get to high land, or speed upriver. If you do go upriver, expect heavy boat traffic, huge ocean surges, and lots of debris. Several large deadly waves can appear for up to 12 hours.

At home: Duck, cover yourself from falling debris, and hold on tight until the shaking ends. After the shaking, you will have 15 to 25 minutes to get to a site 50 feet above sea level (if you are already above 50 feet, stay put). Stay there and help with rescues and recoveries. Do not go back into an inundation zone to check on your family or boat for 12 hours.

  • Roads and bridges will be damaged and destroyed. Expect to travel on foot.

  • Expect to be on your own without professional help or outside rescue for several days.

  • Food and potable water will be in short supply.

  • Structural fires will be widespread. Aftershocks will be common.

Crescent City—Tsunami Magnet of the West Coast

Like the chance of another Cascades volcano erupting, the odds of a local tsunami still seem pretty small–except in Crescent City, where Asian tsunamis often make an unwelcome landfall. Since 1933 the port has experienced 32 events, 12 of which exceeded three feet. After 1964, it must have been clear that Crescent City wasn’t just unlucky, it was in a uniquely bad location. This fishing port on the remote north coast of California was founded in 1854 when gold was discovered along the Trinity River.

The harbor was established in a small south-facing cove at the north of a long curving beach. The Battery Point Lighthouse was built in 1856 on an island close to shore that is only accessible on foot at low tide. (It is now open to the public–at low tide.) When the gold rush subsided, the settlers turned to milling lumber from the redwood forests, which was loaded onto schooners and shipped to San Francisco to build the growing city. Two jetties were constructed by the early 1900s and dredging maintained the depth at 15′.

Deep sea exploration in the following years discovered the reason for these periodic disasters: a major undersea fault called the Mendocino Fracture Zone extends west from Cape Mendocino and roughly parallels 40 degrees N Latitude westward for a few thousand miles, then dips south to approximately the latitude of San Francisco and ends. The north side of the fault is as much 5,000-10,000 feet higher than the south side, so acts like an undersea breakwater, diverting any tsunami toward the north California coast.

In 2006, a tsunami caused by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake in the Russian Kuril Islands wrecked three docks in the inner harbor. Governor Schwarzenegger declared the county in a state of emergency and the docks were repaired. Complete reconstruction — with a $20-million price tag — was in the works when the latest disaster hit. The damage is done not so much by the waves as by the extreme low water and the powerful currents that sweep repeatedly in and out of the port.

Recent Magnitude 8-9 Quakes on the West Coast

In Chile (South America), which I like to call the “Pacific Southwest,” the geology is similar to the Pacific Northwest. In 1960, the offshore subduction fault broke violently and caused the 9.5 Valdivia earthquake–the most powerful ever recorded. It dropped the shoreline by 3-5 feet and the resulting tsunami attained a height of 38′ as it hit the coast, killing thousands. In the opposite direction it crossed the Pacific, causing enormous damage from Australia to the Aleutian Islands. It devastated Hilo, Hawaii, killing 61 people, many of whom ignored warnings and went down to the shore to watch. In Japan, it arrived about 22 hours after the earthquake, waves as high as 35′ were recorded, and 142 people were killed.

Since 1964, there have been seven quakes of magnitude 7 or better. In February 2010, an 8.2 tremor hit the Chilean coast, causing an 8′ tsunami that destroyed the port of Concepcion, moving the city at least 10 feet to the west, and killing over 500 people. A wave measuring up to 6′ struck parts of French Polynesia and New Zealand. (Note that the Around the Americas sailing expedition from Seattle had departed the port of Valparaiso the previous day and saw “no sign whatsoever of heavy waves or seas.”)

Darwin’s Observations of a Chilean Earthquake

Charles Darwin was visiting the area while on his second voyage of the HMS Beagle and recorded his observations of the 1835 Concepcion 8.5 earthquake in Valdivia and the subsequent tsunami. “An earthquake instantly reverses the strongest ideas, the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has trembled under our feet like a thin crust placed on a fluid, a space of a second was enough to awaken the imagination a strange feeling of insecurity which hours of reflection would not have occurred. … But I confess that I saw with great satisfaction that all the people seemed more active and happier than it would have been expected after such a terrible catastrophe. It has been noted, with some truth, that being general destruction, no one felt more humble than his neighbour, no one could accuse his friends of coldness, two causes which always added a sharp pain to the loss of wealth. … ”

I happened to be touring boatyards in southern Chile by bike in March of 2011, so I had a first-hand view of the reaction to the overnight news from Japan. One year after the Concepcion quake, the government did not hesitate, and succeeded in evacuating everyone living along a thousand miles of low-lying coast–before the 10′ tsunami hit. There were angry scenes, but no serious injuries.

I doubt whether the US west coast could match that effort. In California, the emergency preparedness focuses on inland earthquakes, not tsunamis. So it appears we will be playing catch-up with our preparations for some time to come. But if you want to learn more about surviving a tsunami in a boat, there is one place on the northwest coast where tsunamis are almost routine events.

North America’s Worst Tsunami

The keepers for the Battery Point Lighthouse wrote about the fourth, largest wave to hit Cresecent City in 1964: “The water withdrew as if someone had pulled the plug. It receded a distance of three-quarters of a mile from the shore. We were looking down, as though from a high mountain, into a black abyss. It was a mystic labyrinth of caves, canyons, basins, and pits, undreamed of in the wildest of fantasies.

“The basin was sucked dry. At Citizen’s Dock, the large lumber barge was sucked down to the ocean bottom. In the distance, a black wall of water was rapidly building up, evidenced by a flash of white as the edge of the boiling and seething seawater reflected the moonlight. The Coast Guard cutter and small crafts, that had been riding the waves a safe two- miles offshore, seemed to be riding high above the ‘wall’ of seawater. Then the mammoth wall of water came barreling towards us. It was a terrifying mass, stretching up from the ocean floor and looking much higher than the island.”

“The tide turned, sucking everything back with it. Cars and buildings were now moving seaward again. The old covered bridge, from the Sause fish dock, that had floated high on the land, had come back to drop almost in its original place. Beds, furniture, televisions, mattresses, clothing, and other objects were moving by so fast that we could barely tell what they were. The next wave rushed past us into town but appeared to do no damage. The rest of the night, the water and debris kept surging in and out of the harbor.

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10 Reasons Not to Fly with a Full–Size Bike

The plan was simple: I would give my Bike Friday a year off from the wear-and-tear of another journey in Latin America and instead take an old mountain bike that I would donate to some worthy person when I flew home. I managed that in my final hour at the airport in Mexico–after the bike and two cardboard bike boxes had gone through a series of adventures. So here is my cautionary tale for anyone optimistic enough to contemplate taking a full-size bike out of the country!

I arrived at Portland Airport just after 4 AM on a cold winter’s day for my first experience with a standard boxed bike—compared to my folding Bike Friday, safely tucked away in its standard Samsonite suitcase. I was not in a positive mood to begin my relationship with “Bike-in-Box.” He was overweight, oversize, and never had the right change, but he was destined to become my constant and very annoying companion. (1)

I reluctantly began dragging Mr “B in B” across the lobby to the back of the line of gathering passengers. No matter how much baggage they were carrying, they couldn’t help but feel superior to me, the poor fool with a pack on his back, a document bag in one hand and a cardboard monster dragging behind him! By the time I reached the check-in counter I felt like the 100-pound weakling who has had too much sand licked in his face! (2)

Anyway, the adventure was about to begin–as soon as I paid the $50 “bicycle surcharge,” (3). Cancun, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, really isn’t that far in global terms, but it was 10pm when I landed there, wanting only to find a bed and lay my head on a pillow. The moment I passed though the airport doors, it was clear I was back in the tropics. The heat felt like someone had thrown a hot blanket over me, and Mr B ‘n B felt like he had eaten way too many in-flight snacks. (4)

It was time to take charge of the situation, change linguistic gears and persuade a minibus driver that I was not going to the Hotel Zone, but the Mayan Hostel in the center of the city. Since most tourists have booked into one of the huge “all-inclusive” resorts on the beach, that was where we headed first to drop off the rest of our passengers. At last we reached the end of the Las Vegas-like strip and I recognized the park and main plaza of the city proper. We had arrived at the Mayan Hostel that I had discovered the previous year.

The evening manager remembered me, which made it a bit of a homecoming–all that remained was to lug the bike box up to the dormitory on the second floor. (5) Unfortunately this is reached via one of the narrowest, twistiest staircases in the whole of Mexico, with a turn in it that required I lift the box up over my head and bump it along the spikes that are set into the top of the wall. After this work-out, I gratefully collapsed into the first bunk.

The next morning I awoke to the sight of the native-style thatch roof that characterizes the typical Mexican “palapa” or cabin, in this case built on the concrete roof of the original one-story building. The hostel was already bustling with the activity of a dozen travelers from half a dozen countries preparing for another day in paradise. I parked the bike box at the foot of my bunk for the next couple of days until I was ready to catch a plane to Havana.

Since my first visit, a new airport bus service had begun from the main bus station that was just a block and half away from the hostel. The price was just $1.50 compared to $7 for the minibus, and I was determined to take advantage of this. A Canadian woman who had found a job teaching English offered to help me carry the box and off we set some three hours before the flight. I was grateful for the help, but it was still a huge effort!. (6)

While she watched the box, I bought my ticket and slid the box through the entrance gate. The bus was big, shiny and new. I shoved the box in the cargo hold, had my ticket checked by a young man at the door, and sat down in air-conditioned comfort. Once we reached the coastal highway, the ride was smooth and fast………..and we passed the airport exit at 95 kph heading south!

The passenger next to me was reading an English book so I interrupted him to ask if the bus was indeed going direct to Playa del Carmen, some 40 kms from Cancun. He was, and I was NOT HAPPY! I got up, ignored the sign in Spanish that said “Do NOT Disturb the Driver,” told him I had to get to the airport, and waved my ticket just outside of his view of the road. Unperturbed, he took the ticket from me, examined it, and told me we would soon come to an intermediate stop, a small junction where the road led down to the fishing village of Puerto Morales, adding with true Mexican style that this “no es una problema.”

I was not so sure when the bus roared away, leaving me by the dusty roadside with my trusted sidekick. We struggled across the four-lane road to the bus stop on the other side. (7) There was a bored young attendant in a ticket booth here, who assured me there would be a bus in an hour. I told her something like “thanks but no thanks” and proceeded back towards the junction where I could see a cluster of taxis waiting for their next victim.

I was breathless, sweaty, and in a poor position to bargain when I approached the driver with a station wagon who told me the fare to the airport was $20. I tried $15, but he just smiled the smile of one who knows he holds all the cards. Determined to recoup something from this misfortune, I responded by saying that I had already paid $2, so how about $18? He seemed to be amused by my audacity and agreed to this–so we stuffed the box into the back and off we went–back north.

At the airport, I found my second wind to get the bike box back into the lobby and on its way out to the tarmac.(8) No surcharge this time. Three hours later, outside the Jose Marti International Airport, I followed my plan, dumped the hated box in a dumpster, and pedaled away into the evening in Communist Cuba!

Thirty days later I had ENOUGH of Cuban socialism and was back at the airport. Since I still had four weeks of vacation left, I had decided to hang on to the bike, and riding back to my starting point was a very satisfying close to the journey. There was just one problem–no bike boxes on the entire island. (9)

At 8 AM on a Sunday morning, I circled the warehouse area looking for anything that resembled a bike box. (If I failed, I was prepared to roll the bike up to the ticket counter and see what happened.) Around another corner, I came across a warehouse with a nice pile of boxes along a fence. I explained to the guard that I only wanted a box for the bike, and luckily he allowed me through the gate. I was on a roll–now all I needed was a very big narrow box. The odds were pretty slim–but within a minute I had found one. It was very solid and had a separate lid. I had no idea what it had been used for.

I looped a piece of string around it for a handle, mounted my bike, and tried to push off. The box weighed so much it pulled my steering over and I had to stop. I braced myself against the load and set off again with the string biting into my hand. At the end of the block, I wrapped a rag around my hand and turned onto the main approach road. I was struggling to stop from wandering across the road, although since it was a sleepy Sunday morning I barely saw a single car.

Then I was back where I began on the sidewalk to one side of the entrance doors, with my tools in hand. I had half an hour to break the bike down and get it packed. The box turned out to be a little short, and it was heavily stapled together, so I had to use a screwdriver tip to open up one end; I had saved the original string and was able to truss the box up securely. Feeling very competent, I trundled the box inside and was soon on my way back to Cancun.

The same couldn’t be said of the bike, which didn’t arrive for another two days! (11) I sat reading and watching satellite TV and had the hostel manager call the airport for me each day. We finally realized there was no delivery service–I would have to go out there and retrieve it myself. This time I made sure I was on the right bus–my new rule is to ask after you get on as well as before. Two 20-kilometer bus rides, another “street drag” to the hostel, (12) and I had my wheels–I was back in business!


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Groote Beer’s Goering Fraud Finally Exposed!

Back in the 1990’s, I wrote what I assumed would be the final American story about the Groote Beer, the 52′ Dutch botterjacht that had spent many years on the west coast, especially on the Columbia River in the 1950s–when it had actually raced to Hawaii–and again in the 1990s–when it returned here and became a houseboat. The Groote Beer (“Great Bear”) was based on a traditional fishing vessel with a flat-bottom used on the shallow waters of the Zuiderzee until the 1930s. I called my story “Gone But Not Forgotten” because of the way this very foreign-looking vessel had been saved from an uncertain future, leaving behind a bizarre legend.

You could say it was a boat that had sailed out of the pages of a spy story, and indeed the tales about this unique craft seemed to have a life of their own–especially the well-worn yarn about the Groote Beer being built during world War II for Hermann Goering, the head of the Lufwaffe–Nazi Germany’s air force. That story had been re-told in every American port the Groote Beer ever visited–from New York to Hawaii–without even a shred of evidence being demanded or produced! It had even been incorporated into a popular novel “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx, and later into the movie of the same name. Since this was fiction, Proulx upped the stakes by making the original owner no less than Adolf Hitler himself!

That should have raised a few red flags, but it failed to dampen writers and sailors’ enthusiasm for the Nazi legend. When they saw the boat with its amazing carvings and heard the story everyone suspended their disbelief–it was just too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. The story was finally shot down after some international detective work by Jack Van Ommen, a Dutch immigrant who had lived on Puget Sound for many years.

He had spotted the Groote Beer moored at the Seattle Yacht Club in 1982 where it was actively sailed by an Explorer Scout group and exhibited at wooden Boat events. (He finally sailed on the boat in 1984 in San Francisco Bay with the last American owner Clifford Fremstad.) He was curious, wrote to a relative, and discovered that he had a family connection with the boat’s construction.

Jack had taken some time during his annual trips to the Netherlands to research the Groote Beer and was finally able to visit the yard where it was built, meet a retired boatbuilder who had worked on it, and obtain written proof that it was built for an obscure German general. Nonetheless, with its leeboards, curved gaff, blunt ends, and abundance of carved wood trim, it remains the most memorable craft I have ever seen, and I reckon that must be true for many of the thousands who admired it during its American travels. Fittingly, a Dutchman had shipped it home to the Netherlands, where it was completely re-built from 2002 to 2004 until it was as good as new after its half century in American waters. But the plot thickens here: Jack had actually documented the truth in the early 1980s, but having become a friend of the Groote Beer’s owner, he held off publishing his findings for 20 years, in case this caused the boat’s value to drop.

It wasn’t until 2005 that I came across a short report about the boats restoration in Wooden Boat magazine. Of course, I wanted to meet Jack, trade yarns (true and false) about the Groote Beer, and include him in my story. But by 2006, he too had disappeared from his home in Gig Harbor, Washington, and in fact from American waters entirely! All I knew was that he had retired and taken off for the South Pacific with the goal of sailing around the world in plywood 30 footer he had built from a kit in the 1970s.


I eventually found his web site and occasionally checked on his progress. I learned that he was detouring from the normal tradewind route to visit SE Asia where he had served in the US army in the early 60s. He had then sailed his small boat across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and back across the Atlantic to the US, arriving on the east coast in June 2007.

After visiting one of his daughters, he sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida to do a refit before cruising the Caribbean. He spent a winter in Florida before deciding there was no rush to complete the circumnavigation. First he wanted to sail to the Netherlands in his own boat! So like the Groote Beer, he too returned to his home waters: winter found him with a berth at the de Sehinkel Yacht Club near Amsterdam, where he had learned to sail as a boy!

Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Jack telling me he would be in Portland early in December to visit his son. A couple of weeks later, I drove in from Astoria and we met at the Goose Hollow Tavern. Having seen how the Groote Beer occupied a place half in fact and half in fiction, I found myself imagining this meeting as Hollywood might have seen it: as the final scene in a b-movie where all the clues are explained and the mystery solved.

For a couple of hours I plied Jack with questions, about his life in the US, the Groote Beer, and his round-the-world adventure. (He in turn wanted to know how I had become so interested in a dutch traditional boats!) In two hours, I learned enough about him to fill quite a few pages, but the salient points were: he began working in the lumber business in the Netherlands straight out of high school, emigrated here in 1956 at the age of 19, was soon drafted into the military, and was already visiting saw mills in SE Asia whenever he had leave.

On his return, he worked for Weyerhauser selling softwood in Europe from 1965-70, then started his own business exporting plywood to Europe.He imported a total of four English kits for the Naja 29, but it was hard going to sell three of them. When he began to build his own kit in 1979, he found that it was definitely not a bargain in terms of time or money. He began sailing the Fleetwood in 1981, and raced in the Singlehanded Transpac in 1982. He sailed back from Hawaii with his daughter and one of her school friends as crew.

By the mid-90s, he was a millionaire on paper and was in his third marriage, he told me. But in 2000 he was bankrupted by “one bad deal.” He fell on hard times until 2002 when he turned 65 and started getting a monthly social security check for around $1,300–based on his income in his wealthy years. That provided enough to keep him and some spare to pay for supplies to re-fit his boat that had been out of the water for a decade. “I had always assumed I would buy a much bigger boat to go cruising,” he explained.

Although the Fleetwood was designed for performance sailing over a short course, it now looked just right for a long solo cruise, and has served him very well over 28,000 miles. “Smaller boats have fewer gadgets and less problems,” he assured me. His worst moment at sea was when he experienced a severe knockdown off South Africa that felt like the boat had been “dropped off a three-story building.” His main gear problem was with the ¾ rig’s runners, which he found too much hassle, and the extortionate amount he paid this year to rebuild the old model Renault diesel. Also, he developed an allergy to varnish and happily abandoned the clear finish!

Now aged 80, Jack doesn’t plan to stop traveling any time soon! At his moorage in the Netherlands, “The members treat me like visiting royalty,” he says. “Word has gotten around that the prodical son has come home, so long-lost family members and old girlfriends have brought out the fatted calf for me!” His plan this winter was to fly to Vietnam on a cheap ticket and spend more time there with more freedom to travel than he had on the boat. Next summer he will be showing his children his roots from the deck of the Fleetwood—and sailing the Dutch canals they will undoubtedly see many sister ships to the Groote Beer, as there are now fleets of these restored traditional boats. Then Jack will sail on (under power) down the Rhine and Danube to the Black Sea and more European adventures…..

The Groote Beer and the “Big Lie”

Well, that finally brings the true Groote Beer story full circle. But what about the legend? Looking back on it, I find myself appreciating that the first American owner, one Charles M. Donnelly, who found the boat in the Netherlands while he was setting up the Feadship group, created what must be the greatest nautical sales pitch of all time. After all, it still sounds enticing long after most details about the Nazis have been forgotten.

Like the fish that got away, his Goering claim was something no American could disprove. He correctly guessed that it made such a fantastic story that no reporter would ever question the truth. And as for actually trying to prove him w liar: who could find out what took place in a small boat yard in the depths of the German occupation? That was never going to happen in the 1950s.

Well, we all enjoyed the yarn, and Donnelly is long gone. With hindsight, the legend looks completely ludicrous. History tells us that Goering was a WW I pilot who became totally identified with the Nazis and Hitler’s lust for power. He loved pomp and ceremony and gave huge, elaborate parties. If he had indeed wanted a personal yacht, it would not have been a little wooden tub, Goering would have demanded something on the scale of the last Kaiser’s yachts: steel, very large, very fast, and designed and built by Germans!

Now it’s time for me to turn the tables on Mr Donnelly and have the last word. If there was ever a connection between the Groote Beer and the Nazi elite, it was that the legend was based on the work of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. You may recall it was Goebbels who perfected the “Big Lie” technique, based on the principle that if a lie is audacious enough and repeated enough, it will be believed. It’s been successfully tried by many dictators and politicians, not to mention Wall Street bankers and used car salesmen, but it’s still a lie and never a good idea!


PS This story has continued to unfold and needs to be updated: the beautifully restored Groote Beer was dropped by a crane and written off, Jack’s yacht was wrecked and he found a sister ship and carried on cruising, and he wrote the full story of his research in the Netherlands for the Wooden Boat magazine. So I will have to do some more reading myself when I have the time…..


At Nieuwboer in Spakenburg, the top botter yard in Holland, the Bear has been completely restored to her original glory for the owner, Jan Willem de la Porte.

So after a half century in the New World, the Groote Beer has been welcomed back to its home waters and sits at her moorage in Volendam, ready to sail again in 2010.

Posted in Cruising, NW boats and boaters, Sailors & Yachts, Worth Reading | Leave a comment

Fred Wahl’s Second Yukon River Tug

The shallow-draft push-tug Tenana is the second boat built by Fred Wahl for Ruby Marine, which was established by Matt Sweetsir and Amy Zacheis in 2006 in Nenana, Alaska to provide fuel and freight transportation service along the Yukon River. In 2007, Fred Wahl’s yard in Reedsport, Oregon delivered the Yukon a 72-foot by 30-foot shallow-draft push-tug for Ruby designed by Frank Basile of Entech & Associates, Kenner, Louisiana, who specialize in towboats. The boat has a flat bottom that gives it a draft of only 3.5 feet with 1500-hp and triple-screws —necessary to navigate along Alaska’s Arctic Bering Sea coast and 1,000 miles of the Yukon River to the Canadian border to some 30 communities, fish camps, and mines.

Sweetsir has been working on the Yukon for about 40 years; his previous post was president of Yutana Barge Lines, which was acquired by Crowley Marine Service in 2005. He described the difficulties of his operation in this way: “You’re in a mile-wide river with a 20-foot channel; you turn onto a tributary like the Innoko or Koyukuk Rivers where the depth is constantly changing and find yourself touching bottom. The only option is to lower a skiff with the deck crane and find a way out with a hand-held depth sounder or a pole.”

His original goal for his new business was to offer a small flexible service to meet the special needs of customers who were too small for Crowley—the dominant provider in western Alaska. (The company is named for the local village of Ruby.) The cargo is carried on a pair of 150-foot tank barges with reinforced decks. It consists of everything needed to survive in this remote area, including fuel trucks, off-road vehicles, earth movers, lumber, small containers, totes of fish, and over 300,000 gallons of fuel below deck.

The various docks are all primitive, so they carry all the equipment needed to load and offload freight of all kinds–from tele-handlers to forklifts. At first, Ruby was competing with the Inland Barge Service, which had been in business since 1994, run by longtime owner and captain Charley Hnilicka. However, the two owner-operated companies soon agreed to cooperate in a freight-sharing arrangement that lasted until Hnilicka retired and sold his business to Sweetsir in 2016.

The deal included the company’s 1971 tug Ramona, but Sweetsir understood that he would need a more modern boat to partner with the Yukon to ensure reliability. His next step was to order a sister ship from Fred Wahl. With a decade of experience, the Ruby team wanted many small improvements in the details, but the overall hull shape and layout has not changed. The second tug, the Tenana, is built to an updated design from Entech, with the same versatility, power and stability. (Entech is now managed by Ms Kimia Jalili—a professional engineer who joined the company when they were drafting the Yukon.)

Once again, it is built to ABS standards, The hull has a depth of 5’6” and is plated mainly in 1/4” steel with half-inch material where necessary to resist impacts from rocks. The most visible difference is in the engine room, where propulsion is by three Scania DI16 080M V-8 diesels, each rated at 550 HP (405 kW) continuous at 1,800 rpm. This Swedish Tier 3 engine features individual four-valve cylinder heads with wet cylinder liners that can easily be exchanged. The unit injectors are run by the XPI common-rail fuel-injection system, with controls from Kobelt, Surrey B.C. Fuel treatment is by Alfa Laval. The exhaust system is heavyweight stainless steel with Broomfield’s flex joints custom-made in Seattle and silencers by Harco of Tualatin, Oregon.

Reduction gears are Twin Disc MG 5202 SC, 2.48:1 with 4-inch drive shafts. The three 38-inch by 26-inch, five-bladed Kaplan stainless steel propellers by Kruger & Sons of Seattle. They are tucked up into tunnels and protected from grounding by heavy keel shoes. There are a pair of flanking rudders around each propeller shaft with cutless bearings and stuffing boxes from Duramax, who also supplied the side coolers for the engine room coolant circuits. The 4” shaft seals are from Kemel.

The gensets are a pair of 60-kW John Deere 4045’s, the main switchboard was provided by Fred Wahl Marine and electric load centers were supplied from Consolidated Electrical Distributors of Kent, Wash. Hardware Specialty of Spokane supplied the electric wire and fittings. Engine room floor panels were obtained from Grating Pacific. The Rapp HP 24-2F deck crane and the Gongol fire and washdown pumps are supplied by a Logan SPF-6100 hydraulic PTO on the center Scania. The CO2 fire system is from Valley Fire Control of Newport, Oregon; the fire alarm is by Autronica Fire and Security—based in Norway.

The typical crew is four to five, and there are accommodations for ten in eight staterooms, each with two heads and shower, and a full galley with comfortable mess area. There is also a single berth in the wheelhouse stateroom. The poured floor was a product of DMAC coatings, Stanwood, Wash. Like the Yukon, the galley is set up with stools and a counter service. The M.S.D. is by H20 Inc.

On the bridge, Rodgers Marine of Portland supplied the electronics, the helm chair is a product of Industrial Seating. Watertight hatches were manufactured by Freeman in Gold River on the south Oregon coast, the windows came from Diamond Sea Glaze, and the external doors from Mariners Supply of Portland, OR. Schuyler laminated rubber fendering protects the bow and push knees. The two Nabrico BF 656 barge winches are chain driven by 480-volt electric motors.

Fred Wahl Update

The Tenana was one of the first craft built at the new shipyard that Wahl opened last fall on the 38 acre Bolon Island downstream from his old yard and across the Umpqua River. This is on a property first developed by the American Bridge Company who had erected two long assembly buildings with 20-ton overhead cranes. The facility has been upgraded by a new haul-out basin and an ASCOM 685-ton capacity moblie boat hoist from Italy.

It arrived last September in 15 forty-foot-long containers with one Italian engineer to oversee the assembly that was provided by yard employees” explained Jim Zimmer, one of Wahl’s managers, as he escorted me to the launch area where the Tenana was about to be christened. The lifter is supported by four massive tires at each corner with eight electric winches winding 16 heavyweight straps.

The vehicle is driven from the ground by a computer-based portable control box and can be walked sideways and pivoted around a single leg. It is in regular use at the yard for haul outs and repairs carrying trawlers up to 165′ long and 685 tons in weight across the expansive hard to the work area. There were half a dozen vessels clustered near the buildings during my visit with work underway on all of them.

One 58′ fishing vessel, the F/V Winter Bay, has already been built here and a second was being assembled inside the hall this spring from large modules transported into place by the overhead crane. The company hopes to see more commercial fishing and tug boats taking advantage of the large amount of space and the skilled tradesmen available in Reedsport and Coos Bay on the central Oregon coast.

Posted in Commercial boats, Commercial Fishing, Shipyards, Worth Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment