Wrecked! Greatest Mendo Maritime Disaster!

by Anne Fashauer, September 29, 2011

After easing into the harbor and finding the loading chutes occupied, the Cabot’s captain decided to put to sea and wait out the choppy water. As she came about she got very near the cliff on the south side of the bay and found herself in a precarious position despite dropping both anchors. A rowboat was sent from shore and the crew prepared a third anchor to go out to a point distant in the open sea when a huge sea struck without warning, capsizing the Cabot. All six members of the crew and the six men from shore were all drowned, making it the worst loss-of-life maritime disaster for Mendocino. Shortly thereafter the Cabot dragged her anchors and became a total loss.

“The Doghole Schooners,” by Walter A. Jackson, depicts the lives and times of those vessels along the Redwood Coast during the boom days of north coast logging. Much of the book, published in 1969, is devoted to the schooners and their fates, with sections on the builders, captains and handling the boats. The book is out of print, but may be available for review through the Held-Poage Historical Society Library in Ukiah. It’s also possible Mark Scaramella will let you take a look at his copy — in the office — which is how this writer got her hands on it.

The term schooner comes from the word “scoon” which means to skim upon the water. These boats were usually two-masted, with sails rigged for and aft, easy to handle with a small crew. The first vessel to be built on the Pacific Coast is believed to be a schooner, built on Vancouver Island, Canada, in 1788. Dog-hole is the name given to the tiny ports along the Redwood Coast; according to Jackson, most of them being from northern Sonoma to southern Mendocino counties. “Some appear to have room enough only for a dog to turn around…(and) all possessed hidden or exposed rocks and reefs, deadly undertows and vicious cross-rips.” Some also had changing sandbars.

Early in the book Jackson describes life on board as being “unbelievably hard.” Yet later he says that many of the men who crewed often stayed with a particular Captain, from vessel to vessel, especially if the food was good. Jackson says that most crew were brought on board unconscious (“slugged, drugged or while drunk”) and yet the dog-hole captains rarely had to use violence to get orders followed; perhaps this is because of the good food, the more frequent calls to port and the greater equality despite rank as compared to the larger ocean-going ships; he notes that the Captains often worked as hard as the crew on these small boats.

Jackson’s book includes brief biographies of some of the early ship builders — Matt Turner, Thomas Henry Peterson and Hans D. Bendixson. He provides lists of the boats they built and details about each one. The variety of ship names is interesting — from people’s names (Agnes Nicolaison, Barbara, Helen Kimball), to the fanciful (Fairy Queen, Fayaway, Twilight) to the plain (Noyo, Home, Cabot).

Captains, Jackson notes, were from all over, but the greatest number were from Sweden, Norway and Denmark — these being known as the “Scandahoovian Navy.” He profiles a few of them, Martin A. Brandt (Denmark), David L. Lansing (New York — and, yes, the same as the street in Mendocino) who “saved the lives of several persons from a watery grave” though he is said to have “remarked that he had witnessed the deaths by drowning of at least 50 persons in the (Mendocino) Bay,” Nels Iversen (Denmark), who at under 22 years of age was the youngest man to ever get his Master’s Papers, and William H. Marsten (England).

Jackson spends some time describing loading methods. His detail is greater, but these included mill-site, where there was deep enough water, lighter, which was something like a raft either floated or pulled to a ship, slide (or apron), which was the most common, then the wire chute, which replaced the slide, where the timber was handled in sling loads, and the wharf, which was expensive and easily damaged by storm, and by a worm called a toredo.

The book includes a map of the various dog-hole ports (Bear Harbor, Kibesillah, Laguna, Whitesboro, Cuffey’s Cove, Buster’s, Stewart’s Point, Rule’s, to name a few), lists of sea miles, wrecks and their locations, ports of call and the schooners who called there, captains, owners and a long section devoted to the schooners themselves and what became of them. Let’s just follow up on the few mentioned earlier….

Agnes Nicolaison — built in 1876 in San Francisco, wrecked in Little River on August 23, 1886; she struck a rock and lost her rudder, then her anchors failed and she went on a reef and broke up in a few hours.

Barbara (2nd) — built in 1887 in Little River; she went ashore at Shelter Cover in December 1892, then was pulled off two weeks later. She wrecked at Point Arena on January 24, 1901. She was a very fast boat, making the run from Little River to San Francisco in 18 hours.

Helen Kimball — built in 1881 at Cuffey’s Cove and wrecked at the same place a few months later. Her maiden voyage included a load of four million sawn shingles and 53,000 board feet of lumber.

Fairy Queen — built in 1869 in Eureka by Bendixson, his first boat. She went ashore at Little River in September 1882 and pulled off two months later. On November 23, 1885 a great storm hit while she was at Whitesboro and she was a total loss. Two other boats were beached by that same storm but survived.

Fayaway — one of the first vessels to enter Mendocino Bay and because of what was seen from her deck, Lansing was chartered to bring the machinery for the first mill to be built there.

Twilight — built in 1874 in Port Ludlow, WA; she was put ashore at Whitesboro by a storm in November, 1892. She was still lying there when another storm hit a month later, this time pushing her so far ashore that her stern lay across the mill’s railroad. She was put back to sea February 23, 1893.

Noyo — built in 1861 in Eureka; while lying in Noyo Bay in 1864 her Captain and two crew where washed overboard but were able to swim to shore. She later went ashore at Coos Bay, OR, and was burned when the water reached her cargo, a load of lime.

Home — wrecked on Humboldt Bay bar on August 4, 1852.

As Jackson says, “Sudden death was ever waiting for the men of the sea.”

A somewhat related anecdote

By Mark Scaramella

Ms. Fashauer’s review reminded me of a story told to me by my uncle Joe Scaramella. My grandfather, Carlo Scaramella, came to the United States in the very early 1900s and began work as a laborer on the Mendocino Coast to earn money for boat passage for his wife and two kids (Joe and John) from Italy to California. One of Carlo’s early jobs involved helping load railroad ties on a Doghole Schooner operating out of Fort Bragg harbor. According to the family story, while Carlo was on the schooner the captain somehow became aware that a big storm was heading for the Coast and was expected to arrive soon. The captain decided he had enough ties and immediately hauled anchor and took off south, expecting that he could escape the worst of the storm if he could get as far away from the Mendo Coast as possible as quickly as possible. Most ship captains of the time knew the dangers involved in getting caught off the Coast in a winter storm (as described above). At the time my grandfather was renting a room with several other Italian men in Fort Bragg.

The Schooner took off to the south and by the time the Captain got around to considering the situation of my grandfather, he was already a little south of the Mendocino/Sonoma County line, below Gualala. The captain put my grandfather ashore in a small skiff. He would have to make it back to Fort Bragg on his own — presumably walking. However, the trip back, which took three days, was made more palatable because every few miles Grandfather Carlo stopped for wine at one or another Italian family home or ranch. In two cases he was allowed to stay overnight.

I suspect he might have had a ride or two in a wagon or cart for at least part of the way as well.

Just another typical incident from the early logging and shipping days on the Mendocino Coast. And a lesson in how seriously most schooner captains took the weather.

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