Worst Columbia disaster started as routine rescue
February 26, 2020
By Finn J.D. John
It was the worst disaster in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard in Oregon. Three rescue boats, including two of the legendary “unsinkable” motor lifeboats, went out to rescue someone — and none of them returned. Five “Coasties” died.
And yet it all started as a routine rescue, late in the afternoon on Jan. 12, 1961.
At a little after 4 p.m., a radio call came in to the Cape Disappointment Life Station, on the Washington side of the Columbia River entrance. Two Ilwaco men, brothers Bert and Stanley Bergmann, had lost the rudder on their crab-fishing boat, the 34-foot Mermaid, just when they needed it most — while crossing the bar on their way back in. They’d dropped anchor, but the current was dragging them slowly toward Peacock Spit anyway.
No problem. Conditions were pretty good for January on the
bar: winds in the 35-knot neighborhood, the seas in the 10- to 12-foot range. There was a small-craft advisory in effect, but nothing that would stop anything the Coast Guard had, and the weather service was expecting to cancel the advisory around 5. Speed was critical, though. Once the Mermaid hit the outside line of breakers on Peacock Spit, it would be all over.
So the life station immediately sent two boats out to the rescue: a 40-foot utility boat, and one of the Coast Guard’s legendary 36-foot motor lifeboats.
The fact that the 40-footer was sent demonstrates the utter unexpectedness of the disaster that was about to happen. The 40-footers were fast general-purpose boats built for protected waters, not for surf operations and bar rescues. But at this point, the weather was reasonable and the mission looked simple. They’d be back on shore with their grateful rescuees in a couple hours … right?
How the bar works
Before continuing, I have to explain in more detail what it is that can make the Columbia River Bar so deadly. Essentially, it’s three factors: shallow water, swift current and a steady, strong wind that nearly always blows toward the north side of the river. The shallowness means the big, deep waves that have pulsed all the way across the Pacific Ocean start to get compressed into just a few feet of water, just like they do in surf on the beach. When they do, the current coming out of the river sort of pushes their feet out from under them, creating a sort of a circular swirl with the top moving shoreward and the bottom moving seaward.
On a clear day, this swirling motion isn’t even noticeable in the middle of the channel, especially if the tide is slack or ebbing and the river is at low summertime flow rates. But winter storms off the Columbia regularly generate hurricane-class wind speeds, and whip up waves to match. When the seas get big, and the river flow is high, and the tide is coming in, you get some incredible breakers on the bar, breaking all the way across the channel — up to 70 feet tall with a powerful undertow right in front of them. When a boat or small ship is tackling one of these waves, what can happen is the undertow can grab the boat by the taff rail and pull the stern into the face of the wave while the top of the wave pushes the boat over — what sailors call a “pitchpole,” or end-over-end flipping. The hydraulic pressure this puts on a boat or ship is unbelievable, especially if the water is shallow enough for one end of the vessel to dig into the sandy bottom as it goes over. Ships have been known to actually break in half.
As the waves come into the bar on a nice day, they form breakers in the shallows along each side of the channel. As the weather gets heavier, the breakers spread farther into the middle of the channel, so that less of the water in the bar is left unbroken. When the weather gets really nasty, the waves break all the way across the channel, and boats and ships alike have to heave to and wait for it to settle down again. Only the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboats are truly seaworthy in those conditions, and they almost expect to get rolled once or twice.
Then there’s the wind. It’s almost always blowing out of the south-southwest, usually blowing hard. That means if you are trying to cross the bar and lose your propulsion, you’re headed for Peacock Spit.
Which is exactly what had happened, and was happening, to the Mermaid on that day.
First on the scene
The speedy 40-foot utility boat got across the bar and onto the scene first, and towed the Mermaid far enough offshore to be out of danger from the breakers. Then the rescuers and rescued conferred. The tide had turned and was starting to rough up the bar. So there were two options, they figured: First, they could take the Bergmann brothers aboard the 40-footer, turn the Mermaid loose to drift ashore wherever it wanted, and bring everyone to the Columbia River Lightship, anchored several miles offshore. The other possibility was to tow the Mermaid to the lightship.
At this point, nobody knew how much trouble they were in. The seas were high, but not bad by bar standards. The Bergmann brothers naturally didn’t want to lose their boat. So the decision was made, by default, to tow the boat to the lightship and moor it there until daylight and ebb tide the next day.
An impossible tow
And here we come to a crucial point in the story. Because somewhere up the anonymous chain of command at the U.S. Coast Guard, several years earlier, some nameless functionary had ordered that rescue vessels would no longer carry drogues.
A drogue is a special sea anchor designed to make a vessel track straight in the water and stay pointed upwind. Because the Mermaid had lost its rudder, a drogue was needed to make it tow straight behind the 40-footer rather than yawing out to one side and taking seas on its beam.
The Coasties tried trailing crab pots out behind the boat to increase its drag. This worked OK, but slowed the pace of the boats to the point of barely making headway. They would have been all night making their way to the lightship. They decided they needed more power. And weather conditions were, by this time, getting pretty bad.
So they called up the biggest, toughest rescue boat the Coast Guard had at its disposal in 1961: the 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph, stationed on the Oregon side at Point Adams Lifestation.
The Triumph, with six Coast Guard surfmen aboard, chugged out into the towering seas to lend a hand and take over the tow. Of those six men, five would not come back.
We’ll talk about how that played out in next week’s column.
(Sources: Noble, Dennis. Rescued by the Coast Guard. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2005; Weisensee, Erika. “50th Anniversary: One of Coast Guard’s greatest sea tragedies,” Natural Resource Report, Jan. 10, 2011)
Finn J.D. John, an instructor at Oregon State University, writes about unusual and little-known aspects of Oregon history. His book, “Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town,” is scheduled for release this summer from The History Press. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], twitter.com/OffbeatOregon, or 541-357-2222.