Mariner survived shipwreck by being trapped inside
February 25, 2021 | View PDF
It was the dark early-morning hours of Feb. 13, 1911, and off the north coast of Oregon the gasoline-powered motor schooner Oshkosh was in serious trouble.
The Oshkosh was a coastwise cargo ship, but it wasn’t much bigger than a large yacht. It was 89 feet long and rated at just 145 tons. It was also nearly brand new, built in 1909 at the Kruse and Banks Shipyard in North Bend.
The little freighter was only about a year and a half old. It would not see two.
The Oshkosh had left Tillamook Bay a day before, headed for the Umpqua River. In twenty-four hours of pounding abuse, its twin 100-horsepower gasoline engines roaring the whole time, it had made no headway against the 75-knot southwest wind; in fact, it had been blown back up the coast until it was just off the Columbia Bar. Also, one of the very first big waves to hit the ship had torn its lifeboat loose and crammed it into the deckhouse, destroying the galley and broaching the fresh water tanks, which quickly were topped off with seawater.
In desperation, Captain Thomas Latham turned the tiny ship around shoreward for a desperate gamble: A run across the Columbia River Bar in the midst of what amounted to a hurricane.
This was like playing Russian roulette, only with four or five shells in the revolver rather than just one. If the tide was ebbing and the Oshkosh managed by sheer luck to avoid the shoal sands, it just might make it. But it was a desperate gamble, and the fact that a seasoned schooner skipper like Latham would even consider it speaks volumes about the trouble the Oshkosh was in.
They didn’t get far before Latham lost the bet. As it struggled to make headway against the outbound current, the underpowered schooner was blown out of the channel and into the breakers at the side of the bar. A colossal comber came down on the tiny ship with a sublime and terrible finality.
Down below, in the engine room, the Oshkosh’s engineer, George May, was struggling to keep the ship’s twin 100-horsepower engines happy, coaxing as much power out of them as he could, when it happened. The engine room lifted high, like an elevator car shooting up, then abruptly lurched to one side, slamming May into a bulkhead like a bean being shaken in a box. Loose furniture crashed into him. A big drawer full of steel bolts, pipes and spare parts shot out of its cabinet and made for May like a cruise missile; he somehow managed to get out of its way before it pounded into the bulkhead beside him with crushing force.
Then he realized he was lying on the ceiling. The ship had turned turtle.
He reached for the steel-caged light bulb as it faded to a dull glow and then left him in darkness. The two engines roared, spinning the screws in the air, before shutting down, starved of fuel and air. May was left in absolute blackness, feeling seawater starting to rise.
It didn’t rise very far, though. Although May had the companionway hatch open, the engine room was airtight, and formed a bubble.
The ship continued to be muscled around by the storm and the breakers, although it presented a much lower profile to the wind and the surface waves now that it was upside down. The water on the engine room overhead was now several inches deep, and May had to cling to bulkhead fittings as the ship was tossed around.
Finally, hours later, the motion of the ship slowed to a gentle swaying.
Then May thought he saw a light. Just the faintest hint of a glow, coming from out of the blackness at his feet — and then nothing. Then it was back, a little brighter this time.
Then he felt the ship bump on something and realized it was the beach. The glow was sunlight reflected on the sandy bottom, seen through the open companionway.
May fought the urge to claw his way out into the light. He knew the water out there was bone-chillingly cold, and he was plenty chilly already from the oily water in the engine room. The ship was also on the move, and there was a chance he’d get pinned by it as he tried to swim out, temporarily blinded by the saltwater.
He waited. The ship bumped again, and again. The light came and went, more bright and more frequent. And then, finally, with an unusually heavy thump, the ship stuck.
The tide gradually receded, and May was free.
He was the only one of the crew that made it. Had he not been spared, the fate of the Oshkosh would have gone down as another Oregon Coast maritime mystery — one of the upside-down hulls that occasionally floated ashore, empty and lifeless, the story of their final moments unknown and unknowable.
(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; shipbuildinghistory.com)
Finn J.D. John, an instructor at Oregon State University, writes about unusual and little-known aspects of Oregon history. His book about 1800s Portland, “Wicked Portland,” is scheduled for release this summer from The History Press. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.