Ocean waters in and around Alaska are filled with treasure. They are also treacherous, subject to high winds, shifting currents, icebergs and extreme cold.
They have claimed many ships and many lives over the years. Historically, the month of October has seen the deadliest shipwreck, the most successful rescue and one of the most spectacular maritime disasters.
The most tragic was the wreck of the steamship Princess Sophia on Oct. 24, 1918. It resulted in the greatest loss of life of any sinking off Alaska. Although several smaller vessels were standing by, severe weather conditions caused the captain of the ship to wait rather than risk transfer of his passengers. In the end, all 350 aboard were lost in the icy waters of Lynn Canal.
Built just six years earlier, the Princess Sophia was designed to carry 250 passengers in comfort, but able to accommodate more. She was steel-hulled, her original coal-fired boilers converted to burn oil.
An exact list of passengers is unknown, but the total is believed to be 289, among them 50 women and children, and 61 crew. Several prominent Alaska and Yukon residents were aboard, including Walter Harper, the first person to summit Mt. McKinley and son of Yukon River trader Arthur Harper. Also among the passengers were soldiers returning from service in the World War.
The steamship departed Skagway at 10 p.m. Oct. 23, headed for Juneau and points south. Snow was falling and when the ship passed Battery Point 16 miles out, winds were gusting to 50 miles an hour. At 2:10 a.m., after being blown off course, the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef. Five minutes after the grounding, a distress call was sent.
High tide came at 6 a.m. but the ship remained stranded. Capt. Leonard Locke, a man with three decades of experience in northern waters, cabled his superiors to advise them of the situation. His ship was sitting upright on the reef, its generators still powering lights and the interior comfortably warm. Food and drink were available. Eight lifeboats were on davits if needed. The winds continued to create high waves, however, and the keel was rubbing on the rocky reef.
Daylight came and rescue ships began to arrive. Locke feared, though, that the seas were too rough for the open lifeboats to be safe. Not long before, three lifeboats with some 50 women and children aboard launched from a troubled vessel in the Straits of Juan de Fuca had capsized, losing all. The remainder of the passengers, who stayed aboard, were rescued.
Rescue vessels dared not approach the crippled ship close enough to take people aboard. All day they watched, hoping the winds would abate. At nightfall, rescue vessels retreated to the lee side of an island some distance away.
Friday morning the rescue boats returned to find the ship still stranded, with the weather continuing to rage. The lighthouse tender Cedar arrived from Juneau and at 9 a.m. and attempted set up a breeches buoy line to transfer people one at a time. Unfortunately, the attempt failed and the rescue effort was cancelled. Under worsening conditions, the Cedar and other vessels pulled back to sheltered positions.
At 4:50 p.m., the Sophia’s wireless operator sent the message, “Ship foundering on reef. Come at once.” Thirty minutes later, the last message from the ship was, “For God’s sake, hurry. There’s water in my room.”
When the Cedar and another ship returned to the reef the next morning, only the foremast of the stricken ship was visible. The Princess Sophia’s bottom had been ruptured and she slid stern-first off the reef. The only survivor was a passenger’s small dog that was able to swim to safety on an island.
All saved in cruise ship fire
A much happier outcome came on October 4, 1980, after fire broke out shortly after midnight in the engine room of the cruise ship MS Prinsendam south of Yakutat.
The six-deck Holland America ship was filled with 520 passengers who embarked at Vancouver, B.C., looking forward to a leisurely 29-day cruise. They were to go through the Inside Passage then sail across the Pacific to Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Shortly after departing Vancouver they had undergone a lifeboat drill.
After shopping and seeing sights in Ketchikan, then viewing the ice walls in Glacier Bay, the Prinsendam set out across the Gulf of Alaska. Their first experience on the open seas of the Gulf that evening left many passengers sea-sick.
About midnight they heard a small explosion below decks. An hour later, Capt. Cornelius Wabeke announced “a small fire” in the engine room and asked passengers to gather on the Promenade deck. Before long, an acrid smell and black smoke caused most passengers to seek fresh air on the outer deck. They were dressed in a wide array of garb, some even drawing drapes or blankets around themselves to keep warm.
The electrical system failed and pumps stopped. Wabeke ordered CO2 to flood the engine room, but that did little to stem the blaze.
At 6:30 a.m., the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Many of his passengers being elderly, he concluded that they would be better off in the boats, away from the fumes. Although the remnants of a typhoon were headed their way, it had not yet generated dangerous seas.
A Coast Guard C-130 and helicopter were soon on the scene and at 7:45 a.m. the nearest ship arrived. The 1,000-foot-long tanker Williamsburg, loaded at Valdez with crude oil, was 90 miles to the south when the distress call was heard. She turned north in response and was to take 380 people from the doomed ship to Valdez where they could be transferred to Anchorage.
The Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, based in Juneau, took 80 survivors to Sitka. Others were transported by helicopter to other rescue vessels. One lifeboat drifted away and was not located until 1 a.m. the next morning. Every person on board the cruise ship survived and there were no serious injuries.
The Prinsendam was taken under tow, headed for Portland, Ore., but on Oct. 11 she listed and was cut loose. She slid to the bottom of the Pacific 70 miles west of Sitka.
The rescue went down proudly in the annals of the Coast Guard as the fourth most significant in the history of the service. That it happened in open seas, in increasingly bad weather and with coordination from so many different agencies, all without loss of life or serious injury was remarkable.
Tankers collide in Anchorage port
A spectacular wreck on Oct. 19, 1964, occurred closer to home as two oil tankers collided at the Port of Anchorage. When gasoline from ruptured tanks on one of the tankers ignited, flames reached 70 feet in the air. Black smoke could be seen for miles. One crewman was lost and presumed drowned. All others were saved through “prompt and courageous action” by seamen aboard two tugs assisting one of the tankers.
The MV Sirrah was hoisting anchor in preparation to move to the Petroleum Dock at 4 p.m. She was sideswiped by the MV Santa Maria, arriving with a load of petroleum and preparing to anchor nearby.
Two tugs operated by Cook Inlet Tug & Barge were assisting the Sirrah, one at the bow and the other mid-ship at the starboard side. Sparks caused by the collision ignited gasoline that had been spewed onto the bows of both the Sirrah and the tug Westwind. Those fires were quickly extinguished by crew members.
The Westwind, captained by John C. “Jack” Anderson, Jr., moved to the Santa Maria and began to take on crew who had been ordered to abandon ship. The Arctic Wind captained by John C. “Andy” Anderson, III, also maneuvered alongside the tanker where flames were “fierce and uncontained” to take on other crew members.
The fire on the abandoned Santa Maria, which grounded at Fire Island, burned out overnight but the tanker was heavily damaged. The petroleum products in its remaining tanks were salvaged. The Sirrah suffered some damage to her bow but was able to discharge her cargo.
The Andersons, father and son, and Lois Anderson were awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Federal Maritime Administration. At the request of the crew of the Santa Maria, they were also presented with medals from the Carnegie Hero Fund. Lois Anderson, the wife of Jack Jr., was listed in the Coast Guard inquiry report as an “observer” aboard the Westwind. She took over controls of the tug while her husband extinguished the fire on its bow. Their son, Andy, 17, was a student at East High School and licensed as a ship’s master. His father had gained his license at age 15 after braving a storm to single-handedly retrieve a vessel that broke away in a storm at Seldovia.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected].