Ships of the grain fleet are shown being loaded at a dock in Portland circa 1900. Most grain-fleet ships were barques, which, although slower than a full-rigger, required less manpower. Image provided/Oregon Historical Society
One gray October day in 1898, three British ship captains were sitting in the parlor of the Seamen’s Rest, a sort of YMCA for sailors located in the bustling port of Tacoma. They were in a betting mood.
One of them, although he didn’t know it, was gambling with his life.
All three skippers captained full-rigged windjammers. They were H.A. Lever of the Imerhorne; David Thompson of the Earl of Dalhousie; and Charles McBride of the 265-foot clipper Atalanta.
Atalanta, you may recall, was the virgin-huntress character in Greek mythology who challenged all her suitors to bet their lives on a footrace against her. If they won, they got to marry her; if they lost, they were put to death. And, until Hippomenes came along and cheated by throwing golden apples, she won, and they died, every time.
The Atalanta was named after her in a reference to its great speed; she was one of the fastest sailing ships in the world. But, before too long, the name would seem appropriate in other ways as well.
On this particular evening, McBride was brimming with joy and pride in his ship. She (the ship) had just finished a record-breaking run from China, and was laying over in Tacoma taking on a cargo of wheat, bound next for Cape Town. When he learned that both his colleagues’ ships were also bound for Cape Town, in a burst of enthusiasm, McBride proposed a large wager that the Atalanta would arrive first – in spite of the fact that she was scheduled to leave port two full weeks after the Earl of Dalhousie and one week after the Imberhorne.
It was a fool’s bet. The Atalanta was fast, faster than either of the other ships; but two weeks was a long time. The other two skippers, naturally, took him up on it … and a die was cast that was destined to come up snake-eyes for all of them (or, rather, snake-eye, since ”die” is singular.)
The Earl of Dalhousie left port Oct. 26. She was followed Nov. 3 by the Imberhorne, and then, on Nov. 11, by the Atalanta herself.
It was perfect sailing weather. But that changed around Nov. 15, about the time the Atalanta reached the northern Oregon coast, as the winter storms started moving in. By the night of Nov. 16, the Atalanta was reaching as close as she could to the blustery southwest wind, and visibility was very poor; she was navigating by dead reckoning.
And she was perilously close to land. The Oregon coast was a notoriously dangerous one, and every sailor knew well that the only sensible thing to do when sailing along it in heavy weather was to, as author and charter skipper Stan Allyn memorably puts it, ”get one hell of a wad of sea room between me and the shore” before trying to make progress.
But the acquisition of ”wads of sea room” takes time – and, when you’re two weeks behind and there’s a large wager on the line, time is a precious commodity.
So the captain doubled down on his bet – this time betting his life that his ship was far enough offshore. And the Atalanta sailed on.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of Nov. 17, still sailing through sheets of rain and blustering wind, seaman Francis McMahon sought out First Mate Charles Hunter, the officer on deck, and pointed out a light off the port bow. The light didn’t look right to McMahon. It was too steady. It looked to him like a land light.
Hunter told him that was impossible. ”We are passing another vessel,” he assured McMahon.
But an hour or so later, the men on watch realized the Atalanta was sailing through breakers. They were literally just a few hundred yards away from the beach.
Hunter spread the alarm – ”Get above, men, for your lives; don’t wait to dress!” he shouted.
”Pull the wheel hard up, square the yards!” yelled Captain McBride. ”My God, Hunter, where are you bringing us?”
The sailors swarmed over the sails, racing desperately to get the ship away from the beach. But it was too late. With a shuddering crunch, she slammed into one of the rocky underwater reefs that lie just offshore in the Tillicum Beach area, between Waldport and Yachats.
Immediately the breakers started sweeping over the stricken ship. She was lifted and slammed onto the reef a few more times, then broke neatly in half and settled into the drink. Sailors held on for their lives as the breakers continued pounding the decks. Some scrambled to free the boats; others climbed up into the rigging.
Out of the ship’s complement of 27 crew members, only three sailors survived the sinking of the Atalanta – by swimming to the lifeboat that someone had cut loose when the ship first struck. The second man to reach the boat, George Frazer, was guided there by the sailors in the rigging – who were literally waiting there for inevitable death.
”They told me a boat was coming,” Frazer told reporters later. ”I swam to it, the crew in the rigging giving me three cheers.”
Frazer and the other man in the boat, John Webber, managed to work their way over to where Francis McMahon was clinging to some wreckage, and pull him in. Another sailor, 30 feet away, waved feebly to them, and they tried to work the boat over toward him; but, lacking any oars or other provision for making way, they couldn’t do much. Finally the sailor waved at them again. ”Goodbye, fellows,” he called, and slipped beneath the waves.
The sailors in the boat then refocused their efforts on getting to shore. Tearing the canvas covering off the waterproof compartments, they made a sail, and with this they managed to catch enough wind to keep the little boat pointed into the wind – so that the breakers that were still slamming down on them wouldn’t roll the boat over and pitch them back into the drink – and moving toward shore. One man held the ”sail,” another held him so he wouldn’t topple out, and the third bailed the water out of the boat – with the covers off the waterproof compartments, it was no longer unsinkable.
Finally they made it.
But there was no telegraph station at Waldport in 1898. So someone had to get on a horse and go up the beach to Newport to get the lifestation crew. This did not happen until 6 p.m. – 16 hours after the ship crashed into the rock, and at the end of a long, hard day for the horses that the lifestation crew had available for hauling the Lyle gun (cannon that shoots a lifeline in lieu of a shell); the horses had been plowing a field all day and were exhausted.
The horses gave out six miles from their goal and had to be left with the wagon. Somehow the lifesavers managed to get the cannon to the scene of the wreck at dawn the next morning; but by then, 30 hours into the drama, there was nobody left to rescue.
Pieces of the Atalanta soon littered the beaches around Alsea Bay. Among the items washed ashore was the captain’s log, written in waterproof ink and still clearly legible. The last entry – written at 1 a.m., less than an hour after Seaman McMahon saw the land light and probably only a few minutes before the ship struck the reef – reads, ”Cape Foulweather is concealed by fog and there are heavy sheets of rain.” Knowing Captain McBride as one of the most skillful skippers on the seas, with more than 30 years’ experience at the helm and a spotless record, it was hard for most people who knew him to understand why he would plot such a reckless course in such terrible weather.
But the crew of his ship knew exactly what had happened.
”Any fool of a sailor would know that our officers should have made 3 degrees west as soon as the tug left us (at the mouth of Puget Sound),” John Webber said. ”But the lads all knew that Captain McBride was sailing under a bet to beat two vessels into Delagoa Bay, South Africa. … He wanted to pass over no unnecessary water. The race was responsible for the wreck.”
(Sources: ”Tacoma Seamen’s Rest: Waterfront Mission,” an article by Rowena and Gordon Alcorn published in the June 1965 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; Top Deck Twenty!, a book by Stan Allyn, published by Binford & Mort in 1989; archives of Portland Morning Oregonian, November 1898)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.