The Day The Ships Went Down

Part Two



Off Outer Island

The Pretoria, meanwhile, was facing an equally perilous situation. Struggling against the gale, the barge and her towing steamer had managed to pass some 30 miles beyond the Apostles when calamity struck: her steering gear failed. The Venezuela changed course and began an effort to tow the disabled Pretoria back to shelter in the lee of the islands. It was a desperate maneuver in the wild seas, and it failed: the heavy towline snapped under the strain, and the howling wind quickly swept the mammoth ship out of sight. The Venezuela turned back to search for her consort, but she was gone.

For several hours, the great ship drifted helplessly in the waves.


Lighthouse Map

The great ships sank at opposite ends of the archipelago,
off Sand and Outer Islands.


Off Sand Island

The Sevona inched its way through the waves at slow speed. Suddenly, though, there was a grinding jolt. Chief Engineer William Phillippi recalled the moment:

"I received a signal from the captain to check the speed but after she struck I received no more signals and I stopped the engine. There were three distinct shocks and crashes, then the boat came to a stand and broke in two. We blew the whistle for help until our fires were put out."

Conditions aboard the grounded Sevona were desperate. The force of the crash had split the boat in half. In the bow portion were the captain and the officers; all of the experienced seamen. In the after section were the engine-room crew, the passengers... and both of the ship's lifeboats.

One of the passengers, Kate Spencer, described the scene:

"We got into the life boat at that time, but the captain and the men could not come aft owing to the break. He hailed us through the megaphone 'Hang on as long as you can.' We did so, but the sea was pounding so hard, that we finally got out of the small boat, and into the large vessel again, all congregating in the dining room which was still intact.

"The big boat was pounding and tossing. Now a piece of the deck would go, then a portion of the dining room, in which we were quartered. During all this time, the men forward could not get to us. Finally, at 11 o'clock everything seemed to be breaking at once, and by order of the chief engineer, we took to the small boat again.

"One by one we piled into the boat, leaving six men behind us. I never heard such a heart-rending cry as came from those six. 'For God's sake don't leave us,' they cried.


Off Outer Island

What of the drifting Pretoria?

A newspaper account published two days later tells the tale:

"The Pretoria had a sail up forward, but the wind blew it to ribbons. She was helpless in the trough of the sea. The waves washed over her, and the wind was driving her in the direction of Outer Island. The pumps were set at work but they gave out and the anchor was dropped in 180 fathoms. It dragged some distance, but at last brought up one and one half miles from the island and held.

"The seas pounded the distressed barge furiously. Water got into the hold through the hatch combings.. the hatches came off and the water poured into the hold. Then the covering board gave way and the decks began to float off."

The crew of ten had only one hope: launch the lifeboat and head through the storm to Outer Island.


Outer Island Lighthouse

Postcard view of Outer Island Lighthouse


Off Sand Island

Stirred by the cries of their shipmates, several sailors set their own safety aside and returned to help their comrades launch the balky port lifeboat.

Now, two small boats pulled away from the dying Sevona; six in one, eleven in the other. The port boat, with six aboard, headed straight for Sand Island, where they made a successful landing and quickly found shelter with fisherman Fred Hansen. Engineer Phillippi, on the other boat, directed a valiant, but fruitless attempt to rescue the men stranded on the forward section. Turning finally toward the mainland, the lifeboat tossed in the waves for six full hours before reaching shore at Little Sand Bay.

This was wild country in those days, but the castaways were lucky to meet a farmer out looking for a lost cow. He led them to a logger's cabin where they could rest and warm up. As soon as he gathered strength, Phillippi set out by horse and wagon for Bayfield, to seek aid for the seven men remaining on the wreck. It took him nearly a full day to travel the eleven miles through the rough country.

By the time he arrived, his comrades' fate was already sealed. Working feverishly on the battered deck, Captain MacDonald and his six companions improvised a raft from several hatch covers. When it seemed the ship was about to break up, they launched the makeshift craft and made for the island. It broke apart as they neared shore, and all seven drowned in the surf.


Sand Island Lighthouse

Postcard view of Sand Island Lighthouse


On Outer Island

From his perch atop the Outer Island lighthouse, keeper John Irvine could see the Pretoria's lifeboat pulling away. His dry words in the lighthouse logbook recounts the scene:

"September 2- A terrible gale blowing from the NE, the biggest sea that I have seen since I have been at the station, which is eight years. About 2:30 PM, sighted a Schooner at anchor about two miles NE of Station. About 4 PM seen small boat leaving Schooner."

Irvine was alone in the lighthouse that day; both his assistants had gone to the mainland before the storm struck. At sixty-one years of age, Irvine was not a young man. Born in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, he'd come to the U.S. as a child and served with the Union Army in the Civil War. He went to sea after the war, and spent years as sailor himself before entering the Lighthouse Service.

Perhaps it was a sense of kinship with the desperate men in the lifeboats that guided his next move. Grabbing a signal flag and a rope, Irvine raced down the steep stairs from the lighthouse grounds to the beach.

The sailors pulled at their oars, making slow progress against wind and wave, painfully making their way to safety. Then, five hundred feet from shore, the boat capsized, tossing the men every which way. Five of the sailors were washed away to their doom; five were able to hold on to the hull. As the overturned boat neared the beach, Keeper Irvine did not hesitate. Wading out into the breakers, he pulled the five men to shore, one by one.


John Irvine

Outer Island keeper John Irvine
with grandson, 1905



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