Valentine’s Day in 1908 was anything but romantic for the crew of the 215-foot windjammer Emily G. Reed. The night was dark, the weather heavy and the seas rough as the lookout strained his eyes, hoping for a flash of light from the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse to tell them where they were.
Captain Kessel was a skilled navigator, and he’d seen worse than this. But he was worried about not being able to see the light. According to his calculations, they should be approaching it even now.
What Kessel didn’t know, though, was that his chronometer had broken. He was basing those calculations off bad data. And he was about to learn that the hard way.
Around 1:30 a.m., as the lookout strained his eyes eastward, he suddenly realized the ship was sailing through breakers. And before anyone could do more than panic, the heavy sailing ship had beached itself with a mighty crunching shudder that told of heavy damage.
The Emily G. Reed was a nearly 30-year-old hull, likely at least somewhat waterlogged; and the 2,100 tons of coal in her holds bore down mercilessly. With a tremendous cracking the old vessel’s back broke, and the bow lay over to port, facing straight into the teeth of the oncoming breakers. Walls of green water started boarding the stricken ship, carrying screaming sailors off into the frigid night.
“In a twinkling one of the lifeboats was smashed by a big wave,” First Mate Fred Zube told a reporter for the Portland Evening Telegram, “and the decks were so deep in the boiling water that there was no time to get aft, where Captain Kessel and his wife and some of the rest of the crew were.”
In desperation, Zube and three other crew members leaped into the remaining lifeboat and cut the lashings as a second foam-flecked wall of green water descended on the deck. It picked the metal lifeboat up, half full of water, and threw it overboard into the sea, then dropped a big section of the galley roof on top of it, breaking Zube’s arm and relieving the desperate crew of one of their two oars.
“We did our best to get back to the wreck,” Zube recounted, “but failed, and, believing all hands save ourselves were lost, we got up sail and stood out to sea. As I knew the coast to be a desolate one, I thought it best to keep the boat well out, hoping to fall into the path of steamships.”
Meanwhile, back on the hard-pressed Emily G. Reed, the captain and surviving crew members — everyone who had chanced to be on the poop of the ship when she struck — had watched in horror as the boat full of men was apparently swatted into the sea by the falling galley roof. Taking refuge as best they could in the stern of the dying ship, they hung on, waiting for daylight, praying that they’d struck the sand at high tide.
A few hours later, the first rays of dawn showed them that they had. The receding waters had left the battered hulk of the old freighter in just a few feet of water. Into this they climbed and swam and waded up onto the beach — saddened by what they’d seen and thankful to be alive. A head count revealed that there were just five of them, including the captain’s wife. The captain soon faced the grim duty of reporting the loss of eleven brave men.
While he was doing that, four of those men were several miles away off the coast, trying desperately to keep their badly damaged lifeboat afloat. The desperate men raced against time trying to saw off a piece of one of the waterproof compartments with their jackknives — a tough task, considering that the entire boat was made of galvanized steel. At length, they managed to wrench a piece off, and this they used to bail out the boat.
“It took about half an hour to get the boat empty, and in another half an hour we would have to do it again,” said Zube.
The balance of Valentine’s Day passed by on the tiny boat without a hint of rescue, and night found the men windburned, ravenously hungry and burning with thirst. They saw lights twinkling through the night on the distant shore of Oregon, but they dared not try to make for them for fear of running into an unseen field of rocks and reefs.
The next day was equally merciless. Toward sundown, the ship’s cook — realizing they were due for another horrible, sleepless, thirsty night — became delirious and, leaning over the side, started gulping down seawater. Within a few hours he was lying in the bilge, waiting for death.
It came to him — but in a particularly cruel way. About 2 a.m. that night, they came across a big steamship, which cut power after they started hailing it. Thinking they had been spotted and were about to be rescued, the jubilant sailors woke up the cook.
“He got on his feet and seemed rational,” said Zube. “Just then the vessel got underway again and left us. Then the cook gave up the fight. He lay down to die. Half an hour later we found his body cold.”
All the next day, the feeble sailors saw ship after ship; but none saw them, and kept on their way. Finally, as a fourth miserable night came upon them, the castaways made out Tatoosh Lighthouse, off Cape Flattery at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With their waning strength, they guided the little boat around the light and into the protected waters of the Strait.
A few hours later, the crew of the little six-ton sloop Teckla, anchored securely in the harbor of Neah Bay, were startled by a weak, incoherent voice calling to them from over the side. Peering out, they saw a battered steel lifeboat slowly drawing toward them.
A few minutes later, the three survivors were safely on board the sloop, being warmed up — and tasting the first water that had passed their lips in 78 hours, since that deadly wave had rushed them off the deck of their dying freighter.
“Their tongues were so swollen from thirst that they could scarcely articulate,” the Telegram reported.
The next day, the news was flashed to the astonished authorities in Astoria, and the other survivors were given the news. The men had sailed their leaky, battered, one-oared lifeboat more than 200 miles to safety.
As for the Emily G. Reed, this ship has become to Rockaway Beach what the Peter Iredale is for Warrenton — almost like a municipal treasure. It’s still buried there, deep in the sands of the beach, and for the last hundred years heavy winter storms have regularly uncovered parts of it. Most recently, a 75-foot-long section of the bow was uncovered in 2010, and the heavy black timbers looked sound enough to last another century.
(Sources: “Perils of the Sea: Ship Emily Reed Wrecked,” Barrier Miner (Australian newspaper), 4-06-1908; Tobias, Lori. “Shifting sands reveal 102-year-old shipwreck,” Portland Oregonian, 12-29-2010; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com.