Plungers

Early in the settlement of Shoalwater Bay, small sloops called “plungers” were developed for use by oystermen and for transporting mail, freight, and passengers. Built of available materials — often spruce and fir — they were designed for speed and were featured in the 1870s,’80s and ‘90s in the annual regatta sponsored by the Shoalwater Bay Yacht Club at Oysterville. Willapa Harbor resident Wallace Stuart won local fame by winning the 30-mile triangular race for 17 years in a row.

“Plungers” were the ubiquitous sail boats predominate on Shoalwater Bay from the 1850s until the late 1880s. Perhaps they were best described by Frank Turner (1882-1961) in his column “From Auld Lang Syne” which ran for many years in the Ilwaco’s Tribune:

“Plungers were sail boats, with jib and mainsail, about 30 feet long or less, and 10 feet wide. They had centerboards, which is a kind of moveable keel very useful in shallow waters in holding a sailboat ‘into the wind.’ The pioneer boat builders became very skillful in constructing these boats, and in the 1860s, ‘70s and ‘80s annual regatta meets were held to see which boat could sail a thirty-mile course in the shortest time. Seamanship as well as skillful boat building had much to do with the outcome, and the running of a regatta was a time of great and exciting gatherings.”

Many of the pioneers wrote of the doughty little boats in memoirs and reminiscences. Viola Warman Stream, for instance, wife of Capt. A.T. Stream wrote of a celebration that occurred “not earlier than 1880 nor later than 1882” at the present-day Tokeland Hotel location:

“I will tell of a Christmas spent at the home of George W. Brown and his wife, Charlotte, at Toke Point many years ago. We were invited to come and bring the whole family and even the stranger who happened to be within our gates. In those days we did not go in steam launches or ride in Palace cars: we went in a dinghy propelled by oars, and a bucket handy to bail in case it got rough,

or as the sailor says “a little choppy.” We arrived in the forenoon of Christmas eve and found our neighbors arriving by plungers and dinghies, and some of the dusky natives arriving in bands, for they always managed to camp near the hospitable home of the Browns at holiday times ...”

Especially intriguing is Mrs. Stream’s description of returning to Oysterville at the end of the Christmas festivities:

“By this time, it began to storm, making it unsafe to cross the Bay in a dinghy. It being necessary for our family to return home, my husband made arrangements with the owner of an Indian canoe to take us there. With an Indian in the bow to paddle, one at the stern to steer, a klootchman in the center to tend sail, and the rest of us sitting flat in the bottom of the canoe, we reached home safely, having spent a Merry Christmas.”

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