As winter’s weather blows close in offshore, those tumults of wind and rain and waves meet up with the uneven topography of the nearby ocean floor, and watery chaos breaks out. (See Google Earth for the disquieting detail of the Astoria and Willapa/Shoalwater underwater canyons.) Consider this instance reported by a California newspaper:
“The Steamship Ancon in a Gale — Rough Experience on Columbia River Bar. The steamer Ancon of the Goodall, Perkins & Co. line from Portland, Oregon, arrived in port Sunday evening at 5 o’clock after an unusually rough passage of five days. … [J]ust outside the bar where there [were] nine fathoms of water the vessel shipped [a damaging and alarming] sea … The wave was at least fifty feet high, a vertical wall of water, whose crest before breaking was at least ten feet higher than the pilot-house. It broke forward of the pilot-house, crushing a number of the rafters of the hurricane-deck, nearly destroying the pilot-house, gutting the rooms of the Captain and first officer, sweeping overboard a number of boxes, etc. on the upper deck, wrenching off doors and blinds with terrific force, and filling many of the staterooms and the cabin with water. Several passengers narrowly escaped being washed overboard; the captain and pilot only saved themselves by clinging to the forward mast above the pilot-house.”
—San Francisco Bulletin, Jan. 22, 1878.
Recording the wind
Back in the 1800s, the maritime authorities of Great Britain’s Royal Navy were forging a system by which the speed of wind could be identified and weather forecasts could be improved. The British Isles were not large, were peopled by mariners and fishermen, and were surrounded by the often-riotous waters of the North Atlantic. Being able to understand wind strength by commonly understood onshore or offshore signs made their lives safer. The finalization of a wind speed scale with easily understood definitions was credited to Irish hydrographer and British royal naval officer Francis Beaufort. The Beaufort scale was a fine development which we still use today, in an amended form.
That scale gives clear and simple definition of the 13 different wind speed categories — zero through twelve. For instance, Beaufort Force No. 0 wind is called “calm,” blows less than 1 mph, and is defined by the statement “smoke rises vertically.” Beaufort Force 7 wind, a “moderate gale” (or “near gale”), is wind which moves between 32 and 38 mph, and is depicted as “whole trees in motion; inconvenience in walking against wind.”
Early in January 1885, The Morning Astorian reported the wreck of the Abbey Cowper. “ ‘We sailed from Mallendo, Peru,” stated Captain Ross of the British bark. “ ‘[We were] bound for Portland in ballast, on the 8th of last November. ... in Lat. 7° N., on the 6th [we] boarded the bark Buttermere of Liverpool from San Francisco, and got a chart of the Oregon coast.’ ”
That hinted of the trouble that would destroy this sailing vessel: maritime instructions, as per the “Coast Pilot,” from 1869 onward, were unevenly distributed and apparently frequently changed. The captain’s orders directed him to Oregon for cargo, but he and his ship were without information about entering the Columbia River. Plus, they were sailing into the eastern North Pacific Ocean, noted for its fierce winter storms and they headed for a notorious river entrance.
“ ‘On … Dec. 28th sighted Cape Lookout; on Dec. 29th off Cape Hancock [Cape Disappointment], 51 days out; wind E. N. E. to N. E. from that until Jan. 2nd; was trying to beat to windward with fresh gales from the N. E.’ ”
[A “fresh gale” is Beaufort’s Scale No. 8 wind between 39 and 46 miles per hour, which “breaks twigs off trees; generally impedes progress” and waves run “18 to 25 feet in height.”]
“ ‘Same date [Jan. 2, 1885] at mid-day was within three or four miles of the lighthouse for some time with jack [signal flag] flying for pilot,” continued Capt. Ross. “During afternoon wind set in from south’ard. Stood off and experienced nothing but stormy gales from the S. W.’ ”
[“Stormy gales” are winds of 55 to 63 miles per hour, a “whole gale, or storm,” Beaufort Scale No. 10, wherein “trees [are] uprooted; considerable structural damage occurs,” and the sea develops waves of between 29 and 41 feet in height, with “... overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; … rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.”]
A Force 10 gale
A Force 10 gale is clearly described by the book, “Fastnet, Force 10,” in which author and sailing participant John Rousmaniere details “a  yacht race only 70 miles off the coast of England. What began as a six hundred-mile sail in fine weather round a lighthouse off the Irish coast became, for twenty-seven hundred men and women in 303 yachts, a terrifying ordeal as one of the most vicious summer gales in the twentieth century ... trap[ped] the Fastnet race fleet in the shallow waters of the Western Approaches to Britain. …”
Rousmaniere describes screeching winds; confused waves climbing to 50 feet as they stumbled on the increasingly shallow ocean floor, dropping tens of thousands of tons of water on yachts weighing less than that water; boats being laid over 90 degrees; people lost overboard, dying of hypothermia; vessels crushed and sunk: an awful scene. “One hundred and thirty-six men and women were saved from sinking yachts, life rafts, and the water itself by heroic helicopter crews, commercial and naval seamen, and fellow yachtsmen, and seventy yachtsmen were towed or escorted to safety by lifeboats.”
Force 10 winds reach a shallow bottom relatively close to the mouths of both the Columbia River and Willapa Bay and can present vessel masters with a similar horrid situation.
The Abbey Cowper’s Capt. Ross continued, “ ‘Went to the north and as far as 47 degrees 30 minutes N. Latitude [way north, off the Olympic Peninsula]. On Sunday, Jan. 4th, the weather moderated considerably, the wind hauling to the westward, at noon our latitude by observation being 47 degrees 8 min. N.’ ” [The north latitude of Cape Shoalwater is 46˚ 44’; Cape Disappointment, 46 ˚ 29’.]
“ ‘…About 9 P. M., we sighted Shoalwater bay; the weather was clear and fine. At half past nine I went below, Shoalwater light bearing by the mast, leaving Mr. Bevan, the chief officer, in charge of the deck with orders to call me at once if she broke off, or if it came foggy or if the weather changed in any way. At, I should say, about half past ten P.M., he came running down the cabin, saying “Capt. Ross, the ship is ashore. She is among the breakers.” I sprang up, ran on deck and found it the case.
“ ‘I then ordered the helm to be put hard up as that was the only chance to get her head round off shore as the wind was too light for her to stay unless with a fresh breeze. All hands were on deck and got her round with her head off shore. I was in hopes she would get out of the breakers, but the breeze dying away she got sternway and struck heavily, when a great breaker broke aboard on the port side.
“ ‘I then ordered the boats to be got ready, when a light air — Beaufort Force No. 1 [“direction of wind shown by smoke but not by wind vanes, ocean forms ripples with appearance of scales … without foam crests”] — came and she got steerage way again, but that soon died away and she became unmanageable, the breakers sweeping aboard of her, and she stuck hard and fast, striking so heavily that I thought the masts would go over the side.’ ”
The captain continued, “ ‘I then gave orders to launch the boat, and kept the carpenter sounding the pump and a man keeping the lead going. I asked the opinion of the officers as to what was best to do, stating it as my intention to stay on board while there was any chance of saving the vessel. They were all of my opinion, thinking that so long as the masts stood and her making no water that we had better stop aboard. …
“ ‘By this time the weather was foggy, and soon after the vessel drifted inside the breakers and lay quieter …’ ”
“…[W]e let go the starboard anchor, paying out forty-five fathoms of cable, clewed all the sails up, and made the most of them fast. We then let go the port anchor; got out the port life boat on the davits, when the men insisted on me to leave her in case she would break up. After some talk we got into the boat and lay by till daybreak on Monday, pulling all the time against the current that was setting out. The weather growing thicker we finally left the vessel, and at midday landed on the beach about two miles from the lighthouse.
“ ‘I made for the lighthouse, got a saddle horse, and rode sixteen miles to Gray’s harbor to get the Hunter, but she has gone to Hoquiam; I was unable to get back through the stress of weather till Friday, the 7th, when I arrived back found that she [Abbey Cowper] had gone down the previous night while it was blowing a strong S. W. gale [Beaufort Scale No. 9, 47-54 miles per hour, “Slight structural damage occurs; chimney pots and slates removed”], and had gone to pieces. …’ “
The Daily Astorian continued, “Captain Ross further states that when he and his men got to the shore the keeper of the lighthouse showed them every possible attention and did all he could for them. The crew was taken to the North Cove hotel, where they were made comfortable. On Thursday the captain and all the men started for Astoria, and arrived here on the Gen. Miles yesterday afternoon. They saved nothing but the clothes they had on, the ship’s chronometer, her articles and register and the boats they got ashore in. Everything else is a total loss. The vessel was owned by Doward, Dickson & Co., of Liverpool, was [eight] years old, and cost when built £11,000. She was here three years ago this month and loaded wheat for U. K.
“Captain Ross has had a hard experience. His wife, who accompanied him on the outward voyage, took sick last July and died at sea just as the vessel sighted the lighthouse at Valparaiso, leaving an infant boy fourteen months old. She was buried at Valparaiso. The boy was left with some friends at Valparaiso, the understanding being that he was to be taken to England if such a thing were possible. Taken altogether the captain’s misfortunes are of a nature that would weigh heavily on any man. As soon as matters are arranged he will start for home overland.”
Naval court rules
In the middle of January 1885, the naval court composed of Vice-Consul Cherry and Captains Sember and Olesen, completed their inquiry into the Cowper’s sinking. The Morning Astorian printed that report: “ ‘This naval court finds, after due deliberation, that the British bark Abbey Cowper was lost on the outer sands of the entrance of Shoalwater bay, Washington territory, U. S. A., the vessel taking the ground about 11 p.m., of the 4th of January, 1885. The evidence brings out that at 9 p.m. of the evening of the stranding, the ship was about 8 miles W 2/4 S, magnetic, from Toke Pt. lighthouse at the entrance to Shoalwater bay, and not 15 miles as was supposed by the master, and to this error can be attributed the primary cause of the loss of the vessel.
“ ‘The court finds the master was correct in shaping his course as he did, direct for Cape Disappointment, at the entrance of the Columbia river, from his supposed position taking into consideration his, then, knowledge of the trend of the coast direction of the wind.
“ ‘The court also finds that it was not known by the master that he was coming to the northwest coast of North America, and therefore was not supplied with proper charts; that he used all endeavors to procure the same after receiving his orders to proceed to Portland, Oregon; for that purpose boarding the British bark Buttermere, and could only procure from her master a general chart of the Pacific coast of North America. That this chart did not show any soundings or lights. That the facts of the northerly currents setting shorewards, the strong suck caused by Shoalwater bay, and the distance that the shoals extend from the entrance of Shoalwater bay was not known to the master, exonerates him in a great measure. But that on the other hand the master is strongly to blame in that with such poor charts, no sailing directions, and no experience of this coast, he allowed the vessel to head a shy course along the land with only one light visible, without using his lead [to measure water depth] or giving any orders to the officer on deck to do so when he left the deck.
“ ‘The court also finds that the first officer, A.C. Bevan, was in charge of the vessel at the time of the stranding and for three hours previously: that in the opinion of the court he is to be censured for not having sent word to the captain of the difference in the bearings of the lights between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., 2-1/2 points in the course of half an hour; also that he should have used his own judgment in putting the helm hard up to wear the ship round and sending before the captain instead of going himself before doing anything.
“ ‘The court also finds that from the moment the helm was put hard up everything was done that could be done under the circumstances: that the drifting away of nearly half the crew crippled the resources of the master; that he made all exertion in getting help after landing and keeping his crew together.
“ ‘The court therefore in returning the master’s certificate to him does so with a strong censure of his neglect in not having the lead hove when approaching a strange coast, he knowing that it is a usual custom so to do on all British vessels and hopes that he will take warning in this particular in the future. Also the court reprimands first mate A. C. Bevan on his want of self-trust in not heaving the lead, and, when he heard the breakers, sending for the master at once and taking measures of at once pulling the vessel on the other tack. Mr. Bevan’s certificate is returned with the caution that only his youth and general inexperience together with his former good character prevents the court from making a more marked example than the censure with which it returns to him his certificate. The court has pleasure in returning the second mate’s certificate to him.’ ”
What a hard profession …