The Coast Guard and the local fishing community endured one of their worst nightmares on the Columbia River bar in a January 1961 storm.
It began with those facts of life known to Dungeness crab fishermen: first, if they don't lift and empty their costly crab pots regularly, they risk losing them. Waves move the sand around on the sea floor where the heavy iron pots rest, baited and waiting for crabs to crawl in. During a storm, the pots can get "sanded in," and the strongest hoist is not equal to freeing them from the sand's clutch.
The second truth of the Dungeness fishery is that the season falls during the winter, and the winter is when the worst weather of the year is a sure thing.
Add to these two items a third: Dungeness crabbers tend to be relatively small fishing boats, perhaps 25 to 50 feet long.
The crab boat Mermaid had put out to sea over a "rough, but passable" Columbia River bar the afternoon of January 12, 1961. A little after 4 p.m., Bert and Stanley Bergman of the Mermaid put out a call that the boat's rudder had broken and they were near the bar. Long Beach crabber Roy Gunnari, who was following in his boat Jana Jo, relayed the call to Cape Disappointment.
Cape D immediately sent out two motor lifeboats, a 40-footer and a 36-footer. The 40-footer found the Mermaid near Buoy 1 outside of the river and took it in tow. Not long after, the Coast Guard skipper reported that the bar was getting rougher and "he doubted the wisdom of trying to get in with the tow."
Cape Disappointment advised him to stay where he was, that they were sending out the 52-foot motor life boat Triumph. (It was the "flagship" of the Cape's fleet, the biggest and sturdiest boat they had.) The Triumph reached the pair at about 7:30 and took over the tow.
"The 40- and 36-foot boats," continued the Observer's report, "moved in toward the bar to see how bad it was. The 40-foot boat took some bad breakers over the stern, rolled over, and the three crewmen were washed overboard. The 36-foot boat got them aboard, but was itself badly battered in dropping off a big wave. Leaking astern, it headed toward the lightship. [In those days, the lightship Columbia was permanently anchored off of the river's mouth.]
"The pilot schooner Peacock, alerted by radio, stood by the 36-foot boat all the way to the lightship and saw the six men get safely on the lightship. The 36-foot boat, tied to the lightship, sank there the next morning.
"Meanwhile the Triumph, commanded by Boatswain's Mate John Culp, was having trouble in the huge seas and breakers. The tow line to the Mermaid broke once at the gunwales of the Mermaid, and was restored. At 8:30 p.m., radio messages to Cape Disappointment told that the Triumph again had lost the tow, was close to the breakers or in them but was turning to try to pick up the tow out of the breakers.
"It must have been during this turn that the Triumph was rolled over. Four minutes later the Mermaid picked up Engineman Joseph Petrin of the Triumph crew out of the sea.
"(The Triumph meanwhile lay bottom up in the sea for 10-15 minutes before righting itself and wallowing in the breakers for at least 45 minutes to an hour. All its crew of six except Engineman Gordon Huggins, in a watertight compartment below, apparently were drowned or washed overboard when the boat rolled.)
"At 8:30 p.m. Chief Porter at Cape Disappointment called for additional help. The cutter Yocona left Astoria and planes were dispatched from Port Angeles. Two 36-foot boats left Point Adams station. The patrol boat 36535 commanded by Boatswain's Mate Paul Miller, crossed the bar, [and] found the Mermaid in the vicinity of Buoy 7. Miller ... said the bar was too rough to try to come in or to try to take the three men off the Mermaid, so he headed with his tow for the lightship.
"At about 9:30 p.m. when the Mermaid had been in tow for 15 to 25 minutes a huge wave estimated at 25 to 40 feet high rolled in on the two boats. Miller said it was steep, apparently about to break. His boat rode over it, but it apparently broke right over the Mermaid, which snapped the tow line and vanished. He searched the area but found nothing.
"Capt. Kenneth McAlpin, Columbia River bar pilot, who was taking the Spanish freighter Diaz de Solis to sea, said he saw the big wave capsize the Mermaid and that it vanished.
"After these incidents, all that remained was the long search for bodies or traces of the lost boats and men."
Engineman Huggins was the sole survivor of the Triumph. He had been below deck when the boat rolled and was able to get out when it righted itself. He tried to start the engine, sheltered himself beside a deck structure, and was eventually washed overboard. "Within moments, after several big waves crashed over him, he felt sand under his feet and moments later beach searchers found him."
-Jan. 20, 1961
"Editorial. It's beyond expression to fully state our sympathy for the families of Bert and Stanley Bergman, and all those relatives of the coastguardsmen who perished at sea last Thursday night ..."
-Jan. 20, 1961
Seven men and four boats died in this hellish maelstrom.
It is a harshness of chance that this catastrophe happened at the same place on the 25th anniversary of the Iowa's sinking in 1936 with 34 lives lost.
But fate's unmistakable underscoring of the danger of the time and place occurred one day shy of the 30th anniversary of the Mermaid-Triumph sinking. As a memorial reunion was under way in Astoria, Warrenton, and on the Columbia River, the crab boat Sea King went down on the bar and three men died.