LOST TWO MORE OLD TIMERS: DON PITBLADO AND RALPH J. STAEHLI.
DON WAS AN OLD MOORAGE CUSTOMER AND HE LOST HIS WIFE DONNA ABOUT A MONTH AGO. RALPH WAS AN OLD STEAM BOAT MAN ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER AND I KNEW HIM FROM WHEN HE WORKED FOR FOSS AND AT THE PUGET SOUND MARITIME HISTORICAL SOCIETY. GOOD MEN, WE’LL MISS THEM.
I am still on bar patrol with my engineer/deckhand Dave Peake and it is September 1956. The lifeboat station calls me, it is November Mike Whiskey 18. If we had switched to the new calling system I was 40423 and it was Grays Harbor Lifeboat Station. I never wrote it down when we made the switch. Anyway, I answered the phone (VHF) and the voice on the other end said———“we have reports of a ship ashore at Pt. Grenville.” The Coast Guard had a Loran Station there (long range aid to navigation) but it would be doubtful if they could see anything in the fog. I think to myself “Oh Boy!, what fun. A ship ashore and I am going to be right in the middle of it. And I have a pretty good boat under me – a little newer than the 40501 – and she is faster and gets around better. I am ready.”
I had read about every shipwreck on all the coasts of the States, Alaska and Canada. That’s why I had joined the Coast Guard – to save lives and property and get into the middle of a shipwreck… not that anyone would call me enthusiastic. I set her at 20 knots hoping that we could play dodge if we met another boat in the fog but we always ran that way; of course, with no radar. It always reminds me of when the companies always tell you don’t run fast in the fog but of course don’t be late. We ran our time out and the fog was starting to clear; it was more like a haze through which I could see a Liberty ship aground on what I thought was Sonora Reef. “Oh my God!” I go in closer and I can’t see where anyone is in a panic. They are hard and fast aground and not sinking. I call the Lifeboat station, the office answers immediately like they were sitting on top of the phone – I think ‘what good service’ and I fill them in on what is happening as I see it – a 22 year old wreck authority, not yet a boatswain mate just a seaman speaking, telling the world what’s happening… your Walter Winchell of the West Coast. I never have had so much fun and leverage. The reply is “standby”; I am good at that but where is breakfast and lunch? We have been up since about 0300. “Report any changes”; “Yes sir, we have the 125 foot Cutter McLANE underway from Aberdeen, and the 255 foot Cutter WACHUSET is on the way, I think from Port Angeles, and the YOCONA a 215 foot ex–Navy rescue tug is underway from the Columbia River. The Coast Guard is throwing its heavyweights against the problem because of my reports -how neat is that? Then I thought what if he backs off on high water and the problem goes away and all these serious boats are underway. What then? Well you can’t blame a seaman with 3 little white stripes for not knowing what’s going on .. or can you? The next thing Dave says to me is “I wonder where breakfast and lunch and dinner is coming from?” My exact thoughts a few minutes before. We had only been on a 4 to 5 hour bar patrol and the cupboard was barren on the old 40423. She was a loaner boat for the busy season and generally run down but I can tell you this she ran like a top and never once faltered on me in the next four days of arduous service.
The McLANE arrived and her executive officer was LT. Swede Nelson who had come up thru the hawse pipe and had been stationed at Grays Harbor and had run 40 boats. He was going to be responsible for me getting some rest in the next four days. First off we got a bunch of sandwiches and coffee – that kept Dave and I happy and me thinking right. I finally figured out what the McLANE was good for (food). She would not pull the hat off your head with those two 500 horsepower 8–268 A General Motors Diesels. After I was out of the service Dad bought the McLANE’S sister ship the BONHAM when they sold her surplus. She had served at Coos Bay. I towed her home from Coast Guard Base Seattle with our tug ARGOS. It is a really a small world. I sold her for dad to Bud Fields and eventually Jim Haagen bought her for Northland Marine lines and put two 750 horsepower Cats in her and towed freight barges back and forth to Alaska.
Anyway, then the Cutter WASHUSETT WPG – 44 showed up under Captain G. T. Applegate and later on the YOCONA arrived. Now you have to remember that Dave and I were there for four days, so some parts of the adventure are a little foggy, perhaps because I had to get some sleep. I went in alongside the “SEA GATE”. She was an extended World War II Liberty ship and was 511 feet long. I think they got an extra hatch that way starting out from the 441 feet. Any way you cut it, it is a big ship, with a 2500 horsepower steam triple expansion engine. It was hard to get alongside her, but I could get into this one place on her port side. You have to understand that at this point in time the ocean was quite calm and when it is calm it is only going to do one thing and that is change to a rough ocean. Dumb me asked “does anyone want to abandon ship?” “NO!” was the answer; and all that I could think was “Shit, it’s daylight and calm now.” I don’t know if the Captain wanted to keep a full crew on board the ship to see if he could get her off the reef, then he would be able to navigate the ship, but ‘no’ was the answer which I communicated to the WASHUCETT. That night around 2200 after the big swell had set in and it got rough I was told that they all wanted off! “Oh Boy! How do I pull this off? Or should I just say no you had your chance and didn’t take it, too bad; wait till tomorrow and some day light!” But of course we know that that would not fly.
There was a narrow passage alongside the port side of the ship with rock piles ahead and rock piles marking the port side of the narrow passage (sounds like the charge of the light brigade cannons to left cannons to the right into the valley of death rode the 600) and of course a nasty swell running and a lot of surge alongside the ship. So, as I went in I started listening to this little guy on my shoulder talking to me about how I am going to pull this off. I have Dave throw a heaving line attached to our manila tow line and had the crew on the ship put it on the bitts quite far aft so I could use it as a spring line by attaching it to our tow bitt and kept one engine in gear to hold us in alongside the ship with fenders out. I could not let out too much towline as we had a rock pile in front of us. All the time we were banging into the steel side of the ship. The ship was making horrible grinding noises as she worked in the swell grinding herself to pieces on top of the reef. Dave almost got killed in the rain of suitcases that came down on our heads from the crew that wanted off now. I screamed at Dave to get the hell out of the way and almost in the same breath I told the sailors to ‘STOP THROWING THOSE GODDAMNNED SUIT CASES AT US.’ When I had established some form of discipline on the scene I had a gaggle of sailors, one at a time come down the Jacobs ladder and get onboard my 40 boat. (I never kept track of how many were onboard per trip). I then had Dave recover my towline as I backed out into the swell and had them let it go at the last minute to keep it out of my propellers. That would be all I would need: two shipwrecks – me and the ship. Out to the McLANE and unload sailors and suitcases and in for another batch. I think that I made three trips in to that hell hole with its big swell and heavy surge and rocks and an unforgiving side of that ship and me with a light steel-skinned 40 boat. Of course that was why I was getting that high pay like maybe the pay is up to $115 a month and all the food you could eat except the cupboard was bare on my boat. All the time the SEAGATE is moving across the reef and my hole keeps getting smaller and shorter. After the third trip I could no longer get in there – the hole had disappeared.
Three people had elected to stay with her till morning – the Captain, the Chief Engineer and one other fellow. They hung a Jacob’s ladder over the pointy stern the next morning. I went in to take a look at their chosen exit place and guess what, just below the foot of the Jacob’s ladder was a large rock that covered and uncovered in the swell. Well isn’t that nice, if I fuck up and don’t time it right I will split the bow of the CG 40423 wide open and down she will go and along with me getting wet we would have those same two shipwrecks and do you think that the Coast Guard would be pissed with me? They would probably Court Martial me and charge me for one used 40 boat slightly damp as well as swimming on the job. Anyway, I go in not too close and time the swell to see if it is even possible to try a pickup over the rock. It looks like I can get away with it; I consult the guy on my shoulder he says go for it. I holler over at the three guys and tell the first guy to go to the third step from the bottom and step on to the bow of my boat when it comes even with him because I can’t stay there more than half a second. Dave Peake goes up on the bow to catch the guy. He does as I say and it works. I back clear and retime it and instruct the second guy to go to the third step and step off when the bow is even; that works and I back clear of the rock. I can almost see my name in that rock. I get the third guy and I have him safe; they are all off, a trip out to the McLANE and I have the crew off safe and sound and no injuries and no swimming. I figured out that took ten years off my life so I must be a 32 year old seaman by now still striking for boatswains mate.
The McLANE ups anchor and takes off for Aberdeen with the ship wreck sailors. There were big articles and pictures in the Aberdeen Newspaper. Swede Nelson took over my boat and I reported to the bridge of the WACHUSETT to meet Capt. Applegate. I forget to salute being a dumb sand pounder and not a cutter man. But he overlooked it and didn’t act like they do in the movies maybe he thought we were both Captains but I knew better – he was a real one. We had a real nice discussion about the shipwreck and he wanted to know where I learned how to run a boat like that being that I was only a seaman. He said go down and get some food and some sleep because this will go on for quite a while. I found Dave and we got fed and went into these dark quarters and I finally got to sleep; 22 years old and I had just rescued the crew off a stranded ship and made the Coast Guard look real good doing it. We were there a total of four days, and we ran tow lines onto the wreck and our two ships pulled on her but she never came back an inch. The YOCONA parted her bridal while pulling but it is almost impossible to pull her back across the reef. Commercial tugs were there Foss Launch & Tug had the ERIK FOSS there and Island Tug and Barge from Victoria sent down the ISLAND COMMANDER.
On September 9, 1956 the WACHUSETT sent a radio message that was teletyped to Grays Harbor Lifeboat Station info to Coast Guard Group Grays Harbor and info to Coast Guard District Thirteen: “YOUR 092140Z X CONDITION CREW CG-40423 EXCELLENT X YOCONA TOW LINE PARTED ON SEAGATE AT START OF PULL X AT THIS TIME RENEWED PULLING OPERATIONS NOT YET DETERMINED X OFFICER IN CHARGE CG-40423 COMMENDED FOR OUTSTANDING JOB DONE X WILL KEEP 40 FOOTER X WILL ADVISE LATER TOD 2250Z NMW 18/ AMOS SRKD AF/RW
The fourth day that we were there a front came thru and we started experiencing southerly winds to 40 knots and the big swell set in. So the decision was made that the Coast Guard would leave the scene that night. Now that is just fine for those big Cutters to just take off but how were Dave & I going to get back to Grays Harbor? I talked to the YOCONA and he agreed to provide a wave break for me and would run slow till he dropped me off at Grays Harbor. The YOCONA is huge: 215 feet; I made turns for 15 knots and hid behind him and with all the ups and downs in the big swells I made 7 knots, hilly country. We got off at the GH buoy and the YOCONA wished us well and he headed for the Columbia River. I was so tired I asked Dave “now are you sure this is where we get off?,” he replied “well that’s what the man said ‘Boats’.” Here I wasn’t even a boatswain mate yet and Dave was kidding me. I figured out the two ranges but I was so tired it still didn’t look right but in we went and the buoys all had the right numbers so press on regardlessly. We got something to eat and a shower boy did that feel good and off to bed. I slept for a long time if I had had a sign I would have hung it on the door saying do not disturb. Would I do it again? You bet, in a New York minute.
The SEA GATE drifted across the Sonora Reef that night and went ashore at Taholah. When the news got out four tugs headed for her. The ERIK FOSS and the ISLAND COMMANDER, the ISLAND SOVEREIGN and the A.G. HUBBLE of Allman – Hubble of Aberdeen got a line on her first after she went ashore and put men on her and claimed salvage. But she was ashore and wasn’t going anywhere. Every one finally went home. The SEA GATE had left Japan en route to Vancouver, B.C. via the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Her compass was off and the Captain could not get any noon sights with his sextant to establish where he was because it was cloudy and rainy all the way across the Pacific Ocean. I would have loved to have gotten a life ring off her for my collection. Dave and I got a case of Nippon Red Star Beer from one of our boat crews that had brought the customs people up to the ship. So Dave and I sat in my car out by the 5th groin and we drank it and got a marvelous hangover. The SEA GATE broke in half and was scrapped where she lay although it took a long time. People kept getting on board and then couldn’t get off so the Coast Guard was always rescuing someone till she was cut up and gone.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR.
Hello Mark. Just read the blog and saw the pic of the old Venture and it jarred some memories. From 1975-1978 I was the BM1 aboard USCGC Cape Romain (95 footer) in Ketchikan. I made fast friends with Clyde Cowan owner of AMAK towing. I think I hung around the tugs more than my CG duties. That’s how I met Art Murphy,(his tug the Seakist ran into the stern of the Cutter while docking). and I made a life long friendship and worked for him for many years after I retired from the CG. Clyde had three wood log towing tugs then, the Amak, Venture & the Hornet. His brother Lee ran the Hornet. I rode with the Capt of the Venture once and I remember he started the day with a couple shots of whiskey in his coffee cup. I think his name was Harold Casperson and later went to work for Marine Leasing running the Marine Retriever I think. We always called him the mouth of the North as he wouldn’t shut up on the HF radio. During his watch he would talk to someone the whole 6 hour shift. I always liked the looks of the Venture, she was long and low with that big cargo boom on the mast. One night we got a call from the Juneau Comm center that the Hornet was sinking and missing in Sumner straits. We got U/W and headed up there. We searched most of the night and I remember that the Crowley tug Sioux was transiting the straits with two barges. It was a typical SE Alaska night with lots of wind and rain. The Master said he would use his huge spot lights to search the shorelines as he went through. Later on we spotted a faint light on Blascke Is.(sp) Put the Whaler in the water and I went to the shore and there was the crew from the Hornet. Capt. Lee was a bad diabetic and his insulin went down with the tug. We put all four mains on the line and headed for Ketchikan at 23 knots! Quite a feat cause it seemed the Engineers could never get those 4 Cummins 903 truck engines to work in sinc. Anyway we got him to the Hospital in time and he lived to tug another day. He had lost a leg to his disease and later on he was running from Wrangell South and didn’t put his leg on and went out on deck to relieve himself and was never seen again. Great to talk to you again Capt Mark. Take care and merry Christmas to you and your family. Capt John Clark Arlington, Wa.
WE WERE CALLED TO RELIEVE THE MARINE RETRIEVER OF HER TOW OUTSIDE THE LOCKS. SHE HAD TOWED THE EX-NOAA BOAT, EX-NAVY SPY SHIP A T-AGOS CLASS. HER NOAA NAME WAS “KA’IMIMOANA” FROM NEWPORT, OREGON TO SHILSHOLE. WE WOULD TAKE HER IN TOW AND BRING HER THRU THE LOCKS TO STABBERT YACHT & SHIP. JERRY WHITE OF COOS BAY OWNS THE TUG. HERE ARE SOME OF THE PHOTOS.
I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR A PHOTO OF THE TUG LEWIS II WHICH DAD BOUGHT FROM BELLINGHAM TUG & BARGE. I GOT TO LOOKING AT THIS OLD TIME PHOTO OF BELLINGHAM’S FLEET AND ON THE END WAS THE LEWIS II. I TRIED TO BLOW IT UP BUT IT WAS NOT VERY GOOD, SO I HAVE FOUND A PHOTO OF THE LEWIS II BUT I AM STILL LOOKING FOR A BETTER ONE.
BOB RICHARDSON, OUR MAN IN COOS BAY, SENT THESE PHOTOS AND THE ONE OF MARINE RETRIEVER ON THE BAR. THANKS BOB.
OUR MAN ON WHIDBEY ISLAND STAN WILLHIGHT REALLY GETS AROUND AND TAKES MY FAVORITE—-BLACK & WHITE PICTURES. THANKS STAN.
HAD TWO NICE LETTERS FROM NICK ROMAN IN FLORIDA. HE IS AN OLD TIME TUG BOAT MAN FROM BRITISH COLUMBIA THAT SWALLOWED THE ANCHOR AND WAS IN THE REAL ESTATE BUSINESS DOWN SOUTH.
Thanks to all of you who send in pictures and facts so that I can share the information one photo at a time, anything that you send me, I can scan and send back to you as good as new.
- Crowley decals and cloth patches for jackets & caps. The one I really like says “Red Stack Tugs”
- Old Cary-Davis & Puget Sound Tug & Barge Photos & Advertisements.
- Old Cannery Tender & Log towing photos.
- We buy old tug and waterfront photos or collections and snapshots, as well as (pre-1946) Marine Digest magazines. We also buy old marine stuff: models, lights, etc.
- Wanted: photo of tug LEWIS I; builders plate from USCG CUTTER BONHAM and photo of Pacific Towboats SEA MULE.
Please donate to the Northwest Seaport to help repair the ARTHUR FOSS we don’t want to lose her to old age. So far we have lost the CHICKAMAUGA and the IVANHOE.
ALL THE BEST FROM:
Mark & Margie Freeman, Captains Erik & Tom, Miss Blue, Richie, The Mark Freeman Maritime Museum, Tatoosh Towing & Salvage, Fremont Boat Co. Fremont Tugboat Co. and the three cats. Braveheart (Indy), Razz & Batman.