Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ghost Ships at Work

A lovely panorama of a Puget Sound marina with snow-capped mountains. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

But wait! What's really going on here? What is familiar about that shape in the middle with the small forest growing out of it?

This is actually the ship La Merced, once a proud schooner, now a permanent part of a breakwater for nautical businesses on Guemes Channel at Anacortes.

Over fifty years La Merced has created its own ecosystem. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

La Merced was built in 1917 in Benicia California, during the ship-building boom of World War I. She carried petroleum products for Standard Oil and other concerns. Like so many of the big ships, she was eventually converted for us as a cannery in Alaska. In 1966 she was sold to Lovric Shipyard in Anacortes where she was filled with sand and dirt and grounded on a bed of rubble. The ship was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

La Merced at Anacortes, circa 1966. Photo, National Register of Historic Places.

There are a number of examples of ships used as breakwaters. La Merced is a bit unusual among these in that the hulk is raised completely out of the water and thus readily visible. In most cases, ships enlisted into service as breakwaters have been sunk to the waterline or just above, with only portions visible at low tide.

D-Day -- June 6, 1944

The most notable historical example are the ghost ships of Normandy -- a flotilla of American and British merchant ships on a suicide mission. As the Allies prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy in an all-out assault on the entrenched German forces, somewhere between 50 and 100 old er or damaged ships limped across the English Channel to be deliberately sunk as part of the complicated landing strategy devised for the treacherous beaches. Called "corncobs," these hulks did their part to create breakwaters to protect troop transports.

The Ghost Ships of British Columbia

We have several examples of ship breakwaters in our own backyard -- almost. Three such installations exist on the inner coast of Vancouver Island -- at Royston, Kelsey Bay, and Oyster Bay, as well as one at Power River on the mainland of British Columbia. All were built in service of the lumber industry beginning in the 1930s, creating sheltered harbor -- uh, harbours -- for log booms. The Powell River group is the largest floating hulk breakwater in the world, according to Tourism Powell River. The 10 concrete-hulled ships, many of them damaged in service to the U.S. Army, are sunk 12-15 feet underwater and held in place by concrete anchors. 

Ship breakwater at Royston, Vancouver Island. Photo, Gerry Thomasen, [Creative Commons]

A number of the Vancouver Island hulks have Puget Sound connections. The St. Paul is an 1874-built clipper ship which ended her days afloat as a museum ship berthed at Seattle's Hiram M. Chittenden Locks during the 1930s. In 1942 she was towed up to Oyster Bay and sunk. The five-masted barquentine Forest Friend was built in Aberdeen in 1919 and served, naturally enough, the lumber trade, including mills on Puget Sound and Lake Washington. However, her career lasted barely a decade, far less than the St. Paul, before damage and legal troubles sidelined her. At some point in the 1950s she was "holed, sunk, and used as a breakwater," according to her registry. (James) A floating drydock from Puget Sound is an even more unusual addition to the Oyster Bay breakwater.

The St. Paul under tow out of Seattle, circa 1923. 
Courtesy Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (Williamson Collection)

  • Rick James, The Ghost Ships of Royston (Vancouver: Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, 2004).
  • Rick James, "Fine Old Ships of Yesteryear continue to serve...but perhaps for not much longer," Resolution (Maritime Museum of British Columbia), Winter 1995, pp. 13-17.
  • Joseph Israels II, "Ghost Ships at Normandy," New York Tribune Inc., November, 1944.
  • National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form for La Merced, 90000588.
  • Brochure: The Giant Hulks Tourist Information, Tourism Powell River.

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