No Survivors

Monday, June 18, 2012

At 2:10 a.m. on October 24, 1918, the Princess Sophia ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal, which is part of Alaska's Inner Passage. The ship stayed there, firmly wedged in the rocks, for almost 40 hours before the wind and the waves changed course and sent the severely damaged ship to its death. During that time, the 278 passengers and 65 crew members watched other boats circling the wreck and waited to be rescued. And yet, there were no survivors.*

I've been doing research on maritime disasters, and I thought it would be interesting to blog on some of them. So this week and the next two I will talk about the sinking of three passenger ships that generated a lot of press at the time, but whose stories have been eclipsed by the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic.

The picture shows the Princess Sophia around 1912, shortly after she was built.** She was 245 feet long and could carry up to 500 passengers with special permission, although her normal capacity was 250.

The Princess Sophia made regular runs between Vancouver, Canada and Skagway, Alaska from late spring through early fall. In October, many residents of Alaska and the Yukon went "outside" for the winter, much as the Florida snowbirds head south today. In 1918, many felt lucky to have tickets on the Princess Sophia for one of the last trips out by water.

The passengers on that fateful trip ranged from gold miners and laborers to politicians and businessmen and their families. The passenger manifest included 37 women and 18 children.

Not long after the Princess Sophia left Skagway, it ran into a blinding snowstorm. Captain Locke had experienced white-out conditions before, and he did not slow down. So when he got off course and ran into Vanderbilt Reef, the ship went right up onto the rocks and stuck fast.

The Princess Sophia put out a distress call and was soon surrounded by would-be rescuers. But the reef and the gale conditions made it impossible for those boats to get close. Captain Locke considered putting his passengers into lifeboats but was concerned that they would capsize in the raging waves and the occupants would drown--something that had happened recently in another shipwreck. Since the Princess Sophia was firmly wedged in the rocks of the shallow reef, he decided to stay put until the weather calmed down. Several high tides passed without budging the ship, which seemed to confirm his judgment.

But late in the afternoon of October 25, the wind shifted and pushed the ship off the rocks. With the huge gashes cut into the hull by the original grounding, the Princess Sophia never had a chance. And because of the stormy conditions and the darkness, the would-be rescuers could only pray for the passengers' safety. A prayer that God answered in his own way, but not as the rescuers hoped.

The official inquiry concluded that the accident was nobody's fault and the decision to wait before evacuating the passengers was a judgment call that could have gone either way. But the politicians in Washington may share part of the blame. For years, Alaskan shipping interests had been asking for a light on Vanderbilt Reef, and their pleas had gone unanswered. After the Princess Sophia sank, they finally got their light.

Why do so few people remember the Princess Sophia? I think it is because there are no survivor stories to add to the romance.

But I would love to know what the passengers thought and did as they were trapped on the stranded ship.


* If you want more information, I recommend The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her, by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison.

*** I got the picture from Wikipedia, which says the photographer is unknown. The photo is in the public domain.

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