Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
The Heroes of the Hanalei
Captain J.J. Carey had left explicit orders for his second mate William Reese. Steer a course east by south for eighteen miles. Once those eighteen miles had been logged, alter course to east half north but only after heaving the lead line to determine depth. Captain Carey was confident in his second mate. The coastwise trade was all about making port calls at their determined times. As Captain Carey left the bridge and walked about the decks he questioned his decision. Should he instead pass orders for Reese to head to the lightship and go through the main channel instead? He looked out at the thick fog that surrounded his charge. He reached up and grabbed the rail. No, he countered his instincts, losing two or three hours would be a mistake he would have to explain to his supervisors. They cared only about profits and schedules he pondered as he peered out at the dense fog bank. Safety, he reflected, was secondary. He let go the rail and continued on his walk about the decks. He offered a good morning greeting and a nod of his cap to two female passengers as he continued his round of the steamer. The Hanalei, with a cargo of railroad ties, shingles and general mercantile, continued on her voyage from Eureka to San Francisco, California. It was late morning, November 23, 1914. Thirty officers and crew and thirty-six passengers, fourteen of which were women and children, were aboard and under his charge. Captain Carey reached down and felt the chain of his pocket watch. His fingers slid down the chain and he pulled his watch free from his jacket pocket. Flipping it open, he checked the time. Lunch, he reflected to himself. He closed the cover of his watch and slipped the watch back into his jacket pocket. Before he could take another step toward the galley, he heard a fateful cry…“Breakers!”
It was too late. Captain Carey tried to ascertain their position. Waves began to crash over the steamer. Reese braced himself. He pleaded to the captain that he had followed his directions precisely. Now was not the time to determine fault. It was a time for action to avoid the situation from getting worse. The steamer careened closer and closer to the reef. Within moments, the steamer lurched aground. Evasive action was taken but there was no way to escape the breaking walls of sea water that were pushing the steamer harder and harder aground. The steamer was approximately nine hundred feet, Captain Carey estimated as he scanned through small breaks in the fog bank, from the shoreline. Captain Carey turned to Reese. Send word to shore. “Steamer Hanalei hard aground. Duxbury Reef. Send help.” Reese raced to the wireless shack. Assistant wireless operator, Adolph J. Svenson transmitted the message. Meanwhile, Loren A. Lovejoy, the lead wireless officer who was also serving as the purser, raced to the bridge to secure the ship’s papers. Lovejoy then rejoined Svenson and took over communications. Waves rattled the shack as the two Marconi men transmitted messages to nearby vessels. Two Standard Oil tankers, the El Segunda and Richmond, altered their courses to render assistance. Chief Engineer Pettingill rushed into the shack. The engine room was flooded and he did not know how long the dynamos would provide power to the equipment. Lovejoy understood. The ability to contact shore stations and other vessels would be shortened. Lovejoy relieved Svenson from his duties and instructed him to help others. Any of the pounding waves could destroy the shack. Better to only sacrifice himself, he explained. Pettingill, weary of the young man’s safety, stood in the hatch ready to pull him free. Only moments later, the prescient Pettingill pulled Lovejoy from the shack as a massive wall of water splintered the shack into kindling. The Hanalei continued to be pounded by the thirty foot walls of water but word of her status had reached shore.
The United States Life Saving Service knew that based on the reported position of the steamer there would be no way to launch a rescue utilizing beach-based equipment. Officers knew that the rescue would have to take place from the sea. The Fort Point and Bonita Point stations were ordered to put out to the location and render aid. Within thirty minutes, two power lifeboats, the Majestic and Defender, were underway and heading to Duxbury Reef. The United States Revenue Cutter McCulloch, already outbound from San Francisco, altered her course and steamed northward to also render assistance.
Meanwhile, aboard the Hanalei, the situation had worsened. The steamer slowly but steadily continued to be pushed closer to the shore. Horrific creaks and groans from the steamer were interspersed with the quiet murmurs of prayers by the passengers and crew as they braced themselves from the waves rumbling across the decks. Attempts to launch the lifeboats had failed. As soon as they had been lowered, the incoming combers had shattered them into pieces. Captain Carey’s plan to try to get a line to the shoreline had also failed. The steamer, her hull scraping along the rocky bottom inched closer and closer to most certain destruction along the cragged coastline.
The Majestic and Defender reached the reported location but could find nothing. The keepers and their surfmen edged closer and closer shoreward to try and see through the thick fog that blanketed the coastline. The lifesavers continued their search northward but still had no luck in finding the distressed steamer. Finally, at three o’clock in the afternoon they discovered the Hanalei. She was actually aground on the reef at Point Bolinas. The Hanalei was in a terrible position with her bow facing east. The onslaught of the thirty-foot waves had listed her to nearly forty-five degrees. The keepers and surfmen scanned the wreck. The steamer’s passengers and crew, from what they could see through the fog, were quartered on the stern, aft of the house, seeking protection from the walls of sea water slamming against her hull. The lifesavers determined their course of action. The best way, the men concurred, was to get to the lee side of the steamer. The Majestic and Defender made their approaches through the massive waves.
The engines on both of the lifeboats failed during their first attempts. As the walls of water swamped the engines, the keepers were forced back to the open sea to avoid being broached or grounded themselves. A second pass was made with the same result. The powerful surf was drowning the engines. The keepers again retreated to the open sea to repair their engines. The lifesavers were determined to reach the Hanalei. On the third attempt, a huge wave pitched the Defender shoreward. The lifeboat capsized and after the wave passed, it righted itself in the surf. Four of the lifesavers including Keeper Jack Clark and Surfman Stoll, had been jettisoned into the surf. Two of the lifesavers were able to quickly scramble back into the boat. Keeper Clark, who had been thrown nearly forty feet when the lifeboat pitched, yelled to the men aboard the Defender. Go back out to the open sea he ordered. He would swim ashore – two hundred yards away – to inform the service of the correct position of the steamer so that additional equipment could be attained. He then yelled to Surfman Stoll to try and make for the wreck. Stoll fought through the surf and was pulled aboard the Hanalei. As the battered Defender motored slowly out of the surf, Keeper Clark began trying to swim against the powerful swells toward shore. As darkness began to fall upon the scene, the two lifeboats sought refuge alongside the U.S.R.C. McCulloch. With word passed by the cutter of the correct position of the wreck, lifesavers in San Francisco dispatched a crew of men from the Golden Gate Station in a truck to the scene. Throughout the night the lifesavers on land plodded the sixty miles through dense forests and unpaved roads to reach the steamer. The plight aboard the Hanalei continued as the steamer scraped closer and closer to the shore.
Meanwhile, in the raging waters of Bolinas Point, Keeper Clark fought against the terrible conditions. Despite his excellent swimming abilities and physical strength, the sea would not release him from her steely grip. The swells and surf, coupled with the raging currents, had pushed him around the steamer on two occasions. Though close enough to scramble aboard the steamer, Keeper Clark waved off the offers of assistance to be saved from the torrent. He had to get word to shore that he and his fellow lifesavers needed reinforcements. Finally, two and a half hours later, onlookers who were standing on the rocky beachhead pulled the unconscious lifesaver from the crashing surf. Amazingly, despite his battle in the breakers, Keeper Clark was alive.
After a six hour drive Keeper Nelson and his seven lifesavers reached the bluff. The plan was to set up a breeches buoy apparatus so that the passengers and crew could be taken ashore over and through the waves. At two o’clock in the morning the first line from the Lyle gun pierced through the fog toward the steamer. Six attempts were made but all failed to be secured by the officers and crew of the steamer. Lashed to one of the masts, wireless operator Lovejoy utilized Morse code using a hand-held lamp to several Marconi operators ashore. His blinking lamp was replied to through the fog by the more powerful lamps of an automobile positioned on the crest of the bluff. The messages from the Hanalei asking for assistance or rendering information for the lifesavers gave hope for both parties. At half past three a terrible rumble was heard by the lifesavers. The Hanalei was breaking up. Desperate screams for help echoed through the surf. Railroad ties, shingles, parts of the steamer, and bodies began to careen through the combers toward the strand. Keeper Nelson and his men shifted their operations to the rocky beach below. Forming a human chain the lifesavers trudged into the surf. Battered by the huge waves, flotsam and debris from the steamer, the lifesavers began grabbing survivors as they approached. A total of thirty souls were pulled from the surf and provided succor ashore.
Aboard the Majestic at first light, Keeper Nutter and two small boats manned by cuttermen from the McCulloch stormed through the fog to the site of the wreck. The lifesavers at sea had no idea that the steamer had broken up hours earlier. Once through the fog the carnage of the scene became horribly evident. Despite the debris strewn surf Keeper Nutter charged into the combers to try and save those who might be still struggling shoreward. Surfman Maxwell, spotting two souls struggling in the surf, leapt into the raging sea and pulled them to the lifeboat. Thirteen souls were pulled from the sea by the Golden Gate lifesavers and the cuttermen along with fifteen who had succumbed to their struggle in the surf. Once the men were convinced that no one else could be saved or pulled from the tempest, Keeper Nutter maneuvered the Majestic clear of the breakers and headed back to the U.S.R.C. McCulloch. Heaving anchor the revenue cutter steamed at full speed to San Francisco so that the survivors could receive advanced medical attention. Doctors and nurses from the Public Health Service met the cutter, via harbor tug, and began offering their assistance. Upon mooring the survivors were transferred to local hospitals for treatment. The removal of the fifteen dead from the cutter on the San Francisco pier left an indelible image of the horrific grounding and subsequent carnage of the incident.
Twenty-three lives - ten of the crew and thirteen of the passengers - had been lost in the grounding of the steamer Hanalei. Despite the saving of forty-three souls, the public decried the loss of life and the service’s handling of the rescue was condemned. How could so many of the passengers and crew be lost when the steamer was so near the shore? Why had there been a delay in getting equipment on the beachhead? As additional details came to light through the fog of misinformation, the public learned of the heroic efforts made by the lifesavers and cuttermen to try and save those aboard the steamer. The misreported location of the wreck, provided by Captain Carey and his men, had set the lifesavers up for failure and delayed the rescuers by several hours. “After a most thorough investigation of all the circumstances attending the loss of this vessel nothing but the highest praise is now heard concerning the conduct of the members of the service on this occasion.” Keeper Jack Clark, the lifesaver who vainly battled the raging surf to try and get word to others of the position of the wreck was later awarded the service’s highest laurel, the Gold Lifesaving Medal.
In his annual report, the Secretary of the Treasury penned “It is doubtful if in the annals of shipwrecks any was ever before reported as having occurred within the scope of the Coast Guard establishment which was attended by so many dramatic incidents and spectacular features, or one where those lives in peril were subjected to so long a period of mental distress while waiting for their vessel to break up under them, or compelled to face a more terrifying ordeal after that event took place. There certainly could not be a shipwreck in which the individual examples of heroism, self-sacrifice, and humanitarian service on the part of the rescuers could be more numerous or more praiseworthy.” The horrific sea conditions, walls of thirty foot surf, and the position of the wreck along a barren and difficult to reach location had significantly hampered the lifesavers’ efforts. Despite the challenges the public learned that the loss of life, had it not been for the rescuers, would have most likely been much higher if the lifesavers of the United States Lifesaving Service and the men of the United States Revenue Cutter Service had not risen to the occasion. The men of the United States Lifesaving Service served were true heroes of the Hanalei rescue and performed in the finest traditions of the service and were, as their service required, sentinels and saviors of the seas.
Popular Mechanics. Magazine.
“Radio Gone, Ship Signals Rescuers with Lights,” February 15, 1915.
Onetuberadio.com. “Shipwreck of the Hanalei, 1914.” Online article.
The New York Times.
“Steamer, 58 aboard on Pacific Coast Reef,” November 24, 1914.
The Wireless Age. Magazine.
“Rising to an Emergency,” January, 1915.
“My Story of the Wreck of the Hanalei,” January, 1915.
U.S. Department of the Treasury. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances Year Ended June 30, 1915. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C., 1916.