Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) continues research efforts to locate an historic shipwreck lost in 1923. Built at the turn-of-the-century, the sailing vessel WATSON A. WEST was reported stranded at the western end of San Miguel Island, which surrounding waters lie within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park.

The Watson A. West Underway

Watson A West The four-masted schooner loaded on 800,000 board feet of lumber at Grays Harbor, a lumber port located in the southern region of Washington State. With 1500 tons of cargo fully loaded in her holds and secured to her deck, she left port on 10 February 1923 en route for San Pedro Harbor. Captain Ludwig M. W. Sorensen of San Francisco was master aboard the WEST for her owner Pacific Freighters Company of San Francisco. On Friday, 23 February the schooner approached the Santa Barbara northern channel around 11:30 in the evening with wind from the west at 6 knots and a heavy sea running. Captain Sorensen later reported in the official "Record Of Casualties To Vessels," when the schooner approached the channel they encountered thick fog and the evening was dark. The men on watch having "less than a boat length" of visibility were on a collision course for the breakers off San Miguel Island. As the island loomed into sight the helm was quickly brought about with an attempt to set a new course to seaward. It was too late, the jagged rock reefs of this remote island had claimed yet another vessel joining the numerous shipwrecks off Point Bennett.

The crew of ten scrambled to launch the lifeboat, having no time to gather their personal belongings. As for Captain Sorensen, he was aware that the WATSON A. WEST was breaking up and did not waste time searching for the ship's papers but grabbed a chart, compass and chronometer, knowing these navigating instruments would be crucial to their survival. The crew "exhausted, hungry, thirsty, half-clad" reached Santa Barbara after rowing eighteen hours. The WATSON A. WEST and the cargo became a total loss, the vessel being valued at $10,000 and her cargo at $30,000.

The schooner is the last of the larger documented shipwrecks to be located in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park. To date the search for the WATSON A. WEST has challenged researchers. The shipwreck remains of the lumber schooner, a product of the McWhinney and Cousins shipyards of Aberdeen, Washington, would offer researchers and underwater archeaologists an opportunity to study turn-of-the-century construction methods and learn about the social community aboard ship.

History of the Watson A. West

Watson A West Captain width= The keel of the four-masted lumber schooner WATSON A. WEST was laid down at the shipyard of McWhinney and Cousins located in Aberdeen, Washington. Upon completion in 1901, the schooner was christened with the name of A. J. West's son, Watson A. West. The pioneering A. J. West was noted for building one of the first sawmills in Aberdeen. Master Carpenter William Henry McWhinney oversaw the schooner's construction for her new owners Slade & West Lumber Co. of Aberdeen. California. The cargoes of the WATSON A. WEST were delivered to coastal ports in California and distant ports such as Australia, Chili, Mexico, Japan, Peru, Philippines, Singapore and South Africa. In her twenty-two year career she changed owners only once, when purchased by Pacific Freighters of San Francisco, California. Although she had only two owners, her homeport changed several times which included Port Townsend, Seattle, Port Angeles, Honolulu and San Francisco. Researchers have located early "Records Of Casualties To Vessels" for the WEST that indicate that not all her voyages met without mishap. On one particular voyage she was a day out of Sourabaya, Java enroute to San Francisco with a cargo of copra when her sails, gaff and halyards were carried away in a heavy squall. Although crippled, she was able to make Uraga, Japan for repairs.

Vessel Specifications

Official Number: 81782
Rig: Schooner
Masts: 4
Length: 192.5 (feet)
Beam: 40.0 (feet)
Depth of Hold: 14.2 (feet)
Gross Tonnage: 818
Net Tonnage: 747

Building the Watson A. West

Building the Watson A West Photo

Cousins and McWhinney Shipyard (circa 1901).
Possibly one of these vessels is the WATSON A. WEST under construction.

William Henry McWhinney was born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick in 1853, and moved to Warwig, British Columbia with his parents at the age of four. From 1874 until 1880, he worked in the logging and shipbuilding trade in British Columbia, Washington and California. He was noted for building a marine railway and was employed in ship repair at Eureka, California. Relocating to Hoquiam, Washington in 1899, McWhinney went to work at George Hitchings' shipyard. A year later, he established a partnership with Euphronius Cousins of Eureka and started the company Cousins & McWhinney Shipyard of Aberdeen, Washington. In 1901, the same year the WATSON A. WEST was completed, Mr. Cousins died and the firm was operated by McWhinney alone until 1904. McWhinney was noted for building several four-masted schooners during this period until the shipyard was destroyed by fire.

Historical Research for the Watson A. West

A literature search of original documents is presently being conducted by the CINMS Maritime Heritage Coordinator, accessing possible leads to the location of the WATSON A. WEST. Shortly after the stranding of the four-masted schooner the local island vessel SANTA ROSA ISLAND returned to the site. The Los Angeles Times newspaper on 26 February 1923, reported the following, although incorrectly describing the WEST as a steamer. "Insurance Men to View Scene of Shipwreck" "SANTA BARBARA. Feb. 25 -- Capt. Ludwig Sorensen of the lumber steamer Watson A. West, which grounded on the rocks of San Miguel Island, thirty miles off the coast and fifty-five miles from Santa Barbara Friday night, left today with the marine insurance adjusters from Los Angeles aboard the Santa Rosa Island steamer for the scene of the wreck. Fishermen from the scene of the wreck state that the 800,000 feet of lumber is covering the sea and strewing the island coast. They declare the steamer is a complete loss. The point where the vessel went down is known here as the graveyard of ships, for numerous vessels have been sunk there since vessels first plied the channel waters." A couple of days after the SANTA ROSA ISLAND visited the shipwreck, the Los Angeles Times reports the island vessel VAQUERO heading to the site. "The power schooner VAQUERO left late yesterday for San Miguel Island to the scene of the wreck of the schooner WATSON A. WEST which went down late Saturday after striking the rocky point of the island. The VAQUERO will attempt to salvage part of the lumber cargo of the wrecked windjammer and also has a number of Los Angeles surveyors and marine insurance men on board."The following month the United States Coast Cutter TAMAORA went in search for the remains of the WATSON A. WEST off San Miguel Island. CINMS is also looking to the community for assistance, especially the commercial diving community who may have encountered wreckage during their dives in the region.
Upon discovery of the WATSON A. WEST, an underwater archaeological survey will be conducted.

Shipwrecks off Point Bennett

Point Bennet Photo There have been several shipwrecks near Point Bennett over the years, both sail and steam. Six years preceding the loss of the WATSON A. WEST the 1917 United States Coast Pilot for the Pacific Coast, gives the following description for this region;

"San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Santa Barbara Islands, and is the most dangerous to approach.

Point Bennett, the western point of the island, is a long, narrow, jagged bluff, 40 feet high, rising rapidly to 380 feet; high sand dunes extend inland from the point for 2 miles. There are three rocky islets south of and close under the point, and foul ground extends 3/4 mile westward and northward of the point, but inside the limit of the kelp." Documented vessel casualties in the western region of San Miguel Island during the years 1876 to 1967 are listed below. Several more vessels have met their demise in this same region since 1967, including a recent stranding of the fishing vessel LADY CHRISTINE in 1997.

Add chart here

The Importance of Underwater Archaeological Surveys

Point Bennet Photo An underwater field investigation of the WATSON A. WEST would offer researchers and the pubic an opportunity to study life aboard ship and turn-of-the-century ship construction methods. Shipwrecks are very important historic resources, offering a unique opportunity of viewing past societies. Unlike terrestrial land sites where modern events can contaminate the site, the underwater site is typically isolated from these events. A shipwreck site is truly a time capsule of a given day frozen in time. Archaeologists systematically map the underwater site, which can take years to complete. Slowly a snapshot of history starts to develop, offering a window into the past.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations National Marine Sanctuary Program manages these historic resources providing protection to benefit the American people and future generations. "The shipwreck remains of the Channel Islands reflect the diverse range of the activities and nationalities that traversed the Santa Barbara Channel. Chinese junks, Russian and Mexican sailing ships, American coastal traders, and Gold Rush-era steam ships have all sunk in these waters. Each has a story to tell about the history, technology, and society of earlier times." Fathoming Our Past, Bruce Terrell, NOAA Historian and Archaeologist.

Other known shipwreck sites located within the sanctuary and park are presently being studied and mapped through the assistance of the Coastal Maritime Archaeology Resources (CMAR) organization.The history of shipwrecks and archaeological work being performed in the Channels Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park is exhibited at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

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