Prince Arthur’s lament

Posted by Ken Campbell October 26, 2009 0 Comment 657 views

It was a dark and stormy night. (Stories that begin in this manner rarely end well.)

On January 2nd, 1903, a winter gale was raging along the Olympic coast, roiling the waters and obscuring the vision of the crew on board the three-masted Norwegian vessel, the “Prince Arthur.” At some point, Captain Hans Markusson saw a light off the starboard rail and took it to be the beacon on Tatoosh Island that marked the southern entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He gave the order to turn hard toward it, and in a matter of minutes the ship ran aground on the rock-encrusted shore. The hull snapped in two, “like a toothpick,” according to one account, and the crew was washed off the doomed hulk one by one and thrown into the angry sea. Of the 20 souls on board, only two survived.

It is not known for certain what Captain Markusson saw that night, perhaps a light from a logging camp or from the cabin of local settler Ivan Burkestol. It might just as easily been the play of ambient light on the prisms of the night waves. Whatever it was that he saw, it most assuredly was not the Tatoosh light, still some 30 miles north of his position.

Most of the crew were young apprentice seamen, and they never had a chance. There were no rescue stations set up along the wild shore yet, and a radio on which to send an SOS had not yet been invented. It was dark as hell, the shadow coast was a serrated edge of stone and white water, and each of the men must have felt a sense of desperate solitude at the end. The 18 who perished are still there, wrapped in a sail from the ship, and buried under the concrete marker.

It is easy to lose your way, especially in a storm at sea. It is somewhat paradoxical that, at precisely the time when all hell is breaking loose, it is necessary to be calm and cool, well-reasoned and logical. To examine the facts and see them, not simply as they may appear to be, but for what they really are. Easy to say but very difficult to do.

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