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Researchers discover historic century-old shipwreck off Point Conception

A circular skylight collapsed inside the officer’s quarters in the stern of the shipwrecked Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch. To the right of the skylight is a sounding machine that was used to determine the depth of water and was once located on the upper poop deck. The wreck provides habitat for various species of marine life, including vermillion rockfish.
A circular skylight collapsed inside the officer’s quarters in the stern of the shipwrecked Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch. To the right of the skylight is a sounding machine that was used to determine the depth of water and was once located on the upper poop deck. The wreck provides habitat for various species of marine life, including vermillion rockfish.

An underwater excursion using modern-day technology has discovered the remains of a sunken Coast Guard cutter that went down off Point Conception 100 years ago this month.

The Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch was discovered in October by a U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research team, providing details about a little-known naval wreck.

Officials announced the finding on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, and unveiled a website, http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/mcculloch/, dedicated to the discovery.

On June 13, 1917, the McCulloch collided in dense fog with the passenger steamship SS Governor, causing the cutter to sink.

“Standing in the lifeboats with heads bared, the McCulloch’s sailors wept as the cutter, stern in the air, quivered and sank,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported on June 14, 1917. “The famous old vessel lies on the bottom of the ocean, three miles off Point Conception.”

The McCulloch’s entire crew was rescued and taken aboard the Governor, but the ship’s acting water tender died days later from injuries he suffered in the collision.

Equipped with a remotely operated vehicle, the research team last fall explored the wreckage confirmed as the McCulloch via several key features.

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A sonar image shows the shipwreck USCG Cutter McCulloch. The survey was conducted in 2015 off Ocean Exploration Trust’s vessel E/V Nautilus for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. E/V Nautilus Multibeam Sonar Survey 2015

“This discovery highlights an important chapter in U.S. Coast Guard and Navy history, and gives us an opportunity to honor McCulloch’s chief engineer, Frank Randall, the only American fatality at the Battle of Manila Bay, and acting water tender John Johansson, who died from injuries sustained in the collision with the SS Governor,” said Robert Schwemmer, the West Coast regional maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and chief archeologist for the mission.

Working off the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s research vessel Shearwater, the multi-agency science team from NOAA, the National Park Service, and Coast Guard Dive Lockers Alameda and San Diego deployed a VideoRay remotely operated vehicle to survey and characterize the shipwreck.

Coast Guard 11th District cutters Halibut and Blacktip also provided vessel support.

In its underwater mission, the ROV spotted features depicted in historic photographs and ship’s plans.

Those features include the bronze 11-foot propeller; the steam engine and boilers; the engine room skylight; the 15-inch torpedo tube molded in the bow stem; a sounding machine; and 3-pounder and 6-pounder rapid-firing guns arranged in sponsons mounted in the stern and the bow quarters of the ship.

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Launched in 1896, the McCulloch was the largest cutter built to date at a cost of nearly $200,000. It sank in 1917 in heavy fog off Santa Barbara County after colliding with a steamship. Mare Island Museum

The ROV’s cameras revealed McCulloch on the seabed resting on its port side. The wooden hull planking and decks did not survive the harsh ocean conditions as wood-boring organisms left behind steel skeletal remains.

Marine growth, primarily Metridium anemones, blanket the bow’s exterior, while marine life, including ling cod and vermillion and copper rockfish, now inhabit the wreckage.

Before its untimely sinking, the McCulloch had participated in key battles for the United States.

The cutter joined the fleet in 1897, commissioned for the U.S. Treasury Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor to the Coast Guard.

The McCulloch served with Commodore George Dewey in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

“McCulloch and her crew were fine examples of the Coast Guard’s long-standing multi-mission success, from a pivotal naval battle with Commodore Dewey to safety patrols off the coast of California to protecting fur seals in the Pribilof Islands in Alaska,” said Rear Admiral Todd Sokalzuk, the commander of the 11th Coast Guard District.

“The men and women who crew our newest cutters are inspired by the exploits of great ships and courageous crews like the McCulloch. I extend the Coast Guard’s heartfelt thanks to our partners in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for helping us locate this important piece of our heritage and assisting us in preserving its legacy,” Sokalzuk added.

Copy of McCulloch-flying-bridge-helm-cont
The helm, or steering station, was located on the upper-deck of the flying bridge of the Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch. The helm’s steering shaft interfaced with a second helm located in the protected pilothouse one deck below. NOAA/USCG/VideoRay photo

At the time of its construction, McCulloch was the largest cutter, built at a cost of nearly $200,000.

The ship was equipped with a steam engine and three masts rigged with sails, giving it a cruising speed of 17 knots.

Plans for the next phase of the shipwreck’s exploration remain uncertain.

But those hoping to see the wreckage should know the ship, considered U.S. government property, is protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, and the wreckage cannot be disturbed or removed.

The McCulloch’s sinking occurred a few miles south of and six years before the Navy’s worst peacetime loss at Honda Point off the coast of what is now Vandenberg Air Force Base.

On Sept. 8, 1923, 23 sailors died after seven destroyers ran aground when the lead vessel turned too soon, thinking they were at the entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel instead of the treacherous rocky coastline to the north.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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