Weather Watch

Two Point Arguello shipwrecks share an ironic connection

Colton Porter, 11, in Morro Bay holding the steam whistle salvaged from the SS Harvard. Colton is the grandson of Carson Porter, who salvaged the whistle off the wrecked ship in the 1970s.
Colton Porter, 11, in Morro Bay holding the steam whistle salvaged from the SS Harvard. Colton is the grandson of Carson Porter, who salvaged the whistle off the wrecked ship in the 1970s. John Lindsey

Navigating the waters along the Central Coast in dense fog is a challenge, despite the adoption of modern navigation equipment. In the early 1900s, it was a nightmare.

However, this wall of gray off our rugged coastline was responsible for an unfathomable twist of fate separated by two decades.

But first, a little background for our beloved landlubbers. Without any visual references on the sea or in the air while in dense fog, you can develop vertigo related to the overwhelming feeling that you’ve lost all sense of direction. In moments like this, I’m always reassured to hear the fog horn of the navigation buoy near the Point San Luis Lighthouse, even though I can’t see the light station’s beacon when sailing these waters.

This fog has been responsible for countless shipwrecks along our coast. Carson Porter, who’s been commercially diving the Central Coast waters longer than I’ve been alive, shared numerous stories of tragic shipwrecks, such as the time seven U.S. Navy destroyers smashed on the rocks off an isolated headland locally known as Honda Point, north of Point Arguello, on Sept. 9, 1923. Twenty-three sailors lost their lives that night in the fog as it blanketed the coastline west of Lompoc. I often think about them. Over the years, this rocky shore has claimed many ships and is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

But the most intriguing story that Porter told me was about a rancher living near Point Arguello who heard the blast of the same whistle on two different steamships in distress — and 20 years apart.

Here’s how: The SS Harvard of the Los Angeles Steamship Co. sounded that it was in distress on May 30, 1931. The ship had masterfully avoided submarine torpedoes and escaped enemy ships in the English Channel during World War I, but in 1931 she ran aground in dense fog four miles north of Point Arguello. Her passengers and crew were safely evacuated, but the vessel was a total loss.

The blast of the whistle was eerily reminiscent of the sound the rancher heard when a Pacific Coast Steam Ship Co. vessel named the Santa Rosa ran aground 20 years earlier near the same location and around the same time of year.

In a strange twist of fate, the whistle he heard in 1931 was the same one he had heard in 1911. The whistle had been salvaged from the Santa Rosa and installed on the Harvard.

Decades later, in the early 1970s, Carson Porter salvaged this steam whistle at the site of the shipwreck. Needless to say, it was never installed on another ship.

Besides Carson Porter, my sources of information for this history are the following books: “Disaster Log of Ships” and “Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast,” both by Jim Gibbs, and “Pacific Coastal Liners,” by Gordon Newell and Joe Williamson.

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John Lindsey’s Weather Watch column is special to The Tribune. Contact him at pgeweather@pge.com

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