Dangerous Shoreline

When I knew I was moving to the Gualala-Pt. Arena area, I researched the history of the area and came across references to hazardous sea travel along this stretch of sea. Sure enough, my friends who have a sailboat told me they avoid this area. I had pictured them easily visiting me by boat.

Commuting along the coast highway, I’ve noticed white caps a little way off shore, in long lines. In a book on the early history of the area, I read that there are rocks below the surface. It all began to make sense. When one looks at a placid sea, or even sees waves crashing against rocky cliffs, one does not picture skeletons of ships peppering the ocean floor. At least I don’t. As one author put it, “the northern coast of California is a ‘graveyard’ for ships.” Researchers estimate that there are more than 300 sunken ships along the Pacific coast though less than 20 have been visually confirmed.

Many histories name the 1850 wreck of the clipper ship Frolic as the most significant, though no one died. After a 44-day voyage of almost 6,000 miles from China, the vessel loaded with household goods destined for Gold Rush miners in San Francisco, hit the rocks just north of where the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse now stands. Some say when people heard of the bounty lying along the coastline from the wreck, the wealth of timber was discovered and the rush to establish lumber mills, leading to most of the towns of this area, began.

The Kelley House in Fort Bragg “gathered information on hundreds of shipwrecks from Gualala to Westport” full of interesting facts about maritime wrecks that led to the building of the Cabrillo and Point Arena Lighthouses.

Most of these wrecks did not occur out at sea, but close to land, due to the “precarious nature of the landing points.” Some shipping points on the Mendocino Coast had rails that led directly to the ship. Others, such as a slide chute located between Gualala and Point Arena, were named “Nip and Tuck” due to the difficulty ships had entering, loading and leaving.

It intrigues me to picture the bones of ships under the waters I pass each day, phantoms lurking in the deeps.

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