Discovering the Billings Shipwreck


It turns out X actually does mark the spot.

Photos by Patrick Smith

 

As I sit here writing, my body is moving slowly back and forth in anticipation of the movement of a vessel I am no longer on.  Back on Terra Firma after six days at sea aboard a small research vessel, I’ve come back with many memories to accompany my body’s echoing response to nearly 150 hours of movement both above and below the sea.

This most recent survey in support of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary involved final site investigation and photo documentation of a five-masted schooner the George E. Billings – a rare type of ship and one of the largest sailing vessels ever built on the West Coast, a vessel that was intentionally sunk by her owner in early February, 1941.  The owner was forced to this dramatic response by events beyond his control.  It was a time of bloody conflict, high tension and suspicion in the world. Just ten months later, Japan’s sneak attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor would thrust America into World War II.

 

The scuttling of the George E. Billings, starts with the story of two other ships. In September 1940, a Japanese passenger-freighter, the Sakito Maru broadsided the Olympic II, an iron-hulled fishing barge just three miles outside Los Angeles harbor. Seven of the Olympic II’s passengers and crew died, and the ship came to rest on the bottom of the ocean. Witnesses reported that the Sakito Maru slalomed around several other wooden barges and seemingly aimed for the iron-hulled Olympic II.  Then, instead of holding his ship in the gaping hole, the Maru’s captain a 30-year veteran officer, immediately backed away from the mortally wounded Olympic II, in effect removing the cork from the bottle and guaranteeing a swift demise of the barge. This violated a basic tenant of seamanship that even the rawest recruit knows, and was an incomprehensible action from such an experienced seaman. 

The Billings loading lumber in Washington state, 1904. Photo courtesy University of Washington.

These actions, so confusing at the time, perhaps made more sense 15 months later.  Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese submarines began attacks on West Coast shipping.  One of the first attacks happened just a few miles from where the Olympic II lay on the bottom.  Naval authorities belatedly realized that an iron wreck like the Olympic II lying at the front door to the Long Beach Navy Base provided the perfect camouflage for a lurking sub.  These attacks seemed to give rationale to the actions of the Sakito Maru months before.

A US Coast Guard investigation into the sinking of the Olympic II found most fishing barges were converted sailing vessels that had originally been designed to carry bulk cargos such as coal, lumber, wheat, salt, jute and the like, so they were not built with water tight bulkheads.  Any major hull damage to these barges would likely result in the rapid sinking, so the Coast Guard mandated barges carrying passengers for hire were to have water-tight bulkheads. Since most of the fishing barges were shoestring operations, their owners could not afford such costly modifications to what were already obsolete vessels. Failure to comply with the new regulations however, invoked a $500 per day fine. When faced with this cost, the owner of the Billings promptly notified the Coast Guard he would destroy his ship.

But the question remained: where was the Billings scuttled?

You would think that it would be hard to lose a 224-foot vessel, but it is a very big ocean.  It took the discovery of a contemporary photo of the vessel’s destruction, investigation by government and civilian researchers and several years of effort to zero in on the final resting place of the George E. Billings. 

The Shearwater heading out of Ventura Harbor.

Once the general location was pretty firmly established, divers from the National Park Service (NPS), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Coastal Maritime Archaeology Resources (CMAR) swam the suspected loss site. 

And swam, and swam and swam. 

We saw a lot of beautiful kelp forest and underwater scenery and were invited to play with the myriad sea lions that joined us on every search, but no wreck.  The embarrassing truth is the first artifact was not discovered by any of us submerged cultural resource experts, but by the only biological scientist on the trip, Dr. Steve Katz.  Steve was swimming transects off the island taking water samples when he spotted a piece of ship’s hardware – a closed chock – and marked it with a float.  Chocks are heavy metal devices placed strategically about a ship’s rails to guide and prevent chaffing of mooring lines.  We knew that an artifact of that size and weight could not move very far from a wrecking event; we were close.

With hard evidence of a wreck in the area we redoubled our search efforts and widened our search perimeter.  This was necessary since as we later discovered, the chock, - the initial artifact - turned out to be an isolated piece surprisingly distant from the main wreck site.  So, searching an area we had earlier discounted, we finally discovered the last resting place of the Billings.  Ironically, “X” did mark the spot.  The first ship’s artifacts I saw were two of the numerous iron drifts – long metal rod fastenings used to hold the massive timbers together in wooden ship construction.  These fastenings were lying crossed on the sea bottom marking the edge of the wreck scatter.  The adrenalin rush of that discovery and then, swimming further and coming across more of ship’s fittings is an excitement like nothing else; it is diving into and touching history.

A closed chock from the Billings, which has become part of the substrate for numerous marine organisms.

With the discovery, the mystery of “where” is solved, but work on the puzzle of the wreck begins.  Swimming over shapes that are alien in Nature – straight lines, curves, circles – all these “things” in the process of becoming one with the ocean have acquired calcareous coatings and cocoons of algae and kelp that mask their original function.  To figure out what these pieces are and where they fit in the structure of a vessel built over 100 years ago becomes the new task.  A task made more challenging not only by time and camouflage, but by surge, the unexpected “assistance” of members of the local sea lion colony and thousands of sea urchins whose needle-sharp spines seem to find our knees, hands and elbows at every turn.

It is magic - I love it!

Having researched and dived Pacific Coast shipwrecks for over 40 years, I enjoy presenting my findings and experiences to various groups.  It is interesting what many people’s perception of a shipwreck is.  Maybe based on a Titanic special or Discovery Channel program, they picture a rusting hulk, damaged and deteriorating but still intact with rooms and areas to penetrate and investigate.  Certainly there are many wrecks of this ilk, but a good many, particularly those that have been lost due to grounding or stranding are rarely found intact.  The waves and currents of the near-shore environment rapidly reduce the structure of the staunchest vessel to a scattered sweep of material, often difficult to recognize as once being a ship.

This is the case with the Billings.  Her initial damage by fire accelerated the destruction brought by wave dynamics, leaving only her fastenings, looking surprisingly like bones, and some major fittings (Hawse pipes, chocks, and mooring bits) to mark her final port of call.

Aside from the history and the puzzle of her parts, what keeps the work on the Billings particularly interesting is the number of spectators who followed our every move on the site.  Hundreds of local sea lion residents seemed to have developed an intense interest in nautical archaeology with our arrival.  Perhaps I can interest them in a presentation on the history of the shipwreck that has become their playground.

 

 

 

Patrick B. Smith, co-author of Shipwrecks of Southern California (Menasha Ridge Press, 1990), is regarded as one of the foremost experts on West Coast maritime history. A California native, he has done over 6,700 scuba dives since 1961, and been a NAUI scuba instructor since 1979. He is a consultant to NOAA, US Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, and the State of California. A US Coast Guard Licensed Captain for 100 ton vessels, Smith has worked as a commercial and scientific diver. He has published papers with the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Society for California Archaeology as well as articles in Los Angeles Times Magazine, California Diver, California Diving News, Skin Diver Magazine, Pacific Diver, Underwater USA, and Sub Aqua Journal. Smith is on the Board of directors of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Society and Coastal Maritime Archaeology Resources-CMAR. A recipient of SSI 5000 Platinum Pro award for service to the diving community, Smith is one of very few non-military, non-government divers permitted to carry out UW research on the USS Arizona.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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