More Pigeon Point:…The Hellespont Horror

[Note: I wrote this in 1977.]

The voyage was not a smooth one as Frederick Wilson steered the American ship, Hellespont, along the rocky California coast in November of 1868. Not only dark weather but ruthless winds and a boiling sea blinded the way in the early morning hours.

Captain Cornelius Soule (well known in San Francisco for his fast passages on the “Panama” from New York), believed the Hellepont to be 20 miles out at sea. When the captain suddenly saw the breakers ahead, he kept a cool head issuing commands to “Wear ship“–meaning to change the course away from the wind.

Yet instead of tacking out to sea, the Hellespont easily glided in among the ruthless breakers. The first time she struck heavily, crashing against the black reefs. The second time the waves swung the Hellespont around wildly, striking her broadside.

Captain Soule emerged from the cabin holding an axe and ordered the crew to cut away the masts which they did. As the masts fell overboard, they smashed the lifeboats to pieces. Without warning, a huge breaker struck, this time splitting the Hellespont in half. The tremendous impact ripped apart the main deck and carried it away to sea.

And just as George Thomas, a crew member, crawled to join the others who were desperately clinging to the floating cabin….another violent breaker struck, severing the cabin from the ship, thrusting the men with it 50 or 60 yards towards shore.

As if the moment was not horrifying enough, Captain Soule pointed to a deep wound in his neck and calmly told one of the mates that he was bleeding to death.

Another breaker struck hard, upsetting the cabin, burying everyone beneath the swirling sea. One survivor, George Thomas, swam until he cleared the cabin and could surface for air…and take in the great masses of floating debris.

From time to time the jagged pieces of littered wreckage struck Thomas as he struggled to reach shore. Life had not yet been drained from Captain Soule as he floundered at the mercy of the sea–but his pained look revealed total exhaustion. At one point the captain and George Thomas latched onto the same piece of wreckage.

But when another huge breaker jarred their senses, Captain Soule finally let go, in soul and spirit. Thomas never saw him again.

In the background George Thomas couldn’t drown out his shipmate’s desperate cries for help.

The tough currents thrust Thomas deep under water and sent him soaring back up again. After the sea tossed him about (and he thought he should have drowned by now), a friendly wave gently pushed him to within yards of the beach. But just as the shore appeared so close, a heavy spar struck him in the face, followed by another blow severely bruising his arm.

George Thomas knew he was no stronger than the other men but he had directed his thoughts toward reaching shore safely and survived. He must have wondered if he was the only one spared.

His arm rendered useless, his face cut and bleeding, he still managed to anchor himself in the sand until another powerful wave drove him further onto shore. When, at last he escaped from the clutches of the sea, George Thomas collapsed face down on the cold, sandy beach.

Seconds later two men ran towards him and helped the poor sailor to his feet.

The rugged pair identified themselves as Portuguese whalers who lived on the cliffs above. They took him ton one of their huts where Thomas was reunited with the other lucky seven survivors of the sea disaster. Here they rested until a horse and wagon arrived to bring them to Pescadero.

At the end of that horrible day in November 1868, 11 men, including Captain Soule, all of them courageous, drowned at Pigeon Point.

All along the people of Pescadero had said, build us a lighthouse and shipwrecks and drownings will stop.

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