If you live out in the wilderness in Southeast Alaska, you will continually come across evidence of shipwrecks, new and old. My go-to place for hunting down the background details of a wreck is the website www.alaskashipwreck.com researched and written by Captain Warren Good.
For instance, I’ve long been curious about a massive ship’s deck that rests just below the forest on a nearby beach. I walk by it every time I go to pump water and I can’t help but wonder about its story: who walked its huge decks, if anyone survived the wreck, what caused it to founder, and so many more questions.
By the way it’s constructed I can tell, from online research, that it was built in the 1920s and was between 100 and 200 feet long. I went to alaskashipwreck.com and asked Captain Good if he had anything on the subject and was surprised by how thorough his response was, both on the site and in a separate email.
“I just did a search of wrecks over 150 feet in Southeast between 1900 and 1955,” he wrote. “There are about 2 dozen wrecks that came up and from those, I identified [several] possibilities for a wooden deck or large piece of drift to have made it to Lemesurier Pt. over a period of time … Most of these would have had to drift a good distance to have arrived at the location you described. The 1909 Charger was opposite Lemesurier Pt. up in Karta Bay and may have been drug across Clarence Strait for salvage.”
I could tell that he enjoyed being a detective on the cold case.
“A fun mystery,” he added.
Having always been fascinated by shipwrecks myself, I asked him what got him interested in the subject and he responded: “During the 1970s, I worked as a seasonal deckhand, mostly fishing King Crab and Tanner Crab in the winter. I had off time between the two fisheries and spent it either in the library attempting to ‘self educate’ or out in the wilderness beach combing, prospecting and treasure hunting. Seasons passed and the number of friends I lost to the high seas kept getting larger.”
While wandering the remote, raw and rugged Alaskan beaches between the crabbing seasons, he kept finding more and more evidence of old shipwrecks. One day in the early 1980s he discovered a microfiche file at the Holmes-Johnson Memorial library in Kodiak that included the official Wreck Reports and Casualty Reports of shipwrecks that went back for more than a century.
As he pored over the accounts he realized two things. “First was that the wrecks and disappearances that were taking my friends had been going on for a long time. Second was that the wreck evidence I was finding out in the field could be identified by connecting where I was finding the wreck artifacts with information in the microfiche files.”
There were thousands of wrecks and casualty reports and Good printed out every one.
“The librarian likely thought I was nuts,” he reminisces wryly. “I wore out their heat sensitive printer and their dot matrix unit. A dime a copy doesn’t sound like much till you start printing out thousands of pages.”
By the end of the decade Warren Good was known at the library and wherever fishermen congregated as “that shipwreck guy.” His reputation got around so much, as the go-to-shipwreck expert, that when the Exxon Valdez wrecked on Bligh Reef in 1989, Arny Schryock, head of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, contacted Good to understand what happens during a cold water oil spill.
“That was the first time,” he says, “that I realized my shipwreck research had a value to someone.”
After compiling all of his thousands of pages of information onto his website in 2011 (along with a Facebook page called Alaska Fishermen RIP), he soon found that his work had value to many, many people.
“Because of the nature of most commerical fishing losses,” he notes, “there is little ‘closure’ for family and loved ones. Real forensic evidence of what happened seldom exists and bodies are often never found. Questions and doubt persist through time, and I am at least able to answer some of them with my research.”
He’s had hundreds of family members contact him who are looking for new information about wrecks that happened as far back as a 100 years ago. With word of his research spreading he’s been able to enlist others in his search including a retired marine historian, a well-known Alaskan author, a retired Coast Guard investigator, a multitude of shipwreck survivors and people who lost spouses and other family members. All have contributed to his goal of detailing every shipwreck that has occurred in Alaskan waters.
It’s the family members and friends who touch him the most, because he can identify with them, having lost so many friends over the years. They send him life stories, photographs and first-hand accounts, and answer his questions, providing information he couldn’t find anywhere else.
“Their information may not provide closure,” he acknowledges, “but it helps provide answers and a connection with others who share a common sadness.”
I’ve found this to be true. My family suffered the loss of my Uncle Rand when I was 9 years old. My parents were speaking with him on the radio when his boat sank on the bay where we lived. After telling Captain Good about our loss, he wrote back that he immediately dived into his files and found information on my uncle’s boat. He shared it with me and concluded: “I will be adding the information to my files and it will show up in my books. He will not be forgotten.”
Beyond all of this, his hope is that his website and books might conceivably prevent future losses. He believes that remembering past tragedy has the potential to remind fishermen and other boaters of all the dangers and make them more catious. “I truly believe what George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ When it comes to Alaska shipwrecks, I think this is doubly true.”
His newest book, co-written with marine historian Michael Burwell, is titled, “Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750-2015” and is available through his website, as well as in all major book outlets.
• Tara Neilson grew up in a burned cannery in a remote area of Southeast Alaska. She still lives in the wilderness, in a floathouse near Meyers Chuck. She blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com and readers can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.