Taking the Sea: Perilous Waters, Sunken Ships, and the True Story of the Legendary Wrecker Captains

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By the mid-19th century, an intrepid, reckless group of men ruled the ocean. Known as “wreckers,” they earned their living by rescuing and raising sunken ships, even in the face of monstrous waves and fierce weather. To some, they were heroes, helping to rescue both passengers and ships with courage and skill. To others they were ruthless pirates, who exploited these shipwrecks purely for their treasure.

In Taking the Sea, Dennis M. Powers uncovers a fascinating, yet largely unknown, period in our history. Here he traces the journey of these legendary men through the story of Captain Thomas P. H. Whitelaw, the most important ship salvager of his day. From their early beginnings when needy villagers followed stricken ships in the hopes of improving their lives a little to their heyday in the early twentieth century when steamships and schooners ruled the country’s transportation byways. Powers offers a compelling portrait of the wrecker captains and the dangerous lives they and their men led.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and the Bering Sea, we travel along with these men as they faced the savage seas to save foundering ships and frightened passengers. Beautifully written and vividly told, this is a magnificent look at the untold history of the fearless and at times mercenary men who made their living from the sea.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“…well-researched book…distinguished by clear prose, characterization worthy of a seasoned novelist…Outstanding for lovers of ships and the sea.” -- Booklist

"...plenty of interludes blending tragedy and triumph, and a few wondrous, death-defying finales.” -- Kirkus Reviews

“Anyone who loves the sea and history will find hours of fascinating reading pleasure in this latest book.” -- Bookviews.com

“…a compelling portrait of the wrecker captains and the dangerous lives they and their men led…” -- Statesman Journal

“…[the book] tells gripping tales of salvage in the golden era of shipping, when men's fortunes could all too easy be made and lost…Powers has written authoritatively on tsunamis, lighthouses and wreck recovery.” -- The Oregonian

“Powers has done a superb job of research and writing on an unusual subject that might otherwise have passed us by.” -- US Naval Institute Proceedings

"Powers is a thorough researcher with a feel for the wet environment he writes about." -- Mail Tribune

Kirkus Reviews
Maritime historian Powers (Treasure Ship, 2006, etc.) offers a series of vignettes from the golden age of American marine salvage. It extended from the end of the Civil War to the decade following World War I. Sail was merging with steam, wooden hulls with iron ones, but as the nation expanded westward in the wake of the Forty-Niners, the burgeoning demand for commercial transport, in advance of creeping railroads, put all manner of ships to work under good masters and indifferent ones, for better or worse. While these stories cover disasters on the Atlantic and in the Great Lakes, Powers uses as the centerpiece the operations of Captain Thomas P.H. Whitelaw, an emigrant Scot who, beginning as a hard-hat diver in San Francisco in the late 1860s, founded a marine-salvage empire covering the California and Pacific Northwest coasts. These often-foggy waters teemed with reefs and shoals not yet charted, lying in wait for the inexperienced skipper out for easy money. Whitelaw, who had gone to sea at age 12, saw the vast potential in wrecking and seized it with both hands, building a reputation for personal courage by often risking himself when crews and passengers were in immediate jeopardy on a vessel in peril. Many of these colorful Pacific stories are not well known-for example, that of "Dynamite Johnny" and the Umatilla, a diehard ship wrecked on its maiden voyage and five times subsequently. But while most shipwrecks tend to be similar-winds howl, seas crash, hulls crack-the native ingenuity of Whitelaw and his peers in raising vessels from the dead puts meat on the bones of the salvage stories. Occasionally plodding, but there are plenty of interludes blending tragedy and triumph, and afew wondrous, death-defying finales.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814413531
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 1/14/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

DENNIS M. POWERS (see “dennispowersbooks.com”) is the author of nine books including the acclaimed maritime histories Sentinel of the Seas, Treasure Ship, and The Raging Sea

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Read an Excerpt



As I worked through the voluminous files in writing my last book, Sentinel of the Seas, I became curious about the vessels used in the building of the St. George Reef Lighthouse—and especially with one man who owned the ships in the construction. Starting in 1883, Captain Thomas P. H. Whitelaw leased out the schooner La Ninfa as the building crew’s quarters, as well as the steamer Whitelaw that towed it and supplies to the reef. I wondered, what kind of a man would rent out good ships in such a risky venture? In answering this question, I discovered a new world: the adventurous times of Captain Whitelaw and the master wreckers.

The premier ship salvager of his day, T. P. H. Whitelaw watched as ships and their designs changed. He and his crews pulled tall-masted ships from reefs, refloated steamers whose hulls had been slashed by rocks, and salvaged schooners from the bottom of bays. I discovered that over time, Whitelaw had become a large shipowner, in addition to owning huge maritime used-parts lots.

Whitelaw had arrived in San Francisco at age sixteen with a quarter in his pocket. By age forty-five, he was extensively engaged in mining and real estate ventures, operated a stock ranch of 43,000 acres, and had accumulated substantial holdings of land. Internationally recognized, Whitelaw had become regarded as “The Master Wrecker” and “The Great Wrecker of the Pacific.” His world encompassed the other important ship salvagers that operated across the United States, and his career spanned the era from sailing ships to steamers and from wooden to steel-hulled vessels.

Wrecking as a livelihood originated along the rugged coastlines of Europe, which had been a haven for wreckers and smugglers, and immigrants to the United States brought along the traditions. Wreckers in the nineteenth century built the town of Key West, Florida. When ships foundered, the first mariner on the scene—from a flotilla of streaking schooners—was designated the master of that wreck and ran the operation. Salvors later received their cut as a share of the auction proceeds, a part of the saved goods, or some “in kind” payment. Abuses and calls for reform led to this rough-and-tumble world becoming regulated and eventually maturing into a competitive business for hire.

The United States had its share of standout salvors starting in the late 1860s, including the East Coast’s Captain E. R. Lowe and Israel J. Merritt, as well as Captain Thomas A. Scott and William Chapman. Like Whitelaw, they were about salvage—not plunder. They saved ships and people, putting together ventures to refloat sunken or beached ships for a fee. Or they might buy the salvage rights to what could be saved. However, the wrecker who stood out with success, respect, and publicity was Captain T. P. H. Whitelaw.

Whitelaw came from a poor Scottish family, and at age twelve apprenticed himself to a British vessel that traveled the East India trade. When this ship docked a few years later in 1863 in San Francisco Harbor, he decided to stay. With charisma, persistence, and brilliance, Captain Whitelaw started and built up his operations. He was an avid reader of the Greek classics, a self-taught philosopher, and a literary genius. And he worked on different nationally recognized efforts to save wrecked ships. One of his most noteworthy was the raising of the steamship Umatilla, which sank in Esquimalt Harbor, British Columbia, in 1884. This feat resulted in the British Admiralty giving international accolades to Captain Whitelaw.

“A terrible, always hungry monster, with long white teeth is the sea,” observed the Captain. “It is a smiling witch one day—a terrible monster the next.” He understood the incredible, combined powers of the winds, waves, currents, and tides that reduced the sturdiest vessels to piles of splintered wood and shards of steel plates. For Whitelaw, “Ships have individuality, each leading its own life, sometimes against the will of man. Some ships survive almost incredible disasters, as do some men, while others leave their wood and steel bones on the first reef.”

For decades, ships of all sizes and shapes dominated the movement of goods and people. Before railroad networks and airplanes or trucks and buses crisscrossed this country, these were the times when ships ruled the transportation world. Owing to inadequate charts, lack of warning lighthouses, and limited weather forecasting, however, vessels continually slammed into reefs, were thrashed by storms, and rendered helpless by strong currents. I became awed by the stories of these shipwrecks, the courage of the men and women, and the epic salvage efforts of the wreckers.

Using pontoons, powerful tugs, and strong steam engines on huge wreck ships, salvagers saved sunken ships—and under terrifying conditions. When performing their work, they were confronted by the same capricious seas and frightening winds that had caused the disasters in the first place. The accounts of the most memorable incidents—and the bravery the salvagers showed in the face of death—are detailed here.

Operating from his San Francisco base, Captain Whitelaw’s ventures took him to Mexico and then north along the lengthy West Coast to British Columbia and the Bering Sea. Countries overseas and the U.S. government alike called upon him for his expertise. His counterparts on the East Coast, such as Merritt, Chapman, and Scott, also rose in importance as they steamed into savage waters to save ships and passengers. Their experiences and operations are part of this story as well.

This book is about the era when shipping was the dominant form of transportation throughout the world. It pictures the savage seas and times that Whitelaw and other wreckers faced, their human failures, and their triumphs. The stories are about courage, achievement, and the historical challenges of these times.

Excerpted from TAKING THE SEA by Dennis Powers. Copyright © 2009. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission.

All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

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Table of Contents


Preface IX

Acknowledgments XIII


Early Years 1


The Wrecker Chronicles 15


San Francisco Bay Times 35


The Tragedy of Merritt’s Circassian 51


Dynamite Johnny and the Umatilla 75


Midwest and Coastal Operations 97


Success, Sealing, and the Arctic 121


Failures Follow Accomplishment 147


Wrecks—and a Ghost Ship 163


No Rewards Without Risk 181


Used Parts, Scrap, and a New Bow 201


The Decade of the Great War 221


The Roaring Twenties 247


The Change of Eras 269

Selected Bibliography 285

Index 297

About the Author 305

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 30, 2009

    TAKING THE SEA ~ Dennis M. Powers

    Taking the Sea is an exciting array of stories and historic events with a common theme of maritime adventure during an era that demanded ingenuity, perseverance, and sometimes just pure grit to survive another day. Dennis Powers captures the flavor of the times and the character of the individuals that transformed ocean commerce for a developing nation.

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    Posted February 23, 2009

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