Steaming toward disaster: Peril of impatience RICK GAMBLE
The sinking is known as Canada’s Titanic — if it’s known at all. Since it happened just as the Great War ended, and while a flu epidemic was claiming thousands, the story got lost in the international news cycle. And that’s despite the contention all 364 victims could’ve been saved.
The SS Princess Sophia was a steel passenger liner owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. With three sister ships, it carried people and supplies through the Inside Passage, a series of winding channels and straits linking centres in British Columbia and Alaska, including Victoria, Vancouver, Juneau and Skagway.
More than a workhorse, the vessel had many features of an ocean liner, including wireless communication, full electric lighting, and luxurious staterooms. She carried 75 crew and 289 passengers as she began her final voyage on Oct. 23, 1918. Aboard were miners, soldiers and the crews of northern paddlewheelers, done for the season.
Three hours late, the Sophia headed south from Skagway into Lynn Canal, a natural inlet into southern Alaska. Capt. Leonard Locke took the narrow channel at full speed to make up time, but ran into blinding snow and a vicious northeasterly wind.
Things were so bad, the crew had to navigate by “dead reckoning”: blowing the ship’s whistle and calculating their location by how long it took for the echo to return. It’s estimated the Sophia was off course by at least one nautical mile.
That became crucial when it reached Vanderbilt Reef, the jagged top of an underwater mountain. The only way past it was a 1.6-kilometre stretch to the left of the rocks. At 2 a.m., in unrelenting snow and heaving seas, the ship had no chance.
It slammed hard into the reef, throwing passengers from their beds and scattering cargo. A mayday went out and crews in Juneau scrambled to respond.
But there was an immediate dilemma. With high tide coming and the seas already tumultuous, an evacuation would be treacherous. And years earlier, when a ship called the Clallam ran aground in that same area, an evacuation saw three lifeboats capsize, drowning 54, whereas the ship stayed afloat and everyone still aboard was saved.
With the barometer promising better weather on the way, Locke chose not to evacuate until the storm cleared. But it worsened, instead. Gales kept rescue boats from the stricken ship, which was taking on water. Then a horrific wind whipped the Sophia almost completely around and ripped open the ship’s bottom on the rocks before the vessel was washed into deeper water.
The sea poured in, the boiler exploded killing many, and the ship sank in a half hour. The only survivor was an English setter.
In the aftermath, 60 experts endorsed Captain Locke’s decision not to evacuate, lawsuits against CPR failed, and a lighted buoy was finally placed atop the Vanderbilt Reef which is still passed routinely by Alaskan cruise ships. But the sinking is still the worst maritime disaster in the history of the west coast.
Though the captain’s decision not to evacuate immediately remains controversial, the bigger lesson for us is the danger of taking risks to make up for lost time.
It happens often. We speed because we’re late and end up hurting ourselves or others. We pay the price after taking shortcuts across dangerous territory — physical or moral. Or we look at how much farther ahead some people are materially and sacrifice important things to catch up.
The Book of Proverbs has the right perspective. “Enthusiastic effort without knowledge is no good,” Solomon says. “Haste makes mistakes.” (19:2)
That’s especially true when we have no reliable guide to help us navigate the treacherous parts of life. If you’ve ever been surrounded by utter darkness in a strange, hazardous place, you know the blessing of light. It brings safety and comfort, alerts us to threats and opportunities, and lets us move forward with more confidence.
So it’s fitting Jesus is called the Light of the world (John 8:12); scripture is likened to a lamp that shows the way through darkness (Psalm 119:105); and trust in God is compared to a beacon (Matt. 5:14). Though the world can be black and foreboding, our Father stands ready to guide us through the storms and uncertainties.
What a pity we often ignore him until a crisis, then blame him for letting us get lost.
The alternative to God’s guidance is to send out signals and figure out where you are, based on what comes back to you. And in a culture where competition and conformity rule, it’s incredibly hard to get your bearings without slamming into a reef of rejection, or the shoals of shallow friendship with those who demand we think and live just like them.
When we’re stuck on the rocks, surrounded by tumult, we’re torn between risking nothing or risking everything. Trouble is, the winds of adversity can easily whip us around and rip open the bottom of our heart. All it takes to make us vulnerable is a health challenge, relationship difficulties, money problems, or a crisis of faith and identity.
Much of that can be avoided if we let out Guide be our conscience.
That’s not to say life will be easy if we embrace faith. This earth is one rock nobody leaves alive.
But I’m reminded of the Christian aboard the Titanic who reportedly went to a terrified passenger as the ship went down. “Take this,” he said, handing over his life preserver. “I can die better than you.”
A handout photo of the Princess Sophia stranded on the Vanderbilt reef, Oct. 24, 1918.