Wreck of the Uzbekistan

Wreck of the Uzbekistan

This past August I found my­self on the in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful and fab­u­lous West Coast Trail which runs along the out­side coast of Vancouver Island.  I was as­signed to Pachena Point light sta­tion for a month-long post­ing work­ing as a re­lief light­keep­er but what was par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing was that I was sit­ting right be­side the Graveyard of the Pacific where my fa­ther had been in­volved with a res­cue op­er­a­tion of a ship up on the beach some 77 years earlier.

On April 2, 1943, in the midst of World War II, HMCS Outarde the Royal Canadian Navy minesweep­er which my fa­ther, Dick James, was serv­ing aboard as an Able Seaman, hap­pened to be en­gaged in minesweep­ing op­er­a­tions out in Juan de Fuca Strait. Then they re­ceived or­ders that they were to pro­ceed at full speed to the scene of a strand­ed ship up on the beach just two miles down from Pachena Point. This was the Russian lend-lease freighter S.S. Uzbekistan which had been launched from a ship­yard in St. Nazaire, France in 1937 and mea­sured 326 feet in length and was 3039 reg­is­tered tons.

The freighter slipped her moor­ings in Portland, Oregon, the morn­ing of April 1st, 1943, and was bound for Seattle where she was to load lend-lease sup­plies for Vladivostok. Unfortunately, with a south­east gale blow­ing bring­ing with it lim­it­ed vis­i­bil­i­ty, once up along the out­side coast of the Olympic penin­su­la, they missed see­ing the light of the Umatilla buoy. Then when they did fi­nal­ly see a flash­ing light they mis­took it as that of the Umatilla. They had made a grave error, in­stead, it was that of the Swiftsure buoy sit­ting out off the en­trance to Juan de Fuca Strait. As a re­sult, the cap­tain held his ship on a steady norther­ly course which had them head­ed right into the out­side coast of Vancouver Island. To make mat­ters worse both the lights at Cape Beale and Pachena Point had been shut down fol­low­ing the shelling of the Estevan Point light sta­tion a lit­tle far­ther up the out­side coast by the Japanese sub I‑26 on the 20th of June the year before.

HMCS Outarde, with my fa­ther aboard, ar­rived off­shore at the scene of the strand­ed ves­sel late the af­ter­noon of April 2nd to find her ground­ed some 150 yards off the beach sit­ting broad­side up against a rocky shelf just off the mouth of the Darling River. While there were some U.S. coast guard and Canadian naval pa­trol ves­sels sit­ting off­shore ready to as­sist with a res­cue, it was the Outarde’s whaler car­ry­ing a land­ing party of 11 men that were able to make it in along­side the Uzbekistan. Unfortunately though, as the whaler ap­proached the strand­ed ship and what with a strong sea pound­ing against her hull, she was car­ried around in­side her bow. Here the whaler was caught in the break­ers and hurled for­ward in the surf to be swamped but luck­i­ly was de­posit­ed up­right among the rocks well in­shore. The Russian crew who had all land­ed safe­ly and were camped out just up off the beach went down to lend the whaler’s crew a hand.

After sig­nal­ing be­tween ship and shore, the Outarde’s land­ing party left the beach that evening to head off to Pachena Point where arrange­ments were made to ac­com­mo­date the sailors. Here they re­ceived a good meal and beds for the night. The next morn­ing the Outarde flashed a sig­nal to Pachena in­struct­ing the land­ing party to head out on the trail for Bamfield where they would be picked up to re­join their ship.

So there I was some 77 years later after this major ship loss, out on Pachena Point. Then with some half-de­cent weath­er and a good low tide one af­ter­noon, I hiked down the beau­ti­ful West Coast Trail to her wreck site. It re­quired a bit of search­ing and with some scram­bling out over the rocky shelf, I fi­nal­ly came across what lit­tle was left of the Uzbekistan. There it was, its huge boil­er sit­ting out there with the surf pound­ing over it.
boiler in the sea