From Classic Yachts to Fish Packers: Their Stories
The Lady Washington, Washington State’s Ship
Approaching the Port of Port Townsend’s Boat Haven Marina, it was easy to spot the masts and yards of the Lady Washington ranging above the hauled out tenders, yachts and tugs. She is at once memorable, with the sweet lines of an 18th century sailing ship, the fir hull raised up on blocks, her crew on scaffolds giving her a fresh coat of paint, while above them the masts with their intricate skein of rigging, shrouds, halyards and stays – six miles of rigging – reach to the sky.
One gets curious about such a ship, how it came to be built and the history she represents. And envious, too, of the young sailors living an adventure as they get her ready to go back in the water.
The original Lady Washington’s early history is obscure: built as a sloop in Massachusetts, she was one of a number of small ships named after Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. She may have been a privateer during the war. Then in 1787, she was purchased in company with the ship-rigged Columbia Rediviva by Joseph Barrell, a prominent Boston businessman with an audacious idea.
The publication of Captain Cook’s journal from his third Pacific voyage (1776-1780) noted the British sailors trading with the Northwest Coast Indians for sea otter pelts, and in turn selling the furs to the Chinese merchants for as much as one hundred and twenty Spanish dollars apiece. Barrell saw the opportunity and began to mount an expedition, convincing shareholders and obtaining from Congress a “sea letter” stating the young nation’s approval and protection of the venture. He sought out John Kendrick, 47, a famous privateer captain during the war, to command the expedition and the Columbia Rediviva, and Robert Gray, 33, from Rhode Island, would captain the Lady Washington. As the two ships departed Boston on the morning of October 1, 1787, fifteen years before Lewis and Clark, one can only wonder at the captain’s and crew’s thoughts: the first American ships to attempt rounding Cape Horn, the first American ships to sight, let alone trade, on America’s West Coast, the first to sail around the world and quite possibly arrive home rich.
On the Pacific coast of Washington state is a bay called Grays Harbor, yes that Robert Gray, so named by Captain George Vancouver. In 1985, nearly two centuries after Gray and Vancouver made their discoveries, the bay accommodated a number of small towns, the largest being Aberdeen with a population of about 17,500 souls. It was and is a stubborn seaport town, dependent on a timber industry in decline, fishing, the port and tourism.
This stubbornness, call it tenacity, encouraged a professor and students at Grays Harbor Community College to take up a challenge. The newly formed Washington State Centennial Commission had called on the cities and towns of the state to celebrate a hundred years of statehood in 1989. The professor and his students came up with the idea that the town build the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington. There was $500,000.00 dollars initially authorized with a 1:1 community match for just such a project. A Seattle team proposed the schooner Exact that landed the first settlers in Seattle. Bellingham boldly proposed Vancouver’s HMS Discovery and her tender HMS Chatham, Jefferson and Clallam counties suggested a 3/4 scale lumber schooner – none of these were ever launched. Aberdeen got the dollars to begin building the Lady Washington. But it wasn’t easy.
First off, the ambitious idea of building two ships winnowed to the smaller Lady Washington. For the matching funds, a task force proposed a county-wide one-time property tax increase which failed. A new, private non-profit called the Tall Ships Restoration Society convinced the City of Aberdeen to cut and sell enough of their timber reserves as an alternative idea. The city in turn created the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority in 1986. Then the mayor created a “Blue Ribbon Panel” which shunted aside the Tall Ships Restoration Society along with their work and plans and hired an out of state marine architect and shipwrights. The ship’s construction went over budget and the board assumed wrongly they could tap the state grant money to pay back what they borrowed from the city. As Les Bolton, who would later captain the Lady Washington and in time become the executive director of the Authority over a twenty four-year span said: “This helped fuel a ‘them and us’ dynamic that would damage and hobble the organization for the next decade.” Nonetheless the Lady Washington’s keel was laid on a Sunday, September 13, 1987; launched into the Wishkah River on March 7, 1989; rigged and fitted out; and departed Grays Harbor on or about the 11th of May, 1989 to visit the many seaports on Puget Sound and Columbia River during the Centennial summer.
In 1741 Lord Anson with his fleet of six British warships was sent to “annoy the Spaniards” in the Pacific. It took them two months to round Cape Horn. He went south into the western storms, and further south to an estimated 63° south latitude before turning north with only three ships still capable of completing their mission. Kendrick and Gray were forced to follow the same track to 62° degrees south latitude, more than 400 miles from the Cape.
In the book: Morning of Fire, America’s Epic First Journey into the Pacific Scott Ridley writes: “Kendrick worried about the punishment the ships were taking, especially the Washington. As she struggled to follow into the wind, he watched the sloop’s hull disappear underwater. Swells surged over her until only the mast and reefed sail were visible, and then whitewater rushed off as she resurfaced to meet the next wave.” It was a testament to the skill and strength of the crews and both ship’s durability. The ninety-foot Columbia Rediviva had a crew of 41 allowing for three watches, but the sixty-foot Lady Washington had just 11 men meaning an exhausting two watches – six hours on, six hours off.
Three weeks into the continuous storms the ships were separated. Should this happen, Kendrick had designated Nootka Sound, their fur trading destination on the west coast of Vancouver Island, as a final rendezvous. Neither certain they had a consort, Kendrick sailed offshore while Gray stayed closer to the coast where he attempted to enter the mouth of a river. The tides were against him and he sailed on. (In 1792, on Gray’s second voyage, he would enter the mouth of this same river, name it Columbia’s River, relate the discovery to George Vancouver who would make the name stick.) Remarkably the two ships arrived at Nootka Sound within a week of each other, worn and leaking, the crews riddled with scurvy, three men dead. It was September 22, 1788, 358 days out of Boston, when the Columbia Rediviva anchored alongside the Lady Washington in a brand new world.
Back on the hard, work was finishing up aboard the present day Lady Washington. The cracked propeller had been repaired and buffed to a shine, the plumbing repair was complete. There was more painting and cleaning to do but the crew was ready. I’d set up an all-hands portrait right after lunch and, like clockwork, all eleven gathered.
Right away you could sense this 20’s to early 30’s crew were just that – a crew. I asked the mate, Halee Grimes where they were from: “Oh…Florida, Maryland, Wisconsin, Virginia, Oregon, Pennsylvania…..” I asked if the ship finds them or they find the ship. “They come to us, sometimes through the Tall Ships America ‘billet bank’ or through word of mouth.” (Tall Ships America is a non-profit dedicated to sail training for youth and the preservation of tall ships. Their Billet Bank currently has 11 jobs available from captain to cook if you want to ship out.)
I asked Halee if this adventure was a long standing dream? “No, I was in college in 2012 studying history when I saw the HMS Bounty in St Augustine harbor. I decided to check that out.” She ended up volunteering aboard HMS Bounty most of that summer sailing the Eastern seaboard to Nova Scotia and back. In time Halee got her degree and enjoyed being able to use it on a number of sailing ships “teaching history outside the classroom.” Along the way she qualified for her Coast Guard 100-ton coastal masters and 100-ton offshore mate’s license.
Then in the spring of 2018 she got a call from a fellow tall ship sailor: “She came out here (to Aberdeen and the Lady Washington) and she said: ‘Hey, I’m going to do this. Do you want to be a mate’?” So for Halee a “new boat and a new ocean.” And now after two years aboard, on her return to Grays Harbor, she’s going to be Captain of the Lady Washington.
Captains John Kendrick and Robert Gray had now sailed into what became known as the Nootka Crisis. The Spanish were intent on enforcing their hollow claims on the Northwest Coast; the British traders ignored them while the Americans struggled to stay neutral. But the ages-old enmity between the Spanish and British flared: three British trading ships were taken by the Spanish Navy. When word reached Europe, sabers rattled. Spain and England prepared for war as other nations picked sides, but war was narrowly averted.
Kendrick, who had a remarkable ability to befriend and trade with the local Nuu-chah-nulth people as well as charm the Spanish, was accused of siding with the Spanish as the British sailors were shackled and sent south to Mexico. With the British traders checked, Kendrick continued building an Americans base, not just to be a center for fur trading, but to stake an American claim to the Northwest Coast. To further that claim the captains exchanged ships. Robert Gray was to take the larger, less nimble Columbia Rediviva with their shared cargo of sea otter furs across the Pacific to China. There he would sell the furs and load tea for Boston, the Columbia Rediviva becoming the first American ship to sail around the world. Kendrick took command of the Lady Washington, a more practical inshore vessel, to trade more widely until he too turned the ship towards Hawaii and then, resupplied, to the mainland China port of Macao.
“With a brand new Lady Washington and the state’s 1989 centennial dwindling into the past, Les Bolton, the crew and the Seaport Authority board in Aberdeen wrestled with how to become a profitable sail training ship.” The real question was how and what to teach. The Coast Guard approved 12 crew and 45 passengers for day sails. For offshore, where the sail training really happens, the complement was limited to 12 crew and 12 students. As Les put it: “That’s the bow, that’s the stern, that’s port, that’s starboard. We stumbled through that first year.” Helped by a grant, they wrote up a program “…best for getting people in the groove.” The core of that program is still used today with the great title of: Two Weeks Before the Mast.
Thus armed, Lady Washington began spring and summer annual cruises to California, Alaska, up the Columbia and throughout the Salish Sea, turning students into sailors. At each port, school kids came aboard on the weekdays, the tourists on the weekends. And then came Hollywood: the Lady Washington sailed into the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Star Trek Generations and numerous television roles, even a Macklemore music video. The Lady Washington was in her groove.
By 1791 there were more than 30 trading vessels on the Northwest Coast when Kendrick returned from a 14 month political hold on his ship at Macao. In that time he re-rigged the Lady Washington from a one-masted sloop to a two-masted brig. Released by the port intrigue, Kendrick, ever in search of a market, made the first landfall by an American ship in Japan, narrowly escaping the Samurai. The Lady Washington made a fast passage across the North Pacific to arrive in Haida Gwaii, then named the Queen Charlotte Islands, in June of 1791. Anchored off the village of Ninstints, the crew began trading with the villagers, including their disgraced chief, Coyah, bitter over Kendrick holding him hostage over a theft of drying laundry two years before. A grudge, an open arms chest, and the Haida attacked and nearly overwhelmed the ship. In retribution, Kendrick and crew fired on the retreating natives, killing many.
The painstaking efforts of Kendrick to earn the trust of the native people on Vancouver Island nonetheless held, but events were devolving. The Indians acquired guns and powder in trade from Kendrick to defend themselves from new traders who were not trading now but raiding villages for furs. Despite the original expedition synergy of two ships trading together, Kendrick and Robert Gray, who had returned to Nootka with the Columbia Rediviva, were now rivals. War between England and France would begin, Spain would relinquish Nootka, where the sea otters were becoming scarce.
Yet Kendrick and the Lady Washington sailed two more “triangle routes” from Nootka to Hawaii to Macao and back in 1792 and 1793, narrowly surviving a dismasting typhoon before Kendrick was killed by an accidental ship’s salute with a loaded cannon by a rival British trader in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. The Lady Washington was without her skipper. You might say she’d lost her compass. The Lady Washington made one more triangle run under a British crew but the sharp dealings of the new owner on her return to China forced the ship to escape to the Philippines.
In July, 1797 she was grounded on the banks of the Mestizo River in Northeast Luzon, stripped of her fittings and left to rot. It was a graceless end of one of the most famous ships in American maritime history.
In the pre-dawn light, I stood on the beach at Point Hudson to photograph the Lady Washington departing for Grays Harbor. They were returning to a season hobbled by Covid -19. The plan was to stay in Grays Harbor and day-sail with a halved number of tourists and school kids, if there was school at all, before lowering the topmasts and covering her for the winter.
As she rounded the point under auxiliary power, I thought I could make out Halee on the quarterdeck. When we talked later, she was ecstatic that they had good winds down the coast, sails set, making eight knots. “She sails well, very maneuverable and has a lot of speed – I love her.”
That was easy to understand. I tracked the Lady Washington as she passed beneath a looming Mount Baker, the Lady so small in the immensity of the mountain. And I realized this was the image of Northwest exploration. She rounded Point Wilson and bucking through a tidal race, set a course for the Pacific, looking for all intents ready for a new history.
There’s an opportunity here to be part of that history, to volunteer, become a member and donate to help sustain the Lady Washington. The Gray’s Harbor Historic Seaport website awaits you at: https://historicalseaport.org/
Photos and story by Joel Rogers. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgements and Sources:
Les Bolton provided the story of the Lady Washington’s building and sail training. Brandi Bednarik of the Gray’s Harbor Historic Seaport provided the update on this year’s plans for the ship and crew. And special thanks to Captain Halee Grimes. Scott Ridley’s history of the expedition, the captains and the ships: Morning of Fire, America’s Epic First Journey into the Pacific, was my mainstay for the history of the Lady Washington. Well-researched and written in a way that puts you there, I recommend it. I also referred to Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, a 1961 re-edition of the 1895 work, the “Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority Case Statement, 1986,” a set of timelines for the new Lady Washington were provided by Les Bolton and Randy Beerbower. Dave Cottrell provided his historical information and Wikipedia provided background information as well.