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U.S. Coast Guard Awards

Joseph L. Nutter
Michael Maxwell
John L. Clark

Awarded 13 April 1915

The 666-ton steamer Hanalei, of Los Angeles, commanded by Capt. J.J. Carey, left Eureka, CA on 22 November bound for San Francisco with a cargo of railroad ties and shingles. The next day, around 12:50 PM, she wrecked on Bolinas Point, about 16 miles from Point Reyes, with a loss of 23 lives.

It appears that when the ship reached the vicinity of Point Reyes the weather was foggy, but the buildings on the point could be seen well enough to enable the captain to recognize the lighthouse. After proceeding southward a sufficient distance to make it safe to haul for Duxbury Reef, he ordered the course to be changed, this being the usual procedure in going from Point Keyes to Duxbury Reef whistling buoy. At 12:30 PM breakers were discovered ahead. Before anything could be done, the vessel ran hard and fast on the reefs off Bolinas Point, 2 7/8 miles to the northward of the end of Duxbury Reef. Wireless calls for assistance were immediately sent out. The first call, however, gave an erroneous position for the vessel. The conditions of the sea and the difficulty of maneuvering boats around the wreck made it impossible to do anything further. Had the real position of the vessel been known in the first instance, the district officer would have initiated a different plan.

As it was, the office having been informed by radio at 1 PM that Hanalei was on shore at Duxbury Reef, steps were immediately taken to render aid. The power lifeboats from the Point Bonita and Fort Point Life-Saving Stations were dispatched and the revenue cutter McCulloch proceeded to the supposed scene of the wreck by sea. This was done because it was impossible to operate the beach apparatus if the stricken vessel was on Duxbury Reef.

The Point Bonita and Fort Point crews were underway with their powerboats Majestic and Defender in less than 30 minutes after the news of the disaster. The revenue cutter McCulloch had received the radio SOS message of the Hanalei independently, at 12:30 PM. At 1:00 she was underway and proceeding to sea. The weather was foggy, with a light westerly wind and a very heavy westerly swell. The lifeboats reached Duxbury Reef at about 3:30 PM and immediately began a search for the wreck. The fog, which earlier in the day had been of medium density, was now almost impenetrable. Several vessels’ steam whistles which were blowing continuously added to the difficulties of the search. Finally, by running close in to the shore--n fact, inside the breakers--the lifeboats reached the point where the Hanalei had grounded and immediately began to maneuver their boats to take off the imperiled people.

This proved to be a most hazardous undertaking. The vessel had pounded over the reef where she first struck. When the lifeboats reached the scene, she lay with her head to the eastward and listed to starboard at an angle of 45 degrees This exposed her deck to the full force of the heavy swells, which were gradually pounding her to pieces. The fore part of the vessel lay in deeper water on the inner side of the reef and was almost submerged. The passengers and crew were gathered on the upper side of the port quarter, being sheltered by the house from the blowing spray.

Both power lifeboats attempted to reach the lee side of the wreck. Defender chose to go around the stern and Majestic around the bow. Every precaution was taken to carry out this project. It would have been successful had it not been for the failure of the motors to work under the conditions. While it is true there was very little wind blowing, the heavy swell was sweeping in from the westward. When it reached the reef it broke into a high, short-footed, and angry surf, in which it was most difficult for any kind of a boat to live. Notwithstanding these conditions, the heavy powerboats were twice headed for the wreck and twice compelled to work their way out into the smooth water because of the failure of the motors to work in the exceedingly heavy surf. The third attempt to reach the vessel ended in disaster to the power lifeboat Defender, which was capsized. All of the crew managed to hang on as she righted, save Keeper Clark and Surfman Stoll. Upon reaching the surface the keeper found himself 40 feet away from the boat.

His presence of mind, however, did not desert him. Seeing the boat in great danger of being swept on to the shore, he called out to the crew to take the lifeboat out into smooth water and then endeavor to start the motor again. He next counseled Surfman Stoll to try to reach the wreck for refuge. Being a very powerful swimmer, he decided his best plan was to reach the beach and send word back to the city regarding the real position of the Hanalei and to explain the necessity for the immediate forwarding of the beach apparatus gear. He started for the shore with full confidence to reach it in a few minutes’ hard swimming. The story of his persistent effort to swim to the beach through the surf and of his battle against the strong adverse currents, is one of heroic struggles in the line of duty. After two hours and a half in the water, he finally reached a point near enough to the beach to be rescued in an unconscious state by people on shore.

After the capsize of Defender, darkness, a dense fog, and the increasing sea on the reef prevented anything more from being accomplished by boats until daylight. Both lifeboats therefore went alongside McCulloch, which had anchored as close as possible to the scene of the wreck. Meanwhile, at headquarters in San Francisco, the life-saving officers were anxiously awaiting news from the wreck. At 8 PM a motor truck was placed at the disposal of Keeper Nelson of the Golden Gate Station, and, having loaded the beach apparatus gear on the truck, he and his crew of seven men crossed the bay to Sausalito and proceeded overland to the scene of the wreck. The approximate distance from the Golden Gate Station to Bolinas Point by the road taken is 60 miles. The night was dark and foggy and in many places the progress of the expedition was slow. In some places it was necessary to reverse and back the motor truck up a hill. On portions of the road where speed was possible the big, lumbering machine was driven at its full capacity, and it was with difficulty that the crew maintained their positions on the truck.

In spite of these difficulties, Keeper Nelson arrived at the scene of the wreck at 2 AM, and immediately began his operations. This ultimately resulted in the saving of 29 human lives. A number of lines were shot at the wreck. Of the six that were fired, however, the people on the Hanalei secured none of them. About 3:30 AM of the 24th, the crashing of timbers indicated that the wreck was breaking up. The keeper immediately shifted his base of operations from the top of the bluff to the beach. As soon as he saw portions of wreckage drifting in, with people from the wreck clinging thereto, he began to fire shots across this wreckage, hoping to furnish the imperiled people a means of escape. From this time on the work of rescue proceeded under difficulties and amid great dangers.

The sea had risen during the night and the heavy surf was beating on the shore. For a distance of 200 yards off the beach, the water was literally covered with grinding, tossing material, consisting of portions of the wrecked vessel and her cargo of railroad ties and shingles. In the midst of this flotsam, the surviving passengers and crew were battling for their lives.

Joining hands and forming a living chain, the rescuers rushed into the water. Wherever a human form was seen struggling, they held valiantly to their work for nearly four hours until every soul had been saved that could be reached. Out of the 30 persons thus hauled up on the beach only one was lost. With the coming of daylight and the cessation of the work of rescue the lifesavers themselves were found to be in a pitiable condition, their clothing stripped to tatters and their bodies covered with bruises and cuts from head to foot.

With this brief description of the work of the crew of the Golden Gate station it is now necessary to return to the revenue cutter McCulloch, where the power lifeboats Majestic and Defender had taken refuge for the night. At dawn Keeper Nutter assembled his men and ascertained that the powerboat Defender was still in no condition for immediate service. He directed two of the crew of that boat to join him in the Majestic and immediately set out for the scene of the wreck, having no information of what had occurred since leaving the scene the night before. In the growing light of the early morning, with a heavy fog made more dense and impenetrable by smoke from the bonfires on shore, the keeper, with great skill and daring, maneuvered Majestic in toward the beach through the dangerous outlying reefs. He succeeded in getting into the comparatively calmer waters between the outer reef and the surf line of the shore. There is no doubt that the presence of the large quantities of oil on the water made this feat possible, which under ordinary conditions would have been beyond the power of man.

The Hanalei, which had been left lying on the reef the night before, had disappeared. The people were nowhere to be seen. In their place objects floated amidst the mass of wreckage of the ship, covered with oil and so completely exhausted from exposure of over two hours in the water that the living among them were in most cases too helpless to even make signals. Bending all their energies to the task, the lifesavers picked up every body, living or dead, from out the mass of wreckage. In one instance Surfman Maxwell leaped overboard and supported two struggling survivors until the boat could be maneuvered into a position to rescue them. Thirteen survivors were thus picked up and conveyed to the McCulloch, where better means of providing for their resuscitation could be had. The lifeboat returned at once and, assisted by two boats manned by the McCulloch’s crew, the debris of the wreck was searched for the living and dead until no further hope remained. Fifteen bodies were thus recovered and taken to the McCulloch. The 13 persons rescued by Keeper Nutter and his men, together with the 29 rescued by keeper Nelson and his crew and 1 person saved by the employees of the shore radio station, made up the 43 persons saved on this occasion.

The condition of the survivors was pitiable. They were coated with fuel oil from head to foot, their clothing was in tatters, and the faces and bodies of some were covered with wounds. First aid was administered on board the cutter. They were carried to the cabin and stripped, their noses and throats were freed of oil, and their limbs chafed. Stimulants were administered also, and those in need of further restorative treatment were given artificial respiration. Each person was fitted with dry underclothing. A radio message was sent to San Francisco asking that physicians and nurses be dispatched to the scene. The McCulloch set out at 9 PM. at full speed for the city. She was boarded in the Golden Gate by several surgeons and nurses of the Public Health Service, who took charge of the patients. Arriving at the dock in San Francisco the survivors were removed to ambulances and taken to hospitals. The coroner took charge of the 15 bodies.

In accordance with the requirements of law the circumstances connected with the loss of life in this shipwreck were thoroughly investigated by an officer of the Revenue Cutter Service, who reported

In conclusion, the wreck of the Hanalei, with the consequent loss of 23 lives, was particularly distressing on account of the fact that it occurred at a point comparatively a short distance from port, and the circumstances were such that it was Impossible to reach the scene with the means of rescue In time to save all on board. Added to this, the arrival of the victims at San Francisco, viewed by the thousands of people who had collected on the wharf to meet the McCulloch, lent additional horror to the tragedy. It Is only natural under the circumstances that public opinion should have been centered in an effort to discover some one responsible for the accident upon whom this resentment could be vented. The first clamor of the public press against the efficiency of the service was, as usual, hysterical in character and unjust. Later, when the first wave of horror had subsided, a clearer view of the situation was obtained and the real cause of the accident became known. After a most thorough Investigation of all the circumstances attending the loss of this vessel nothing but the highest praise Is now heard concerning the conduct of the members of the service on this occasion.

Last Modified 1/12/2016