PAT NEAL: Pirates, patriots and plunderers

A LADY SAILED into Port Angeles last week.

The replica seemed out of time and out of place with an aura of history when the New World was ripe for the taking by pirates, patriots and plunderers.

Her beauty was unmistakable.

Her past was unforgiveable but she was a lady just the same.

Named after Martha Washington, the Lady Washington set out from Boston in 1787 under Capt. Robert Gray with a cargo of trade goods for the fur trade on the Northwest coast on a voyage that made her the first American ship to round Cape Horn.

She was the first American vessel to land on the west coast of North America when she made landfall at Tillamook Bay in Oregon.

In 1789, she entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, trading sea otter skins at Neah Bay until rough seas drove her north, where she was the first ship to circumnavigate Vancouver Island.

Later, she became the first American vessel to reach Japan.

It’s hard to imagine the dangers she faced while approaching uncharted coastlines protected by reefs and fog, and armored with treacherous rocks while attempting to trade with the native inhabitants who were known to capture ships and slaughter the crews. With good reason.

Gray, who later discovered the Columbia River, which legitimized America’s claim to the west coast of North America, was captain of the Lady Washington on a voyage to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii), when he ordered his crew to burn a village said to be a half a mile across that contained an estimated 200 houses.

Known for reckless bravery, a mercurial temper and attention to business detail, Gray was a successful trader who defied the monopoly of the British East India Trading Company by taking his furs to China to trade for tea, porcelain and fabrics he would sail back to Boston.

Gray’s partner in crime, Capt. John Kendrick, was known to be intemperate and unstable with a reputation his financiers claimed was “suspended between the qualifications of egregious knavery and incredible stupidity.”

Kendrick was not known to be a good trader.

He sailed the Lady Washington to Japan, where he was unable to sell any furs, then ended up in the Philippines where the Lady Washington was wrecked.

The Lady Washington’s captains were either pirates, patriots or plunderers, depending on which side of this global trade you were on.

In 1989, as part of Washington state’s centennial a replica of the Lady Washington was rbuilt.

Since then she has sailed the Pacific Coast as a living maritime museum.

This is still hazardous.

The Lady Washington ran aground in 2013 in Grays Harbor and again at the mouth of Sequim Bay in 2017.

This was nothing compared to the original Lady Washington’s battering somewhere in southeast Alaska in the spring of 1788, when she was hurled up onto the rocks, then hauled off minus her jib and bowsprit.

She was still watertight though badly in need of repairs.

Nowadays people get upset if highway construction delays us a few minutes or if the Hood Canal Bridge inconveniences us waiting for a ship to get through.

Imagine a day when you could not go anywhere until the wind and tides were favorable.

You waited at anchor or sailed in circles while the worms ate holes in your wooden hull and the crew died of scurvy.

Things have changed but still the Lady Washington dropped by Port Angeles to wait for a weather window for a safe return to her home port of Aberdeen.

We wish the Lady Godspeed.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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