The 60th Anniversary of the Triumph-Mermaid Tragedy

Rescue cutter Victory in heavy surf (USCG)

Published Dec 26, 2021 3:12 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Daryl C. McClary, United States Coast Guard reserve retired]

At approximately 4:15 p.m., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 1961, Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, at the mouth of the Columbia River, received a radio call from Roy Gunnari, skipper of the fishing vessel Jana Jo. Gunnari advised that he was relaying a mayday call from the fishing vessel Mermaid, a 34-foot crab-fishing boat from Ilwaco, Wash., owned and operated by brothers Bert and Stanley Bergman. 

While approaching the mouth of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, the Mermaid lost its rudder near treacherous Peacock Spit. The strong ocean current and relentless southerly winds were drifting the Mermaid into waves breaking over the shallow spit and, without steerage, the vessel was helpless and doomed to capsize. To make matters worse, that afternoon the U.S. Weather Bureau issued gale warnings for the Washington and Oregon coasts. For winter, bar conditions were not particularly bad at the time, but winds as high as 60 miles-per-hour were predicted. 

The 52-foot wooden motor lifeboat Triumph (MLB-52301). (U.S. Coast Guard)

Speed was of the essence if the small crab-fishing boat was to be saved from almost certain destruction. The Cape Disappointment Lifeboat Station immediately dispatched two search and rescue vessels: a 40-foot utility boat and a smaller, slower 36-foot motor lifeboat. It took a while, but the crew of the utility boat eventually located the Mermaid and took it into tow. The motor lifeboat crew remained close in proximity in case of an emergency. Meanwhile, the weather was rapidly deteriorating, as were surf conditions across the Columbia River Bar.

Neither Coast Guard rescue boat had enough horsepower to haul the rudderless Mermaid through the line of heavy rollers over the bar and into the river’s estuary. In addition, the 40-foot utility boat was designed for operations in protected waters, not extreme surf conditions. If capsized, the steel-hulled boat had no compartmentalization and would sink like a stone. On the other hand, the motor lifeboat was self-bailing and self-righting and could withstand the rigors of heavy surf-rescue conditions.

Due to the extremely hazardous sea conditions, the coxswain of utility boat, Darrell Murray, radioed Oregon’s Point Adams Lifeboat Station for assistance. The Coast Guard motor lifeboat Triumph, a powerful 52-foot lifeboat, rendezvoused with Murray’s utility boat at approximately 7:00 p.m., and took up the tow. Relieved of the burden, Murray’s utility boat followed at a distance with the motor lifeboat and began heading inland across the Columbia River Bar. While crossing the bar, however, a series of extremely large breakers capsized and sank Murray’s utility boat. The Murray and his crew of two others successfully abandoned ship but were adrift at the mercy of breakers.

The motor lifeboat was also capsized by a series of heavy breakers, but stayed afloat. The 36-footer’s three-man crew located and rescued Murray and his crew of the 40-foot utility boat, came about and headed directly for the Coast Guard Lightship Columbia, which was anchored approximately seven miles west of the mouth of the Columbia River. During the rescue, the 36-foot lifeboat had developed a leak and its stern compartment was slowly filling with water. In addition, it had inadvertently collided with the capsized 40-foot utility boat, further damaging the 36-footer’s hull and exacerbating flooding in the stern compartment.

A 40-foot, Mark IV, Model 1 utility boat (UTB), similar to the type used in the ill-fated F/V Mermaid rescue. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A 36-foot motor lifeboat similar to the type used in the Mermaid rescue surfing through breakers. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Larry Edwards, coxswain of the 36-foot motor lifeboat, radioed the Point Adams Lifeboat Station. He advised the officer-in-charge, Chief Petty Officer Warren Berto, that Murray’s 40-foot utility boat, the crew was safely aboard his lifeboat and, due to hull damage, they were heading directly for Lightship Columbia. Berto immediately dispatched two 36-foot motor lifeboats to the bar to lend assistance to the Triumph.

The lifesaving marker and 36-foot motor lifeboat on display at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay, Newport, Oregon (Historical Marker Database)

Aboard the Triumph, First Class Petty Officer John Culp, a boatswain’s mate, and his five-man crew were having serious difficulties. At 7:30 p.m., shortly after taking the Mermaid in tow, the four-inch towing hawser parted. The crew passed another towline to the fishing vessel, but after 15 minutes, that line also parted.

Shortly after 8:00 p.m., Culp radioed Point Adams Lifeboat Station that the Mermaid was drifting into the breakers on Peacock Spit and that the Triumph was going to attempt another rescue. At 8:13 p.m., local Coast Guard stations received a distress call from the Mermaid advising that the Triumph had capsized and the fishing vessel was drifting into the line of mountainous breakers on Peacock Spit. The Mermaid managed to rescue only one of the Triumph’s crew, Engineman Joseph Petrin. Built of wood in 1935, the Triumph was not a self-bailing/self-righting design and had disappeared in the heavy surf.

Berto called the 13th Coast Guard District headquarters in Seattle, briefing the Rescue Control Center (RCC) of the dire situation. Seattle RCC ordered Coast Guard Cutters Yocona, moored at Astoria, Ore., and Modoc, moored at Coos Bay, Ore., to get underway to the Columbia River Bar.

Meantime, the 36-foot motor lifeboats Culp dispatched from Point Adams arrived on-scene in an attempt to rescue the two foundering vessels. Wind and rain made for extremely limited visibility and there was no sign of the Triumph or its crew. At 9:10 p.m., one 36-foot motor lifeboat located the Mermaid, managed to take the fishing boat under tow and proceeded toward the lightship Columbia to wait out the storm. Because of the high seas, however, the vessels made minimal progress. At 9:45 p.m., a giant wave broke over the fishing boat, parting the towline. Still aboard were the Bergman brothers, who owned the vessel, and survivor Petrin, whom they had rescued. 

The other 36-foot motor lifeboat and the outbound freighter SS Diaz de Solis scanned the area with searchlights for 15 minutes, but the Mermaid had vanished in the heavy surf. Soon thereafter, the cutter Yocona arrived on-scene and, together with the two 36-foot lifeboats from Point Adams, continued to search for survivors. A Coast Guard Grumman UF-2G Albatross was dispatched  from San Francisco to Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles also joined in the search effort for a time, dropping illumination flares. Additional Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft deployed from Port Angeles and continued dropping flares, but no survivors or bodies were seen.

After struggling through heavy seas for over an hour, the 36-foot motor lifeboat with all six crewmembers aboard arrived at the Columbia. With its after deck nearly awash, the motor lifeboat was moored to the lightship’s stern. However, on Friday at 5:45 a.m., the deck watch reported that the 36-foot motor lifeboat had foundered and disappeared beneath the waves.

After the loss of the Triumph, Cape Disappointment Lifeboat Station’s commanding officer, Chief Petty Officer Doyle Porter, organized foot patrols along the Long Beach Peninsula, including state and local law enforcement agencies and civilian volunteers. At 10:45 p.m., on Thursday, Coast Guardsmen Junior Meyer and Grover Dillard, of the North Head Lighthouse Station, found Engineman Gordon Huggins struggling in the surf at Benson Beach, three quarters-of-a-mile north of the Columbia River’s north jetty. Huggins was transported to the Ilwaco Hospital for medical attention.

At 2:30 a.m., on Friday, Jan. 13, 1961, Point Adams’ two 35-foot motor lifeboats returned. The cutter Yocona continued to patrol along the outer reaches of Peacock Spit until well after daybreak before returning to Astoria, but saw nothing.

At the Ilwaco Hospital, Huggins recounted his amazing tale of his survival. He was in the aft compartment below decks with a severe nosebleed when the Triumph capsized. The lifeboat made a hard roll to starboard (to the right side of the vessel) and Huggins flipped onto the compartment overhead with gear from the bosun locker falling around him. He attempted to open the watertight hatch, but it was jammed shut. Huggins recounted,

“For about 15 minutes, I hung onto fixtures while the water continued to rise around me. The Triumph suddenly righted [it]self and I made my way amidships. I found [it] had shipped three or four feet of water and was wallowing in breakers 20 to 30 feet high. I checked the boat and found no sign of anyone aboard. The door to the forward compartment was warped fast and couldn’t be opened, but there was no sign of anybody inside. I just hung on and prayed as the ship filled with water."

Huggins determined to remain aboard the powerless Triumph as long as possible. Triumph wallowed in the giant waves for about an hour and then made a steep roll, pitching Huggins into the water, and it vanished beneath the waves. Huggins was wearing his “Mae West” lifejacket but was thrown about in the heavy surf.

“I don’t remember much about the next 20 minutes,” Huggins said. “I was tossed and tumbled in the breakers and finally washed ashore on the sand somewhere. It felt good to be alive, but I couldn’t help thinking about the other men.”

Coast Guardsmen Meyer and Dillard heard Huggins’ cries for help, ran into the surf and hauled him onto the beach. Although battered and bruised, and suffering from hypothermia, Huggins survived the ordeal in relatively good condition. His boat, the waterlogged Triumph, eventually re-righted itself and washed ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula days after it capsized.

At 12:15 a.m., on Friday, a beach patrol found Culp’s body below North Head Lighthouse, not far from where Huggins had washed ashore. Culp was the last victim found by the patrol. The bow of the wrecked Mermaid as well as pieces of the Coast Guard boats were found washed up on Benson Beach, north of the North Head Lighthouse. However, no missing crewmen were among the wreckage. Searchers reported that 60 mile-per-hour southerly winds were creating breakers 30-feet high along the beach, making even the foot patrol hazardous.

The Coast Guard’s search for missing crewmembers continued for days. On Thursday, January 19th, the body of Bert Bergman was discovered washed up on the beach 100 yards north of Oysterville, approximately 18 miles north of the Columbia River’s north jetty. On Friday, the 20th, a memorial service was held at the Coast Guard’s Captain-of-the-Port office at Pier 39 in Seattle for the surfmen who died attempting to rescue F/V Mermaid’s crew. The search operation was finally discontinued on the 26th.

Lone survivor of the 52-foot Triumph, Gordon Huggins attends an anniversary memorial service in 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Culp was buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton, Ore., and was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Gold Life Saving Medal and members of Triumph’s crew who perished received Silver Life Saving Medals, as did survivor Huggins.

Bert Bergman was interred in the City Cemetery in Ilwaco, Wash. The six other survivors of the ordeal also received either lifesaving medals or letters of commendation. A plaque honoring the crew of the Triumph is affixed to a cement monument outside the Cape Disappointment Coast Guard Station. 

The official motto of the Coast Guard is Semper Paratus, meaning “Always Ready”; the unofficial motto is “You must go out, but you don’t have to come back.” In terms of fatalities and loss of lifesaving vessels and equipment, it was the worst disaster in the history of lifeboat stations serving the Pacific Northwest, and among the worst in Coast Guard rescue history. 

This article appears courtesy of The Long Blue Line, and it appears in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.