Have You Seen the Shipwrecks off Ocean Beach?

Jan 21 at 2pm

By Sierra Hartman

I first came across the shipwrecks at Lands End while shooting the edges of the city story. I’ve since become slightly obsessed with them and have spent an unreasonable amount of time studying old photos, talking to historians, and digging through the historical center archives at the library. After reading so many first-hand accounts of sailing through the Golden Gate – the name for the straight connecting the bay with the ocean, and the bridge’s namesake – I realize that navigating it on a bad day without the aid of modern technology took a rare kind of guts. It would have been something like driving from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero with blacked out windows, a hand drawn map, a road that tilts randomly, and a few phantom MUNI busses running on the same rules. There were some safety measures in place, but they were often too little too late.

Of the 300 or so vessles that have wrecked around the entrance to the bay, 78 remain (in various states) between Drakes Bay and Pacifica. Three of these ships, the Lyman Stewart (wrecked 1922), Frank Buck (wrecked 1924), and Ohioan (wrecked 1936) are notable in that parts of them are still visible from Lands End at low tide. The two largest chunks are the triple expansion steam engines of Lyman Stewart and Frank Buck. Parts of the Ohioan can be seen just off the beach near Sutro Baths.

Buck and Stewart were actually sister ships, built at the same time in the Union Iron Works shipyard near the end of 20th Street. Though 15 years apart, after long careers at sea they both wrecked on the same spot, in the same way, only miles from their home port. They were struck head on by larger ships in dense fog and eventually came to rest almost on top of each other near Hermit Rock on the northwest corner of Lands End.

So why isn’t the coastline of San Francisco littered with shipwrecks, Isla de Muerta style? Because after the crew salvaged whatever cargo and possessions they could, the ships were usually sold at public auctions and stripped of whatever useful materials that were left. After that, the authorities had an unsentimental habit of dynamiting the wrecks. Sometimes, as in the case of the Ohioan, nature took charge and battered them to pieces on her own.

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