The weather finally broke the other day in Western Washington, bringing cool, overcast skies and a smattering of rain. With Harvey and Irma in the news it may be hard to grasp the fact that there’s a serious drought on the West coast. Even worse, with human “help” the dry conditions spawned a tough wildfire season, bringing destruction and death and a haze of sickening smoke and ash. A wet forecast is sweet relief these days and didn’t deter us from heading north to Fidalgo Island on Saturday. Our plan was to explore a small peninsula overlooking the San Juan Islands.
We’re less familiar with this part of the state and we are ever curious, so we kept sharp eyes out for anything unusual as we drove across the island. On the way to the park I glimpsed something beyond unusual. Only briefly visible from the road, the strange sight appeared, then quickly disappeared. I flashed on some elaborate Hollywood film set. Did I really see a huge dark hulk of a wooden ship, with a cargo that appeared to be a forest, looming out of the mist?
Yes, it was an old wooden ship topped with a forest, growing like big hair gone completely wild.
We continued on to Washington Park, agreeing to check out the strange apparition later – I was pretty sure it wasn’t going anywhere. The sky was spitting a thin drizzle when we traced our route back, and I was soaked after our wander in the park, but the rain felt like renewal after two months of dry heat. Past the ferries to Canada and the San Juan islands we went, searching for a way to get closer to the mysterious specter.
We found it – a narrow, gravel road leading down a hill to a shipyard. We thought we might be booted out at any time, but I couldn’t resist the prospect of getting closer to the mystery ship. With growing excitement, we parked next to a couple of junked trucks and jumped out. A narrow, overgrown isthmus led straight to the ship, looming silently overhead.
By that time we had figured out that this wasn’t a shipwreck, but instead, it was a rather unorthodox breakwater for the shipyard and marina.
La Merced looks old because it is – it was built one hundred years ago in California. A four-masted schooner with auxiliary power, it sailed up, down and across the Pacific delivering case oil for Standard Oil and other companies. Four years into service the ship was rammed by another boat while at anchor near Alcatraz. After repairs the ship sailed the Pacific for a few more years, before it became a floating fish cannery working the salmon catch in Alaska. (The link is to an old photo showing La Merced’s four masts behind some cannery buildings).
Meanwhile, an enterprising man from Croatia named Anton Lovric was working as a boat repairman in Anacortes, Washington, 1,572 nautical miles away. Tony Lovric had a colorful life. Born in 1924, he was captured by the Germans during WWII and survived 14 months of hard labor at Dachau. After he was released he studied naval architecture and worked in a Croatian shipyard, leaving for Italy in 1958 becuase he feared reprisal for his outspoken political views. From Italy he emigrated to the US, eventually arriving in Anacortes, a small northwest port town where he had friends. The place suited him. He married, had five children, and with hard work and resourcefulness he turned a former seafood processing business into Lovric’s Sea-Craft, a ship repair yard and marina.
Repurposing was second nature to Tony Lovric. In 1966 he bought the 232-foot ship La Merced, to use as a breakwater for his marina. Stripped of its masts, engines, bowsprit and other accouterments, the old ship was brought to Anacortes to begin another chapter in its long life. Set in place, filled with sand and surrounded with rocks, it remains there today. La Merced has now spent half its life out of the water. Resting on the island’s edge, she’s like a great beached whale, her skin rough with peeling paint instead of barnacles, her rusted hawse holes keeping watch over the shipyard.
I doubt this old pulley was used for the breakwater project but who knows what it lifted into place over the years? Lovric’s shipyard is still in the family. About ninety percent of their work is done on working boats, not pleasure craft. I like that. On that Saturday afternoon, we saw the bottom of a barge being steam cleaned. There are two rather handsome old wooden buildings for storage and machining, and in the marina you can see boats of every size and shape, with at least one that appears to be a residence.
A tangle of rope, an old winch engine, trucks in various states of disrepair, wild blackberries running through it all…a ladder, a toilet bowl, a volleyball net, a metal wall with a dark opening leading into the overgrown hillside…odd “stuff” is everywhere. Think of all the things you could do with that stuff! Not to mention the history that might be pried out of this site.
We wondered about the lumber used to build La Merced. Maybe loggers felled the timbers back in the early 1900’s in the mountains east of Fidalgo Island, mountains visible from the shipyard on a clear day. The logs could have been shipped to California (as many were) and milled into the long boards needed for the ship. The boards would have been nailed into place, caulked, pitched, painted, and finally, La Merced would float. She would sail the Pacific, awash in the waters of Australia, Hawaii, maybe Polynesia, Alaska…and finally she would come to rest on Fidalgo Island, where her hull full of sand would support the tiny plants that sprouted from seeds blown in or dropped by birds…plants that slowly would become a small forest, which in turn must support more life than I can imagine.
This post isn’t about a well-loved site like Mount Rainier and the photos may leave something to be desired, given the rain that day. But what a sight that massive, century-old ship is! Where once four tall masts held sails that caught distant ocean winds, now trees sway in channel breezes. As the wood slowly rots it helps to keep a local business afloat. Those timbers support an ecosystem that’s part of the local flora and fauna, and this living breakwater can now catch the eyes and imagination of any curious passer by, on land or on water, sparking delight. *
Some of these photos are homages of sorts, to blogging friends whose work I admire. Al at burnt embers often works in film, inspring me to try film effects or film colors (the marina shot and the aqua-shuttered building photo). Linda at Romancing Reality takes masterful photos of dumpster surfaces and she inspired the rusty, scratched metal surface photo. Louis, who is accomplished at graphic work and often shoots in maritime locations, inspired the rope photo. Adrian nudges me to make an occasional darker image (like the ladder) and experiment with film effects. Otto, whose Instagrams also push me to experiment with effects, probably inspired the silhouetted, smudgy pulley photo. Many others I haven’t named this time (Lisa, “Chill” Adrian, Alan, Hedy, Denise, Ken, Jane, Gunta, Uli, Joshi, Pierre, 125tel, Patti, Dina, etc!) are pushing boundaries and perfecting their visions, inspiring me to do the same. And Linda at The Task at Hand, a far better storyteller than I am, inspires me to try weaving a written tale through my photographs, at least once in a while.