Cheating ‘The Graveyard’

Thanks to science, Canada's Pacific gateway no longer is a mariner's nightmare

W. BRUCE HUTCHISON September 15 1927

Cheating ‘The Graveyard’

Thanks to science, Canada's Pacific gateway no longer is a mariner's nightmare

W. BRUCE HUTCHISON September 15 1927

Cheating ‘The Graveyard’

Thanks to science, Canada's Pacific gateway no longer is a mariner's nightmare


OUT in the Graveyard of the Pacific, as a dirty November night settles down, the world seams bundled up and tucked to bed in a great, gray blanket of fog. From an inbound liner’s bridge you cannot see the bow, and the water below is hidden by a thick, restless scum of mist. The deck is a dark, uncertain smudge, powerful electric lights mere circles of orange-colored haze, and the officer standing on watch six feet off a vague shadow. Fog winds itself around you like a wet spiderweb clammy and stifling. You are as helpless as a blind man.

Not a sound comes through the smother.

Suddenly the dead silence is broken by a shattering blast from the liner's whistle up in the darkness above you—a lone, mournful wail that makes you start and wait with nerves on edge for the next one.

Every two minutes it is repeated.

This is the liner’s warning to lesser craft. She creeps on like a cautious snail.

Beneath the green-shaded lights of the chart room, ju3t behind the pilot house, two silent men are studying a nautical chart of Canada’s Pacific coast. L pon them and their instructions to the man at the wheel depends the safety of 500 human lives, a 15,000,000 cargo from the Orient and one of the finest ships riding the ocean.

The sun and the stars have been hidden for two da>s, ? ®b3enrations impossible. Only by dead reckoning do the officers know that they are in the very middle of the Graveyard. As their map shows, somewhere off the P® . D3W to the northward behind the impenetrable bamer of fog, lies the rock-strewn roast of Vancouver Island, sweeping far down towards t ie pölhtê'd ncsë-öT Cape Flattery on the shores of Wash ngton. Lights and jog horns are dotted along these shn es, but in a night like this they are virtually useless, letween the Island and Flatte y lie the twenty-milewide Straits of Juan de Fuca, the gestern gateway to Canada. Once inside the Straits you can hardly miss your way, but to find their entrance in a winter fog is a needlethreading trick which has baffled navigators from Captain Cook onward, with death as the usual penalty' of failure.

Caught in a fox trap like this a few years ago, the master of an inbound ship, no matter how well he knew the Coast, could do only one thing—heave to and pray for the weather to break before he drifted upon the rocks. He might have to hover outside for two or three days waiting for an opening, but to grope for the Straits on the strength of a compass reading was risking a short cut to Davy Jones’ locker.

But, to-day, Davy Jones is finding his harvest small. An invisible but unerring hand is r« ady to guide the faltering vessel out of his reach.

Up in the wireless cabin of the linei, an operator, ear phones on his head, is working with 1 is key. A steady

stieam of signals is rushing out through the ether—two dots, then three dashes, the wireless figure ‘2’. It is repeated again and again. Then there is an answering click or two and a pause.

Up on the rocky edge of the island in the big Canadian Government wireless Pachena. a cool-headed, young man, who has been listening intently to the liner

signals, makes some rapid calculations on a pad of paper. After checking them over he turns to his key, and the receiving nstrument on the ship raps out the aconic impersonal message: ‘Your bearing is 48.28 north, 125.29 west.

By telephone the operator relays these precious figures to the chart room. A glance at the big map of the coast shows the captain his position within half a mile. Altering her course a point he heads the vessel’s bow confidently towards the Straits. Half an hour later, with another bearing or two by wireless and the treacherous entrance to the open water will be behind. Without seeing a light or hearing a fog horn the liner will be safely on her way home.

Through the magic o f direction - finding wireless, after everything else had failed, Canada at last has conquered one of the most notorious cross roads on the highways of the world’s commerce—cheated the Graveyard of the Pacific.

This triumph over the ocean’s devilish trickery is not only a matter of saving lives. It is the salvation of Canada’s Pacific trade. The very life blood of this country’s fast-growing commerce with the Orient, with Australia, South America and even Europe must flow through that narrow neck of water which crosses the Graveyard. Day and night an endless stream of shipping moves down the Straits towards the sea—grain ships from Vancouver carrying hard prairie wheat to the hungry millions of the Orient or to Europe via the Panama; tramps from Victoria, heavy—laden with British Columbia lumber to build houses for people in Yokohama, Sydney, Valparaiso, New York and Manchester; freighters loaded down with British Columbia sockeye salmon, Okanagan apples, Fraser Valley and Alberta butter on their way to the pinner tables of the world; the towering queens of the Pad ic, the Empress liners, their luxurious cabins filled witb passengers voyaging to far eastern lands, and their h »Ids crammed with all those products

which Canada, th ships abroad in ev

world’s greatest per capita producer, r-increasing quantity.

And every day, almost every hour, come ships from the seven seas looking for this western entrance to the great Canadian market—Japanese freighters reeking with that pungent, unmistakable, smell of tea, rice, Christmas oranges toys, soya beans and what-not piled below decks; European vessels with cargoes of manufactured goods from Britain, France and Germany; the returning Canadian liners fresh from Hong Kong and Yokoh: ma with fat Chinese businessmen, sunburned rubber planters, suave Japanese diplomats, weirdly clad Russian refugees, millions of dollars worth of silk and every other article the Far East sends to the Far West; even the Canadian rum runner, back from a successful trip down the United States coast, finds a place in this motley procession. From Victoria you can watch this endless parade as it glides along. Silhouetted against the deep blue background of the Olympic mountains on the shores of Washington, come the shuat, dirty-looking form of the tramp, the tall masts of tile schooner, the immaculate white hull

of the liner with its three belching funnels, the little cockleshell fishing boats following the salmon run, and the long lean, shape of the occasional dreadnought heading for the Canadian drydock at Esquimalt or the American naval base at Bremerton.

All must cross the Graveyard.

The value of the commerce moving upon these waters can only be guessed at. To say that millions of dollars travel the Straits in ships and cargoes every day is a poor státement of the facts. But when one silk cargo may be worth $5,000,000 it is clear that this traffic represents a large slice of North America’s foreign trade.

It is almost impossible to estimate the actual value in dollars and cents of the new wireless achievement.

You have only to look back, however, over the appalling record of disaster in the past, the loss of hundreds of lives, the wreckage of millions in ships and cargo to realize that the Graveyard has cost Canada a staggering amount. Now, as if by a miracle, this drain on the nation’s business is being dammed. It is a major national economy.

Always the opening to the Straits has been a place of uncanny mystery and disaster. Always the sou’west gales and the sweep of the ocean’s current seem to drag those whom they have marked for their own up to the ragged shores of the Island. It has been so from the earliest times.

The Spanish and British navigators of the late seventeen hundreds missed the Straits altogether and established their forts on the Island, taking it for the mainland. In the old days of the original settlement at Victoria, many a shipload of adventurers from ’Frisco on their boisterous way to the Cariboo gold fields piled up on the rocks before reaching the beginning of their long overland march. But still they came, for those were the times of weak ships and strong men. Later on scores of sealing schooners which had sailed the Arctic seas and fought their way even to the coast of Siberia as they followed the teeming seal herds, were helpless before the fury of the Straits.

Where the homing liner groped its way, the pioneer steamer Pacific, pride of the old-time Canadian waterfront, confused by the lights of Flattery, crashed into the little American schooner Orpheus one pitchblack night in 1875, and plunged to the bottom like a stone tossed into a puddle.

With her, as in a coffin, went all but two of a company of 275 passengers before they could rush on deck. Just to the north the Orpheus completed this double disaster when she sank on the Island coast, a total wreck.

A few miles away the crack steamer Valendan drove upon the rocks before a sixtymile midnight gale in the winter of 1906, and lingered there for two hideous days while 130 human beings, half frozen and without food or water, huddled together on her slowlysinking stern. Boats filled with women and children were lowered and shattered against the ship’s side like egg shells — passengers soaked their clothes in oil and burned them to attract help—rockets were fired — seamen t hrew themselves into

the water to swim ashore with lines and were battered to death on the reef—two men reached the rocks only to find themselves caught in a cave below the cliffs where the rising tide slowly engulfed them. From the precipitous cliffs 150 yards away, and from ships which could not reach the wreck, rescue parties watched helplessly as the Valendan’s masts slowly disappeared beneath the breakers.

Farther along the Straits to the eastward lies another peril, an uncanny zone of silence where, seafaring men say, no sound penetrates the atmosphere. Almost within a stone’s throw, a powerful fog horn was shrieking out its warnings when two big freighters crashed into the rocks of Bentinck Island. In the mysterious swirl of the air’s currents no one on board heard a sound until the two vessels ground their way to destruction.

All along this coast of catastrophe stout ships have perished year after year on the threshold of home. It is —or was— the Graveyard of the -Pacific.

A Revolution in Navigation

WHEN Canada adopted ordinary wireless twenty years ago the losses began to decline, but it was only when the direction-finding station at Pachena was established that the Graveyard finally was conquered. The war really uncovered the solution of the problem. In the handling of warships and merchantmen in the days of the U-boat horror, direction-finding was brought to the point where it was reliable. After the war Canada decided to apply the idea to the Graveyard. In 1921, after a series of -wrecks on the Vancouver Island coast, the federal government established the Pachena station at a strategic point, fitted it with the best equipment obtainable, manned it with the ablest operators it could find, and told them to keep the country’s shipping off the rocks Overnight they worked a revolution in navigation.

To any but the expert mind the scientific processes behind the finding of direction by wireless are mysterious. In layman's language the equipment of the Pachena station is centred about a complicated instrument called a goniometer, which is really a radio set which registers the maximum and minimum sounds received from a ship's wireless and automatically interprets them in terms of direction.

This feat is accomplished by simple principles of wireless tram mission familiar every wireless fan the amateur

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knows, a wireless aerial picks up sounds out of the air most efficiently when its axis is at right angles to the path of the sound, and least efficiently when its axis is parallel to the line of the wave. The goniometer works as if itwere moving the aerial wires about so as to meet the incoming signals alternately at right angles and parallel to them, judging the direction of signals by the strength of their sound.

Actually no such cumbersome arrangement is necessary. Four aerial wires stretch up to a mast from the ground at the four points of the compass. Incoming signals, of course, will affect most the aerial at right angles to them. That is to say, if a signal is coming direct from the south it will affect most the two aerials running from the east and the west to the top of the mast. To discover which aerials the signals are affecting most, the goniometer uses a search coil which can be tuned into the four aerials alternately and which, in layman’s language, feels out the flow of aerial sound. This search coil is governed by the turningof a dial, which accurately records its automatic observations.

When a ship groping its way into the entrance of Juan de Fuca and hopelessly lost in a wilderness of fog, flashes out a call for radio help, immediately an answer comes back from Pachena which is standing by for such messages. The ship’s operator then ticks out the combination of two dots and three dashes which spell the selected figure ‘2’ in a continual stream, repeating the signal thirty times.

On shore the Pachena operator listens to the sounds traveling through the air, striving with trained ear to gauge their maximum and minimum intensity. He carefully turns the dial of the search coil which, like the dial of your radio, varies the volume of the wireless ticking as one aerial and then another comes into play. By noting the spot on the dial where the sound is first heard and the other where it fades away into silence he finds the mean point between the two minimum sounds. The dial, reflecting the position of the four aerials simply represents the 360 degrees of the compass and the mean point of sound definitely fixes the direction of the ship from the station.

From this information the operator could draw on the map a line running out across the ocean from the station. Somewhere this line would cut the ship. But to locate its distance away on thislineanother is needed to intersect it and thus establish a definite point. And to get this second line the assistance of another wireless station is necessary. Immediately on receiving a call for help the Pachena operator asks the American station at Destruction Island to the south to tune in on the signals which are pouring through the air The American operator works with his instruments, too, until he has found on what point of the compass the ship lies in relation to his station. This figure is flashed across to his Canadian neighbor. The American’s line of mean sound, drawn out across the water, cuts the line already established by the Canadian operator. Where the two lines meet is the position of the ship.

Amazing Accuracy

TT TAKES the fast-working young man -*■ at the radio station two and a half minutes on the average to read his instruments and complete his calculations from the moment of receiving the liner’s first signal. His figures show the vessel’s place in the vast stretch of ocean within half a mile. As the Pachena station is powerful enough to cover a radius of 200 miles, it can give any ship its position long before it has reached the danger zone. The accuracy of the almost instantaneous reports flashed out to the strays of the sea is amazing. Ninety-eight per cent, of

the bearings supplied since the Pachena station was established have been absolutely true in figures of longitude and latitude. This is due to the instruments, and to the efficiency of the men who operate them.

To give forty-five to fifty bearings a day and make no slip is a job which requires steady nerves and a cool head. Knowing, perhaps, that an inbound liner with half a thousand passengers aboard, is drifting through the fog towards the rocks and certain destruction, the man at the dial must work fast, butnottoo fast to be absolutely accurate. Deliberately, as if the ship were safe in harbor he must figure out its position and then, when his involved mathematical sum is complete and checked over, send it out to the waiting operator aboard the vessel.

When the ocean is buried in an impenetrable shroud of fog, or whipped into fury by a January sou’wester, and a ship is wandering helpless off its course, the wireless man must keep his head. The slightest error in his judgment of the wireless sounds, a slip in a single figure of his calculation and he may guide the vessel to the reefs of the Graveyard. The safety of all on board is in the hands of the man who turns the Pachena dials.

For such a work Canada has chosen a group of remarkable young fellows. The same staff is maintained at Pachena continually without rotation of jobs with other wireless stations, as direction finding is a business of its own for experienced experts only. Isolated on the barren coast of the Island, marooned up on a bluff of wind-swept rock, there is nothing to do at Pachena but work and there is no idleness, even for a minute, for the man on duty. The operator, with his ears constantly trained on his instruments, never ceases to listen for the faint crackling sound that may be the distress call of a lost vessel.

The scope of this systematic sentry duty on the edge of the Graveyard is almost unbelievable. Since 1921 the station has given about 4000 ships a year their positions. Not one vessel which has accepted this guidance has been wrecked —an almost incredible record which could hardly be improved upon and which probably is withoutequalanywhere.

No one can tell, of course, how many ships would have added their bones to the ample store of the Graveyard without this aid. Shipping men will tell you, though, that a ship a month at least loses itself completely around the gateway to the Straits in average weather and is in imminent danger of hitting the rocks. The records taken at Pachena, showing pretty clearly when a ship is on the border line of destruction, seem to confirm this estimate. In the foggy days of fall, when the mist often settles down like thick pea soup, the number of potential disasters must be much larger.

There have been a few wrecks in the vicinity of the Graveyard since Pachena started to tick out its brief messages of safety, but none of these vessels had found out its position by wireless before it hit the rocks. To ignore or disregard the station is to court ruin. At least one skipper has discovered that the wireless men knew more than he did about the navigation of the channel. One of those dirty-looking Japanese tramps, struggling up to the Straits one day when the shoreline was invisible behind a wall of fog, asked Pachena for its bearings and got them. The completed figures of latitude and longitude startled the shore operator. Looking at the map beside him he saw at a glance that the ship was less than a half a mile from the rocks and heading for them.

Involuntarily he tapped out the friendly tip: “You’ll bump if you keep on that way, old man.” No answer came from the Jap. The operator strained for some

further signal on the air. After a few minutes it came—an S.O.S. The Jap had kept on his course and piled up on a reef.

Another captain found that it was better to rely on Pachena than on his own intuition, though he had sailed the seas, man and boy, for forty years. A freighter was ploughing her way north along the coast of Washington, searching through a shroud of mist for the entrance to the Straits. The captain apparently didn't need any radio to show him the way. When he had got far enough north he would turn eastward around Flattery. Just as he was thinking he had plenty of time yet to make the turn, out of the haze loomed the vague outline of a bluff, and a second later the vessel shivered as she crashed into the rocks below. Fast on the reef she hung, an easy prey for the next gale.

Then the vessel’s operator asked for help. “Where am I!” came through the air to Pachena. In two minutes the man at the instrument flashed back the vessel’s position in exact figures. The ship had landed on the shores of Village Island, a treacherous patch of land where many another ship had ended its days. The captain, who was sure he had struck on the coast of Washington could hardly believe that he had swept north of the Graveyard and missed the Straits altogether. An inquiry by wireless ten minutes earlier would have saved his vessel. But such cases are rare. Skippers take no chances. They get their bearings and confidently stake their ships on those figures.

While the Pachena equipment is designed to prevent wrecks, Canada also maintains machinery at points along the coast to cope with them when they do occur. The west coast of Vancouver Island is linked by telephone so that news

of any accident may be flashed to Victoria, where the stout little Salvage King, the finest salvage vessel afloat, lies at her wharf, steam always up, ready to rush to the assistance of any distressed vessel, whether it is in mid-Pacifie or half a mile away.

The Graveyard has virtually lost its potency at the advance of science but there is still work to be done on this coast to guard the country’s ever-expanding marine commerce, and to protect ships after they have passed the danger point of Flattery. Like every other coastline, the Straits themselves have contributed their bit even in recent years to the total cost of wreckage. There was the Japanese skipper, for instance, who navigated past Flattery only to run his ship on the rocks. He got her off again through a fine feat of seamanship and promptly jumped overboard to drown and redeem his honor according to the code of his people.

Nature Plays Deadly Prank

TO-DAY the Government is grappling with a deadly prank which nature has played inside the Straits at the expense of two large vessels and several craft— the ‘Zone of Silence’ around Bentinck Island, west of Victoria, which will have to be overcome to prevent more loss. It is located in the very path of all Canadian Pacific shipping.

An eerie spot, this. Creeping through the fog, two big freighters, the Siberian Prince and the Emdylc, followed one another upon this little dot of land and grounded in the same cradle of Bentinck Island rocks. Almost within shouting distance, a big fog horn was shattering the silence of the coast with bellows which should have been clearly audible for miles in all directions. Yet no one on board heard a sound before the doomed vessels

crashed into the reef. Smaller craft, too, have been wrecked there in the same uncanny silence.

Experienced shipping men, old-time pilots who know every inch of the coast, will tell you that the island is surrounded by a shifting atmospheric belt of some kind through which no sound can travel. Observations of experts and the evidence of the Siberian Prince and Emdyk captains seem to confirm this idea, fantastic as it seems.

Apparently the fierce sweep of wind and current around the southern tail of Vancouver Island, through some strange phenomenon which no one pretends to understand completely, blots out all sound at this point in certain directions. Under some conditions fog horns apparently are useless in this region of dead sound. Some days, mariners say, sounds travel naturally, and the Bentinck Island horn is clearly heard. On others it is dumb. Sometimes the horn can be heard from the westward, while from the eastward it is silent.

Marine officials have just about given up hope of handling the Bentinck Island situation with the present equipment. In place of a fog horn they are investigating the use of wireless equipment to pierce the silent zone where ordinary sounds are lost. ,

Other shipping problems have yet to be solved along the Island coast and, with the use of the wireless telephone, an extension of the radio idea, the Government is moving this year to meet them. As Canada’s shipping continues to grow, the navigation service will have to grow with it. But the crux of all these problems disappeared when the country’s western gateway was made safe at last after a century and a half of destruction. Canada has cheated the Graveyard of the Pacific.