The Story of Suomi and the Spooky Life Rings

17 Aug

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With all five aboard perishing, the 1955 sinking of Suomi (pronounced swami) stood as the worst yachting accident on the California coast. In 2012, 57 years later, the Low Speed Chase tragedy on the South Farallon equaled her death toll, and equally devastated the Bay Area sailing community.

Suomi was one of Myron Spaulding’s masterpieces. Completed in 1947 to race in that year’s Honolulu Race, the 50-foot yawl was the largest boat he ever built. At the time of the accident, Myron was building Chrysopyle, another of his masterpieces. Myron had been commissioned to build Chrysopyle by Henry Meiggs, to race her in the 1955 Honolulu Race. Myron wasn’t going to finish in time for the race, so Henry Meiggs bought Suomi, in Newport Beach, and was going to enter her in the race instead.

Henry Meiggs and his crew of four sailed Suomi from Newport Beach to San Francisco, to prepare her for the race, but it was on the trip north, just off Point Arguello, that disaster struck.

From the US Coast Guard Commandant’s Action, dated June 20, 1955:

“1. On a dark night with intermittent light rain, the SUOMI was underway using power and sail, exhibiting a masthead light and side lights.

2. The SUOMI was on a crossing course approaching the PARRAMATTA from the starboard and as the privileged vessel, her operator should have sounded the danger signal permitted by Rule 28 of the International Rules to alert the PARRAMATTA.

3.When it became evident to the operator of the SUOMI that collision could not be averted by the action of the burdened PARRAMATTA, he should have taken such action as necessary to avoid immediate danger.

4. That at the time of collision there were five persons on board the SUOMI, namely:

1. Henry Meiggs
2. William Lawrence Meiggs
3. Colonel William S. Conrow
4. Sandy Wilson
5. Ralph Cooper

four of whom perished in the vessel. The fifth, Ralph H. Cooper, who was the operator at the time of collision, died as a result of amputation of the right leg and pelvis with partial evisceration of the abdomen due to contact with the PARRAMATTA propeller.

5. The SUOMI sank immediately after the impact.”

The report goes on to find the PARRAMATTA at fault for failing to keep a proper lookout and discharge the responsibility of the burdened vessel. The report recommended commendation of the captain, crew, and owners of the SS BENNINGTON, which responded quickly and searched the area for survivors.

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Anyone who has been to sea, especially at night, knows the horror of just contemplating such an accident, much less experiencing one. I was run down by a big ship at night, but my incident had a happy ending.

The Coast Guard report goes on:

“17. In response to an urgent Coast Guard notice, the SS BENNINGTON, which was then bound from Los Angeles, California, to Portland, Oregon, searched the area where the collision occurred from 0525 until 0845. At 0525 some wreckage was observed (transom of SUOMI dory). Later a pillow, section of spar, an identified life raft and other debris were sighted. At or about 0640 a body, which later was identified as that of Ralph Howard Cooper of San Mateo, California, was sighted 2.8 miles 180 degrees true from Point Arguello Light. The body and wreckage, which included one 30-inch approved ring buoy, were recovered by a Coast Guard motor lifeboat from Point Arguello Lifeboat Station. The following day another approved ring buoy was recovered by the CGC MINNETONKA in the same general area. The search was continued until 1530 on 22 April, 1955, with negative results.”

Those life rings certainly have a story to tell, having been right in the middle of the terrible loss of life that night. If I listen carefully from my desk, I can almost hear them breathing:

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When I first started here I thought they were just cool pieces of sailing memorabilia, but now I know they are ghosts of something more sinister. But of course this (the Spaulding Marine Center) is the proper place for them to rest, even though Suomi was built before Myron built the current boatworks.

But one question still remains: How did the life rings get from the site of the 1955 wreck to my wall in 2018? Actually I have a second question: How did they know that Ralph H. Cooper was at the helm at the time of the accident? Was the amputation done later at a hospital, and he was able to talk about the accident before he died? Finding a survivor would have certainly been in the report, yet isn’t mentioned.

This excellent video about Chrysopyle mentions the incident:

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa

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