Eye On Olympia

The wreck of the Catala…

Yes, a shipwreck is admittedly pretty far afield for what's supposed to be a political blog, but so many Northwesterners have memories of clambering around on the beached steamer SS Catala over the decades that I figured I'd post a recent story I did on the ship now and get back to politics tomorrow.

More than four decades after a New Year’s Day storm beached the SS Catala on a sand spit at Ocean Shores, Wash., a curious beachcomber last year poked a stick through a hole in the hull.

When he pulled it out, a gleaming, black glob of oil clung to the end.

State environmentalists were stunned to learn that the 229-foot wreck – which several failed salvage attempts had left as a rusty playground and party spot for generations of adventurous beachgoers – still contained more than 32,000 gallons of fuel oil.

Built in Scotland in 1925, the Catala was part of a fleet of ships steaming up the coastline of British Columbia until the late 1950s, delivering people and freight to logging camps and fishing communities. A network of new highways eventually drove them out of business.

In 1961, the ship was rescued from a Canadian scrapyard by investors, who fixed it up and parked it on the Seattle shoreline as a floating “Boatel” where people could stay during the 1962 World’s Fair. Then it moved to Ocean Shores, serving as a moorage and recreation spot for fishermen and boaters.

“She was nice inside. She was an older ship, but they had white tablecloths on the tables,” recalled Ocean Shores Interpretive Center worker Janna Hoflin, who had lunch on the ship about a month before it was beached. Decades later, cleanup crews would find dozens of pieces of sturdy Syracuse china – black with oil – in the bowels of the ship.

The ship – smokestacks and all – was a local landmark for years. Around 1980, tired of people getting hurt climbing around on it, the last of three salvage companies that owned the wreck cut off the stacks and everything else down to the sand line, then buried the Catala.

“It remained buried for the next 25 years,” said Jim Sachet, an oil-spill response supervisor with the state Department of Ecology. Then wind and more storms began to expose the wreck again, leading to the discovery of the oil in the tanks.

On a recent afternoon, workers clambered over the wreck, slicing it up with cutting torches and hoisting out 20,000-pound chunks of rusted hull with a large crane. Chains clanked and sparks flew and the skeletal beams of the ship were like the ribs of a long-gone beached whale.

The oil in the tanks is gone, scraped and steam-cleaned off the steel. But on a warm day, it still oozes from rivet holes and seams in the metal.

“Some of the oil was so thick it was almost like asphalt,” said Sachet.

By August, the crews say, the Catala will be gone, remaining only in memories and a landmark in family beach photos. Workers will level the hole where the hull sat for so long, and will dot the beach with driftwood, to make it look like the ship was never there at all.

“Those of us who’ve been here a long time kind of wish it could have been left,” said Hoflin. “But because of the oil, we realize it couldn’t. We’re gonna miss it. We’re going to miss it a lot.”

Click here for an audio slideshow of old photos and the cleanup crews dismantling the huge old ship.




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