Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly In Search Of Sophia

The wreckage of a legendary ship lies somewhere off the Mexican coast.

By Kevin Franklin

And this strange vessel, with its terrible men, pressed under by wind and sea and ever leaping up and out, was heading away into the southwest, into the great and lonely Pacific expanse.

-- Jack London, The Sea Wolf.

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  TRAVEL OF LEGENDARY proportions has at its core the potential for discovery--and mishap.

I have little interest in leisure travel where everything is planned, catered and anticipated. Club Med was made for someone else. So when I stumbled across a footnote in a book mentioning that the wreck of the Sophia Sutherland, the ship that inspired Jack London's classic The Sea Wolf, was somewhere on the remote west coast of Baja, I vowed to go search for it.

The fact that maps of the region are vague, the roads terrible and no one seemed to know exactly where this wreck might be--or even if it was still there--made it all the better. Fuel might or might not be available, and auto parts most certainly were not. The hot, dry and dusty roads would be punishing to man and machine alike. In short, a dream vacation.

In The Sea Wolf, the brutish captain Wolf Larsen commands his ship The Ghost with an iron hand, tyrannizing his crew and two marooned survivors of a shipwreck. The exact events in The Sea Wolf never took place, but London absorbed the experience of a sealer and heard similar stories during his seven-month voyage as an able-bodied seaman aboard the three-masted schooner Sophia Sutherland. In 1893, London sailed with the ship's Scandinavian crew to the Bonin Islands south of Japan, and on to the sealing-grounds of the Northwest Pacific, writes Lewis Gannett in the 1960 introduction to the book. In its later years, the Sophia Sutherland hauled lumber down the Baja coast. In a storm in 1912, it broke free and wrecked somewhere on this coast.

Our two-truck convoy is rattling down the washboard road toward Santa Rosalillita. We ask some locals about the ship, but get only vague replies of various wrecks. We drive north, stopping every so often to climb dunes near the road and scan the beach to see if we can spot anything.

On one of these stops I hear the distant bark of a seal. We clamber over a rocky point, looking for the source, but are unable to spot the animal. Just when we think we should be giving up, one of us hears a faint bark in the distance. We pile back in the vehicles and follow the faint track of a road.

Soon we're overwhelmed with what smells like a long-dead beached whale. We follow the smell over the dunes and emerge onto a white, curving beach stretching for empty miles around to Punta Rocosa. Just off the beach sits an island that is quite likely the source of the smell: It's covered with seals.

We watch them milling in the water. Even from a quarter-mile away, it's apparent they're keeping an eye on us. A few seals sunning themselves on rocks several hundred yards away are now making their way toward the island. We're content to watch them through binoculars.

Little wonder they're a bit skittish. These seal populations had been wiped out by American sealers in London's time. That's why the Sophia Sutherland risked the hazard of an oceanic crossing in order to work the remote waters of the western north Pacific.

As for the wreckage, our pursuit thus far reveals nothing of the Sophia Sutherland. We continue north and make camp on beautiful beach, deserted except for some dolphins and a couple seals hunting in the bay waters. Finding the ship matters little to me. It's the notion of exploration with a purpose that brings me delight.

We'll continue searching tomorrow. (To be continued next week.)

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Arts & Leisure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Tucson Weekly . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch