There are a number of factors that can cause a ship to sink. Most shipwrecks occur when the stricken vessel experiences flooding that compromises the ship’s balance and ability to remain afloat. Ships may also sink if they run aground, collide with another vessel, experience a catastrophic fire, encounter severe weather, or forgo proper maintenance and repairs for a long time. In some cases, ships may even be sunk intentionally to form an artificial reef.
Even after they’ve been abandoned by the sailors that once called them home, some shipwrecks are still visible — the vessel may have run aground, settled in shallow waters, or remain accessible to experienced divers. In this article, we discuss some memorable shipwrecks on the West Coast of the United States that remain accessible to the present day.
The SS Palo Alto
The SS Palo Alto is rather unique amongst this list of shipwrecks, primarily for the nature of its building material. The vessel, which rests in Santa Cruz County, has been nicknamed the “Cement Ship” by locals. As the curious nickname alleges, the SS Palo Alto is actually made up of steel-reinforced concrete, or “ferroconcrete.” The SS Palo Alto was constructed during the final days of World War I, at a time when steel was in short supply. President Woodrow Wilson approved the creation of a fleet of concrete ships to aid in the war effort, but the fighting came to a close before the completed vessels ever saw action.
The SS Palo Alto was used in a variety of roles after its launch. At one point, the vessel was used as a high-end entertainment venue, boasting an onboard casino, heated swimming pool, and ballroom. Following the Great Depression, the ship was sold to the state of California for the price of a single dollar (yes, you read that right). For a number of years after, the vessel was openly accessible to the public. Over time, the vessel grew increasingly unsafe and was deemed off-limits entirely in the 1980s.
The ship now rests at the end of a fishing pier at Seacliff State Beach. While it is not safe to go onboard the SS Palo Alto’s remains, visitors can nonetheless observe the ship from the safety of the shore or nearby pier.
The HMCS Yukon
The HMCS Yukon was a Mackenzie-class destroyer that served in the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Forces. The vessel was commissioned on May 25, 1963, and remained in service until December of 1993. During the course of her active service, the HMCS Yukon’s primary role was as a training ship, though she did serve as an escort vessel to Queen Elizabeth II and the HMY Britannia. In 1983, the vessel made international headlines when a minor collision occurred between the destroyer and the USS Kitty Hawk, an American supercarrier.
The destroyer was decommissioned in 1993 and later sold to the San Diego Oceans Foundation. In 2000, the vessel was towed to San Diego, California. Once the ship reached San Diego, it was gutted and cleaned to prepare it for its next role as an artificial reef. The day before the ship was due to be scuttled, or intentionally sunk, the ship ended up sinking on its own during poor weather. Prior to the ship’s sinking, explosive charges had been placed to facilitate the scuttling, making the wreck highly dangerous. U.S. Navy SEALs successfully removed the live explosives over several weeks.
Due to the ship’s unexpectedly early sinking, the vessel ended up on the seafloor in an awkward position. The scuttling had been planned so that the ship would sink straight down — instead, the HMCS Yukon came to rest flat on its port side. The vessel’s remains are still accessible to experienced divers, but it has a reputation as a particularly deadly shipwreck. Low visibility, the wreck’s depth, and the angle of the ship’s final resting position have combined to disorient many divers, several fatally.
The Ruby E
The Ruby E (formerly known as the USCG Cyane) is located in Wreck Alley, which is the West Coast’s largest assembly of artificially sunken ships. The previously mentioned HMCS Yukon is another one of the more well-known vessels located in the San Diego ship’s graveyard. The Ruby E began her career as a Thetis-class Coast Guard cutter in 1934. Thetis-class vessels were designed with an emphasis on maneuverability and range, so that they could track down rumrunner ships during the height of Prohibition.
By the time of Ruby E’s launch, Prohibition had been repealed, but the Coast Guard remained in need of agile patrol vessels. The Ruby E saw service periods off the waters of Alaska and Washington state as well as brief combat during World War II. In 1950, the vessel was decommissioned. After being decommissioned, the vessel changed ownership multiple times and was used as both a fish processing ship and a salvage ship. Eventually, the ship ended up in the hands of the San Diego Tug and Barge Company, who donated the vessel’s remains to Wreck Alley.
Despite experiencing difficulties during the ship’s scuttling in 1989, the vessel landed upright on the seafloor, making it a much more palatable dive than the wreck of the HMCS Yukon. The Ruby E remains accessible to divers to this day, lying at a depth of approximately 65 feet.
The SS Dominator was initially launched under the name Melville Jacoby as a Liberty ship. Liberty vessels were a class of cargo ship built using a British design that were created during WWII in the U.S. through the Emergency Shipbuilding Program. Liberty ships were cheap and relatively easy to manufacture in bulk, which allowed the U.S. to replace British transports lost during earlier stages of the war.
The Melville Jacoby survived the war intact and was then sold into private service, where she took on the name Victoria. As the Victoria, the vessel sailed under the Panama flag. The ship was sold again in 1950 and became known as the North Queen. After a relatively brief period, the ship was sold a third time, acquiring the name Dominator in the process. At this point, the Dominator was a Greek-owned cargo ship operating under the Panama flag.
On March 13, 1961, the ship encountered poor weather whilst sailing from Portland, Oregon to Long Beach, California. Heavy fog made it impossible for the ship’s crew to find the harbor entrance. Despite the vessel’s captain ordering reduced speed, the ship ran aground upon a rocky reef near Palos Verde Point. Fortunately, the water was too shallow for the vessel to sink immediately. A rescue attempt was launched almost immediately by the Coast Guard, who tried to use tugboats to dislodge the cargo ship. These efforts failed due to storm surges and high wings.
By March 16, it was evident that the Dominator could not be saved. The ship’s captain sent out an SOS, and the vessel’s entire crew was rescued by the Coast Guard. The ship was abandoned, to be gradually broken apart by the pounding surf. Numerous treasure seekers attempted to explore the wreck, oftentimes a risky prospect due to the rough waters in the area. Even as a wreck, the Dominator became a headache for locals. The ship had been carrying grain and beef when it ran aground, which attracted swarms of flies and rats as the food began to go bad.
The Peter Iredale
Unlike the other vessels on this list, which ended up in California waters, the Peter Iredale’s final resting place lies in Oregon. The Peter Iredale was a 287-foot, four-masted steel ship in the Pacific Coast Wheat Fleet. While en route to Portland to retrieve a cargo of wheat in 1906, the vessel became mired in fog and rain. The vessel nonetheless managed to safely make it to the mouth of the Columbia River but was subsequently forced aground by a deceptively strong current. The force of the impact snapped several of the ship’s masts, yet no serious injuries were suffered by crew members.
The Peter Iredale’s Captain Lawrence ordered his crew to abandon ship and launched signal rockets to call for assistance. A rescue party arrived from Point Adams, safely bringing the floundering ship’s crew ashore. At this time, a pair of stowaways were discovered on board the ship and were rescued as well. Following the ship’s grounding, the British Naval Court cleared the captain and his crew of all liability, deeming the current and winds responsible for wrecking the vessel.
To this day, the Peter Iredale’s wreck remains visible. Although plans were made to tow the almost fully-intact ship back into the sea, poor weather delayed the salvage efforts. By the time the waters were calm enough to make an attempt, the ship had developed a severe list and became trapped in the sands. The vessel was left to decay naturally, with the ship’s rusting bow and masts still visible to the present day.
How Frequently Do Shipwrecks Occur in the Present Day?
Between 2011 and 2021, a total of 892 vessels were confirmed lost at sea, according to Statista. The vast majority of lost vessels were cargo ships, though a substantial number of fishing vessels sunk or went missing as well. The Black Sea, East Mediterranean, and Southeast Asian coast saw the majority of reported incidents. Modern naval accidents occur for a variety of reasons, from negligent acts by the ship’s captain or crew to unexpected storm surges. As a precaution, you should always familiarize yourself with a ship’s emergency protocols, the location of lifeboats, and the application of life vests when you step foot on an unfamiliar vessel.
We hope that this article provided some interesting tidbits on some of the West Coast’s most iconic shipwrecks. Be sure to check out some of the shipwrecks mentioned above the next time you find yourself exploring California or Oregon!