Remembering the Eerie Shipwreck of SS Catala at Ocean Shores, WA

ss-catala-wreck-ocean-shores-wa (Image: NW Exposure Photography/SA Stevens РFacebook; wreck of SS Catala c. 1970)

Strolling out to the eerie, hulking wreck of an abandoned passenger ship from the golden days of sea travel, beached and looming silently over the surrounding sand, is almost the stuff of fiction. But in the 1970s and ’80s, the imposing shipwreck of the steamship SS Catala presented just such an opportunity.

The graceful vessel, launched in 1925 for the Union Steamship Company of British Columbia, enjoyed an eventful career before she was wrecked on New Year’s Day, 1965. For several decades, the haunting shipwreck, battered by the onslaught of Pacific storms, loomed ominously over sands of Ocean Shores, Washington. Her remains were finally scrapped in 2006.

History of the Wrecked Steamship SS Catala

ss-catala (Image: H. Brown; SS Catala docked in Vancouer, BC in 1925)

Built by the Coaster Construction Company of Montrose, Scotland, and launched in 1925, the Canadian vessel was named after Catala Island, a stunning marine reserve and provincial park at the entrance to Esperanza Inlet. The island itself was named for Fr. Magin Catal√°, a Catholic Missionary from Catalonia, who travelled to Vancouver Island around 1790.

Catala was similar in size to her Scottish-built sister, SS Cardena. At 229 ft long with a beam of 37.1 ft and an 18.4 ft depth of hold, the grand vessel was able to carry 267 passengers and 300 tons of cargo, achieving a speed of 14 knots. Forty-eight bunks were provided in steerage, while her staterooms could accommodate 120 souls.

Captain James Findlay, who had delivered the Union Steamship Company’s other vessels, oversaw the voyage from Scotland to Canada. Once there, SS Catala steamed north from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, plying the spectacular coastal waters of British Columbia for much of her service life.

ss-catala-sparrowhawk-reef (Image: BC Archives; SS Catala aground on Sparrowhawk Reef)

But disaster struck early. On November 8, 1927, Catala ran aground on Sparrowhawk Reef. Lifeboats were quickly lowered and, with the support of local First Nations people and their canoes, passengers and crew were ushered to the safety of Port Simpson. After various salvage efforts failed, the Union Steamship Company wrote the ship off as a total loss, but stipulated that it would claim the ship back should the wreck be salvaged intact by the insurers.

Sure enough, after much blasting with explosives and consequent patching of the hull, SS Catala was refloated almost a month after she had come to grief on Sparrowhawk Reef. Repaired in Vancouver under the watchful eye of the very man who had overseen her construction in Scotland – and had since relocated to British Columbia – for the sum of $175,000, the elegant vessel once again resumed her coastal trade.

SS Catala’s Later Years & Wrecking

ss-catala-wreck-ocean-shores-wa-3 (Images: WA Department of Ecology; Catala is abandoned after efforts to re-float her fail)

Like many grand passenger ships of her age, Catala’s later career was less prestigious. By 1958 she had become a fish-buying vessel. She later became a boatel in Seattle during the world’s fair of 1962, and served as a floating restaurant in California the same year. By 1963, she had been towed to Ocean Shores, Washington for another boatel stint. But almost two years later, on New Year’s Day 1965, SS Catala was battered by fierce storms and driven aground near Damon Point.

This time, though, there would be no salvage. The abandoned ship, wrecked and unmovable, was left to rot on the Washington beach. For years, the rusting bow of her hull and elegant superstructure, topped by twin funnels, rose hauntingly from the sand. Her unmistakable form, as if a ghost ship, battered by the elements and steadily reclaimed by nature, attracted visitors from far and wide.

ss-catala-wreck-ocean-shores-wa-2 (Image: Levriere52; wreck of SS Catala in 1976, 11 years after she was abandoned)

Not many grand shipwrecks are accessible on foot, making the rusting hulk of SS Catala all the more compelling. But unfortunately, that ease of access also attracted vandals, as well as those seeking to explore a hazardous wreck site up close. In the late 1980s, a family reportedly sued the State of Washington after their daughter broke her back when the heavily rusted decking gave way beneath her.

As a result, more than two decades after she foundered, the grand shipwreck was finally dismantled. SS Catala’s superstructure was broken up and her hull cut down to sand level. What was left was then buried.

ss-catala-wreck-ocean-shores-wa-4 (Image: WA Department of Ecology; the cut down wreck prior to scrapping)

But by 2006, amid fierce winter storms that had over the years uncovered the wreck, oil was found to be leaking from Catala’s unrecognisable remains. Swiftly cordoned off, as seen in these photographs, over 34,000 gallons of heavy oil were pumped out of the wreck. The sad remains of the once-graceful Union Steamship Company vessel were then – finally – scrapped in 2007.

Related – The Magnificent Wreck of SS America (in Pictures)


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