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Learning about boats: this time the Wadena

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A year ago I told you how the SS Minnesota, the first ironclad ship, sneaked up at night getting into the scrap at Hampton Roads in the Civil War to change the odds between the Merrimac and the Monitor.

This year a little schooner named "Wadena" turned up in my research on Wikipedia and other Internet sources. She was a proud little rascal, always seeming to be on hand wherever there was action.

Wadena began life in 1891 as an elegant yacht, the pride of Jepth Homer Wade II, millionaire grandson of the founder of Western Union Telegraph. She was powered by steam, had a refrigerator system that kicked out 3,000 pounds of ice each day, as well as electric light from 135 lamps.

Wade was especially proud of the chart room. It featured real glass windows and a white mahogany staircase that curved gently down into a library. Dr. Powell, who accompanied the Wade family wherever they went, had a room there. A cabinet outside their daughter's room held a mix of rifles, shotguns, revolvers and cutlasses.

Wadena's stateroom held a bed with elaborately carved naked cupids blowing on pipes, a reading desk and a porcelain-lined bathtub. A grand piano, where nubile cupids played harps all day, graced the parlor.

Finally, tired of crisscrossing the oceans, Wade sold Wadena to the Navy. Her pampered playgirl days were over. From now on she was a working woman, more at home with a mop and scrub bucket than white mahogany.

Wadena buckled down without a whimper into her new role as though she had been born a commoner. After stringent outfitting trials were finished, Wadena sailed from Cleveland up the Saint Lawrence Sea way to New York.

In 1892, accompanied by her two escorts, the Yacona and Mariner, Wadena took off in a little convoy for the Bahamas, then on to Sicily.

Mariner was not up to buckling the rough seas with waves that landed like sledge hammers and soon was in trouble. Wadena towed her for a while, then as Mariner's seams opened and the wayward sea poured in to put out the fires in her boilers, Wadena had to cut her loose.

There was nothing for the Wadena to do but stand by and watch Mariner sink. When she slipped beneath the waves in a long smooth glide, Wadena went to work saving all 1,750 of her passengers left bobbing around in the sea like corks in a barrel. It was her first rescue, to be followed by several more in her future.

Without a doubt, Wadena's part in what is referred to as the Monomoy Disaster is the high point, the Prometheus, of her existence.

It was on Tuesday morning, March 11, 1902, the schooner barge Wadena piled up on Shovelful Shoal in a heavy northeaster gale. Sailors and captains the world over have always dreaded ending up on that bar of sand that can and often does spell their untimely end.

A ship of any kind, large or small, stranded within the clutches of a sandbar is at the mercy of wind and weather, has to take anything thrown at it. Waves with the consistence of battering rams take their time pounding it into the ocean at their leisure. Crew have been found frozen stiff, up in the rigging, anything to get away from a voracious sea.

Captain Eldridge on Monomy Island came out with a surf boat finally to take back to terra firma the crew off the Wadena, not knowing five men had been somehow left behind. It was when he looked through the telescope to check that he saw the men frantically waving, still on the boat.

Eldrich and a crew of men rowed back out into the storm, pulling up close to the still stuck Wadena. Heavy seas threw breakers over the boat as it tried to turn around. As the water slammed them and came into the boat the rescued men wildly threw their arms around the surf men so they could not row. Twice the surf boat turned upside down in the fearsome breakers.

One of the few who made it said, "Our strength was fast leaving us ... the five men that we had taken off the barge were the first to perish before our eyes. If they hadn't gone wild getting into the boat we'd have all made it. When I last saw our brave captain, he was drifting away from the boat, feebly moaning 'I have to go, I have crossed the bar' ..."

One of the crew that made it that day, just before night closed down, remembered those words and put them to a rough facsimile of a poem.

A copy of the last words of that perishing captain, said in the final moments of his life, was picked up by Alfred Lord Tennyson to be made into one of the most hauntingly beautiful hymns ever written, the kind nobody writes anymore.

If that little Wadena schooner had never rescued the many she is given credit for, she paid her dues. The Wadena finally fell beneath torches, as did the plucky Minnesota.

But nothing can obliterate the poem and hymn, "Crossing The Bar." Two of its many verses go like this:

"Twilight and evening bell

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell

When I embark.

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far

I hope to see my Pilot,

face, to face,

When I have crossed the bar."