The year was 1907, and Killisnoo Harbor was calm. A light northerly breeze ruffled Chatham Strait. Captain Yasuzo Fuji gave the order that would take his ship and crew home, having left Yokohama in mid-June. The Satsuma Maru was on the last leg of her maiden voyage, being registered 197 tons in March of the previous year. The ship had arrived in mid-August, and had missed the peak of the salmon run. The late departure must have weighed heavily on Captain Fuji's mind as he and the crew sat out the equinox storms of late September, along the coast of Admiralty Island at the Killisnoo whaling station.
The ship slid south toward the open water of the Pacific with anticipation, but the weather began to deteriorate as the ship approached the southern end of Baranof Island in the darkness. By midnight, Cape Ommaney was three miles to starboard, and there was no land between the ship and Japan. Shortly, the excitement of beginning the journey turned to fear as the southerly grew into a fierce fall storm, tracking straight into the gulf coast from the open sea. Snow squalls punctuated the screaming tempest.
After two days of fighting windward, with one lifeboat gone and deck gear smashed, fatigue caught up with the crew. Captain Fuji turned downwind to put in at Sitka, but the sky remained obscured for nine days and would not allow a sighting for a fix. Finally, on October 26, the position of the Satsuma Maru was established at north latitude 57 degrees, 29 minutes, and west longitude, 139 degrees, 30 minutes; too far to the West to make Sitka. The storm had carried him southwest of Yakutat, the only port within hundreds of miles in that direction.
The Satsuma Maru entered Yakutat Bay on October 28, where the wind changed and prevented her from reaching town, another 10 miles to the East. The ship swung at anchor for a week, waiting for a change in the wind; unfortunately, when it did change, it brought a screaming southerly. The 120 foot schooner was riding two anchors, with 75 and 105 fathoms of scope, respectively, in 12 fathoms of water. By 0300 November 6, the black sea was roaring, and both anchor chains snapped. Within minutes, the ship was fast aground in the churning surf. By dawn, the tide had ebbed and the ship was quickly abandoned by her crew. One crewman drowned in the process.
For two months, the remaining crew of 18 camped on the beach near the face of the Malaspina Glacier and waited for rescue. A second crewman perished on January 13 of illness, which possibly prompted Captain Fuji's decision to launch a rowboat with 8 of the fittest crew. They struck off across Yakutat Bay on February 3, making town several days later.
The steamship Jeanie had arrived in Yakutat harbor on February 8, and accepted Captain Fuji's request to assist his crew. The Jeanie left Yakutat immediately for the wreck site. Upon arrival, the crew of the Jeanie began rescue efforts in the rough surf. The seven Japanese sailors who had returned to help their mates, launched for the beach in their rowboat, which quickly capsized in the surf, claiming two more casualties. One of the Japanese crewmen swam for shore. The four others were rescued by the life boat of the Jeanie. With a successful rescue doubtful, the Jeanie turned and steamed for Seattle, leaving the now eleven crewmen on shore.
Upon arrival in Seattle, Captain Fuji persuaded the Japanese consul to request permission to launch a rescue boat for Alaska. On March 3, 1907, nearly five months after the tragic grounding, Captain Fuji returned to the wreck of the Satsuma Maru on the Revenue Cutter Thetis, and his crew was finally rescued. Captain Fuji eventually stood trial for the loss of his ship after returning to Japan, but the tragedy was deemed an act of god and he was acquitted.
The shore extended from the retreating Malaspina Glacier and sand claimed the ship after abandonment. For at least the last six decades, the Satsuma Maru remained buried under approximately 15 feet of sand, with a cover of beach- grass. Local fishermen recall swinging from the steel rigging as children. Some of the few people who visited the site over the years gathered souvenirs from the wreckage that are spread across southeast Alaska in private collections; however, it is unknown what other relics remained aboard when the ship sanded in. Seismic crews searching for oil, or climbers attempting Mt. St. Elias, erected a radio antenna in 1962 on top of the mid-mast; of which, the crosspiece steps remained at the time of our visit.
The final key to solving the mystery of the Satsuma Maru after all of these years, was the correct spelling of the ships' name. Early accounts of the ship, one of which (dated February 8, 1908) states that "she was at one time reported to be a Japanese spy boat", are consistent with the spelling - Satsu. Evidently, there are several ways to spell the name with Japanese characters, and Satsuma is fairly common in Japan. With the correct Ships' name, it was possible to obtain Japanese documents concerning the voyage.
The boulder-strewn face of the retreating Malaspina Glacier is now miles away. Throughout the year, the rapidly eroding shoreline continued to expose the well-preserved wreckage at a rate faster than plans or resources could be produced to salvage or protect the ship. At one point, Kurt said the deck was 5 feet above the sand, but this was during the short winter days, and there was not enough beach remaining for a landing strip. Unfortunately, with increasing exposure, the ship became vulnerable to severe pounding by the surf. Late during the winter of 1991, one year after I first saw the ship, the Satsuma Maru was destroyed. Pieces of the ship were quickly scattered by the surf along the remote shoreline that stood witness to the saga of the ship and crew, and bears the name Schooner Beach.
The author would like to thank National Park Service Ranger, Rick Mossman, and Norm Isrealson of Anchorage for their time, knowledge, and resources. Additional information was obtained from Shipwreck Site Report (WRST-302-84) by Dan Lenihan, N.P.S. This story would not have been possible without help from Rudy and Andy Pavlik, and Kurt Gloyer.