Mysterious Island: the wreck of the Ningpo

0
2067

Slumbering beneath the serene waters of Cat Harbor on Catalina’s West End, sunk within the muds and shifting sands within the earthen confines of Ballast Point lie the remains of another chapter in Catalina’s maritime mysteries:  the wreck of the Chinese junk Ningpo.

If bulkheads could talk, these ship’s walls (or what’s left of them) could tell a harrowing tale of rebellion, warfare and assorted seafaring horrors.

Slumbering beneath the serene waters of Cat Harbor on Catalina’s West End, sunk within the muds and shifting sands within the earthen confines of Ballast Point lie the remains of another chapter in Catalina’s maritime mysteries:  the wreck of the Chinese junk Ningpo.

If bulkheads could talk, these ship’s walls (or what’s left of them) could tell a harrowing tale of rebellion, warfare and assorted seafaring horrors.

For an early Chinese junk, the history of the Ningpo is remarkably well recorded.  She was originally build in 1753 in Fuzhou province and was christened Kin Tai Fong, or “Golden Typhoon.”

Though starting out innocently as a merchantman, the ship was soon turned to more devious pursuits and it wasn’t long before she was involved in smuggling various contraband from opium and silk to prostitutes.  In between smuggling runs she often turned pirate.

This naughty nautical behavior continued for several decades with the ship being confiscated by Chinese authorities or—later—the British, on at least four occasions in the early 19th century.

In 1841, fed up with her reputation, the Imperial Chinese government turned her into a prison ship.  It was on a fateful day during this period that 158 prisoners were summarily brought on deck and beheaded.

During the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s, the ship was captured by British forces and it was then, under the command of Colonel Peter “Chinese” Gordon, that the name was changed to Ningpo, or the “Peaceful Wave.”

It was only then that the ship began her new career in the tourism industry becoming something of an early cruise ship.

But even her appearance as a tourist attraction, was tainted with larceny.  According to a 1958 article in the Journal of San Diego History, the Ningpo first began her career in the travel and tourism industry in the late 1800s in the Hong Kong area.

The game was to lure a group of foreign tourists aboard for a multi-day sojourn down the coast where the unsuspecting tourists were then robbed and set ashore.

It wasn’t until about 1913 that the Ningpo finally made it across the Pacific to the coast of California where she was put on display along with enough cutlery and torture implements to make even the sturdiest Victorian matron swoon.

After temporary berthings in San Diego and San Pedro, she finally made her appearance at Catalina Island in 1917—the last landfall she would ever make.

For awhile, she was anchored in Lover’s Cove and served as a restaurant and museum, but eventually found her way to Cat Harbor where she continued keeping tourists in awe throughout the 1920s.

Her closing chapter in life began when a Hollywood movie crew inadvertently caught the ship on fire when a burning prop ship drifted too close for comfort.   The upper decks of the Ningpo burned to the waterline and what was left of her hull settled into the mud.

Several years ago, my snorkeling gear and I made a pilgrimage to Cat Harbor to see if there was anything left of the ship.  I knew it had been many years since any part of the vessel was visible above the surface, but tough old sailing ships die hard and I hoped I might find something of this piece of maritime history.

I snorkeled along a predetermined (sort of) grid pattern, sifting the bottom sands here and there whenever I saw something promising.

I had hoped to find a rotting timber or perhaps a barnacle-encrusted iron fitting or two.  But there was nothing left.

Nothing, that is, except for an unnaturally straight bed of a peculiar variety of sea lettuce which spanned the bottom for about 30 yards.  This ray of seaweed was equally unnatural in the consistency of its width of about a yard over its entire length.

I surmised that this life was perhaps a growth that was feeding on the long-buried keel and timbers of the ship, perhaps themselves only molecules diluted in the fine sands of Ballast Point.

I thought it ironic at the time, and still do, that this ship that had seen so much destruction and taken part in so much loss of life was now itself giving back to that life in a sleepy, wave-lapped lagoon on Catalina Island.

The “Peaceful Wave” is finally at peace.

Mysterious Island: the wreck of the Ningpo