The Historic Shipwreck of the Oakey L. Alexander

Looking back on the high-wire maritime rescue on its 75th anniversary.

shipwreck of the Oakey L. Alexander
Photograph courtesy of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society
By Will Grunewald
From our March 2022 issue

An ill-tempered blizzard thrashed the Gulf of Maine 75 years ago this month, blowing hurricane-force winds and turning the sea into a welter of deep troughs and tumbling crests. It was an 80-foot rogue wave, the captain’s son would later say, that snapped the bow clean off the Oakey L. Alexander, a 395-foot steamer rounding Cape Elizabeth in the predawn gloaming, en route to Portland with 8,200 tons of coal. The captain steered for shore but snagged on a ledge several hundred feet out. Wrecks, of course, were nothing new to Maine’s craggy coast, and neither were rescues, but the Alexander’s ordeal was unusual for the spectacle it became, playing out in plain view of hundreds of witnesses, from local fishermen to reporters to the schoolkids whose principal bussed them down to watch the life-and-death drama unfold.

Photograph courtesy of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society

The next day, the New York Times ran a large photo: the broken ship in the background, rescue workers in the foreground, and, halfway in between, the tiny silhouette of a man dangling from a rope above the frothing waters. The Coast Guard had brought a Lyle gun — a small cannon fitted for launching ropes great distances — and a guardsman, aiming through stiff gusts, landed the line on the Alexander with his first shot. One by one, crew members stepped into a ring-shaped life preserver attached to the rope with a pulley and made the crossing. When the ship rolled one way, the line would go slack and the men disappeared beneath the surf. When it rolled the other, they rocketed skyward. “I thought we were goners,” one told the Associated Press. All 32 made it safely ashore.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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