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95th Anniversary Of Nearly Forgotten Naval Disaster On Central Coast; Seven Ships Slam Into Coast

It was the largest loss of U.S. Navy ships during peacetime in history, and it occurred right in our backyard, near Point Conception. A navigational error led to seven U.S. Navy destroyers slamming into the Santa Barbara County coastline. But, the accident nearly a century ago is now all but forgotten.

Greg Gorga is Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The museum has a movie, and an exhibition on what’s known as the Honda Point Disaster. This year marks the 95th anniversary of the September 8th, 1923 accident.

Captain Edward Watson was the Commander of Destroyer Squadron 11, which had 14 destroyers. Gorga says there were problems even before the ships started their ill-fated trip down the coast from the Bay Area. They were in the Bay Area for Fleet Week, which even included a special guest, President Calvin Coolidge. Two ships collided during the ceremonies, leaving Watson embarrassed.

Gorga says that embarrassment may have actually led to some of the decisions which set the stage for the Honda Point disaster. Watson decided to try to set a speed record for the squadron, as the ships headed from the Bay Area to San Diego at 20 knots.

So, the ships headed south. It meant turning left once it passed Point Conception, so it could cut between the Santa Barbara County coastline and the Channel Islands. The navigator could have used a new radio navigation system installed on the shops, and the coast, but decided to use old fashioned methods. It turned out to be a dangerous mistake.

The squadron’s course was supposed to take it south of Point Conception, where it would then turn left, to follow the bend in the coastline through the Santa Barbara Channel.  But, the ships turned before they could reach Point Conception. As the squadron barreled towards the coastline, it encountered fog and heavy surf.

Starting at 9:05, one by one the first seven destroyers on the squadron began barreling into the rocky coastline at Honda Point. Two others escaped with moderate damage, and the last five were able to stop before running aground.

23 sailors died, and more than a hundred were injured. Some of the ships sank in a matter of seconds. But, most of the 800 crew members on board the seven destroyers were able to find their way to safety, or were rescued.

The seven lead ships were a total loss, but even now, 95 years later, some of the wreckage still exists under the surface. There’s a monument with one of the ship’s propellers on a bluff overlooking the crash site.

But, because it’s on now what is Vandenberg Air Force base, civilians can’t visit the site. Gorga says the best way to learn more is the exhibit at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, at Santa Barbara Harbor. The museum is open six days a week. It’s closed on Wednesdays.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.