Elwha On The Rocks: Washington Ferry Crash Inspired Song and Drink

Jul 28, 2022, 10:31 AM | Updated: 11:17 am
A bartender at The Rumor Mill brewpub in Friday Harbor in 2015, mixing up an "Elwha On The Rocks" -...
A bartender at The Rumor Mill brewpub in Friday Harbor in 2015, mixing up an "Elwha On The Rocks" - a drinkable tribute to a notorious ferry accident in the 1980s. (Courtesy of The Rumor Mill)
(Courtesy of The Rumor Mill)

From the archives: originally published September 29, 2015

One of the most infamous episodes in Washington State Ferry System history began with a typical run out of Anacortes, late one Sunday afternoon in October 1983. When it was all over, no one was injured, but the M/V Elwha had a quarter-million dollar gash in her hull, a local woman’s reputation was called into question, and the career of a ferry captain was over. But, it wasn’t all bad. The community emerged from the mess stronger for it, and with a new novelty song and even a specialty cocktail.

It was Sunday, October 2, 1983 when Peggy Warrack boarded the Elwha at Anacortes for the 5:00 p.m. run into the San Juan Islands. Warrack was recently widowed, and she and her late husband had lived on Orcas Island for nearly a decade. The normal ferry route passed the mouth of aptly-named Grindstone Harbor, within view of Warrack’s home.

At the helm of the Elwha that day was Captain Billy Fittro, a 57-year old who’d been with the Washington State Ferry System since the 1960s. Fittro invited Warrack, who by all accounts was a vivacious gal, to ride in the wheelhouse of the ferry during the run. According to newspaper accounts from 1983, this was permitted aboard Washington ferries at that time, but it was likely not legal under maritime regulations.

Peggy Warrack, the woman invited up to the wheelhouse that day, passed away in 2012. Her daughter Judy Fey says that her mom thought Captain Fittro was kidding when he said he’d give Peggy Warrack a special tour.

“He started to tease her about taking her for a little scenic ride into Grindstone Harbor to see her house,” Fey told KIRO Newsradio. “And my mom, being kind of a game girl, thought he was joking around, so she joked around back. And when she realized that he was serious, I guess she started to sort of freak out.”

Witnesses later said it was clear that the Elwha was way off her regular course. Some said they could tell the ferry was headed straight for trouble. At her full speed of around 17 knots, the hull of the Elwha slammed into rocks hidden just beneath the waves at the mouth of Grindstone Harbor. An Orcas Island resident named Norman Kerr told the Seattle Times, “Everyone within a mile had to hear it, a great big crash and then the scraping.” Kerr also said that the side of the ferry, “came up three or four feet” in the crash.”

After the collision, the Elwha limped south across to the dock at Shaw Island to make its regular stop, then over to the Orcas Island terminal, where authorities decided to unload the boat and cancel the final leg of the run, which would’ve gone

to San Juan Island. Temporary repairs were made at Orcas, and the empty ferry headed to Seattle the next morning for further evaluation and permanent repair.

Claims of a steering system failure being to blame were made by the ferry system, but within days, the real story came out that Captain Fittro’s improvisational trip into Grindstone Harbor had been an attempt to impress Peggy Warrack. Warrack was soon dubbed “The Siren of the San Juans” after the mythical women of maritime folklore who lured sailors of old to their deaths on hidden reefs. Fittro was fired and gave up his captain’s license, and eventually, ferry system director Nick Tracy lost his job because of what had happened.

Judy Fey says the episode was tough on her mom and the whole family, at least at first.

“It was kind of an embarrassment,” Fey said. “The fact that she was labeled ‘The Siren of the San Juans’ and made out to be some kind of a loose woman.”

Fey says her mother was attractive and that she could be flirty. But Fey says that Peggy Warrack had no idea that Captain Fittro was serious about trying to show her a better view of her house, and would never have approved of taking the ferry on a dangerous course.

But time heals all wounds, leaky ferries can be fixed, and Fey is not embarrassed anymore. According to Fey, “It’s kind of a family joke now. We tell people all the time,” she says, with a hearty laugh.

It’s fortunate that nobody was hurt in the Elwha crash, unlike the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia wreck several years ago, when several people died in the aftermath of a similar “special tour” given by a captain to a female passenger.

Ian Sterling, public information officer for the Washington State Ferry System, told KIRO Newsradio that his agency takes safety seriously, and that passengers are not allowed in the wheelhouse of ferry boats. He says this was always the law, and it’s become even more strictly enforced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Because no one was hurt, the Elwha incident has been commemorated in multiple lighthearted ways since the wreck. A local historian even went so far as to successfully petition the State of Washington to officially name the anonymous reef struck that October day “Elwha Rock.”

And soon after the crash, a songwriter on San Juan Island named Gary Provonsha penned a novelty tune called “Elwha on the Rocks,” which included lyrics such as:

With the lady in the wheelhouse

You can cruise along the shore

You can blow the ferry’s whistle

As you pass by her front door

The song, which was released as 45-rpm vinyl single and on cassette by the Island City Jazz Band, ends with the sound effect of a grinding crash. It was played a lot on local radio stations back then, and it brought a bit of fame and notoriety to its creators. Provonsha didn’t live long enough to appreciate all the fame; he tragically died in a small plane crash less than a year later, on a solo flight from San Juan Island to Bellingham.

The October 1983 crash of the Elwha inspired a folk song called “Elwha On The Rocks”; composer/performer Gary Provonsha died in a plane crash less than a year after the ferry incident. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Judy Fey says that the catchy song spawned a special commemoration of its own, and this one was edible.

“Apparently, at the Electric Company Tavern in Friday Harbor, they played the song over and over, and came up with this drink called ‘The Elwha on the Rocks,’ which is equal parts of Myers’s Rum Cream and Myers’s Rum, over ice,” Fey said.

The Electric Company Tavern closed many years ago. The brewpub now occupying the former location, called The Rumor Mill, hasn’t had “Elwha on the Rocks” on the menu for many years, but they recently made one for a former Friday Harbor resident in his 80s who was visiting from out of town. Contacted by a reporter about the upcoming Elwha anniversary, proprietor Oren Combs admitted that he was a history buff, and then made an executive decision right on the spot. “This Friday, October 2,” Combs said, “The Rumor Mill will have ‘Elwha on the Rocks’ on our special menu” to commemorate the 32nd anniversary.

When asked if she’s ever had one of the distinctive concoctions that her mom helped inspire, Judy Fey doesn’t veer off course, even for a moment.

“No. It sounds horrible,” Fey said, laughing.

Feliks Banel

Fred McFalls (right) and Ben Bryson are considered the heart of the bluegrass community that once t...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Bluegrass festival in Toledo echoes with Northwest history

In Toledo, Washington, it’s time once again for the Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival. Toledo is in Lewis County on the way to Washington’s most famous volcano. The town is named for an old steamboat that once plied the Cowlitz River, and it’s near where the “Cowlitz Convention” was held 1851 – when settlers north […]
2 days ago
nettie asberry...
Feliks Banel

Restoring the home – and the legacy – of Nettie Asberry

A longtime figure in the civic and cultural history of Tacoma – and, really, the entire state – is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
4 days ago
Mount Baker is visible from Baker Lake Road, not far from Koma Kulshan Guard Station, on the way to...
Feliks Banel

Destination HISTORY: Centuries of stories along Baker Lake Trail

The Upper Baker Dam, located in Whatcom County and within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is from that earlier era.
6 days ago
Fred Beckey's three-volume "Cascade Alpine Guide" is a Northwest climber's bible. (Via Ebay)...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: ‘Old and bold’ climber and author Fred Beckey

Fred Beckey passed away five years ago at age 94 and he was climbing right to the end. He was much celebrated while he was alive
9 days ago
Vicky Cayetano, known at the time as Vicky Tiu, starred alongside Elvis Presley in a movie filmed a...
Feliks Banel

Elvis Presley’s Seattle movie co-star running for governor of Hawaii

In other election news not related to Washington’s August 2 primary, in the summer of 1962, the World’s Fair was underway at what’s now Seattle Center.
11 days ago
Marines burning an "enemy" shed at what's now Magnuson Park on August 3, 1952 as part of a dramatic...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Submarine, fighter planes and Marines attacked what’s now Magnuson Park

It was 70 years ago this week when a sleepy neighborhood along Lake Washington in Seattle became ground zero for a show-stopping Cold War military exercise.
16 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Elwha On The Rocks: Washington Ferry Crash Inspired Song and Drink