Elwha On The Rocks: Washington Ferry Crash Inspired Song and Drink
Jul 28, 2022, 10:31 AM | Updated: 11:17 am
(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.
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.