SOU professor releases fourth maritime history, ‘Taking the Sea’

SOU professor releases fourth maritime history

By Chris Honoré
Tidings reviewer
Posted: 12:50 PM January 30, 2009

Dennis Powers — Ashland resident, Professor Emeritus of Southern Oregon University, practicing lawyer for 30 years, author of more than 10 books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry — has recently released his fourth maritime history, “Taking the Sea.”

Since boyhood, Powers has loved the sea; however, it wasn’t until 2005 that his curiosity, scholarship, and fascination with sea-lore intersected and he published “The Raging Sea,” an account of the tsunami that swept across Crescent City; in 2006, “Treasure Ship” was released, examining the loss of the U.S.S Brother Jonathan off the Northern California coast 125 years ago; in 2007 he published “Sentinel of the Seas,” an account of the perilous and improbable construction of the St. George Reef Lighthouse off the Oregon-California coast.

“Taking the Sea,” is a compelling look at those men called “wreckers” who plied the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific salvaging lost ships during the golden age of salvage when blue water ships of all types were transitioning from sail to steam and wooden hulls to steel.

“Taking the Sea: Perilous Waters, Sunken Ships, and the True Story of the Legendary Wrecker Captains”
Amacon Management Associates, New York, NY, 2009; 304 pages

By Dennis Powers

What makes Powers’ well-researched book a standout is that he examines in detail those intrepid salvagers, characterized by some as pirates and by others as heroes. No one disputes that when a ship was trapped on rock, shoal, or reef it took a special group of men to attempt to salvage not only the cargo and the ship, but rescue those onboard.

Powers writes in detail of one West Coast “master wrecker,” Captain Thomas P.H. Whitelaw (1847-1932), immigrant Scot, hardhat diver, and reportedly the most successful salvager of his day. At one time he owned warehouses filled with all manner of maritime salvage — masts, spars, bowsprits, planking — that he sold piecemeal while accumulating a fortune. Powers’ portrait of Whitelaw reveals a man who was an instinctive entrepreneur, but also someone who relished the inherent danger and, of course, the payoff.

It was often harrowing and uncertain work, something that Powers captures vividly as he tells story after story of these men from their early beginnings in Europe in the 19th century, to the Florida Keys, and then covering both seaboards into the early 20th century. In the memorable annals of wreckers, during the golden age of salvage, names such as Whitelaw, Israel J. Merritt, Johnny Dynamite O’Brien and Thomas Scott still stand out.

Powers also describes the rigorous techniques used, such as pontoons and caissons as well as massive tugs to tow and raise ships so damaged they were initially abandoned and thought to be a total loss.

They were a rough-hewn, brash and stoic group, willing to pit themselves against the sea, their endeavors always high risk, and if fortune smiled, high gain.

In fact, Powers’ fascination with these sea-going men has become a thread that runs through most of his maritime books, each telling a tale of individualism and tenacity that some think has long ago disappeared along with the wooden hull square riggers and paddle wheelers which once filled the ports and harbors of another era.

For a preview of “Taking the Sea,” or further information about any of Dennis Powers’ books go to

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