Merchant steamer ship visible at Surf Beach
The Sybil Marston, a shipwrecked lumber steamer ship from the turn of the century, lies in its grave on Surf Beach Saturday, Jan. 21. An extremely low tide removed water and sand which normally obscures the shipwreck from public view. //Neil Nisperos/Staff

From time to time, the merchant steamer Sybil Marston emerges from her watery grave at Surf Beach.

During times of extreme low tide, her hull glistens in the morning sun while Pacific Ocean waves caress her deep red hardwood beams. Her bow still holds together after nearly a century in the pounding ocean waves of the Central Coast.

The ocean treats her much more delicately than it did one stormy night on Jan. 12, 1909, when the ship struck the rocks near Surf. It was on that night the Sybil Marston, the largest steam schooner built on the coast, ran aground in a storm. She was carrying 1.1 million feet of lumber, according to shipwreck historian Justin Ruhge in his book "Maritime Tragedies on the Santa Barbara Channel." Two crew members were killed in the disaster, Ruhge said.

Shortly after the Sybil Marston disaster, Lompoc residents would come out and salvage lumber and souvenirs from the ship, he said.

Ruhge said the beach had been strewn for a mile with the lumber, which residents used to begin a town lumberyard.

Several houses built in Lompoc used lumber from the shipwreck, said Lompoc historian Myra Manfrina, adding that most are long gone.

"The house on 326 South H Street was built in 1909 by Robert Smith and that has 12-by-12 timbers from the wreck in the basement," she said.

Manfrina said her father and other relatives used to play around the wreck as children about 1912.

Ruhge said Surf Beach and its adjoining coastal area was a dangerous place for ship travel in the time before radar navigational systems made seafaring safer.

"Because of tide and fog, the coast was a dangerous area for ships before radar in the steam and sailing days, but you can still have shipwrecks if you don't watch your instruments," he said.

There are about 30 recorded shipwrecks along the Surf Beach coast, Ruhge said.

"Around 60 or 70 lives were lost along near Surf Beach," he said.

For the past 30 years, Lompoc resident Connie Gieger has been hiking along Surf Beach to see the Sybil Marston every winter, when the tide removes surrounding sand from its hull.

"I think everybody should walk out there and take a beautiful walk to see that beautiful ship at low tide," she said.

The ship can be seen in low tide on shore about a mile south of the Surf Beach train station.

Neil Nisperos can be reached at 737-1059 or nnisperos@lompoc record.com.

January 29, 2006

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