Historic Schooner George E. Billings
By James Donahue
Marine archaeologist Robert Schwemmer reported the discovery of the remains of the 224-foot-long,
five mast schooner George E. Billings off the California coast where its final owner burned and sank it in 1941.
The Billings, among the last of the working tall ships of the world, was launched at Port Blakely,
Washington, in 1903. Staffed with a crew of just 13, the schooner carried lumber and bulk cargo on the high seas, sometimes
sailing as far as Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. One of the ship’s early masters was Captain Fredrik Birkholm,
who brought his wife and children on the voyages.
By 1926 the sailing ships like the Billings were being replaced by steamships. The Billings was sold
and its new owners removed the masts and towed it to Southern California. There the hull was used as a fishing barge off the
coast of Del Mar and Santa Monica. Guests came to the anchored barge via ferries that brought them from the mainland to fish
and stay in the ship’s cabins.
A story in the Los Angeles Times quoted Bob Oefinger, the ship’s owner during that period, who
promoted the vessel’s overnight accommodations. "Whole families have been coming aboard and making overnight stays,
the ship having roomy cabins available. There are sun decks with reclining chairs, rest salons, a big dining salon and plenty
of space for fishing," he said.
Trouble came after some of the other old retired sailing ships were bought by the mob for use as gambling
casinos, also anchored offshore. After a Japanese freighter collided with the barge Olympic II, and the ship sank in minutes
for lack of bulkheads below deck, new government regulations required that bulkheads had to be installed in all the old barges
before they could accommodate public events.
On Feb. 11, 1941, Oefinger announced that he had burned and destroyed the Billings the previous night
because he could not pay the price of installing the bulkheads and pay fines of $500 a day for non-compliance.
For some odd reason, Oefinger kept the location of the wreck a secret. Schwemmer said he searched
for two years before finding the remains of the Billings in 2011.