Edmonds woman recalls Whidbey adventures, including washtub sailor

Dolores Simpson loves the beach. Her best memories include long-ago walks along South Whidbey’s western shore. She remembers picking up starfish and moon snails. And she has a unique memory — a man in a bathtub.

That man was Roy Bergo. In the fall of 1954, he set out on a curious adventure. The Monroe man attempted to pilot his small tub from Edmonds to Alaska. The galvanized tub was attached to makeshift pontoons and equipped with a 2-horsepower outboard motor.

His voyage didn’t last long, but it managed to draw the attention of newspapers, the Coast Guard and Canadian officials.

Simpson, who is 85 and lives in Edmonds, has news clippings about Bergo. He was 50 and a former guard at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe when he set out. Headlines called him a “Rub-A-Sailor” on a “Washtub Odyssey.”

The Edmonds woman recalls Bergo’s three-day stop at the Whidbey fishing resort her parents once operated on Mutiny Bay.

During the heyday of sport salmon fishing off South Whidbey, from the 1930s through the ’50s, the area had a number of resorts where today there are expensive homes.

Simpson’s parents, Art and Jane Olson, and their partner Kermit Ellison owned the rustic Admiralty Inlet Resort. It had 17 cabins and fishing boats for rent. She remembers the area’s other resorts, Bush Point and Shore Meadows.

And she remembers the day that Bergo came ashore. Bergo was found on the beach along with his washtub vessel. One of her clippings — the newspaper’s name and the date were snipped off — said the intrepid traveler had a problem with the propeller shaft of his outboard motor.

Simpson was 24 at the time, and hadn’t yet married Richard Simpson. She is a widow now. Her parents sold the resort long ago.

Her memories of Bergo’s stay at the resort are scant. But HistoryLink, a regional history website, has a detailed essay about the bathtub adventure.

Alan Stein’s 2004 HistoryLink essay cites as sources The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Edmonds Tribune-Review. It says Bergo’s attempt to go 1,200 miles began at “Jim’s Boathouse in Edmonds,” where about 100 well-wishers, reporters and Coast Guard officials gathered to see the launch on Oct. 26, 1954. Odd that he chose fall, not summer, for the trip.

The HistoryLink account said Bergo had recently quit his prison guard job and was cruising to Alaska in the tub to publicize the International Canoe Racing Association, a group he founded. His wife, identified in news accounts only as “Mrs. Roy Bergo,” was shown in a Seattle Times picture at the Edmonds launch with their 9-year-old daughter, Aileen.

The handmade boat didn’t exactly look like a bathtub at sea. Bergo attached two stovepipes as pontoons, “outrigger-style,” according to HistoryLink.

It also said Bergo had lost about 30 pounds, slimming down to a weight of 144, to fit in the craft. The tub measured just 18-by-36 inches, and was 11 inches deep. He traveled with sandwiches and candy bars, a seat cushion, rain jacket, tarp, one oar and a jug of gas.

The HistoryLink account isn’t the whole story. It only tells what happened until Bergo’s stop on Whidbey — “his glorious adventure over almost before it had begun.”

Thanks to Simpson’s old stash of news accounts, there’s more.

One Associated Press article, dated Oct. 28, 1954, said the Coast Guard kept an eye on Bergo from two cutters, and a plane was sent from Whidbey to track him. Another story, two days later with a Port Townsend dateline, says Bergo’s “floating bathtub brought him safely across Puget Sound.”

Next on his itinerary was Port Angeles, with the tricky riptides of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to follow before landing at Victoria, British Columbia.

That voyage to Canada never happened. Simpson’s last AP clipping, from Port Angeles on Nov. 2, 1954, has this headline: “Tub Sailor Landlubber Once More.” It said Bergo “called the whole thing off today” in the face of opposition from Canadian officials. His craft, it seems, was denied clearance to enter Canadian waters.

Simpson followed Bergo’s venture after he left Mutiny Bay. She has no idea what became of him after his brief brush with fame.

Her memories go back again and again to Whidbey, where her dad would pay her a quarter if she found a fishing plug on the beach.

“Thinking about it makes me homesick,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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