Capt'n Joe, Of The Exxon Valdez, Dies: Here's The Backstory About Bligh Reef & Prince William Sound

Joe Hazelwood Dies; Skipper Of The Exxon Valdez, Which Struck Bligh Reef 33 Years Ago "Captain Joe" Was One Of Many Captains Who ...

Joe Hazelwood Dies; Skipper Of The Exxon Valdez, Which Struck Bligh Reef 33 Years Ago

"Captain Joe" Was One Of Many Captains Who Sailed Prince William Sound 

The Exxon Valdez (Wikipedia)

Mutiny On The Bounty Meets The Valdez Oil Spill 

Captain Joe Hazelwood, whose name was known across the world in the wake of the Valdez Oil Spill of 1989, died on July 22nd, 2022.

In the legends of spectacular ship disasters, the Exxon Valdez is right up there. After the Spill, everyone in the world knew about Prince William Sound, the town of Valdez – and Captain Joe Hazelwood.

But Joe Hazelwood's death, which took place a month ago, has pretty much gone unnoticed. 

The Oil Spill
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill takes its place in history with other noteworthy and spectacular maritime disasters. For example, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in a storm in Lake Superior in 1975 and was memorialized by the singer Gordon Lightfoot. Or the Endurance, which was crushed by ice in Antarctica in 1915. Or even the vain and mighty Titanic. 

When the Exxon Valdez scraped against Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound south of the Copper Valley, it was loaded with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude. The disaster spilled 10.8 million gallons of thick, black sludge into a body of Alaskan water that, until then, was invariably described as "pristine." For the people of the Copper Valley and Valdez (two communities joined at the hip for over 100 years since the Gold Rush of 1898) the spill was intensely personal. The oil on that tanker had come down the Pipeline through Copper River Country on its way from the North Slope to the Pipeline Terminal, and then on into the Exxon Valdez. 

Until that fateful day in April, nobody really knew who "Joe Hazelwood" was. But rumors immediately began that the Captain had gotten drunk at a bar in Valdez (although there are disputes about that.)  The boat was being handled by a third mate when it ran aground. 

As thick black crude floated out over the Sound's blue waters and smothered the wild, rocky shores, suffocating birds and marine life along its way, Joe Hazelwood stumbled onto the world stage in the most spectacular manner. 

Yet how soon we forget. Now, 33 years later, a month after he died, his passing has not even hit the Alaska news.

All Roads Lead To Prince William Sound 

While Captain Cook  Looked For Mythical Waterways...

Spaniards Claimed They Owned The Copper River Delta

Captain James Cook In Prince William Sound
Joe Hazelwood was not the only famous captain to sail Prince William Sound. In May, 1778, Captain James Cook pulled his famed ship, the H.M.S. Resolution, up along the coast.

Everybody knew Captain Cook in his day. 

Unlike Joe Hazelwood, who was, literally, an "ordinary Joe" before the spill, Cook, despite his humble beginnings, was a superstar. Cook was as revered as our early astronauts. He was the Neil Armstrong of explorers, gallantly crisscrossing the vast and dangerous oceans of the world in wooden ships for the British Crown. 

His explorations were remarkably difficult. He set out on three tangled world voyages that touched all the continents. It wasn't easy. There were no shortcuts to the trip back then. The Panama and Suez canals had not yet been dredged. Ships headed from Europe to Alaska and Asia had to go below either the tip of South America or around Africa's Cape Horn. 

Wikipedia map of Cook's three color-coded voyages, showing Alaska. 

On his last huge voyage, Cook sailed the coast of Alaska. He
arrived at Prince William Sound. In those days, inbound "explorers" renamed everything, mainly after famous people they wanted to curry favor with back home. Cook intended to call the waters  "Sandwich Sound," after the Earl of Sandwich. The earl is said to have invented the sandwich. He was also a great supporter of Captain Cook.

But then Cook picked somebody even more useful to pander to: The King of England. Cook decided instead to name Prince William Sound after the British king's third son, Prince William. 

Cook had come to Alaska looking for a Northwest Passage, a shortcut waterway across northern Canada. This would surely have made the ocean trip way shorter. Unfortunately, there is no Northwest Passage, but you can't fault Captain Cook for trying to find it.

In Prince William Sound, he sent one of his sailors, William Bligh, out in a small boat, to check for signs of that elusive, imaginary water route. Of course, Bligh didn't find it. But, while in Prince William Sound, Captain Cook noted and mapped a reef. He named the rocky reef "Bligh Reef," in appreciation of William Bligh's efforts.

Captain Cook is remembered to this day in Alaska. Cook's name is affixed to a large hotel in Anchorage. Cook Inlet is named after him. The quaint, mashed-together, charming name "Turnagain Arm" is British jargon. Looking for the Northwest Passage, Cook's sailors had to turn again when they hit a dead end in those waters.

Anchor Point, on the Kenai coast north of Homer, was named for Captain Cook's voyage. It's said he lost an anchor there. Captain Cook State Recreation Area, north of Nikiski, is named after him. 
And there's a moody statue of Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage, overlooking the inlet. 
Cook visited so many places that there are statues of him everywhere, all over the world, at spots where he stopped. 
In some, the Captain wears a hat, or raises his arm. The statue in Anchorage has him gazing out to sea. 

Same Statue: Captain Cook In Hawaii, Canada, Alaska & England 

On the island of Hawaii, the commemorative statue for Captain Cook is literally made from the same mold as ours is in Anchorage. It's the exact same statue.

He was clearly a man of importance. Yet, Captain Cook made a fatal mistake when he was in Hawaii, several months after his visit to Alaska's Prince William Sound and Bligh Reef. 

The Captain seriously annoyed the Hawaiian Natives. And it's said they bashed him to death with a rock. 

Portrait of Captain Cook. 

William Bligh, Skipper Of The Bounty 
William Bligh, of Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, went on to his own well-known adventures. In the process, he became infamous.

By 1789, William Bligh had become the skipper of a ship named The Bounty. 

We all know what happened then. We saw the movie. When Marlon Brando (as the Bounty mutineer, Fletcher Christian) leads his fellow sailors to mutiny in Mutiny On The Bounty, the evil captain who is pushed off into the sea in an open boat is none other than William Bligh.

That William Bligh ... of Bligh Reef. 

Bounty mutineers casting William Bligh and other sailors out into the open seas. (Wikipedia) 

Salvador Fidalgo Claims The Copper River Delta For Spain 
A year after the Bounty disaster, in 1790, a young Spanish nobleman named Salvador Fidalgo sailed a ship to Alaska all the way from Europe. He arrived at what seemed to be an increasingly interesting place for European explorers: Prince William Sound. 

Fidalgo was looking for British sailors, trying to assess what they were up to. It was a highly competitive world back then, and Spain, England and Russia were all interested in laying claim to Alaska.

Fidalgo sailed into the Sound and arrived near what is now Cordova. It's called "Cordova" because he named it after a Spanish city, back home. He also named another spot "Valdez," after a second Spanish city.

Cordova was near the delta of the great Copper River. 
Fidalgo's trip to Alaska (Wikipedia)
In those days, you laid claim to a place by hauling a huge cross to the spot and declaring you were taking it for God. So that's what Fidalgo did. He built a cross and announced that Spain now owned the mouth of the Copper. 

We do not have a drawing of what that event may have looked like. But we do have paintings of an earlier Portuguese explorer, Magellan, doing the same thing in the Philippines. 

So it probably looked something like this:

Painting of Magellan, planting a cross in the Philippines in 1521. (Wikipedia) 

Of course, Russia didn't care about any of that. In 1784, Russia had said they owned Alaska. 

Back To Joe Hazelwood...
Joe Hazelwood was born in Georgia, raised on Long Island, and was said to be ambitious, dedicated to sailing, and, according to Wikipedia, had prior drunk driving arrests but a clean record as a captain.

Hazelwood was fired by Exxon, but his Alaskan jury was not convinced he had been intoxicated when the ship hit the reef. He did community service, taught for a college, and worked at a law firm. In 2009, he apologized to Alaskans.
The Exxon Valdez wasn't the first American ship to succumb to the rocks along Alaska's coasts. During the Gold Rush of 1898, after America bought Alaska from the Russians, numerous small ships headed off to Valdez in Prince William Sound.  Many ships were old and decrepit. They were full of eager would-be American miners who were riled up and ready to climb over the Valdez and Klutina Glaciers into the Copper Valley, where they hoped to find gold.

The miners' litany of disasters began before they even hit shore in Prince William Sound. On the way north, several of the boats ran aground and sank. Shipwrecks were so common there was even a Gold Rush board game for sale in the rest of the country, where a player lost a turn when their piece landed on a shipwreck. Hitting an Alaskan reef was like a "Go To Jail" card in Monopoly. 

Here's a look at that game. There, in the top right corner, is a Gold Rush ship, hitting Bligh Reef.  
"Shipwreck: Lose 1 Turn".

Gold Rush board game showing a shipwreck near Bligh Reef. (Photo, Country Journal)

Bligh Reef On Google Maps


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