Dawn was rising and Tom McAdams had barely slipped into bed when he received the alarm. A 50-foot sailboat ran aground near Waldport.
McAdams had been up all night escorting a fleeing fishing boat to port after being caught in a severe storm 20 miles offshore. It was the morning of December 13, 1973, and it was his wife Joanne’s birthday. He had planned to sleep four or five hours and maybe do something with Joanne.
Instead, he was sprinting across the street to the US Coast Guard station in Newport, jumping a fence and leaping into his 44-foot lifeboat.
McAdams was a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard (and still is, although he’s retired; he’s now 80). In 1973 he was the commanding officer of Newport station, and was already probably the most famous enlisted man in Coast Guard history, a title he certainly holds today. By the time he retired in 1977, he had personally saved hundreds of people and taught hundreds of other rescuers how to do it.
That morning, however, McAdams wouldn’t have much to do. He crossed the Yaquina Bay bar – which was difficult, but it takes a lot to stop a 44 from crossing a river bar – and turned south. But by the time he had traveled about a mile, the station radioed that the yacht had left on the beach, out of reach of a rescue boat. Other Coasties, lifeguards Greg Albrecht, Lewis Cavina and Bill Masten, were down Hwy 101 to the beach – saving the people on the boat would be up to them.
When the lifeguards arrived, they found a middle-aged couple struggling weakly in the icy waves in their life jackets, trying to swim to shore. Rescuers quickly brought them out of the water and onto dry land.
The couple’s names were Helen and Joe Browning. Both were in their fifties. They told their rescuers that they had sold their business in San Diego and purchased their $ 150,000 sailboat – a steel-hulled two-masted sailboat that they named, ironically enough in light of future events, the Que Sera, Sera. Then, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the size of their boat and the perpetually beautiful San Diego weather, they embarked on what they hoped would be their dream new life for retirement, to first by going around the world, then by training from port to port to experience adventures. They would start with a test cruise to Port Orford to visit Helen’s sister.
But along the way, they encountered a massive storm system off Gold Beach head-on.
Port Orford was not a good place to try to settle down during a storm. So they continued on diesel, hoping to reach Coos Bay, as the weather steadily worsened.
Then the engine failed and the steering malfunctioned, leaving the torque helpless in the storm.
Now they had been up for 48 straight hours and were exhausted. So they dropped anchor overboard, waited for her to catch up, confirmed that she was holding, and went to bed.
They were woken up by the shaking of the keel of their boat crashing into the sandy ocean floor just off the beach north of Waldport, and that’s how they learned that the Que Sera, Sera’s anchor was too small. It had slowed their drift towards shore and kept them facing the wind rather than rolling in the hollow of the sea; but he had been dragging in the sand all night. Now they could see they were screwed. Their boat was going on the beach, there was nothing they could do about it. But that would be doing it in slow motion, which would make it very difficult for them to descend safely.
Because it was a sailboat, the Que Sera, Sera had a deep keel. A 50 foot sailboat does not draw much water compared to, say, a steam schooner; but it’s seven to 10 feet – enough to drown. Especially in the outdoor breakers on a stormy day.
The Brownings’ nine-foot canoe had been run over by the rough seas. So they took out their emergency liferaft and pulled the inflation cord. The raft took full dimension, the wind grabbed it and it flew away. McAdam’s men later found him several miles away.
So Helen and Joe decided to swim for it in their life jackets. They tied themselves together and jumped into the drink.
Of course, they were probably already very cold when they did this and they weren’t going to get any warmer in the 48 degree water off Waldport. They also haven’t been able to make much progress through the double set of windbreaks to shore.
Fortunately, rescuers Masten, Cavina and Albrecht arrived at the scene before the couple’s hypothermia reached lethal levels.
So the Brownings were taken to hospital and their lives saved by the smallest of fringes. The crashing waves pushed the Que Sera, Sera higher and higher on the beach until it was stuck on its side right in the middle of the interior breakers. McAdams filed his reports, congratulated his crew and thought their job was done.
McAdams received a phone call at his home the day after the rescue. It was Joe Browning. He had gone to the Coast Guard station at 8 p.m., immediately after being released from the hospital, and asked to speak to McAdams. He had been so upset that the Coasties called McAdams and put Browning on the line with him.
“Could you help me?” Browning asked.
“Well, what do you need? “
“Well, I don’t want to talk on a regular phone. Could you come to the station?
So McAdams crossed the street to the Coast Guard station. He found Joe Browning impatiently awaiting him.
“My savings are in this boat,” he said. “I have a bag of gold and it’s hidden in the main living room air duct.
By “a bag of gold” Browning meant 18 pounds of uncirculated British gold sovereigns. At the time, the treasure was worth about $ 60,000; at the price of gold in mid-2021, that would be well over half a million.
McAdams agreed to do what he could to get it back for him.
Over the next few days, Coast Guard crews spent a lot of time on the beach trying to get on the boat. Another storm blew the next day, tore off both masts and buried most of the boat in the sand. For a few days, the Coasties visited the wreck site at each low tide; but every time they thought they could access it, a storm erupted.
Then the phone rang again at the Coast Guard station, and it was a reporter – almost certainly from the Newport News-Guard, although McAdams did not specify.
“They called me and said, ‘How come your crew are out there almost every night on this boat? What is happening?’ I said, ‘Well, the guy has a restaurant in San Diego and a house there and all his papers, and his insurance papers and his mortgages, are all on the ship.’ “
These papers may or may not have been on the ship, as far as McAdams knew; but he also knew that if the newspapers got wind of a giant gold treasure buried on that ship, there would be problems.
“I know there would be people out there with bulldozers and dynamite and everything and shoot everyone,” McAdams said. “I didn’t know how much gold there was, but he said his savings.”
Finally, the weather cleared up and the tide receded. With the help of the Newport Fire Department’s hacksaw and dredge pump, they dug a hole in the living room, blew up the sand, and managed to penetrate far enough to reach Browning’s savings.
McAdams collected the gold and put it in his safe. Then he sent a message to his district commanders, was candid with the people at the newspaper about the “restaurant papers” and called Browning to come get his gold. “I’ll be up in a few days and have it,” Browning told him.
The next day, however, McAdams received a message from the State Department: “Do not return the gold until release.”
McAdams thought they were checking out Browning, making sure he wasn’t a bank robber on the loose. After all, he had prepared to leave the country with the money.
Sure enough, right after New Year’s Day, the State Department informed him that the gold could be returned to its owner.
“And by God the next day the owner showed up,” McAdams recalls. “We went to the bank. He paid for the safe we had there. We broke it. “Here are all your coins,” I said. “
Browning gratefully retrieved his treasure, signed the receipt, gave McAdams $ 200 to thank his crew and hit the road.
Just in time, apparently.
“The next day I got a message from the State Department saying, ‘My message has been canceled. Don’t do it, don’t give back the gold, ”McAdams said.
McAdams instantly replied that it was too late, the gold was gone; and about an hour after sending the message, an FBI agent called on the phone from the office in the Salem office.
“I’ll be there in an hour,” the agent said – and so was he. He did the 82 miles, which Google Maps says takes 93 minutes to go, in just over an hour, so he must have flown. McAdams gave him all the receipts and things, and he brought them back to Salem.
It was the last time McAdams heard of it.
So what was the deal? Was there something sinister about the half-million dollar bag of gold?
Almost certainly not. For a retired couple embarking on a sailing trip around the world, deciding to carry all their money in hard British currency might not have been a good idea, but it was certainly an understandable idea. Probably the FBI just wanted to check things out, and were slow to get their request to the State Department.
But we still have to ask ourselves….
(Sources: BMCM Tom McAdams Interview, an oral history interview recorded on February 13, 2004 by the Foundation for Coast Guard History, viewed via Clive Lawford’s 44-foot Motor Lifeboats page on 44mlb.com; Portland Oregonian Archives, 14 December -16, 1973)