Wreck of the Dominator

Wreck of the Dominator — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

Wreck of the Dominator

Along the shore below the cliffs of Palos Verdes Estates, you can visit the rusting remnants of a ship that ran aground at this spot in 1961.

Wreck of the Dominator — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

The Demise of the SS Dominator

The SS Dominator, a Greek-owned cargo ship flying under the flag of Panama, sailed down from Portland, Oregon toward the Los Angeles with a ten-thousand-two-hundred ton load of wheat and beef. She was bound for Algiers, but needed to make a re-fueling stop at Long Beach.

Around 5:30 in the evening on March 13, 1961, she encountered some adverse weather around Palos Verdes Point. There was a heavy fog over the sea that evening, and the ship was having a little trouble finding the harbor entrance. The captain, an experienced gent named Papanicolopoulos, had ordered reduced speed (to around 11 knots, roughly about 12 miles per hour). But with no visibility and lacking GPS or any modern-day navigational aids, the ship didn’t stand a chance against the shallow water and sharp rocks that made up the promontory off Palos Verdes.

Without warning, as the Dominator chugged her way around Palos Verdes Point, she came to a jarring halt as she ran aground against a rocky reef.

All that remains of the SS Dominator off Palos Verdes Point. Photo from the author’s collection.

The water was too shallow for her to sink, though. Almost immediately, the Coast Guard launched a rescue attempt. During the high tide periods, tug boats tried to drag the Dominator off the rocks out to deeper waters. But they were hampered by the high winds blowing toward the shore and the heavy surf that pounded the rocky point.

The next day, three of the ship’s holds started taking on water. Divers were sent down to investigate the extend of the damage, and they found that hull had become wedged between the rocks. The ship wasn’t going anywhere.

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After two days, everyone realized saving the ship was a lost cause. Captain Papanicolopoulos sent out an SOS after Midnight on March 16. As the ship started breaking apart, the Coast Guard worked to rescue the 30 or so crew members (reports differ on the number). Everyone was rescued without any incidents and taken to Long Beach.

History of the Dominator

The Dominator started her life as the Melville Jacoby (named for a WWII correspondent) when she came out of the shipyards in Providence, Rhode Island on March 31, 1944. She was a Liberty ship, a type of vessel based on a British design. These Liberty ships, called “Ugly Ducklings” because the American people hated how they looked, were a series of 2,710 cargo ships built of welded steel in American shipyards during World War II.

After serving her time in WWII, the Melville Jacoby was sold into private service where she was renamed Victoria and now sailed under the Panama flag. She was sold again in 1950 (and re-christened the North Queen) before her final sale in 1953 when she acquired the name Dominator.

The Attraction of the Dominator

Almost immediately after the ship was abandoned on March 16, the empty vessel drew the attention of curious adventure seekers. The first five visitors were students from a local high school. They swam out to the derelict looking for interesting trinkets to salvage. Instead, they became stranded on the remains of the ship by the relentless waves and had to be rescued by a Marine Corps helicopter.

One of the larger pieces of wreckage at the Dominator site. Photo from the author’s collection

From then on, the Dominator became a popular destination for sightseers and treasure seekers. In the first three months alone, thousands of people ventured out to visit the wreckage on foot, by boat, and via airplane and helicopter. There were more than 100 recorded rescues and reports of at least four skindivers who drowned while exploring the underwater remains.

It didn’t take long for the abandoned cargo to cause issues for local residents. The grain started to ferment in the saltwater and the beef started to rot. This permeated the whole area a powerful stench and also attracted huge swarms of flies and rats. In 1962, a mysterious fire broke out in the ship. It was thought to be arson, possibly set by a frustrated local looking for a way to deal with the vermin.

Over the years, caught between the pounding surf and the rocky shore, the ocean has slowly but steadily worn down the Wreck of the Dominator. But a few parts still remain — and it’s relatively easy to walk along the edge of Lunada Bay to visit them.

Visiting the Wreck of the Dominator

Because the wreckage has been diminished over the years, there are many small small pieces of metal scattered all along the beach below Palos Verdes Point. But there are still three relatively large pieces of the Dominator that you can walk right up to, especially at low tide.

A few large pieces of the Dominator on the rocky beach. Photo from the author’s collection.

Although the Wreck of the Dominator is readily accessible, it does take a bit of walking to get there.

First of all, you’ll have the best luck finding the most remnants of the ship during low tide. The best tool to coordinate low tide is the Tide Times for Rancho Palos Verdes at Tide-Forecast.com.

Now the tides aren’t that high here, though at high tide there are two or three spots along the beach at the point where you might get a little wet. But traveling out there at high tide isn’t really worth the effort — most of the wreckage will be either partially or fully submerged in the surf.

Smaller pieces of the Dominator scattered up the beach from the crash site. Photo from the author’s collection.

The best parking can be found along an unnamed stretch of green space on Paseo Del Mar at : 33.773240, -118.423050 (around 2289 Paseo Del Mar).

From the parking area, there are two paths to get down to the beach where you can walk to visit the Dominator. The first is on the northern side of the open space, approximately at 33.772181, -118.422469. This path is marked on Google Maps, but it can be hard to see from atop the cliff, and it’s a very steep trail. It looks a bit like this:

It doesn’t look like it from atop the cliff, but that is a path down. Photo from the author’s collection.

It’s easier to see (and climb) this path from the beach below. If you don’t have sure footing, I suggest you skip this path and walk a little further to the southern path.

The southern path can be found near 33.769687, -118.420815. This path, also marked on Google Maps, is easier to see and takes you down into Agua Amarga Canyon. Although it’s not as steep as its northern counterpart, it can still be challenging to negotiate. The dirt on the path is very fine and dusty and, since the cliff is mostly limestone, chunks of the path can crumble beneath your feet. Descend with caution. This path look something like this:

It looks steep — and it is — but it’s the easiest way down. Photo from the author’s collection.

Once you’re on the very rocky beach, you’ll walk along Lunada Bay, following the shoreline around Palos Verdes Point.

The beach along Lunada Bay. You can see the two paths (one on the left, one on the right) leading up to the cliff (and your parking spot). Photo from the author’s collection.

The walk is just over half-a-mile, but there’s not always a clear path and the beach itself very rocky, so the going can be slower than you’d expect along a typical sandy Southern California beach. Plan for about a half-hour walk to the shipwreck.

There’s also a path to the Wreck of the Dominator from the north via the Blufftop Trail, but it’s a walk of about a mile along the shore.

The wreck of the Dominator. Photo from the author’s collection.

The USC Archives has a series of photos from the Herald Examiner Collection taken in 1961 showing the Dominator on fire off the shore of Palos Verdes Point and the attempt to pull her off the rocks. In a photo series from 2017, The Daily Breeze revisits the Dominator in pictures from 1961 through 1978.

Wreck of the Dominator

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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