Portholes to the past: Whidbey maritime history is ingrained in Coupeville veteran


Whidbey News Group

It’s not often one can spin a ship’s wheel in the comfort of his own home.

Roger Sherman can spin four of them.

The den inside Sherman’s Coupeville home could be confused for a nautical museum of Whidbey Island.

The room is a collection of wood and brass artifacts from compasses to propellors, and features historic photos and maps on custom-built oak walls.

After collecting the nautical artifacts for much of his life, the retired farmer needed a place to put them.

So, in 1996, he went all out and had the mostly bare room remodeled, transforming it into what resembles the officer’s quarters of a 19th century square-rig sailing ship.

Even the ceiling is arched with oak panels, and there are “port lights” on the walls that illuminate black-and-white images of historic ships.”

It’s almost as if Sherman is at sea in his basement.

“His galley really captures the essence of being inside an old ship — but with a cool pool table and all the comforts of home nearby,” said Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Museum.

So why go to such deep measures?

“I had all of these nautical collectibles and no place to put them,” Sherman said.

It’s more than that.

Although he was a fourth-generation farmer, Sherman has carried a fascination for the sea.

He spent more than 25 years volunteering with the Boy Scouts of America Sea Explorer program and was the skipper of a 65-foot vessel.

Al Sherman, also a retired farmer, said that he believes his brother’s interest in the sea started when he first experienced scuba diving while serving in the Air Force and being stationed for 10 months in Miami, Fla.

“That was not the main reason I became interested in everything nautical,” Roger Sherman said, “but it was certainly part of it.”

The interest runs deeper.

He grew up hearing tales about a steamship named the Calista that was carrying his relatives when it was struck by a freighter and sank in Puget Sound waters.

The Calista was a Coupeville-based steamer that ran the Seattle to Whidbey route from 1911 to 1922, carrying passengers and freight.

In the late morning of July 27, 1922, the Calista entered a thick fog as it approached Seattle and was struck by a Japanese freighter. It sank in 28 minutes, but all 75 people on board, including members of Sherman’s extended family, survived.

The tale gripped Sherman’s fascination in maritime history, and he wound up writing a book that was centered around the incident titled “The Sinking of the Calista: Part 1 of a Maritime History of Central Whidbey Island,” which he self-published in 1998.

Eighteen years later, there is work on Part 2.

“Everyone’s been bugging him since he wrote, ‘The Sinking of the Calista,’ because he put part one on there,” Castellano said.

“That was definitely a mistake,” Sherman said.

“I’m not very fast.”

Sherman, 81, said in July he was nearly half done with the second book and will finish it as long as his health allows. He wants to go into more depth about the island’s maritime history, including the role of Ebey’s Landing and the island’s fishing resorts.

Castellano considers him one of the island’s resident experts on maritime history. He’s seen Sherman’s den, which includes four ship wheels, including one from the ferry that used to travel from North Whidbey to Camano Island known as the Acorn.

“It’s cool, man. It’s his thing,” Al Sherman said. “He’s done a great job.”

Roger Sherman has evened scored a few points with his wife, Darlene, too, as evidenced by another remodel upstairs years later.

It was part of the deal to re-do another room should they remodel the den.

“She got her kitchen,” Roger Sherman said.