San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Thu 5 Nov 2015 23:10

At anchor Aquatic Park Cove, San Francisco
Weather: sunny, mild

Yesterday (must find an alternative way of starting my log entries) I explored San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park, and in particular the sailing ship, Balclutha, and the side wheel paddle steamer, Eureka.

I visited the information centre first which gave a good idea of how the port of San Francisco has changed over the years. Probably what struck me most from these static displays was the way the landscape has been dramatically transformed in San Francisco's short two hundred year history, something that it has in common with all modern major cities. It is quite staggering to reflect upon how we humans have radically changed our environment in such a short time, as compared to all of our previous history.

My next stop was the Eureka, a passenger and vehicle ferry that worked the bay before the Golden Gate bridge was opened. I was surprised to learn that she had been built in 1890 and continued service until as late as 1937. Her single cylinder walking beam engine would have been obsolete when she was launched. The huge cylinder turns the paddle wheels via the walking beam at an incredibly slow speed of twenty rpm, but despite the slow speed develops a very respectable 1500 horsepower. Unfortunately visitors did not have access to the engine and boiler rooms, so I had to be satisfied with a glimpse of the top of the huge steam cylinder, and of the boiler's gauges through small windows covered with wire mesh.

Of course, the highlight of my tour was the Balclutha, whose name I discovered is Gaelic for the River Clyde, where she was built in 1886. She has had a long and interesting career and has been very well preserved. I was particularly intrigued to discover a link between her and my own childhood. At one time in her career, from 1899 to 1902, she was employed shipping timber from California to South Australia, to shore up the mines in Broken Hill. A display down below in her 'tween deck showed a headline from a Port Pirie newspaper, The Recorder, a town where I lived for a number of years as a child (I think The Recorder was still in circulation). “Port Pirie Grows Up. Mine Pays Off. Australia to become world leader in silver production” its headlines proclaim, thus creating the demand for timber from the other side of the world.

I have seen a few old sailing ships in my time, among them the Cutty Sark, the Victory, the James Craig, the Charles W. Morgan, and the Polly Woodside. I knew that life for the ordinary sailor in the time of sail was very harsh. One of the men from that period, one Andrew Furuseth speaking on behalf of the newly formed Sailor Union of the Pacific, eloquently stated their case in one of the shore-side displays: “You can put me in jail. But you cannot give me narrower quarters than as a seaman … cannot give me coarser food than I have always eaten … cannot make me lonelier than I have always been.” Nonetheless, despite all my reading, visits to the aforementioned ships, and command of a modern square rigger, I had never before understood just how harsh these conditions must have been until I walked around the foc'sle where Balclutha's twenty two able-bodied seamen lived. Their narrow bunks lined the ship's side, right up to the open hawse pipes. I could not believe that they could endure the storms of Cape Horn in these quarters. The hawse-pipes through which the ship's anchor cables pass were blocked off with wooden plugs once the ship was at sea, the anchors catted and the cables stowed, but nonetheless the conditions must have been horrendous. On one of the signs one sailor's account was provided of how he woke up to find himself and his donkey's breakfast (the straw mattress that the sailors had to provide for themselves) flushed out the foc'sles doorway as the ship's head plunged down and a sea poured in through the hawse-pipe. This happened on Balclutha's maiden voyage before the carpenter had the chance to make up some covers to plug up these large holes in the eyes of the ship. I have been down that way, in the vicinity of the Horn, though I have not rounded it (yet). It is cold, windy, wet and miserable, and that was in late summer early autumn, and only as far south as 55 degrees latitude. These ships went around the Horn below 60 degrees, in the middle of winter, when the winds were more likely to be favourable. The foc'sle and their bedding would have been saturated for the whole time. Once wet the straw mattresses would never have dried in those conditions. The temperature would have been icy cold. What these men must have lived through is beyond my imagination and comprehension.

Down aft a slightly different picture emerges. The captain's quarters are much more comfortable, and often the captain would have his wife on board. The ship's company appreciated the 'Old Woman' on board (no matter that she might have been quite young). It brought a civilising influence to the small community, curbing the harsh language of the sailors and the brutal discipline of the officers. I was particularly touched by an excerpt given from one of the captains' wives. It would seem she was a woman with a strong spirit, as I am sure any woman going to sea at the time must have possessed (or indeed any woman going to sea in a sailboat still needs).

“… and a charthouse for my wife.”

Sir William Garthwaite, the London shipowner, was in his office interviewing a captain for a position on one of his sailing ships, when the captain asked if his wife could join them. She asked a string of questions, all brisk, business-like, and to the point about the ship, tonnage, cargo, port, master's pay, and so on. Finally she asked if she might see the ships plans.

Stabbing a forefinger on the print she demanded: “That charthouse on the poopdeck – does she still carry it?” She was told there had been no alteration. “Then we'll take her,” she said firmly, without even turning to look at the Old Man, “if we can have the papers to sign ...” Afterward the owner asked, “and why did you decide the captain should take her?” “The charthouse,” was the prompt reply. “All my life it has been a dream of mine to have a ship with a house I could sit in and work my sewing machine, and keep an eye for'ard on the ship.”

Truly a woman a sailor can admire.

I shall finish the written part of my tale on this happy domestic note, and post some photos to finish the rest of my story.

All is well.