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Heed the call of the sea in San Francisco.

Hyde Street Pier's collection of historic ships is once again complete

WHY DO WE LOVE OLD ships so? For some, their appeal lies in the sense of history and romance ships evoke. For others, the allure is more tangible: the grace of a sail billowed by wind, the shine of a gleaming brass gimballed lamp, the weblike artistry of the rigging.

You can rekindle this love affair at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier, where the West Coast's finest gathering of historic ships bobs at anchor. The return of the ferry Eureka from a recent voyage to dry dock makes the collection complete again. The pier shows off an impressive range of vessels--from a 24-foot fishing boat, the Matilda D., to the world's longest floating wooden structure, the Eureka.

The big ships moored here are open to all who want to roam their decks, climb into the fo'c'sles, and peek into the galleys. You can also join a host of free activities designed to make you feel like a 19th-century sailor with the wind in your hair and a creaking deck beneath your feet.


Just strolling down the pier (part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park) takes you back a bit in San Francisco waterfront history. Built in 1922, the pier served until 1938 as a terminal for ferries that called all over the bay. Dotting the pier today are jaunty replicas of San Francisco Bay feluccas, the small Mediterranean-style boats favored by the city's Italian fishermen; a deck-house from a wooden tug that once pushed ocean liners around the harbor; and a newly restored "ark," a type of houseboat that many city dwellers used as a sort of summer cottage on the bay in the late 1800s. Nearby, two steam tugs from the early part of this century--the Hercules and Eppleton Hall--are on view (the Hercules may open to tours later this year). The best way to see the pier's big ships, as well as to learn more about the early days of sail, is to join one of the free guided tours given daily on the 1895 lumber schooner C.A. Thayer and 1886 square-rigger Balclutha.

The Thayer is one of the ships most familiar to local schoolchildren: countless classes on field trips have clambered over her decks. But she has seen better days. Her hull is being eaten by shipworms, and her overall condition is so dire that the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently declared her one of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

Still, the Thayer retains a stately beauty that is best appreciated by climbing down into her hold and examining her great wooden heart. Massive old-growth Douglas fir beams--some more than 100 feet long and 2 or 3 feet thick--run the length of the hold. The ceiling planking is held up by gracefully curved support pieces called "hanging knees." Today, the hold still echoes with occasional sea chantey sing-alongs and even the ringing prose of Eugene O'Neill plays. Looming behind the lumber schooner is the more massive and ornate Balclutha. On the poop deck, check out the binnacle (a holder for the ship's compass) supported by a trio of long-tailed bronze dolphins. In the spacious captain's quarters, notice the shining bird's-eye maple paneling and fancy brass gimballed lamps.

Time-honored traditions keep the Balclutha shipshape. The deck's Douglas fir planks are still hand-caulked regularly with a tarred fiber product called oakum, just as they were in the 19th century. You may see crew members climbing aloft to perform maintenance on the intricate rigging.

Nearby, the pier's biggest ship is open to visitors again after a three-month hiatus for repairs. The Eureka, built in 1890, is the oldest surviving San Francisco Bay ferry. Visit the engine room for a glimpse of its enormous "walking beam" steam engine, still operable. Belowdecks, you can see the giant paddle wheels on either side. On the passenger deck, you'll see a fine collection of automobiles dating from the car ferry's early years of service. Work on the Eureka continues; you may see crew members replacing planking.


Exploring the ships might make you wonder what it was like to be a sailor on these vessels in the 19th century. Several programs are designed to give you some insight into the seafaring life. In a small fisherman's shack on the pier, you might learn how to tie a sailor's knot. On board a square-rigger, you can watch a sail-raising demonstration. In the hold of a schooner, learn to sing an old sea chantey.

To learn more about how wooden boats are built, stop by the small boat shop, where you can watch volunteer crews constructing a replica of a 24-foot Navy cutter. Nearby, Polynesian boatbuilder Peter Balin is on hand most days, crafting an oceangoing double-hulled canoe.

A host of lectures--on topics from building wooden ships to rigging--are also offered. For a program schedule, call (415) 556-3002.

The Hyde Street Pier, just west of Fisherman's Wharf, is open from 10 to 5 daily. Admission costs $3 for adults, $1 for ages 12 through 18.


On a visit to the Hyde Street Pier, you might see any number of a crew of 40 professionals and a shipload of volunteers at work. Aboard the Balclutha, you may spot a rigger in bib-and-brace coveralls slapping smoky-smelling Stockholm tar onto the rigging, just as crewmen did in the 1800s. Or you might see a sailmaker repairing the canvas.

Because every ship but one is a national historic landmark, restoration must be faithful to the period. "Since we're such sticklers about historical accuracy, we have to be researchers as well as workers," explains rigger Chris Jiannini, who has a home library of some 300 books on rigging.

Ship work coordinator Louis Killen sets schedules for the large crew of volunteers. They tackle everything from refining engines to patching sails to scraping and painting. Killen explains the enormity of the tasks: "Just keeping the Balclutha painted and properly rigged is a never-ending task. It's like working on the Golden Gate Bridge--just when you finish, it's time to start back at the other end again."

Fully restoring these floating works of art is no pleasure cruise. Obstacles line the course like floating mines. The search for specialized repair tools, for example, is an ongoing headache; restorers must hunt for some tools in antiques shops. Finding shipwrights who possess the talent to use such tools is a chore that can require a worldwide search (the park lured one rigger from Australia). Finally, some building materials are no longer mass-produced and must be custom-made at great expense, such as the gargantuan wooden beams needed for the schooner Thayer.

But the biggest hurdle is funding. Although the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's annual budget has nearly tripled in the last five years (to $4.8 million this year), more is needed. Estimates put the cost of rebuilding the Thayer at $7 million. The 1915 steam schooner Wapama, which sits on a dock in Sausalito, is too far gone to be refloated; some estimate it will cost $3 million just to stabilize this last survivor of America's wooden passenger and freight-hauling steamers.

Daunting as these challenges may seem, there's reason for hope. The National Maritime Museum Association has launched a campaign to save the Thayer. The park has nearly doubled its staff since opening its doors in 1988. Half its budget is now devoted to maintaining and restoring the ships. Bill Thomas, superintendent of the park, says, "Our mandate is clear: until these ships are in good condition, we may not add to the collection."

Increasingly, volunteers have come forward to aid the cause, accounting for labor worth $1 million last year. If you'd like to join the volunteer crew, call (415) 556-8545. To join The National Maritime Museum Association (memberships start at $25) or add to the Save the Thayer fund, write to the association at Building 275, Crissy Field, Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco 94129.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco, California
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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