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Sailing into the past off San Francisco.

The schooner Alma is added to the fleet at the Hyde Street Pier

IT'S LIKE WATCHING your kid graduate--finally." Standing on the rolling deck of the 1891 scow schooner Alma as it sails the bay, Bill Thomas smiles like a proud father. Even before becoming superintendent of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, he had taken an almost parental interest in seeing the craft restored.

It began more than 30 years ago when, as a reporter for a local daily, Thomas wrote an article about the Alma while it was berthed in the south bay port of Alviso. The boat was decrepit, its decks were awash in muck, and it hadn't set sail in years. Thomas's story helped bring attention to the Alma's plight. In 1959 the state bought the schooner and then gave it, in 1977, to the National Park Service.

Until recently, the scow schooner had berthed in Sausalito, sailing only occasionally. But now the Alma has been fully restored and is open to the public for tours along with the rest of the maritime-park fleet at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier.


At first glance, the Alma seems an ugly duckling in a fleet of swans--the four other ships here include the beautiful square-rigger Balclutha and the graceful schooner C. A. Thayer. But the value of the Alma lies not in its uncommon beauty but in its uncommonness. Like an endangered species, it is the last of a San Francisco breed.

As early as the 1860s, scores of similar little scow schooners were working the bay. They brought grain in from the Stockton area, hay from Petaluma, sacks of salt up from Alviso, and bricks down from San Rafael that were used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. With their flat bottoms, these boats could navigate far up shallow bay fingers and rest on the mud at low tide for loading. Boxy scow hulls made them simple and inexpensive to build, and the rigging made them practical to operate--a three-man crew could sail one. When a schooner's large, open deck was piled high with a cargo like hay bales, the crew could raise the booms over the load and extend the steering wheel, while the helmsman navigated atop a platform.


At the Hyde Street Pier, you can stroll on board the Alma for a guided tour or you can pitch in and help with ongoing maintenance. All winter, volunteers are needed to scrape, paint, and repair rigging. To participate, call the volunteer coordinator at (415) 556-1613. The Hyde Street Pier is open 10 to 5 daily; admission to all ships is $3, $1 ages 12 through 17. For a schedule of ship tours and other park events, call 556-3002.
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Title Annotation:San Francisco, California
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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