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Ship of Fools 

Men keep falling in love with the aging steam schooner Wapama. She always exacts her price.

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
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Karl Brandes kneels on the main deck of the old wooden steam schooner Wapama as if cradling a fallen lover. A lean, sandy-haired shipwright with expansive hands, Brandes grasps an auburn tress of hemp fiber, pulls it through his fingers, and gently lays it into the space between two of her decking planks.

These planks -- beams, really -- are as thick around as a woman's calf, 100 feet long, and beveled on two sides. Brandes snugs the hemp between them, sealing the deck and squeezing it taut against itself like a corset.

"You're not driving it in just to fill the space, but also so that it compresses against the soft grain of the timber and creates pressure," says the 49-year-old Brandes. "Rather than pounding it in, you're working it in. You're listening to the mallet. It tells you how much pressure you have."

The deck planks fan out from beneath Brandes' knees like the folds of a skirt, until they run flush into a long, bowed beam that encircles the ship's deck. This beam, the waterways timber, is made from two pieces of solid fir stacked waist high. In the way of every interlocking piece of the Wapama's finely crafted body, the waterways timber embraces the ship's ribs, called top timbers. These timbers require the heart of an entire old-growth fir tree to produce, cut from 5-foot-wide, 12-inch-thick slabs into sweeping, buxom curves. They join the Wapama's waterways timber and its keel, giving swell to the ship's chestlike hold.

So massive is the Wapama's construction that her hold is protected by a solid-wood skin the thickness of a sleeping couple. She once survived a collision with an iceberg.

In the first third of this century, the Wapama carried hundreds of acres of milled Oregon trees down the coast to San Francisco, where they became two-bedroom Marina flats and Pacific Heights mansions. She is the last of 200 such ships that once brought forests of lumber so California could build the cities that, seemingly overnight, tilted America's economic center forever westward.

Now, aboard the Wapama's deck, Brandes presses strands of smoky-scented hemp tight between her planks. The strands puff and curl, like disheveled hair, as Brandes wads more and more fibrous locks into the seam. He holds the strands in place with a blunt-edged antique caulking chisel, then strikes them softly with his century-old shipwright's mallet.

"You keep your finger on the iron like a depth gauge," Brandes explains. "You want to get the seam down no more than a quarter-inch deep. You definitely don't want to have it any deeper than three-eighths of an inch."

But with a few soft taps, the hemp fibers disappear into the Wapama's flesh. They have sunk much too far.

That is because these deck planks, the waterways timber, the top timbers, and nearly all the rest of the Wapama's beautiful, clear-grained wood is rotten.

And Brandes, on this rainy Saturday morning at the Sausalito docklands, is doing the work of a mortician more than a shipwright. He's giving the Wapama's decaying flesh a dignified appearance for her admirers, before she rots completely away.

The ship sits atop a barge at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pier behind the Sausalito Bay Model, her sagging, rotten hull held up by rusted steel supports. Her only protection from the rain is a tattered yellow tarp that lets in bucketsful during every North Bay squall. As Brandes painstakingly toils to seal the Wapama's deck, streams of water splash in through the tarp just three steps away, soaking into the deck, dripping down into the hold, and further rotting the Wapama's timbers.

While perhaps unseemly, Brandes' quixotic devotion to the Wapama is not unique. He is only the latest in a stream of suitors who have been seduced into mad, fanciful, and ultimately tragic love affairs with this ship of fools.

It has been 42 years since a group of Bay Area maritime enthusiasts rescued the Wapama from a Puget Sound scrapyard and hauled the carcass to the San Francisco Bay. Back then, they hoped to make her the centerpiece of the world's greatest maritime museum, to be located in San Francisco.

After a 43-year career plying the Pacific coast, she was a battered, rotting hulk. But she was the sole remaining steam-driven schooner of her age, and these San Francisco idealists felt called to snatch her from under the wrecker's crane. The Wapama's saviors dreamed of attracting state money to restore her to her former grandeur: replacing rotting planks and timbers, and reclaiming her status as the last relic of a bygone age.

Nearly a half-century and several ill-fated efforts later, the Wapama still needs $18 million worth of work. Careers and lives have been staked on saving her, often with disastrous results. One suitor went to his grave embittered over her treatment. Friendships have dissolved because of her. Untold amounts of time and money have been sunk into her. Hundreds of volunteers and paid staff have spent countless hours working on her.

Yet there she still sits, 85 years old, looming over the Sausalito docklands in a state of neither death nor life, her decaying girth sagging against a motley forest of makeshift steel struts.

She remains a ghostly temptress, a wake of tattered lives behind her. And the saga does not seem poised to end.

Karl Brandes, who now spends his days toiling over the Wapama's rotten deck, is employed by a nonprofit organization formed three years ago in one more effort to resurrect her. The National Park Service, which owns the ship, would like to dismantle the Wapama and be rid of her. But it has agreed to give the Pacific Steam Schooner Association one more shot at saving her.

The association hopes to recruit dozens, maybe even hundreds, of volunteers to caulk her rotten floor, and clean out her hold and engine room. Once she's partially repaired, the association wants to open the ship for tours, hoping publicity, public support, and funds from private sources and the government will follow. If enough people can be lured on deck, the thinking goes, the money will come.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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