Ship of Fools

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

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.

But after all this time, the Wapama may be simply too far gone, her wood too rotten.

Despite her imposing structure, she is weak from decay, and may be dangerous to board. Further efforts to save her may well imperil the lives of the shipwrights, volunteers, and members of the public who go aboard.

"Most of the important strength properties in the wood are gone," says Wayne Wilcox, a UC Berkeley wood pathologist who has conducted wood core sample studies of the Wapama. "The fact that everything is tied together so well on that ship has protracted its ability to hold together. But any time you get a structure like that with decayed wood, and you have people walking around on it, it can collapse on you. That concerns me."

If the ship's deck, hold, or any other of the tightly interlocking pieces forming her vast body collapses, the love affair between the Wapama and her admirers may finally end in the manner of literature's great romances -- death.

The Wapama was built in 1914 by the St. Helens Shipbuilding Co. in St. Helens, Ore., owned by the north coast logger baron Charles McCormick. California's breakneck urbanization in those days created an immense demand for lumber, which intensified when the West Coast's greatest wooden city, San Francisco, burned down in 1906. Rebuilding required mountains of lumber, and photos from that era show Bay Area docks piled so high and far with redwood and fir planks that the stacks appear to form their own vast, postmodern city.

Other photos from that time inevitably depict a thicket of schooner masts in the background. San Francisco was one of the world's most important port cities. But windjamming schooners of the sort that once packed the bay weren't terribly efficient for the job of moving milled forests north to south.

This task involved edging into tiny north-coast inlets; stacking holds and decks with wood until the boat teetered under the weight; then racing south to San Francisco and Los Angeles to unload.

During the years after the gold rush, square-rigged sailing schooners carried the lumber. But increased demand for building material called for something better.

When fitted with steam engines, the schooners could more easily maneuver the dicey shores along the north coast forests, then press southward no matter how fickle the winds. As designs for these "steam schooners" evolved, masts and sails were eliminated, making more room on deck for cargo.

While prosaic in the Wapama's day, the job of building such a ship is staggering in hindsight. Northern old-growth forests had to be scoured for massive trees with 90-degree crotches from which to cut the 100 angular braces that keep the ship tight against itself. Entire old-growth firs were sawed into the boat's massive skeleton and planking.

Dozens of skilled shipwrights swarmed over the vessel for eight months, fastening gargantuan beams with wrist-sized wooden pins. The Wapama -- named after a waterfall above Hetch Hetchy -- required 800,000 board feet of lumber. Launched at St. Helens in April 1915, she was towed to San Francisco, where the city's Main Street Iron Works fitted her with a production steam engine boasting cylinders as wide as 40 inches. The ship required some 110 barrels of oil a day to press through California coastal waters at around 10 knots.

So profitable were these vessels that an enterprising logger like McCormick could spend $150,000 on the Wapama and pay for it within a year or so. But during the 1920s, wood ships passed from favor, replaced by steel ones. Wood ships couldn't be built much longer than the Wapama's 217 feet before they would sag on the ends.

By the late 1920s, the coast was peppered with obsolete wooden steam schooners. Some were used as Oakland garbage scows. Others, like the Wapama, became floating mail trucks, bringing letters and supplies to northernmost Alaska.

Hard times and the second World War scattered this remnant fleet. By the 1940s, the mud flats of Oakland Creek on San Francisco Bay were strewn with rotting steam schooners -- the "Arlington of marine graveyards" is how a 1945 book on the vessels described it.

By 1948, the Wapama was the last wooden steam schooner still operating in American waters. Virtually all of the rest had been dismantled for their lumber.

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