Ship of Fools

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

The same fate almost befell the Wapama. Sold for scrap in 1949, she was lying at a Seattle dismantling yard when she was discovered in the mid-1950s by a zealous, politically connected group of San Francisco maritime enthusiasts. At the heart of this group was a passionate, cantankerous, charismatic old sailor named Karl Kortum.

Kortum would be the first man drawn to this siren, and the first to pay a price.

Karl Kortum, the broad-shouldered, sharp-tongued father of American maritime restoration, dedicated the last half of his life to the Wapama. In the end, his devotion cost him nearly everything. He lost his longtime title as chief curator of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. He feuded until death with the museum's directors, his former friends, and anyone he thought was against him, all in service to his beloved ship.

Kortum is remembered as the greatest ship preservationist the world has known. His name graces the long, curving pier outside San Francisco's Maritime Museum. When he died in 1996, Kortum was eulogized in 500-word obituaries in the London Daily Telegraph, the New York Times, and dozens of other papers. He was lauded as a hero by no lesser chroniclers than Walter Cronkite and Herb Caen.

But in the end, his fame, his reputation, and his lion's will weren't enough to save the Wapama. Kortum's obituaries say he died of heart failure. This was true, to a point. But people close to Kortum say it was his realization that he could do nothing to save the Wapama that weakened, and finally broke, his heart. When he became too ill and weak to fight on, he gave up, retired, and died at age 79.

"I think Karl's sickness was largely because he was in a situation where he no longer had any authority, and in some circles he didn't even get respect, which was a terrible thing," says David Nelson, former executive director of the National Maritime Museum Association, and a longtime friend to Kortum.

Insult followed injury one year after Kortum's death, when the National Park Service formally published its General Management Plan, slating the Wapama for destruction.

"He had left a trail of broken bones and blood in his drive to save the museum and his personal legacy of being the spiritual leader of the museum," recalls retired Capt. Harold D. Huycke, a close friend. "In his last years, he couldn't call in his wide circle of friends. They just weren't there for him. Because of his stubbornness, I guess."

It was this proud stubbornness, and an irresistible sense of purpose, that initially led Kortum and a group of his allies to create the San Francisco Maritime Museum 49 years ago.

The museum began with the donated model ship collection of sugar heiress Alma Spreckles. The San Francisco Chronicle -- then edited by Kortum pal Scott Newhall -- and the city's three other newspapers of the time backed the museum idea. The papers' support helped create a space on the city's payroll for Kortum as Maritime Museum curator.

City money allowed the museum to be born. But Kortum and his friends had grander dreams than the city's budget could support. San Francisco, they imagined, would live out her history as one of the world's greatest port cities by hosting America's greatest maritime museum. For this, they would need to buy real, floating, wooden ships that would be restored, then maintained by old-school shipwrights. Deep pockets would be needed. Fortunately, Kortum and his friends had plenty of political pull.

With help from friends in the Sacramento Statehouse, these San Francisco maritime buffs managed to finagle state funding for their dream museum.

In 1954, the Museum Association bought a square-rigged ship called the Balclutha. Next it bought the schooner C.A. Thayer -- a historical predecessor to the Wapama -- and then, in 1957, the Wapama herself.

Getting the Wapama to San Francisco at state expense involved a touch of subterfuge, Nelson recalls. Perhaps appropriately, state officials fancied the ship a boondoggle. So the most prudent approach to obtaining her involved keeping as few people apprised of the project as possible.

"The Department of Beaches and Parks didn't want this thing -- it was a wreck and a monstrosity. But because of the pressure we were able to put on them, they bought it," Nelson recalls. "When it was towed down from Oregon, we towed it down under a fictitious name, so that if anybody said, 'I wonder what that wreck is doing in the middle of the bay?' we could say, 'Beats me.' "

The Wapama was to become a centerpiece for the antique fleet. It was the maritime missing link between the epoch of sail-driven seafaring and the age of steam.

But acquiring condemned old ships is a much more modest proposal than restoring and preserving them. An internal inventory of the Wapama's state of disrepair taken in the 1950s included the need to replace scarred and rotted planking, and a "very large contingency fund appended to the next dry-docking contract," in order to repair rot.

That was only the beginning, of course. Wooden boats are excruciatingly mortal. From the moment a wooden ship eases into the water, it begins to decay. Even new ones must be pulled from the water every two years or so and refurbished. Occasionally, they must be replanked.

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