Ship of Fools

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

With an enormous craft such as a steam schooner, the scale of this work expands exponentially. Because the shipwright skills and rare timbers needed to fix these boats become dearer with each passing year, the job becomes mind-boggling, and extremely expensive.

It became clear during the mid-1950s that the home-grown Maritime Museum Association had acquired more ships than it could possibly afford to maintain. So Kortum, Newhall, and Kortum's seafaring chum Harry Dring courted allies in Sacramento. They succeeded in getting California's Parks Department to establish a special unit for the ship collection and funnel more money into the historic fleet.

The state program included money for partial restoration of the Wapama, and the sail schooner C.A. Thayer. After an initial, ambitious, partial restoration, which included sprucing up her topside quarters, the Wapama was sound enough for a time to serve as a bona fide museum exhibit. She was filled with plaques and displays to show tourists how vessels like the Wapama and her sisters built San Francisco. In 1963, the Wapama and other ships were opened to the public at Hyde Street Pier.

In 1978, the Maritime Museum was transferred to the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. By that time, the Wapama was again in need of repair. In 1980, she was hoisted out of the water onto a barge and hauled over to Oakland, presumably for thorough restoration. Maritime Museum staff carpenters commuted for several years to the Oakland docklands to work on her, but the funds never materialized for the sort of fundamental fix-up her 72 years required. In 1987, she was hauled to Sausalito, to a berth astride the Army Corps of Engineers pier. As always, she was relocated with the presumed intention of restoring her, but without specific plans or funds to complete the job.

It wasn't only the Wapama that was rotting away. During these years, the entire Maritime Museum fleet had been easing into an ever greater state of disrepair. The Park Service, it seemed, was fighting a losing battle against these wooden ships' strident mortality.

This outraged the international community of ship preservationists, an esoteric, yet singularly vocal, lot. With Kortum as their standard-bearer, they blamed the federal government. They complained that the Park Service was endangering the country's maritime heritage by subjecting the museum's motley Fisherman's Wharf fleet to neglect. The National Parks and Conservation Association, a civic group that monitors national parks, put the Maritime Museum on its list of "parks in peril" because of the poor condition of the ships.

But it was Kortum who was most heated in his criticisms.
When murmurs began during the early 1990s that the Park Service no longer felt it could afford to keep the Wapama, Kortum lost his cool. A 1992 report sponsored by the National Maritime Museum Association, the nonprofit group that supports the museum, determined that the Wapama was so rotten it would need to be destroyed. There was only enough money available to save some of the park's ailing ships, the logic went, and the Wapama was so decrepit that repairing her would suck up money at the expense of the rest of the museum. Because of the controversy, the report was not publicly released. But it gradually became evident that the Park Service had no intention of restoring the Wapama.

Kortum was outraged. He denounced his employer to reporters for both of San Francisco's daily newspapers and exploded at a museum staff meeting, calling the plan to scrap the Wapama insane. The report's author, retired steamship executive Robert E. Mayer, had considered himself Kortum's friend. Today, ailing in a Palo Alto rest home, he recalls that Kortum's brash approach to saving the Wapama was, at best, counterproductive.

After 40 years of accomplishing amazing things through force of will, Kortum failed to recognize that this was a battle he would not be able to bully his way through.

While Mayer's report may have been suppressed (a copy obtained by SF Weekly documents oceans of debilitating rot), its recommendations were tacitly accepted by Park Service authorities.

As momentum built for a plan that would allow for the Wapama's dismantlement, Kortum lashed out fruitlessly at those who would destroy her. He was quoted in the press calling the management of the Maritime Museum and its advisers "stumbums," "vulgarians," and "extraterrestrials."

That same year Kortum was demoted from his longtime post as chief curator of the Maritime Museum and given the title "staff curator." Among the park leadership, he had come to be regarded as an irrelevant fanatic. Impotent and bitter, he carried this feud to his grave.

"These guys didn't even bother to talk to, or absorb insight from, or treat respectfully, my father," says Karl Kortum's son, John, a Financial District lawyer.

Adds Huycke: "He was anguished. He was frustrated because he didn't have the energy to fight it anymore. He had the will, but he didn't have the energy."

So he died. But by then, another suitor had taken up, and likewise been ruined by, the ill-fated cause of saving the Wapama.

Allies say Michael Harrington is the kind of man you'd want at your side in an alley fight: loyal, brave, trustworthy, and shrewd. A former Park Service employee, he possessed enough charisma, energy, and ingenuity to nurture a heroic volunteer effort to restore the Wapama.

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