Ship of Fools

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

For a time, during the late 1980s and early '90s, Harrington lured some 250 volunteers to do restoration work aboard the ship. His efforts earned him a presidential award for historical restoration. But in the end, following a bizarre episode in which Harrington was accused of stealing park property, he was hounded off the Wapama, and out of the Park Service for good.

"Now I know how Bill Clinton and Oliver North felt," he says today.
People who volunteered to work on the boat in those days remember the experience fondly. In describing it, they evoke images of a sort of weekend summer camp, where workers would toil, talk, and become friends during the day, then sit around to dinners cooked on the antique stove in the Wapama's galley. People traveled from all over the state to participate in these work parties. One university fraternity organized weekend work forays aboard the Wapama, covering her deck with enthusiastic young worker bees.

"There was a lot of energy there," says Evelyn Roberts, who was employed by the Maritime Museum as a deckhand at the time and now works for the Park Service in Eureka. "We had a big old coal-burning stove on board, and we would cook soup and bread for the volunteers. We were painting, scraping, chipping rust, whatever needed to be done."

Adds Harrington: "I put a lot of my heart and soul into that program. I invested a lot of my time, and a lot of my own money, and my own efforts in keeping it going."

But other people who went aboard the ship during that time recall something odd about the way Harrington ran his restoration program. Some of Harrington's friends seemed to be aboard the boat all the time, and they acted suspicious of outsiders, one Sausalito boatbuilder says.

Eventually, after a formal park inventory showed equipment and supplies missing from Park Service warehouses, Harrington came under suspicion of using the Wapama restoration as the base for a theft ring.

An investigation was launched by the Park Police, aided by the Sausalito Police Department. Sometime around 1991, the FBI began its own investigation into Harrington, as did the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Interior.

These agencies did not respond to requests for documents detailing the various investigations. But they acknowledged that the investigations took place, and that at one point Harrington's home was searched.

Harrington says police officials went to his wife's workplace to serve her with papers. They pulled Harrington's bank records.

Harrington hired lawyers, and filed a lawsuit. The government's investigation continued. Eventually, the affair diffused into a standoff, with Harrington quitting the Park Service, and no formal charges being filed. Harrington says he has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the investigation, but says that his requests have been refused on grounds that the investigation is still open. The U.S. Park Police did not respond to a written request -- or numerous phone calls -- asking for information about the case.

Before the scandal broke, the volunteer program had made some headway in sprucing up the Wapama's cabin and upper areas. But after Harrington came under suspicion, the program fizzled. By 1993, volunteers had lost interest. The top deck Harrington had stripped in preparation for a new caulking job was left bare, leaking rainwater onto her timbers.

Now, Harrington lives in southern Washington state on a disability pension granted by the Park Service. He says he consults on marine environmental projects, and keeps in touch with some of the old volunteer crowd. These friends, when asked, say they'd rather not talk about Harrington's departure. It still hurts, they say.

As Harrington's volunteer program dissolved, the Park Service still found itself faced with the task of deciding how best to preserve the entire decaying museum fleet.

At around this time, the Robert Mayer report was produced, showing that it would cost about as much to restore the Wapama -- $18 million -- as it would to fix up all the other ships combined. Convincing Congress to fund a program that would bring the museum's collection back into acceptable shape meant choices had to be made.

The Wapama would be sacrificed. She went from being low on the museum's list of priorities to being nonexistent. And by the mid-'90s, it had become clear that the Park Service planned to scrap the Wapama. In the museum's General Management Plan, published in 1997 as a template for funding, just over a million dollars was earmarked to dismantle the ship.

The Wapama's surreal afterlife had reached its end, it seemed.
But love, at least in the Wapama's case, springs eternal. Infuriated by the prospect of her demise, a new group emerged in 1996 with the aim of saving her -- the Pacific Steam Schooner Association.

Heading the Pacific Steam Schooner Association are retired Adm. Thomas Patterson and Tiburon developer Ed Zelinsky. Patterson lends heft to this difficult quest because he organized the restoration a decade ago of the Jeremiah O'Brien, a World War II steam warship anchored at Pier 32.

Patterson says he was struck by the Wapama's historical role, and envisions an effort to fix her up involving the cooperation of private foundations, corporations, maritime labor unions, public volunteers, and the Park Service.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.