Ship of Fools

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

"I just heard a story from an old seaman in Portland who used to work aboard steam schooners. When they were navigating in the fog, they would be listening to roosters in the barnyard to navigate," says Patterson, a stately, gracious man. "The Wapama is the last one of her kind. That's why it's so important to save the ship. The federal government was preparing to dismantle the ship, and that's where we came in. I was in the Navy and the maritime industry for 50 years. I saved the Jeremiah O'Brien. I thought I was ready to take my retirement when this came along."

So far, the group has managed to land a $50,000 grant from the National Maritime Historical Society of New York, which mostly goes to pay Brandes, designated the Wapama's chief shipwright.

"What we like to emphasize is that she's more sound than she is rotten," Patterson says of the Wapama.

With those words, Patterson may have presaged the final chapter in the Wapama's 42-year tale of love and remorse.

If the Pacific Steam Schooner Association goes ahead with plans to attract large numbers of volunteers aboard, and then opens the Wapama to the public, the group may be courting disaster on a grander scale. The Wapama is in much worse shape than her new patrons like to say she is. In fact, she may be perilously close to the sort of structural failure that could end in tragedy for whoever's aboard her.

According to Wayne Wilcox, the wood pathologist who conducted studies aboard her a decade ago, the Wapama may be structurally unsound.

Eleven years ago Wilcox led a UC Berkeley Forest Products Research Laboratory team that did a core sample study to analyze rot on the Wapama. He now says the ship may be so decayed that she is dangerous to board.

It takes between four and six years for fungal rot to make its way completely through an exposed 2-by-4. This rot weakens wood much more drastically than appearances indicate. By the time decay has eaten away enough wood to cause a 10 percent weight loss -- which is long before the obviously decayed, punky stage -- strength will have declined as much as 85 percent. In other words, an 8-by-8-inch railroad tie lying outside, damp and untreated, will, within just a few years, have the strength of an inch-wide dowel.

According to the core sample study of the Wapama's hull, frame, and other timbers in 1988 -- that's to say, two generations of rot ago -- the wood had been wet and rotting for so long that much of the ship was too decayed to allow decay fungi to feed and survive.

"Each time I went on board, there was this 'Oh shit' feeling," recalls Wilcox. "The whole team of us went to determine whether it was safe or not to be on board. We came away with considerable question about that."

Patterson and the other Wapama admirers, of course, disagree. But their confidence is based largely on a three-hour, cursory inspection requested three years ago by Patterson and the other maritime enthusiasts intent on saving the ship.

"We spent about half a day on the vessel," says retired shipwright Jack Ehrhorn, who conducted the inspection. "You can't cover a lot in that time, but you can make an educated guess on it."

On a drizzly February afternoon, during a board meeting of the Pacific Steam Schooner Association inside the Wapama's main stateroom, the ship's legacy of failure and betrayal and bitterness and death seemed a lifetime away. Inside, encased by her massive timbers, one fancied the ship indestructible, immortal, and, most of all, worthy of love.

On this afternoon, Karl Kortum's son, John, presented a slide show on how steam schooner crewmen risked their lives hauling lumber down the coast. An aging nephew of the late Charles R. McCormick, the logger baron, came down from Oregon to share childhood recollections about the Wapama and the rest of the lumber schooner fleet his uncle built. Adm. Patterson gave a presentation describing the Wapama's crucial role in Pacific maritime history.

Trays of hors d'oeuvres were brought in. Bottles of wine were opened. There was a sense of heroism, shared idealism, and sheer fun in the air. The old coal stove might be fired up again to feed volunteers, just like in Harrington's day. The Wapama, that beautiful remnant of California's gritty maritime past, might survive.

After a while, the crowd began to thin, and John Kortum, a soft-spoken, generous-spirited man, slipped away to the crawl space above the engine compartment. He climbed down the narrow stairs almost without looking where to place his next step, as if he were entering his childhood home. He squeezed past the engine room into her hold. It's a beautiful expanse, almost like a giant womb, held together with more than 100 massive braces, each cut from the crotch of old-growth trees.

Kortum swept his arm over the ship's apartment-sized steam engine, describing her workings effusively, like a man in love. "Maybe, if we can get enough people interested, we might be able to do something," he said.

And for a moment, as the ordinarily reserved Kortum happily leapt across the softened planking, past the giant timbers that lay above the keel, toward the engine room, it seemed like this just might be so.

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