Ship of Fools

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

Karl Brandes kneels on the main deck of the old wooden steam schooner Wapama as if cradling a fallen lover. A lean, sandy-haired shipwright with expansive hands, Brandes grasps an auburn tress of hemp fiber, pulls it through his fingers, and gently lays it into the space between two of her decking planks.

These planks -- beams, really -- are as thick around as a woman's calf, 100 feet long, and beveled on two sides. Brandes snugs the hemp between them, sealing the deck and squeezing it taut against itself like a corset.

"You're not driving it in just to fill the space, but also so that it compresses against the soft grain of the timber and creates pressure," says the 49-year-old Brandes. "Rather than pounding it in, you're working it in. You're listening to the mallet. It tells you how much pressure you have."

The deck planks fan out from beneath Brandes' knees like the folds of a skirt, until they run flush into a long, bowed beam that encircles the ship's deck. This beam, the waterways timber, is made from two pieces of solid fir stacked waist high. In the way of every interlocking piece of the Wapama's finely crafted body, the waterways timber embraces the ship's ribs, called top timbers. These timbers require the heart of an entire old-growth fir tree to produce, cut from 5-foot-wide, 12-inch-thick slabs into sweeping, buxom curves. They join the Wapama's waterways timber and its keel, giving swell to the ship's chestlike hold.

So massive is the Wapama's construction that her hold is protected by a solid-wood skin the thickness of a sleeping couple. She once survived a collision with an iceberg.

In the first third of this century, the Wapama carried hundreds of acres of milled Oregon trees down the coast to San Francisco, where they became two-bedroom Marina flats and Pacific Heights mansions. She is the last of 200 such ships that once brought forests of lumber so California could build the cities that, seemingly overnight, tilted America's economic center forever westward.

Now, aboard the Wapama's deck, Brandes presses strands of smoky-scented hemp tight between her planks. The strands puff and curl, like disheveled hair, as Brandes wads more and more fibrous locks into the seam. He holds the strands in place with a blunt-edged antique caulking chisel, then strikes them softly with his century-old shipwright's mallet.

"You keep your finger on the iron like a depth gauge," Brandes explains. "You want to get the seam down no more than a quarter-inch deep. You definitely don't want to have it any deeper than three-eighths of an inch."

But with a few soft taps, the hemp fibers disappear into the Wapama's flesh. They have sunk much too far.

That is because these deck planks, the waterways timber, the top timbers, and nearly all the rest of the Wapama's beautiful, clear-grained wood is rotten.

And Brandes, on this rainy Saturday morning at the Sausalito docklands, is doing the work of a mortician more than a shipwright. He's giving the Wapama's decaying flesh a dignified appearance for her admirers, before she rots completely away.

The ship sits atop a barge at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pier behind the Sausalito Bay Model, her sagging, rotten hull held up by rusted steel supports. Her only protection from the rain is a tattered yellow tarp that lets in bucketsful during every North Bay squall. As Brandes painstakingly toils to seal the Wapama's deck, streams of water splash in through the tarp just three steps away, soaking into the deck, dripping down into the hold, and further rotting the Wapama's timbers.

While perhaps unseemly, Brandes' quixotic devotion to the Wapama is not unique. He is only the latest in a stream of suitors who have been seduced into mad, fanciful, and ultimately tragic love affairs with this ship of fools.

It has been 42 years since a group of Bay Area maritime enthusiasts rescued the Wapama from a Puget Sound scrapyard and hauled the carcass to the San Francisco Bay. Back then, they hoped to make her the centerpiece of the world's greatest maritime museum, to be located in San Francisco.

After a 43-year career plying the Pacific coast, she was a battered, rotting hulk. But she was the sole remaining steam-driven schooner of her age, and these San Francisco idealists felt called to snatch her from under the wrecker's crane. The Wapama's saviors dreamed of attracting state money to restore her to her former grandeur: replacing rotting planks and timbers, and reclaiming her status as the last relic of a bygone age.

Nearly a half-century and several ill-fated efforts later, the Wapama still needs $18 million worth of work. Careers and lives have been staked on saving her, often with disastrous results. One suitor went to his grave embittered over her treatment. Friendships have dissolved because of her. Untold amounts of time and money have been sunk into her. Hundreds of volunteers and paid staff have spent countless hours working on her.

Yet there she still sits, 85 years old, looming over the Sausalito docklands in a state of neither death nor life, her decaying girth sagging against a motley forest of makeshift steel struts.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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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