By Donna Beth Weilenman
Special to the Herald
The Matthew Turner, the first wooden tall ship of its size being built in the San Francisco Bay Area in 100 years finally got its lower masts.
The “stepping of the masts” – putting each of the 5,000-pound lower masts in place – began at 3 p.m. Saturday, using a crane on a boat brought and donated by Matt Butler from the San Rafael harbor, ropes held taut by Educational Tall Ship volunteers and, as the massive wooden columns resisted placement, some physical pushing and shoving by the men on deck.
The ship has been under construction, financed by donations and built by volunteers, since its keel was laid in October 2013 in Sausalito. Its purpose will be to train people – especially children – in maritime history, oceanography and ecology among other topics.
Its name honors one of the most famous ship builders to design and construct a sailing ship, and its design was inspired by his speedy brigantine “Galilee” that still holds the Tahiti-to-California record for a ship of its type, 22 days.
Matthew Turner was a sea captain who built 228 vessels, 154 of them in his own shipyard in Benicia.
He not only was prolific, building more sailing vessels than any other single shipbuilder in the country, he also was innovative.
Among his designs was the “Turner Model” sail rigging that required no gaff. That made his ships easier to manage should they encounter unexpected Pacific storms.
His designs for the brig “Nautilus” reversed conventional ship plans. Skeptics expected the ship to be a rough ride. Instead, like many of his ships, it was built for speed that silenced Turner’s critics.
Born in 1825 in Geneva, Ohio, Turner moved to 1850 along with many who hoped to strike gold. He was a successful miner who later returned to his sailing, shipping and fishing roots. For those, he needed fast ships, and ultimately began building his own, ultimately opening his shipyard in Benicia in 1883. As late as 1906, when he was 81, he was still supervising construction. He died at 83 at his Oakland home.
For Project Director Alan Olson, getting the Matthew Turner built has been a 30-year dream. His plan was to construct a ship that would give the Bay Area its own tall ship – it has had none since the steel-hulled Hawaiian Chieftain left in 2004 – and a ship that would be a living classroom for youth.
“If we build one, it has to have some significance,” Olson said in an earlier interview. For a Marin County native, it wasn’t hard for him to decide to emulate Turner’s designs. He liked the two-masted Galilee that is square-rigged on the foremast, and it’s rigged fore-and-aft – parallel to the ship’s side – on the main mast.
But a declining economy meant Olson had to put that project on hold, instead using the schooner Seaward to provide what Olson has called “a classroom on the Bay for a day.”
Aboard the smaller ship, the Call of the Sea program teaches children from fourth to 12th grades, incorporating California educational standards and also teaching the youngsters and youth about sailing skills, cooperation, navigation as well as the history and ecology lessons.
That program became so popular that 5,000 children made the educational day trips every year.
As the Great Recession began to subside, Olson revived his original dream. By 2011, he said, Seaward was reaching capacity and Olson saw that he needed to triple that capacity.
So he chose the Sausalito shipyard near the Bay Model Visitor Center. began obtaining permits and started looking for volunteers and investors.
In 2013, the ship’s keel was laid, the first milestone in the building of a new ship..
By 2014, Educational Tall Ship celebrated another milestone, the blessing of the bones, when the wooden ribs and other framework were complete. The volunteers celebrated a year later when the whiskey plank, the final plank, was put in place and secured.
One of the most significant milestones came April 1, when the white and blue ship was eased into the water, marking its official launch. But at that time, it had no masts.
That changed Saturday when the 20-ton crane gently lifted the hefty lower masts into the air one at a time. On the deck of the Matthew Turner, volunteers first guided the foremast into place.
The timber is as stout as it is heavy, since it’s made of laminated wood that was first shaped into a tall octagon, then to 16 sides, then finally smoothed into its final shape before being painted. The foremast is painted white on one end, but what most will see is the soft, warm tan of a brown hen’s egg.
Once perfectly positioned, the foremast slipped into place, landing on a deep bed of slow-drying adhesive and was shimmed into place before it was unleashed so the crane could pick up the main mast.
“We had to get it within a quarter of an inch,” said Mark Blanchard, one of the volunteers who guided the foremast into place. “It sucked in like it belongs here.”
Like its partner, the main mast had to be turned so the D-shaped top platform would be positioned correctly. But unlike the lower foremast, the main mast needed volunteers to muscle it through the hole in the deck so it dropped into its adhesive bed.
The two masts’ alignment will get some fine-tuning, Blanchard said.
Sealed along with the lower masts are mementoes that have been given to bring luck to the ship, Olson said. It’s an old tradition that dates to Roman times.
Many are coins – an 1891 silver coin, added because it’s the date the Galilee was launched; a one-ounce gold coin, and some personal items.
Olson himself contributed to the collection of symbols. He gave a small Buddha and, since he is a member of the club, a copy of the Rotary’s Four-Way Test – “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”
“They’ll be in place for the duration,” he said.
Once the masts were installed and secured, volunteers and viewers who lined the shore of the Bay Model Visitors Center sent up “Hip Hip Hooray!” cheers, one round led by the original volunteer on the project, Chris Burke.
“It’s another milestone in creating a dream we’ve had for 30 years,” said Olson’s wife, Angie, who has been watching the ship take shape.
“It’s all about building a community of people who built a boat and sail a boat and make sure it gets kids on the water,” she said.
The dream is continuing. The ship’s top masts will be installed in October, and by January 2018, it will be fully rigged.
“This is a very special day, to begin putting the masts in,” Olson said. “It’s not a tall ship yet, but in six weeks, it will be. Seeing this, I realize she’s a ship.”