By Donna Beth Weilenman
Special to the Herald
The brigantine Matthew Turner, named for the San Francisco Bay Area’s most famous shipbuilder, is one step closer to being a tall ship capable of sailing “anywhere in the world,” project director Alan Olson said.
The top mast has been installed on the main mast, and the foremast will get its top mast in a few weeks, he said. Then come the yards and rigging, which may be installed by January 2018.
Also on the ship is a wheel donated by Hal Mooz, whose grandfather accepted it to settle a debt from an old sailor. The grandfather would make it into a table, setting it on a stand and putting a circle of glass on top of it without drilling any damaging holes.
Mooz inherited the wheel from his father, and decided to show it to Olson. Through research that led them to Annapolis, Md., they learned the wheel was made in the Northeastern United States and likely dates back to the 1870s through the 1890s, which puts it in the approximate era that the Matthew Turner represents.
The wooden wheel is made of eastern oak, holly and Honduran mahogany, and its design gave museum analysts the few clues about its origin.
The ship itself is being built in Sausalito by volunteers from throughout the Bay Area, and it’s the first wooden tall ship to be constructed in this area in about 100 years.
It’s moored at Bay Model while volunteers put on the finishing touches.
When complete, it will become the larger of two vessels that will take school children out on the San Francisco Bay for Call of the Sea educational experiences, particularly in the area of oceanography and the environment.
The programs also incorporate the science and technology involved in navigation and the teamwork and cooperation it takes to manage such a large sailing vessel. In addition, students get a taste of California’s historic maritime past which continues with those who, like Olson, answer that “call of the sea.”
The ship will be available for charter during off-season months.
Supporters attended the program’s annual gala, a dinner and pair of auctions that raises money each year both for the construction of the Matthew Turner and for scholarships that give less fortunate children the same opportunities to learn.
They also were able to see the progress aboard the Matthew Turner, a ship that is patterned after Turner’s swift brigantine, the Galilee, which still holds the under-sail speed record for the trip from Australia to California.
Turner was a prolific ship builder, particularly after he opened his shipyard in Benicia in 1883. Of his 228 vessels, 154 were assembled in Benicia.
But he also had an eye for design, starting with his first ship, the schooner G.R. Roberts, which he saw launched when he was just 23.
Seeking even faster vessels that could transport produce with reduced spoilage, Turner changed the lines of their bows, making them long and sharp so the ships would slice through the ocean. He also modified the rigging so ships could become more maneuverable during unexpected squalls.
While his original purpose was to make fast merchant and cargo sail ships, his designs became popular racing as well. Even in failing health at 81, Turner was still supervising the shipyard in Benicia and was swamped with work in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake. He finally retired, and died at 83 in 1909.
Olson has long hoped to build a brigantine that incorporates Turner’s innovations and use the ship both to provide educational programs and as a flagship for the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Bay Area hasn’t had its own tall ship since the Hawaiian Chieftain was sold, first to an Atlantic-based owner and most recently to Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Washington.
The Great Recession put those plans on hold, and Call of the Sea began offering its programs on the schooner Seaward. But Olson’s dream never died, and as the economy improved, he resumed the project at Sausalito.
Meanwhile, thousands of school children, from the Bay Area and beyond participate annually in Call of the Sea classes.
Two of them spoke Saturday at the gala, sisters Mikaela “Mika” Pitrie and Kiyana “Squish” Pitrie, who live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Mikaela, 17, has been studying marine biology through the University of California, Santa Cruz, Institute of Marine Sciences and Long Marine Laboratory even before her first sail aboard the Seaward four years ago. Call of the Sea let her continue learning after she was too old to participate in other programs.
During one trip to Monterey Bay, she was exploring tide pools and found a tiny fish she later learned was a baby eel. She’s learned how plastic bags cause harm to endangered sea turtles.
These trips have inspired her to continue her marine biology education through college. She also wants to train to be a captain so one day she can be in charge of the Matthew Turner.
Kiyana, 14, also decided to give Call of the Sea a try. “It’s so different from other camps,” she said.
During one excursion, she met Hana Kim, from South Korea. Surprised that a fellow student had come so far to study marine biology, Kiyana began talking with her and now, despite the distances, they have become close friends.
“I enjoy meeting people,” she said. She also likes sailing out to gather the samples that become subjects of the students’ study.
Of those who are striving to build the Matthew Turner so many more students can be accommodated, she said, “It’s amazing how much people care to keep animals safe.”
They’re “willing and eager to make sure we learn about sea life and how much it matters,” she said.
Call of the Sea’s website is callofthesea.org, and the site provides updates on the Matthew Turner’s construction as well as ways supporters can donate both to help the completion of the ship and to provide educational programs to area children.