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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Captain steered profitable course

Jerry Bowen


The city of San Francisco frequently has been associated with disasters and abnormal behavior - in my opinion, anyway. And so it was with a ship named San Francisco.

The San Francisco was built in 1853 at the New York City yard of Abraham C. Bell, and launched on Aug. 25. She was described as an “extreme clipper, 198 feet in length with a very sharp entrance and extraordinarily tall masts.”

Owned by Rich & Elam and Thomas Wardle of New York, and commanded by Capt. Tetzer, the San Francisco carried passengers and general cargo that included large amounts of linseed oil. Little did the owners know that the San Francisco would make only one voyage and that her sinking would become involved with one of Solano County’s own, Captain “Bully” Waterman as he was known at the time.

On her first and only voyage, a 106-day passage from New York to San Francisco, she left New York on Oct. 25, 1853 and passed around the dreaded Cape Horn without incident. All was well on her maiden voyage until she was about 450 miles from the port of San Francisco.

The wind died and she was becalmed for three days. Then fog settled in for the next four days and when the wind returned she groped her way toward the Golden Gate. The fog lifted when she was a half-mile off the Farallon Islands and all seemed well again.

The local pilot boarded the San Francisco near the Farallons and the ship proceeded under his direction into San Francisco Bay. Passing close by Point Bonita, she was caught in an eddy and missed stays coming about and hit the rocks near the Point.

To miss stays is to attempt to tack but to fail. A ship sailing upwind by zigzagging must either tack - turn into and across the wind - or wear - turn away from the wind.

Drifting clear, she anchored in Bonita Cove, and flooded. Steam tugs Abby Holmes and Resolute came to her aid, removed the passengers, and attempted to empty the rising water with their steam pumps, but failed. The San Francisco’s anchor was hoisted and she was towed close to the shore where she came to rest in the cove on her port beam. The sea was calm, and hope was held that “if the weather continues fine, most of the cargo will be saved in a damaged condition although the vessel will probably become a total loss, and a bad loss it is.” according to the New York Daily Tribune.

Captain Robert. H. Waterman and partner, Capt. Wright, bought the wreck and her cargo for $12,000. With a value of $103,000 to $125,000 for the vessel, and a reported value of $150,000 to $400,000 for the cargo it seemed to be a good investment. However, plunderers hastened to the wreck and helped themselves. The owners’ and agent’s representatives attempted to drive them away, but many were armed and defied authorities, fought among themselves, and frequently stole each other’s booty. It was even reported that soldiers from the Presidio were among the crowd of looters.

On Dec. 9 and 10, a storm came up that wreaked havoc among the scavengers. According to the New York Daily Tribune, “Several boats were stove alongside or destroyed attempting to land in the surf. The half-decked sloop Midnight City, belonging to Capt. Hill, who owned one of the numerous store ships grounded at Yerba Buena Cove, drifted out to sea and was lost with its drunken crew of eight.

“A Whitehall boat with two looters was swamped and the men drowned. Lighters, tugboats and steamers scattered for their lives, many seeking shelter in Horseshoe and Richardson’s bays, while a large number of packages of goods were found floating in the bay ...”

The San Francisco quickly became a complete wreck. The sails and part of the rigging, as well as a portion of her cargo, were taken out by cutting her upper deck as far as could be to enable the men employed by Waterman to remove the cargo. Hundreds of boats gathered nearby to save what they could.

The salvage work of Captain Waterman was thorough, as the vessel had enough structure above water to allow for dismantling. A short time later, after some of the of the cargo had been removed, the ship went to pieces. It is possible that portions of bottom structure and plating, as well as material remnants of cargo, fixtures and other debris, may remain near the low tide line at the sandy portions of Bonita Cove. At another location nearer to the Point other remains of the San Francisco may also be strewn about the bay floor.

No blame was attached to Captain Tetzer of the San Francisco because the pilot was in charge of the ship at the time of the wreck. In the end, Waterman and his partner made money in spite of all the problems associated with the salvage work and the money eventually was invested in Solano County.