Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ghosts In the Oakland Estuary by Bill Adams

(by Ted Miles, Assistant Reference Librarian)

The British magazine Blue Peter: the magazine of sea travel was published at London, England between 1921 and 1939. The name comes from the International code flag for the letter P. When flown in harbor in the days of sail the signal meant that all persons connected with the vessel should go aboard at once--as she was going to go to sea. It is especially strong on articles on the passing of commercial sail in its many forms. From the coastal schooners of England to the Cape Horner’s of the Australian grain trade to the remaining sailing types in other parts of the world; more than likely they are to be found there.

The magazine is especially notable for its covers which featured the paintings of Jack Spurling. His paintings of clipper ships, often depicted in heavy weather, were widely recognized and reproduced in many forms, including prints for sale from the magazine.

The March 1937 issue contains an old time sailor's view of the passing of sail. He rows out to the Fortman Basin; the home of the disappearing remnants of the Alaska Packers Fleet; the last American company to employ a fleet of commercial square riggers.

Part of the fleet of the Alaska Packers' Association in Oakland Creed in March, 1923

Once there the boat soon meets a group of ghosts of old time sailors. From the bosun of an iron Cape Horner all the way back to the gunner of Francis Drake's ship; all had met their ends at sea or near it.

Of course the old man's memory is a little hazy as he recalls the Star of Holland as the former Balclutha when she was the former Zemindar. The old man looks through the Balclutha’s rigging in 1937; but the ship had become the Pacific Queen in 1933 and sailed down to Southern California to become a movie prop. In the 1930s, they still needed real sailing vessels for making movies.

In an earlier letter in the February 1936 issue of Blue Peter, Bill Adams gives his readers some of his own history. He was born in Bristol, England and went to sea at an early age. He "served his time" in British flag square riggers. He was living in Dutch Flat, California in 1937. This is a tiny village east of Sacramento, California. He sure was a land locked sailor up there!

It was a widely held belief among seamen that after death they would come back as sea birds. And old Bill sees a sea gull waiting for him in the rigging of Balclutha; but he tells him it is not time yet. But when it is he hopes to fly over the waters of Frisco Bay with other departed sailors.

The San Francisco maritime Library has a nearly complete run of the magazine; it is available for use in the library. Come on by and spend some time with them; you will be glad you did!

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