Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nothing sails like an old bird

(by Amy Croft, Archivist)

I learned quite a bit about yachts, sailing, and racing while processing the Jack Ehrhorn collection of Stone Boat Yard photographs (SAFR 23147, P05-081). The Stone Boat Yard was a San Francisco Bay Area boat building company that was located in Alameda, California, from 1971-2004. The business had three previous names, and has been in four other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area since it was established in the Hunter's Point area of San Francisco in 1853.

The Stone Boat Yard built many yachts throughout the years, including many One Design Class boats, which means that all are the same model or design. This allows the boats to be on an even playing field and there is no handicap in the race; the first boat to cross the finish line wins. This also puts more focus on the skills of the competitors in the races since all the boats are the same. Many different One Design Class boats were built at the various Stone Boat Yards including: R-Class, M-Class, Yankee Class, and Bird Class.

While processing this collection, one of the things that I enjoyed learning about is that you can tell the difference between One Design Class yachts by looking at the images and numbers on the sail (which corresponds to the hull number). For example, Bird Class boats have a picture of bird wings and the number of the boat (numbers do not repeat between boats of this class). In addition to being interesting, this information might help me identify some photographs in another collection that I process, if the yacht in the photograph is unidentified but the symbols and numbers on the sail are visible.

Cuckoo (built 1929; sloop: yacht: Bird Class, No. 16) underway, starboard broadside view, circa 1929 

The Bird Class was a San Francisco Bay type, developed in the early 1920s to handle local wind and water conditions. In 1919, the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association formed the "S" Class Syndicate, "a committee of representatives of all six Bay Area Yacht Clubs, to renew interest in yachting, racing, and inter-club competition. The Syndicate came back with historical questions: How about designing an affordable, swift, racing cruiser that can charge through the blustery, choppy conditions of the San Francisco Bay with the confidence of a freighter? A boat that can fly across the foam topped waves like, say, a bird?" (Norton)

"Members of the Pacific Inter-club Yachting Association (P.I.Y.A.), local shipwright J. Herbert Madden Sr., P.I.Y.A. Representative Clifford A. Smith, and Sausalito Naval Architect Fred Brewer drew up a rough sketch of the proposed sloop for members of the San Francisco Yacht Club. The drawing was then sent to well-known boat designer John Alden for review and drafting. The San Francisco contingent accepted his suggestion for increased ballast but declined other modifications. … John Alden design Number 157 was drafted up by associate Sam Crocker on September 1, 1921 and became the basis for the Bird Class, which still exists today." (Hook)

The first bird boat was built by Madden & Lewis in Sausalito in 1921 for Leon De Fremery, and was named OSPREY (which is a large fish-eating hawk). There are rumors that boat has an exciting history: it was reported in some local newspapers that in 1929 she was stolen from the moorings off of Sausalito by an escaped convict and her remains were found on the sand at Dillon's Beach near the entrance to Tomales Bay (Hook). However, other people say that Osprey just drifted off her moorings and was never stolen (Kays).

Osprey (yacht; Bird class), September 10, 1922

There were four Bird Class boats built at the W.F. Stone & Son Boat Yard in Oakland from 1928-1929: Puffin (built 1928; sloop: yacht: Bird Class No. 12), Cuckoo (built 1929; sloop: yacht: Bird Class No. 16), Robin (built 1929; sloop: yacht: Bird Class No. 18) and Polly (built 1929; sloop: yacht: Bird Class No. 19).

Polly (built 1929; sloop: yacht: Bird Class, No. 19) underway, starboard broadside view

24 Bird boats were built from 1921-1947 and many of these boats are still racing on the San Francisco Bay today (Registry). As of 2007, Birds can still be seen participating in the San Francisco Yacht Racing Association, the Wooden Boat Racing Association, and the SF Master Mariner Annual Regatta (Pierre Josephs, http://www.birdboat.com/). So keep an eye out for a Bird Boat the next time you see yachts racing on the San Francisco Bay!

Terry Norton nicely sums up the current state of Bird Boats by writing the following:
"...today's sailors stand symbolically side by side the members of the "S" Class Syndicate of 75 years ago to prove that the Bird Boat is a gol dern fine boat, in a gol dern fine sport. No gimmicks, no reef points, no broaching, no storm sails, no ding of the microwave—just pure sailing. Like grandpa's day. Where are the Bird Boats today? While Dad's Model T sits in storage, waiting for the next parade, and Grandfather's golf clubs, framed on green velvet years ago, hang over the fireplace? Why, they're out on San Francisco Bay every weekend, tacking across the westerly "breezes" of the Bay, proving that the Bird Association's motto, "Nothing sails like a Bird" needs amending. After seventy-five years of soaring, nothing sails like an old Bird."
In addition to the photographs of Bird Boats in the Jack Ehrhorn collection of Stone Boat Yard photographs, the San Francisco Maritime NHP also has many other photographs of Bird Boats sailing on the San Francisco Bay. So if you're interested in seeing more old birds, you should come in and check them out!


Hook, Jane (1996). The Bird Boats. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.birdboat.com/Hook.htm.

Josephs, Pierre (n.d.). Home page for the website Birdboat.com. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.birdboat.com/.

Kays, Gunnar. Letter to the Editor. Latitude 38: November 1997. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.latitude38.com/letters/199711.htm.

Norton, Terry (circa 1996). 75 Years Of Soaring: The Story of the San Francisco Bird Boats. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.birdboat.com/Terry%20Norton.htm.

Registry of Bird Boats. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.birdboat.com/Registry.pdf.

Tooker, Richard H. (circa 1983). Front matter for the Walter A. Scott photographs finding aid, P83-019.

1 comment:

  1. Hey,nice post.As Mark Twain says,"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.So throw off the bowlines.Sail away from the safe harbor.Catch the trade winds in your sails.Explore.Dream.Discover."

    ~Lisa Moore.