Skip to content

Historic tall ships return to Jack London for battles and adventures

on February 13, 2015

Storm clouds are opening up to sunshine overhead as Hawaiian Chieftain maneuvers out of Jack London Square into the bay. Some of the crew are attempting to sing a modern version of a sea shanty:

Oh the year was 1778
I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!
A letter of marque came from the King
To the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen
God damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers!

This is where they stop, having forgotten the rest of the lyrics, but they’ve successfully given the guests onboard a good idea of what singing sailors sound like.

The crew has just sailed Hawaiian Chieftain, a 103-foot topsail ketch fashioned after an historic 19th-century trading ship, up the California coast from Ventura to Oakland. Propelled by a strong breeze and an able crew, the ship made the four-day trip in good time and sailed into port at Oakland’s Jack London Square a full day ahead of her anticipated February 6 arrival.

“She has a history of always beating her schedule,” said Joe Follansbee, communications director at Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, the educational nonprofit based in Washington State that owns the ship, “especially when the weather is good.”

Hawaiian Chieftain will make her home at Jack London Square for the next few weeks, her 75-foot-tall mainmast and distinctive square sails attracting the awe and curiosity of passersby. Launched in 1988, she serves as an educational ship, providing what Grays Harbor calls “living history experiences” for K-12 students, as well as dockside tours and ticketed weekend excursions.

On February 21, Hawaiian Chieftain will be joined by the brig Lady Washington, a full-scale replica of a famed 18th-century ship that was the first American vessel to make landfall on the West Coast of North America. The two ships make up Grays Harbor’s fleet, and sail up and down the coast together 11 months out of the year, visiting some 40 ports to provide educational and training programs.

The crews live onboard the ships while on contract. Despite the close quarters and 24/7 nature of the work, they rarely drive each other crazy, according to Marshall Thomas, the current steward of Hawaiian Chieftain. “There are 12 bunks below decks,” said Thomas, who has been onboard Hawaiian Chieftain for four months. “It gets pretty cozy, but it’s fun.”

Currently, Hawaiian Chieftain offers “Adventure Sails” weekend excursions, family-oriented three-hour sails full of storytelling, demonstrations of ship-handling and the aforementioned shanty-singing. Once joined by Lady Washington, the two ships will also offer “Battle Sails,” in which passengers are invited to subject themselves to a reenactment of a sea battle, complete with booming cannon sounds and encouragement to taunt the other ship. For those seeking to become more immersed in the life of tall-ship sailing, the ships offer two-week training programs and one-way voyages from port to port.

But it’s the educational programs that the ships and crew, who double as maritime educators, are most geared towards. Beth Riggs, a math teacher at El Camino Fundamental High School in Sacramento, took her sophomores on an annual field trip Tuesday onboard Hawaiian Chieftain to rotate through the ship’s three learning stations: Life of a Sailor, Life of an Officer and Early Trade. The trip, funded by a grant for low-achieving and low-socioeconomic students, was an opportunity for the students to experience something completely novel, Riggs said. Riggs holds out hope that one of her students will enroll in the two-week tall ship training program one of these years.

“Some of the kids really liked the Early Trade part,” Riggs said, referring to the station where students learn about historic cargo and trade routes. “They had a chance to see the map of the sailing routes that Captain Cook took and were trying to imagine what it was like to be on a ship away from family for three years. I said, ‘Maybe it was someone who was your age, 16, doing this.’”

Riggs said she sometimes gets pushback from other teachers around such field trips because the students are out of school for the entire day. But she believes it’s important to get the students out of their day-to-day experience. “They’re not going to remember what I tell them today in my class period,” she said. “Five years from now, ten years from now, they’re going to remember being on that boat.”

1 Comment

  1. news-bbc on February 18, 2015 at 1:09 am

    wo regular tall ship visitors return to Oakland’s Jack London Square next month to meet extra demand for the vessels’ popular hands-on living history education.. Hawaiian Chieftain will make her home at Jack London Square for the next few weeks, her 75-foot-tall mainmast and distinctive.;

Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

Latest Posts

Scroll To Top