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The Ghost Ship of Inverness

The mysterious origins of the “Inverness Shipwreck”

May 31, 2024
by David Hopkins ’96
The boat “Point Reyes” lies on the flats of Tomales Bay RICHARD BLAIR

I don’t remember exactly when the majestic ship Point Reyes came to rest in the tidal flats at the south end of Tomales Bay. It is so perfectly sited and in sync with its environs that it seems always to have been there. But those whose memories go back more than thirty years or so can recall an unobstructed view of the hills to the east from the parking lot of the Inverness Store. The only structure imposing itself on the scene back then was a pier—dilapidated even when I was a kid in the sixties—that jutted into the flats from the parking lot.

Although not a distinct memory, the appearance of the ghost ship no doubt would have been sudden for me, at that time an infrequent visitor to our cabin in Inverness. But even for locals who drove through or worked in town every day, it’s quite likely the ship appeared virtually overnight. Given the atmospherics in
that area, it’s not hard to imagine the looming prow gradually resolving out of the mist one morning, almost as if the ship was still under way, to the surprise and delight of all.

The origin of the Point Reyes was never quite clear, at least to me. As I recall, the prevailing story was a common one in the boating world: a beautiful wooden boat with a noble history; a zealous rehabber with good intentions; benign neglect. In the final act, the Point Reyes may just have slipped her mooring and drifted onto the flats at high tide, settling in comfortably on her starboard side as the tides came and went over the weeks, then years.

She wouldn’t have been the first vessel to end its days on those flats or, in fact, in almost that exact spot. With wicked northwesterlies funneling down the narrow bay and little countervailing tidal surge, anything not firmly secured would inevitably end up there. I know this from personal experience.

Sometime in the years before the arrival of the Point Reyes, my father’s own Monterey Clipper, a beautiful traditional wooden work boat he co-owned with a friend, also slipped its temporary mooring while awaiting repairs and headed for the flats. In the end, a combination of her advanced age, her list of ailments, and the economic realities of salvage sealed her fate. As fates go, however, hers ultimately was a kind one: she was hauled onto the hard of the Inverness Store’s parking lot, braced, relieved of her sturdy Hicks engine and other potentially dangerous accoutrement, and for several years functioned as a playground for a generation of future skippers and pirates. The end of her tenure and the appearance of the Point Reyes may even have overlapped; I don’t quite recall.

Boats are not the only thing to have breathed their last on the flats of Tomales Bay. One day, probably a decade or so before the Clipper’s demise, a friend and I, while sailing, spotted a strange shape moving about farther up the bay, appearing and disappearing as we watched. We closed to investigate and ended up flanking a baby gray whale. I’m not sure another has ever ended up in the bay again; indeed, this one was thought to have mistakenly veered away from its mother while migrating up the coast.

We drew close enough to touch it—the bay not being deep enough for it to sound—and it began to follow us as we tacked up the bay. When we got back to the dock, we called the Park Service. In the ensuing days, several heroic attempts were made to coerce the calf out of the bay to the ocean, to no avail. Finally, exhausted and starving, the calf drifted downwind to the flats where it died, its final labored breaths, according to accounts at the time, sounding like a bus door opening and closing. Part of its skeleton is enshrined in the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

As the elements finish their work on what remains of the Point Reyes, as she succumbs to an earthbound gravity she was never intended to withstand and finally collapses around herself, many will mourn her passing. But if the years have taught me anything, it’s that something unexpected, mysterious, and wonderful will appear again (out of the mist) on the tidal flats of Tomales Bay. It’s just a matter of wind, tide, and time.

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