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Dreamboat: Nonprofit Builds Tall Ship For Kid-Sailors

September 13, 2016
by Glen Martin

Back in the day—way back in the day—young people went to sea to seek fame and fortune, or at least escape the boredom and poverty of the crofter’s hut or the squalor of early factories. But while the commercial sailing fleet is long gone, it remains more than a vivid memory in the Bay Area, where a dedicated crew of mariners isn’t just taking young people down to the sea in ships—they’re building a ship that will take them down to the sea in style, a tall ship based on the designs of a legendary 19th century naval architect.

Call of the Sea (COTS) was founded in 1985 with the simple purpose of getting kids, especially disadvantaged and at-risk youth from the fourth to 12th grades, out on the water on traditionally-rigged sailing vessels. In the last decade alone, more than 40,000 students have sailed on its flagship schooner the 82-foot Seaward (acquired during a merger with an allied group), traversing offshore waters from San Francisco to Mexico.

The Seaward is a fine craft, allows COTS board chairman and former lecturer at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Steve Gertz, but the organization has embraced a larger vision: A tall ship, a talismanic craft from the golden age of sailing.

“Alan Olson, our project director, is a blue water sailor with 60 years of experience and he’s also a Buddhist,” says Gertz. “Several years ago, he was at a retreat and the Rinpoche asked him what he would regret if he died tomorrow. And Alan realized that he wanted to build a tall ship.”

Gertz, who is 70, started his career during the Cold War as an engineer working on navigation computers for submarines carrying Polaris ballistic missiles. He eventually switched to the executive side of business, launching several start-ups.

“One of our ventures introduced the world to voice mail in the early 1980s, and for a while I was CFO of,” says Gertz. “But by the early 2000s, I felt like I needed to be doing something else. I wanted to find some way of giving back. I lectured at Haas on entrepreneurship from 2006 to 2010, and when Alan and I were introduced one day, it was clear to both of us it could be a good fit. I’ve sailed most of my life, and I hoped any acumen I could provide would help fulfill his vision.”

So, Olson, Gertz, COTS executive director Charles Hart and numerous staffers and supporters began investigating ways to reify Olson’s dream.

They began researching Bay Area maritime history, concentrating on the mid-to-late 19thcentury, the heyday of sophisticated sailing ship design. Their studies soon focused on Matthew Turner, a Benicia shipwright who designed 224 ships before he died in 1901, including the Galilee, an extremely speedy brigantine that shuttled cargo and passengers between San Francisco and the South Seas in the 1890s, setting a record of 21 days during her maiden return passage from Tahiti.

“Right now we’re finishing up the interior. We hope to get it in the water by early March, step the masts, finish up trials, and start taking people out by June,” Gertz says.

So this was to be the tall ship of Olson’s vision: A reincarnation of the Galilee. Or, at 132 feet, a 3/4 scale version of it. The COTS crew drafted Tri-Coastal Marine, a Richmond naval architectural and marine engineering firm, secured some seed money from a supporter, and arranged use of an old ship yard in Sausalito.

“Like the ship we wanted to build, that yard has some history behind it,” Gertz says. “They built Liberty ships there during World War II. So we put up a big white tent, and three years ago we laid the keel, and had it blessed by folks representing various religions.”

Progress has been steady since the dedication, with the work performed by both professional shipwrights and volunteers.

“There hasn’t been a Matthew Turner-designed boat built for a hundred years,” says Gertz. “It honors the traditions he represented, but it also embodies some modern sensibilities. It’s essentially a green ship. All the wood is sustainably sourced, donated by a forest conservancy in Mendocino. Our motor is an electric battery-powered hybrid. When the ship is under sail, the propellers turn opposite to their usual direction, recharging the battery banks.”

For a long time, Gertz says, the Matthew Turner“looked like the belly of a whale. But now it’s looking like a ship. Seeing that process, that transformation, has been incredibly satisfying.”

And this June, in a fundraising gala attended by 500 people, the last plank, or the “whiskey plank” as it’s known by old salts, was laid on the ship’s exterior.

“They used to call it the whiskey plank because that’s when they broke out the hooch,” observes Gertz. “Right now we’re finishing up the interior. We hope to get it in the water by early March, step the masts, finish up trials, and start taking people out by June.”

Just as the Galilee was a blue water craft, the Matthew Turner won’t confine itself to California’s coastal waters; it’s destined to cleave the high seas.

“Like the Galilee, it’ll sail to Tahiti,” Gertz says, “and we plan to take it to Hawaii in the 2018 Pacific Cup.”

While kids probably won’t be on that initial run, the primary mission of the Matthew Turner will conform to the core COTS mandate, Gertz says.

“First and foremost, the Matthew Turner is an educational platform,” Gertz says. “It’s going to let us get more students out on the water, and expand our itinerary options. The Seaward sleeps 18, but the Matthew Turner will sleep 38. A lot of Bay Area kids are going to be able to have a true tall ship experience because of this project.”

So far, Gertz and his colleagues have raised $5.5 million of the total $6.5 million needed to complete the project, and he seems sanguine that the remaining $1 million will be found somewhere.

“Really, this whole thing came together because of all the people who were inspired by the idea, who were determined to make it happen,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the volunteer labor and the various donations, it would’ve cost us $10 million.”

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