On April 1, the brigantine Matthew Turner — and a lifelong dream of her creator — was launched in San Francisco Bay.
Applause from an estimated 3,000 onlookers — along with music from the obligatory brass band — filled the balmy spring day as auxiliary vessels transferred Turner to the main Corps of Engineers pier, where she will be fitted out and finished off. She is expected to start sea trials this fall. Sometime after that, she will begin the mission for which she was created: introducing young people to the wonders, and importance, of the oceans. No one was savoring launch day more than Alan Olson, who conceived the idea to build this exact ship almost half a century ago.
At 100 feet on deck, Turner is the largest wooden sailing vessel built in the Bay Area in almost a century. At least as amazing as that fact is that most of the construction was done by a volunteer crew that worked alongside the six paid shipwrights. Since the keel was laid, in October 2003, some 400 volunteers, men and women ages 15 to 81, have donated more than 120,000 hours on all phases of construction. Some work twice a month, some twice a week. Some, mostly retirees, show up five days a week.
The volunteer program is what made the project financially viable — an all-professional build would have been far too costly. Even so, due to expected delays and unexpected speed bumps, the original projection of $5.6 million for a three-year build will be closer to four years and $6.8 million. All of it has come from generous in-kind or monetary donations. It’s easy to give to someone who has already given so much.
Olson’s sailing roots go back to the early 1960s when, barely into his 20s, he built a 40-foot catamaran in Minnesota and sailed it down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. But for the past 40-some years, he has been homeported in San Francisco Bay, on a mission to educate youngsters (and more than a few oldsters) about ecology, maritime history, sailing, and the importance of good stewardship of the oceans — all from the deck of traditionally rigged sailing vessels.
He started in the early 1970s aboard the self-built 70-foot brigantine Stone Witch. In 1985, he founded the nonprofit Call of the Sea, which expanded the mission. Call of the Sea’s current “classroom” is the 82-foot steel schooner Seaward. Since it arrived in the bay in 2005, some 60,000 kids and adults have taken part in programs aboard, from three-hour bay sails to coastal voyages to Mexico and beyond.
“The launch was a monumental event for me and the community that helped make it happen,” says Olson, now 76. “It was inspiring to see the large turnout and enthusiasm that swept through the crowd when Matthew Turner slid off the cradle to her new home in the water.”
Except for a few bits and pieces, Turner is built almost entirely of Douglas fir, most of it donated by the Conservation Fund, a forest stewardship certified project in the northern part of the state. Rather than traditional double-sawn frames for her “bones,” Turner ’s keel, frames and deck beams are laminated from multiple layers of Douglas fir — and endless gallons of epoxy. The planking process, however, was right out of the 1800s: steamed planks, some 3 inches thick and 40 feet long, get muscled into place and lag-bolted to the frames.
There is still much work to be done, including stepping the masts, installing the bowsprit, finishing the interior and making the sails. When completed, Matthew Turner will measure 132 feet overall, draw 10 feet, displace 175 tons and fly upward of 7,200 square feet of canvas on 11 sails. Until then, the volunteers happily keep coming to get her done.
For more on Matthew Turner — and how to sign up as a volunteer — go to educationaltallship.org.