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So long to a schooner that died with dignity

The maritime community lost one of her great iconic ships recently when the 165-foot Wawona was towed a short distance from her berth at Lake Union Park in Seattle to a dry dock company, where she is being “surgically” dismantled and archived.

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She is 111 years old and is the first ship in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The tow marked the end of a long, long run for the rugged, old coastal schooner, which for her first 17 years hauled lumber from Washington to California. She spent the next 29 seasons serving as a fishing schooner in the Bering Sea, where her crew fished for cod from her 18 dories. Tough, dangerous work.

“One man, one boat,” says fisheries scientist Wayne Palsson, who has studied Wawona’s fishing career in Alaska. “Have you ever watched the television show ‘Deadliest Catch’? They were fishing the same waters. This is full-bore Alaska, and these boats spent five months at sea.”

Built by master Danish shipbuilder Hans Bendixsen, Wawona was one of the largest three-masted schooners ever constructed. At one time, there were an estimated 400 working schooners on the West Coast. Earlier this year, just two remained afloat: Wawona and her sister ship, C.A. Thayer, which is berthed at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco. Now there is but one.

Wawona was one of those “lucky” ships. Her long career includes nearly 50 years as a museum ship for what is now Northwest Seaport, a non-profit maritime heritage organization on Seattle’s Lake Union, which also has three other historic vessels in its care.

During her lengthy stay in Seattle, tens of thousands of visitors padded and clambered and whooped across her long decks. “She really gave people a sense of the workaday world,” says Joe Shickich, president of the museum’s board of directors.

Her size and longevity — along with her history — made Wawona special. Irreplaceable. An icon for the region. “She wasn’t expected to last much longer than 20 to 25 years, her working life,” Shickich says. Instead, he notes, “She had three or four working lives.” (During World War II, Wawona — her masts removed — was used as a barge, carrying lumber to the Boeing Company for use in military aircraft.)

The other ships of her day simply succumbed to the ravages of age and hard work and changing times. No room for sentimentality when it came to commercial ships.

The great schooner was heavily built, double-hulled and planked with Douglas fir 6 to 8 inches thick, 16 inches wide, with some pieces as long as 120 feet. She was built heavy, in part, so that after her cargo of sawn lumber was offloaded in California, she could sail back to Washington without taking on additional ballast.

Wawona’s size made you catch your breath. “Looking from her steering station forward … she was just so massive,” says Palsson, who sits on the museum’s board. “The overall deck length is 165 feet, and it’s all wind power. Amazing technology. It was a slice of history.”

But age and freshwater intrusion in the form of rain finally took their toll on the schooner, leading to extensive rot and a powder beetle infestation, according to the museum. The public had not been able to walk her decks since 2006 because of safety concerns.

Wawona is another example of the difficulties of maintaining large, old wooden ships. A full restoration would cost in the neighborhood of $15 million, with annual upkeep running as much as another $1 million, according to estimates.

Once it was determined that a stem-to-stern restoration was simply not feasible, Northwest Seaport set off on another tack: preserving Wawona in a different form.

Maritime archaeology expert David Stewart, Ph.D., from East Carolina University, and a team of six graduate students spent weeks painstakingly documenting and archiving Wawona’s construction, design and architecture. She has been captured in photographs and hand drawings as well as using sophisticated 3-D imaging technology. Shickich referred to it as an “extraordinary level” of documentation.

In the meantime, some of the ship’s knees, planking, her rudder, and the heavily built captain’s cabin will likely find a home at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry when it moves to the waterfront park.

About 100 or more people turned out earlier this year to watch the schooner being towed the quarter-mile from her berth to the dry dock where she is being taken apart. Those on hand included Kay Bullitt, a longtime supporter of Wawona and one of the founders of Save Our Ships, the organization that became Northwest Seaport. Given all the efforts that have gone into carefully documenting Wawona’s construction and history, Bullitt was quoted as saying she felt this last move was a good example of “death with dignity.”

Fitting words for a powerful ship.

“Hull lines, not sail power, had brought about the unexpected.”
— Richard Maury

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.