Sailing on the Matthew Turner: A Recap of June’s Event

By Andrea Granahan

“Ahoy, mateys!” someone called out to us from a boat when a group of BATW members set sail on a tall ship on June 10.

A tall ship, for the landlubbers out there, is a sailing vessel with traditional sail rigging. They come as schooners, brigantines, brigs (not to be confused with brigantines) and barques. Our tall ship was The Matthew Turner, a brigantine. A brigantine is a two-masted vessel over 130 feet long. The mainmast is aft, and the foremast carries square sails.

Photo by Janet Rae- Dupree

The Matthew Turner has an illustrious history, and a very green present. At 132 feet, she is the largest wood ship to be built in the Bay Area in the last 100 years. She is named after a famous shipbuilder who holds the record for having designed and built the most ships of any shipbuilder – 228 of them. Turner started building vessels on Lake Erie in Ohio, moved to New York, and finally came to the Bay Area during the Gold Rush where he set up shop in Benicia and turned out 154 more ships before his death in 1909 at age 81.

Our ship was styled after a Turner brigantine named Galilee that held the speed record for sailing to Tahiti in just 19 days. But this brigantine is built to standards no one ever thought of in Turner’s day.

Alan Olson, a mariner with 50 years of experience, was the heartbeat and inspiration of the seven-year project to build The Matthew Turner. He was determined to continue his work in educating young people in seamanship. Matthew Turner was launched in 2017.

“I didn’t want to build them a ship that would destroy their future,” Olson said. He worked with the Forest Stewardship Council to find sustainably harvested Douglas Fir and Oregon White Oak. The FSC fosters and certifies forests that are diverse in species and ages, maintains standing snags and downed lumber like ancient forests, and selectively cuts trees, not clear cuts them. Berry’s Sawmill in Sonoma County, a long-held family business that maintains a FSC certified forest, milled the wood. The two massive masts were not made of single trees, they were laminated using non-toxic glues, for strength.

Photo by John Williamson

The final touch was a decision not to use diesel power for entering and exiting berths. Instead, the prop of the boat when the vessel is under sail generates power to lithium batteries, which in turn power electric engines.

“So, this is a Prius with sails?” asked one member.

Olson laughed, “That’s a very accurate description.”

Olson along with some other sailors formed a group called Call of the Sea (COTS) in 1985. They were determined to provide access to sailing to those who don’t have access – such as inner-city school kids.

“We are determined at COTS that everyone who wants to sail can sail,” said Sylvia Stompe, COTS public relations person. To that end, COTS does fund raising. On weekends they offer three-hour day sails and sunset sails and they also charter the ship for three hour events, like weddings. The money goes toward scholarships to their five day youth camps where kids literally learn the ropes as well as marine biology, oceanography and – one hopes – sea   chanties.

On the BATW trip, the elegant ship also carried a lot of families. Kids were enlisted when it was time to raise the sails. They “heave-hoed” with enthusiasm as the sails filled with wind and we soared around the bay, seemingly turning on a dime under the lovely sails. The Matthew Turner has 11 sails giving it over 7000 square feet to capture the free fuel.

Brigantines were very popular with pirates and navies because they took a smaller crew than many other types of tall ships, and were highly maneuverable. We could feel our ship respond instantly as sails were shifted. It can be crewed with just six plus the captain, but generally has 10 or 12 because students are always being trained on board.

For those who would like a taste of the sea life and want to contribute to COTS scholarship efforts, a three-hour trip on the weekends is $99 for adults and $59 for youths. And for you romantics out there…saying or renewing your vows on a tall ship could be the story of a lifetime.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Andrea! You caught so much detail that I missed during the experience!

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