Thursday, May. 23, 2019

Hazards of the Bolinas Shipping Trade

By Richard Nielsen · April 30, 2019

The Jennie Griffin, in transit from San Francisco, is preparing to cross the bar.This view illustrates the likely condition of Bolinas Beach, when the schooner Almy met her fate.  Note the skiff being towed behind. <span>&copy; John Page </span>

The Jennie Griffin, in transit from San Francisco, is preparing to cross the bar.This view illustrates the likely condition of Bolinas Beach, when the schooner Almy met her fate. Note the skiff being towed behind.


The Owl taking weekend visitors to Bolinas back to San Francisco.  The breakers to the left of the Owl indicate the approximate location of the bar. <span>&copy; John Page </span> The Jessie Matsen is aground near the channel, with the boiler for the oil well on board in 1901. <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span> Note the deeper Bonita Channel that allowed passage between Bolinas and San Francisco to avoid crossing the Potato Patch. <span>&copy; Richard Nielsen </span>

In Bolinas’ early years, San Francisco’s growth in the wake of the discovery of gold, was a harbinger of demand for natural resources.  A lack of adequate overland transportation meant that any nearby natural resources accessible by water were certain to be immediately exploited.  Soon, products of farm, ranch, and dairy were sent from Bolinas to feed the growing mass of humanity in the city by the bay.  Shipping vessels followed the same route established by the lumber vessels of the early 1850s.

Brigs, such as the Herald, the J S Cabot, the John Clifford, and the Susan Abigail, and barques, such as the Bolton and the Minerva, that had previously transported gold miners to San Francisco, were quickly converted to shipping vessels which carried redwood heartwood beams and pilings from the primeval redwood forests of Bolinas to construct the wharves of San Francisco.  On the decks of schooners, sloops, and the occasional scow that soon followed, lumber or cordwood were stacked as high as possible for building structures that would ensure the residents were warm on a peninsula well-known for its chilly air.

Hundreds of board feet of lumber, thousands of cords of firewood, and hundreds of head of cattle or hogs were transported from Bolinas.  As farms, ranches, and dairies developed, crops including wheat, oats, fruit, and vegetables were among numerous commodities shipped.  Although there seems to be no record of a Bolinas vessel capsizing on the shoals leading into the Golden Gate, other vessels did capsize in the treacherous area which came to be known as the “Potato Patch.”  When there were smooth waters between the ocean and the Golden Gate, captains were often tempted to press the capacity of their vessels.  This practice led many vessels to their demise.  

Sometimes the problem of overloading could be easily solved, though at a loss of revenue.  “The sloop Go Ask Her went ashore on the 5th inst., at Bolinas. She had on board a cargo of wood, which was discharged or thrown overboard. Being thus lightened, she was got off safely the next day.”

At other times, such excess meant a loss of vessel and cargo, as occurred in the spring of 1853, and recorded in the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame.  Though lives were not lost during this particular disaster, that wasn’t always the case.  Sherman wrote, “The schooner was loaded with lumber, much of which was on deck, lashed down to ring bolts with rawhide thongs.  The captain was steering, and I was reclining on the lumber, looking at the familiar shore, as we approached Fort Point, when I heard a sort of cry, and felt the schooner going over.  As we got into the throat of the “Heads,” the force of the wind, meeting a strong ebb-tide, drove the nose of the schooner under.  She dove like a duck, went over on her side, and began to drift with the tide.”  Later that year, some sailors were not so lucky.  “A schooner laden with lumber from Bolinas and over laden capsized and the nine men were thrown into the water.  Five drowned.”

At times, winter storms and wise captains would bottle up vessels in the safe anchorage of the shallow waters inside the Bolinas channel.  Mid-winter between 1880 and 1881 is an example;  “Bolinas has had no ocean communication with San Francisco for six weeks, until last Monday. Both the Espinosa and Adaline have been weather bound all that time.”  Note the qualification, ‘no ocean communication.’  By this time, there were roads leading to Bolinas from San Rafael.  No longer was Bolinas so isolated and dependent upon shipping to meet her needs.

Throughout most of the year, schooners and sloops could be seen cutting through the sea between Bolinas and San Francisco.  The short fifteen-mile stretch of water between Bolinas and the City generally seems safe, though deceptively so.  Again and again, vessels met an undesirable fate; some due to greed, some due to carelessness, and some due to the vagaries dealt by nature.  Crossing that expanse of water wasn’t a crap shoot, however.  Cautious captains, such as Peter Anderson, Peter Bourne, Richard Gibson and Charles Matsen, employed their skills to successfully cross a hundred or more times without incurring the wrath of the gods.  Each of them claimed Bolinas as home, finally retiring there.

Well-stacked lumber or cordwood was relatively stable.  But cattle or hogs, lacking sea legs and wrested from their familiar environment on land, moved about restlessly during transit.  During a calm sea, this wasn’t much of a problem, but a rising sea could mean disaster, as occurred in late spring of 1892. “The Espinosa, which for several years past has run between this city and Bolinas, was wrecked just out of Bolinas Bay yesterday morning. The schooner struck on a rock. Her cargo of produce was ruined, and of 100 live hogs aboard many perished.”

Even a wary captain was occasionally caught off guard, as an insidious fog swept landward over the swells and caught the coastline in its embrace.  Again and again, vessels would have disastrous meetings in the misty soup.  There was a limited route into the narrow channel, which placed vessels in close proximity to one another with little visibility.  “The schooner Ellen Adelia was sunk last Friday off Bolinas Bay by colliding with the schooner Louise.”  While those vexing fogs were more frequent during the summer, they could surprise ships, even in midwinter.  Sometimes this would be a hit and run, with an unknown assailant, as occurred one night in November of 1892.  “Last Sunday night the schooner Mary Bidwell was run down and considerably damaged by an unknown schooner in the fog off Bolinas.”  In some collisions, vessels sank and lives were lost.

But even before reckoning with the open ocean, vessels had to negotiate their way from the wharf, through the channel, into the open sea. While fair winds could render this effort an easy passage, a strengthening of the predominant northwest wind would complicate the effort.  Whistling through the cleavage between the Highlands and Francisco Mesa in which downtown Bolinas lies, stern winds rasped the surface of Bolinas Bay.  With virtually no room to tack across the lagoon, the wind would occasionally nudge a vessel onto the clam flat on the south side of Kent Island, where it was held fast until the next high tide.  “On Friday evening last, as the schooner Melvina was bound out, having a good strong breeze from the north-west, she was blown upon the Clam Flat, where she was obliged to remain twenty-four hours before she was able to get off.”   In 1876, “A fishing boat got on the Bolinas clam flat…losing her keel and sinking. She was got off, and taken to the Point, to Johnson's ways, for repairs. Mr. Johnson says the fastenings of her keel were rotten, and liable to drop off any time.”

The sand spit frequently snagged vessels, such as one flat bottom scow.   “A scow schooner, loaded with hay went ashore at the sand spit at Bolinas yesterday morning.”  While less sea worthy in the open ocean, flat bottomed scows could easily pass over the bar and were useful in good weather.  In the 1901 photo depicted here, the schooner Jessie Matsen, named for the son of another Bolinas captain, found herself forlorn on the sand spit and the captain a bit embarrassed.  At this time, the Matsen was being used to salvage wrecks, and had the capability of hauling the large boiler for the oil well in what is today Palomarin.

 Sometimes, the surface of Bolinas Bay was so choppy and the wind so strong that a vessel could not unload its cargo or safely stay, as happened in the winter of 1852-53.  “The schooner Alexander returned yesterday from Bolinas Bay being unable to land her deck load of boilers.”  These boilers were destined for the steam-powered lumber mills above the north end of Bolinas Bay.  

While it was rare for vessels to be in the Weeks Channel on the east side of Bolinas Bay, the winds there were generally stronger, and in at least one instance caused problems and an embarrassment to one young man in 1876.   “A few days since, the mate of the schooner Barquare took some young ladies out sailing. There was a stiff breeze from the nor'west. and they sailed around the bay right handsomely, until they got into Weeks' channel, when a squall struck the craft, throwing her on her beam ends, carrying away her spirit and main sheet, and leaving the gallant tar and his lady passengers in a bad fix on the mud flats.”  Being close to Johnson’s shipyard, the schooner was probably more easily repaired than the young man’s pride.

If strong winds chewed up the waters of the channel out of Bolinas Bay, greater care had to be exerted to keep the vessel in the channel, particularly when making passage during the night, and while endeavoring to avoid another vessel.  “Apropos of boats, we had a double accident happen to them, on the 7th inst., about midnight. They were going out, the sea being rough and a heavy swell, when the schooner Active, Capt. Johnson, got aground on the beach, with the sloop Convoy, Capt. Anderson, bound for the same goal. The Active in slewing around for the Convoy to pass her, received a bad blow athwart her bows, taking them, and her forward deck entirely away. The Convoy sprung a leak and sunk, her decks level with the water.”

A crescent-shaped sand bar stretches from the Bolinas shore to the sand spit.  When the winds are calm and the tide has ebbed to its lowest point, it is possible for a tall person to walk this bar from shore to shore.  For this reason, especially after the changes that occurred to the channel during the 1906 earthquake, the bar was the adversary of even the most able captain.   In 1851, 1852, and 1853, brigs and barques sent to bring the long pilings and beams for building the wharves of San Francisco had to be anchored outside the bar. Passage over the bar demanded ingress and egress on a high tide.  An advertisement in the early 1850s called for vessels with particularly shallow draft to transport lumber and cordwood from Bolinas.  

Often vessels were unsuccessful in negotiating passage over the bar.  That the bar was a problem, even for smaller vessels was apparent early on, as in this incident in 1854.  “Schr Pilgrim hence for Bolinas got ashore on the Bolinas Bar, and is now lying full of water. It is doubtful whether she can be gotten off.”  In 1889, “The Bolinas Packet, the schooner Espinosa, with Capts. Anderson and Matsen on board, made another attempt to get over the Bar, which was unsuccessful. It is now three or more weeks since they have been able to get out of Bolinas Bay.”  Nothing had changed in 1894, when Captain Charles Matsen crossed the bar.  “While sailing out of Bolinas Bay Thursday night the gasoline schooner Jessie Matsen went upon the bar. Her captain gave her up as lost at one time, when the waves swept her decks and threatened to carry away the rigging and deckhouses.  The bar at Bolinas is so treacherous that skippers have to go into the rigging every time they attempt to cross it and see from their elevated position which place is free from breakers. Captain Anderson took a view of the bar, but was astonished to find it had shifted in twenty-four hours so as to be impassable in places.”

In common practice, when the water was too shallow or the wind was too strong over the bar, vessels anchored safely outside the bar.  A skiff, usually towed behind, was then used to reach shore.  In 1877, this necessity almost cost the life of Captain Peter Anderson, who had married just two months before.  “Capt. Anderson, of the schooner Convoy, had a narrow escape from drowning on Saturday night last. The gale was too strong for the schooner to cross the bar. and the Captain, with a boy started for shore in a skiff. They were capsized, and Capt. A. was under the boat several minutes, but finally got out and made the shore.”  While the captain survived his ordeal, many others drowned in the attempt to cross through the high waves over the bar.

Once safely through the channel and across the bar, an unexpected change in the wind, especially in the lee of the headland on the west side of the channel, could place a vessel at the mercy of the currents and incoming tide.  “The schooner Active, of Bolinas, Capt. Johnson, went ashore on the sand beach at Bolinas the early part of last week. She sailed from Bolinas about high tide, but when just on the outside the wind died away and left her to the mercy of the waves and tide. She went ashore at about the highest tide, but at low tide her cargo of wood was unloaded, and the third day she floated and hauled off with very little damage. The cargo was moved across the sand beach to another schooner in the bay, without much loss.”

Once into the open water of the ocean, the time it took for a vessel to cross to San Francisco varied widely, from as few as two to as many as twenty-four hours.  A favorable wind meant the crossing could match the best time of the gasoline schooners.  But weak and variable winds tested the skills of captain and crew to the utmost.  In an attempt to pull enough wind into the sheets, one vessel was brought too precariously close to that denizen of ships, Duxbury Reef. “On Monday morning the schooner Esperanza, plying between San Francisco and Bolinas, left Bolinas with five passengers and a cargo of freight.  After passing Duxbury reef, she was taken by the incoming tide and carried against the reef.  The passengers were transferred to the shore and shipped by stage to San Francisco.  The breakers are now beating the vessel against the reef and it is expected that she will prove a total wreck.”

In 1855, the schooner H C Almy, was built by Judge Almy at the end of the sand spit, adjacent to the channel.  Many scoffed, as Judge Almy had sea legs but lacked experience in shipbuilding.  Nevertheless, the vessel proved to be more than seaworthy, and survived hundreds of crossings under the able captaincy of Almy himself, even in inclement weather.  A number of years after the H C Almy was sold, a captain -likely of lesser skill- was sabotaged by the variable winds.  The H C Almy came home to die on the beach near her birthplace.  “On April 4th the schooner H. C. Almy was wrecked on the beach at Bolinas about 200 feet from where she was built 25 years ago by Judge Almy.  She was returning with a fishing party from the Farallones when a heavy sea drove her high and dry on the rocks.”1

Even gasoline schooners, with engines as well as sails, were not totally safe.  In 1926, the Owl, last of the vessels still supplying both the passenger & cargo needs of Bolinas, found herself in a predicament.  “The gasoline schooner Owl went ashore on Duxbury Reef in heavy fog.”  Fortunately, she managed to escape the clutches of Duxbury Reef and served the community for another seven years.

During ocean crossing, the Potato Patch posed the greatest danger. The shoal was named for the number of schooners and sloops whose cargo of potatoes from the farms of Bolinas and West Marin were lost when the vessels capsized.   This shoal -just north of the entrance to the Golden Gate- had to be avoided.  Smaller waves from the open ocean would rise higher over the shoal to form vicious monsters, twenty to thirty feet high.  Avoiding the Potato Patch meant following the Bonita Channel, which placed vessels closer to the rugged shore of southern Marin.  Sudden squalls along the Bonita Channel always presented a problem during the winter.  From late spring through the summer, passengers could usually enjoy a pleasant excursion to Bolinas.  At other times, passenger crossings could be a frightful experience.  Loss of life was uncommon, but did occur, such as happened when the sloop General Story was avoiding a crossing of the Potato Patch in 1857.  “The sloop Gen. Story was struck by a squall when about halfway between Bonita Point (North Head) and Bolinas, on Sunday morning last, and capsized. She had on board several passengers, among whom were two ladies. She finally righted, so far as to be on her beam-ends, and the ladies were rescued from their perilous situation—but not in time to save the life of a child, whose body afterwards drifted on shore.”

In the early days, a lack of roads meant the people of Bolinas were dependent on goods reaching their village by sea from San Francisco.  The loss of a vessel carrying these goods was serious. Inclement weather meant vessels were sometimes prevented from making the passage between Bolinas and the City for days or even weeks.  If a vessel was lost, there was no reimbursement under such circumstances, as occurred in early winter of 1857.  “I have to record the loss, in the gale, of the clipper schooner Julia, with her valuable cargo, but all hands were saved. The Captain thinks she would not have been lost, had his vessel been properly caulked in your city.  Our mining and wood-chopping population are severe losers in the above wrecked cargo, having their winter stock to re-purchase.”  

The lack of proper caulking sometimes led to the loss of a vessel, as occurred to the Ever Ready in 1852.  “The scow schooner Ever Ready, Harlow, from Bolinas Bay for this port, was abandoned Dec 25th having sprung a leak. The Captain and crew succeeded in getting on board the Andador, and arrived last evening.”  Again, in 1868, “Sloop Melvina, fm Bolinas, with a load of wood, sprung a leak, filled with water, and capsized Jan 29th, and drifted off the Farallones. The crew were rescued by schr Horace, bound in from Tomales, and brought into port, after being on the vessel's bottom 24 hours.”  In both of these cases, the vessels, crews and passengers were fortunate to have another vessel in close proximity who was able to rescue or tow them. Unfortunately, many vessels weren’t as lucky as the Ever Ready and the Melvina. If they sprung a leak, the vessel sank and crew and passengers perished.


1. If the figure of 200-feet is correct, the Almy didn’t come ashore on rocks such as those found at the Clam Patch or Duxbury reef.  During the month of April, the summer coating of sand on Bolinas Beach would have been stripped by winter storms, leaving the underlying bed of well worn, small stones exposed.

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