Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
NOTE: This week we have a guest post from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park about the Schooner C A Thayer a uniquely West Coast sail freighter. You can find more on their website.
How often do we hear phrases such as “The last of its kind” or “One of a kind”? With a cultural resource, how or should we evaluate the value of such a statement? And what constitutes the truth of such a statement? Built in 1895, the C.A. Thayer is a bald-headed, three-masted West Coast lumber schooner, and yes… she is the last of her kind. Constructed in the yard of Hans Bendixson in Fairhaven, California (near Eureka, in the far northwestern part of California), she is both typical and atypical. She is typical in that she was a common type of vessel built for lumber service on the U.S. West Coast. She is atypical in that she survives when hundreds of her kin have rotted away or were otherwise lost. Vessels with her hull and elements of her rigging design were not to be found anywhere else in the country, and these elements, though not solely responsible, played a key role in the decision for a rebuilding that has left her in practically new condition. She was, in fact, a highly specialized West Coast maritime product, designed for both the environment in which she was meant to sail and the cargo she was meant to haul.
With lumber hauling along the West Coast as her intended mission, the design of the Thayer reflects the contours of the West Coast as well as economy. Large, protected harbors such as San Francisco Bay are rare along the western seaboard. The majority of the California coast is a sailor’s nightmare. Whereas San Francisco Bay is a large and sheltering anchorage, most of the coast is rocky with many cliffs, and exposed. Big Sur, south of San Francisco, is majestic, beautiful, and breathtaking… if you are on shore looking out to the ocean. But upon the deck of an engineless sailing vessel, it could be completely frightening. And if wrecked, there are no obvious ways to get safely ashore. So, it was wise to have a handy maneuverable rig. Thus, the fore and aft schooner rig was very popular, especially for the trip north into the prevailing wind and ocean currents. As this rig evolved on the West Coast, the bald-headed schooner became common, particularly in three masted designs, in which there were no separately attached topmasts. Given the tall Pacific lumber available for mast timbers, this simplified her sail and rigging arrangement.
On occasion, one might also see a peculiar sail addition. This was the West Coast square sail (and sometimes surmounted by a raffee). Found on the forward mast, a yard was crossed and so arranged that a sail could be laterally set on one or the other side. So, instead of setting this square sail from the top down, it was set from the center line of the vessel outboard, one side at a time, since the foresail would block the wind of the other/leeward side. The Thayer did not carry such a sail for most of her career, but is documented as carrying one during some of her voyages south to Australia, so as to take better advantage of any following winds on the long trans-Pacific voyage. Combine all of the above with a steam donkey engine (not something unique to the West Coast) mounted within the deckhouse, the primary sails could be made in incredibly large size, yet the vessel sailed with a small, and a correspondingly cheaper to employ, crew. This engine, therefore, had the same effect that automation technology does today, and allowed the C.A. Thayer to be sailed with as few as eight crew members: four sailors, one cook, two mates, and a Captain.
The Columbia River in Oregon, the site of many of the Douglas Fir loading ports, influenced the Thayer’s hull form. A ship with a single deck and relatively flat bottom was what was called for. The C.A. Thayer and the rest of her West Coast kin had to be built to pass safely over the sand bars at the mouths of such rivers. Though not explicitly flat-bottomed herself, the Thayer has very little dead rise and is much wider (36’4”) than she is deep (11’8”). One result of this shallowness is that about half her load of 575,000 board feet of lumber was stacked up on deck. Due to this, there was a second set of pin rails mounted high on her shrouds to provide accessible belaying points for her running rigging when a full load was carried. The sailors merely used the deck load top as a line handling deck. But with the resulting broad beam and shallow depth of hold, she was able to safely mount the sand bars. This hull design, incidentally, also provided stability when sailing empty. When northbound, it was often unnecessary to load ballast.
The building material with which all this was achieved was the same as that which most often formed her cargo, old growth Douglas fir. Given her wide beam, but shallow depth of hold, her upper ceiling planking played a critical role is resisting hogging tendencies. Therefore, when visiting the vessel and entering her hold, one can spy individual planking 8 inches thick and up to a shocking 80 feet long. Her clamps too are of major size, though her restoration team was unable to obtain pieces of original (10 inches thick and 110 feet in length) size. Due to her being designed for immense deck loads, her hanging knees, supporting her deck, are huge and especially interesting as they cannot be cut to shape. To have the necessary strength to support deck loaded lumber cargoes, they have to be of a naturally curved grown shape. This was a particular challenge, especially when considering the lack of natural curves in Douglass Fir. In other parts of the country where other types of trees were more common, these natural curves (referred to as compass timber) were often acquired where large branches grew in a curving outward arc from the trunk. With Douglas Fir trees, branches grow out from the trunk at nearly 90 degrees. So in order to get the natural curved shape needed, effort was made to make use of the stumps and roots of the tree. In particular from trees that grew on the side of a hill where the curving roots would have an especially sharp angle.
Though not unique along the West Coast, there were many features that made these ships totally distinctive compared to the Gulf Coast, East Coast, or Great Lakes practices. These design features, and the fact that she is now the last of her kind, were important factors why the decision was made to proceed with her massive reconstruction. Today, the C.A. Thayer has a largely “new ship” feel about her. Though longevity is something all wooden structures aspire to, wooden vessels/ships, given the marine environment they live in, are particularly vulnerable to entropy. With her reconstruction now nearly complete, visitors will have access to a unique West Coast historic maritime resource for a long time to come.
Olmsted, Roger. C.A.Thayer and the Pacific Lumber Schooners. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1972.
Cleveland, Ron. The Rigging of West Coast Barkentines & Schooners. Unpublished manuscript, Maritime Research Center, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, no date.
Myers, Mark Richard. “Pacific Coast-Built Sailing Ship Types: 1840-1921.” B.A. Honors Study Thesis, Pomona College, 1967.
Architectural Resources Group. “Historic Structure Report: Schooner C.A. Thayer.” National Park
Service, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, 2022.
Delgado, James P. & Gordon S. Chappell. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory, Nomination Form: C.A.Thayer (Schooner).” National Park Service, Western Region, 30 June 1978.
Andersen, Courtney J. “Exciting Times in the Life of C.A. Thayer. Re-rigging and Old Sailing Ship: A Maritime Detective Story.” Sea Letter 72 (Fall 2015), 2-12.
Canright, Stephen. “Born of the Lumber Trade: An Historical Context for the C.A. Thayer.” Sea Letter 50 (Summer 1995), 3-11.
Canright, Stephen. “Preserving the C.A. Thayer: What is to be Done?” Sea Letter 50 (Summer 1995), 20-25.
Canright, Stephen. “Rebuilding the C.A. Thayer.” Sea Letter (Summer 2007), 6-24.
Cox, Thomas R. “William Kyle & the Pacific Lumber Trade: A Study in Marginality.” Journal of Forest History 19:1 (January 1975), 4-14.
Cox, Thomas R. “Single Decks and Flat Bottoms: Building the West Coast’s Lumber Fleet, 1850-1929.” Journal of the West XX: 3 (July 1981), 65-74.
Dennis, D.L. “Square Sails of American Schooners.” The Mariner’s Mirror 49: 3 (August 1963), 226-227.
McDonald, Captain P.A. “Square Sails and Raffees.” The American Neptune V (1945), 142-145.
Miles, Ted. “The Later Lives of the C.A.Thayer.” Sea Letter 50 (Summer 1995), 13-19.
Christopher Edwards is a National Park Ranger at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
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