Everyone knew the Wawona. Well, they probably wouldn’t recognize the name. But if you said “that crappy old rotten sailing ship at the south end of Lake Union,” then they knew the Wawona. That old ship had been sitting in the same place for 30 or 40 years. For most of that time it just seemed to be an ignored, waiting for the inevitable wrecking ball or fire that would finally end her pain.
But if you looked closely there were signs of life. A new coat of green paint would appear on the side of the hull, but it was covering the same old cracked planking. A plastic and wood roof suddenly covered the decks protecting them for a time from the destructive rain water. A flag might be flying high on a mast, but only during the Boat Show.
In fact, hundreds of volunteers soaked thousands of hours of work into the Wawona. Despite all that sweat, love, effort and expense the ship just never seemed to really improve. It remained an old ship desperately in need of major repairs, sitting incongruously in the center of a rapidly changing modern city.
When she first showed up the Wawona wasn’t so incongruous. The Navy Reserve had their training base that was kept as trim as a Marine’s hair cut, but the surrounding land was an abandoned industrial area. Instead of street cars and biotech palaces there were stacks of 55 gallon drums, abandoned railroad box cars, and a relatively seedy section of Seattle.
Several decaying boat projects were in various stages of being ignored in the general area, although a few were more productive. The beautiful wooden sloop Circe was completely rebuilt on the dirt where the Center for Wooden Boats has its covered Pavilion building today. It had a lot more in common with downtown Westport than downtown Seattle.
So, when Kay Bullitt and her group pulled the Wawona in for some repairs, the old ship fit in pretty well. The plan was to fix her up and get her sailing again as a training vessel and educational opportunity for the kids. She was one of the last tall ships of her kind and her proud history and long service certainly seemed to warrant restoration.
For those that only knew Wawona as a rotting green hulk it may be hard to picture that history. But 100 years ago, lumber schooners were a common site all along the West Coast. The huge trees of the Northwest were in high demand as cities rose in California. But how would you get a 100 foot tree loaded on a ship for a passage to San Francisco?
Simple! You open the transom of the Wawona and slide the whole tree inside, just like parking a car in the garage. With a hold full of logs, and maybe a stack of cut lumber on the deck, the Wawona would head south with the raw materials for expanding cities.
When that business dried up, the heavily-built Wawona tackled even more treacherous waters. She entered the cod fishing business on the Bering Sea. Her crew of 36 hearty souls would spend six months in the frigid Alaskan waters catching cod with handlines off of rowing dories. In her years in Alaska over 7.2 million pounds of fish were caught by the Wawona’s proud crew.
Imagine the stories told on that old ship. Stories of disappointment, freezing cold, blistering heat, injury, loneliness, hard work, even death; but also tales of bravery, friendship, accomplishment, and glory. They are stories that are completely foreign to us as we work away in front of glowing LCDs where a corrupt MS Word file is the biggest calamity that we might face.
Yesterday they hauled the Wawona away. The rotting hulk was hooked to a tow boat and pulled from her moorage. A gathering of maybe 100 people watched as she slowly passed the old Navy Reserve Building and headed out to Lake Union.
And for a few brief moments, that old hulk turned back into a real ship. Away from the shore for one last voyage – despite the peeling paint, the rotting wood, the separated stem, even without her tall masts – she regained an elegance and grace that all the old ships seemed to have. When the bell on the lightship Swiftsure pealed in her honor, the reality of this beautiful, unique ship’s demise hushed the crowd.
Pieces and parts of the Wawona will be displayed in the new museum that’s going in the park at south Lake Union. And her lines and structural plans will be saved. But the Wawona has no more stories to tell.
There are a few (very few) other old ships remaining to remind us of our past. The fireboat Duwamish, the lightship Swiftsure, the tugboat Arthur Foss, the steamship Virginia V. Each is like a book full of tales, adventures, folly, success and tragedy. And each of these remaining ships is threatened by the passage of time.
Leaving the Wawona to her fate, a person had to wonder which senior ship is next.