May 5, 2017   Joe Cline



Story and Photos

Anyone who traverses the water of Lake Union between the Gasworks buoy and the University Bridge has surely noticed the stately grey schooner, Goldfield, proudly flying a colorful array of “flags of the day.” As she sits at her mooring looking down the lake towards downtown Seattle, her pleasing presence has become landmark to both local seafarers and landlubbers alike. She has graced Lake Union for over five years thanks to her Seattle-based Skipper, Brad Johnson, who purchased her back in 1976 from a gentleman in Mexico. Brad sailed her up to his hometown of Seattle to begin the task of refitting the old wood turtle boat which was to become his home and lifestyle.

This July, after years of refurbishing, the Goldfield started the long trip home to the Grand Cayman Islands in the Caribbean from whence she came. Brad has sold her to the Grand Cayman Restoration Foundation and is presently sailing her down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and up to what her new owners call her final port.

Her history is rich in tales of races won, turtles slain, a mysterious ghost crewmember during a storm, and an accidental jibe back in the 1950s that cleaned the rigging off the deck. One fact for sure, the Goldfield was a schooner designed with one eye on the famous Bluenose and one on the necessary carrying capacity of the local trade.

Originally designed for the turtle trade which the owner perceived to be a “field of gold,” Goldfield was drawn to carry 100 tons of cargo and a deckload of fishing dorys. It was a proud day in 1930 when her hull settled into the blue waters of the Caribbean in Georgetown, Grand Cayman. She is a stout ship, constructed of Cayman mahogany and long leaf yellow pine planking. She has 4.5” and 6” sawn frames on 18” centers, and the planking is 2.25” thick.  In 1983, she is retracing the miles back to her old familiar anchorages.

At the Grand Cayman Restoration Foundation, the Goldfield will serve as a living museum and will give the island’s younger generation an example of the craftsmanship of the past. It is hoped that the pride instilled in the youth will overcome the idleness and low self-esteem that is prevalent in the islands today, islands exploited and dominated by the tourist trade.

And so, the Goldfield is gone, her Seattle berth empty. She is sailing south with Brad at the helm and with the experienced help of a schooner captain from the Caymans. Bill Cady is first mate, as he has been since the day Brad purchased the boat. Jim Snodgrass is second mate, and Steve Skyes is third. Gary Kincher, Paul Baker, and Paul Lamarche are mates, and the youthful Shaun Tomlinson is a midshipman first class.

But how did the Goldfield ever find a home in Seattle? Who would buy an old wooden 100’ turtle schooner in need of repair, and spend over five years reworking her hull? Well, it takes a certain kind of person for sure. While at 33,000 feet, flying home from a business trip in Alaska, Brad Johnson spotted a broker’s ad for the Goldfield. With the price right, Brad worked out a deal through the broker to purchase the schooner in Mexico. All he had to do was deliver it to Seattle himself. Half the delivery crew flew to Gueymas, Mexico, while the other half loaded a van with equipment and gear and headed down the coast for a rendezvous.

Goldfield was hauled out and it was decided that the transom and a half dozen planks should be replaced before the ocean trip home. For two months, the crew worked on their new vessel and, between margaritas, got her ready for the trip north. Her sails were tattered from years of tropical wear, but the six cylinder Mercedes was in good shape.

Goldfield’s delivery crew was young, the long-haired, free-spirited type. While sailing the Goldfield, they certainly were not to be ignored, and immediately caught the eye of any local law official. What else would a vessel of this size, sailed by hippies no doubt, be used for but drug running? Of course, if drug running was a person’s fancy, a hundred-ton schooner capable of speeds in the high teens would be the perfect vessel. This, however, was the furthest thing from the skipper’s mind. Aware of the Mexican authority’s eagerness to “confiscate” a vessel of this size, the skipper and crew were very careful and thorough with documentation papers, keeping a clean ship in all regards.

As they harbor-hopped up the coast they stopped in a port called Turtle Bay. While eating dinner in a small cantina overlooking the bay, the crew noticed some activity on deck of the Goldfield. Since the entire crew was around the table they became a bit concerned about the situation. Brad went to investigate, but by the time he arrived the intruders were gone, and he could find nothing missing. As the story goes, in the next port of Encinitas Goldfield was again boarded by the authorities. And guess what they found in a little cubbyhole? You got it, three joints of Mexican weed, an obvious plant from Turtle Bay from the mysterious visitors. After some harassment and the loss of some personal possessions to assure release from the law, the Goldfield was allowed to continue.

Capt’n Brad Johnson & Midshipman Saun Tomlinson

The first stop in the United States was San Diego. The Goldfield cleared customs and after paying a $25.00 “after hours fee,” she headed up to Marina del Rey. Here they caught the eye of an extremely overzealous customs agent who, accompanied by another customs officer and two L.A. Police Department Harbor Patrol officers and two L.A. Police Department narcotic officers, boarded the boat. A full day of harassment followed: isolating and interrogating each crew member, threatening to seize the ship unless the crew told where all the drugs were hidden. Finally one of the crew produced about a half ounce of weed that he had purchased in San Diego the day before.

By now the L.A. Police Department boys told the custom officials that they wanted no part of the game, that the crew members had been very cooperative and honest, and were convinced that the paltry amount of drugs produced were all that were aboard. They then announced that they would not pursue the case any further, issued a misdemeanor citation to the owner of the weed, and left. After this shuffling of feet, clearing of throats, and slapping of wrists, the Goldfield was allowed to continue on.

Once on the open sea again, though, she still had her problems. Until then, the weather that the crew had experienced had been benign. But Point Conception changed all that. A storm was building, and after a couple three mile days, Goldfield dropped back behind the point to wait it out. The swells were huge, the seas cresting, and to turn a 100 foot lumbering vessel about in such conditions was a difficult task at best. It was when coping with these seas that Brad claims to have been guided by a ghost crewmember, telling him when to turn. He did, and unlike so many previous attempts, the completed turn was smooth. Then all the lights n the ship went out… mystical fiction or coincidence? We’ll never know.

At any rate, all the “sails” were reduced to rags as Goldfield pulled into San Francisco for a short breather. Most the remaining journey was under a shroud of thick fog, motoring. As she neared the Columbia River Bar she radioed the Coast Guard for bar conditions and received a position, course and present speed. Soon after complying with the request a Coast Guard cutter was spotted approaching through the fog, the captain demanded that Brad throw him a tow line. Not being in any need of the tow, Brad refused to throw the line but agreed to follow behind the cutter across the bar.

After docking the ship was again boarded and seized by customs. It seemed that the broker, who assured Brad that all import details would be taken care of had overlooked the duty fees on the schooner. Brad and his crew were held under arrest for a period of six days. Finally it was the $25.00 customs receipt from the San Diego custom’s official that earned them their release. But the Goldfield was still held, pending duty payment. When Brad reached Seattle, the duty was paid and the Goldfield was released.

Once home, the crew thought the customs officials would leave the Goldfield to rest at her new berth east of Gasworks Park while the work began on the vessel to make it a seaworthy home. But Brad and his friends noticed that the boat was under surveillance from U.S. government vehicles manned by men using binoculars and long range photographic equipment.

It seems that “Operation Goldfield” had created so much bureaucratic zeal – what with customs hassles, Coast Guard dispatch, and satellite tracking – that the government could not afford to come away empty-handed.

The interest finally waned when no evidence could be gathered implicating any drug activity and the restoration was allowed to continue undocumented. Apparently a large wooden schooner manned by middle-aged youths was declassified as suspect.

The restoration/ remodeling included enlarging the number one cargo hold hatch, under the watchful eye of Tom Hamilton. Fuel and water tankage was added and a trunk cabin now sits where another cargo hatch once was. Inside the new trunk cabin is the large galley, complete with dishwasher. The head sports a full size bathtub and the cargo hold is heated with a Franklin stove.

1980 Nootka Sails designed a new suit of Dacron for the old schooner: a 1500 sq. foot mainsail, foresail, stays’l, and jib. She is not rigged with a tops’l yet, but perhaps her new owners in Grand Cayman will complete the rig.

This article would not be complete without giving credit to the person who, next to Brad, was responsible for the determination and plain hard work it takes to restore and maintain such a large vessel. Her name in Ann Ward and she lived and breathed Goldfield for the boat’s first three years in Seattle. Her cheerful smile and open arms welcomed all. As much as she appreciated her privacy, Ann had the feeling that if you own a vessel of Goldfield’s stature, one ought to keep her accessible to the public. And so paint came off, went back on, tallow, more paint, Ann’s long blond hair billowing as the Makita sander buzzed away the hours. The love that woman poured into the boat is evident today. Of all in Seattle who have helped in Goldfield’s rebirth, Ann deserves the credit as the mother of the project. Without her, the restoration would be years away.

Many people have been involved in the restoration of the Goldfield, and all of us who have given our time and energy over the past few years are understandably quite attached to her. It is hard to realize that she is gone to the Caymans.

Before she left, I climbed up and sat in her rigging, admiring the peaceful view down Lake Union; the sun was beginning to set, silhouetting the distant cityscape off Goldfield’s bowsprit. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever hook up with her again. It’s not the first time I’ve found myself lusting after a majestic, warm vessel, but somehow the Goldfield was different.

The Goldfield will always carry with her a cargo of love and good cheer, a spirit all her own, wherever she sails. I guess I’m a romantic, but I would like to think that the fellowship that I’ve experienced being involved with the Goldfield is a part of a long, never-ending chain of crews over the years. Crews I’ve never met, but feel akin with, sharing the magic of a most remarkable vessel.

To the Cayman Islands, she carries a hold full of good vibes and happy memories. Seattle sends her good will to the Islands through the Goldfield… bon voyage, Goldfield… and beam on!

Editor’s Note: This article, by Doc Doolittle, was originally published in the August 1983 issue of 48° North. Doc is clearly writing to a 1983 reader, but the stories of the boat and those who sailed and loved her are still lively and enjoyable. I’m sorry to report that the Goldfield is no longer afloat. According to the Cayman Islands National Archive, the Goldfield changed hands three times before being purchased by the Goldfield Foundation for US$75,000, refurbished and sailed back to Grand Cayman. Finally falling into disrepair and sinking, her remnants still lie beneath the waters of Canal Point.