By Captain Ryan “Otis” Downs
S/V Hawaiian Chieftain
The crew of the Hawaiian Chieftain has been in Sacramento, California for over 9 weeks. This is an important port for the ship, because we bring our excellent, hands-on education program to children far from salt water who otherwise would not get to see a traditional ship. Nearly 3,000 schoolchildren crossed our deck during our time in Sacramento, and the crew is extremely proud of the work they have done there.
I missed almost all of this tour, having come aboard for only the last three days of the Sacramento visit. A large crew changeover has occurred, as folks were finishing up their contracts. I was excited to take over
from Capt. Jas, as I had not been on the boat in some time, and love the California coast. We were bound for the Golden Gate via the Sacramento River.
The river has been an important waterway for ships since the California Gold Rush of 1849. It was a confusing channel in the old days, as sand bars were constantly changing whatever way the flooding river dictated. Small, steam- driven paddle wheelers were a common sight in the mid-19th Century, brining miners, gamblers, entrepreneurs and crooks up to the “diggings”, or gold fields. Similarly, small, flat-bottomed sailing schooners, or “scows” brought up supplies, and carried products downstream to the waiting cargo ships in San Francisco Bay.
The river has changed a little; there are now built-up levies that keep the river in one place, buoys that mark the channel, bridges for cars and trains, and even a few small marinas for local sport fishermen and houseboats. Despite the changes, however, mariners can still appreciate the small, frontier-like feeling of the Sacramento River. There are tiny settlements, many abandoned, with clapboard storefronts, clearly reminiscent of the Old West. Large farmhouses, some boarded up remind us of the wealth that agriculture has produced in this valley for 150 years. Rusting, shuttered factories and warehouses from the days before semi-trucks moved the majority of cargo up and down the river.
It has always been humbling for me, working on Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, to witness what I call “the weight of history” that the ports we visit represent. Lately I have been struck dumbfounded by the connected strands of my history, the history of the ships, and the places we visit.
I first came aboard as a Two Weeks Before the Mast volunteer on Lady Washington in the summer of 2005. I shipped aboard in a port I had never heard of; Anacortes, Washington. It was the first time I had seen the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands. I was enchanted by the dichotomy of gentleness and power that part of the world displayed. I promised myself I would never leave this place; that I would someday command my own ship here. I wanted to live here for the rest of my life. Two years ago, I found myself again in Anacortes as the Captain of the sail training vessel Carlyn. I had come full circle on a road that had taken me 10 years to complete. I felt a strange combination of pride, humility and bliss.
In 2006 I worked on the Columbia River on Hawaiian Chieftain for my first time as a paid employee. I was in awe of that River. On the Columbia, one can see abandoned canneries just downstream from prehistoric petroglyphs; a mesmerizing span of at least 10,000 years. I saw mist drifting through fir trees, a sight that many in the Northwest will recognize. Salmon were jumping in the river, and osprey dove to catch them. Small river ports, once booming in the salmon fishing era of the 1920s stood silent and abandoned. Rusting lumber equipment were a lonely sentinel, reminding me of the hundred years of back-breaking work that founded the great cities of the Northwest. Perhaps most stunning for me as a young sailor on the ship was the relationships we formed with many of the Native American nations in the Northwest; Chinook, Snohomish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Makah, Haida, Tlaoquiaht. When Chieftain crossed the bar guarding the river, we carried with us Chairman Ray Gardner of the Chinook Nation. As we crossed into traditional Chinook territory, we were met with canoes of Chinook people who welcomed us with song to their land. We anchored off their most important cultural site, Middle Village, where we joined them on shore for a feast in celebration of the salmon returning to the river. We stood in the place where, 201 years earlier, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had stood when they met the Chinook on their first view of the Pacific Ocean. History is a circle.
Here in California the weight of history is equally captivating. I grew up here; as a child and as a young man, I was fascinated by the legends and tales of bandits, Spanish Missionaries, Native Americans and shipwrecks along the coast. The insanity of the Gold Rush, the idea of towns springing up overnight in wastelands…
We traveled down the river on the 5th of December, under the beautiful Tower Bridge in Old Town Sacramento. Gliding further down we watched red-tailed hawks, herons, kingfishers and even a lonely sea lion, far from sea. We went under the Freeport, Paintersville, Walnut Grove, Isleton and finally Rio Vista bridges. We would always wave and shout “thank you” to all of the bridge operators, and they would wander out of their shacks and wave as well. Throughout our trip that day, cars would honk on the road alongside the levee, or get out to wave and take pictures, clearly amazed that a ship of our type was in such a small river. I was reflecting on the fact that once upon a time, many sailing ships must have passed this way, and were a common site to the folks living along the river.
By the time we made it to Rio Vista, darkness had fallen. The days have grown remarkably short and we still had a long way to go. We arrived at 9pm to spend the night in Antioch, and were up in the darkness again at 4am to head for sea.
Passing under the railroad bridge at Benicia as the sun rose, we said our fond goodbyes to San Francisco Bay. A crew favorite on both vessels is passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. The crew is allowed to “skylark”, or go aloft just to enjoy being sailors, and as Captain Irving Johnson would say, to “lean into life”. It was sunny and warm as we passed the Gate, and after a traditional ceremony beseeching Neptune for a safe journey, we turned and set sail. As we did so, we were surrounded by a pod of grey whales making their journey to Baja for the winter. It was a magical moment, the kind that sailors yearn for. We had lovely breeze, sunny afternoon and a following sea.
As evening fell, we passed by Davenport, Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay; places I knew well from my childhood and as a young adult. I watched dolphins playing in our bow wake and looked across the water to the Point Pinos lighthouse. I had climbed it as a child, and had caught hermit crabs and built sandcastles on the beach there. I dreamed about a life at sea from stories my grandfather told me as we walked on the very shore I was now gazing upon. As I thought on these things, I suddenly realized that today was my birthday. It is hard to put into words the sense of awe and wonder I felt that night; I felt complete.
Becoming a volunteer at Grays Harbor has proven to be the most transformative experience of my life; the same can be said for dozens of sailors who have done the same. No matter where they have ended up, either still on the vessels or long gone on other adventures, I’m sure they will share similar stories of challenge, adventure and self-actualization. I am humbled to be the captain of this vessel, and to have come full circle on an adventure that began the day I decided to turn a dream into a reality and go to sea.
We are now in Morro Bay, finally reunited with Lady Washington after a long separation. We look forward to more adventures in California; making new friends, seeing old ones, and passing on what we have learned to a new generation.