A couple of months ago, I took the family for a ride. We crossed the bay from Marin County on the San Quentin ferry, drove along the Sacramento highway to Pinole, and then to Martinez. Crossing Carquinez Strait on the Benicia ferry, you could look back and see her lying here in the sedge of the tidelands, a little west of Martinez town.
The skipper of the ferry was a jovial man named Captain Jansen, a Cape Codder by birth and on the Benicia ferry run since the early 20s. Above the wind that whipped through the strait, I shouted through the open window of the wheelhouse and asked him what she was.
“Lumber schooner. Been tied up there for years. Go over and talk to her skipper some time. He lives on board her.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I will.”
The other day, I drove back to Martinez, crossed the railroad tracks and bumped and swayed down a wet, muddy road. I parked the car as close to the schooner as the road would take me, and struck off on a path across the flats toward the water’s edge. A cold, west wind was blowing, driving the rain clouds up from San Pablo Bay and piling them up in the sky to the east. The path ended in a narrow plank walk leading out over the water to the side of the ship, and the walk ended at a locked door on which was the sign, “Beware of the dog.” I pushed the bell button and waited.
A few minutes later, Captain Otto Daeweritz, skipper of the schooner Forester, led the way down into the after cabin of the ship. “One thing,” he said over his shoulder, “I’m not bothered by noisy neighbors.”
He was a short, stocky man, coatless in spite of the cold, and wearing a knitted sailor’s cap. He had started going to sea in 1879, was 83, and like most men who have lived alone for many years, reluctant to talk about himself or his life. He had a lively, brown and white pit bull puppy which, when it caught the scent of my German shepherd on my clothes, was instantly and eagerly friendly.
Captain Daeweritz made the puppy lie down, got out some old photographs, and told me about his ship. She was launched November 10, 1900, at the Hay & Wright yards in Alameda, and as far as he knows is the only four-master left in the Bay Area. She went immediately into the offshore lumber trade for the San Francisco exporting firm of Sanders & Kirchmann. Captain Daeweritz, who was the only skipper she ever knew, had a financial interest in her too.
The Forester, 204 feet from stem to stern and one of a Sanders & Kirchmann fleet of 16 schooners and barkentines, would take on a cargo of lumber in Oregon or Washington—the long, straight fir logs rising to a height of 15 feet on her narrow deck—and beat across the Pacific with it to ports in China or India or Australia. For the return trip, she’d pick up anything she could get in the way of cargo, copra mostly.
“That’s what she did until after the First World War,” said Captain Daeweritz. “Then, in the 20s, business got bad. Copra, that had been $42 a ton, dropped to $10. And the Swedish and Norwegian steamers took all the lumber business away. They could make more trips and make them cheaper than we could.”
When her day passed he bought out his partners’ interest in the Forester and laid her up. From 1927 to 1931, she was anchored in the strait, protecting a pier of the Carquinez bridge from the swift-running tides. For the four years after that, she was in the Oakland estuary. And when Oakland port authorities told him he would have to move her, she was a menace to shipping there, he had her towed to those Martinez flats, and she’s been there ever since.
She makes a snug home for Capt. Daeweritz. She’s wired for electricity, but has no water; he carries it onboard from shore, and catches rainwater for washing purposes. In the tiny, skylighted cabin off the sleeping quarters, there was the table at which we sat. On it were the paper he has been reading, a deck of cards and an ashtray from the Turquoise Room, Hotel Rosslyn, L.A. On the bulkhead over the table was a small painting of the Forester under full sail, done by an amateur, and the ship’s original clock and barometer.
There was a sudden patter of rain on the skylight, and the captain got up at once. “Got to get my washing in,” he said. “Should have had it in an hour ago.” I followed him up the companionway and onto the deck. He hurried forward, took down a few shirts and towels from the clothesline, and hung them up inside, over the stove in the galley.
“What will happen to the Forester?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “She probably will be burned up someday, like the rest of her kind. I’m the only friend she’s got left.”
We said good-bye a few minutes later, and he showed me over the side. The rain was coming in heavy gusts from the little gray sky. From the car, Benicia across the strait was dim in the low mist. The Forester, listing slightly to starboard, was dark against the green waters of the strait, and her four masts leaned dark against the sky.