Wednesday, December 17, 2008


At the Hyde Street Pier on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco there is a wonderful old windjammer named the Balclutha. She was built in Scotland in 1886 and rechristened the Star of Alaska around the turn of the century when the Alaska Packer fleet made yearly sojourns to the Bering Sea, leaving San Francisco in June and returning in August, their holds brimming with King salmon. She made 17 trips around the Cape Horn and survived a ship wreck off Alaska

Today visitors can explore the decks and the nautical lore of this lovely ship and in their imagination take a trip on this old square-rigger. She has a museum on board and it is possible to learn details of her life on the sea.

One thing you won’t learn, though, is that from 1951 to 53, a bunch of teenaged girls, myself included, of the Girl Scout Mariner Ship S.S. Saratoga of Long Beach, California had a standing invitation from Frank and Rose Kissinger, who at that time owned the Balclutha but which was then named the Pacific Queen, to come on board whenever we wanted and stay as long as we wanted. The ship was berthed in Long Beach and the Kissingers had been working to restore her. They told us if she ever set out on the high seas again we could go with them. We spent hours on the ship, dreaming of sailing the ocean wide. We set about learning nautical terms, and how to tie knots and do all those other sea-faring things that Mariners were supposed to do.

It was mostly in the summers when we spent large blocks of time on that ship. During the school year our studies came first, but we always made sure we touched base with Frank and Rose every so often. By the end of those three years, we knew every inch of that ship intimately except for the masts which, for our own safety, we only could observe from the deck. Eventually, we graduated from high school ….and time passed and our interests changed and we left Mariners behind. The Pacific Queen was sold and eventually made its way up to San Francisco, which is the best thing that could have happened to it.

Whenever I go to San Francisco, I am drawn to make a trip down to see her again. It is enough for me to just look; I don’t need to board her because I know her so well, even after all this time. Though she looks spiffy now, she exists in my memory in a more rustic fashion (she was probably a little run-down when we were playing on her decks but we didn’t know it.) I look at her snug up against the pier and I smile, remembering our wonderful Girl Scout leader, “MizAllen,” who was our leader from 1945 to 1953 and all the other Mariners who still are my friends – Ro, Dorothy, Frances, Irene, Mary Lee, Kathy, Pat, Shirley, Carol, and Zoe, along with Kay, Barbara and Dokey, these last three no longer alive.

And I am now reminded of John Masefield's poem of yearning, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by….” In the reading of this poem, I am taken back 60 years to remember all those times as if it were just yesterday.

NOTE: Thanks to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park who made the wonderful photo of the Balclutha available to me.

Kay Bostwick, Bobby Dobbins and Ro Lorenzen, Mariners of Girl Scout Ship S.S. Saratoga. 1951-1953

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