In the first years of the last century a major effort took shape to find answers to one of the world’s greatest scientific mysteries.
This mystery had bedeviled sailors since before Columbus, and the leading physicists of the day described it as “the most puzzling of natural forces,” second only to gravity.
To delve deeper into this puzzle, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. formed a body with the unwieldy title of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Its ambitious mission was nothing less than to map the earth’s entire magnetic field, and to do this it would need a ship that could make the perilous voyages far across the oceans, from the North Pole to the South and everything in between.
For this unprecedented scientific quest, the Carnegie called upon a ship made by the best and most prolific shipbuilder in America, the bearded genius who revolutionized commercial sailing ship design, the Elon Musk of his time.
His name was Matthew Turner.
Jump forward many decades later, to the 1980s, when a Sausalito sea captain and shipbuilder named Alan Olson embarked on a mission of his own. His “life’s dream,” as he called it, was to “build a new tall ship for the Bay Area,” a tall ship not unlike the majestic many-masted sailing ships of old, powered only by the wind. The most famous tall ship captained and built by Olson was the Stone Witch, a 74-footer that for many years was the flagship for the environmental group Greenpeace. But for this new venture he had a different constituency in mind: young people. To put them aboard a sailing ship, where many had never been; to teach them about the oceans and bay, sea life, science, maritime history; and to show them the values of teamwork by getting them out on the water and taking an active part in sailing a vessel themselves.
As Olson began to figure out how to turn this dream into reality, his research led him to the same place where the D.C. geomagnetism folks ended up. “It became evident, pretty quickly, that Matthew Turner was the guy,” he recalled, “that his ships were the ones to look at.”
Matthew Turner, courtesy of the Hunt family.
That guy’s name will of course ring bells all across Benicia, especially among the teachers and students of Matthew Turner Elementary School. The Benicia Historical Museum has an exhibit devoted to Turner, and there is a podcast on its site about him, hosted by the charming Dean Putong, Benicia High and Yale University grad. Behind one of the museum’s buildings is the splintery bow of the Galilee, the most famous ship ever built by Turner and the one the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism ultimately called upon first in its pioneering voyages to chart the magnetic forces of the oceans, and perhaps even crack the riddle as to why the earth is essentially a “great magnet.” (Spoiler alert: We still don’t know.)
Another honorific of the man who built the fastest sailing ships of his time is the Matthew Turner Shipyard Park, a favorite launch point for windsurfers at the foot of Twelfth, off West K Street. But a better place to picture the size and dynamism of those 1880s and 1890s shipyards is at the Ninth Street park and boat launch. Stand on Commodore Jones Point with its American flag always fluttering in the breeze and look north where you can see the “bight of Turner’s shipyard,” as Jack London called it. Bight is an old-fashioned word for a bend or curve, and while the shipyards are gone, the curve of the shoreline remains much the same as it was when London engaged in his oyster-thieving runs. Those rotting half-submerged columns in the water once supported the piers from which the newly-constructed Galilee pushed out into the strait for its maiden voyage.
But here is the good news: Matthew Turner lives!
His creative, entrepreneurial, visionary spirit is on full display at a pier in Sausalito, in a sleekly beautiful, 132-foot, $6 million wooden tall ship that came into being, in large part, through the leadership of Olson, who showed that dreams can come true after all.
And the name of this dream tall ship? The Matthew Turner, of course. For it was the ancient Galilee, built in 1891, that served as the inspiration and model for the new ship, which launched in 2017, but has only been sailing with passengers since last year.
“The Matthew Turner is based very heavily on the Galilee,” explained Olson, who worked from drawings of the old ship in designing the new. “His ships were the fastest around, and we used his unique concepts.” Those concepts, revolutionary for their time for commercial vessels, included narrowing the bow to give it a sleeker look and less drag in the water. “He changed the shape of the bow; it was very sharp. His boats were wider in the stern, so they weren’t so deep in the water. They sailed to windward better. They could be sailed without ballast, unlike others of that time.”
Alan Olson, by John Skoriak
The Matthew Turner is a brigantine, a type of sailing ship with square sails. It has 11 sails in all, giving its young crew plenty of chances to do a job, get involved. Fittingly it is a model of sharp-thinking innovation, built with a mix of 19th century shipbuilding methods and the best craftsmanship of today. Constructed of Douglas fir and Oregon white oak, it sports biofuel generators, banks of Lithium batteries, and a hybrid energy system that harnesses the wind when the ship is under sail to recharge its two electric motors.
Call of the Sea, an educational nonprofit, operates the Matthew Turner along with its sister ship, the schooner Seaward. In the last decade, more than 50,000 students have sailed on the Seaward. Olson, Call of the Sea’s co-founder and project director, envisions a similar “floating classroom” role for the Turner, although, like the rest of the world, its activities of late have been curtailed due to Covid.
The ship is docked at the Bay Model Visitor Center pier in Sausalito, but no tours are currently being conducted on it.
Groups of students have gone sailing on it, on outings organized by their parents. School field trips are in the offing. Although no one locally has done so yet, it seems only a matter of time before Benicia teachers and parents organize outings for students to jump aboard this extraordinary example of living history.
Ever the man of vision, Alan Olson has a much bigger dream involving Benicia, though. “We’d love to come up there,” he said. “We’d love to come up and stay for a few days. Take the kids out and the adults too.” Even as he said this he urged this writer to please soft-sell the idea because so many uncertainties exist around it. “We’d have to see how deep the channel is there. We’d have to take soundings,” cautioning that the thing may not be doable.
But what if it was? What if it happened? What if the Matthew Turner, helmed by Olson with some young Benicia sailors as crew, sailed up the river into Matthew Turner’s old shipbuilding town? One can imagine a school band playing, sailboats welcoming it from the water, crowds lining the pier and shoreline to watch, a gala, maritime-inspired civic celebration for young and old, up and down First Street.
That would be pretty grand, wouldn’t it?
Ship and Olson photos by John Skoriak; Turner oil painting courtesy of the Hunt family