In the 19th & 20th centuries, countless people sailed into San Francisco Bay seeking better lives. For many, arrival meant living w/ ideas that shaped their personal histories & the waterfront’s. This podcast explores several of these ideas, using points around SF Maritime National Historical Park as springboards. Regardless if the ideas took the form of myth, propaganda, or outright falsehood, they beg a question: must forging better lives always be entwined with facing bitter lies? Now on Apple Podcasts!
TRANSCRIPT: “Preserving Historic Ships with Rigger Josh Payne and Shipwright Josh Brown”
SABRINA OLIVEROS (SO): Hi! I’m Sabrina Oliveros.
ANNE MONK (AM): And I’m Anne Monk.
SO: You may know us from San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s podcast, Better Lives, Bitter Lies. In that series, we trace events and ideas that shaped the lives of people who arrived on the San Francisco waterfront in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
AM: Today, we’re shifting gears and introducing the first episode of a new series, where we get to know people who preserve and pass on maritime history in the present.
SO: This new podcast is called Two Mics Before the Mast. And if that sounds like a maritime literary reference to you, it is.
AM: “Before the mast” refers to the forecastle [pronounced “fo’c’sle”], or the quarters of common sailors, in the front of a ship. Life there was famously chronicled by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in his wildly popular memoir, Two Years Before the Mast.
SO: In 1834, 19-year-old Dana of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was afflicted by the measles, which affected his eyesight. Hoping fresh air and time away from his studies would heal him, he joined the crew of a merchant ship in Boston, which eventually found its way around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Many things have changed since Dana first set foot on the Pilgrim, but the hard work and dedication needed to keep a boat – or a fleet of historic vessels – afloat hasn’t.
AM: For this series, we’ll be interviewing our fellow crewmates: the rangers, riggers, carpenters, librarians – [SO: and so many more job titles] haha, true – whose work often finds them before the public, as well as the mast.
SO: We’ve already released a special episode talking with our resident chanteyman and former ranger, Peter Kasin. You can catch that on the park’s website and iTunes. Today, we’ll continue with an interview with not one, but two Maritime park staff... who are both named Josh.
AM: Two Mics, Two Joshes? [SO laughs] Josh Brown is a shipwright and Josh Payne a rigger. We’ll learn more about what they do for the park, how they got here, and why they do what they do... but, first, here’s one quick and simple way of differentiating them. As a shipwright, Josh Brown’s job is to build or repair a boat. And as a rigger – since rigging refers to the ropes and cables that support a ship’s masts, and which control its yards and sails – Josh Payne’s job is to make sure the boat moves.
SO: And, together, both of them make sure it doesn’t sink!
AM: [AM laughs] And both of them should probably be the ones elaborating on this.
SO: [SO laughs] True! From here on, we’ll be playing excerpts from our interview.
AM: So grab a bitt, take a sit, [SO: Good lord] join us outside of our figurative fo’c’sle... and listen to the stories they shared, given Two Mics Before the Mast.
PART ONE: What is your job?
AM: Feel free to introduce yourselves, guys.
JOSH PAYNE (JP): Hello.
JOSH BROWN (JB): Hi. You'll have to guess which one is which. [All laugh]
AM: Yeah. So, Josh Payne, let's start with you. What's your job title?
JP: My job title is a Historic Ship Rigger at San Francisco Maritime National Historic[al] Park. I work on, uh, maintaining and, um, keeping the rigging operable on the ships that we have in our collection. Mainly, Balclutha, C.A. Thayer, and Alma. Uh, we maintain the ships' running rigging and standing rigging on all the vessels. Um, we also, uh, fabricate the mooring lines and mooring systems that moor the ships to the pier. But our primary focus is the ships' rigging. And we, we make standing rigging, which is the wire, uh, that holds the masts and yards up. And we also maintain the running rigging on the ships, which is the block and tackles, uh, ropes and lines that you use to, um, manipulate the yards and sails. It's an endless kind of cycle. You're constantly replacing running rigging and standing rigging, rebuilding blocks, replacing ironwork that's washed up or worn out. And that’s pretty much it.
AM: And Josh Brown, what is your job title? JB: Um, I believe officially it's, uh, C.A. Thayer Shipwright 'cause my job is tied to one boat specifically at the moment, uh, which is a little unusual in the park. But, uh, yeah, marine carpenter is kind of the more commonly used term today. We also employ, uh, preservation specialist, um, historic preservation specialist. So there's kind of a range of titles, you know, very modern to, um, technical-sounding, to a shipwright, which if you put on your resume, 99% of people have no idea what, what you do. [AM & SO laugh] I recently learned though that, uh, so a "wright" is just an old English word, not Old English, but English word for someone that makes some stuff out of wood.
AM & SO: Uh-huh.
JB: Those are two different roles though, like shipwright, and then ship's carpenter. And if I could do it succinctly, there's a really cool example of, um, I forget if it was a Bendixsen, but a different lumber schooner that was in a gale off the west coast, ended up getting dismasted and the captain and his dog were swept overboard. And because it was a lumber schooner, they had piles and piles of sawn boards. So they like lashed a bunch of them together and made these jury-rigged masts, and then a jury-rigged rudder that just looks like a big barn door hanging off the back of the thing. And they made it all the way to Hawaii, totally waterlogged, flying the American flag. So they were real proud of themselves, but you know, onshore, there's trying to take the time you have to do everything, you know, really right. And then that role of ship's carpenter is more what Josh gets excited about, which is, um [chuckles], you know, using the available materials to really, to just get you home, you know?
AM: Yeah. So just to clarify, what is “jury-rigged”?
JB: Uh, I was wondering, I don't know what the, the etymology of the “jury” part is, but, if part of the rig breaks, you use whatever parts you have on hand to make a replacement. Um, and then, so yeah, a jury rudder is just spiking, lashing together any boards you have to make something to hang off the back of the boat to have steerage, but you know, it's just in a pinch. I don't know where the “jury”, where that vocab word comes from. Be a fun internet search, kids.
AM: Giving them homework already.
JB: For all you listeners at home... [SO & AM laugh]
SO: So, Josh Brown was on the right track.
AM: Alright. Tell me more...
SO: Thanks to a fun internet search [AM: You mean Merriam-Webster?] – I mean, yeah, of course, I do [AM & SO laugh] – I know now that “jury-rigged” is the oldest of three similar phrases: jerry-rigged, jerry-built, and, of course, jury-rigged.
AM: Go on!
SO: Well, the original term, jury-rigged, dates back to at least the 1700s, but the two words that comprise it, jury and rig, both date back to the 1400s.
AM: “Rig” we know, thanks to Josh Payne!
SO: Yep! And jury, which as an adjective can mean “makeshift” or “improvised for temporary use especially in an emergency”, comes from the Middle English word jory, which means “improvised” and was used to describe improvised devices onboard sailing vessels, such as a “jory sail”, or an improvised sail. AM: Huh, so he really wasn’t far off!
SO: Not at all, but we are maybe getting a little far from the interview.
AM: True. For the next several minutes, we’ll hear the Joshes compare the natures of their jobs today with the same jobs from a century ago.
SO: We will also hear their stories on how they found themselves working for San Francisco Maritime. Let’s get back to the interview. PART TWO: How do your jobs today differ from their historical nature?
AM: So that kind of leads into another question, which is, how do your jobs today differ from the historical roles of riggers and ships carpenters?
JP: Personally, I don't think in, at least in the rigging department, I don't think it really differs that much. Um, the conditions which the rigging usually takes place under, I guess there's two different, there's like at-sea riggers, which would be considered more bosuns, for repairs and stuff underway, which constantly happens. Things are always breaking and having to be mended and fixed. But, um, shore-side riggers, such as I am now... Um, the working conditions are probably more or less the same. Um, they, back in the day, they had long ropewalks and stuff that would be fairly commonly seen on the San Francisco waterfront or anywhere for that matter. Um, so those things have gone, but the actual labor itself is very much the same. We don’t use power tools. The tools have remained the same for literally thousands of years. Um, so marlinspike is one, which is just a metal long spike, and that's used for splicing wire and rope – but primarily wire – and also helping bang on things when they're too rusted to get open. [JP & AM laugh] And, uh, the other tools which have also remained the same for thousands of years are a stick with a hole in it, um, that we use to put seizings on. That's called a seizing stick. And it's literally, just a stick about a foot and a half long with a hole on the end that you run the wire through. And this enables you to lay on, or clap on, seizings extremely tight. And the other tool is a serving mallet. And the serving mallet is, uh, how you wrap the twine tightly around standing rigging to protect it from weather and elements. So in the sense of the tools we use, it's almost identical to what they used back in the day. Yeah. And even the environment we work in at the park is more or less the same. We work on the ships, sometimes abovedecks, sometimes below, but virtually identical to the way it would have been in the 1800s or 1700s, or even before that for that matter. So Josh's job is quite different, I think, with the adaptation of power tools and stuff like that. But I'll let him talk about that.
JB: [chuckles] Yeah, let's see. In terms of tools, um, yeah, we do use a lot of, um, you know, electric-powered tools, um, and even cordless ones today. We do have the benefit that, um, a lot of the bigger machinery and, uh, hand tools, you know, to accomplish the work are, are really the exact same as they were in the late 1800s. Um, they were, you know, well into a industrial period. You know, they had a huge array of specialized, specialized tools like gasoline or, you know, steam-powered planers and bandsaws um, but the, you know, the business-end of a, of a plane that's just sharp edge shaving off a piece of wood, or the tip of a drill bit is, tip of the chisel, um, is still the... it's still the same. Um, just, uh, might not require quite as much, quite as much muscle anymore. [chuckles] So, uh, you know, I think we tend to romanticize all this, uh, uh, handwork. I certainly don't envy, um, you know, the folks that drilled every fastening hole on Thayer's hull by hand. [chuckles] But you know, as Josh said, really the, the set of, um, tools, our arsenal, it's improved somewhat, but they're not really so different.
JP: What about the work environment? Do you think that's changed at all?
JB: Yeah. I was thinking about that, um, quite a bit this last week. So, um, I think, you know, fundamentally, today, it's different, where, you know, we have the benefit of, of, um, really doing, you know, painstaking work, um, and taking our time when, presumably, you know, on a, on a sand spit up in Northern California when they were making this boat, Thayer, commercially or, you know, Glasgow, where, where Balclutha was built, um, you know, there was a lot more onus to work quickly, work hard, or lose your job. Um, but, uh, you know, one thing I'm pretty sure of is that in like the 1890s, 1880s, these shipwrights or riggers, um, you know, they weren't thinking about keeping their work authentic to a given time or place. They were just trying to build a boat to do a purpose. So, you know, we're, today, we're trying to preserve these a hundred, 130-year-old, um, historic ships in like this static, stable state – which like completely throws a wrench into the whole works of what would be a much simpler job. It's easy to, to forget they were designed to last, you know, a handful of decades. So if they were going to be repaired, they'd be repaired in the most practical manner and, you know, they'd only be repaired so long as they could be made profitable again. So they were modified, they were adapted to suit each new job, and just put together, you know, good enough. Massive alterations were, you know, the norm, not the exception. And today, anyway, we're still sort of doing the same thing, but we're adapting the ship to a new job. And that, that new job is to stay exactly the same [JB & AM chuckle] as her original state in perpetuity.
AM: Yeah. Um, and I think you've both spoken to, in the past, how adaptations to your jobs and changes to your jobs are still in line with the nature of the historic role. Josh, you said something – Josh Brown, sorry – you said something about how using power tools [audio crackling] is still in line with that historic carpenter job because they would have used any tool available to them to get the job done. Right?
JB: [laughs] Yeah. That's a funny, if, uh, maybe even a touchy subject for some. People sometimes want to, they see, you know, preservation work in progress. They want to point out that, you know, you're lucky to have power tools and, or that's not how they would have done it back in the day. And there's kind of a justification for using more modern tools, uh, which is shipwrights and boatwrights would have used any and all tools at their disposal to accomplish the task at hand. For instance, a laser level is an incredible, amazing gadget that you can figure out if, you know, things are in a straight line and, um, using one doesn't fundamentally alter the appearance of your work in the end. But we do, you know, want to carefully make sure that they aren't influencing the end appearance. There's a buzzword in preservation called "evidence of tradecraft." So, you know, we might use, um, power tools or even a, you know, a chain saw to rough out a big part. But then, uh, the finished work will still, might come down to using a chisel or a, you know, a hand plane or an adze. So, you know, we'll try to leave those adze marks, chisel marks in the end and not, remove those, uh, those traces of the work.
JP: I think, uh, one of the primary differences between, like, say using a power tool or an adze or a power planer and adze or something like that, would be that, I think, yards back in the day that were building these ships, like they had 20 or 30 guys building the ship at the same time. So there was 20 or 30 guys using bit braces and adzes and stuff, opposed to what we have on the pier now, which is Josh Brown. [laughs]
JB: And my, and my, and my, and my fellow coworkers in my department.
JP: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I think you could, if you had those 30 more guys, then you could be worked to using bit and braces and adzes and stuff like that, and have it be a more authentic construction. But with one guy or two guys or three guys, or whatever it may be, this, uh, possibility of keeping up with a deteriorating ship is just, well, it's just not possible. It's like stuff would rot out from under you before you could actually get to it. So, uh, power tools, I think, help with this a lot.
SO: Well that sounds – that sounds to me like this would be a good time to get more people interested in being one of Josh Brown's 30 new guys to work with [AM: Hmn-hmn.] ][JB: Yeah [chuckles]] or 30 new guys to work with Josh Payne. So, unless there are other things you want to explain about your job, maybe we can talk a bit about how you got into these jobs in the first place. What drew you to them?
JB: I'm going to defer to Josh Payne again and see where he goes through this, 'cause I, I am awfully confused on this subject. [SO & AM laugh]
PART THREE: How did you get to your jobs at San Francisco Maritime?
JP: Okay. Well, um, I guess, uh, how I got into the job is, uh, it's kind of a two-part answer – and I think Josh will probably have a similar answer to some part of it – is that, um, one, I really appreciate history. I like old things. Everything I own is like, old. I appreciate old craftsmanship and old tools, old machines. Like, there's a simplicity to them that I understand that I don't get with modern equipment. And then there's one thing in history that I really like – has always fascinated me – is like the construction of, like, the pyramids or, you know, the Druids that moved the stones of Stonehenge, or the Inca and Mayan people that moved these amazing loads with, you know, rocks and, I mean, massive! Like, if you've been to Egypt, like you just see these stones that are, like, the size of the school bus, you know, and they had no power tools. All they had is a lot of people and some rope. So that process of moving enormous loads, like, extreme distances in some case – you know, Rapanui or Easter Island, you know, how do they walk these things to where they were going? How did these people accomplish these like literally monumental tasks with no machines? And the answer is rigging. I mean, to drag a stone, a stone at Stonehenge, my theory is that they dug a deep hole. They stuck a tree in it. They drilled some holes in the tree and put bars like a capstan, wound a rope around it, tied it to the rock, and then just spun it, you know? So there you have a primitive pulley, a capstan. So that part of history, I appreciate it. I grew up in Colorado, so there's not many ships and boats in Colorado at all. And I moved to New York from Colorado with the hopes of getting an art job someplace. When I was in New York, I was walking around the waterfront and, uh, I stopped by the South Street Seaport, which is, uh, home to the Wavertree and Peking. And, uh, there was a guy on a schooner there, sitting on deck, and he was doing some rope splicing and just kind of like hanging out, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee. And I figured, boy, that would be a nice job to have! So anyways, I asked the guy: what would it take to get a job there? And he said, well, I don't know, what do you know? And I said, well, I can, I'm pretty good carpenter. I can weld, I can build a lot of stuff. And then he said, well, the guy over on the ship there, on the Wavertree – which is, um, very similar to Balclutha – he said, they're looking for some help over there. And for two years I did a rigging apprenticeship there on the Wavertree with a master rigger named Jim Berry. And he taught me the ropes, so to speak. I had never been on a boat before. I had never sailed before. I had – coming from Colorado, I had nothing to do with the water. But it seemed like kind of a fun place to be. So, it was just me and this other rigger on the ship. And, um, he taught me the trade of how to do wire splicing, wire seizings, how to make masts, how to build and maintain blocks. We did the whole gamut there 'cause they were working on uprigging Wavertree at the time. And then I started to get, uh, thinking, well, boy, if I know so much about rigging, I should probably learn how to go sailing and use the rigging. So I signed on Europa and that was the trip of a lifetime. I sailed from San Diego to Easter Island. Then we rounded Cape Horn. Went to the Falklands. We sailed Antarctica, Africa, Europe, uh, all the way up into the Great Lakes. I mean, it was little more than a year and a half, almost two years of working on that. And, um, that experience really informed like, how a rig is supposed to work and the limitations of the rigging and the materials that you were working with. And so I did that for a couple years, sailed on schooners, square riggers, all that stuff. But in the back of my head, I always knew that I liked rigging better. I always liked building the ships more than sailing them. It was a nice gratification when everything was all done, it was up, and it looked beautiful and it was a functional piece of art.
AM: It seems that you moved to New York for an art job and ended up in one in a way that you may not have expected.
JP: Yeah, no, I had no intention of working on boats. But, uh, I mean, when you look at them, I mean, who wouldn't want to work on one of those things? So, uh, it was in the sunshine and, uh, yeah, there was a certain art quality to it. I mean, I like old stuff, so. How about you, Josh? How'd you get here?
JB: That was fascinating, Josh. [JP & JB chuckle]
JP: Sorry. [laughs] I know...
JB: No, my, mine's going to be worse, man. I was sort of nodding my head when Payne said that he had no intention of working on ships. [laughs] Um, I liked, really liked reading. I ended up studying history. So I liked reading about these earlier eras of, you know, industrial history, labor history. I could get really interested in reading about events and people in the past. Um, but you know, even if you read fiction or just watch movies, it's one thing to, to – It's one thing to see it or hear it described, but you don't really, can't really understand those circumstances unless you're actually just trying to participate. Anyway, I ended up, uh, I took a lot of time off, off from college and I didn't really have a plan. But I had some family in Maine, so I headed up there and kind of found a family friend that ran a, um, wilderness canoe tripping camp. They use all wood canvas canoes, white cedar, um, ribs or, on red cedar planking. So native, local species with a cottonskin on them. Both the construction method and the, um, and the shapes of those boats were all closely derived from, um, native Passamaquoddy, native group. I was essentially the maintenance person, but he was, uh, he was a really good teacher and mentor and was kind of uniquely trusting of young people. If something needed fixing, even if it was a 30-year-old canoe, um, which is kind of a precious object – you know, he didn't, we didn't, he didn't have the resources to do it all himself. So he was willing to let young people like me take a crack at that and completely mess things up, do things wrong, uh, learn the hard way. But you know, he provided a lot of positive reinforcement, so that, that was kinda my window into that world. So, yeah. I did a little stint up in Seattle in northern Washington at the Center for Wooden Boats, which is a little, great little museum up there, and was ostensibly supposed to be tracking volunteer hours or something. But luckily I got like the good boss again, who was more into just actively using the replica boats we had at our disposal. So he kind of just told me to forget everything that I was doing and just rent boats and when they got banged up on rocks, or beached, to put them back together again. And, um, had a little at a commercial job in Portland, building cold molded, which are like plywood veneer and fiberglass boats. I liked that all right, for a bit. I didn't really see the sun all winter because it was indoor shop, so I was itching to get back outdoors, um, and ended up coming down to San Francisco, desperately seeking work [chuckles] and just kind of found my way to the pier 'cause that's where the boats were. And was able to find some gigs repairing boats at the pier used for kids' programs and kind of worked my way up, you know, getting more and more bigger, higher responsibility, haul-outs on some of the collection boats. But yeah, actually, like, like Josh, I only spent one – I'm kind of a landlubber. I only spent one summer fishing in Alaska 'cause that seemed like it'd be a great adventure. And, you know, it was something that a lot of the, the writers I liked had gone and done. [AM: Mm.]
And I learned that I really, that I really didn't like that very much. If I get four hours of sleep at night, I become a deeply resentful individual. [AM laughs] So there's a lot of, yeah, yeah, natural beauty. It sounds really romantic. But I didn't take to it or I was “one-and-done" as a kind of, uh, uh, insulting way to characterize someone like me. [chuckles] Um, but yeah, I figured I, I would, I did, you know, stick to the shoreside with, you know, regular working hours. You can go home at night and you can kind of have contact with all the, the glory and lore, but not actually have to participate in it yourself.
PART FOUR: Where do your jobs intersect?
SO: Both Joshes might not be sailing any tall ships today, but they do have a lot of contact with the quote-unquote “glory and lore” that come with these vessels. Later, we will hear more about how this affects their jobs.
AM: But, before that, the Joshes get into how and where their jobs intersect, and what they find fun and fulfilling about work on the pier.
SO: Let’s listen to the next segment, which starts with Josh Brown describing how and physically where his job intersects with Josh Payne’s.
JB: Yeah. Um, I mean, there's sort of a line at the deck where we have to, um, separate our two departments. Back in the day they liked to say they could build a boat in about six months and they'd rig it in six weeks, but the rigging work distinctly would happen after [chuckles] the ship was built. Um, so, really you have two separate crews there that hopefully one of them is going to get out of the way so that if someone's working aloft, we're not in any line where something could be dropped on us. And then there's kind of the unfortunate fact of life that the riggers are above, um, all the work that I do. So, everything they drop or drip ends up on my stuff, [AM laughs] but anything I drop or drip doesn't go up onto their stuff. So it's this one-way street of [JP laughs] the opportunity to screw up someone else's [JP and JB laugh] hard-won gains, uh, that puts us at odds. Um, [All laugh] we usually maintain some pretty good humor about it. But you know, we, if I'm making a part off Wood's Insurance Records and a captain's drawings too, they don't call out all the specific details. They call out general dimensions and lengths. So for some of those, they'll interact with the rig in a functional way and they won’t jam up or chafe a line through. You know, we have to ask the riggers, hey, how's this going to function? What are the farrow leads? We need that expertise of someone that knows how it's going to be hung up in the sky. It's important to have people that are rigging, down-rigging, up-rigging, and have sailed on these ships before to be able to tell us exactly, you know, what's that part going to do? How strong does it need to be in this dimension? What kind of forces, what kind of destructive entropy is it going to be subject to up in the rig? I think that's, that's about, that’s as much as we interact or are forced to interact. Payne, you want to...?
JP: Well, I mean, the way I look at it is this, okay? So, you have the hull of the ship. And then on top of that, you've got the masts and spars, and I kind of consider those like the, uh, the skeletal system of the rig. And then standing rigging and running rigging is the ligaments and tendons of the machine, or the body. And then the sails are, and the canvas are kind of like the muscle. You can't have the ship function if you take away one of those systems. So the rigging kind of just translates the power of the wind and the pressure and the forces used against the sail to the masts, which then translate it down to the ship's hull. Once you sail on them, um, on these boats, you can really understand like how – and see physically – how they work together. The reality is that in sailing, especially on square-riggers, when the rigs are just huge, there needs to be a lot of movement in them. So the spars and masts have their own strength. Um, they flex, that's the beauty of wood and even steel too. The rigging needs to be able to accept that flex, 'cause if it's too tight, the mast itself is not taking any of the load. It's all on the rig. So you have to have all this stuff work together to kind of get the full power of the rig. So I would say that's where our jobs intersect – this combination of spars, rigging, and canvas that all make the machine work.
JB: Yeah. I was, I was saying to Josh the other day, it's easy to, to think, you know, you build a hull, you put a rig on it. But you know, from a design standpoint, whether it's a square rigger or a tiny little dinghy, you know, you start with what sail do you want on it. That determines the rig. That determines, you know, how much the hull wants to return to a level position in the water. Basically the rig determines, to a large extent, the hull shape. So they're really designed from the top down. They're only built from the keel up. The hulls are amazing in and of themselves, but in my mind, a, a barge is, is kind of a boring inanimate object. [AM & SO laugh]
JP: It's fun to see the, how far you can take materials, you know, and how far you can push them to their limits. In the shipwright industry and in rigging industry, you are pushing those materials to the limits. You know, like how far you can bend a plank before it breaks, or how much load can a line take before it breaks. And the truth of the matter is that you never really know until you break it. I'm an advocate in a lot of ways of pushing things till they break, not in a unsafe manner, but in a controlled experiment because, more often than not, these materials are far stronger and the machines that you're using are far stronger than you think they are, and their capabilities far exceed what you think is possible sometimes. [JB: Yeah] And that's always that sense of awe, when you get done with it, you're like, wow, I thought that line would have broke a long time ago, but it didn't! So, that then informs you and decisions you make further down the road.
JB: Yeah, and I think that, that, that ties into the, I mean, that's what, like being good at any of these, especially traditional trades, cause it's more experience-based and just know-how versus like, you know, engineered or data-driven.
JP: Yeah, you can't go on Google and Google that stuff. Like, you only can experience it and speak with any kind of, like, authority when the problem comes up again, you know? So – [AM & SO: Mhm]
JB: Yeah. There's a humility there too. That, like, I think anybody that's good at these specific trades – I like to think like, that's the person that has seen this go sideways more than anybody else. Like they've messed this up in every conceivable way. So that, going into tasks, my process is kind of like “Okay, here are the four ways that this is going to go really wrong: how I'm going to destroy the part, destroy a expensive machine or hurt myself." And there's always like a fifth thing out there that is going to get you. I think pretty quickly you learn from people, more experienced people that you can have a crack at something and mess it up and learn from that and do it again. And it'll work the second time. And then it'd better work the third time or [chuckles] – but, you know, yeah, all experience comes from mishaps.
JP: Yeah, I would agree with that.
AM: Yeah. Yeah, we digressed a lot [AM & SO laugh] but I like it! So. Whose job is cooler?
JP: Mine, for sure. Um. I think, uh, maybe instead of saying whose job is cooler [AM: Hmn] the question could be “What are some of the most fun and interesting parts of your job?”
JB: There we go! Then it's not adversarial.
JB: Yeah. Mine's workflow. Great. [JP laughs]
JB: Actually, wait. There is something very cool about like these objects, like Thayer's, you know, a national, historic landmark. She's now the last of her kind. And you know, when I was in Seattle, she had a sister ship, Wawona, which is, besides a few major parts, was the exact same ship. And those were the last two. And I was there for Wawona getting broken up. [AM: Mm] So these, these objects they're, you know, they're kind of precious and intimidating, even if it's just a small rowboat that's, say, a replica, not an actual historic artifact. If someone already puts so much effort into building the thing – to say that “Yeah, I know how to fix that and be willing to cut a hole in it, remove parts of it, and guarantee people that I'm going to be able to put it back as it was." You know, it's, at first, intimidating, but, and then it just becomes sort of like a privilege. Every now and then if I'm just having a normal workday where I'm just kind of grinding or a little tired or whatnot, every now and then I'll run a decision by one of my supervisors and they'll approve my plan. And I'm just kind of reminded like, “Oh, that's right. I'm trusted to do things to this historic object and have built up the confidence to do it and not be intimidated by it.” So there's some status there. There some glory there.
PART FIVE: What parts have you played in interpretation?
AM: You and I are part of the interpretive department – the park staff with those recognizable flat hats and shiny badges, who give tours and answer visitor questions.
SO: Like “How old are the ships?”, “Do these boats still move?”, “Is that a pirate ship?”, and “Where’s the bathroom?” AM: [AM laughs] Those are indeed the most frequent, if not the most important, questions we get. [SO laughs] And when we do give tours, we usually talk about where a ship fits within a larger historical narrative – which can often involve dispelling a lot of lore about tall ships.
SO: Not all tall ships are pirate ships. [AM: Hmn-hmn.] Well – maybe only in the movies. Mostly. [AM chuckles AM: And our ship tours usually last 45 minutes, so we don’t often have the opportunity to dive deeply into the technical specifications of the vessel itself.
SO: Thankfully, interpreters are not the only staff that visitors interact with. And those 45-minute tours aren’t the only times visitors can have their questions answered. AM: So we asked the Joshes about how lore affects their jobs, as well as some of their favorite interactions with visitors.
SO: And here's what they had to say.
JP: Boy. That’s again is kind of a embarrassing thing when you talk about the romance of working on boats. Um –
JB: I can talk about it.
JP: Yeah? Go ahead, please.
JB: Oh, I was just gonna say, as a general, there is a lot of, you know, romance and lore [AM: Mhm] and glory that people imagine working on these boats, which, no doubt, is there. I won't try to disabuse someone of their, you know, fantasies about the Age of Sail and, um, the adventures. But I figure for every writer that went out – like, you know, Jack London or, um, I don't know, rattle off some other, um, writers –
AM: Richard Henry Dana.
JB: Yeah. For every writer that signed on, or for every sailor that ended up writing something, who felt inspired and was enjoying themselves – I figured there were 50 other laborers that had some hard, amazing skills and could keep themselves and their crewmates alive. You know, the smaller coastal boats we have, you had the chance of getting home every couple of weeks, maybe, or months. But it wasn't uncommon for, like, Balclutha on, uh, going around the Horn to lose like at least one sailor. Um, I think that was fairly typical. Maybe you lose somebody. It’s a, you know. It's a story of abuse and hardship and –
JP: Well, that's, that's more the sailing end of it, but I think [JB: yeah] um, what we do, I don't think has those kinds of dangers that you do when you're underway at sea, but, uh, we encounter that kind of stuff in the rig more than Josh would on deck. But it's nothing like sailing around Cape Horn.
JB: Yeah, no, I think, yeah, uh, a job in a boat yard on the coast of California or Oregon, you know, in the late 1800s doesn't sound like too terrible a gig to me, you know? You know, a lot of them were somewhere near towns and they went home at night.
AM: And I guess it – why that question came to mind for me as is we definitely get it as interpreters. Like, “Wow! These ships went around Cape Horn!” We're like, “Yeah! And also the labor practices were really bad. Can we tell you about that?” They’re like “But we didn't want to learn – like, don't talk to us about history. We wanted to live a little bit in our fantasy.”
JB: Yeah. The, um, Pirates of the Caribbean era was kind of rough when we had just droves of pirates showing up at the pier, [AM laughs] looking for Johnny Depp and they found Josh Payne instead. [All laugh]
JP: Yeah. I think the, um, when you, when you talk about that kind of stuff, it's easy to dramatize the lifestyles and you know how these guys must have lived while they were sailing around and doing these jobs. But I wish the park would focus more on, you know, like on Balclutha, everybody looks down below and, “Oh, the China Gang" and “Life must have been terrible in the fo'c'sle" or “Look at the conditions they had to sleep in" – but nobody talks about the vast machine that's above their head! And I think it's primarily because nobody understands it. I mean, when you talk about like, “You know, they didn't have any engines, there's no engine on that ship!” You know, it's like you look up and there is, you know, 13 stories of engine above you, you know?
AM: Great point.
JP: I would find it much more interesting if they actually illustrated how the machine works, you know? How many guys does it take to brace a yard? Like, what was the task involved and manipulating these huge loads and sails like underway? Like how do you wear a ship? Like, how do you turn the ship? You know, like, how do you tack a square rigger while you're underway? Um, I would hope that those kinds of conversations could be had more on the pier because you have everything there to illustrate it.
AM: Yeah, that's fair. And it's, it's always an interesting thing when you go to a national park or a museum, and especially in national historical park, where you expect history to be the only thing that you learn and you get to the pier and you have so much science and math and technology at play, constantly.
JP: The other thing [JB: Yeah, and] I think. Hold on, Josh. [JB: Yep] Um, uh, the other thing I think is like – and I just thought of this – like the sailors and the people that worked on these ships, like, they're not there anymore, you know? They're just ghosts. There's actually no sailors on the pier that actually work on those ships. But what is there is the hardware. What is there is the ships. Like I said, all that's represented there already. You just have to tell them how it works and that it's like, “Oh, that's how it works!” But if you can wax poetic about all the old times that you want, because there's nobody there to tell you different.
JB: Yeah, no, it's fantastic when, when we do have like experiential programming going on, or when Alma's out. It's one thing to, yeah, you can read in a book what a block and tackle does. But yeah, the first time a kid or even a, I don't know, adults come down and raise sail and pull on a line, and you see that “I gotta pull more, but it's less weight!” You know? You can see that there's this intuitive understanding of what goes on that you can't really get, unless you get your hands on the machinery and feel, you know?
AM: Yeah. And I mean, traditionally, your jobs wouldn't get a lot of contact with an inquiring public, but when Hyde Street Pier is open, you must get so many questions because you're in full view of visitors pretty much the entire time. Um, do either or both of you have any favorite or memorable visitor questions that come to mind?
JP: Um, well, they say there's no such thing as a stupid question, right? So you do get some – I'll say silly questions – not stupid. Um, you know, the gamut of like, "Is this boat really floating?” or [AM chuckles] “How do you get it to look so old?” or, um – I mean, I guess the questions aren't so comical or whatever. I mean, like I said, coming from Colorado and not knowing anything about boats, you can't hold that against them to ask these kinds of silly questions. So now I just look at them all as good questions. And, um, the, the thing I get the biggest kick out of is the answers to the questions, um, are usually so full of technical lingo. [laughs] The looks you see on the people's faces as I'm giving the answer to like, “Oh, how do you get that mast all the way up to the top without using a crane?” More often than not, you have to have the stuff set up that you're talking about so you can have physical examples of what you're talking about. And then it goes back to that kinda that “aha” moment of the visitor puts two and two together, sees how the mechanics of it work.
JB: Um, yeah, I was going to object to the question right out the gate. [AM laughs] No, I mean that visitor contact part of it where it’s kind of striking – You know, the park has a really pretty impressive collection of historic photos. Being that a lot of our boats are from like the tail end of the Age of Sail, we have the benefit of people were taking photos, um, in the time of these ships' construction. So, what's funny about them though, is that a lot of those photos, even, even if it's just a shipyard, there's oftentimes a lot of, um, you know, Victorian onlookers that are there on the waterfront of San Francisco, or even, even, you know, in these remote places like Eureka, California, there’ll be a couple people standing around in top hats or whatever that obviously aren’t yard employees. There'll be, you know, women in dresses and dogs. And so I think we get today the same... I think there was always kind of a spectacle to shipbuilding, you know, whether it's in Glasgow, where they were like churning out these ever-bigger, leviathan, you know, steel-and-iron ships and steamers at that point even. Or, you know, San Francisco docks that had just like this teeming boomtown international trade going on. Or Fairhaven where they were making wooden boats in the forest, practically, in the, you know, before the last century now. [chuckles] You know, at that point, wooden sailing ships were like an anachronism. They were like the last of their kind. Yeah, there was a spectacle and a reverence for it then, too. That these were like great accomplishments in human effort. So I think that, I think that sentiment is still alive. Like, the question we'll get I like a lot – or I'll remind myself I like the question a lot – is just “How many people sailed this thing?" You know? And whether it's a tall ship, like, uh, Balclutha, I don't know if it's 25, 30, Josh could correct me –
JP: Oh, more like 30 people.
JB: Yeah. Or, um, you know, a, a coast-wise schooner, like Thayer is, you know, six to eight people 'cause they were trying to save on labor and making these easier-to-handle ships. But in any case, it's just incredible that a handful, a small group of people could control this just huge array of machinery and lines. I mean you really just need to get out on a deck of a boat to appreciate it. But in terms of constructing them, it's sort of the same thing where, you know, anybody that's built a birdhouse, or house for that matter, can look around at one of these ships and just appreciate – I mean, if you count the fastenings, if you look at how much time it would take to complete one of these vessels, it's just sheer, you know, it's, it's momentum and the number of people all doing their little bit to achieve this kind of impossible goal. So, yeah, I think if you step onboard and you look at these things that people can create through sheer will and, and ingenuity, it kind of gives you a different impression of what we do in the world as the weird animals that we are.
SO: Mhm. That kind of reminds me of something, um, Josh Payne said earlier, when he was comparing rigging, like the system, to how people built pyramids and Stonehenge. It's like, we can't see, we can't go to Egypt or watch people build a pyramid, but people can actually go to Hyde Street Pier and watch how the machinery can still work. Right?
JP: Yeah. Very much so. Yeah. I wish we did more of that.
JB: Yeah. Yeah. I'd say we're, in a way, we're kind of a, at our best, the pier can be kind of a lab to understand that kind of thing. We can consult literature, historic records, shipping records, and it won't be until we actually get that part in its place, on deck, and in use that we'll have this kind of collective "aha" moment of like, “Oh, that's how they did it. You know, that's why this is.” A lot of things won't immediately make sense, or they'll seem sort of counterintuitive, until you try them out and get them back in their historic context. We'll have this little window back into the way that people thought and designed things and worked a hundred-odd years ago.
SO: Well, Anne. What have you learned today?
AM: Oh, so much. We’re going to have to bother ships more often, I think.
SO: Is that supposed to constitute sufficient warning?
AM: Haha, I hope so. But you know what? This conversation really made me think of the Ship of Theseus!
SO: Is that in our collection? I’ll look it up – I’m kidding! [AM: Oh, boy.] You’re referring to the thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus, which asks a question inspired by Greek mythology.
AM: Mm-hmm. Briefly, the question is, “If, over the course of its life, every board on a ship is replaced.... is it still the same ship?”
SO: That sounds like something we should have asked the Joshes – and something we can encourage all our listeners, visitors, and coworkers to think about.
AM: Speaking of visitors, we should probably get off our bitts and back to work.
SO: Aye, aye, park guide! [AM: Hoo boy!] Well, thanks for listening, everyone! And join us next time for another episode of Two Mics Before the Mast. [exit music starts]
JB: [humming an upbeat melody] Josh is going to sing a chantey to kick things off.
JP: Oh, we need some hero music in the background, like [hums a dynamic melody]
[AM, SO, JB & JP laugh]
AM: It’s actually going to be that, ‘cause we’re recording!
JP: Alright. [laughs]
[exit music ends]
Music Credit: “Falaal” by Blue Dot Sessions from FreeMusicArchive.org. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0.
#9 Special Episode: Preserving Historic Ships with Rigger Josh Payne and Shipwright Josh Brown