Monthly Chantey Sing Brings Maritime History to Life

February 05, 2019 Posted by: Peter Kasin
The park’s monthly Chantey Sing has become a San Francisco tradition, where enthusiasts have gathered aboard floating vessels at Hyde Street Pier to share in the joys of group singing and in keeping maritime history alive through its historical songs. Founded by Park Ranger Dave Nettell in 1981, the Chantey Sing is entering its 38th year, the longest-running singalong of its kind in the country.

I have had the pleasure and honor of running the sings since August 1996. My own experience in first attending a Chantey Sing as a park visitor in November 1989 mirrors the compelling effect the sings have had on many visitors during their first experience.

On that cool evening in ’89, two friends who I knew through traditional Irish music invited me to the sing. I had never heard of it, though I had visited the historic ships since I was a kid. Entering the BALCLUTHA, where it was held that night, was an experience like no other. About 75 people were singing the hauling chantey “Whiskey Johnny,” while a National Park Service  ranger holding a guitar was sitting up front, leading the session and calling on singers, with one chantey after another ringing out in rapid succession. Ranger Celeste Bernardo was in charge by then. That magical night of singing aboard a floating ship in a national park setting was what put my life on a new and exciting course, which led to volunteering at the park beginning in 1990, and being hired as a ranger in 1992.

Many others who have and continue to make the chantey sing a part of their lives have similar stories of how the sings affected them. Chantey Sing participant Melani V.P. writes that, after bringing her daughter, “It is no exaggeration to say the chantey sing changed our lives. My 11 year old daughter who had been too shy to speak to neighbors, leaped to her feet…and proceeded to sing in front of people she had never seen before.” Bay Area historian Steve G. writes of his first chantey sing, “One of the best known results of singing with strangers is the sense of community it builds up, and there was a lot of that going on in the hold of that century old ship that night.” Musician Malcolm R. writes “Truly if you don’t get up and sing at the pier, you’ll never sing anywhere.” The chantey sings also awaken and encourage a sense of history in its participants. Mary J. writes “Through the chanteys themselves, we learned so much maritime history…Since my grandfather and great grandfather were sailors from Liverpool, the chanteys got me thinking about my family history, too.”

One of the more personal testimonials on the power of the chantey sings comes from Mike F. “I have always been a rather socially awkward, even isolated guy. I soon discovered something really important: it didn’t kill you. If you love something, just do it. You’ll meet other people who also love it….but some of us have this shy kid inside who is afraid no one will talk to us, proving once and for all that we are unlovable and doomed. I learned that wasn’t true and I cannot tell you how much that means. I can honestly say the Chantey Sing changed my life.”

You are very welcome to experience the monthly chantey sings, now held aboard the 1890 ferry EUREKA. The choruses to these compelling songs of seafarers, longshore workers and fisherfolk are repetitive and easy to pick up and sing along with. If you would like more information on the park’s Chantey Sing, please email e-mail us for an introductory guide and to reserve space. Who knows how it may change your life!

San Francisco, hyde street pier, NPS, Sea Chantey, Chantey Sing, Balclutha, Eureka, Maritime History, Maritime Culture

Last updated: February 5, 2019

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