Friday, September 11, 2009

Building the Lady Washington: a Tale of Hope and Politics

By Brandon Ford ©2009

It started as an idea between two friends who shared it with a larger circle of friends. The idea became a dream, one that would honor the man for whom Grays Harbor is named and the proud maritime heritage built by the captains and shipbuilders who came in his wake.

The dream became a vision of tall ships and a tall building gracing a blighted waterfront. A vision powerful enough to turn the tide of the Harbor's sagging fortunes and bring some light to days overshadowed by dark economic news. The vision was clothed with colors from the pallet of artist and a master salesman. A community looked, listened and chose sides. Some opened their checkbook and some lobbied the state for money to make the vision reality. Others scoffed and laughed. But the money came and the vision lurched forward.

Building the smaller brig was just a warmup for the larger Columbia Rediviva and then the maritime museum. As shipwrights drove the first spike in the Lady Washington's keel, it was as if a wedge was driven between the supporters and detractors. Few remained neutral. Supporters wore pins that said “Tall Ships Restoration Society.” Detractors wore t-shirts with a three-masted ship being flushed down a toilet and the legend “Sink Tall Ships.”

As the battle raged in city council chambers, taverns and on local talk shows, volunteers and employees of the newly-formed Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority went to work. They spread roofing tar between pieces of old-growth douglas fir and bolted them together to form the frames that became the Lady's ribs. They cut paths through head-high blackberry thickets to connect a used construction trailer that served as an office to a never-used hake plant that served as a shipyard. They sold buttons, t-shirts, pins, sponsorships, memberships, commemorative coins, fancy certificates that declared the holder to be the owner of a keel bolt or spar or ballast brick. But the most coveted of all the Seaport's merchandise was a fine-art print of two tall ships tied to the dock of a first-class maritime museum with nothing in the background but blue sky.

The ship building didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the state. Newspapers from Seattle to Spokane and television stations too sent reporters, photographers and on-air personalities to report and photograph and pontificate about a douglas fir ship growing where they tried to cut it all. Doubtless viewers and readers, accustomed to only hearing of Grays Harbor's woes, whispered to themselves, “Can any good thing come out of Aberdeen?” Other centennial projects around the state looked on with envy at the publicity (and state money) the timber town with its timber tall ship received. “Perhaps we should have aimed higher,” they may have thought in unguarded moments. What they did not know, what they could not have guessed, was that this was not a centennial project. This was an idea, a dream, a vision from a community that had been too short on all three for too long.

As fall turned to winter the hake-plant-turned-shipyard with it's tin roof and tin walls and metal pilings sunk deep into the Grays Harbor mud got colder. The metal seemed to suck the heat out so even the sodium lights found it hard to work. Steam rose from two-inch-thick planks plucked from boiling water as a team of shipwrights in tricorn hats ran to where they tortured the temperamental, unyielding, son-of-a-bitching plank into place only to have it break. Then they would start over again.

In the office there was a tug-of-war over the launch date between the lead shipwright and the executive director. “We can't be ready to launch in time for the centennial celebration,” he said. “We must launch on the centennial celebration or we will lose the project,” she said. “Besides the first lady and the secretary of state will be here to break the bottle of wine (Lady Washington Chardonnay) over the bow.”

Late into the night the shipwrights and volunteers labored. The last plank – the whiskey plank – was hammered home. As the constant sound of caulking mallets rang out in the dim light of the shipyard the decks and rails and stern carvings took shape.

Back in the office another battle – almost as fierce as the when-to-launch battle – developed. It was between the historically-minded shipwrights, who wanted to carve “Boston” below “Lady Washington” on the stern, the Coast Guard, who quoted regulations that the ship's home port, “Aberdeen,” must be carved there and the politically-astute board and executive director who insisted only “Grays Harbor” would do. The Coast Guard granted special permission and understood. The group of shipwrights went back to their work grumbling about how “nobody knows nothing about history around here.”

As launch day grew closer, hundreds of details had to come together. To name just a few: a launching ramp had to be built next to the shipyard, the ship had to be moved to said ramp, and enough lead had to be found to ballast the boat so it wouldn't float like a cork or, worse yet, roll onto her side like a replica tall ship in England did at her launch.

A fast-talking, ex-Navy chief got a group of Seabees to build a launching ramp as a training exercise for free. A south Aberdeen house mover stepped up and moved the ship pretty as you please out the front of the shipyard and down the ramp to where she kissed the water to wait for launch day. And the community brought old lead plumbing pipes, tire weights, fish-net weights and you-name-it. If it was on Grays Harbor, made of lead and not nailed down it ended up in the bilge of the Lady Washington.

Meantime, in the cold, damp shipyard the paint was not drying. Not even close. Drying additives were poured into paint cans by the cap full, then the cup full and then dumped in wholesale until finally the bright colors of the little brig stayed put.

As the ship inched toward the launch ramp everyone at the seaport worried the dirty little secret would get out. The dirty little secret being that the Lady Washington was a superficial girl: good looking on the outside with almost nothing going on inside. It would be months after her launch before she was finished.

The day of the launch was a typical spring day on Grays Harbor: that is to say moderate to heavy continuous rain. As the appointed time (high tide on a week day) approached, the seaport staff got more and more anxious. “What if we have a launch and no one comes,” they thought. But come they did, by the car and bus load. As the crowd assembled, the rain stopped and a beam of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the ceremony as if God himself was shedding forth His approval.

Words were spoken. The wine bottle broke on the first try (it had been scored). Amazingly, the portly little brig yielded to the pull of the tugboat and floated, not only upright, but about as close to her lines as you could ask for. The cheers were deafening and the smiles were as wide as the Wishkah.

After the launch party, work began to get the brig ready for her maiden voyages. (Yes, there were two – a first in nautical history.) The work was even harder now because she was floating at the dock – not under cover in the shipyard and close to the tools. Parts were cut in the shipyard, carried down the ramp, across the dock, up the steps, over the rail, across the deck, down the hatch to where the piece would end up. If it didn't fit the first time (what ever does?) it went back up the hatch, across the deck, over the rail, down the steps, across the dock... well, you get the idea.

Finally the Lady was ready for her trips to Puget Sound ports in the summer and Columbia River ports in the fall. The crew was largely made up of the shipwrights who built her, partly as a reward for getting her built on time and partly so they could complete work on her while underway.

The Lady Washington was a hit in every port she visited. The t-shirts, hats, mugs and other Maiden Voyage merchandise flew out of the brig's hold and flocks of school children dutifully listened to the surly shipbuilders-turned-sailors' depictions of life at sea 200 years ago.

Despite her popular success when the ship returned to the banks of the Wishkah River the project was broke, in part because the crew continued to draw shipwright wages while doing what most crew members do now for free. After a post-voyage meeting where the staff were invited to tell the board and executive director their dreams for the project, everyone except a couple management staff were laid off. A few months later, management got pink slips too.

It was dedicated volunteers who stepped in and kept the vessel from rotting at the dock and becoming nothing more than a yard ornament in Aberdeen's front yard. They swabbed decks, ran the engine, touched up the paint job, argued with the city council and ignored the taunts and I-told-you-sos of the naysayers.

Slowly another vision developed. One more practical. Less grand. But one that kept the ship alive and in her Grays Harbor home port – at least when she isn't out earning her keep, which is to say, she's gone a lot. After 20 years, several movie gigs, thousands of miles under her keel and thousands of feet walking her deck she still looks damn fine. Almost as fine as the Lady Washington in the painting alongside the Columbia and a maritime museum with nothing behind them but blue sky.

Robert Gray: At Least Give the Man a Nickel

By Brandon Ford ©2009

When you do an internet search for Capt. Robert Gray not much comes up: there is a couple of pretty good articles, one on an Oregon Pioneers Web site and another on Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia article mentions that there are four elementary and two middle schools in Washington and Oregon that are named after him. He also has a harbor, a bay, a river and a small unincorporated town in Washington and a street in his hometown of Tiverton, R.I., named after him. Not bad for a one-eyed merchant sea captain who died more than two centuries ago. But given his list of accomplishments it's not nearly enough.

Gray was not only the first American to sail around the world, but the second as well. At the time there were only a handful of sea captains in the world who could claim a circumnavigation. He was also the first American to round Cape Horn. The first American to visit the Sandwich Islands. One of the first to China. But what will forever make Gray the pivotal character in Northwest history are his discoveries that established America's claim to what is now Oregon and Washington. Without Gray's discovery of Columbia River, Grays Harbor and the Chehalis River in 1793 the United States would not have had a legitimate claim to the Northwest. The fact that he discovered Tillimook Bay in 1788 doesn't hurt either.

Four years ago, during the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark, there was scarcely a mention of Gray's discoveries. To the uninformed it appeared Lewis and Clark were the ones who established the U.S. claim to the Northwest. Some may have even thought they discovered the Columbia River by the back door. While their work cemented U.S. claims, it was Gray who made the all-important initial discoveries in the Northwest. Surely the meticulous George Vancouver would have gotten around to discovering the Columbia had not Gray beat him to it. Then we'd all be speaking Canadian.

During his lifetime Gray's discoveries brought him little renown and he continued to ply his trade as a merchant sea captain. It was on one of those voyages in 1806 that Gray died, probably of yellow fever. Forty years after his death Gray's widow petitioned the U.S. Congress for a pension based on his service in the Continental Navy and his discoveries. Part of the petition reads, “neither her late husband during his lifetime, nor his family since his decease, have receive the slightest pecuniary benefit from the great discovery … your honorable body is spreading before the world the claims of the United States to a vast territory of immense value and founding these claims, to a great extent, upon a discovery made by the energy and the perseverance of one of her citizens...”

Whether Martha Gray got her pension or not, Gray has been overlooked long enough. During the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial the U.S. Mint struck a nickel commemorating the Corps of Discovery. Doesn't Gray deserve a least that?