every ship is a vessel, but not every vessel is a ship

every ship is a vessel, but not every vessel is a ship

San Francisco
September 3, 2012
282 days until the Arctic Circle expedition

Yesterday I got to thinking about the barkentine (alternately: barquentine) I will be sailing on during the arctic trip, and this got me thinking about seagoing vessels in general. People generally refer to anything with a hull as a boat, and anything larger than, say, a city bus, is a ship. To be honest, I used to call everything a boat or a ship myself, until an educational and humiliating moment two years ago at the San Francisco Maritime Library.

The maritime library is housed at Fort Mason, just west of the aquatic park, where you can check out the Balclutha if you’d like to see a fully-functional three-masted ship (yes, in this case, it really is a “ship” which I’ll explain later). The aquatic park also has a Junk, two or three paddle steamers, and and assortment of other restored vessels. The best part of all is that the office for the people who work out on the pier is made from an old tugboat cabin. Seriously. There are no depths to my jealousy about that.

Okay, so back to the whole ship versus boat thing. About five years ago now, I first discovered Ron Filion’s map of buried ships beneath San Francisco, and my life was changed forever. Many of the vessels on his map have incomplete identification, and I spotted an older version of this map that hangs on the wall of the Old Ship Saloon (Pacific @ Battery). Both maps are compiled from the verbal accounts of “old-timer 49ers” who were still alive and had personal memories of the names and locations where gold rush vessels had last been beached, moored, or broken up. Ironically, in the 1870s, San Francisco had largely already forgotten that it had once been compared to the Italian city of Venice, because a large part of it had been dominated by the scores of vessels left behind during the gold rush. Many of those hulks were “discovered” multiple times- Niantic, for example, whose bones lie beneath the southeast corner of the Transamerica building, has been stumbled upon at least three times (1872, 1907, and 1978) as cellars and sub-cellars and elevator shafts have all been dug in the area. But what interested me about Ron’s map was not the known vessels, but the unknowns. If over 600 had once crowded the wharves East of First Street, which was then underwater, and 250 or so had avoided the shipbreaking yard (near where the Hills Brothers building now stands), what were the names of those that were sunk in situ for landfill? For some reason, those unknown vessels haunted me. Everywhere I walked I thought of those almond shapes of the hulls sailing through the earth below, throwing back wakes of broken bottles and beetles and sand, and the refuse piles of 150 years ago.

I had the extremely ambitious idea that I would spend my weekends doing research at the maritime library, finding out the names of those lost ships. There was a log after all– every vessel that entered or exited the bay was accounted for by the harbormaster, so why would I be able to use those old maps, along with the ship’s lists, to put names to the missing? Grand schemes like this are common for me– when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I saw a show about the lost Titanic, and decided that if I spent enough time in the library searching the records, I’d be able to pinpoint where it might be found. I think that was the summer I also learned about the Bermuda Triangle, and read about the ghost ship, Mary Celeste— found cruising at full sail but with no crew. That summer all the world became full of mystery and lost treasure, and I’ve thankfully, never really recovered from that.

At any rate, I finally did show up at the maritime museum about two years ago when my research on San Francisco’s Gold Rush Fleet began in earnest, for the Armada of Golden Dreams, the audio tour I directed with Invisible City Audio Tours. I remember showing up on a sleepy weekend afternoon armed with sheaves of papers and lists of ships and asking one of the volunteer librarians for help. We got to talking for awhile about my project, and to his credit, he did not try to discourage me, but after about ten minutes of conversation he stopped me and said, “Look, I’m going to do you a favor and tell you something that no one else will tell you. No one will take you seriously if you keep calling everything a boat or a ship. The correct term is vessel. Every ship is a vessel, but not every vessel is a ship.”

And he handed me a chart with the silhouettes of sailing vessels on it.

types of sailing vessels“If you want to be taken seriously by anyone when you are talking about your project, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself, you better memorize this.”

Here’s the chart.

Tomorrow I’ll explain what it means. And just so you know that my tendency to spin yarns has a point, I’m going to come back around to where I began. The vessel I’ll we’ll be aboard in the arctic is a barkentine. I’ll show you in tomorrow’s post how to look at any sailing vessel and be able to tell what the proper name for it is, just in case you need to make a positive nautical impression anytime soon.