The Beautiful and at Times Sordid History of 5 Bay Area Yachts


AMONG THE GOOD things in life are boats. They please the eye. They please the senses. Use the word yacht if you like. A yacht is any boat, great or small, meant for pleasure, and here too it’s often true that good things come in small packages. Little Freda is a case in point. Built in 1885 on Beach Road when Belvedere Cove still opened to the bay, she is the oldest West Coast yacht sailing, and we’ll come back to that.

Many of Northern California’s most beautiful boats are harbored in the county, but even those berthed elsewhere are part of Marin’s view of San Francisco Bay. They come for reasons we already understand: shelter, sunshine, panoramas. Rare is the San Francisco Bay cruise that does not include at least one passage through Raccoon Strait, and that makes for quite a parade.

There’s a strong boatbuilding heritage here. In the shallows of Hurricane Gulch in Sausalito, for example, you can still see pilings from the Nunes Brothers Boat & Ways Company, builders of the doughty little Bear Class sloops still with us, 80 years on, and builders of the grand schooner Zaca, which banking heir Templeton Crocker sailed around the world in 1930. Zaca later figured in the scandals of the actor Errol Flynn and today happily soaks up euros as a restored indulgence on the waters of the Mediterranean. Time marches on.

Back in the day, a sailorman could gaze across the bay and name any boat on sight. Every yacht was a custom build, probably a specimen of the woodbutcher’s art, and even with the occasional steel hull, there just weren’t that many. In the 1960s, fiberglass and deficit financing generated a population explosion, and plastic composite boats are good, very good, but the hand-built, hand-kept boat has an aura, and perhaps a soul, that cannot be punched out on a production line.

Freda, 1885, wood

Built by Harry Cookson for Harry Cookson, named for his daughter


Does anyone really know how many times Freda has been “restored” or “saved”? During the 1890s, Freda was so much a part of life at the Corinthian Yacht Club that the newsletter was called The Daily Freda. She is history on the hoof, the last of her kind, and a charmer. That is why there is always one more someone ready to step up to a rescue. In 2004, after she sank at a dock in San Rafael, Sausalito’s Spaulding Center for Wooden Boats — a treasure in itself, a living museum — partnered with Bob Darr and the Arques School of traditional boatbuilding to take Freda down to the bones. The renewal should endure for a long, long time. Relaunched while this issue was in the works, Freda is ready now for her 129th summer on the bay.

Not that the work is finished. Sometimes, you just have to set a date, and launch. And believe. Sharon White, neckdeep as a volunteer, says, “My husband and I bought into the work of the Spaulding Center because of the Freda. She casts a spell. Ask Bob Darr. The center pays his apprentices, but all of his own time is donated. It’s the epitome of a love affair.”

Pursuit, 1929, steel and wood

Designed by Burgess & Morgan, built by Abeking & Rasmussen, Germany


Probably you’ve seen the seductive M-Boat Pursuit. And probably you saw her as you wandered along the wooden walkway of the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. Her lines harken to a time when Hemingway, searching for words to certify the beauty of his heroine Brett Ashley, wrote that she “was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht.” Long and sleek, with a powerful sailplane, Pursuit is a handful to sail. And a thrill. Kinda like Brett.

A little over half a century ago, Ron MacAnnan assigned himself a budget of $30,000 to buy a boat to live on, and he flew to Los Angeles to look around. He found Pursuit, built in 1929 and priced at twice his budget. A few weeks later, he owned it anyway. For a price of $30,000. Pushing 90 now, MacAnnan has raced his thoroughbred to Mexico and Honolulu and, in his own way, tweaked the waterfront of Sausalito. The building on Bridgeway that now houses Ondine and The Trident restaurants was home to the San Francisco Yacht Club for 50 years, until 1928, when the club moved to Belvedere Cove. Much later, MacAnnan bought the building, built new pilings deeper into the bay, and moved the structure out to leave parking streetside. And there’s this. If you’re expecting a Commodore Vanderbilt type, you will never pick out MacAnnan on the street. An engineer and contractor who did his time as a command gunner on B-29s in World War II, he’s now the guy behind the wheel of the 1949 pickup with the badge ONE OWNER. Just smile and wave.

Pat Pending, 1929, wood

Built by Lake Union Dry Docks, Seattle

Pat Pending

Any boat that has been in one family for 54 years must have something going for it. As president of the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association and commodore of the Oakland Yacht Club, patent attorney Don Owen led the 1941 Opening Day on the Bay parade with his new acquisition. All too soon, however, the boat was requisitioned by the navy, armed, and put out to a hard life patrolling the submarine net, protecting the Golden Gate through World War II. At the close of hostilities, Don Owen bought the boat back for a hundred bucks. His son Mel Owen says now, “It was such a mess, I honestly didn’t think we could bring it back.” But Owen senior threw $26,000 — in 1940s dollars — at returning Pat Pending to yacht condition. Many years on, Mel would have his own opportunity to step up.

Pat Pending through the years followed the custom of exploring upriver in the summertime so that her family could enjoy the sunshine and whatever had started growing on her bottom in salt water would die off. Mel, also a patent attorney, took over from his father in 1967. “Boats get sold when nobody in a family cares,” Owen says. “I’m fortunate that I have a son and grandsons who love Pat Pending.”

Today’s guests can expect to be serenaded by the skipper on his harmonica, but so many things in life turn upon chance. This boat was never supposed to stay on San Francisco Bay. It was built in 1929 for movie director Frank Bacon; in its Hollywood career it hosted Bing Crosby and other names you know. Bacon’s enthusiasm extended to entering a race from Los Angeles to San Francisco and almost winning. Disqualified on a technicality, in disgust, he sold the boat to Don Owen and went home boatless. His loss, our gain.

Potomac, 1934, steel

Built by Manitowoc Shipbuilding, Manitowoc, Wisconsin


She’s been personal yacht to a president, a king and a drug lord. She’s seen the heights of the high life and the bottom — of San Francisco Bay. The president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and through her service in the ’30s and ’40s, the 165-foot Potomac became the “Floating White House” and witness to history. The king was Elvis, but the affair was brief, one moment in the former Coast Guard cutter’s long slide through many hands toward oblivion. Impounded from smugglers in 1980, Potomac sank at Treasure Island. She was refloated. She was ignored. As with so many fading treasures, Potomac reached the brink before action was taken. The brink, as in a date with the scrap yard only one week off.

The rescue plan was to restore the boat as a memorial and a nonprofit vessel-for-hire. You won’t be surprised if I tell you there were skeptics. But that was hundreds of thousands of visitors ago, and hundreds of cruise days ago. From its base at Oakland’s Jack London Square, the Potomac hosts dockside tours Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Her 2014 schedule includes 26 days carrying ticketed passengers, plus charter days. The optimists are winning, sustained by the dedication of more than a hundred volunteers answering phones, guiding tours and changing oil filters. The Potomac Association has exactly one full-time employee, veteran executive director Marti Burchell, who attributes the dedication of the volunteers to “their respect for the times that the Potomac represents, and their admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man. In my 32 years in this line of work, I have never been with any group that compared. We’re damned special. That’s what we are.”

Robin, 1929, Wood

Built by the Stone Boat Yard, Oakland


You’re in the know if you know that after the America’s Cup, America’s second-oldest match racing competition — one boat versus one boat — is the San Francisco Perpetual Challenge Trophy. First competed for in 1895, that gleaming prize is currently in Belvedere under the stewardship of the San Francisco Yacht Club, which won it two years ago with the Bird Class sloop Robin.

In sailor-talk, Robin is a one-design, one of a number of identical boats that race without handicap time allowances. Bird No. 1, Osprey, was launched in 1922, representing advanced thinking as the first one-design type on the West Coast, but the looks (“graceful hawk or ugly duckling?”) weren’t exactly a hit. It wasn’t until they saw her passing their own boats and standing up like a champ to the howlingest breeze that local sailors recognized, shall we say, an inner beauty. Today, Birds are simply classic. In typical fashion, it was not until the remaining flock was on the verge of extinction, 22 Birds in all, that rescuers stepped in. In their heyday, Birds were the go-to boat for serious competition and a mainstay in the battles for the San Francisco Perpetual. Robin, No. 18, wrote herself into history with Perpetual Trophy wins also in 1936, 1937, 1956 and 1957.

Robin’s tenth owners are the Patrick Kirrane family, who know themselves not as owners but as stewards. They keep Robin looking as good the day she was launched. That is the standard, as Cissie Kirrane puts it, “whenever Robin spreads her wings.”