North, and into the 19th Century

[I said I was going to write more. Okay, here I am, sitting down, with absolutely nothing in my head, and I’m writing. Uh something. Uhh… Ooh – here’s an idea! Let’s see how it turns out]

One of my favorite roadtrips is a monthly only-sort-of roadtrip. I mean, I drive there, first Saturday evening of every month when I can make it, but once I arrive at the Hyde St. Pier, there’s nothing “road” or “trip” about it.

You see, for the past 20 or so years, some of the rangers at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park (aka “the smallest National Park with the longest name”) have been getting together in the dead of night below decks on the old square rigger Balclutha and… [wrong!] singing. Yeah, singing.

Thing is, back in the age of sail, you needed a lot of manpower to haul lines, reef sails, row longboats and raise anchors. And you needed a way to keep all the hauling, reefing, rowing and raising synchronized. What emerged was the sea chantey/shanty, a style of call-and-response song where the leader (the chanteyman) would sing a few lines to some rhythm, and the sailors would the response, which would give them the timing for the required pull/push.

For example, when tightening the lines to make a sail taut, you need a series of short, very strong pulls. How many times have you gotten a bunch of people together and tried the “One, two, three – pull!” thing? Doesn’t work so well.

But on a ship, the chanteyman would start up something like “Haul Away Joe”:

chanteyman: “When I was a little boy, my mother often told me”

   sailors: “Way, haul away, we’ll haul away, Joe

chanteyman: “That if I didn’t kiss the girls, my lips would grow all mouldy”

    sailors: “Way, haul away, we’ll haul away, Joe

with a big emphasis (and pull) at the word “Joe”. Works like a charm to get everyone to yank at the same instant. This particular rhythm, by the way, is called a “short haul chantey”. There are also long haul chanteys, stamp-and-go, capstan, pumping chanteys, and fore-bitters. There are even the so-called “dead horse” chanteys. Thousands of songs, and a style for every job you can imagine aboard a sailing ship (I’ve not looked, but am confident there are surgeons-removing-the-bullet-from-the-butt-of-the-bosun-where-he-was-accidently-shot-by-the-drunk-first-mate-while-aiming-at-an-albatross chanteys. It’s just the sort of thing that there seems a need for.)

And it’s not just a British or American thing, either. The French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Japanese all have ‘em. Last night, we learned a Lebanese rowing chantey. Take that, will ya?

Anyhow, nowadays, you get about 80-100 people showing up at the park gate in the dark, hours after the park has closed and saying the magic word. They’re admitted, handed a little “raffle ticket” stub, and directed to the Balclutha, at the end of the pier.

When you get there, you climb creaking metal gangplank and head aft, to the shelterdeck, where you’ll be greeted voices raised in enthusiasm and harmony, taking turns leading and following along in songs, some of which are hundreds of years olds. Balclutha doesn’t go anywhere, but you’ll be spending the next couple of hours in the the 19th century.

Peter looks for a volunteer:
“Okay, who’s got one for us?”

Peter Kasin, one of the rangers, is the spiritual leader of the group. Everyone sings, and Peter makes a point of getting everyone who’s willing to lead a song. You don’t ask permission, you just wait until there’s a quiet spot after the previous song has ended, stand up and sing out an opening line

“In South Australia I was born…”

Sure as the sun has ever set, a hundred voices will come back at you with the refrain

    “And we’re bound for South Australia!

It’s crazy how many songs the group knows – to be fair, we didn’t know the Lebanese rowing chantey, but next time it comes around, we’ve got it nailed.

You’ve got all ages, and all types there. Teetering old sea dogs who really look like they’ve been living in salt water for the past century, and toddlers on their mom’s knee. Fashion plates and geeks. The occasional pirate-in-training, fresh out of 826 Valencia. Folks who’ve just wandered in off the street, wondering what the fuss was. And 12 year old kids who who can belt out “John Kanaka” like they grew up on a whaler.

Some amazing, amazing voices. Sure, there are the regulars, but also folks who’ve never been before (“I had no idea this existed – I love chanteys! Do y’all know ‘Mingulay Boat Song’?”). And when Mark leads “Sugar in the Hold”, or Tara starts in on “Eliza Lee”, you’re shocked to be sitting next to, no, in the middle of, such beautiful music.

Taking a break for cider
on the main deck

We sing, we laugh, and when we take breaks, we walk out to the foc’sle to look out over the lights of the bay. Alice and the galley crew mix up hot chocolate, cider and coffee (it’s all free, but bring a mug, and a dollar or two for the jar to keep it going). Often, back by the chart house, you’ll hear small groups of folks singing their own chanteys – not feeling quite ready to lead the whole gang, but too eager to sing “A’ Rovin”, or “All For Me Grog” to let another month go by.

Then we go back below, and sing again. Because there are usually lots of young’uns along for the early part of the evening, there’s a “no salt” rule: the more, um, “authentic” lyrics of some of the songs are held back until after 10:45, when delicate ears are assumed to be away in bed.

When it finally does end, around midnight, those who are left help fold the chairs and pick up whatever’s fallen to the floor (usually not much – this crowd cleans up after itself). Peter launches into a slow rendition of “Leave her, Johnny”, a traditional chantey lamenting the mixed emotions at the end of a journey:

Oh the times was hard and the wages low
    Leave her, Johnny, leave her
And the grub was bad and the gales did blow
    And it’s time for us to leave her 

Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her
For the voyage is done and the winds won’t blow
And it’s time for us to leave her

Then we all say our goodbyes, walk down the gangplank in the cold mist of a San Francisco midnight. Through the gate, and back into the 21st century, for another month, until once again, the first Saturday rolls around and brings us back to the Hyde Street Pier.

[Oh, right – you want to come along? It’s pretty straightforward. Go to and read up on the official scoop. There’s a phone number there to call to get your name “on the list” at the gate. Then lemme know that you’ll be there – I’ll save you a seat.]

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