Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s


Charles Wilkes

In 1838, although not a seasoned naval line officer, Wilkes was experienced in nautical survey work, and working with civilian scientists. Upon this background he was given command of the government exploring expedition for the purpose of exploring and surveying the Southern Ocean," and "to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals, to discover, and accurately fix" their positions. The U.S. Exploring Squadron was authorized by act of the Congress on May 18, 1836.

This expedition was one of the most impressive yet unheralded exploration in American history. It was the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 which covered a significant of the world already charted, but also mapped and named the Antarctica. In part because of the self-destructive nature of the Lieutenant, he returned after years at sea 1838-1842 to bitter disillusionment and ire from his officers and sponsors.

Purportedly, Herman Melville incorporated details of Wilkes' Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition into his masterpiece "Moby Dick" - or "The Whale," and borrowed aspects of Wilkes' personality and conduct for his characterization of Captain Ahab.

. . . Given what had happened to the Peacock (which had wrecked), Wilkes decided it was to much of a risk to bring the Vincennes across the bar. Instead, he would use the Porpoise during the survey of the river while Ringgold sailed the Vincennes to San Francisco Bay, where the squadron would reconvene once the survey and been complete.

. . . At the end of August, Emmons, along with Eld, who had just completed his survey of Grays Harbor, left on their overland journey to San Francisco.

Portrait of Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) Samuel Bell Waugh

Portrait of Charles Wilkes 1798-1877 by Samuel Bell Waugh.

(The expedition) had a brief respite when they took the schooner up to Astoria for provision . . . In early October, with the arrival Wilkes and the rest of the squadron, Bobville came to a sudden end. Now that the survey of the upper part of the river was complete, it was time to sail for San Francisco.

. . . On October 9, the Flying Fishcrossed the Columbia bar for the last time. Wilkes had decided that the schooner would not be accompanying the Porpoise and theOregon to San Francisco. Instead, Knox and Reynolds were to put the finishing touches on the survey of the outer edge of the bar, then survey a portion of the coast to the south before sailing to Oahu . . .

By the time the repairs were made to the Flying Fish, Wilkes had arrived at Sausalito Bay. The town of Yerba Buena, by then known as San Francisco, comprised just a few out-of-repair buildings that were, according to Wilkes, "not calculated to produce a favorable impression on a stranger." But if the town wasn't much, the harbor was "one of the most spacious, and at the same time safest ports in the world." Wilkes predicted that if it did not become a part of the United States, the region would one day combine with the Oregon Territory to become "a powerful maritime nation that would control the destinies of the Pacific."

By the end of October, the overland party led by Emmons and Eld has arrived and the survey of San Francisco Bay had been completed.

On November 1, against the advice of the harbor pilot, who warned of the possibility of seas breaking at the bar, Wilkes ordered the squadron to depart with the ebbing tide. Around sunset, the already light wind deserted completely. As the tide began to change, the squadron anchored, with the Porpoise and the Oregon just beyond the bar and, as it would turn out, with the Vincennes, which was once again flying Wilkes's commodore's pennant.

The seas remained quiet until ten p.m., when "without any apparent cause," according to Wilkes, the swell began to increase ominously. By midnight, the "Vincennes was in the midst of her own private tempest: huge rollers pitched the ship so violently that when she swung broadside to the swell, Wilkes feared for the masts. By two a.m., waves of over thirty feet were battering the ship, bursting over the bow and threatening to tear loose the anchor chain. " At 3:30 a.m., an immense breaker flooded the spar deck, stoving in boats and hurling spare spars in every direction. Just at that moment, a marine named Joseph Allshouse was climbing up a ladder to the deck. A spar slammed into him, and three hours later he died of internal injuries.

Not until eight a.m. did it become possible to raise the anchor. A few miles away, the Porpoise and the Oregon had been blessed with a quiet night, and both crews were amazed to learn of theVincennes' ordeal. Allshouse was quietly buried at sea, and Wilkes, The Stormy Petrel, ordered to the squadron the begin the first leg of the log sail home.

Having spent less than two weeks in California, Wilkes did not hold a very high opinion of that area -- except for San Francisco Bay: He concluded that San Francisco and Puget Sound were destined to become "the finest ports in the world."

Wilkes was court-martialled upon his return for the loss of one of his ships on the Columbia River bar, for the regular mistreatment of his subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his sailors. He was acquitted on all charges except that of illegally punishing men in his squadron. From 1844 to 1861, he was chiefly engaged in preparing the report of the expedition.


Rounding the Horn.New York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives--a Deck's-eye View of Cape HornNew York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Dallas Murphy
Fifty-five degrees 59 minutes South by 67 degrees 16 minutes West: Cape Horn—a buttressed pyramid of crumbly rock situated at the very bottom of South America—is a place of forlorn and foreboding beauty that has captured the dark imaginations of explorers and writers from Francis Drake to Joseph Conrad. For centuries, the small stretch of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula was the only gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It’s a place where the storms are bigger, the winds stronger, and the seas rougher than anywhere else on earth. In Rounding the Horn the author brings the reader along for a thrilling, exuberant tour. Weaving together stories of his own nautical adventures with long-lost tales of those who braved the Cape before him—from Spanish missionaries to Captain Cook—and interspersing them with breathtaking descriptions of the surrounding wilderness,

Around Cape Horn Sailing DVD. New York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Around Cape Horn: Capt. Irving Johnson Sailing DVDNew York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Few will ever experience such adverse conditions especially considering 1920's square rigger design, the technology and lack of meteorology available to assist the crews manage four masted ships with huge sail plans. Along with the challenging seas, this highly-regarded film was shot when cameras were bulky. Captain Irving is engaging. Actors were not used. This is real footage with real people.


The Authority to Sail.The Authority to Sail: The History of U.S. Maritime Licenses and Seamen's PapersThe Authority to Sail.
Robert Stanley Bates, George Marsh (Editor), John F. Whiteley (Forward) (Batek Marine Publishing, 2011; Nominated in 2012 for a Pulitzer Prize)
This book depicts important aspects of our maritime history as a result of original research done by the author, Commodore Bates, the holder of an unlimited master's license who has enjoyed a distinguished fifty-year career in both the Coast Guard and the American Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Coast Guard issues all Captain Licenses for U.S. Ports.
Note: Other countries have different regulations, i.e. the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), conducts certification for Britain and Ireland. As of 2011, they did not recognize the USCG certification; certification through their courses was required.

Master Unlimited is a licensed mariner in ultimate command of a vessel any gross tons. The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws. All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his or her ultimate responsibility. The STCW defines the Master as Person having command of the ship.

Merchant Marine License.

The Sea Chart
The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational ChartsThe Sea Chart.
The Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.
John Blake
The sea chart was one of the key tools by which ships of trade, transport and conquest navigated their course across the oceans. Herein is a history and development of the chart and the related nautical map, in both scientific and aesthetic terms, as a means of safe and accurate seaborne navigation. 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by 13th-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as 18th-century charts that became strategic naval and commercial requirements and led to Cook's voyages in the Pacific, the search for the Northwest Passage, and races to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition. Charlie  Wing.
Charlie Wing
Considered the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to prepare for the U.S. Coast Guard captain's ratings exams required for anyone who takes paying passengers on a boat, and useful for serious boaters who want to save money on insurance. 350 pages of seamanship and navigation tutorials. More than 1,500 questions and answers from the Coast Guard exams. Includes an interactive CD-ROM with all 14,000 questions and answers in the USCG database, so you can take an unlimited number of practice exams

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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