Cameron Tobey climbed on the remnants of the Forester at low tide. In this photo, you can just make out the shape of the hull and what would have been the raised bow of the ship. (Courtesy Cameron Tobey)
There are always at least a few ships anchored out in San Francisco Bay, a reminder that shipping is and always has been a major part of this area's economy. Today, those ships are full of consumer goods, wine and produce, but back in the day, San Francisco held a special place in the West Coast lumber trade. Our outgoing ships were full of wood.
"It just seems like a really random place for a ship to end up,” Cameron said. “What led to it ending up being shipwrecked out here?"
Cameron's question won a Bay Curious public voting round, so I started digging into the ship's history. The first thing I found is that in mariner lingo it's not a "ship"; it's a schooner. The sails run front to back, instead of side-to-side as was more common for ships built in England or New England. This ship's name is the Forester.
The Forester was built in 1900 at the Hay and Wright shipyard in Alameda for the shipping company Sanders & Kirchmann. A four-masted schooner, the Forester was 184 feet long and could carry 663 tons of cargo. It was a lumber schooner built specifically to carry Douglas fir trees felled in Washington, Oregon and Northern California down to San Francisco and then overseas.
"Most ships on the West Coast were built near the lumber locations," said Christopher Edwards, a park ranger at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. "So shipyards turning out vessels here in the Bay Area directly, that was usually times of a boom in the shipbuilding industry."
At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. had just won the Spanish-American War and colonized the Philippines. Suddenly new markets were open to American businesses, and there was a boom in shipbuilding. Lumber operators on the West Coast were chopping down the old growth forests as fast as they could and there was steady demand overseas.
The Forester traveled to places like Australia, the Philippines, New Zealand and Hawaii, delivering wood and picking up copper, coal and copra — a type of dried coconut meat that can be processed into oil — on the return journey.
While plenty of vessels sailed to similar destinations, the Forester was unique in that it had one captain its whole career: Otto Daerweritz, a Czechoslovakian immigrant. He owned a third of the schooner and loved it dearly. We don't know much about the rest of his crew, but ship logs show that many of them were of Scandinavian descent. There also was almost always a Chinese or Japanese crew member on board, usually the cook.
"Cooking jobs at the time wasn't much desired by Caucasian crew members," explained Rudolph Ng, a professor of global history at the University of Portsmouth in England. "They were paid less and [it was] probably more physically demanding. So they were always left to either the Japanese or the Chinese."
Asian crew members suffered discrimination while sailing all over the world, but their experience was especially bad in California after the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. That law prohibited immigration by Chinese people into the U.S., which affected sailors longing for some time on shore.
“The Chinese were allowed to go on shore leave in San Francisco, or anywhere in California, for 30 days. But they had to pay a bond,” Ng said.
Each man would have to put up $500 in collateral for the right to leave the ship. If they didn’t come back within 30 days, they forfeited that money, Ng said. There wasn’t much in the historical record about how Chinese and Japanese crew members on board the Forester were treated, but given this historical context, it’s likely they faced similar discrimination.
"Captain Daerweritz was short and stout. He was the best captain in those days that I ever sailed with ... There was no trouble with the cargo on the voyage. Just the bugs. The copra bugs used to bother us during the night. They crawl all over and they bite ... The food was very good for those days. We used to get fresh pork twice a week and eggs every other day. That was because we had about five dozen chickens on board ... We had a very good cook, a good baker, and he used to make good bread."
The end of the Forester's sailing days
U.S. imperialism in the Philippines may have created the economic conditions to build the Forester, but world events made the schooner obsolete. During World War I, the U.S. ramped up shipbuilding to support allies in Europe. At the end of the war, there was a glut of brand-new steam-powered vessels that commercial shippers could purchase cheaply. The steam-powered ships could carry more cargo and travel faster than most sailing ships. That spelled the end of the Forester’s international traveling days. By the mid-1920s, the Forester was out of a job.
Daerweritz bought out his partners’ share of the Forester for $8,000 and continued to live on the vessel. He anchored her in the Carquinez Strait at one point, protecting one of the piers of the Carquinez bridge from swift tides while it was being built. When construction was complete, he anchored in the Oakland Estuary for several years until he was asked to leave for getting in the way of shipping. At that point, Daerweritz towed the Forester over to Martinez and grounded it.
The Forester's final days
Now, Radke Martinez Regional Shoreline is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. It’s a tidal marsh that protects the shore from storm surge and provides habitat for critters like the salt marsh harvest mouse. But in the 1930s and '40s, this same area was a bustling community of fishermen.
"A lot of Italian immigrants actually came here and built their town," said Virginia Delgado-Martinez, a naturalist with the EBRPD. "Definitely it was a community here. And there would have been work. There would have been stores, markets and a lot of trading going on."
"[The Forester] makes a snug home for Captain Daerweritz. She's wired for electricity, but has no water; he carries it on board from shore, and catches rain water for washing purposes. In the tiny, skylighted cabin off the sleeping quarters, there was the table at which we sat. On it were the paper he had been reading, a deck of cards and an ashtray from the Turquoise Room, Hotel Rosslyn, L.A. On the bulkhead over the table was a small painting of the Forester under full sail, done by an amateur, and the ship's original clock and barometer.
"There was a sudden patter of rain on the skylight, and the captain got up at once. 'Got to get my washing in,' he said. 'Should have had it in an hour ago.' I followed him up the companionway and on to the deck. He hurried forward, took down a few shirts and towels from the clothesline and hung them up inside, over the stove in the galley.
"'What will happen to the Forester?' I asked.
"'I don't know,' he said. 'She probably will be burned up some day, like the rest of her kind. I'm the only friend she's got left.'
"We said goodbye a few minutes later, and he showed me over the side. The rain was coming in heavy gusts from the low gray sky. From the car, Benicia across the strait was dim in the low mist. The Forester, listing slightly to starboard, was dark against the green waters of the strait, and her four masts leaned dark against the sky."
Daerweritz died on board the Forester not too long after this account. He was 83. In the 1950s, the Forester's owner, a Mr. Charles Fitzgerald, donated many parts of the Forester to the Maritime Museum, including the complete foremast doubling (there's an account of how they did this in the Maritime Museum's archives). These were displayed at the Maritime Museum for a time and are still part of its collection.
And as Daerweritz predicted to the newspaper reporter, there was a fire aboard what was left of the Forester in the 1970s, although the cause is unknown. Rumors of an insurance scheme abound, but I couldn’t corroborate that story. Other people say it was an accident, kids playing around out there.
If you hike out to the Martinez shoreline at very low tide now, there's a trail of bricks leading out to the wreck of the Forester. From shore, it's hard to tell it's a boat — it looks more like a broken-down pier — but Cameron, our question asker, went out there and climbed around.
Virginia Delgado-Martinez said the groups of schoolkids she takes on tours to see the Forester like to pretend they're Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean."
Few people remember the Forester's role in global history or her first and best friend, Capt. Otto Daerweritz.
Get our monthly newsletter featuring listener questions not answered on the Bay Curious podcast.