Smooth sailing: Captain of Hawaiian Chieftain talks life on high seas

On a windy Tuesday afternoon in November, four harnessed sailors lean over the yard of a tall ship on the Sacramento River. A yard is the crossbar of a mast, and this one is some 30 feet high, holding the sails of an early 19th century steel-hulled trader ship, ready to be furled. Down below, two officers use a disc grinder to cut through rusted iron to replace another sail. They have a second duty: Fielding children and families who want to tour the boat.

“Are you comfortable with the number of people aboard?” a sailor asks Capt. Ryan Downs.

“Of course,” he says. “Let on as many as we can.”

This is the Hawaiian Chieftain, a mock ship now home to Downs and his crew. Sailed into Old Sacramento from Washington, the vessel is one of two that Grays Harbor Historical Seaport uses to teach seamanship, life skills and history to children who might not ever see an ocean or be aboard a ship otherwise. Capt. Downs sat with VOICES: River City to discuss life on the seas.

VOICES: River City: How do your programs fit in with a school’s curriculum?

Ryan Downs: Our programs last three hours for fourth- to seventh-grade kids. There are some [science] elements, but mostly history. We teach them to set sails, life as a sailor, navigation and the history of trade, which was mostly sea otters on the West Coast. We cover the late 1700s to early 1800s.

Sailors work high up on the yard of the Hawaiian Chieftain as the sun sets on the Sacramento River. [Photo: Michael Mott]

V:RC: How did you get to be a captain?

RD: I was studying American history in college, early 19th century, and got fascinated with trading ships. I dropped out of school and figured those boats weren’t around. Then I got to thinking: I live in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, and found this organization, Grays Harbor. I paid for the two-week training session.

We have eight paid jobs on the boat. I got my license for captaining a boat. This one is 56 tons but my license lets me run up to 100 tons. That’s enough for me.

V:RC: What’s it like sailing up the river to here?

RD: It takes five days to go from Washington to San Francisco. Then another nine hours from the Golden Gate Bridge to this dock. We have to point into the river, so it’s a lot of drifting. We use the sails on the open ocean, but on the river, we use engines.

We’re one of the few tall ships that can make this voyage with the river so low. We have a heavily ballasted steel keel on the bottom of the boat that’s much shorter—basically flat—than a traditional keel. That shallow draft is only six feet. We’ve passed over 10-foot depths here. She’s designed to be able to beach and offload on land, which is insane to me.

Last year, we wouldn’t have been able to leave beyond early December, since the water rises and we couldn’t make it under the I-80 bridge. In the old days and the Gold Rush, boats went up and down this passage all day. Then they built the levies, which is good so Sacramento doesn’t flood. But it means we can’t sail as easily.

V:RC: Where does the boat come from?

RD: It was built in 1988 from a ship designed to carry cargo from the Hawaiian islands. The millionaire owner lived in San Francisco and ended up taking it to Polynesia. Eventually, someone bought it in the Bay Area for wine cruises and charter work.

A family bought it in Boston in 2003. Then Grays Harbor bought it and took it through the Panama Canal to here in 2005.

V:RC: How does it work, joining the crew?

RD: All of us live on the boat. Most have three-and-a-half [year] contracts. Often we have cadets from a maritime school in Oregon get experience here. Tall ships are a strange industry, but you learn better seamanship on them and the skills are applicable to tug boats, the Merchant Marines and other modern shipping careers.

I went commercial for a while and found it to be much easier. Safety was beat into me on these boats. People on tall ships tend to pay attention more since there’s constant maintenance and it’s easy to mess up.

As with the rest of the vessel, the wheel of the Hawaiian Chieftain replicates those of centuries-old ships. [Photo: Michael Mott]

V:RC: I took a similar school trip on a San Francisco boat. Why do people remember their
experience on these boats?

RD: I remember, I was on a bus in SF and a kid was staring at me. I was their captain, it turns out. This is a memory-setting experience.

We tell the kids to do uncomfortable things. The dock is familiar; boats are alien. They’re tearing their brain muscles and making new ones. I started sailing at 22 and didn’t know anything, then they handed me a mallet and told me to change oil filters.

The best part is seeing the kids’ faces, and our trainees grow. I love it when they get bigger licenses than [mine]. The history is what interests me, but it’s in the context of something else. The purpose is learning life skills, here.

V:RC: Where do you use the bathroom? Cook? Have fun?

RD: We have two heads with lines going into a wastewater tank. We tie up to the city’s sewer system and that’s where it goes. When we’re three miles off shore, we can let it into the ocean.

We hang out in the aft and have movies, Wi-Fi and books. If there’s minors aboard, we don’t drink. There’s lots of singing. It’s small, communal living. We have a full-time cook who works in the galley.

We’re usually done by 6 or 7 [p.m.] and go into the city, go bowling. We saw the new Thor the other night.

Capt. Ryan Downs shows off his seaworthy ink aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain. [Photo: Michael Mott]

V:RC: Can you sail without electronics?

RD: Yes. But we love radar, depth measurement and other tools. I’m a stodgy, old-fashioned captain and make sure we always use paper in case there’s an outage. The rest of the ship runs off electric generators using diesel, about 12 gallons a day.

V:RC: Do you still have a sense of adventure? Does that stay?

RD: Yes. One of the great dreams of Americans is taking to the sea. I always wanted to sail; that’s why I did this. All of us are into Melville, Conrad and the Master and Commander books.

Those moments of realizing the adventure of this—they’re shorter as paperwork grows. But it never quite leaves.

The Hawaiian Chieftain is open to visitors and will be docked in Old Sacramento until early December. Prospective sailors are invited to go to the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport website to volunteer, or to sign up for the two-week training course, which costs about $700 and allows folks to apply as a member of the paid crew.


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Michael Warren Mott is a freelance reporter in Sacramento who believes underdogs matter. He covers politics, poverty and climate change, but likes fun things, too.