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September/October Issue 236: San Francisco full-rigged ship Balcultha

Aug 31, 2016
Balcultha at its berth in San Francisco.

Balcultha at its berth in San Francisco.

Stan Shebs

Like Wavertree (which we wrote about last month), Balcultha is one of the great square-rigged ships from the 19th century that was saved for posterity — this time by the San Francisco Maritime Museum in 1954. Not many of these great ships were saved, as the cost of restoration is great and the necessary waterfront space difficult to find. But thanks to dedicated souls, hard work and good luck, we can see and touch these artifacts from a more demanding age.

Balcultha is a three-masted, full-rigged sailing ship built of riveted steel in 1886, 301 feet in length, with a beam of 38 feet and a draft of 23 feet. Though most large sailing vessels of that period were still constructed of iron, steel was being more widely used as a building material as it was stronger and less brittle than iron. The first steel ship was actually the full-rigged ship, Formby, built in Liverpool in 1863. Constructing riveted ships was labor intensive but was a known technology and made for strong ships. The practice of riveting hulls lasted up until the 1930s when welding became the preferred method.

Built by the Charles Connell Company in Glasgow, Balcultha was named after the Gaelic name for Glasgow. The ship worked hard, rounding Cape Horn 17 times in 13 years. Cargoes included nitrates from Chile, wool from Australia, rice from Burma, grain from San Francisco and timber from the Pacific Northwest. On her first passage from Europe, she arrived in San Francisco after rounding the Horn after a passage of 140 days at sea.

In a later iteration, Balcultha was known as Star of Alaska or Pacific Queen, this when she was carrying fishermen and gear to Alaska. Balcultha is the only known square-rigged ship left in the San Francisco area — ironic, as San Francisco was once the home of many hundred square-rigged ships that rounded the horn to bring men and supplies for the 1848 Gold Rush.

Balcultha’s last voyage in the salmon fishery trade was in 1930 carrying men and supplies to Alaska. The vessel fell on hard times and in 1954 was purchased by the San Francisco Maritime Museum, restored, renamed Balcultha, and in the mid-1980s was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Let’s join the captain on the way from San Francisco to Hawaii. The DR is 22° 23’ N by 142° 15’ W. We’ll use the 2016 Nautical Almanac. The height of eye is 20 feet. There is no index error and we will find our latitude by an observation of Polaris. The Hs of Polaris is 21° 48’. The time of the observation is 04:27:10 First thing we want to do is calculate the time of civil twilight for our dead reckoning position, which is 22° 23’ N by 142° 15’ W. The date is Aug. 5, 2016.

A. What time is civil twilight? 
B. What is the Ho? 
C. Using the Polaris tables in the Nautical Almanac, find the latitude of Balcultha.

Answers:
A. Civil twilight is at 0445 GMT on Aug. 6
B. The Ho is 21° 41.3’
C. The ship’s latitude is 22° 20’ N.

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