The Beauty of a Timeless Rowboat
An homage, in videographic form, to the Whitehall – a classic wooden rowboat whose design might date from the 1500s, and is still being rowed on the San Francisco Bay.
A documentary short by WENDY “PEPPER” SCHUSS
Story by TODD OPPENHEIMER
During tourist seasons, when hordes of visitors descend on San Francisco, one of their most popular destinations is a section of the city’s northern waterfront famously known as Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf’s appeal to these tourists is accentuated by the rustic, brick buildings that constitute Ghirardelli Square, which looms proudly over the wharf’s western end.
At the foot of this square lies a large cove, roughly a mile in circumference, bordered by remnants of the city’s hardscrabble past. On one side rises a steep bluff that houses grand old buildings from the waterfront’s days as a U.S. Army fort, dating back to 1776; stretching down the other side is a long wooden walkway called the Hyde Street Pier, which is still home to some of the West Coast’s most famous old commercial sailing ships: the C.A. Thayer, a three-masted schooner, circa 1895, that runs 219 feet; and the Balclutha, a 300-foot square rigger that weighs 1,689 tons and is one of the last of its kind on the coast.
Tucked almost invisibly in the corner of this crusty, maritime scene are two small clubs, the South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club. Both date from the late 1800s, both are full of energetic oddballs who arrive early in the morning, often before dawn, for brisk, often lengthy swims in the city’s chilly bay waters (generally with no wetsuits, just a post-swim sauna); or, for some, a leisurely row around the bay in some very vintage boats.
While there is plenty of debate about which is the better club — along with friendly (or sometimes not so friendly) rivalry between the two — it is generally acknowledged that the Dolphin Club has managed to keep more of its historical atmosphere. (Full disclosure, the author of this article is a long-time member of the Dolphin Club, but he insists that he harbors not a shred of bias…). Contributing in no small way to this club’s atmosphere is the full-time presence of a Master Boatbuilder, who has spent most of his 68 years immersed in the history, construction requirements, and repair demands of a rare class of wooden rowboats.
The boats are called Whitehalls, and if you are lucky enough to know someone who can lead you past the waterfront’s throngs of shivering tourists, and through the Dolphin Club’s front door, you will see roughly a dozen of them on glowing display. Your first thought, as you walk into the club’s massive main hall, is likely to be that you’ve entered a museum. If it were, it would be a living one.
Jon Bielinski, the aforementioned boatbuilder who sustains this boat collection, seems to perfectly match the Whitehall’s stalwart history. Tall, lean, with enormous hands and deep-set eyes that can be frighteningly stern, Bielinski is about as serious about boats as a man can get — especially the wooden sort, and especially Whitehalls. One day, leaning over a workbench, Bielinski pressed down a creased, yellowed newspaper article to help recount his version of the Whitehalls’ history.
“It was a rambling, romantic remembrance of hard work and the sea,” recalls Wendy “Pepper” Schuss, a Dolphin Club member. “He told me about Sir Francis Drake, who allegedly brought the first working rowboat to Marin County during his expeditionary voyage, about the boats’ European pedigree, and its evolution since.” These boats — and Bielinski’s connection to them — so captivated Schuss that she decided to make a mini-documentary about the subject, which we are proud to feature with this story. (See below.)
There are two widespread discrepancies between Bielinksi’s and other Whitehall histories. The first regards when the Whitehall officially came to America. Bielinski says the first ones, those brought by Sir Francis Drake, arrived in 1579, but there is little literature supporting that theory. Most maritime historians believe the Whitehall started gracing U.S. shores much later.
The second debate is around how the boat got its name. According to a 1943 account in The Rudder Magazine, the name originated from the Whitehall Palace on the Thames. The more popular theory, and one supported by Howard Chapelle, Smithsonian curator of Maritime history, says the name comes from the boatyard where these crafts were first built—on Whitehall Street in New York City, beginning in the 1820s. Yet there is one central fact on which all tales agree: The rowboat started as a working craft, plying the waters of England, then New England, and finally West Coast harbors to ferry goods and personnel between land and ships. Designed for rough handling, the original Whitehalls were heavy and durable for the inevitable beating against pier and ship during the exchange of cargo.
Today, the pretty woodens that you can see pulling around the San Francisco Bay are distant cousins of those first workhorses. Heavy carvel planking was swapped for a thinner lapstrake construction, which allows for an easy one-person launch and recovery. (It’s believed that the lapstrake method, which requires steam-bending the planking, was inspired by the city’s cable car builders, who had to steam-bend the cars’ wooden siding to give these mobile boxes the flexibility they needed to withstand the stresses of San Francisco’s hills.) A sliding seat was also added, for a more efficient rowing stroke. Varnish rather than paint now protects and displays the craftsmanship and beauty of the vessels’ wood (mostly Port Orford Cedar, which is grown in the American Northwest).
Nowadays, these lighter, more delicate crafts are taken into the bay for pleasure, exercise, occasional rowing competitions, and to provide safety support for the clubs’ many long-distance swimming races across various points of the bay. Regardless of the purpose in the outing, the rowing itself is always provides a delightful education. “There is a certain ‘spring’ to a wooden shell,” says John Crutcher, a veteran competitive rower (and, another full disclosure: also my brother-in-law). “It takes your clumsy input, and then delivers it in a better way. Eventually, you learn to work together, each doing what you’re best at. But the sum is inescapably bound in that vessel and the choices and execution that the craftsman made in creating it.”
There is a reason, beyond Bielinski’s skill, that these vessels perform so well, and are in such immaculate condition. Every Tuesday evening, a dedicated group of volunteers gather for “Boatnight,” to sand, varnish, make new oars, sometimes newly commissioned boats, and repair individual vessels as they get damaged, or come up on a periodic maintenance schedule. Throughout the evening — which culminates with a feast, at 9 p.m., prepared by another set of volunteers in the club’s “galley” — Bielinski patiently guides each volunteer, with assistance from one or two assistant boatbuilders: Julia Hechanova and, on rare occasions, Rachel Bergquist, both lifelong professional craftswomen.
“As our small band of volunteers sand, and talk about our lives, loves, and work,” says Schuss, who has become a Boatnight regular herself, “it is impossible not to notice the names of the boats.” Hand-carved into the back seats of the boats, with gold lettering, many echo the names of beloved, deceased club members and benefactors. There is, for example, the Sid Foster, honoring a well-known, 60-year member with numerous local athletic achievements; the John Weiland, named after a wealthy and prominent charter member of the Dolphin Club, whose family in 1885 posthumously commissioned, as his namesake, a six-person rowing barge, which later became the club’s flagship vessel; or the Dino Landucci, memorializing a former prizefighter, whose hands were so large, one palm was cast in bronze, creating a plaque that stands sentry in the club’s entryway.
Standing near the fleet, sipping wine or half naked with swim goggles in hand, club members (called “Dolphins”) regularly delight in telling, and retelling (and retelling) the many stories of these old souls, some of whom were so rugged they swam their great distances before the club even had a sauna. The old codgers’ method of warming up: Dry off with newspapers, then build a fire on the beach in a trash can.
Back in the repair shop, Schuss writes, “smelling the varnish and wood dust, we continue the work and tradition of caring for the boats. They in turn provide us with something that is far more important than anything they were built for. Boatnight is the weekly event that pretends to be about sanding and varnishing but is really a refuge from the city, it is the human soul of this wooden craft, it is a community.”
If you want to dig deeper in the world of boat building, or up any skills you already have, here is our curated list of schools and workshops, along with a journal of one builder’s experiences:
- Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, Port Hadlock, Wash.
- The Arques School of Traditional Boat Building, Sausalito, Calif.
- Spaulding Marine Center, Sausalito, Calif.
- IYRS School of Technology and Trades, Newport and Bristol, R.I.
- The Landing School, Arundel, Maine
- The Wooden Boat School, Brooklin, Maine
- Building a Fantail Launch, an unusually detailed and informative chronicle, with numerous photos, compiled by Alec Brecher, a boat builder in Vermont.
© 2023 Todd Oppenheimer. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.