.Sausalito boatyard maintains maritime history 

A celebrated Sausalito resident, Freda, turns 138 this year. But one would never know it by looking at her.

Born in Belvedere in 1885, Freda is the oldest sailboat on the West Coast. Saloonkeeper Harry Cookson, who built the beautiful wooden vessel for yachting and racing, named her after his daughter.

Over the years, Freda has passed through the hands of more than 10 owners, and there were times when she fell into serious disrepair. In 2004, it looked like the old gal might not make it after sinking at a San Rafael marina.

Fortunately, Freda was raised and brought to the Spaulding Marine Center in Sausalito, where she underwent an extensive restoration that took more than eight years and over $500,000 in donations. Returned to her former splendor by numerous tradespersons and volunteers, the historic 33-foot sloop went back into the water in 2014.

The Spaulding Marine Center now owns Freda, and she couldn’t have found a more perfect steward. Located on Gate 5 Road at the north end of Sausalito’s working waterfront, the center’s for-profit boatyard helps fund its nonprofit endeavors, which includes Freda’s conservation.

“With proper maintenance, Freda will outlive us,” said Pete Brewster, 36, Spaulding Marine Center’s yard manager. “The center has all of the tools and supplies to work on wooden boats, which makes us pretty unique.”

I met up with Brewster and Sydney Wewerka, 25, the center’s event coordinator, for a tour of the bustling boatyard and boathouse on a rainy morning in early February. 

Preserving the heritage of boatbuilding and restoration is at the heart of the center’s mission, Wewerka said. Its maritime museum, library and small fleet of wooden sailboats give a glimpse into nautical yesteryear.

The center also offers a variety of youth and adult educational programs, such as a sailing summer camp and wooden boatbuilding classes where participants leave with their own sailboat, kayak or paddleboard.

The Friends of Freda is a very popular program, according to Wewerka. Volunteers help keep the yacht in tip top shape and get to sail her.

“We want to give experiences to people who have lived in this area their whole lives and have never been out on the water,” Brewster said.

As Brewster spoke, he kept a watchful eye on a flurry of activity at the water’s edge. A crane had lifted a tall mast, and workers were guiding it back into place on a sailboat. Just a couple of hours before, the mast had been laid across the boatyard to allow workers to service some parts of the boat more easily.

“There aren’t a lot of facilities positioned with a crane to pick masts up.” Wewerka said. “It’s a pretty big operation.”

Several vessels were sitting on blocks in the boatyard, waiting to be worked on. Folly, a wooden sailboat only a few years younger than Freda, was among them. Like Freda, Folly is a racing yacht, although her owner sails her recreationally now.  

Both Brewster and Wewerka are passionate sailors. Brewster grew up boating on the East Coast and got the bug. After spending two years at a wooden boat school in Newport, RI, he landed in Sausalito.

Although Wewerka hails from land-locked Colorado, she sailed small boats on lakes and rivers. After earning a degree in oceanography, she moved to Sausalito. Then she shifted gears.

“I wanted to learn how to work with tools and build things,” Wewerka said. “Those are the things they don’t necessarily teach you in a typical college curriculum.”

Last year, Wewerka graduated from the Spaulding Marine Center’s apprenticeship program. During the 12-month marine technician training, the apprentices took courses in electrical, propulsion and yacht systems. They also worked on wooden boats, as well as vessels made from modern materials, such as fiberglass and composites. 

Many aspects of the center’s comprehensive apprenticeship program are exceptional. Apprentices are paid throughout the program and receive college credit.

Graduates are in high demand by the multi-billion-dollar marine industry. Wewerka had her choice of offers from Bay Area businesses.

“Unfortunately, with shop classes disappearing, students don’t get an introduction to trades anymore,” Brewster said. “The Spaulding Marine Center is helping produce skilled, trained, certified technicians to keep this industry alive.”

Those words would be music to the ears of Myron Spaulding, the boatyard’s founder.

A true Renaissance man, Spaulding, born in 1905, was an accomplished violinist. During the 1920s, he played the violin in silent movie houses and was part of the vaudeville orchestra at Fox Theatre in San Francisco. He earned a seat with the San Francisco Symphony in 1934 and remained there until 1957.

But Spaulding’s true love was boatbuilding. Long-time friend Tom Miller said Spaulding built his first boat in woodshop class at the now defunct San Francisco Polytechnic High School.

“He was a violinist like other people were plumbers,” Michael Wiener, a former manager of Spaulding’s boatyard, said in the documentary Myron Onward. “It was a trade for him.”

Fiddle playing financed many of Spaulding’s nautical ventures, including sailboat racing. He sailed six times in the prestigious Transpacific Yacht Race, winning in 1936 and 1947. Many regard him as the finest sailor on the San Francisco Bay in the 20th century.

However, his most enduring legacy began 1951, when he bought the plot of waterfront land on Gate 5 Road and opened Spaulding Boatworks. The seasoned sailor designed, built and repaired scores of wooden sailboats. Some of his Spaulding 33 class sailboats and custom yachts are still sailing today.

After Spaulding died in 2000 at the age of 94, his widow, Gladys, established a charitable trust to ensure that his beloved boatyard would benefit new generations of sailors.

Brewster, Wewerka and many other local mariners are committed to carrying on Spaulding’s heritage at the center that bears his name. At the same, they’re keeping pace with progress.

While the marine trade has traditionally been dominated by men, half of the participants in the center’s last apprenticeship program were women. Wewerka is pleased to see the change.

“I know a lot of really amazing women that work in the waterfront industry in Sausalito,” Wewerka said. “It’s important for us to offer women space to work at the center.”

They’re also reaching out to people in vulnerable communities by offering scholarships to the center’s youth summer camp. Volunteering opens doors, too.

“The volunteer aspect to Spaulding is great,” Brewster said. “It gives people an opportunity to learn the marine trade in an active boatyard and work on historic boats. We welcome the public to come in and see what we’re doing here.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

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