Home Features Hail to the Chieftain

Hail to the Chieftain

by Peter Marsh

The Hawaiian Chieftain, a classic sailing ship with a bright yellow hull and traditional square rig, has been a popular sight on the waters in the Pacific Northwest for almost 30 years. But wherever it went, this unique steel vessel was often overshadowed by its wooden partner Lady Washington—the state of Washington’s official historic tall ship.

The launch of Lady Washington on March 7, 1989, as the flagship of the Washington State Centennial celebration was probably the biggest I’ve ever covered in the 34 years I’ve written for this fine publication, but it was just the beginning for Lady Washington, which has appeared in several hit movies including Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Star Trek: Generations. However, it was the “double act” with Hawaiian Chieftain that became famous on the West Coast from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Diego, California. Whether watching from the shore, boarding at the dockside, or as a paying passenger, who could resist these two replicas of historic vessels participating in a staged cannon battle under full sail?

I photographed one of these engagements myself from the helm of my 21’ wooden trimaran a few years back, and I remember being caught up in the event while trying to steer, trim the sails, and get some good shots all at once. The next day, the eye-catching pair were off on their travels again, and I could never have imagined that in the fall of 2020, I would be given the responsibility of safeguarding one of these magnificent ships through the winter. How the Hawaiian Chieftain and I became entangled is now part of these tall ships’ tale.

Photo by Rick Horn

I began digging a little deeper into their fascinating history, and it was only then that I realized that both tall ships were under construction in 1988 and both boasted naval architects named Ray. Owned by Grays Harbor Historical Seaport (GHHS) (historicalseaport.org), Lady Washington was designed by Raymond E. Wallace, a well-known marine historian and artist, naval architect, and prominent yachtsman. The Hawaiian Chieftain was built in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui and designed by Seattle naval architect Ray Richards, who is best known regionally for designing two iconic Northwest craft; the Ranger 24 and Haida 26.

A couple of the men who helped build the Chieftain visited me during my tenure with the boat last year and reminisced over the casual atmosphere at the shipyard. There were occasional changes to Richards’ interior layout to suit the climate and the intended use, they recalled, then the Chieftain slipped into the water without fanfare. The hull was 65’ long, and when it was fully rigged as an early 19th-century topsail ketch with an authentic long bowsprit, it grew to over 100’ overall—10’ less than Lady Washington’s impressive sparred length of 112’ on a 67’ hull. Richards’ design was based on a flat-bottomed shallow draft hull, with a long keel and bilge fins to keep the draft down to 5’5”. It was powered by twin diesel engines to give it better maneuverability in small harbors.

The maiden voyage was to Tahiti in 1990, then the crew sailed to San Francisco under a new owner who eventually based the boat in Sausalito, California. In 1993, the two aforementioned ships first arranged to meet in a mock sea battle in San Francisco Bay, which began their long association. The Hawaiian Chieftain passed through the hands of several owners until 1998, when GHHSdecided to purchase it and make the vessel the official sailing partner to Lady Washington.

Photo by Rick Horn

From there, the two tall ships established a successful “trade route” of cruising the Northwest shores in the summer and Southern California in the winter. This program provided hands-on history of the fur trade for school children on weekdays and took the public sailing on weekends when a battle under sail was recreated by firing black powder charges from ships’ small cannons. There was a brief hiatus from 2004-2005, as GHHS accepted an offer for Hawaiian Chieftain from a New England enthusiast. Unfortunately, the new owner died soon after, and GHHS then bought the ship back. The ships resumed their partnership, reaching thousands more children and carrying many families on exciting sails. (The Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington were also featured together in a September 2019 NWY article outlining the state’s tall ships).

All seemed well, until the annual haul out of Lady Washington in the winter of 2018-19 for maintenance and U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Some serious issues with rot were discovered, and the entire transom and many planks had to be replaced. In the summer of 2019, Coast Guard inspectors discovered serious rust problems with the Chieftain, particularly in the hull below the waterline and bowsprit. It was forbidden from carrying passengers until these issues were completely resolved. Thus, the organization had to make some difficult decisions on the future of both ships and announced their plan in December 2019: “We came to the difficult decision that it was time for Hawaiian Chieftain’s role within Grays Harbor Historical Seaport to come to an end,” stated Brandi Bednarik, executive director.

The steel ship was delivered from Port Townsend south to Astoria in 2019 in the hopes of less expensive repairs in partnership with the Tongue Point Job Corps. Unfortunately, the estimated cost of the steel repairs alone came to $350,000—well beyond the ship’s current value—and it also needed new engines plus an overhaul of all its mechanical and electrical systems, bringing the total cost to a minimum of $600,000. In the fall of 2020, the ship was towed around Tongue Point and moored behind Astoria’s Pier 39, which was established in 1875 and is the site of the oldest remaining fish cannery in the region.

[With Great Care]

This is where I enter into the tale because I happen to be the volunteer director of the Hanthorn Cannery Museum (canneryworker.org), located inside one of the pier’s many freezer rooms.Being the most experienced sailor available, I found myself speedily “promoted” to the rank of ship’s caretaker for the winter.

I was well aware of the conditions the winter would deliver to the lower Columbia, and by December, cold east winds were starting to blow down the river from the Gorge. I looked all over the ship searching for some spare mooring rope until I had several lengths that enabled me to double and then triple the bow and stern lines. After every blow, I would climb on board via a narrow plank and check for wear and tear on the canvas I had wrapped around the warps where they ran through the ship’s rusty hawse holes. (I actually considered spending a night on board in the main cabin but decided I might be spoiled by all the space compared to the tunnel-like berth on my own small boat.)

Storm after storm, once I was satisfied everything was still shipshape, I would climb the steps to the poop deck like Captain Bligh and survey my handiwork as the ship pitched and rolled in the easterly swell. Happily, the lines held and the ship began to attract more and more public interest as the weather improved in the spring.

Technically, the Chieftain was for sale the entire time it was at the pier, but it was still a surprise in the middle of last summer to hear that someone in Hawaii was seriously interested in becoming the next owner. Aubrey Wilson, who has crewed as a deckhand on three traditionally rigged tall ships—198’ Niagara (Lake Erie), 156’ Tole Mour (Catalina Island), and 137’ Roseway (Boston), was intent on buying the boat, with the support of her husband Matt, and restoring it as an educational resource.

“We desperately wanted to come to Astoria to inspect the ship in person, but we didn’t feel it was safe to fly with our baby during the peak of the pandemic,” Wilson said. However, she did call me to say hello, thanked me for my efforts, and I soon found myself welcoming her mother on board, followed by her surveyor Captain Dennis Crowley from Aberdeen, and work crews from GHHS, escorting them all across the flimsy gangplank.

Finally, Arren Day, one of the twelve partners of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op (PTSC) (ptshipwrights.com) that has worked on the two tall ships for many years, gave the boat a thorough exam. They were certainly the most qualified yard to perform the necessary restoration work; once they won the bid, I knew the ship’s days in Astoria were numbered. The final visitors were the crew of the 75’ tug Triumph, owned by Western Towboat, a family-run company based on Seattle’s Ship Canal. This crew wasted no time in rigging up the tow, and then Hawaiian Chieftain quickly disappeared downriver from our view. I decided to get one more view and jumped in my van and drove through downtown to the Astoria-Megler bridge, where I watched this 18th century design traveling faster than it ever had, with a strong pull from the tug and a full spring tide bringing her to Port Townsend. When the restoration work is complete (see sidebar for more details), and after sea trials, the new Hawaiian Chieftain will sail back to the Islands where she first took shape and start the next chapter in her story.

Photo by Peter Marsh

>> For the latest on the repair work and future plans for Hawaiian Chieftain, visit: sailhawaiianchieftain.com.


Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op has its own fascinating story, which also began in the 1980s. In 1981, a group of shipwrights in Port Townsend banded together to purchase a ship saw—a large and very heavy bandsaw. They built a shop over it and created a viable space to work on all types of boats. Forty years later, Port Townsend Shipwrights has expanded to four buildings where the historical trade of working on boats is alive and well.

The co-op now employs over 50 craftspeople with a wide range of skills and a team of certified shipwrights who handle practically any task on any type of boat, from big fishing vessels to classic wooden motor yachts. Many of them are graduates of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Hadlock, a few miles away, so they can re-plank, re-caulk, and re-rig heavy wooden hulls like Lady Washington. They are equally skilled in working with all types of metals and welding methods, which will be necessary when repairing the heavily rusted hull of the Chieftain to a level that can pass United States Coast Guard regulations.

According to Day, the hull repairs will start with “minor crop and replacement of hull plating, center keel, and some deck structure, plus a lot of little repairs to bilge areas and tanks—but nothing too dramatic!” On deck, they will build a new steel main mast and the windlass, and fit new standing rigging, new chainplates, and new bowsprit.

It is in the propulsion and electrical system that the Chieftain will depart entirely from tradition with a state-of-the-art, hybrid diesel-electric propulsion system and a big lithium-ion battery bank. The foundation of this will be a modern “clean diesel” generator, which will power two electric motors on the twin propeller shafts. This is expected to give a three-hour motoring capacity on fully charged batteries before the generator must be started. The ship will need to be extensively rewired with LED lighting and the crew will have the advantage of modern digital instruments and satellite navigation equipment—unless they want to practice their sextant skills! The exterior will be sandblasted and painted in a new color scheme that chosen by a contest on the ship’s new website.

The latest schedule estimates the work will take 18 months and the ship will be relaunched in spring 2023.

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1 comment

KevinEide May 6, 2024 - 14:13

I’ve lived in Lahaina for 50 years and watched as Drake built the Chieftain, saw it put into the Kahoma Stream, watched it sail away. What a beautiful vessel! Drake really knows his stuff!


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