Touring the Balclutha

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

A three-masted ship built in 1886, the Balclutha sailed the world transporting cargo for nearly 50 years.


Now a museum moored in the San Francisco Bay, this rugged vessel takes visitors back to seafaring days.


Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the Balclutha made its maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1887.  It took 140 days and a crew of 26 men to transport the cargo of 1,650 tons of coal.

Original crew, 1887. Courtesy National Park Service

Coal, wine, whiskey and other European exports; wool from Australia and New Zealand; rice from Burma were all delivered to San Francisco in this ship.


Balclutha stern

Balclutha stern

The return trip to Europe included grain from San Francisco and timber from the Pacific Northwest.  Read more about the Balclutha here.


Balclutha Voyages map

Balclutha Voyages map

The ship passed through Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America 17 times in 13 years.



Balclutha deck

Balclutha deck (Golden Gate Bridge in background left)

A present-day walk on the long, wooden deck of this 301 foot (92m) ship is a humbling experience.


With 25 sails and a complex system of ropes and rigging, the ship traveled thousands of miles on treacherous seas completely propelled by wind.


The tallest mast is 145 feet (44m) high. Sailors climbed up there into the tangle of ropes to furl the sails, with gale-force winds and turbulent waters always threatening.


It was a tough life for sailors, working day and night on rough seas, sleeping on bunks or hammocks below deck in close quarters and filth, always away from family.

Aboard the Balclutha (then named the Star of Alaska), 1919. Courtesy National Park Service

In 1954 San Francisco’s Maritime Museum bought the ship, retired and  restored it, and in 1978 it was transferred to the National Park Service.


Still highly celebrated, the old ship today is regularly maintained and is in excellent shape.


In addition to daily public tours, the ship hosts overnight field trips for regional grade school students.


Balclutha rigging

Balclutha rigging (swimmer in water at far right)

Also, on the first Saturday night of every month San Franciscans board the Balclutha joining in free sing-alongs of old sea chanteys.


A hearty ship that continues to transport imaginations and share stories of maritime life, the Balclutha is a fun San Francisco adventure.


Balclutha Captain's Quarters

Balclutha Captain’s Quarters



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted





50 thoughts on “Touring the Balclutha

  1. I like to think of myself as an adventurer. Then one sees a ship as magnificent as this and imagines how it must have been sailing all those years ago. Now there is some adventure. Looks like a remarkable tour and what fun to have the Saturday night sing alongs. Wishing you a great week ahead Jet!

    • Ahoy Matey! True adventurers they were, Sue, I agree. It’s great fun to walk through all the ship levels imagining their lives on this ship. Thanks so much for your great comment.

      • I remember going on the Balclutha when I was 7. Even though it’s down the street from my house, it always scared me for some reason. I’m not afraid of water nor large vessels but for some reason that ship scared me ahahhaahah

      • Great story Tareau. It creaks a lot, and sways, it is dark and dank, the steps between decks are steep, and with an imaginative mind all kinds of scary things lurk in the shadows. I can see a 7 y.o. being intimidated.

    • Even with the boat tethered, we felt a bit nauseous after an hour. I cannot imagine how people lived their lives sloshing about like that. But they certainly are lovely ships, Jan. Thanks for your visit today~~

  2. Wow, I had no idea these now old ships were capable of such journeys and longevity. We can only try to imagine the difficulties of such a life. Talk about brave souls! Great post, Jet!!

    • I had no idea either, John, until I visited the ship and learned about the long journeys year after year. Remarkable ship, remarkable people. I’m really glad you enjoyed the Balclutha post today, John — thanks so much.

  3. A beautiful ship, and I have a picture…Didn’t even think to check it was possible to visit, so, thanks to this great post, we’ll have to go back! We love old vessels like these (grew up near the Maritime Museum, London, and you’re never far from the water in the UK) and learning about life on board. I’m a sucker for romanticizing, but it must have been so tough to live and sail the old boats. Enjoyable post, thanks Jet!

    • I am so glad the Balclutha caught your attention, pc! I can imagine the old maritime world in London is absolutely fascinating. I hope you and Mrs. pc do return to SF and that we have another fun day together. That section of SF’s shoreline at the Maritime Park is really fun, it’s just west of the busy Fisherman’s Wharf. Many thanks, as always~~

  4. Tall-mast ships are so beautiful, I used to see them when they visited and paraded in NY Hudson River. It’s amazing how much work involves for the crew to run a ship of this kind in the seven seas! Nice post Jet! 🙂

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the Balclutha post, HJ. I, too, love those tall-mast ships; and appreciate the work involved on them. Thanks so much for your visit my friend~~

  5. Really enjoyed reading about the history of the Balclutha and the photos. I recently read an article in the New York Times, A Mail Boat Stays Afloat, about a floating U.S. Post Office serving Great Lakes vessels and it was great to compare a few modern day conveniences of extended life on the water mentioned in the article (internet and grocery and pizza deliveries) to the hard work and isolation these sailors must have endured. I would definitely prefer the docked tour to an extended trip on the water and I cannot imagine 140 days on the ship.

    • It is great reading about the old seafaring days, isn’t it, ACI? I am currently reading a fantastic sea book called “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, published in 1840. It’s a journalistic account of his two years as a sailor. It inspired me as I walked the decks of the Balclutha. Thanks for your great comment.

  6. So much history! Truly a majestic ship with long destination and travel!
    I always adore tall wooden ships. In Indonesia, we still use wooden ships (phinisi). The style is similar to the Balclutha. Nowadays the Phinisi ship becomes a popular ship to bring scuba divers sailing through the remote seas in Indonesia that often took days to reach (we stayed on the boat for days).

    • I so enjoyed hearing about your adventure on the phinisi, Indah. What an adventure that must have been to go sailing and staying overnight on one. Many thanks for your comment, my friend~~

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the Balclutha post, Sherry. I’m off to port4u to check out the digital composite. Always a pleasure to sail the seas, especially when it’s from one’s desk (I get seasick). Many thanks~~

  7. Lovely post about this beautiful ship. We get annual visits of two gorgeous tall ships here in Coos Bay: the Lady Washington which starred in Pirates of the Caribbean and the Hawaiian Chieftain. Both ships cruise up and down the coast of Oregon and Washington. I couldn’t locate their full summer schedule but I seem to remember them making stops along the California coast, too. They do a lot of fun stuff including sails where they have a fake ‘battle’ and visitors learn to raise a sail and sing shanties. Looks like their season ends pretty soon after Labor Day, but if they make it anywhere near your neighborhood, it might be worth a visit. 🙂

    • It’s really fun to have so many old ships available for touring and adventuring. When we were at the Balclutha a group of 4th graders were standing in line, each with a sleeping bag under their arm, ready for their overnight adventure on board. It’s a great way to learn history for people of all ages. Thanks so much for the info and comment, Gunta~~

    • There’s nothing like a walk across the wooden decks and down into the catacombs of an old ship to remind us how wonderful sunlight and still earth are. Thanks so much, Nan.

  8. What a beautiful piece of history, and how wonderful to be able to go on board this old ship. What very tough and dangerous voyages those who sailed in her must have experienced. I’m sure that they never imagined future monthly singalongs on board. 🙂

    • Thanks so much Sylvia. Funny what that ship must’ve all been through and you’re right, I’m sure monthly singalongs was not what they ever would’ve imagined. The 21st century is an interesting time to live…. 🙂

  9. The story really made me think back to how easily accessible everything is today. You can literally fly whatever you need to whereever you need it in a day. When the the Balclutha was in operation they probably used half a year to transport rice from Burma to SF. It puts things into perspective:)

    • Those old ships are incredible reminders of how quickly our world advanced with those new-fangled flying machines. I’m really glad the Balclutha post stirred your thoughts with appreciation and perspective, Inger. Thanks so much for your visits. 🙂

    • I’m happy you enjoyed a walk around the Balclutha, BJ. It really is difficult to imagine life aboard one of these vessels, charging across the raging sea. I’m reading an excellent book called Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana (1840). It’s well-written and chronicles two years at sea. Wonderful book, if you want to know more about life at sea back then. Thanks very much for your wonderful visit~~

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