El Niño – 1: S.S. Palo Alto - 0
For starters, if you want a detailed history of the S.S.Palo Alto, find a copy of the sweet short paperback titled "Forever Facing South: The Story of the S.S. Palo Alto 'The Old Cement Ship' of Seacliff Beach by the late David Heron. Like most of us who have spent any time around the ship, he became obsessed and used his researching skills to fashion this loving tribute to the old girl.
The Short Version:
About six months before World War I ended unexpectedly on November 11, 1918, the US government decided to build a fleet of concrete transport ships. The S.S. Palo Alto, an oil tanker, was the first of eight to be completed, but by then the war had ended and they all became war surplus. All dressed up with no place to go, she was dragged around San Francisco Bay by various pipe dreamers for a decade until some real estate developers purchased her (by now her engines and propellers were removed) and hired a tug to tow her down to be the centerpiece of a coastal real estate development at Seacliff.
The real estate developers who dragged her down here cared more for symmetry than they did the well-being of the ship, because when they sank her on January 25, 1930, they pointed her so she was perpendicular to the shore. They should have angled her just a bit to her starboard so that her bow would cleave the prevailing southwesterly swell. As it is, she takes a never-ending succession of left hooks.
If I had a nickname for the ship it would be "The Bad Timing" because she missed the war, and punctuated a real estate project that itself would be punctured by the Great Depression. Not to mention the storm over the winter of 1931-1932 that saw waves pick her up and do a body slam that broke her amidships.
The Palo Alto the day before she's officially launched. May 28, 1919.
The State of California bought her in 1936 for $1 and added her to the amenities of Seacliff State Beach. It was in the late 1940s that I first developed a life-long intimate relationship with the ship, fishing rod in hand prowling all over her. Some of us would climb (illegally) down into her bowels to fish for huge rubbermouth perch, and I can still feel her breathe as the waves forced air up through the many cracks in her skin. For us kids, she was alive and dangerous. I still feel that scary-slippery kelp-covered concrete floor that was trying to flip me into the sea.
Slowly and surely the ocean did its work and the State fenced off the bow and then amidships and finally forced us off the ship completely. We would stand at the fence, watching the blow-holes spout high into the air, and listen to her wheeze and groan.
I came to believe that the ship's cries are a lament for her unlived life, she being sentenced to sit there, defenseless as the storms came in and smacked her. If she had been an animal, someone would have come along long ago and put her out of her misery.
So, here in January of 2016, she's come to this, twisted as if writhing in pain, a monument to a missed war, a horrific economic depression, and a rising sea that will surely eventually engulf her.
She's almost 97 years old and been sitting in the surf exactly 86 years. She has stories to tell. Go out and listen to her.
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