There is mutiny in the air on the San Francisco waterfront. Riggers and deckhands who work the century-old ships moored near Fisherman's Wharf are up in arms over what they allege is mistreatment of the nation's largest fleet of historic vessels.
The crew, which helps maintain the rare ships at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, says mismanagement by the National Park Service is allowing the aging steam and sailing vessels to leak, rust and rot, jeopardizing their survival.
The sailors also charge that they have been the victims of retaliation since a confidential letter of complaint they had sent to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was turned over to their boss, Park Supt. Bill Thomas.
The National Park Service has begun an inquiry into the allegations, saying the concerns are being taken seriously. Thomas denies improper conduct and says he is under attack by disgruntled employees. But he acknowledges that some of the museum's historic ships are in bad shape despite ongoing restoration efforts.
Indeed, one of the most prized ships in the collection, the 98-year-old schooner C.A. Thayer, was named one of America's 11 most endangered historic places this year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"This is a rare treasure and we need to keep it alive," said Mary Hoyt, a spokeswoman for the trust. "Timbers are rotted. The hull is threatened by shipworms. Without reconstruction, the ship will continue to weaken until she sinks."
In all, five of the seven historic ships, including the 107-year-old full-rigged sailing ship Balclutha and the 103-year-old steam side-wheel ferry Eureka, are endangered by rot, rust or infestations, she said.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that the ships, which are made of wood or steel, were not built to last forever. Restoration is labor-intensive and costly, especially if the museum attempts to duplicate original materials.
The collection, first assembled by San Francisco history buffs in the 1950s, was taken over by the National Park Service in 1979 in the hopes that the federal government could devote the necessary resources. The maritime museum became a separate entity of the Park Service in 1989 and Thomas became its superintendent.
Even before Thomas took over, the museum had been the center of personality clashes between management and staff. Some nautical experts say the ongoing turmoil has undermined the museum's status and made Congress reluctant to sink millions of dollars into restoration of the historic fleet, especially in an era of tight budgets.
Thomas maintains that under his management the museum has made progress in restoring some of the ships. The main problem, he said, is finding the estimated $23 million needed to restore the ships when the annual budget for the park's pier, fleet and two-story museum is $4 million.
"We've come from being in bad shape to being in pretty good shape," the superintendent said. "We've got a long way to go, and it's always easy to think of what hasn't been done without seeing what has been done."
But members of the crew, who perform much of the restoration work, say that park management ignores problems, such as leaking decks, that cause continued internal decay. Instead, crew members are ordered to paint over rot and rust.
"Every deck on every ship leaks," rigger Jamie White said. "We're a museum and we're charged to protect the resources. Painting over rot makes it harder to find the rot to repair it."
The riggers also charge that the park's administrators often violate Civil Service rules when hiring staff and do not meet historic restoration requirements when carrying out work.
And they contend that the 102-year-old scow schooner Alma--the only vessel restored since Thomas became superintendent--was not rebuilt according to historic standards or with historic materials.
Built in 1891 as a sailing ship to haul cargo around San Francisco Bay, the Alma was fitted at one point with an engine, like many vessels of it class. But the museum, rather than restoring the ship to its original condition, equipped it instead with two engines.
Unlike other ships in the museum's collection, the Alma is not open to the public for tours. It is used to take park officials, staff and volunteers on trips around San Francisco Bay.
Thomas acknowledged that crew members were directed to paint over the rotting ships to keep up appearances. He also conceded that the Alma restoration does not reflect the scow schooner's original design but captures a later point in the boat's career. "It's historically accurate to a period," he said.
In December, 11 riggers and deckhands sent a letter of protest to Feinstein seeking a congressional investigation of the park's management. Adopting the mutineer tradition of the round robin, they signed their names in a circle so no one would stand out as a leader of the protest.
"We believe that under the present administration of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park the historic ships are in grave danger," the crew wrote. "The maintenance and repair of traditional vessels . . . is not a task to be left to amateurs."
In the letter, the crew asked that their names be kept confidential because of the "very real fear of reprisal." But within weeks, the letter was in the hands of Thomas, who was asked to draft the official response of the Park Service.
Mike McGill, who later became Feinstein's chief of staff, said the senator's office sent the letter to the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, but that the crew members' names should not have been disclosed.
"We were shocked by what happened and view it as a lesson learned," McGill said. "We have to be clear this is a matter to be handled discreetly. It is crucial that charges of this degree of seriousness should be looked into."
After receiving the 11 names, Thomas demoted the man he suspected as the ringleader, Steve Hyman, from foreman of the rigging crew to rigger. Thomas also threatened Christopher Jannini, a temporary employee who signed the letter, with termination--and fired him last week. On other occasions, crew members charged, Thomas denied one employee a deserved promotion and refused to give crew members training classes, leave and sailing time.
"We consider ourselves bona fide whistle-blowers," Hyman said. "Anyone who doesn't toe the line, they want to silence. The bigger issue is that every day these people run the organization with impunity moves us that much closer to losing the ships."
Thomas, however, denied that he had retaliated against any crew members who spoke out and said he took action against Hyman and Jannini because of disciplinary problems.
In August, nine months after the protest was lodged with Feinstein's office, the Park Service sent a management review team from Washington to look into the charges and the operation of the museum.
Mary Martin, a personnel specialist on the team, said the panel has not reached any conclusion about the merits of the charges. She said, "This is something we're taking very seriously."
It is not customary, she acknowledged, for the names of federal employees who complain to Congress to be turned over to their supervisor. "In hindsight, I think everyone realized that is something that should not have been done," Martin said.
Thomas said that he has long been at odds with the rigging crew because they are so focused on the restoration of the ships that they do not understand the larger issues involved in running the park.
"Some of the riggers have a haughty attitude," Thomas said. "They believe they are the only knowledgeable people in the park, (that) they're the only ones dedicated to cultural preservation."
Indeed, the riggers and deckhands say they sometimes believe they are the only ones interested in the welfare of the vessels. They are sailors who love the historic ships and believe they are helping to preserve an important part of American history, they say.
"We are ship lovers," said White, who has worked on historic vessels in a variety of harbors. "This is the only park of its kind in the National Park System. We should be the best in the world. They won't let us be."