Restoration of historic Norwegian wooden sailboat celebrated

People who love wooden boats held a bon voyage party Friday evening (March 13) on the Sausalito waterfront for one of the rarest and largest wooden ships still afloat.


By Paul Liberatore –
The historic Frithjof Wiese, a 55-foot-long Norwegian gaff... (Special to the IJ/Douglas Zimmerman).

The historic Frithjof Wiese, a 55-foot-long Norwegian gaff... (Special to the IJ/Douglas Zimmerman).

They were celebrating the at-long-last-finished restoration of the historic Frithjof Wiese, a 55-foot-long Norwegian gaff ketch constructed of 60 tons of Douglas fir and white oak.

In 1986, the owners of the massive old sailboat, originally used to rescue Norwegian fishermen in the North Sea, began a marathon effort to refurbish the 80-year-old vessel, designed by Colin Archer, a legendary figure in the world of wooden boats.

Owner Forest McMullen, a boyish 33-year-old who has been working with his father, George, on the Frithjof Wiese for most of his adult life, plans on sailing out of San Francisco Bay in 10 days or so after a brief haul-out to finish the boat’s big bottom.

The maiden voyage will take him, his dad and a crew of four down the West Coast of the U.S., through the Panama Canal, up the Eastern seaboard and across the North Atlantic to Europe.

“I’ve wanted to go to Europe since I was a kid, but I’ve refused to fly,” he said with a smile. “So now I’m going by boat.”

The ketch, powered by the wind and a new 671-cubic-inch Detroit diesel engine, has been docked in Sausalito for the past decade as a coterie of local shipwrights make it seaworthy using traditional hand-tool craftsmanship. All it needs now is a brief haul-out to refinish the bottom and it’s good to go.

Frithjof Wiese was built in 1935 in Rosendale, Norway. Before World War II, she was a rescue vessel until she was seized by German forces and used as a patrol vessel. In 1960 Olie Johansen sailed her from Norway to Seattle via the Panama Canal. In 1981, Mike Ryan along with his wife and six children lived aboard on Orcas Island. In 1986, the McMullen Family purchased her, commencing an eighteen year restoration project. Photo: www.

The restored ketch, whose colorful history includes being seized by the Nazis during World War II, is largely a product of Sausalito’s highly specialized working waterfront, which includes the Northbay Boatworks, the Bayside Boatworks and the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center, one of the last historic wooden boatyards on the West Coast.

“It would have been impossible to do what we did with this boat without these small waterfront businesses in Sausalito,” McMullen said as friends and neighbors admired the gleaming lacquered wooden trim on his ketch’s new pilot house and its twin masts fashioned from the top and bottom sections of a single Douglas fir tree.

“It looks funky down here,” he added as he walked along a dirt road in the Sausalito Shipyard and Marina, formerly the Arques Marina. “But these are the most talented wooden boat craftspeople in the business.”

The Sausalito boat builders are not only maritime mavericks in an industry that has turned to cheaper aluminum and fiberglass. They also see themselves as an endangered species fearful of being forced out by property owners with plans for commercial development of the waterfront that may not include them.

“They are all here on a month-to-month basis,” McMullen said. “They’re in a precarious position.”

But Friday wasn’t a day to worry about the future. It was a time to celebrate the Frithjof Wiese’s bittersweet departure.

“All of us who have enjoyed the presence of this marvel to behold over these past years will be sad to see her go,” lamented Victoria Colella, who hosted the party at her Valhalla Signworks.

“I’m always anxious to see how wooden boats are built,” said neighbor Marianne Dolan, a filmmaker who came over from the century-old wooden tugboat she lives aboard at nearby Galilee Harbor. “There’s a feeling you get inside a wooden boat that is unlike anything else. I just love wooden boats.”

Admiring the broad beam of the Frithjof Wiese as if it were a Botticelli angel, she added with a sigh, “Just look at those curves.”

Bavaria-born Anton Hottner, a bearded, 37-year-old partner in Northbay Boatworks, stopped work on a graceful new wooden creation long enough to join in the celebration and admiration of the Frithjof Wiese.

“She is so stout and beautiful,” he said. “I would go anywhere on that boat. It’s awesome.”

Read more about the history of Frithjof Wiese on:

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.