From Glasgow to London and San Francisco: the Ship Balclutha brings two institutions together

By Nicole Monjeau and Courtney J. Andersen

This is a blog co-written by Nicole Monjeau, Project Undaunted Conservator at the Lloyd's Register Foundation (LRF), and Courtney J. Andersen, Historic Ship Rigging Supervisor at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (NHP).

In April 2017, Courtney J. Andersen, the Historic Ship Rigging Supervisor at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, visited LRF. He came to view the spar plan for the ship Balclutha, which the San Francisco Maritime NHP owns and exhibits. The San Francisco Maritime NHP requested a photographic copy of the spar plan in order to verify her original spar dimensions, which may have changed during the ship's lifetime.

Lloyd's Register classed the Balclutha when she was completed in 1886. As a result, we have in our archive the aforementioned spar plan, as well as a midship section plan, and the original First Entry survey report. We decided to conserve all three of these documents, so we can give the San Francisco Maritime NHP copies, which they can use to help inform the ongoing maintenance and upcoming spar replacement of Balclutha.

The view from San Francisco - Courtney J. Andersen

The three-masted steel sailing ship Balclutha was built in 1886 by Charles Connell in Scotstoun, Glasgow, for the trade of taking coal from the UK to California and grain back. Later, she carried general cargo to ports around the world, eventually rounding Cape Horn 17 times. Further careers included carrying lumber in the Pacific, salmon packing in Alaska, and as a combination sail-training/entertainment exhibition ship in California. She appeared in the 1935 version of the film Mutiny on the Bounty as a background vessel. Finally, in 1953, she was purchased for the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and the patina of several decades' hard use was removed in a restoration which repaired or replaced hull plating, wooden masts, yards, decking and rigging. Nearly all labour and materials for that restoration was donated through volunteer efforts. The San Francisco Maritime Museum became part of the National Park Service in 1978, and Balclutha has been the centrepiece of San Francisco Maritime National Park ever since.

Image 1 Courtney

Image 2 Courtney

When I became the Historic Ship Rigging Supervisor, one of the first things I attempted on Balclutha was to create a rigging inventory. I found there were some oddities: mismatched wire sizes and construction, blocks which weren't the appropriate sizes for running rigging, spar fittings which needed wedges to fit the spars, etc. It was clear some things had been installed because they were on hand and would function, but were not necessarily absolutely correct historically. During her career with the Alaska Packers Association, there was also likely much swapping of gear and spars from vessel to vessel; for instance, a spar plan made in 1906 with dimensions of the upper masts and yards differs in details from what is currently in place. Anything which has needed replacement during her time at the museum was simply a copy of what existed when she was acquired. I have suspected there are some details which are not the same as when she was launched.

As always in doing a rigging job, primary sources are the best for getting details straight. The Park has copies of many of the letters between the shipbuilder and the owner when Balclutha was being planned and built, and these give amazing details for much of the original construction. Also in the historic documentation, there was a reference to a "spar plan" located at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich dated 1886 which had been submitted to Lloyd's Register during her design stage. That plan was of great interest to me, because I hoped to compare it with the 1906 drawing, and scale dimensions off it to verify or contest the present wooden topgallant/royal masts and yards.

In 2012, I was making a trip to the UK, and contacted Greenwich to find out if I could see the spar plan from Lloyd's Register. Unfortunately, I was told that the plan was folded up, and too fragile to open until paper conservation could be done to it.

This past winter, we prepped Balclutha for a drydocking scheduled in the summer by striking all of her topgallant and royal (uppermost) wooden masts and yards (she has large steel "pole masts", which combine the lower mast and topmast into one piece...probably one of the reasons Balclutha is notable for never having been "rigged down," so most of her rigging fittings are original). Some of those uppermost wooden spars are due for replacement, so this would be an ideal time to check her original dimensions and look into changes to make the rigging more historically correct. I contacted Greenwich again, and was referred to Lloyd's Register.

Image 3 Courtney

Plimsoll line on Balclutha 's hull showing "LR", indicating Lloyd's Register classification

Image 4 Courtney

Happily, I was told Lloyd's Register was beginning a massive paper conservation and digitisation project of their documents, and they were excited about making Balclutha's spar plan one of their subjects! I was going to England for a visit in April, and met with Victoria and Nicole at the Lloyd's Register Foundation to see the plan. The excitement of looking at a piece of paper with a hand-inked design and notations that was directly connected to the ship we have at the Park was only matched, when a couple of weeks later, Nicole sent me preliminary pictures of the midship section plan and Balclutha's original First Entry survey report, documents which I had no idea existed.

Not rigging related, but an interesting, serendipitous find in the spar drawing: there is a fancy curlicue to end one of the wales on the stern. I had not recalled seeing this, and when I returned to San Francisco, one of the first things I did was to take a picture of this part of the ship. Sure enough, there is a welded piece where the curlicue had been removed!

Image 5a Courtney

Image 5b Courtney


The view from London - Nicole Monjeau

The two ship plans and the survey report needed conservation treatment before they could be safely digitised. The spar plan in particular was brittle and fragile, making it difficult to unfold. All documents needed surface cleaning, and most needed repair work.

The spar plan, survey report, and midship section before treatment.

Balclutha Spar plan BTR Ref

Balclutha Survey Report BTR   Balclutha Midship Plan BTR

The first treatment carried out on the Balclutha documents were surface cleaning. Using soft brushes and a chemical sponge (a dry sponge made of vulcanised rubber), the surface dirt was removed from the documents. This helped improve the appearance of the survey report and plans, and also helped remove substances which can cause deterioration.

Using a chemical sponge and brush to remove surface dirt from the survey report.

Following surface cleaning, the pressure sensitive tape was removed from the spar plan and the survey report. The first step was to remove the carrier (the film on top). This was done using heat to activate the adhesive, and a microspatula to help separate the carrier from the document. Once the carrier was removed, the tacky adhesive remained on the documents. A crepe eraser, a rubber commonly used in shoemaking, was used to lift away the sticky adhesive residue.

Removing Sellotape from the verso (back) of the spar plan.

Once the tape was removed, the spar plan, which was brittle and not lying flat after years of being stored folded, needed to be humidified and flattened. Humidification relaxed the paper’s fibres, which helps the plan lay flat once dried. A humidification chamber was created using a dampened sheet of blotting paper, and sheets of polyester to seal in the moisture. The plan, sandwiched between sheets of supporting material, was placed on top of the dampened blotting paper. While sealed, humidity entered the paper fibres, relaxing the plan. This process took about 45 minutes for the spar plan, though time does vary object to object. Once relaxed, the plan was removed from the humidification chamber and placed to dry and flatten in a stack of clean, dry blotting paper.

Project Undaunted cataloguer Eloisa Rodrigues made this video to share the humidification process of the Balclutha spar plan.

The final step in treating Balclutha's documents was to mend any tears, to stabilise the objects and make them easier to handle. This was done using a paste made of wheat starch and Japanese tissue. These materials are used because they age well, will not cause deterioration, and are easy to remove if need be.

Balclutha spar plan BTV Top Tape Balclutha Spar Plan ATR Top Tape

A section of the spar plan with Sellotape before removal and after removal. Tear repair was done in this area to mend the tears which the tape was covering.

Working on Balclutha's documents proved to be very rewarding. It is so satisfying as a conservator to turn an object that was difficult to unfold in the beginning, into a plan that is now readable, handleable, and hopefully useful to the San Francisco Maritime NHP in their maintenance of Balclutha.

This was an exciting connection for the Lloyd's Register Foundation to make, and really highlights the importance and value of our Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection. It was a great way for two institutions, from different parts of the world, to share information with one another. To quote an email sign-off from Courtney: "It really is cool to see how the individual items our two organizations have are so closely connected. Just think, back in 1886 the ship and the documents were in the same yard in Glasgow!"

The spar plan, survey report, and midship section after treatment.

Balclutha Spar Plan ATR Ref Edited

Balclutha Survey Report ATR Ref Balclutha Midship Plan ATR Ref

A big thank you to Courtney J.Andersen and the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park for helping to write this blog post and for providing photographs.