On Tuesday 24th March 1970 Eppleton Hall completed her more than 8,000 nautical mile marathon across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and on up the west Coast of North America to arrive at her final destination in San Francisco.
The project was led by Karl Kortum, founder and Director of the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park, who sailed as mate and Scott Newhall, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who sailed as the Eppie’s captain. Although neither was a professional mariner both had extensive experience of sailing at sea and crossing oceans gained during the Second World War and subsequently with large yachts.
By any objective standard it was a mad idea. I just can’t see in today’s tick box culture any public body funding such a thing. But it was the sort of project which requires men of extraordinary vision coupled with a very high level of tip top quality expertise plus a hinterland of private financial backing to make it all happen. And make it happen they did. And in spades. It is an extraordinary tale of real success in the face of very many difficult obstacles along the way.
Richard Coton was a teenager when the Eppie left Newcastle. He visited the ship often during her rebuild
and took many fascinating pictures of her on the Tyne.
He is in touch with Karl’s son John Kortum, today a lawyer in San Francisco, who he met all those years ago when as an eleven year old boy John joined his father as one of the crew aboard the Eppie for this epic voyage.
John Kortum has been in touch and recalls his memories of the voyage and the Eppie’s arrival in San Francisco.
It’s been 51 years but I remember the night of our arrival clearly. The sea was calm, low rollers, and the fog sucked us in but not so thick that the moon was obscured. I had the midnight to 4:00 am watch with 2nd Mate Kip Waldo and we were to steam slowly back and forth outside the Golden Gate, killing time, so as to arrive triumphantly in daylight. Bill Bartz, 3rd Mate and a man of incredible energy, had been cleaning up the vessel even more than usual. We were ready. The older men had shaved and donned their epaulettes.
For the older among us, I suppose arriving home was a relief. For me, still 11 years old, I wasn’t sure why it had to end. I had ridden on a jet airplane, studied model steam engines at the Science Museum, used the steam hammer at R.B. Harrison’s shipyard, learned to stand watch, lived through vicious storms and calm, seen London, Newcastle, Dover, Lisbon, Las Palmas, São Vicente, Georgetown, Port of Spain, Curaçao, Cartagena, the Panama Canal, Corinto, parts of Guatemala when I was ashore to recover from dysentery, San Diego and now, home.
I had seen wealth and the ancient Westminster Abbey in London, working sail in Lisbon, taking the knock out of brass bearings, poverty in the shanties of São Vicente, walked the oily tops of the deck load of 179 drums of oil for the Atlantic crossing, gone swimming in the middle of the Atlantic while the flapper valves were being fixed, jungle life outside Georgetown, poisonous sea snakes between Islas Jicaron and Coiba, the sorry lot of laborers who were hired to climb inside the two boilers to chip away the encrusted salt. I had learned about steam — where 19 pounds pressure could get us — and steam engines —contraptions of water, fire, oil, iron and brass — and showered under the safety valve runoff tank — warm fresh water. I had found a kind of music in the thunk-thunk-thunk of the paddle wheel blades hitting the water and that slow, powerful sound made by the side-lever grasshopper engines as they slid up and down seemingly forever.
Being young, when time is slower, I did not have the feeling it would end. But perhaps no longer scrubbing the heads, chipping and painting, cleaning lamp black from the lantern chimneys, or even getting up in the middle of the night would not be so bad.
After dawn, the former Coast Guard cutter Alert appeared out of the fog with our relatives. The Alert was rolling wildly and her passengers were sick. The Eppie, with her paddle wheels and sponsons, rolled gently in the same waves. Old, good, technology, a sound ship. The Eppie got us there.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 24th March 2021.