Three Masts and a Ghost

By Jo Fry

haunted ship

Balclutha under sail, post-1911 (Gabriel_Moulin).

Near a small beach in San Francisco called Aquatic Park Cove sits a three-masted ship wooden ship, the Balclutha. Built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1886, it sailed between Britain and the US, bringing coal and returning to the UK with California wheat. After a storied career that included sailing around Cape Horn 17 times, being the last vessel to hoist the flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and starring with Clarke Gable in the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” the ship became a part of the San Francisco Maritime Museum and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

In the early nineties, I was a young woman living and working in San Francisco, and when adventure called, I always answered. One night I was out with a man (who would go on to become my future husband) who lived near the Fisherman’s Wharf area, so it was an easy walk down to the Bay. It was late when we passed the Hyde Street Pier, where the Balclutha is berthed. He pulled me towards the ship with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Come on, let’s check it out.” I had always wanted to visit this old ship, and said, “Yes.”

san francisco ghost ship

Balclutha Master’s Bath (Library of Congress).

After seeing the exterior, we noticed the boarding ramp open, so up we went. We began checking out the displays, heading down the ship’s steps to see more. We became engrossed in reading about the history of the vessel and artifacts on display, when we suddenly both looked at each other—we heard footsteps coming down the stairs towards us. We were caught. My future husband turned towards me and softly said in his British accent (he was born near Liverpool), “I’ll handle this and play the dumb tourist.” I nodded.

haunted ship balaclutha in california

Balclutha, San Francisco (Mike Peel/

We both faced the steps, waiting for a night guard to apprehend us. Funny thing was, we both heard the footsteps coming towards us, but no one was there. As the sounds descended the last few steps, we turned to face each other, both mouthing the words, “It’s a ghost!” No one, not even sailors after a long voyage, ever ran off a ship as fast as we did that night.

Later, back at his flat and finally calm, we compared notes. We both heard the hard sound of footfalls on wooden stairs. We realized that the stairs were covered in rubber so visitors wouldn’t slip—it would be impossible to make that sound on the stairs now. I also heard voices, which he did not. There were two, both male, but they were distant and muffled, so I could not make out the conversation.

Was there once a sailor from Liverpool who heard a fellow countryman and reached out? Did we tap into the recording of an ordinary day on the ship from one of its months-long journeys? Or was a spirit of a former captain protecting the ship from off-hours tourists? I will never know.

children playing next to haunted ship in san francisco

Boys playing by the Balclutha (Jo Fry)

I took the photo above  of my youngest child and a close friend’s son in 2014, with the Balclutha as the backdrop for our beach day. My husband passed away in 2012, but finding this photo and sharing it with my son, now a senior in high school, was perfect—he still remembers this day at the beach. I hope he enjoys this story about his Dad and our adventures before he was born.

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Volume 38 September/October 2023.

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