On a dark, crisp Saturday evening, with the water lapping at the sprawling wooden ship Balclutha on San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier, groups of visitors nestled into folding chairs and began channeling sailors of long ago.
National Park Ranger Peter Kasin called the group to attention, then began belting out an old sea shanty song, the group of facing visitors barreled in to join him on the chorus. “It’s away boys away,” they sang, filling the decks of the historic 1890 ferry boat Eureka with song.
“What it does is preserve our history through song,” said Kasin. “It’s also a great way just for people to get together and socialize and keep these songs alive.”
The National Park Service has hosted this monthly sing-a-long since 1981. Admission is free and anyone is free to sing. The gathering was originally held on the tall ship Balclutha which looked the part. But it eventually outgrew the ship and moved across the dock to the roomier ferry boat.
“A shanty is a work song that coordinates the effort of doing jobs together aboard a ship,” explained Kasin, who has run the gathering since 1996. Kasin may hold the distinction of the only park ranger who came by his job through sea shanty singing.
“I became a park ranger here because i came to my first shanty sing in November of 1989,” Kasin said. “I’ve seen kids grow to adults here.”
The singing takes place the first Saturday night of every month. Anyone is welcome to belt out a sea shanty or sailor song — the bawdy lyrics are reserved for after 11pm when the kids are gone. There also is no requirement that singers be able to carry a tune.
“I like to think about the shanty sing as a safe place to sing,” said Kasin. “Think about it, the sailors were not recruited out of the opera houses. But they sang loud with lots of gusto.”
On a recent night, Melanie Van Petten titled back her head and wailed an old sailing song. The group joined in on the chorus, some attempting to mouth the words, others actually singing.
“I’ve always liked sailing and i always wanted to run away to sea,” Van Petten said during a break. “This is as close as I’m going to get probably.”
The singing draws a couple hundred people each month. Some have learned the songs via recordings or books. Some learned through that new fangled invention; YouTube.
“People come in and some are afraid to sing,” said singer Walter Askew who performs under the name Salty Walt. “Some are geared up to sing and they’ve been waiting all month with their paper very well worn and tightly grasped in their white knuckles.”
Indeed Van Petten said she’s seen shy people converted into unbridled singers, including her own daughter whom she brought to the gathering as a child.
“She was too shy to talk to her neighbors she’d known all of her life,” Van Petten said. “Suddenly one night someone asked for a particular song and she jumped to her feet and said ‘I know it’ and preceded to sing it in front of 50 people.”
Kasin said the old ships were the perfect backdrop for the songs which logged life at sea and the chores that went with it. Outside the ferry boat’s windows the glow of Ghiradelli Square reflected off the churning waters.
Kasin said couples have gotten together during the gatherings, new friendships have formed and old songs have been passed around like history books.
“Ships, when we’re aboard them they somehow come alive,” Kasin said. “The ships need the people.”