The Wieland Remodel

This article, put together by Sid Hollister is a compilation of a story John Kortum wrote for the Dolphin Log in the Fall 1997 and of Jon Bielinski’s talk to the Maritime Museum Small Craft Association on September 14, 1998.

WielandJohn Wieland, gold miner, baker and beer baron, was one of the founding members of the Dolphin Club.

As an immigrant from Germany in 1849, Wieland at first settled in Philadelphia, but in 1851, he set out for California. He mined enough gold along the South Fork of the Yuba River to move to San Francisco and go into the baking business. Wieland subsequently bought into the Philadelphia Brewery, a thriving San Francisco concern, finally becoming its sole owner and building it into the most successful and largest business of its kind on the Pacific Coast. He had few years to enjoy his success, for in 1885 his home caught fire and Wieland and several members of his family died in the blaze. John Wieland was only 55 years old. Later that year, the surviving family members commissioned Al Rogers, a young boatbuilder in Alameda, to build a magnificent six-oared barge in their father’s memory. In June 1887, they gave the “John Wieland” to the Dolphin Club, where, ever since, it has been the flagship of the Club fleet.

The “John Wieland” has come to us with little recorded history about her voyages during the more than one hundred years she rode the Bay’s waters.

Old timers do remember, however, that one time she almost sank off Alcatraz with a cargo of horse manure, that she transported Club members to Candlestick for the ball games, that she regularly served as a team bus for softball competitions on Angel Island, and that she frequently contributed to the public safety by keeping club members off the state highways on return trips from Sam’s in Tiburon and other bayside watering holes.

The early phases of the project

By the late 1980s, constant use and the occasional accident had taken their toll, to say nothing of the indignities of patchwork repairs, neglected maintenance, general rot and the steady corrosion of metal fastenings. Old and weary and leaking, the Wieland was too tired to stay in active service. The question was, what was the Club to do with her? Many possibilities were tossed about, ranging from “burn it” to “replicate it.”

Jon Bielinski, the Club’s principal boatbuilder, suggested restoring the vessel to new construction standards, duplicating its hull form as it was built a hundred years ago as well as its construction details and original hardware.

With some trepidation, given the scope and estimated cost of the project, the Club’s Board of Governors gave the go-ahead to do the work. The fact that seven smaller boats in the Club’s fleet had been rebuilt under Bielinski’s guidance encouraged them to make this decision. After a last row around Alameda, the place of her construction in 1887, the “Wieland” was decommissioned in December 1991, and placed in the Dolphin Club boatshop. A journal was started that would trace every step in the restoration process.

John Muir, a professional boatbuilder himself, took the first step by shooting dozens of photographs to document the Wieland’s condition and construction details. Old photographs of the barge were collected for what they could reveal about its original hardware and details of construction, and photos of other boats built by the Wieland’s original builder, Al Rogers, were examined for construction similarities. Then, with help from Tuesday “boat night” volunteers, boatbuilder Bielinski took off the Wieland’s measurements and laid out a full-size drawing of the barge. With this information, he constructed molds to define the Wieland’s reconstructed shape.

Once the barge’s interior was dismantled and parts set aside that could be reinstalled or used as models to guide duplication of construction details, the molds were placed into the vessel as a final check upon her shape. Her bottom and keel structure were then cut out and Bielinski and his volunteer crew laid in a new backbone, which consisted of the keel and associated parts. The planking was then replaced or repaired, the construction molds removed and the interior planking varnished.

The next step was the framing, and a new definition of “rib night.” In one steaming and bending frenzy on a night in June, 1996, 45 volunteers sent frames flying out of the steam box at the rate of one every two minutes. In just three hours they fastened 60 frames into the Wieland. Teams of volunteers then secured the planking with over a thousand copper nails and, with guidance from the design of traditional sliding-seat eight-oared shells, engineered the layout of the rowing positions.

Nine coats of varnish protect the inside of the planking, six coats shield the frames and interior fittings, and six coats seal the outside hull. The most significant design change from the Wieland as decommissioned is the replacement of the heavy log keel, installed in the 1970s as a patchwork repair, with a “T” structure of oak, a change that cut approximately 300 pounds from the barge’s weight. The new keel helps the boat resist bending in her length but allows her to twist, softening the stress of the waves.

To complete this ambitious project, more than 176 volunteers contributed 4,767 hours. The Wieland was rechristened with a fine party on the Club’s pier July 23, 1997, and slid into the Bay’s waters for its first row. All the rowers were “old timers”, every one a Club member for more than 25 years. Crewed by a helmsman and six rowers on the oars, the Wieland cruises at six knots. With two crews trading rowing watches, she has already criss-crossed the Bay a number of times and has even made the journey to Sacramento.

The “John Wieland”, a vessel unique to the Dolphin Club, will, we hope, be rowed for another one hundred years, keeping alive the vital boating tradition of the Club and the memory of the man who helped establish it over 125 years ago.

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