Despite the weather, the residents of Belfast, Ireland turned out in large numbers to see the launching of Harland &Wolff's new vessel, the Star of France. Shortly after 10 of the morning of November 21, 1877, Miss Corry christened the ship, and it rode down its ways into the harbor.
The France was the 12th Star to join the sailing fleet of J.P. Corry & Co. Established back in 1814, J.P. Corry & Co. engaged in the North Atlantic timber trade. They later expanded their trade to India for jute, and Australia for wool. But their growing trade required more ships. So in 1860, Corry ordered his first iron ship, the Jane Porter. Two years later he ordered the first "star," the Star of Erin. During the next 17 years, the Corrys ordered 11 more iron ships--all with the prefix "Star of-, followed by the name of a country, thus the feet earned the nickname "Corry's Irish Stars."
The year 1877 saw the delivery of two more ships to the Corry fleet, the Star of Italy and the Star of France. These ships were not the largest of the fleet, but the fastest. Measuring 258' in length, 38' in beam, and 1522 tons, the two sister ships were identical in every detail, except for the figurehead. Like all of the Corry fleet, the figureheads were of maidens dressed in the costume of the country from which the ship was named. The Italy had a figurehead dressed in an Italian costume, and the France had one dressed in a French costume. However, while the figurehead of the France had its right arm raised, and on the Italy, the left arm was raised.
Both the Star of Italy and Star of France were "clipper-built," essentially meaning that they were designed for speed. Though the hulls were much larger and not as sleek as the extreme clippers of the 1850's and 60's, the two sisters were designed to optimize the balance between size and speed. Their tall iron masts were only doubled once for strength and heavily raked back to provide greater windward sailing ability. Turnbuckles (stronger and more easily adjusted than deadeyes) were used to tighten the shroud lines. Such qualities and a good master and crew earned the Star of Italy the all-time record for the fastest run from London to Calcutta. Her record off 77 days beat that of the Cutty Sark by two days.
On January 17, 1878, the Star of France sailed on its maiden voyage from Belfast to Calcutta, India. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1868 allowed steamships to cut right through the Mediterranean and into the Indian Ocean, while sailing vessels still had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. Fast ships such as the Italy and the France could still profit in the trade, but increased competition from steamships eventually displaced the ships. So seven years later, the France sailed in the Australia wool trade. On this route she sailed alongside some of the fastest ships of her time--the tea and wool clippers. The France out paced such clippers as the Mermerus, the Parthinope, and the Salamis (which later beat the Star of Italy and the Cutty Sark). Though very fast, iron ships had one major drawback: bottom growth. Anti-fouling bottom paint would not be available for years, giving copper-cladded wood ships a significant advantage.
In 1898, the Star of France was sold to the Puget Sound Commercial Company under the managing ownership of J.J. Moore and registered under Hawaii. Over twenty other ships were similarly registered to Hawaii--all with hopes of obtaining American registry when the Hawaiian Islands became part of the United States. In 1900, the Star of France became an American vessel, having been specifically named in the Organic Act of 1900, which made Hawaii a US territory. Soon the France was moved to Port Townsend, Washington regularly carried lumber between Puget Sound and Australia, returning to Hawaii with a cargo of Newcastle coal.
In 1902, the Star of France was sold the Pacific Colonial Company, and chartered to the Alaska Packers Association for use in its annual journey from San Francisco to Bristol Bay, Alaska to fish for salmon. Each spring, the Packers chartered the ship until 1905, when it finally purchased the vessel. During the winter of 1906-7, the France underwent major modifications to adapt the vessel for use as a transport for more than 150 fisherman. Her poop deck was extended 46 feet to an overall length of 90 feet with bunks and accommodations for the fisherman. A new capstan and chain were added, and her original anchor chain was transferred to the Star of India. Her original deck house was removed and a larger one was constructed in addition to American, Mexican, Italian galleys. Fly bridges were built over her decks to support a number of small fishing boats. Below decks, water tanks were added to carry more than 25,000 gallons of water. And to allow light and fresh air into the hull, portholes were added fore and aft on the 'tween deck level.
By 1906, the Packer's owned four of the Corry "stars." Having liked the "star" tradition, the Packers renamed all of their iron vessels and later additions to the fleet with same "Star of-" prefix, thus forming the Alaska Packers Association "star" fleet, one of the last commercial sailing fleets. Though very frugal, the Packer's took pride in their sailing ships. The France, like all of the APA "stars" were designated by Lloyds' as 100A1--their highest rating.
Unlike many of the Alaska Packers Association's fleet, the Star of France was not cut down to a bark. Throughout her entire sailing career, she kept her rig as a ship. And although the Star of France and the Star of India sailed together in the APA fleet for sometime, they are not sister ships. At 258' in length, the France is 53' longer than the India, and its main mast towered some forty feet over the India's. The Star of France had only one true sister ship, the Star of Italy.
Each year, the Star of France and the rest of the Packer fleet would sail Bristol Bay Alaska in March or April, usually returning by September. During the winter, a small crew maintained the fleet in their yard in Alameda, and the following Spring the ships would be dry-docked in order to inspect and clean the bottoms. The France's most notable journey took place in 1918, when ice forced the ship ashore and the Italian crew mutinied.
The increased speed and reliability of steamships, and the lack of experienced sailors and a decrease in the salmon industry ultimately marked the end of the France's sailing career in 1925. For years, the France remained in San Francisco Bay, at one time moored next to the Pacific Queen, formerly the Star of Alaska. During this time, some of the France's brass belaying pins managed to get on board the Pacific Queen and can still be seen on the museum ship Balclutha (ex-Pacific Queen, ex-Star of Alaska) in San Francisco.
In 1933, Captain Anderson of the Hermosa Amusement Corporation needed another barge to replace his old wooden fishing barge, Olympic. So, he purchased the Star of France and renamed it the Olympic II. Once again the ship underwent major modifications to suit her new duty. Her rigging was taken down (some of which was placed in the bilge for ballast) and her masts were cut above the crosstrees. Her long wooden yards were sawed up for firewood and her gunwales were cut down close to the deck, her boats and fly bridges were removed, and the cabin was turned into a small cafeteria or restaurant. A landing ramp was added to her starboard quarter to enable water taxis to load and unload passengers from the barge.
The once proud ship, Star of France, now the fishing barge Olympic II, was moored off Hermosa Beach in the Spring of 1934. She served fishermen off the beaches of Hermosa and Manhattan until early 1940, when she was moved three miles south of Angels gate to the Horseshoe Kelp Bed.
On the morning of September 4, 1940, the Olympic II quietly sat in the fog over the Horseshoe Kelp Bed. Early morning fishermen dropped their hooks over the side, as Louie Ohiser, the barge's night watchman, rang the barge's bell at regular intervals to alert any nearby boat traffic. All seemed normal. At 7 A.M., 13 fishermen climbed off the water taxi and onto the barge' s loading platform. At the same time, the 9,500 Japanese freighter, Sakito Maru, was heading on a collision course with the Olympic II. Louie Ohiser saw the freighter loom out of the fog, and rang the bell to alert the others. Having no idea of what was about to happen, many of the fishermen leisurely reeled in their lines. Aboard the Sakito Maru, a lookout spotted the barge, and Captain Sato ordered hard to starboard and the engines reversed. But it was too late. The momentum carried the freighter right into the portside of the Olympic II, its bow slicing 23 through the hull near the main mast and forcing the Olympic II sideways 300 feet, creating a 5 high wave. Jack Greenwood, the proud caretaker of the barge, ordered everyone on the starboard side to put on lifejackets. The barge's tender was lowered, and the water taxi, Lilian L. operated by Pinky Stiles, immediately pulled alongside the barge to take on some of the 25 people on board. Joe Karsh, who operated the small cafeteria in the cabin of the barge, ran back to get something--it was the last time anyone saw him alive. The impact with the barge stopped the Japanese freighter, but its reversed engines continued to churn the water, eventually pulling its bow out of the barge. The Olympic II only had one small collision bulkhead forward. When the Sakito Maru backed its bow out of the side of the Olympic II, it literally pulled the cork on the barge, allowing the ocean to fill the large void within the barge's hull, sucking at least 3 people below the deck. Due to the large hole and heavy gravel ballast, the Olympic II sank within two minutes. The sinking took the lives of eight people, five of which were teenagers.
During the investigation and series of lawsuits that followed, it was determined that the Sakito Maru was negligent by speeding some 10-13 knots through patchy fog. However, it was never determined if the Sakitos engines were reversed, before, during or after the collision. It was determined that it the Sakito left her bow in the Olympic II, the barge would have remained afloat at least a few more minutes which likely would have saved more lives.
Soon after the accident, a small tender was moored over the wreck to prevent ships from colliding with the submerged wreck. A few days later, a diver was sent down to the wreck to recover bodies still believed to be trapped in the wreck, but none were ever found. The wreck of the Olympic II rested in less than 10 fathoms and thereby considered a hazard to navigation. Consequently, the wreck was blown up.
The wreck rested on the bottom undisturbed for some twenty years until divers discovered it in 1960. When the barge sank, it was anchored both fore and aft. Early salvers recovered some of the anchor chain and the many anchors that snagged the wreck during the previous twenty years.
Today, the wreck lies on its starboard side in 100 feet water. Its teak decks have long ago been eaten away, and most of the hull has collapsed, with the exception of the bow and stern areas. Relatively intact, the bow stands some 30 feet off the bottom. Inside, the anchor chain is still attached to the windlass, just as it was when it sank. On the starboard side firebricks and a large cooking pot can be seen. This was once part of the Chinese galley. Immediately aft and off to the sand is the donkey engine messenger shaft, once was mounted on top of the galley house. On the port side, bent in hull plates can be seen were the barge was rammed. Further aft is the main hatch molding, main mast, and bilge pump. Abaft, the stern remains intact, standing some 30 feet off the bottom. This is the area were plates and bottles from the cafeteria were found.
Once the Star of France, the Olympic II is now a star for the lucky few who can visit her.