Just Coasting Along…

By Ernie Witham   |   November 9, 2021

You never know what huge, unusual things you might see when you go to a new beach (that’s new, not nude).

“Wow! Looks like that ship sank just before it got to the pier!”

We were in Aptos. That’s not a stunned condition, it’s a small beach community just south of Santa Cruz. We were there to explore a unique part of California, seek out strange and exotic things, and visit relatives. 

“You made it sound like the relatives are strange and exotic,” Pat said. “You should reword that.”

“Hmm. How about I remove the word exotic?”

I took a couple dozen photos of the ship from a bluff overlooking the beach, then we drove down to get a closer look. And the more I studied the ship, the weirder it looked. “Is that a huge rock it ran into? Or is that the front of the ship?”

“Gotta be the bow of the ship, don’t you think?”

Pat was right, of course. But it turned out the reason the front of the ship looked like a rock to me is because the ship was built with… ready for this?… cement! Yup. In 1910 a Norwegian civil engineer named Nicolay Fougner “floated” an idea around of using cement to build ships. This might have made a great Facebook post and received many guffaws, but FB was offline because Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been invented yet. And it took forever to post “smiley faces” using carrier pigeons.

So, Fougner gathered a bunch of shipbuilders who were tired of getting splinters, bought a “boatload” of rebar, and in 1917 built the 84-foot Namsenfjord, a self-propelled ferrocement ship. And it’s a good thing it was propelled, because it would have been hell trying to row the thing.

The U.S. government, which was fighting World War I and running out of steel to build more warships thought this was a concrete idea, so they asked Fougner to build some for us. Then, the war ended and, I assume, Fougner’s business went under. But one of his ships named the Palo Alto ended up in Oakland, and in 1929 it was purchased (with a ton of money?) by a company who thought it would make a great amusement. 

“Hey Nicolay somebody just bought your cement ship.”

“Cash the check quickly!”

Anyway, the Cal-Nevada Company bought it and piloted it to Seacliff State Beach in Aptos and popped out the sea cocks and it sank like, well, a rock. Then they built a pier out to it, added a dance floor, a swimming pool, concessions, and enjoyed years (two) of success until they went belly-up. 

Apparently, a series of severe storms finished the Palo Alto off and now it is mainly an attraction for pigeons, pelicans, seagulls, and the odd duck or two.

“Speaking of odd ducks…”

“Wait, this isn’t going to be another dig at the relatives, is it?”

“Nope. It’s about our next stop. Capitola.”

“Nice. I heard it’s a great place to eat.”

“Right. Or, be attacked!”

“Shark problem?”

“Uh-uhn. Sooty shearwaters. In 1961, hundreds of this species known for its shearing flight style attacked Capitola. They were divebombing people, flying into things, and dying in the street. No one knew what was going on, but later they discovered the sootys were all on acid.”

“Did you just make that up?”

“Not at all. It was domoic acid from red algae. The good news is Alfred Hitchcock, a regular visitor to Santa Cruz, read about it and that was his inspiration for making the thriller, The Birds. Cool, huh?”

“Yeah, cool. Maybe we’ll find a nice ‘indoor’ restaurant in Capitola.”

And we did. “Wow, they have a funicular!” Turns out the Shadowbrook Restaurant sits right on Soquel Creek, but the main entrance is from the hillside above it, so you can either walk down the garden path, or…

“Can we please go in and eat now. Four trips up and down in this thing are enough.”

We ordered drinks and appetizers. “What’s on for tomorrow?”

“Immersive Van Gogh in San Jose and lunch with family.”

“That’s going to be so trippy.”

“Van Gogh? Or the family?”

I smiled and signaled for another round.


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