It was the perfect storm for the East Bay's Sea Scouts: At the end of June, while maneuvering a channel in Suisun Bay, their flagship, the Farallon, hit a submerged object that tore a six-inch hole in the middle of the ship's hull and caused it to flood. The 31-member crew managed to safely limp its way into the Alameda Estuary, but the 85-foot ship — the heart and soul of the program — now sits in an Alameda shipyard and will remain there until the Scouts can raise about $40,000 to cover the haul-out costs and repairs. The collision is the latest in a series of blows for the organization in recent years, and could spell the beginning of the end for the decades-old program.
The East Bay Sea Scouts, which was founded in 1932, aims to provide local kids with hands-on training in maritime traditions. It emphasizes technical skills, leadership, problem-solving, ethics, and industriousness. Its activities include boat-repair days, water-ski and surf trips, rowing practices, and longer training cruises, like the annual ten-day trip in the Sacramento Delta, at the end of which June's accident took place. The chapter currently has 65 active members — high-school-age boys from Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, Richmond, and Alameda. Funding comes from member dues and the organization is governed by an all-volunteer board of directors and Ships Committee.
But the past few years have been rough on the chapter: Former skipper Eugene Evans was convicted last fall of molesting several boys, reportedly aboard the Farallon. And a protracted legal battle with the City of Berkeley over the no-gays-allowed policy of the parent Boy Scouts of America cost the group its rent-free berth at the Berkeley Marina. Although it has managed to absorb the additional $11,000 per year that the city now charges it for rent, that cost has made it particularly hard for the nonprofit organization to bounce back financially from June's accident, according to skipper Mischa Block, Board member Eric Coker, and Ships Committee member Dave Winnacker, all program alumni.
The way the guys tell it, sitting in a drafty Jack London Square warehouse that the Scouts share with the headquarters of Coker's pump business, the East Bay Sea Scouts' story is that of an old-school organization increasingly beset with new-school concerns. The price of insurance has risen dramatically in recent years, so every trip the group takes is now more costly. "Boating has become very expensive," Block said. "There's a lot of liability associated with our program." Even repairing the Farallon, which would once have made a good project for the Scouts, must now be outsourced to professionals. "Historically, we'd have kids doing it, but the boatyard can't let a bunch of high-school kids run around the shipyard," Winnacker said. "Things have changed."
So as boating gets more expensive — and more kids turn to high-tech diversions rather than get-your-hands-dirty activities — groups like the Sea Scouts have begun to vanish. "There are so few of these programs left," Winnacker said. "It used to be, every city had two or three ships." It's precisely that shift that that makes the program so important, he said. "There was a time when you could take a shop class in school, but in this day and age they're mostly all gone," he added. Winnacker said Sea Scouts alumni often go on to work in various maritime industries, which are particularly important in the Bay Area, a region with a thriving maritime industry but few feeder programs.
Although the group also owns and operates three 26-foot rowing boats, two water-ski boats, and three outboard motor skiffs, Block said the hulking wooden Farallon — a former Navy vessel that fell into disrepair and was gutted and restored by the Scouts in the 1990s — is the core of the program. "The boat has been a mainstay," he said. "If we lose it, we do have other parts of the program, but the Farallon is really important. There's a real sense of pride attached to it for these guys."
Coker, Winnacker, and Block are confident that the organization will survive, one way or another. "We're not drying up and blowing away," Coker said. But the rescue and dry-docking fees have drained its resources. They've launched an aggressive fund-raising push, and as of the end of July had made nearly $13,000. But they're still $27,000 short, and Coker said it's possible they could lose the Farallon. "We can't pay for the tab," he said. "It's as simple as that."
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