70-year old Higgins Boat Slips Beneath Waves Before Port Can Remove It

higgins_boat.jpgThere aren’t many Higgins boats left in the world — few enough that there are efforts dedicated to preserving the few surviving World War II-era landing craft, known to military scholars as “the boat that won the war,” and to the rest of us as “the boat that Tom Hanks ran out of while other people died bloodily in Saving Private Ryan.”

This being San Francisco, of course there was a local example, a dilapidated model resting at anchor at Pier 39. And this being San Francisco, of course a homeless person slept there before Pier staff chased him out.

The city Port Commission applied last year for state funding to remove the boat, but, this being San Francisco, of course the application process took too long, and the boat — 70-year old plywood that saw service in the South Pacific, France, Italy, any of the above, we don’t know — sank before it could be removed, according to port officials and documents.

Pier 39’s Higgins boat served as a houseboat for over a decade, the domicile of a “free spirit,” according to Pier 39 harbormaster Sheila Chandor, who out of courtesy declined to identify the gentleman by name.

It appears that roughly two years ago, this free spirit absconded to Thailand or India, leaving his boat at anchor. In the interim, the boat — so in disrepair that it was worth “no more than a couple hundred dollars,” Chandor said — sprung a few leaks and had to be bailed out (as in buckets, not banks) regularly.

So Hedley Prince, wharfinger of the Port of San Francisco, applied last April for state funds to remove this boat and six other abandoned boats — ranging from sailboats washing ashore by the Bayview Boat Club to 1964 cabin cruisers sitting unused at the Hyde Street pier — from San Francisco waterways.

State officials approved his application in August, and the grant for $15,200 in state funds will be heard by the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development committee later today (it will require full Board approval, and then approval by the city’s Office of Contract Administration before Prince can then put a contract to actually, you know, get rid of the boats out to bid).

The Higgins boat did not wait. The Greatest Generation’s greatest means of wartime conveyance succumbed to the leaks in its hull sometime over the summer, Chandor estimated. The individual who rented the slip where the Higgins boat was moored had to hire a diving crew to raise the boat, which was then towed to shore, taken apart, and the remains thrown into a Dumpster, at a cost of about $8,500, she said. Had it not been removed, it would have leaked oil and other pollutants into the Bay.

“It’s really kind of a shame,” she told the Appeal. “It’s a huge amount of expense to dispose of one very derelict boat.”

As for the free spirit who owned the boat? “He tried to make good in the end (and remove the boat), but by then the boat had already sunk,” Chandor said. “Hopefully at some point he’ll try to pay [the slip’s owner] back.”

Was he sad to hear of his onetime home’s fate? “He wasn’t surprised — it hadn’t been kept up,” said Chandor, noting that this particular Higgins boat was in no way a museum piece. “It was in very rough shape.”

Whatever the boat’s past — it’s possible it never left the United States — it’s remarkable it lasted until 2010, Prince said.

“These things were built out of plywood and meant to be used one time,” he said. “Some of them survived, but they were really cheaply built.”

But serviceable enough to win a war on fascism, and then win — albeit temporarily — the war on homelessness generations later. The war on bureaucracy — well, that’s another matter.

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