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M/V Madaket: 112 Years Young



"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had 30 oars and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places. [Philosophers argued,] one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

— Plutarch, AD 46-119

If you think you're the same person as you were 10 years ago — despite every cell in your body having been swapped out for a brand spanking new one — you'll probably agree that Theseus' "new" ship is still the same as the original one. And, getting to my point (finally!), you'll allow that the motor vessel Madaket that takes tourists on sightseeing cruises around the bay is still the same old Nellie C, under a different name, that launched from Fairhaven on June 6, 1910.

First, a little history. In 1909, Capt. Henry Cousins commissioned six passenger boats to service the then thriving lumber industry around Humboldt Bay. Named for a member of Cousins' family, the Nellie C, along with five sister boats, carried up to 1,500 workers every day to the Hammond Lumber Mill and Fairhaven Shipyard on Samoa peninsula from the east side of the bay, with side trips to Table Bluff, Arcata and Fields Landing. The ferries ran nearly nonstop 24/7, only pausing for a respite between 2:30 and 6 a.m. When Henry Cousins got out of the business in 1931, Walter Coggeshall's Launch & Towboat Co. took over his boats. Coggeshall renamed the small fleet of launches (as they were called) after Native American tribes, at which time Nellie C became Madaket, after the Mawtukkit people who lived near present-day Nantucket, Massachusetts.

More ownership changes followed until 1971, when the triple-span Samoa Bridge opened. Workers could now drive to the mills in less time than it took the Madaket and the only other remaining launch of the original six, the Sallie C (aka Quidnet), to motor across the bay. Businessman Bob Imperiale (of Imperiale Square on Second Street) bought the Madaket and by the following year, the ferryboat had been transformed into a harbor cruise boat. A decade later, the boat's present owners the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum bought it, although, like any old wooden vessel, much maintenance work was needed.

Fortunately, help was at hand. Bill Zerlang (whose woodworking hobby became his business Wooden Willie's Cabinet Shop) and his son Leroy banded together with like-minded conservationists to raise the money to preserve the Madaket. For nearly a year, under the direction of master shipwright Ed Frey of Fortuna, the boat was torn apart and rebuilt with new Douglas fir timbers, a real-life Ship of Theseus. Relaunched in 1990, the Madaket has since carried tens of thousands of locals and tourists around Humboldt Bay. Bill Zerlang died in 2003 at age 90, but Leroy, his wife Dalene, son Cody and a loyal crew are keeping alive the tradition of boats on the bay, a fact that might have surprised Captain Cousins.

The Madaket is distinguished in many ways. In addition to being the last survivor of Humboldt Bay's ferries, the boat is home to the smallest licensed bar in California and is the oldest passenger vessel in the U.S. For information about scheduled cruises, come down to "C" dock (next to Jack's Seafood, on the boardwalk) or call 445-1910. You won't regret it.

Barry Evans (he/him, [email protected]) came to a compromise with his editor over the gender of the Madaket (she/her, it/its).

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