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Let Them Eat Yachts

The once-proud city of San Francisco is on the verge of turning its storied public waterfront into a west coast playground and cash cow for the idle rich, now more popularly known as the One Percent. America’s Cup is coming to town.

“America’s Cup.” It has an odd ring to it. It’s not a familiar sports appellation like the World Series of baseball, the Superbowl of football, World Cup of soccer, or even the Stanley Cup of hockey. That’s because “America’s Cup” is a trophy passed back and forth between private yacht clubs inhabited by wealthy people. The Cup originated in an 1851 race staged by English blue bloods and American robber barons who belonged to exclusive all-white yacht clubs. The yacht clubs became the enabling organizations for the wealthy to race their boat toys against each other. Naturally, as a class that relies on the hard work of others to produce wealth for itself, the hard work of the actual racing of the boat toys was done by hired hands. No one expected Lord Bob or Mister Monopoly to get out there on the deck and take in sail.

From the very beginning, America’s Cup was inextricably tied to that rogues gallery of sociopaths who amassed vast fortunes from the exploitation of workers and resources while enjoying the protection of the politicians they bought and sold like stocks. JP Morgan. Vanderbilt. Rockefeller. Names that live in infamy in the memory of anyone with a conscience. The tricked-out sailing vessels they commissioned were merely extensions of their insatiable egos. They also collected racehorses, governors, and mansions (one of Vanderbilt’s was aptly called “Idle Hours”), as their wives collected furs, servants and diamond-studded collars for their dogs. Mark Twain dubbed the period the “Gilded Age,” because its thin veneer of plating was not thick enough to conceal the prevalence of avarice and corruption underneath.

By the end of the 20th century, the Cup races, which had stumbled through the century with as much as 18-year gaps between events, suddenly expanded into regular matches and rematches between the ever-private yacht clubs (most of the clubs are still called the “royal” this or that) and added venues like San Diego, Auckland and Valencia. With the phenomenal growth of cable television and its voracious need for 24 hours of sports, even rich people’s sail boats attracted an audience, but it was still nowhere near a Sunday morning NFL game. The game changer happened when Larry Ellison, a billionaire poster boy for the One Percenters, sponsored a team that won the 33rd Cup in Valencia.

Flush from his victory, Ellison called up San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and said something like: “I’m the sixth-richest man in the world. I’ll fix up some of your piers, race my boats, and when the race is over, I’ll keep some of the waterfront. Sound like a deal?” (Actually, the proposal was similar to the late Warren Hellman’s music festival deal in which the City gave him Golden Gate Park to indulge his banjo-playing hobby. The big difference is that Hellman didn’t get to keep part of the Park at the end of his festival.)

In his waning months as mayor, Newsom — ever the errand boy for the super rich — cobbled together a committee to facilitate corporate funding for the project and move the sweetheart agreement along. The America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC) included all the Usual Suspects in the City’s power elite: vulture capitalists like Tom Perkins and Hellman; denizens of the Downtown Gang like real estate predator Tom Coates, who had contributed $1 million to the statewide initiative to eliminate rent control; the Pacific Heights layabout, Dede Wilsey, who ironically coughed up five grand to help pass Newsom’s anti-homeless no-sitting/no-laying on the sidewalk ordinance; Old Retainers like George Shultz, whose questionable achievements include Bechtel, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the discredited Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; Bob Fisher, whose retail giant GAP was built on sweatshop sweat, and reps from super corps like Wells Fargo and AT&T.

Honorary political seats were given to perennial incumbents Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, whose accomplishments include enriching themselves in office, which is a common activity in Washington. For Ellison, Feinstein delivered the America’s Cup Act of 2011 — signed last November by President Obama — which waived laws which prohibited foreign vessels to operate in American waters. Pelosi, who was Speaker of the House during the Great Wall Street Bailout, is no stranger to privatizing property that belongs to the public. She participated in the process that gave away San Francisco’s Presidio several years ago.

So, what does the non-profit (ha-ha-ha up your sleeve) ACOC do with the funding it raises? Well, it funnels it to Larry Ellison’s private management team, the America’s Cup Event Authority. The ACEA is the vehicle through which the One Percenters pocket financial rights to a large chunk of San Francisco’s extremely lucrative waterfront properties. In return for Ellison’s chump-change makeover of some of the waterfront for his event, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the latest version of the Host City Agreement gives the ACEA Seawall Lot 330 and “the rights to leases of at least 10 years and rent credit on four piers depending on the money it spends improving port infrastructure.” For a minimum $55 million infrastructure investment by the ACEA, Ellison gets development rights and a 66-year-rent-free lease on Piers 30-32, and if he spends a little more pocket change, he gets reimbursement “in the form of bond proceeds, then credit to lease Piers 26, 28, and, ultimately, 29, according to a draft of the deal.”

Already, the vultures are descending. Last month, JPMorgan Asset Management (sound familiar?) gobbled up a 902,000 square foot complex in China Basin Landing for $415 million. (Those taxpayer-funded bailouts came in handy in the world of the idle rich.)

Oh, but America’s Cup will provide jobs, the hucksters proclaim loudly. And tourists! Well, we’ve all heard that one before. What’s new is the hilarious claim that San Francisco needs an obscure boat race to attract tourists during the summer.

The Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915 also promised “thousands” of jobs in San Francisco, some of which actually materialized. For those workers who were left out of this capitalist bonanza, Joe Hill, the immortal IWW songwriter, penned these words to the tune of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.”

Bill Brown came a thousand miles to work on Frisco Fair.

All the papers said a million men were wanted there.

Bill Brown hung around and asked for work three times a day,

Til finally he went busted flat, then he did sadly say,

It’s a long way down to the soupline,

It’s a long way to go.

It’s a long way down to the soupline

. And the soup is weak I know.

Goodbye, good old pork chops,

Farewell beefsteak rare,

It’s a long way down to the soupline,

But my soup is there.

As the recession deepens for the 99%, the souplines are growing longer in the City of Saint Francis. The Human Services Agency reports that 33,798 residents receive food stamps, up 61% from two years ago. Housing foreclosures are averaging 3,000 a year over the past four years according to Realtytrac, and there are nearly 7,000 homeless men, women and children living in the city. San Francisco’s ratio of homeless people to the general population is higher than that of New York or Chicago. (Don’t worry, America’s Cup patrons, the SFPD will sweep those bothersome people away before your boat toys arrive, just like they did for Mayor Feinstein for her party’s national convention in 1984.)

In the City of Saint Francis, over 100,000 people live in the government’s definition of poverty, which is a basic subsistence level living. According to the Center for Community Economic Development, “to meet the basic expenses for a family of three, one would need to work more than 3 full-time minimum wage jobs.” I suppose the whole family could work full time bussing tables at minimum wage for the gentry eating $25 sandwiches on Ellison’s pretty new waterfront and maybe the child — school? what school? — could do a little overtime to meet the extra expenses.

So, San Francisco’s inestimably expensive waterfront is up for sale cheap to the One Percenters, yet another welfare program for the super rich. What do the people of San Francisco get? Not a single buck in the deal for the 99%. Not even four-bits for affordable housing. Not even two-bits for schools or libraries. Not even a dime for healthcare. Not even a nickel for someone living on the streets.

This is the waterfront of the legendary 1934 Strike which changed American labor history. This was the Strike where workers bravely stood up to the One Percent’s strike-breakers, who were backed up by the police and the National Guard. This was the Strike that became the General Strike after the SFPD shot to death two strikers, Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry. This was the Strike that brought decent wages and working conditions to millions of workers over the following half century.

If logic prevailed, the proper site for America’s Cup would be the Cayman Islands, where the idle rich hide their money to avoid taxes. Switzerland would be another likely candidate, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a coastline. So, the boat toys of the One Percenters will probably sail in San Francisco Bay because the local political spine usually withers when it comes face to face with Big Money. And, at that point, the One Percenters can say about the rest of us, “let them eat yachts.”

Don Santina is a cultural historian whose grandfather, Humphrey O’Leary, was a participant in the 1934 General Strike. He can be reached at


  1. Chuck Becker February 15, 2012

    That’s a great story, just a few personal details and some historical trivia to add.

    I joined my first ship, the APL cargo liner SS President McKinley, at Pier 29 in September, 1969. Your first ship becomes you first love, and she was a magnificent beauty. A C-6 six hatcher, booms and guys and topping lifts and cargo runners from here until the cows come home. We crossed westbound to Yokohama, basing ourselves and that ship to pieces, in what the Second Mate claimed was record time. It was five days and something, as I recall.

    The crew was Sailor’s Union of the Pacific on deck, Marine Firemen, Oilers, and Watertenders in the engineroom, Marine Cooks and Stewards in the galley. The officers were Masters, Mates and Pilots for the Deck Officers and Marine Engineers Beneficiary Association for the Engine Officers. At 18, I was steeped in first and second hand stories of the 1934 waterfront strike.

    I sailed for 40 years, the last 26 as Master, but there are only two ships I care to recall. President McKinley is the first, and the last ship I took delivery of as Master, USNS Rappahannock, which I was responsible for 11 years, is the other.

    As for the yacht “America”, she was a rich man’s toy, but there’s a working class backstory. She was commanded by a Sandy Hook pilot, I forget his name (could google it, but I guess that would be cheating). Sandy Hook was to New York harbor about as the Farfallons are to San Francisco … how for out you had to take a sailing ship before she was free and clear to proceed to sea on her own. The pilots raced to get to each incoming ship first, that’s how they made their money, so they were working class racers. That Sandy Hook pilot was hired to take the yacht “America” to Great Britain and see if he could pick up some races. The rest is history (when Victoria asked “Who is in second?”, she was informed, “There is no second”).

    But at the same time, on a far grander scale, a much more significant, heroic, and memorable race was being waged and won. By the summer of 1851, as “America” was headed east to Great Britain, the passage from New York to San Francisco was a voyage to riches, and worth whatever a person could afford. Donald McKay, who’d been building fast ships for some time, was exceeding himself with each new commission. In competition with other East Coast shipbuilders, each new launch set new standards, until that summer of 1851.

    From McKay’s yard was launched the clipper “Flying Cloud”. Wait until you hear this story.

    Flying Cloud was built on speculation and owned by a fellow who probably never intended to take her to sea. But a spot on McKay’s delivery list was worth gold, so he put up $50,000 for the right to call Flying Cloud his own. A New York shipping company, Minturn & Grinnell, needed a big fast clipper to send to San Francisco, so they paid the original owner $90,00 to buy his ship, before she was even delivered.

    So Minturn & Grinnell had the ship they needed, but lacked a Captain who was up to the task. Because on a square rigger (unlike today), the Captain was the difference between success and failure. Ships in those days were owned in “shares”, usually 32 or 64 shares, depending. One of the Minturn & Grinnel principals, holder of 4 shares, nominated Captain Josiah P Creesy to be Master. The other partners agreed, so Captain Creesy was offered the job, on condition of buying 2 shares (to insure his interest in the outcome, and a great bonus for himself).

    Captain Creesy was a pretty ordinary, reliable, dependable, hard driving clipper Captain, successful on the China trade through the 1840’s. But his wife, Eleanor, was the real prize. Eleanor Creesy proved herself the finest navigator of her age. Which will shortly bring us to San Francisco.

    Sailing ships depend on wind and current to make progress, and man’s knowledge of the wind and current patterns in 1851 was only just becoming scientific. A Navy Lieutenant, Matthew Maury, having been injured on duty, was assigned to the Navy’s Hydrographic Office in Washington, where he set out to find useful work. Having the logbooks from thousands of voyages, from the Revolution to the 1840’s, he set out to extract all possible data and plot it. By the time Eleanor Creesy assumed the duties as navigator of the clipper Flying Cloud, this information was available, and Eleanor was one of the few who saw the potential.

    On Jun 2nd, 1851 the clipper Flying Cloud cleared New York harbor, dropped her pilot at Sandy Hook, and set sail for San Francisco via Cape Horn. A brand new ship never runs just right, and on a sailing ship the standing rigging has to stretch and set, but Captain Creesy didn’t have time to wait. Flying Cloud took off from Sandy Hook and immediately began ripping off fantastic “day’s runs”. On the third day out, this all caught up with them.

    Everything on the main and mizzen above the topsails came crashing down on deck, and over the side. She had experienced a major partial dismasting, bad news, unbelievable man-killing work (much of which would later be enshrined in the ethic of the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific and other maritime unions). But in 24 hours, Captain Creesy and his crew had Flying Cloud back to work and headed for Cape Horn.

    This is where Eleanor comes in, because she was the one who could read the magic charts, and plotted a highly unconventional course for Flying Cloud. Eleanor’s course would take Flying Cloud through the Doldrums (still air, high pressure just above the equator) and across the equator faster than anyone aboard had ever seen before. Working down the coast of South America, weirdness cropped up.

    The carpenter reported flooding in the forepeak, lots of water coming in. He consulted with Captain Creesy and they estimated that one of the hawsehole plugs, now underwater due to the ship being driven so hard, had come out. So the Captain brought the ship before the wind and when she stood up, the carpenter replaced the missing hawsehole plug. Put back on course, water continued to pour into Flying Cloud. Finally, a crewmember worked his way aft and reported that he’d seen two fellow crewmembers secreting an auger out of the crew’s quarters in the foc’sle (sleeping in the hole, also enshrined in maritime union culture).

    With Flying Cloud running before the wind again, the carpenter found the auger holes and plugged them. Flying Cloud began pounding out astonishing day’s runs toward Cape Horn and San Francisco. I’ve never rounded Cape Horn in a square rigger, but I’ve looked at the charts and I’ve been enough other places (including two trips to Antarctica) that I can see what would be going on. Rounding Cape Horn from East to West is probably the most difficult, treacherous task that any ship, crew, and captain ever faced.

    Eleanor Creesy again saw the way, she used the high technology of the day in ways nobody else had ever done before, and she guided Flying Cloud “from 50 to 50” (50 degrees south to in the Atlantic to 50 degrees south in the Pacific, around Cape Horn at 55 South) in record time. Clear of Cape Horn, Flying Cloud earned her name and began tearing north toward San Francisco.

    In the most astonishing display of sustained speed under sail, Flying Cloud ran off the stunning total of 374 miles, noon to noon. To shorten this a bit, Flying Cloud followed Eleanor Creesy’s hand, ran out almost to Hawaii to find good winds, met up with a British packet 200 days out of Liverpool, when they “spoke” Flying Cloud was 83 days out of New York. When the wind picked up, observers on the British packet watched in awe as Flying Cloud tore free for the horizon and disappeared in no time.

    Her Main topmast came down one more time, just a couple days out of San Francisco, but captain and crew restepped the mast and Flying Cloud headed for the San Francisco pilot station. Arriving in the late evening, Eleanor told her husband to stand “on and off” until morning. The morning of Aug 31st, 1851, Flying Cloud boarded her San Francisco pilot and proceeded to anchor in five fathoms of water between North Point and Alcatraz. Flying Cloud had made the passage from NY to SF in 89d, 21h with Eleanor Creesy navigating. They had broken the previous record by seven day, a full week.

    This story is not as famous as the yacht America, but consider this. Two years later, Josiah and Eleanor did it again, this time NY to SF in 89d and 9h. That record stood for something like 130 years, until finally broken by a special built racing yacht with modern electronics. Having volunteered at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park since I retired, I can say without regret or rancor that San Francisco has no idea the stories its waterfront could tell … nor much cares.

  2. Harvey Reading February 16, 2012

    Hey, Chuck, what gives? Is this your idea of a diversionary tactic? If so, it’s crude. Sort of like commenting on an article about how gentrification drives out poor people by blabbering about what a fine (yet short) time construction workers had tearing down the former living quarters of the poor and putting up domiciles for yuppies.

  3. Chuck Becker February 16, 2012

    Actually, it was the story of the 118 years of actual working San Francisco waterfront, 1851-1969, that I know and lived. Sorry you missed that.

  4. Harvey Reading February 19, 2012

    Naw, Chuck, it was just another of your attempts to slather enough Vaseline over a negative, one that correctly depicts the harsh, brutal reality of U.S. history, so that the final print turns out soft and dreamy looking.

  5. Chuck Becker February 19, 2012


    The San Francisco waterfront was built for a purpose (commerce), it provided jobs (longshoremen, teamsters, and sailors), it is now functionally dead, and all those jobs are gone. That is the “harsh, brutal reality” of this particular labor situation. I gave a vignette of 118 years of that history that I know and lived, for the benefit of anyone who might be interested what the author meant when he wrote “… its storied public waterfront…”. Hopefully, a few people now know a little of why it’s “storied”.

    Why has the SF waterfront been functionally dead for over 20 years? Geography (wrong side of the Bay for a modern port, no acreage for a container terminal) and technology (containerization, formerly skilled jobs automated down to button-pusher status). The port and the jobs are in Oakland now, and there aren’t nearly as many of those jobs, ton-for-ton, as there used to be.

    This is not a San Francisco story or an America story. It’s exactly the same situation at every port (and aboard every ship) in the world. The only thing left to do with the San Francisco waterfront is to convert it to shops, restaurants, and offices.

    Public access is an issue, but it’s not the real issue. The real issue is the relationship between money and government. Will Ellison get his way? How many ordinary working people will get the chance to make a living as Ellison makes vast profits? It’s not about demolishing low income housing, or building high-rent housing. It’s about a consortium of wealthy individuals benefiting from a public resources.

    The facts and history are now out on the table. It’s pointless for me to waste words trying to refute motives you attribute to me. “Yes you did, No I didn’t” and on, and on. You’re welcome to the last word, I’m out.

  6. John Jasberg February 19, 2012

    Excellent article, thanks. Controlling a pier or four will make hosting those fireworks-studded Oracle World bashes all that much easier for Larry.

    Excellent first comment (sub-article?), too. I love the maritime history and the role that Mother Nature played in it.

  7. February 21, 2012

    The original article and Mr. Becker’s great comments help me feel good about my $25 subscription.
    And it is just one of a huge variety of such.
    Jim Armstrong

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