The Performant: Here be pirates


Joining the saltwater chorus at the monthly Chantey Sing at Fisherman's Wharf

Landlubbers arise. San Franciscans of the not long-distant past were a sea-faring folk, and you don’t have to scratch the surface very far to dig up old salt. Sailboats, houseboats, fishing boats, and ferries all still have their place in the bay, churning in the wake of container ships and visiting cruise lines, and the waterfront pubs are still prime locations to be regaled by gusty tall (ship) tales by grizzled old-school longshoremen and maritime amateurs alike.

One of the most unexpected legacies of our boating heritage is the monthly Chantey Sing aboard The Balclutha, a historic square rig docked at the end of the Hyde Street Pier. Six months shy of its 30-year anniversary, the Chantey Sing is one of those wonderfully hidden-in-plain-view pockets of locals-only camaraderie that you could spend years of urban assimilation hoping to stumble upon.

That singing in public is one of the top-rated social anxieties in America is a statistic that has blissfully passed the Balclutha by, and on the first Saturday of every month its shelter deck fills up with as mixed a group in terms of age, background, musical ability, and general sea-worthiness as any 120 year-old square-rigger could possibly hope to attract. Anchored at the end of Hyde Street pier and maintained by the National Park Service, the Balclutha sails no more, but when night falls and the tourist dives on Fisherman’s Wharf become flatlander-infested, the comfortable embrace of the historic ship welcomes Chantey novices and old hands alike.

Like any style of call-and-response work song, the typical sea chantey takes its rhythm from the work involved, in this case a slowly rolling pace punctuated by rollicking bursts of chorus, meant to be sung while heaving to or hoisting sails. Themes revolve predominantly around certain bodies of land or water, ladies left behind, dangerous capes, and rough seas, with songs of a salacious nature given a deserved airing after the 11 p.m. mark. Anyone is free to lead a song, and although some chanteys are certainly more immediately recognizable than others – the Pogues-immortalized “South Australia” for instance -- the wealth of material ensures a comfortable four-hour singalong with no repeats. 

There’s a certain campfire chumminess about the event, right down to the marshmallows in the hot chocolate (bring your own mug!) but instead of wandering off to get lost  in the woods, the restless patron of the Chantey Sing can wander off to explore the ship itself: the captain’s close quarters, the vast cargo hold, the galley, the poop deck. And though the proceedings are considerably less rum-soaked and catastrophic than the typical night-out-at-sea in 1886 might have been, the experience does provide a bracing injection of salt-sea mystique to even the most landlocked veins. 


Chantey Sing

First Saturdays of the month 8 p.m., free

The Balclutha, Hyde Street Pier

2905 Hyde, SF

(415) 561-7171


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