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Century-Old Sailor Songs Delight Crowds

The 1886 sailing ship, The Balclutha, now anchored in California, is the site of monthly sea chantey sing-alongs.

Sea chantey sing-alongs held aboard historic ship

San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of life on the high seas.

Located on the city’s waterfront, this unique park features a museum, research library, fleet of old sailing ships and monthly community sing-alongs of sea chanteys.

Peter Kasin has been on staff with San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park for 20 years. Like other park rangers, he escorts sightseers and ensures their safety during their visits. But there's one part of his job that sets him apart from the rest.

Once a month, Kasin leads a large enthusiastic group in chantey singing. Chanteys are songs that were created and sung by working sailors over 100 years ago.

Kasin always begins with "Away Rio," a chantey about hauling up anchor to set sail.

"It's a very accessible kind of music," he says. "You don't need to be a trained singer to sing it. So really any voice can just sing it. And the content of the songs is so interesting. The lyrics really tell of so many fascinating stories about sailing life, of sailors. And they really evoke some universal concepts. They sing about bravery or fear or longing for a better life. It's really something that touches one emotionally."

Park ranger Peter Kasin (right) leads a sea chantey sing-along aboard the 1886 sailing ship, The Balclutha.
Park ranger Peter Kasin (right) leads a sea chantey sing-along aboard the 1886 sailing ship, The Balclutha.

The chantey sings take place aboard the 1886 sailing ship The Balclutha, anchored at the Hyde Street Pier, where singer-participants fill the ship's inside shelter deck.

Kasin believes being on board a ship enhances the chantey singing experience for audience members.

"This is where the chanteys were sung and it's another way one gets connected with their maritime history, to actually be on this old ship. And even though you're not out at sea and it's not the 19th century, you can feel the water, listen to the water lap against it-there's a little movement of the ship that rocks gently from side to side. And as you walk around the ship, you could just imagine what it was like for the sailors."

When he’s not singing, Kasin and his staff lead guided tours on the old sailing ships. The docents help educate youngsters about sailing life through historical reenactment. The tours and the chantey singing are part of the park's mission to preserve and promote maritime history and culture. Kasin says chantey singing provides a window into a sailor's life and the daily hardships he faced in the 19th century.

"Chanteys were tools to help them do their jobs. These were songs that set the rhythm for shipboard jobs such as weighing anchor, raising sails, or pumping the water out of the ship," he says. "They're also there to lift the sailors' spirits, because that work could not only be dangerous, it could often be monotonous. These songs would help them take their mind off it a little bit and make it seem a little more bearable."

Chantey singing nearly died out when diesel-driven ships and mechanized boats replaced the old sailing vessels and schooners. Thirty years ago, San Francisco's park rangers were among the first to revive sea chantey singing. According to Kasin, monthly sing-alongs are now held in other port cities around the country, including Seattle, New York and Baltimore.

"I think the chantey singing tradition here is really functioning well. It's being carried from generation to generation. I've seen kids grow to adults at the chantey sings. And it's just such a great form of music and such a fun form of music to sing. It is just so attractive on so many levels. I think singing in public and singing nice and loud with gusto has a way of building one’s confidence."

Judging from the enthusiasm of the standing-room-only crowd, the tradition of chantey singing is not about to fade away any time soon.