Weekly history columns in the Sausalito Marin Scope are provided from the archives of the Sausalito Historical Society. Stories from the past are shared with the general readership of the newspaper.


Sunday Sails with Varda

By Betsy Stroman

The following is excerpted from Betsy’s new book, “The Art and Life of Jean Varda.”

    Jean (Yanko) Varda, the collage artist who moved onto the old ferryboat Vallejo on the Sausalito waterfront in the late 1940s, was an avid sailor. He built his first boat at the age of 12, while living in Smyrna, a port city in the ancient Ottoman Empire, and he liked to tell people that his first profession was that of a boatbuilder. During the more than twenty years he lived on the Vallejo, he built several sailboats. The larger ones all shared a distinctive design. He converted them from old metal lifeboats, readily available on the Sausalito waterfront at the time for about sixty dollars. Most of his sailboats had a lateen or triangular sail, mounted at an angle on the mast, commonly featured on the boats that fishermen in the Mediterranean sailed.
    Varda frequently painted eyes on the hull of his boats. Some speculated that the eyes kept people safe on the boat, but many people thought that Varda himself had a protective magic. In an interview with Sausalito writer Annie Sutter, the artist Gordon Onslow Ford, who for a time shared the Vallejo with Varda, explained that Varda “was a Greek sailor from ancient times … a lucky person. … He was quite fearless and would put to sea with his cargo of beauties and they never came to any harm.” Friends who sailed with Varda claimed that, to the astonishment of proper yachtsmen, he could “whistle the wind,” by which they meant that when he whistled, he brought the wind, and the boat sailed faster.
    Varda built the first of these boats. the Chimera, in the early 1950s, a few years after moving onto the Vallejo. Writing to a friend, he reported, “My sailing boat is a marvel and with a crew of the choicest I spend my Sundays in the Bay. We generally go out 18 of us with gallons of wine, with tons of food, with singers & musicians.”
    The Chimera was followed by the Perfidia. Alan Watts, the writer and Zen popularizer who lived on the Vallejo with Varda beginning in the early 1960s, described the Perfidia as “the bravest boat on the Bay, with eyes on the prow, a broad band of vivid red below the gunwale, and a honey-colored lateen sail.“ As in the past, Varda and his friends would spend Sundays sailing on the bay, well supplied with bread, cold chicken, and gallons of wine. “Seeing this craft gliding in full sail by the wooded cliffs of  Belvedere,” Watts wrote, “it was impossible to believe that this was the United States and not the islands of Greece.”
    Varda refused to install a motor on his earlier boats, and there were times when the sailing parties ended up becalmed, or the tides were going the wrong way. When a motorboat came by, according to Varda’s friend Alexis Tellis, who accompanied him on many of these outings, sometimes Varda shouted, “Give us a tow and we’ll give you a girl.” Varda got a lot of tows, Tellis added, but he never gave them a girl.
    In the fall of 1966, Varda, along with some young helpers, began working on his last sailboat, the Cythera. By this time Varda had reluctantly become convinced that a motor would be a good idea and one was installed. The Cythera ended up much larger than any of Varda’s earlier sailboats. In addition to the customary lateen sail, red in this case, there was a yellow mainsail, painted with a sun, and a white American jib. “When the Cythera is fully rigged she resembles an exotic Chinese junk,” one of Varda’s friends wrote. “No one would guess the craft is a resurrected rusty iron-hulled lifeboat.”
    Sunday sails on the Cythera frequently included as many as 40 guests, who would board the boat, dressed in their most colorful garb, and scramble to find cushions in the hull.    Yanko sat on a box and give orders to the crew — friends who knew how to sail. In short order, two or three bottles of burgundy would be uncorked. An old piano top, hoisted across the motor, served as a table. It was soon heaped with cold marinated liver, French bread, cheese, and other delicacies. As the guests sat and enjoyed the food and wine, Varda would begin to talk about painting, or tell one of his fabulous stories.    
    Young women who boarded the boat in their colorful but filmy hippie garb in the early afternoon would soon find that they were freezing. Varda, the ever thoughtful host, kept a bunch of old coats, which he had bought at Goodwill, on board, and the young women would be very pleased when Varda came by with a glass of wine and draped a coat around them.     
    One of Varda’s friends from that era, Margaret Fabrizio, who sometimes joined the Sunday sails, later recalled that often fancy yachts sailing on the bay would make a special trip to the boat “to get Varda’s blessing.” People just wanted to have some kind of interaction with Varda, she said. There was something about the kind of energy and joy that emanated from his colorful homemade boats and its colorfully clad occupants that attracted those expensive yachts like a magnet.
From June 1 to July 13. The Historical Society is proud to sponsor an exhibit of Varda’s works at the Bay Model.

Jean Varda’s Cythera under sail
Photo from Varda family archives


Students explore local history

By Steefenie Wicks - Sausalito Historical Society

Her mother brought her back to the center of town and dropped her off at her destination, the Sausalito Historical Society’s Ice House on Bridgeway in downtown Sausalito. 

“Are you sure about this?” her mother asked. She looked back at her mother with determination and said, “Yes, I know this place. I’ll wait here for you.” With that, she turned and walked up the stairs to the front door, opened it and stepped inside. The young girl approached the docent on duty that happened to be Robin Sweeny former Sausalito four-time mayor, and announced forcefully, “I am here to see the artifacts.” She was one of over three hundred third grade students who have experienced the Sausalito Historical Society Schools’ Program about local Sausalito history. 

Photo Courtesy of Susan Frank

The idea to begin a schools’ program sponsored by the Sausalito Historical Society at Bayside/MLK and Willow Creek Academies was the brainchild of Susan Frank who, along with volunteers Bob Woodrum and Jesse Seaver and teachers Anne Siskin and Paula Hammonds put together a pilot program in 2010. The goal of the program was to encourage teachers and students to explore Sausalito’s interesting past asking two fundamental questions: what is history and what part do I play in history? The initial unit featured a then-and-now appreciation of Sausalito’s historic downtown buildings and businesses. The second and third units, developed in subsequent years, introduced colorful personalities and families from Sausalito’s past and the Marinship World War II shipyard.

Susan Frank and present-day co-director Margaret Badger both bring an educational background to their work. Frank graduated from UC Berkeley in History, started a child development center in Minnesota and on returning to California worked in the Ingram pre-Schools in Menlo Park. On settling in Sausalito, she participated in local school programs. Badger has a BA in History from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from Yale University, and is a California credentialed teacher with a career in teaching and curriculum writing. Working in concert with Bayside teacher Jim Scullion and Willow Creek teachers Anne Siskin and Kevin Breakstone, the program continues to challenge young students to learn about local history and to understand how they are part of it.

Kevin Breakstone, the newest teacher to take part in the program, sums up the experience this way. “Through hands-on experience, access to museums and displays, and roleplaying, the Sausalito Historical Society guided the kids into true conceptual and factual knowledge of Sausalito and Marin City history. The awareness that they live in a town shaped by history, and that they are part of that history will live with my students forever.”

Jim Scullion of Bayside Academy in Marin City writes that this program has given his students “an opportunity to learn about and research buildings and people of Sausalito from long ago. It also gave them insight into the importance of the Marinship and Marin City. The students talked for days about their visit to the Bay Model Marinship display. They never realized why this area was so important. They feel very special that the area where they live and go to school was such an important part of history.”

Finally, Anne Siskin of Willow Creek Academy writes, “as we looked carefully at the historical photographs, maps, newspapers, artwork, documents and artifacts collected and displayed at the Historical Society, Ice House and Bay Model, and visited historical buildings built in the downtown district on field trips, we could imagine what it was like to have lived in the past. Like the docents of the Historical Society, we too became historians as we learned about the history of the city where we live.”

The program has thrived because of the cooperation of teachers and administrators and the dedicated work of the docents who take information to the classrooms, reenact snippets of history, and lead field trips. Community support from Waterstreet Hardware, Lapperts Ice Cream and Bob Woodrum of Sausalito Picture Framing encourages us all to keep having fun and to keep asking, “What is history and where do I fit in?

Inquiries about becoming a docent should be directed to the Sausalito Historical Society at 415-289-4117 orinfo@sausalitohistoricalsociety.org and copies of the Marinship booklet can be purchased at the Bay Model in Sausalito.


Richard O’Keeffe: Shipwright/Docent, Matthew Turner Project

by Steefenie Wicks Sausalito Historical Society

Boatbuilding in Sausalito has been a continuing activity from William Richardson’s time to present. The Sausalito Historical Society has photo images from over 100 years ago that show the productivity of this maritime trade.


Now for the first time in 100 years there is a new tall ship being built in Sausalito. The design is that of the prolific boat builder Matthew Turner and is being fashioned after one of his fastest ships, the Galilee, which still holds the record for the fastest run between San Francisco and Tahiti. This new vessel will be called the Matthew Turner, and will be part of the Educational Tall Ship program. Founder Alan Olson has taken this vast building project on. When completed the vessel will be a two-masted brigantine rig that is 85-foot on the water line and 100-foot on deck (note: 32 feet shorter than the original ship) with a 25-foot. beam drawing about 10 feet underwater.  She will be fitted out with 38 births for cadet training, a galley, captain’s quarters, and toilets.


As a working shipwright and part-time docent on the ship, Richard O’Keeffe is quick to tell you that this is a “once in a lifetime project,” that he is lucky to be involved with.  O’Keeffe, born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, came to the US 15 years ago to look for work.  A carpenter all of his life, who spent a good deal of time working on boats, he found the Matthew Turner project an answer to a dream. He was attending the Arques Traditional Boat Building School with instructor Bob Darr, when he heard about the project.   They were just getting started so he turned up to volunteer.  After his skills as shipwright were recognized, he was offered a paying position that he holds down today.  He mentions that the volunteers on this project are awesome individuals who drive in each morning form different parts of the Bay Area just to work on this ship, being part of something that is very special, with a group of talented crafts people.

Photo by Steefenie Wicks

For O’Keeffe, this is his first time working on a project that is not only vast but has a real historical significance.  Watching something like this come together is exciting.  Using some of the same methods that were used 100 years ago in shipbuilding, then integrating them with the new materials that are produced today, is like watching history meet the present. “When she is finished, she will be a ‘beast,’” he says.” She is being built to go to sea, and trust me, this vessel is seaworthy.”  He continues, “She is built like a tank, a 190-ton vessel that is a good solid boat based on the design of another good solid vessel.  She has a soul; when you walk her decks, you can start to feel that aspect of her coming alive.”


He continues, “Tall ships are great when they can be built for a town or city.  Because the idea of building a wooden boat is so unreal today, building one is historically significant.  To see a vast vessel like this come alive, gives you a chance to see the action that goes into a project such as this.   This vessel will now be part of Sausalito’s maritime history.  Each day someone stops by and wants to know what’s going on, so it’s great to stop and tell them what we are doing because the next time they stop by they want to be involved. The project as a whole is thrilling because you get to look forward to seeing the vessel finished, so she can begin carving out her own history on the water.”


O’Keeffe looks off into the distance as he continues, “With a project like this you always think, ‘will we be able to do this?’ Then you see all of these people, these volunteers, they come by every day to give their time and talented skills, and then you know this is going to happen.  We are building a tall ship.”


Welcome Aboard the Matthew Turner On June 7, you’ll have a unique opportunity to inspect the progress being made in the building of the Matthew Turner Educational Tall Ship.  Also to being able to tour the completed portions of the replica brigantine, several shipbuilders will be on hand to answer questions.


Tickets for this 4-6 PM fundraiser are only $50 per person, $40 for members of the Historical Society. Children under 12 free when accompanied by an adult.  Each ticket buyer will automatically be entered into a raffle with the Grand Prize being a sail on the Matthew Turner once she is launched.  Other prizes include additional outings on the bay, a seaplane ride, and use of a Southern California beach house for a week and many more.  Each ticket buyer also will receive a free drink and complimentary appetizers.  A no-host bar will be available for your enjoyment.  Support two great causes and attend the Sausalito Historical Society event at the Matthew Turner Educational Tall Ship.


Sausalito In The News – May 11, 1950

Marin Schools Receive Nearly 4 Million

The California Taxpayers’ Association reported that local property taxes and support from State Taxes for Marin County School Districts this year has reached a total of $83,817,609, with $81,857,170 from State apportionments and $81,960,439 from local property taxes. High School and Junior College Districts in the County are receiving $8,835,257 in State apportionment for 1949-50, based on 5,567 average daily attendance.

Professional Survey Approved

Sausalito School Board of Trustees faced a little competition at Central School while conducting its business at the Monday night meeting. But despite the donkey baseball game in progress on the School grounds and the Boys Club Orchestra’s rendition of “Five Foot-Two Eyes of Blue”, the School Board session continued.

The Board discussed at length the proposed professional survey for school children in the Sausalito. School District. P.T.A. President stated that Sausalito should join Marin City in raising funds for the $2,250 survey originally proposed by a group of Marin City mothers because of the high percentage of children who were not promoted in the Marin City schools. Mrs. Hailing said similar problems existed in Sausalito, and an objective survey would aid in determining how to effect the necessary corrections and establish better relations between the town and the school. Mrs. John Ehlen suggested that the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco be contacted for possible financial aid. The Board agreed to do so. School Board trustees refuted rumors that South School will be abandoned.

Cancer Study Progress Underway

A new technique, which is still in the experimental stage, soon may provide medical science with a considerably improved method of diagnosing cancer of the stomach, one of the most difficult forms of the disease.

Training of diagnosticians and technicians in the new technique is being sponsored by the American Cancer Society, which is continuing its annual educational and fund-raising campaign. The research was financed in large part by the U. S. Public Health Service. Success and reliability of the test is dependent upon proper training of technicians.


Huge Illegal Striped Bass Catch Jails 2

District Attorney Edmund J. Pat Brown of San Francisco points to a huge illegal catch of striped bass. They weigh 514 pounds—more than 20 times the legal limit. The bass, all female full of spawn, were netted in San Francisco Bay waters, and allegedly bootlegged to a San Francisco cafe owner. He and a kitchen helper were arrested by a State Fish and Game Warden and await trial. Anglers and sportsmen are alarmed at the flagrant violation of laws protecting this game fish. Brown, a sports fisherman himself, will prosecute the case.


Independence Drive Starts May 15

The United States Savings Bonds Division of the Treasury Department has announced “Independence Drive” to begin on May 15 and continue through July 4.This Campaign aims at increasing the purchase of Series “E” bonds by urging individuals to buy bonds now and by emphasizing the benefits of regular year-round purchases. This is not a drive for contributions, but rather for the establishment of regular thrift. The campaign symbol is the Liberty Bell and the slogan is “Save for Your Independence.”


Mother’s Day Approval

May 14,1950 marks the forty-third anniversary of the struggle of the late Miss Anne Jarvis to have Mother’s Day incorporated into the national calendar and it marks the thirty-sixth year of her triumph when the Congress and the President of the United States first declared in a joint resolution that “it was fitting that America honor her mothers with a national holiday.



--Seventy percent of the area of San Francisco Bay is less than 18 feet deep.


--The Trade Fair offers two local outlets for the new series of Artists’ Post Cards just released in Sausalito. The cards carry the work of Jon Schueler, Jean Varda and L. Moholoy-Nagy.  


On This Date

11- First Netherlands U.S. Telex sent.

13- Diner’s Club issues its first credit cards.

15- Rodgers & Hammerstein receive Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific.


Portuguese Heritage in Sausalito

By Larry Clinton
The first Portuguese immigrants arrived in Marin County in the early 1800’s from the Azores, where
they had been enlisted by Yankee whaling ships that stopped in the islands for water, food and other supplies. The skilled young Portuguese sailors were brought around Cape Horn to pursue the whales off the California coast.
As described in a new self-guided walking tour that highlights the life, work and final resting spots of these early Sausalitans, this area reminded the sailors of their homeland. They settled quickly, taken by the arid but cool climate. Soon to follow were anchovy and sardine fishermen, boat builders and finally scores of dairymen from the Azores.
From the Gold Rush era on successive waves of Portuguese immigrants arrived. They carved out new lives but clung to the traditions of their past. As late as the 1940s, there was a saying that a traveler from the Golden Gate to Petaluma would never be out of site of a Portuguese dairy
Settling in southern Marin, these newcomers established tight-knit communities in Sausalito and other nearby towns. By the turn-of-the-century, immigrant dairymen had transformed the local industry. The largest numbers of Portuguese immigrants were from dairy farms in the Azores, already famous for its cows and cheese. The Ilha de São Jorge is the center of the Azores’ dairy industry, and many of West Marin’s families have their roots there. Lush pastures and the temperate climate of West Marin were nearly ideal for dairy herds, just as on São Jorge. For decades Marin County was the leading dairy production county in the state, and its famous butter was eagerly sought by urban residents.
Marin’s dairy industry was largely built by the hard labor of these newcomers. Times have changed, and with the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore and the emergence of the Central Valley as a dairy production center, Marin’s dairy industry has become a quieter way of life. Its Portuguese heritage, however, is still celebrated. Descendants of the early immigrants continue to live in Marin, their Azorean names a reminder of their heritage: Afonso, Amador, Avila, Azevedo, Bello, Bettencourt, Boreiros, Brazil, Cunha, DeFraga, Dias, Francisco, Ferreira, Freitas, Lourenço (Lawrence), Machado, Martins, Mattos, Moraes, Paulino, Pedrosa, Lacerda, Ladera, Lopes, Nunes, Quadres, Regallo, Rosa, Sequeira, Silva, Silveira, Soares, Sousa, Teixeira, Terra, and Vieira among others. .
 Sausalito’s Holy Ghost Festa is a reminder of the cultural ties that bind and unite Portuguese immigrants and their descendants. As Jack Tracy wrote in the seminal Sausalito history, Moments in Time, “The Portuguese community’s observance of the festival on Pentecost Sunday is based on an event in the late thirteenth century. Queen Isabel of Portugal prayed to the Holy Ghost to end the two-year famine that wracked her country and her prayers were answered. A celebration was held that has been reenacted each year since. A feast symbolic of the end of famine is a central part of the festival. The traditional meal consists of Sopa, Carne e Vino (soup, meat, and wine) following Mass, a procession through Sausalito streets proclaiming the visit by the Holy Ghost.” This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday, May 24.
Mike Moyle, one of the creators of the Portuguese Heritage Walking Tour, will speak about the project and the history it reflects at the Sausalito IDESST Portuguese Hall (511 Caledonia St.) on Wednesday evening, March 4.  A no-host reception begins at 6:00 PM, and Mike’s talk starts at 7:00.

An earlier Holy Ghost Festa procession proceeds down Bridgeway
Photo Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society