Happy Wanderer: Plenty of floating history, even ghosts, in Bay Area

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: August 3, 2012

The ghosts of a dozen sailors swirl across the dance floor. Some fan out toward the deck, others sweep into the sleeping quarters. And one sassy spirit slips into the powder room to tease the ladies. Yes, the USS Hornet is haunted. I’ve felt the presence myself. Many years ago I walked the ship with two ghost hunters and heard heart-thumping tales of men who met untimely deaths on the aircraft carrier — at least one in the blades of the propeller. Today they are part of the draw to this ship dubbed “The Gray Ghost.”

As San Francisco prepares for the America’s Cup in 2013, our attention turns to ships and the seductive beauty of the sea. The Bay Area is lucky to have several old ships that are open for touring. All are lovingly restored, each played a part in American history.

The Hornet in Alameda is my favorite. She really shines when she hosts big bands like the Glenn Miller Orchestra. It takes just a few bars of “Tuxedo Junction” for couples to swarm the dance floor — many dressed in vintage attire. The Hornet also has after-dark paranormal tours and even overnights in the sailors’ sleeping quarters. This old gal is not “giving up the ghost” any time soon.

Another World War II ship lies across the Bay. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is one of the last two remaining Liberty Ships (the other is in Baltimore) and she’s a beauty. Built in just 56 days, this cargo ship has all its original linoleum and woodwork and even her ship’s documents, including the captain’s night order book from the Normandy invasion, which gave instructions to the officers. While she’s berthed at Pier 45, she will take paid passengers on the Bay during Fleet Week, Oct. 6. You can tour the boat daily, (except for major holidays) and, like the Hornet, she hosts overnights and parties. We had a holiday party on the O’Brien and it seemed to bob merrily with the music.

Finally, Oakland’s own piece of floating history, the USS Potomac, is celebrating summer with Bay cruises and its Pickin’ on the Potomac Bluegrass Concert Series. FDR’s Floating White House still sees the occasional visitor who voted for Roosevelt, but whether you lived in the era or not, you can feel the man’s spirit as you tour his famed fireside chat room and walk the deck where he sipped his martinis.

The Potomac was Roosevelt’s escape from Washington — from the heat, so to speak, of both weather and politics. The ship has been through several reincarnations, and was even owned for a brief time by Danny Thomas and Elvis. She was rescued from a watery grave, looking like “an old tin can full of garbage” and restored to splendor in time for the summer of 1995. She’s been entertaining passengers at the foot of Water Street near Jack London Square ever since.

What are your favorite local adventures? Drop me a line, and I’ll share them with readers. You can reach me at ginnyprior@hotmail.com or online at www.ginnyprior.com.

  • The USS Hornet has dockside tours, evening paranormal walks, Big Band concerts and even Sunday church service in the chapel. See www.uss-hornet.org
  • The USS Potomac has dockside tours, monthly Bluegrass concerts and Bay cruises four times a month through October. www.usspotomac.org/
  • The SS Jeremiah O’Brien schedule of events, including the Fleet Week cruise and participation in the America’s Cup can be found at www.ssjeremiahobrien.org.

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