Setting Sail With Sausalito’s Call of the Sea

Photo by John Skoriak

As a boy, Captain Alan Olson would build a raft every spring and sail it on his family’s pond in rural Minnesota. “I had a vision to go out to sea,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to do it.”

At 20, Olson started building his first ship, a 40-foot catamaran that came in a kit for $600. His parents let him use their backyard as long as he kept working on it. “It took me two years, but I was never intimidated,” he says. “Even if I didn’t know exactly what to do, I figured I’d figure it out.”

Olson and his wife, Martha, arrived in California in the mid-1960s but the plan of him starting medical school was put on hold after the war broke out in Cambodia and his school closed. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a doctor, I don’t want that life. I’d rather go sailing.’ ” Olson dropped out of school and built his second boat, Stone Witch, outside of San Jose.

Finally, in the early 2000s, Olson bought the plans for Galilee, a historic tall ship originally built in the late 1800s. He wanted to build a smaller replica to add to the fleet he used for Call of the Sea, a nonprofit he’d founded in 1984 in Sausalito to educate Bay Area youth about the ocean and sailing.

It took until 2013, when Call of the Sea merged with the nonprofit Educational Tall Ship Inc., for Olson to start building. “The right people showed up at the right time. The money showed up at the right time … mostly,” he says. Olson and his crew, including some 70 volunteers who donated more than 200,000 hours of their time, set up a tent outside the Bay Model and got to work. “Lots of them were extremely skilled,” Olson says. “Lots of them still help out.” The total cost of the ship was $6 million, which included construction and development of educational programs. Ninety percent of the funding came from Sausalito residents.

In 2017, Olson launched the Matthew Turner into the San Francisco Bay. Named for Galilee’s original designer and builder, it is 132 feet long, has a 100-foot mast and holds up to 80 people. Depending on the season, between 10 and 15 crew live on the boat, which sleeps 38, a combination of students, program managers and sailing professionals.

All summer, the Matthew Turner is booked with camps, community sails and private charters. Students of all ages can participate in different programs and events, join sails and races, or learn about the marine environment, maritime tradition or ship navigation. During the school year, Matthew Turner goes out up to eight times a week — educational sails during the week and community sails on the weekends.

Community sails are open to the public. “Anyone can buy a ticket and come out for a sail,” says Sylvia Stewart Stompe, who manages the scheduling for Call of the Sea. “It will be educational because our crew is always teaching and engaging, but it’s not structured.” Educational sails, such as Scout troops and school groups, follow choreographed lesson plans. “We get a lot of scholarship-funded schools with students who are afraid of the water,” says Stewart Stompe. “They’re timid when they set out, but when they return they’re all bubbly, singing and laughing. It’s amazing to see.

“We’re so lucky to get the experience of getting out on the water,” Stewart Stompe says. “The land melts away and so do your land worries and concerns. When you’re on the water, you’re just there.”

Educational sails also include a “quiet middle,” when for five minutes the students just sit and listen. “It’s a powerful experience that you can’t explain unless you’ve been there,” Olson says. “For all the preface, that’s really why we’re here doing this.”


Matthew Turner ship
Photo by Benson Lee