The sea off of San Francisco's western coast revealed an old reminder of its power last week: At low tide, the water-logged bones of a 19th-century clipper ship could be seen emerging from the sands of Ocean Beach.
As shipwrecks go, the King Philip requires a lot of imagination. The distinctive "V" shape of its bow barely rises above the sand, suggesting the rest of the ship's ghostly outlines. The stern is faintly visible about 200 feet to the south.
But Stephen Haller, park ranger and historian for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says the entire ship indeed is buried in the sand.
"We consider this the most intact wooden shipwreck on the West Coast," Haller says.
The three-masted clipper ship, launched in Maine in 1856, was named for a Native American chief who fought a bloody war against New England settlers. The ship had its own hard luck. It hauled bird manure and was twice set on fire by mutinous crews.
In 1878, it ran aground during a high tide while being towed through the Golden Gate Strait. Fortunately, the crew survived. That was back when San Francisco rivaled New York, Shanghai and Liverpool as the busiest port in the world.
The King Philip is one of about 200 shipwrecks around the Golden Gate, but this one has the habit of resurfacing every so often. Haller says El Nino storms in the early 1980s revealed more of King Philip.
"Those storms scoured the beach so badly that the entire outline of the ship was exposed," Haller says. "At that time, we were able to do substantial measuring, exploration, and probing and a fair amount of research to establish what it was."
Word of the King Philip's re-appearance spread quickly, drawing hundreds of San Franciscans out to see it.
"Cool," says surfer Mark Vann. "Think of the history of this beach. Lot of shipwrecks. [One] can only imagine they didn't have all the rescue equipment they have now. Amazing."
But Haller says you can forget any notion of finding buried treasure.
"The real treasure here is to look back a hundred years in maritime history, when San Francisco was one of the greatest seaports in the world," he says.