Volunteers in Maritime Heritage Preservation

By Marco Meniketti
Chair, ACUA

This is a shout out to volunteers. Volunteerism is the cornerstone of active community participation in most cultural resource protection and preservation efforts. Formal organizations and non-profits alike thrive only when they have active support from volunteers. It is sometimes easy to forget that volunteers in historic preservation programs are skilled, knowledgeable, and capable workers. And just as important; they are passionate. What is true for volunteers at terrestrial site is also true in the maritime community, and perhaps of even of greater intensity.  Maritime resource protection programs can measurably benefit from establishing strong connections with volunteers.

One way in which the ACUA can promote the goals of the 2001 Convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage is by marshaling the power and passion of volunteerism. Whether it is the implementation of avocational divers in maritime resource monitoring or initiating letter writing campaigns, finding ways that volunteers can contribute taps into a vital resource. Furthermore, the interaction between professionals and non-professional volunteers promotes education, collaboration, respect and “ownership” of sites. Most volunteers are also voters and providing them with meaningful opportunities to engage with local projects gives them purpose in voting.  All history is local, so the saying goes. Grand ideals of cultural resource protection may seem abstract, but when brought to the local level, it becomes real.

I just had the opportunity to go aboard the Red Oak Victory, the last ship built in the Kaiser Richmond, California shipyards for World War II.  It is also the last surviving Victory ship. Many a “Rosie the Riveter” may have contributed their labor to its construction.  The ship also served in the Korean War and briefly in Vietnam before decommissioning a second time. The ship was acquired from the mothball fleet in Benicia Bay through an act of the State Legislature by a museum society and is being lovingly and slowly restored entirely by volunteers–no small task for a 400 foot munitions vessel. It is their goal to have the ship seaworthy and cruising the San Francisco Bay next spring. They just successfully fired up the boilers for the engine for the first time in fifty years.

On board the slightly rusty Red Oak Victory. Photo Marco Meniketti

The ship needs paint, lots of paint. The oak doors and interior rooms require renovation.  However, there is no doubt in the minds of the few dedicated volunteers that the ship will again be underway. These volunteers are not nautical archaeologists or maritime specialists, but they have the energy and drive that are the core of nearly all volunteers. 

In Portland, Oregon, there is the Kayak Museum, housing not just kayaks, but umiaks, canoes Polynesian outriggers, and small boats of all kinds. This is a one person operation stemming from dedication for historic watercraft and craftsmanship, open whenever the proprietor has time. The founder of this private museum is also author of the prodigious Kayaks of Greenland: The History and Development of the Greenlandic Hunting kayak, 1600-2000. His individual efforts, funded by visitor contributions highlights the contributions to historic preservation that even a single passionate volunteer can make. 

Many years ago, treasure hunters sought to exploit California’s rich maritime heritage by locating and salvaging the Manila Galleon, San Agustin, wrecked in the waters of Drake’s Bay in Pt Reyes.   At the time there were no guidelines nor laws to prevent the State and treasure hunters from forming a partnership of the usual type, splitting the findings based on an economic formula. The media found the idea of “Spanish Treasure” in California too much to resist and routinely published articles that favored the treasure hunters over “government interference” without a thought to the public interest or potential loss of California’s shared maritime cultural heritage. Only a single Park Ranger stood between treasure hunters and the wreck. Or so it seemed. 

An all-volunteer organization formed a non-profit called the San Agustin Institute that set out to challenge the “rights” of treasure hunters and to offer an alternative plan to the State, as well as to NOAA, the NPS, and other agencies with jurisdiction.  The organization sought to organize members of the sport diving community as maritime archaeological auxiliaries, trained in documentation protocols. Their first project was in partnership with the Channel Islands National Park Service conducting shallow water underwater surveys and recording vessels on Santa Rosa Island off southern California.

The existence of this volunteer group recognized by NOAA and the NPS, and its letters to State Representatives helped thwart the plans of treasure hunters and were a useful resource for the Channel Islands NPS as it carried out its mandate in the Channel Islands. The organization no longer operates but some of its founding members went on to form other organizations with the same mission elsewhere in the State.

These are only a few examples of many presented to illustrate the power of volunteerism in maritime heritage preservation. Volunteers are an authentic and vital resource. As the ACUA prepares to participate in the Decade of Ocean Science 2021-2030 we should look to tapping the spirit of volunteerism in our efforts. ACUA cannot do everything, but by developing an action plan that integrates volunteers at different levels into building public awareness and support for the Oceans Decade we could potentially to accomplish a great deal. There are several ways to manage the process, ranging from service learning opportunities in academic settings to speaking engagements at local service clubs.

I know that everyone has anecdotal cautionary tales of the occasional difficulties of working with volunteers. I have several myself. Yet the potential rewards and the positive outcomes far outweigh the downside. I challenge everyone in the SHA and ACUA to consider how volunteers from our communities can be integrated into our projects and ways in which the energy of volunteers can be harnessed to increase the impact of ACUA in the Ocean Science Decade ahead.

As for me, I will be thinking about the value of volunteers while spending several days in May helping paint the Red Oak Victory a lovely shade of gray.