Bad Boy’s Goodbye

Double-crested Cormorant on North Basin wreck left by Claus von Wendel in 1991
Overhead view of the wreck at extreme low tide. Photo Phil Rowntree Nov. 16 2020.

When the tide dips below around 2.5 feet, an old wreck begins to rise from the waters of the North Basin. Gulls circle around it, and cormorants perch on it to stretch and sun their wings. What is it, and where did it come from?

Interviews, newspaper articles, websites, and blog items tell the story of a German immigrant named Claus von Wendel, who delighted in breaking the rules of land and sea. He squatted on the North Basin water for nearly a decade before getting the boot. He took his revenge on the city by scuttling one of his boats here as a goodbye gesture, like an extended middle finger.

Von Wendel was an art instructor at UC San Diego in the late sixties. In that capacity he inspired and helped a handful of graduates of the inaugural class of Revelle College do a guerrilla art project by planting three giant boulders from a nearby quarry on the college grounds as a class gift. The web source for this image is now offline and lost. He owned a barn in Del Mar that he made available to local musicians and actors as a practice and performance space. He was active as a sculptor and exhibited some pieces locally.

By the early seventies, von Wendel had moved to the Bay Area. It’s said that he had served in the German merchant marine and had an affinity for the life afloat. He somehow obtained use of a big barge or drydock with a crane on it, and set up a naval crane operation in Oakland. He won a contract with the US Navy to remove pilings and debris at the US Navy Supply Center in Oakland. His 60-year old dilapidated barge, 400 feet long and 100 feet wide and filled with scrap and debris, had a hole in its hull. While lifting a load, the vessel tilted, water entered through the hole, the vessel sank, and an unsealed tank inside her spilled large quantities of oil into the water. This led to a federal lawsuit, United States v. Claus von Wendel, No. C77-1698 SW and to a related lawsuit regarding insurance coverage for the $55,000+ cost of cleaning up the oil spill.

Berkeley Gazette photo February 9 1978

In 1978, the federal lawsuit led to an order evicting von Wendel and his barge from Navy property, where he had anchored for more than two years without paying rent or utilities. The court order declared the barge “an immense fire hazard and a danger to navigation,” and the Navy towed it to a shipyard at Hunter’s Point. He had his friends, however. A newly formed Coalition for Solid Waste Management presented von Wendel and his wife Lisa with a bronze star for their work in recycling, or attempting to recycle, old pilings and naval debris. The resilient von Wendel counterclaimed against the Navy, and in a mutual settlement, he managed to reclaim his giant barge and two additional smaller barges, including a house barge. He had them towed to the Alameda Estuary directly in front of the Oakland Yacht Club.

“Sea Space Station” catamaran built by Suderman, acquired by von Wendel and moved to Berkeley. AFHA photo.

Business was slow. Von Wendel had bid on salvage of a dry dock in San Rafael in 1974 but was turned down because he lacked a contractor’s license and had no financial backing. Four years later, while his dispute with the Navy was pending in Oakland, he proposed to salvage the abandoned portions of the Berkeley municipal pier. The Coast Guard refused due to the poor condition of his vessel and equipment.

Von Wendel, sporting wild red hair and beard, soon acquired a reputation on the Estuary as a “well known character.” He bought a “Jules Verne-like monster catamaran called ‘Sea Space Station'” built on site by “a wild man and visionary named Henry Dupont Suderman;” the boat had become a white elephant.

In approximately 1980, he bought a derelict World War II sub chaser for salvage from the City of San Francisco. The Patrol Craft Sailor’s Association, part of the NavSource Naval History project, tells this story:

The sub chaser was built by the Defoe Shipbuilding Corporation of Bay City, Michigan. … After eight weeks of intense training at the Subchaser Training Center (SCTC) in Miami and ASW instruction in Key West, Florida, the subchaser was assigned to Western Pacific duty. … They arrived in the Solomon Island area in mid-1943. They spent the rest of 1943, all of 1944 and most of 1945 with the 7th Fleet and the 7th Amphibious force performing escort, convoy and patrol work during the many island landings. [She participated in many battles, for which the ship was awarded six battle stars.]

By January of 1947 she had been decommissioned and put in the Reserve Fleet at the Columbia River Fleet Anchorage, Tongue Point, Astoria, Oregon. On February 1, 1956 she was given the name Carlinville. In April of 1959, she was turned over to the Maritime Commission to be sold to a Carl Swanson who sold it to an Alaskan fisherman. He reactivated it and put some fish machinery aboard and drove her up to Kodiak Island and went fishing with her. Things didn’t work out and he ended up with financial problems.

In 1975, the ex-subchaser was owned by the Diesel Electric Company of Seattle and working in the Hawaiian Islands as the M/V Island Transport.

The former sub chaser rebranded as Greenpeace whale guardian, 1977

In 1976 she was seized by the U.S. Marshal in a bankruptcy ruling and sold to the Greenpeace Organization for $70,000 to be used to harass the Russian whaling fleet which was operating south of the Hawaiian Islands. She was cleaned up and painted white. Registered in Panama, she was renamed the M/V Ohana Kai (Hawaiian for “Children of the Sea”).

Crew member Dick Dillman stated that they were told that the Ohana Kai would do 22 knots. “With her badly fouled bottom and worn out General Motors diesels, she could hardly make 14 knots. We left a trail of black smoke that could be seen for miles and had to shut down one engine because of a major mechanical failure of its supercharger blower. We finally found the whaling fleet but all we did was to hove to and watch the Zodiac boats harass the Russian ships.”

“The Ohana Kai returned to San Francisco in late 1979 and was anchored out. For a few years it became a eco-hippie floating flophouse before it was sold to a group that wanted to take it crab fishing. This never happened and the ship was tied up to a wharf in the east bay for quite some time. Finally a December storm tore it from its moorings and it ended up on the mud flats off Emeryville.

The city of San Francisco took over the jurisdiction of the vessel and sold her to Claus Von Wendel, a veteran of the German Merchant Marine. The engine room equipment was removed and sold. The hulk was towed to Berkeley and moored in the North Marina Basin.

Von Wendel and his family used it as a “live-aboard.” His daughter Anne was born aboard this vessel. Von Wendel has been described as a water front character and had a commune of derelict ships at the Marina. It became sort of a “hippie” hang-out with Claus as their leader. He became a bishop in his own religion and sold charters in his religion as a tax write-off scam.

1991 – After many years of court orders and law suits, the city of Berkeley and the owners of the marina had Von Wendel and his navy evicted. In April of 1991, the ex-PC-1120 was towed to a scrap yard in Alameda for disposal.

In approximately 1983, von Wendel wore out his welcome on the Estuary and took his vessels to the Berkeley Marina, anchoring in the North Basin, very close to the western shore of the cove, which was the eastern shore of the landfill, then in the early stages of being developed into today’s Cesar Chavez Park. He may have built a makeshift pier between the shore and his barges. Source.

In 1985, von Wendel became involved as a witness in the Rainbow Village slayings, where two young Deadheads, Mary Gioia and Greg Kniffin, were murdered and dumped into the Bay. There is a hidden memorial to the two in the park, see story here. In the appeal that the convicted murderer filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court noted that “Von Wendel lived on a boat a short distance from Rainbow Village.” His testimony was peripheral. Source.

That same year — a very contentious one between the City and the Santa Fe Railroad — von Wendel was one issue on which the parties were united. Santa Fe owned the land and wanted him out. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) had jurisdiction over the water, and wanted him out. The City wanted to develop the park and it wanted him out. In 1987, BCDC issued a cease and desist order against him, which he ignored. In 1988 the city went to court. Von Wendel ignored that.

In 1988, it got personal. His wife, Elissa Kay von Wendel, filed for divorce. It became final in November 1989. Still, he hung on.

In early 1991, the city, BCDC, and Santa Fe upped the pressure. His floating homestead at the time consisted of seven old boats and barges tied together, along with smaller boats. He tried to hang in by claiming that his former sub chaser could be turned into a nautical museum. No dice. “The boats are illegal fill in public waters,” said a railroad spokesman. A committee to save the sub chaser boat raised funds with the aim of having it towed somewhere else as a museum, but nothing came of it. At the end of February 1991, von Wendel gave up. He hired a tug and had most of his little flotilla towed to a spot in the western Delta. He left the sub chaser behind. On his way out, he scuttled one of his smaller boats and left it as a memento of his presence. This is the wreck we see at low tide today. Berkeley Harbor patrol authorities tolerate it because it is not a hazard to navigation, there being little if any navigation in the area. The birds think it’s just fine.

Von Wendel continued his clash with authorities at his Delta hideaway. He chose Bradford Island, which at the time was littered with abandoned vessels, vehicles, and trash. He lived on a rusted fleet of hulking barges, including a 20-ton crane. He drove pilings into the levee, endangering its stability, in the opinion of authorities and neighbors. The Contra Costa County Sheriff, the state Department of Fish and Game, and other government agencies moved to evict him. Source. Sometime before 2011, von Wendel moved his flotilla out of Contra Costa County to a new Delta site in Mayberry Slough at Donlan Island in Sacramento County. The State Lands Commission in September 2011 found that

Mr. Claus Wilhelm Von Wendel has moored, without permission, in Mayberry Slough, four LASH (Lighter Aboard Ships-30 x 60 feet) barges. Two of the barges have triple-wide pre-fabricated buildings on them in which he resides. An additional LASH barge, which is partially burned, contains a motor home. Tied to the barges is a 47 foot work boat, registered to Mr. Von Wendel as the BOSCO BABY. Adjacent to the barges is a large sunken crane and numerous small boats.

It also noted that von Wendel had no hookups and was probably polluting the water. The Commission authorized its staff and the state Attorney General to “take all steps necessary, including litigation” to remove the vessels. But from 2012 to 2015, as documented by photographer/artist Aram Muksian, von Wendel still lived aboard a set of barges, including a crane, somewhere in the Delta.

Claus von Wendel in 2015. Photo by Aram Muksian

Given von Wendel’s many brushes with authority and his appearances in the press, there ought to be a web notice at his death. So far, a Google search turns up no such item. It’s likely that somewhere in the Delta on a cluster of rusty, half-sunken barges, Claus von Wendel still lives.

P.S. Portions of this post were reprinted with permission in the Patrol Craft Sailors’ Association (PCSA) Newsletter in its Winter 2021 issue.

Comment by Rich Clark:

Well, many thanks for the write-up on Claus.  As I said, I met him when he was a nautical resident in the Oakland Estuary, living on a house barge and making a living with a large crane barge.  Claus was off the grid, and so he generated his own 120-volt electricity with a gasoline motor running a generator.  But the generator was junk, its bearings were worn out so the rotating armature jumped around as it rotated.   That erratic motion caused the carbon brushes to bounce off their electrical contact rings.  Claus had a fix for the problem — he used a screwdriver to push the brushes down onto the armature so that they would stay in contact and once they started to draw electrical current they would stay there.  To me, the obvious fix was to get new bearings in the generator, and since I was working as a machinist in a local machine shop, I volunteered to do the work.  So I did that  — I brought the armature into the machine shop and put sleeves onto the worn out bearing surfaces.  After that the generator worked perfectly, no more did the armature jump around in its housing.  But the weather was turning bad, and I told Claus to get the generator under cover to avoid the coming rain.  What I did not know was that the generator had previously fallen into the Estuary and the salt was never flushed out of the copper windings with fresh water.  It was OK as long as it stayed dry, but Claus did nothing to put a roof over it, the rains came down, combined with the salt in the field windings, shorted them out while it was running and the machine was junk again.  After that, I learned not to expect logical behavior from Claus.

Claus’s crane barge was completely steam powered.  That included the crane itself plus all the deck winches.  The steam generator burned used motor oil from a 200 gallon day tank mounted on the roof of the cab with gravity feed to the burner.  There was lots of used motor oil in a tank under the deck, but to create steam to do a job, that oil needed to get from below the deck up to the day tank and none of his electrical pumps worked.  Claus borrowed three different electrical pumps to move that oil, but they were all made to pump water, not oil, so they burned out, one after the other.  Finally Claus had his crew, myself included, carry that dirty motor oil from the deck up a couple of ladders using 5-gallon buckets, and pour it into a large funnel in order to fill the 200 gallon day tank.  Imagine holding a ladder rung with one hand while also holding the slippery handle of a heavy bucket with the other hand, getting covered with that filthy oil in the process  —  don’t think I’ve ever had a worse job than that.  Took us half a day to fill that tank.  And once we got up steam pressure, there were steam leaks everywhere, pure hell’s kitchen, since the barge was very old without any proper maintenance.   To drive pilings, three crane cables were needed:  One to lift the piling, one to lift a drop hammer and one to lift the “leads” (the guide for the drop hammer and the piling).  Claus would sit in the crane’s cab using steam power to move all that heavy hardware like it was child’s play  —  he was extremely competent when it came to getting a crane job done and so he had my respect after I saw what he could do. 

Of course all the authorities hated him for the reasons detailed in your write-up.  He showed me the letter he got from BCDC which banned him from San Francisco Bay, so I could only imagine what a huge pain-in-the-ass he must have been from their point of view.  

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10 thoughts on “Bad Boy’s Goodbye

  • I hold a deed from Henry DuPont Suderman conveying a 1% interest in “Sea Space” Station to me dated 1977 in renumeration for organizing and providing volunteer workers ( including myself), in construction of the vessel.
    Suderman departed America and is presumed deceased. There was no contract granting anyone else rights of salvage.

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  • He may have been a polluter but he did not let any hippie wandering through his town (which is also my town) go hungry. He gave them work to do and paid them. I hope he is well.

  • He is still alive and lives on a small island he calls “paradise island” near Santa Cruz. He was interviewed by Paine Lindsay for a podcast about the murders in Rainbow Village in 1985, probably committed by James “Bo” Bowen.

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  • Colorful character…too bad his legacy include polluting the very waters he seemed to love.

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