Skip to main content

Enjoy Magazine

Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum’s Madaket Cruises

04/26/2017 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Ship to Shore

May 2017
By Jordan Venema
Photo courtesy of Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum

She’s not the oldest passenger-carrying vessel in the United States, but she’s the country’s oldest vessel in continuous use. “The Madaket has never lost its Coast Guard certification,” explains Dalene Zerlang, the volunteer operations director for the boat, which is owned and operated by the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum.

Built by a local shipwright in 1910, the Madaket was one of seven ferries that carried people across Humboldt Bay, from Eureka and Samoa to Arcata and the north spit, with stops in between. “And to the beach,” Zerlang adds, “if there was a shipwreck. Back in the day, that was a big deal.”

“The Madaket ferried people all the way into the ‘70s, mainly lumber workers who worked the mills, and families from Eureka to Samoa. It also worked as a kind of tugboat, pulling logs around the bay until the log farms were outlawed by California in the ‘70s.”

The Madaket and its six sister vessels actually ferried the workers who built the Samoa Bridge in 1972, which ultimately contributed to putting the ferry service out of business. In other words, the Madaket put herself out of work. “Right? Evolution,” Zerlang says with a laugh.  

H.H. Cousins built the original seven boats, naming them after his children. Madaket was christened Nellie C (after Cousins’ daughter Eillen, spelled backwards) but later the vessels were sold to Walter C. Cogshell, who renamed the boats after Native American names from the East Coast.

After the boats were decommissioned in 1972, most were left to the elements. According to Zerlang, one went down to the Bay Area, a couple sunk or burned, and the rest were just left at the docks. “They just didn’t need to be used anymore,” she says, essentially making them ghost ships. 

But in 1972, Bob Imperial purchased and renovated the Madaket, transforming her into a harbor cruise vessel, and giving her new life. He later donated the boat to a nonprofit that would ultimately turn her over to the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum in 1983.

The tie between the Madaket and Maritime Museum is the boat’s longtime captain, Leroy Zerlang, who began working on the Madaket when he was 14. According to Zerlang, a young Leroy began working the docks, “hanging out with all the old tugboat guys, meeting some of the captains who worked the ferry boats,” who encouraged him to become a licensed captain.

As for the same last names, “yeah, I married him,” Zerlang chuckles. “I came into the picture in 1990. I worked on the boat and got paid as a deckhand, and Leroy wasn’t getting paid at all. He was volunteering his time. And for the whole 25 years that I’ve been on board – 26 now – he’s never gotten paid. It’s all been a love of boats.”

Leroy isn’t the only local who loves the Madaket. In May, when weather permits, the Madaket will continue offering cruises to eager passengers, including a 75-minute historical tour, and a 5:30 pm cocktail cruise, “which is really popular with the locals and tends to sell out quite a bit,” says Zerlang.

The historical cruise takes passengers around the bay, from the shores of Eureka to the estuary, with opportunities to view wildlife and visit oyster beds, as well as pass “the long Indian island.” According to Zerlang, no two cruises are alike, as “the captain narrates live the points of interest and everything that has to do with the bay.”

The cocktail cruise is an hour-long ride that sometimes allows the captain to take requests from passengers for the evening’s destination. “We play music, and provide blankets,” says Zerlang, “and it’s just a mellow cocktail hour.”

Tickets for the historical tour are $22 for adults with discounts for seniors and children, though Zerlang says prices might increase this season. Tickets for the cocktail cruise are cheaper at $10 and do not

include the price of drinks. Even with the modest rise in prices, “they are the cheapest on the West Coast for a harbor cruise, but then the money that is made on the Madaket goes right back into the boat. The upkeep is tremendous.”

Of those seven original vessels, the Madaket survived, but why? “I don’t know,” admits Zerlang. “She just seemed special to people. Some will come up and say, ‘I rode that boat when I was a teenager or when I went to work.’ She’s a piece of the area’s local history.”

Madaket Cruises • (707) 445-1910