Photographer, tugboat captain, and adventure guide
By Chris Van Leuven
While her time as a professional climbing guide was short, Jan Tiura used climbing as a springboard into an adventurous career that broke barriers and spanned decades. In the 1970s she left the Sierra to sail across the ocean, pursue a career as a tugboat captain, and hone her skills as an adventure photographer.
“I worked alongside Jan as a fellow climbing guide at the Palisades School of Mountaineering in the late 1970s,” said climbing author Doug Robinson during a recent phone call. “She was one of the first professional climbing guides in California and maybe the US. This should be researched and verified but it wouldn’t surprise me because Jan is understated and modest about her achievements. I think of her as the first female tugboat captain in the San Francisco Bay, but maybe it’s time to think of her as the first female climbing guide in California as well.”
Tiura credits her ability to thrive in high-pressure environments partly to her Finnish “sisu,” a word that roughly translates to “sustained courage.” She also credits her time at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel Valley alongside legendary folk singer Joan Baez in 1966.
Also in 1966, Yosemite climbing pioneer and photographer Bob Swift hired Tiura to work at his guide service in the Sierra. The historic school, then called Mountaineering Guide Service, is nestled beneath the Palisades, in the central Sierra. When she reached camp, the cook had just walked off the job, leaving the position open. “Suddenly, I was the cook,” she says with a laugh.
She continued working for the school and exchanged a summer of work for the one-week mountaineering course and learned to climb. She returned to work at the school for several years, which was owned by Swift, Smoke Blanchard and John Fischer. After six seasons of learning the trade, Fischer employed her as a guide at what today is called the Palisades School of Mountaineering.
Resigning High School and Setting Sail
Tiura never finished high school. “We were in the middle of the Vietnam War. There was the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Rides,” she says. “Instead of learning about these topics, I received standard education.” Not a conventional style learner, Tiura knew she needed hands-on teaching.
In response to this, she wrote her letter of resignation late in her senior year and presented it to her honors English class. “I said, ‘no, now education is on me. I take full responsibility for where this life goes.’” Despite a class dismissed bell, all the other students stayed and listened to her. Her decision to resign from high school is something Tiura has never regretted. “It felt like the honest response to what was happening in the world.”
In the early 1970s Swift offered Tiura and her husband Joe Brennan an opportunity to crew on a sailing voyage. Though he didn’t yet have a boat or much sailing knowledge, Swift pre-emptively had a trip in mind, and in 1972 the three blocked out four months and sailed the vessel Tyche to the Galapagos Islands and back to Sausalito. Twenty-four hours a day, they shared roles and kept a lookout while handling canvas, negotiating vast open water, reading charts, and perfecting celestial navigation for 9,000 miles.
Due to the complexity of carrying enough fuel for the lengthy voyage, they had difficulty reaching their destination. They spent days attempting to sail into port within sight of land at the Galapagos, only to have the winds at night blow them back out to sea until finally being successful. The return voyage from Academy Bay, Galapagos to Sausalito, was 51 days and when they came into the harbor, they were so low on fuel that they were unable to restart the engine after docking.
Becoming a Tugboat Captain
Days after their return, all three sailors headed back to work in the Sierra. Tiura returned to the Palisade School of Mountaineering and began leading treks for Mountain Travel, which took her to Hawaii, Peru and Mexico. She also guided a cycling trip in China.
When Swift led a trek for Mountain Travel to the Himalaya, he turned over the boat’s responsibility to Tiura and Brennan. In 1976 while sailing along the San Francisco waterfront, Tiura recalls, “It came to me that I had boat sense. I can feel the motion of the boat and not fight the ocean. You can’t fight the ocean while sailing just like you can’t fight the mountain while climbing.” Then a Red Stack tug departed Pier 3. As we wallowed in its wake, I watched the deckhand flake down the stern line. I wanted to be him.”
Her goal coincided with a successful class-action lawsuit allowing women in the tugboat union. “The tug, ferry, and water taxi unions didn’t want women to crew on their boats,” she says. Determined to see her dream through, she came to the hiring hall day after day for a month and endured “snide remarks and out-right hostility by some guys.” Her perseverance paid off, and in 1980 she became the first female tugboat captain in San Francisco Bay, where she captained a tugboat managing the vessel, barges, tows and crews for more than 25 years.
“It’s a unique world. You’re out there at all hours, in all weather and it’s the captain’s job to make sure everyone survives,” she says. “Tug boating is a contact sport. The vessels may be small compared to what they push around but by tugging with thousands of tons of thrust they can move 1,200-foot container ships, aircraft carriers, and seven-story barges.”
Making Fine Art Images
After two decades of staring at the hulls of enormous ships through her wheelhouse window, in 2004, Tiura grabbed a digital camera and began snapping images of the sea-worn vessels looming over her. Her eyes zeroed into the areas where giant anchor chains had scraped paint off the bow and areas where seawater had rusted the gashes. “I shot as a person possessed.”
She put her images through Photoshop and then made large prints of them on a Polielettronica Laserlab printer. As a nod to the large vessels rearing high overhead, she mounted the prints on metal. She titled her first collection The Heart of the Bay.
Everything changed when her primary employer of 17 years left the Bay. Instead of replacing the lost hours with full-time work, Tiura became self-employed and
made business cards that read “Freelance Tugboat Captain.” She picked up work towing a sand-dredge and pushing loaded barges up-river. For seven years she skippered the Potomac, a 170-foot, 365- ton historic vessel — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s floating White House presidential yacht — with cranky WWII museum-piece engines.
Life on the Bad Dog Farm
These days Tiura lives with Brennan at their home she calls the Bad Dog Farm in Moss Beach, south of San Francisco. Bicycling is now her preferred mode of travel. “Walking is too slow, driving too fast, biking is just right. You are part of the country through which you pass. You can smell and hear and stop wherever and whenever.”
Her friendship with Baez has continued throughout the decades. In 1999 Tiura and Baez joined rock star Bonnie Raitt in a meeting with forest activist Julia Hill high in a redwood tree. With Tiura shooting photos, the group discussed ways to use their collective influence to stop the relentless cutting of ancient forests in Northern California. Their meeting resulted in the subsequent involvement of Senator Diane Feinstein, who began formal negotiations with Pacific Lumber Company to save thousands of acres of ancient redwoods. The negotiations were ultimately successful. “I wish I had those photos but unfortunately they are lost. I sent the negatives to Bonnie Raitt’s publicity team and never saw them again,” said Tiura wistfully.
At age 71, Tiura still climbs and camps. For climbing she prefers Pinnacles, Yosemite, and Lover’s Leap. For camping she enjoys wild camping anywhere, especially anywhere on the east side of the Sierra. Baez often joins her for full camping.
When asked about her legacy as a trailblazer, Tiura thinks for a moment. “I wasn’t trying to be the first or the best at anything. I don’t care about getting credit for that. After resigning from high school I sought a life of adventure, followed my heart, and never looked back.”