William Alexander Coulter grew up in a seafaring family along the rugged Northeast coast of Ireland. His father was a coast guard captain and two of his brothers were captains in the China Trade. At the age of thirteen young William shipped aboard his first square rigger as ship's boy.
Since the age of seven, Coulter had been drawing and sketching sailing vessels in the harbor at Antrim where he grew up. At sea in his spare time he devoted all of his attention to acquiring the skills of a marine artist. In 1869 Coulter arrived in San Francisco Bay where after a shore side accident which severely shattered his ankle, he was forced to move ashore.
As a consolation he began to paint the great sailing ships he knew so well. When he was later hired as waterfront correspondent for the San Francisco call, he created a prodigious output of paintings and sketches that chronicled the marine activity on San Francisco Bay better than any other artist of the period. He is widely considered the most important West Coast maritime artist of the 19th century.