Cruising San Francisco Bay
On day two of my San Francisco Bay cruise I proved an age-old principle: As soon as you go home, you fall back into the same old roles.
I hadn’t really been gone, but I had not in years idled away a succession of days on my home waters with no agenda except to go wherever I wanted, and do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. What seemed like a good idea today was to sail my nephew, Isaac, under the Golden Gate Bridge, out to the mouth of the big water.
Thousands of San Francisco visitors each year venture under the bridge via ferry. Those who pay attention notice the stirring and heaving of mighty waters, flooding or ebbing—or both at once, in separate streams—compressed through the narrows of the Golden Gate. They don’t have to be especially alert to notice, on most days, that it was windy when they left Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s really windy in the Gate.
So there we were: I was munching a sushi roll (this is California; no comments or I raise the subject of tie-dyed spinnakers) and the menu was not at all compatible with the digital-manipulation priorities of a homo sapiens in winds building past 20 knots, challenging the comfort margin of our single reef. But it was the shape of the water that was challenging Isaac, at the helm for almost his first time ever. The tide was falling. Three-plus knots of ebb current were fighting against the seabreeze, and in the conflict the waves were pretty big with no pattern. Mounds. Moguls. Holes. Mounds. Holes. Moguls. Mounds. Holes.
I callously ignored Isaac’s struggles on behalf of my own, trying to avoid a dose of wasabi up the nose. Then we hit a really mean patch; spray; even more wind. Isaac voiced an opinion that was really quite irrelevant as I was already tossing sushi remnants more or less overboard and uncleating sheets in preparation for a radical about-face.
At full rip, tide-driven current pushes 5 million cubic feet of water per second through the Golden Gate. I can’t wrap my mind around a number like that, but it starts to mean something when you know that the Mississippi River, at its highest flood stage of the last 50 years, peaked at 1.9 million cubic feet per second.
There was a strange beauty to the fact that we could have broken something (the boat, ourselves, or both) as we turned and the boat took off and I grabbed the helm and began to look for surfing opportunities while more or less ignoring the main that was pressed hard against the spreaders. The jib was flogging downwind toward Berkeley at punk rock decibels and that was fine with me. There were a couple of ugly rollers, and then we caught one wave. An Islander 30 Bahama is no surfing fool, but on that surge, suddenly, the world was right. We trimmed the jib and vanged the main. Then we settled into a wide groove and I got to babbling about downwind sailing and what it’s like crossing from California to Hawaii, downwind for thousands of miles in the tradewinds and (whoops, let’s not kick the stern that way) going from California to Hawaii it gets bluer and warmer by the day, but here we are in San Francisco Bay where the water is green and cold (I said) and it can be a mite foggy, but the place is drop-dead gorgeous.
This much I knew. I was home, and San Francisco Bay had kicked my tail. Again. Things must have been OK, though. Before he left the boat a few days later, Isaac was talking about someday making a Pacific passage himself. It figures. The first time I took him sailing, it rained. He liked it fine. That’s when I knew I had a sailor on my hands.
But I think I ought to be writing about how everybody loves home waters. I took my first sail on an FJ on Lake Pontchartrain, and the shallow waters on the north face of New Orleans still have a Big Easy “home” feeling. San Francisco Bay? This place has been beating me up for most of my adult life, and like a faithful (battered) puppy, I love it. I get this feeling in sailors wherever they come from. It’s about having a place and carving up the wind and making it your own. Salt water, fresh water, big boats, small boats, no matter; we share that. It’s a good thing. It makes us “us”. And, cruising close to home, you can share with people who would otherwise just never make it. Isaac first. He’d hit some potholes and he needed to go sailing. Then my lapsed-sailor friend Graham. He needed to go sailing. Later I sailed by myself and on my last day out came nephew Justin and his buddy Eric. They needed to go sailing too; they just didn’t know it yet.
I had my friends at Sausalito’s Modern Sailing Academy to thank—they loaned me Lark IV for this getaway—and now as Isaac and I eased back out of the froth and into smooth water, we had one of the most unlikely and audacious structures in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge, high over the transom. Unlikely, I say, because you’d have to be pretty gung-ho to undertake that build in such a deep, tide-ridden place. Audacious, I say, because it’s a work of art.
San Francisco Bay is not a huge place. Think 400 square miles with most of the action centered in a swath downwind of the Golden Gate. This is the “wind slot,” where the shorelines are studded with icons: The Presidio; Telegraph Hill; the Transamerica Pyramid away downtown. In mid-bay the Rock—Alcatraz—splits north and south ship channels. There’s been a lighthouse on Alcatraz since 1853 because, before that, bad things happened.
When big regattas come to town, they’re usually sailed in this central patch of water. Championships for one designs often are staged in the shallows of the East Bay, near Berkeley, where the currents run in broad swaths and a race course can be adjusted north (for less breeze, toward the lee of Angel Island) or south (for more breeze, fronting the wind slot). No guarantees, but a lot of the time it works.
Today our races were private. We had awakened on a mooring in a tranquil cove at Angel Island, a place I planned to come back to. Now we were ending the day on the San Francisco city front where, even in spring and summer, the weather can have a bite to it. Legend to the contrary, Mark Twain didn’t coin the quip, “I spent the coldest winter of my life one summer in San Francisco,” but somebody did. Many visitors don’t hear that line until they’re already here in t-shirts and shorts, shivering as the icy summer wind-from-the-sea howls ’round the hand grips of the Cable Cars.
OK, I exaggerate. But the breeze that flows through the Golden Gate is pre-chilled by crossing a cold, southbound current in the ocean outside. In San Francisco, houses don’t have air conditioning because they don’t need it. In the region surrounding, however, temperatures soar in spring, summer, and fall. The pressure differential builds a seabreeze and a half.
The overnight anchorage I had in mind on the cityfront was too windy today for anything but hunkering below, so instead we repaired to a nearby establishment where hot showers and shelter were easy to come by. In the mild morning that followed, we set off downwind, passing the great ships of the National Maritime Museum that wow thousands of visitors every year—though, sadly, without a single clipper ship to show for it. The square-rigged is a proud survivor from the turn of the 20th century, but our true Gold Rush clippers were all abandoned by crews who rushed off to the gold fields, leaving a forest of tall masts that were eventually swallowed by the city, their hulls turned into hotels or saloons and eventually buried in landfill. It’s a huge loss. As I wrote during a stint with the San Francisco Chronicle, the West wasn’t built by cowboys. The West was built by men who wore wet socks for weeks at a stretch. They rode through the Golden Gate sideways when the wind quit. They hauled in miners and gamblers, lumber and calico, schoolmarms and the mail long before the first railroad spike was laid west of Wichita.
As we eased along the city front, there on the ridge were the grand houses of Pacific Heights (sugar and silver, not gold, built the finest of them and now software is the hot trick; just ask Larry). Then came the green enclaves of Russian Hill (views that drive real estate agents to a feeding frenzy), and then another dip before the crazy-quilt rise of the cottages and steeples of North Beach and the tracks of Ginzberg, Kerouac, et. al.
We followed the counter-clockwise flow of the popular cruising route, eventually turning north to cross the bay on a port-tack reach, with the East Bay hills, Berkeley, and the Campanile at CAL away to leeward. On any day that would pass for normal, sailing north gains shelter and warmth in the lee of the hills of Marin County. The hills rise as a barrier to the seabreeze, peaking at the crest of 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais. Marin is all-suburb on the inland, leeward side. On the seaward side it’s parkland and scattered small towns, all the way to Oregon. Part of the beauty of urban life here is not feeling cut off from nature.
Northern California is a region of microclimates, governed 10 months a year by exposure to or protection from the seabreeze. In San Francisco, climate varies neighborhood by neighborhood and sometimes block by block. San Francisco Bay sailors through the years have shown a strong liking for crossing north for a guaranteed warm. The favored Marin stopover is Angel Island State Park at the protected anchorage of Ayala Cove, named for the Spanish captain who dropped a hook here in 1775.
Arriving for our second time in Ayala Cove, we closed a circle. These quiet moorings (not quiet on a July 4 weekend, but quiet on our springtime weekday) felt as ideal now as they had on our first day out. We had arrived at the cove in the evening a trifle tuckered but purged of stress. It all came back to me now. Telling it is the right way to end this story:
We were close to home. An island rising 500 feet high buffered us from reminders of the city across the bay, but we were less than 5 miles from the trading floor at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, even less from the neon joints at the border between Chinatown and North Beach. Emotionally, however, we were light years away. That’s the inner beauty of a boat. As soon as you clear the dock, you’re gone.
So we did what people do. We sat in the cockpit and watched the light change. We watched the ripples roll where a fish jumped. Isaac fired up the stove. I opened a bottle of wine (California grapes, red, grown in tortured soil on Spring Mountain high above St. Helena). Isaac seemed to me to be very aware of the sky, of skylight reflecting off the water and the darkening land-forms between. He seemed very aware of the last calls of the seabirds and the profound absence of frenetic activity and he said, for both of us, “I’m feeling this.”
SAIL’s West Coast Editor is also the author of the San Francisco Bay how-to-do-it, Sailing the Bay