Out the Gate to the Giant Dipper

Sailors and non-sailors alike respectfully refer to the ocean beyond my home waters of San Francisco Bay as “Outside the Gate.” Along the northern California coast there are miles of rocky coastline separating the few harbors of refuge, which often have challenging entrances. Along the way you had best be prepared for strong winds, fog, and sizable seas. Of course, it may also be sunny and mild with easy sailing—just don’t expect to get lucky twice in a row.

Trust me, though, it’s always spectacular. With some careful planning, the waters of Northern California and their extensive marine sanctuaries make for a marvelous cruising ground. Since buying Time & Tide, my Catalina 310, I have cruised three times out the Golden Gate to the weekend getaway town of Santa Cruz, tucked into the northern bight of Monterey Bay, a distance of about 70 nautical miles. It’s a modest voyage that makes a perfect sailing challenge for a long weekend or a week, the more so because friends and family can easily travel by car to meet the boat.

The boardwalk, fronting the beach, is the standout attraction in Santa Cruz, with its Giant Dipper—a 96-year-old, wood-frame roller coaster. But a short stroll proves this is truly Surf City, USA. Jack O’Neill invented the wetsuit here and there’s a surf museum and surfer monument presiding over the big breakers at Steamer Lane. There’s plenty to enjoy just walking around.

My first trip to Santa Cruz inspired a second. My friend, August, and I cast off at 2100 hours from South Beach Harbor, under the lights of the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark, and rode an ebb-tide current running out of the bay at nearly two knots. I was reusing electronic waypoints laid out for the first trip by another friend, Stephen, and checking them against a paper chart. Stephen had been the first of us to invest in serious foulies, and, having learned my lesson, I was now wrapped in good baselayers and serious foulies of my own.

The ready-made waypoints simplified route planning, allowing me to quickly update the ETAs on our float plan and send a copy to our emergency contacts. To ward off fog, I’d already packed my detailed sailing directions from the previous trip: “When Pillar Point buoy (Fl G “1” GONG) bears 130, turn to 148…”

Even so there was already enough fog this evening to prompt a check-in call: “Vessel Traffic, this is the sailing vessel Time & Tide.” While small pleasure craft aren’t required to check in with our Vessel Traffic Service, it’s not a bad idea in low visibility, and I always monitor their VHF service channels (14 inshore, 12 offshore, and 13 ship-to-ship). They track 250 large-vessel movements per day.

So we were off, passing under the traffic roar of the Oakland Bay Bridge, rounding the spotlit Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill, avoiding “the Rock,” Alcatraz, and its forbidding lighthouse. We were beating into 15 knots and spray was flying. Low patches of fog cast halos around the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge. August and I spoke in hushed tones.

Beyond the entrance to San Francisco Bay lies an arc of dangerous shoals built of sediment deposited by the 16 rivers that empty through the Golden Gate. This time the mild conditions allowed us to cut close to the bar, saving us the extra miles required to follow the shipping channel to deeper waters offshore. We cleared the outside corner of the San Francisco peninsula and gratefully bore away, putting wind and sea over our shoulder. The pattern of the city streets was clearly delineated in the lights ashore, with Golden Gate Park cutting a deep, dark rectangle through the center of the grid.

We passed Half Moon Bay after midnight, and at sunrise, twelve hours after our departure, there was no mistaking the gleaming roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. The west side of the wharf is more protected, but the boardwalk and the dinghy dock are to the east, where we dropped anchor in 16 feet with a sand bottom.

Looking for an adventure? The wharf’s dinghy dock rides with the swell and rises and falls with a six-foot tidal range. The ladder is easier to negotiate than it looks, but if you prefer, the harbor nearby offers reasonable rates for transients. The Santa Cruz Yacht Club can also arrange discounted berthing for members of reciprocating yacht clubs. We needed breakfast, so we headed for Gilda’s on the wharf near the dinghy dock ramp. Over Gilda’s hearty fare we admired Time & Tide swinging at anchor, and I gave August a hard time about his imminent bus ride back to San Francisco.

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