By Kimball Livingston

Proof that if we want to sell sailing, we need explosions—

When Joe Schmidt took his Santana 22 out for yet another Saturday sail, he had no idea he was on the way to his 15 minutes as one of the most famous sailors in the world. Then, after his YachtSea had been rolled and dismasted by a breaking wave under the Golden Gate Bridge, he “knew we had made a splash, what with the Coast Guard boats and the helicopters and the fire trucks and police.” But that was just the beginning.

Only later would he learn that photographer Wayne Lambright had been at Fort Point, at the San Francisco Bay entrance, with a Nikon D2h (with a 70-300mm lens) that shoots 8 frames per second. Lambright came away with one of the most startling photo sequences ever of a sailing disaster, and when the photos hit the Net, they made a sensation.

YachtSea capsized and sank on April 2. In the two weeks following, Wayne Lambright’s web site had 17,000,000 page views. He started posting pictures in the first place to call attention to his online restaurant review business, “The YachtSea thing created a gargantuan problem,” Lambright says. “I run three mission-critical web sites, and the response nearly crashed my server, but I did learn some positive new things.”

If you haven’t seen the images, you should. In the picture to the left you see only the sails aback—even though a big wind is pushing them from behind. The hull is buried. Literally, you’re seeing the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Click here to go to Wayne Lambright’s photo page. And while you’re clicking around, check out a few restaurant reviews at the link above.

Joe Schmidt, a human resources executive from San Carlos, California (on the peninsula south of San Francisco) “needed some space” after the swim that nearly killed him. Now he’s ready to talk. This is the story, including updates from the, ah, participants.

“We had a harbinger,” Schmidt says. “My crew fell off the boat while we were still at the dock. I asked him if he wanted to go home and change, but he said he was fine.”

YachtSea that day sailed under the bridge and into the Golden Gate Strait, out to the mouth of the Pacific. It’s a notorious patch of water. Between the north and south shorelines, the wind and tide are squeezed and accelerated in a Venturi effect.

Meanwhile the breeze was up. Think 25 knots with episodes of bounteous gusts.

YachtSea turned around in the vicinity of Mile Rock, west of the bridge but still inside the strait, and returned to approach the opening to San Francisco Bay a little before 1500. At this point, Schmidt still had the option of passing north of the South Tower, but he “didn’t think it was critical.”

Ocean races passing through the Golden Gate restrict the waters between the South Tower and the shore, but usually, it’s navigable water. Schmidt had sailed through there before. On this day, however, Schmidt had been struggling with the whisker pole—a distraction—and was unable to get it out to weather. Instead, he left the jib poled out to leeward and then returned to reclaim the helm as YachtSea approached the bridge on port tack. “My intent was to get to center span, but I didn’t feel desperate about it,” he says. Then he reached a point where he was committed to to go “inside” the South Tower. Then he saw the surfers: “I had never seen them that far out before.”

Fort Point was experiencing a remarkable break that day. It’s a popular spot for local, expert surfers, but on the afternoon of April 2 there was more than the usual close-in break that wraps around the point and continues all the way into the cove. Suddenly Schmidt realized that he was going to have surfers to the left of him, surfers to the right of him, and no options. Going in, he says, there were two surfers to his left, closer to the South Tower: “I can sail by feel, and I was focused on not hitting the surfers.”

The wave went vertical, and things happened fast: “Is this the way I’m going, I wondered? I didn’t know what the hell happened. It was like a freight train had hit us.”

Schmidt’s crewman, Dan Brazelton, was wearing a life jacket, but the buckle on the jacket got caught in the rigging and trapped him under water. He had to fight his way to the surface—or maybe not. Upon reading a draft of this story, Brazelson responded: “Saying I had to fight to the surface is perhaps a bit over-dramatic. I merely waited for the world to stop tumbling, and eventually the boat let me go. I floated calmly to the surface.” Schmidt was wearing an inflatable, but it didn’t inflate. (“Oh this is great!”) Later, he would discover that in changing the cylinder he had left the connection loose. Also, “I hadn’t really looked at it in ages; I forgot that I could blow into the inflation tube.”

[Also upon reading this report, Schmidt responded: “I think you really captured what happened, the circumstances and the outcome. I would only say that it was not that I forgot to check the cylinder. It was worse than that. It was that I did not change it for more than five years; never inspected it nor the rest of the life jacket with features. And as you might guess, I am not regular on wearing it although with two aboard and the wind/waves being what they were, I knew I should wear it. I only discovered the loose cylinder once home, trying to find out what went wrong. After tightening the cylinder and pulling the cord, the jacket popped open … and I was amazed that the old cylinder worked like a charm.”]

Thank you, Gary, nothing’s better, for all of us, than getting real.

So now the surfers (who had been plenty scared of being run down) came to the rescue.

“One of them got me onto his back,” Schmidt says. “He coached me; told me to breathe normally; relax. The water felt like bath water, but it turns out that was all adrenalin. When I got to the hospital my body temperature was down to 96.7. ‘Low but not alarming’ is what the doctors told me about that.”

The Santana 22

Designed in the 1960s by Gary Mull and tough enough for San Francisco Bay, the Santana 22 has been one of the most enduring one design classes in Northern California. The fleet is still active ( as seen in this F.J. Bolger shot of the 2002 class nationals.

A quick online survey of used Santana 22s recently for sale (the Schock factory revived the line; you can buy a new one) indicates prices from $900 to $3,950, which lends a certain irony to Joe Schmidt’s new situation: YachtSeawas recovered (the salvage bill was $2,500, but fortunately the insurance company stepped up), and now he has to decide what to do with a boat with damage to the keel, a bent rudder stock, a broken mast, and an owner still in a bit of shock. Schmidt says, “For years people have talked about ‘the demon of the South Tower,’ but usually they mean the wind, the way it gusts just as you come under the bridge.”

It’s a good bet that bay sailors are going to be extra-wary of this spot for as long as the memory lasts.

Doublehanded Farallones Race

Because the annual Doublehanded Farallones Race ran on the same day as the Yachtsea incident, many people assumed that this was an entry that missed the race’s restriction on the waters inside the South Tower. If you’ve read this far, you know that’s not the case. But it was quite a day on the ocean. There were 59 finishers and 17 dnf’s. Scott Sorensen and John Kernot won the race overall in Sorensen’s Moore 24, Fish Food. The Moore 24 is one of the greatest regional types going. Sorensen said the sleigh ride home was, “what I bought the boat for.”

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