Sunday, October 21, 2007


When we set foot on shore in San Francisco I completed a circumnavigation of sorts. Most of you know me as mild-mannered Michael A. Litzow, Master of Science. Fewer know of the more colorful six years that I spent between my undergraduate stints at U.C. Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska. I lived in San Francisco twice during those six years, for six months each time.

Cruisers up the coast in Eureka had told us about Aquatic Park, a little anchorage protected by a curving sea wall off the north shore of the San Francisco peninsula. It’s administered by the National Park Service and 24 hour anchorage is free for sailboats. We pulled in after our Flight-of-the-Valkyries entrance under the Golden Gate bridge and found four or five cruising boats already anchored and a fleet of smaller boats riding at moorings.

The anchorage was much much more crowded than anything we are used to from the north, and we took two tries to find a spot that we were comfortable with. I still find the geometry of anchoring difficult to predict, and am often slightly surprised at where we come to rest after reversing back on the anchor. In one of our passes around the anchorage a guy on another boat saw the hailing port on our stern and asked if we sailed all the way from Kodiak. “And did you plan to show up today?” he asked. “What’s today?” I asked back. “Well, it’s Fleet Week, and there’s going to be an air show tomorrow.”

Our second try gave us a reasonable anchorage, though much closer to the sea wall than we would have chosen in the absence of other boats. We stared up at the apartment buildings marching up Russian Hill and the giant Ghirardelli sign above the waterfront. San Francisco! It was hard to believe that we had sailed all that way from Kodiak. San Francisco is different enough from Kodiak to feel like our first exotic port of call, and in a way that night on the hook in Aquatic Park was the first time that we felt like cruisers. Instead of sailing through the comfortable expanse of Alaska, or traveling down the Washington and Oregon coasts to get somewhere else, we had transported the family and our little home all the way to this distant corner of the world where widely-held assumptions about the nature of life are dramatically different from the ones we operate under back on The Rock.

The next morning we rowed ashore to a little patch of beach between the dock where the Park Service displays historical ships and the two swimming clubs that have operated in Aquatic Park since the 19th century. Signs at the entrance to Aquatic Park warn boat operators to watch out for swimmers, and we soon found that this was no idle warning. Two swimmers crossed our bow when were looking for a good anchoring spot, and the splashing of marine mammals from order Primatea was a regular sound for as long as we stayed in the Park. They mostly traveled in twos, all wearing swim caps and goggles and some wearing wet suits. Nutters, I thought at first. But then it occurred to me what a neat local tradition it is to swim in the bay, with the long-established clubs for that purpose, and also what a powerful link between the City and the Bay, this constituency of people who regularly immerse themselves in the waters that are the reason for this city’s existence.

We pulled the dinghy up the beach and joined the crush of tourists on the dock to brush the sand off our feet and put on our shoes. Then I hoisted Elias into his backpack carrier and we set off into the City, destination North Beach.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find my way around. I was quickly showing Alisa landmarks from my life 17 and 18 years ago. Gino and Carlo, the bar where we shot eight-ball at the back table for fun while the good players shot nine-ball at the front table for money. Grant and Green, where we used to sit outside on the sidewalk, drinking bottles of Gallo and listening to the music from inside the bar. The bakery that set stale loaves of bread in a barrel just inside the back door, free for the taking. Alisa and I gave ourselves the great treat of choosing from all the available cafes a spot for our lunch. The whole part of North Beach culture that revolves around life at the table is nothing that I partook in during my residence in the city. I was perfectly disposed to enjoy our meal – the company of someone I love, the appetite of a good walk with thirty pounds of descendant on my back, and the excitement of returning to my former haunts with a new sort of life in hand. My glass of wine had the effect that novels occasionally depict for alcohol, but which I rarely feel: it brought an edge to my happiness, and made the situation sparkle just a little more. Alisa and I talked and talked. Elias, woken from deep slumber in the backpack carrier for the event, cooperated by sitting subdued on my lap, tamely eating proffered tidbits.

We made a visit to City Lights bookstore, a place I’ve only been in about a hundred times, though not since I left the city to hitchike to Alaska in the summer of 1990. Alisa found a book of Gauguin’s letters (setting up our new South Pacific reading theme), I found the third book of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (the whole turning out to be much more uneven than the standard suggested by the first third of the first volume, but with illuminating themes; not the sort of World War II fiction that you come to expect after reading The Naked and The Dead) and, for both of us, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, simultaneously a great depiction of the sailor’s life and of pre-1849 California.

City Lights in its contemporary incarnation matched delightfully well with my memories. This was true of San Francisco itself. So many changes have come along since I lived here. AIDS is a treatable chronic disease. Cell phones have arrived, as has the digital age. The dot-com explosion and real estate run up have been here and gone. (I used to moan about paying three hundred dollars a month in rent when I lived here.) We even saw, on our trip to the East Bay a couple days later, that the Embarcadero Freeway is gone, opening the eastern part of the city to the sight lines of the Bay that are one of the delights of San Francisco.

For all these changes, the City feels like it always did. The streets look the same, the sound and smell and feel are the same. The same landmark businesses that I remember are there, and I could find my way around with little reference to the map.

We returned to the beach burdened by bags of groceries. The air show had begun, and thousands of people had congregated on the shore around Aquatic Park to watch. The little beach where we had left the dinghy was now carpeted with spectators, one enterprising fellow even sitting in our dinghy to watch. He was very nice about helping us pull the boat down to the water, and families made a path for us. A little chop had come up and was breaking on the beach. We watched the waves and timed our departure, getting baby, baby carrier, backpacks and groceries into the dinghy and away between wave sets, all with hundreds of spectators on the beach and pier above. No problem.

The next day we again rowed in and set off into North Beach, walking up and over Russian Hill and enjoying the neighborhood feel of the City’s quieter streets. We shared the daydream of someday having a pied d’terre in San Francisco. I could see the rooms in my mind’s eye, with their view of the Bay on two sides, the modern furniture, spare décor and groaning bookshelves. The delights of thinking about the ideal future! We took the antidote for living in the future by next talking about how wonderful it would be to someday visit the city in our own yacht, so that we could anchor in Aquatic Park and enjoy the urban delights before retreating to the privacies of our floating home every evening.

Before we left Kodiak I had ruled out a visit to San Francisco, thinking that it wouldn’t be much fun with Eli. Wrong again, and another example of the little ways that the actual trip has differed from my mental picture during the planning stages. Elias happily rode through the city on my back, taking in all the new sights as a matter of course.

Our mission this day was a visit to the first place I lived in San Francisco, in the Tenderloin neighborhood at O’Farrell and Larkin streets. This was, when I lived there, a very scummy place. Before we arrived I wondered if gentrification had moved in. We walked through upscale Union Square, and I told Alisa about my job as a street sweeper for the Union Square merchants’ association. (I was fired for parking my broom and repairing to the delights of North Beach while on the clock.)

As we continued up Geary Street from Union Square things progressed towards the unfortunate end of the seediness gradient. On my actual block things were very gray and dingy. Three young women came out of the door of my building. With their odd haircuts and easy assurance on the street they might have been friends of mine, twenty years ago. There was a gate blocking off the steps up to my building, and a similar gate on every building on the block. The street stank of urine, as always, and the tiny city park on the corner was locked up. The modern apartment building across the street from my old place was still there, but that appeared to have been the high-water mark for gentrification. The Great American Music hall was still next door to my building, and the Mitchell Brothers’ Theater (“the Carnegie Hall of American public sex”) was still at the end of the block. It felt scummy, but not dangerous, even with my completely atrophied street sense. But on our return to the boat I took us north up Polk, through an area that I didn’t remember well. The vibe got worse for a few blocks before it got better. We were presented with living-breathing examples of several urban archetypes. The Statuesque Transexual. The Strung Out. The Clearly Mad. The Young, Fresh Out of Prison and Soon Headed Back. The Toothless and of Indeterminate Sex. The Runaway Hustler.

Elias apparently continued to take it all in from the vantage of my back. Later, restored to the comforts of above-mentioned yacht, Alisa said, “I don’t think I need to see any more of your old apartments.” So a trip to my old pad in the Lower Haight is off.

Too bad in a way, because that room in a shared apartment is where I put maps of Alaska on the wall and dreamed about long journeys on foot across treeless Arctic mountain ranges, clean and vast and innocent of the contemporary world. I didn’t want ordinary backpacking trips, I wanted capital-A adventures that only Alaska could offer. That was another dream that I acted on, and I did find myself a new kind of life, and adventures on a fairly grand scale. And after a while it was Alisa that I was doing ski trips with, traveling self-supported through the crystal perfection and daunting cold of Alaska in winter. And, just as is the case with our travels on Pelagic, acting on the Alaska dream changed the dream, and I found myself immersed in a new kind of quotidian life on the other side. So how fun to return to this city that grew stale for me almost twenty years ago, to return with wife and son and sailboat, in a condition that I only could have dreamed of, and did, those years ago.


  1. Sounds like the trip is going well! SF is a fine port town.

    Fair winds, sailors. Enjoy the adventure.

    Not much new in Kodiak... two new city councilmen and one new assemblywoman. Snow's down to about 1,000 feet, with regular frost each morning. Had a one-bolt thunderstorm Saturday evening.



  2. Hello Mike, Alisa and Elias. I just read and very much enjoyed your article in Cruising World, then looked up and read your blog. I just wanted to post encouragement and kudos on your article, blog and your cruising adventure. My wife and I are about to begin our own cruising life in January, so maybe we'll share an anchorage one of these days.

    Patrick and Nancy
    S/V Stolen Child

  3. Winter is trying to push fall out here in Kodiak. One day we wake up to snow and ice, the next it's rain. You could have guessed that though. Glad to hear that the travels are progressing so amazingly well. My cruising has been limited to the odd trip around Woody with a couple fruitless stops for king trolling in the last month. We miss you guys here at the lab. Hope this finds you in another safe anchorage on your way south,