Monday, October 8, 2007

San Francisco

Friday afternoon we motored Pelagic under the Golden Gate bridge.

After all the talk from other cruisers in Eureka and Newport about how short the weather windows are, and how bad the forecasts, we had a great two days’ trip down from Eureka. The bar at the Humboldt Bay entrance was much better behaved than it had been the day before when we turned around. Out on the ocean we soon came into black-footed albatrosses, and found that the eight-foot swell that had me concerned at the dock was absolutely no big deal at all.

A low was forecast to bring rain and cold to northern California twelve hours after we left. All that day and the next we watched foreboding clouds gathering to the north of us and wondered if we would beat them south. We sailed wing and wing and motored when the wind failed.

After a day and a half we found ourselves poised for a wee-hours arrival in San Francisco, which was clearly out of the question. At first we thought of heaving to outside the entrance and waiting for dawn. But rather than dealing with the vagaries of floating around on the ocean with the concerns of nearby land, unpredictable currents and abundant ship traffic, we decided to pull into Drake’s Bay, 25 miles north of the Golden Gate and named for Sir Francis, who anchored there in 1579, if you can imagine that. Speed and distance showed us arriving at Drake’s Bay after midnight. Our standing rule is to not enter unfamiliar anchorages and harbors at night. But Drake’s Bay is a broad bight, easily entered, and seemed much the easier and safer option for the remaining dark hours. I had slept from 0130 until 0600 the night before, and had been on watch the whole of the following day with only a twenty minute nap while Eli was eating dinner. So the allure of deep sleep in a secure anchorage was strong.

Alisa stayed up after putting Eli to sleep, instead of immediately going to sleep herself as she usually does when we’re at sea. It was a real treat to be up together at night. She dozed in the cockpit until a northbound fishing boat crossed close in front of us and made me nervous. Wouldn’t answer a hail. We’re getting more at ease around the denser traffic of the west coast. But there is still something nerve-wracking about passing close to another vessel at night, something about the tricks of perspective in the dark and how lights seem to hover right next to us, close but we’re not sure how close, not moving away nearly as quickly as we would expect. The fishing boat did just that, clearly showing us their red light, meaning that we were looking at their port side, but once they were abeam of us they just seemed to hover there, without getting farther away, until Alisa wondered out loud if they had changed course towards us. Spooky.

We simultaneously worked the radar, GPS, depth sounder and chart to make our way into Drake’s Bay. Giant ships lumbered off to the north in the shipping lane offshore of us, heading off on the great circle route from Oakland to Asia and showing us the green lights of their starboard sides. There was one other boat already in Drake’s Bay when we dropped anchor under a sky rich with stars, the Milky Way bright enough to leave a shine on the water. The other boat’s anchor light looked to be at the top of a mast, and we wondered if it might be one of our friends from further up the coast.

Elias woke up screaming as we were making the final approach into the bay. Alisa nursed him and he calmed down, but then he wouldn’t go to sleep for either of us. It was after 0100 at this point, and I had been in the cockpit for 18 of the last 24 hours. I was bushed, grumpy with Alisa and cross with Eli. He finally fell asleep on top of me, behind the leecloth in the port settee. I woke up at three o’clock with Elias completely zonkers and my right arm asleep from cradling him. I carried him up to his forward bunk, had a look around outside and then fled back to the solace of the bunk. My alarm went off at 0530, before there was any suggestion of dawn on the horizon, in time for us to make the morning flood through the Golden Gate. It was clearly an unreasonable time to be awake. I briefly consulted with Alisa about the necessity for an afternoon flood to follow that of the morning, and what an excellent idea it would be for us to catch the later, not the latter. Without completely waking she agreed.

We all had a wonderful sleep-in. It qualifies as one of the “no-duh” observations of our new cruising life, but our state of rest has an overweening control over the degree of warmth with which we regard our fellow Pelagics. I’m occasionally amazed at the scowling beast that I’m so successfully imitating during some sleep deprived moment when Elias is acting the screaming one-year-old.

When we woke the other boat was gone, and the white cliffs and sere tablelands of the bay were revealed. Drake’s Bay is behind Pt. Reyes, a place that I picture as being part of the rush and hustle of California. But the scene from the water was beautiful, with a few compounds of barns and large houses tucked here and there in the folds of the hills. Combined with the spectacular show of stars the night before, it gave me faith in the idea of pockets of natural refuge tucked here and there in California, even so close to the city.

The wind was also blowing when we woke up, gusting as high as 37 knots with whitecaps pushing us away from the beach. After pancakes and coffee we enjoyed a great rip-snorting sail down the coast, effortlessly making seven and a half knots with a double-reefed main and poled-out 100% jib. You can see the vanguard clouds of that low in the second picture below. They followed us all the way to San Francicso, but never quite caught us.

After a few hours of this great ride we pulled down the sails and motored through the disorganized waters of the Bonita Channel, well close to the shore but safely removed from the main channel used by ships. A slightly tense moment getting the sails down with the winds pushing us onto the out-of-bounds area of the famous potatopatch shoal that guards the entrance. The waves steepened as we picked our way through the buoyed channel, only 40 feet deep. Pelagic swung from side to side without any sails up to counteract the pendulum instincts of keel and mast. I stood on the seat behind the wheel and dodged giant balls of floating kelp. A pilot boat steamed out the main channel, its hull completely hidden from us by the seas and only the superstructure showing. A tractor tug followed, bound for the same ship that was a silhouette on the horizon. The tug was throwing sheets of spray into the air that were carried clear over its wheelhouse by the northwest breeze. We passed close by the Bonita lighthouse, the surf sending white water shooting up the cliffs at its base.

Then we were around the corner and steaming straight at the Golden Gate bridge.

“Golden Gate” has become synonymous with the bridge, but the name predates the bridge, and actually refers to the entrance to San Francisco Bay. We had hit the flood just as good mariners should, but a wicked eddy on the north side of the entrance had us in ebb conditions - the waves jumping straight out of the air, possessed by the laws of physics.

The boundary between the eddy and the main flood current was remarkably distinct, and once we were across it we were in smooth water, able to concentrate on the great treat of entering one of the great harbors of the world, watching the City appear under the brick-red bridge, the towers of the financial district in the background and the appealing jumble of low buildings, the human-scaled streets that are the heart of the City, spread over the hills in the foreground and looking, as they always do, like some white-walled Spanish town on a vast scale.


  1. Welcome to the hustle bustle of San Fran! You must be overwhelmed with stimulation. Hope the city treats you well. love, Becka

  2. Mike....I met your father recently in business and he shared with me your wonderful journey. I will be following you and your family from here on out. I wish you great luck and safe passage.