Sunday, May 25, 2008

When You Dance With the San Francisco Bay, She Leads

There is this old adage, “Want to make god laugh? Tell him your plans.” The same could be said about the SF Bay. But let me start by sharing a little about the superstitions of maritime culture. I have read a bit of history regarding the last few hundred years of sailing….European sailing during the age of world exploration. A time before engines and the reliable clocks needed to calculate longitude. A time when getting a fix on a ships position would include taking sextant sights on a bucking square rigger and then spending the entire day doing a series of extremely complex trigonometry equations to get a rough and often unreliable estimated position. It has been written that during this time when a ship left the sight of land, sailors were basically lost. Even after a reliable clock was invented in the mid 1700’s sailors had to follow the trade winds, navigate without charts, work in unimaginably harsh conditions, eating shitty food, often suffering from scurvy, enduring the often brutal and absolute command of the captain. So it is not surprising that this culture gave rise to a rich and enduring set of superstitions…many of which influence sailors to this day.

These superstitions include: avoid flat-footed people when beginning a trip; never start a cruise on a Friday (I have read stories of contemporary sailors who have violated this one and believe they have paid a price!); always place a silver coin under the mast to ensure a successful voyage (just talked to a couple today who told me about the silver dollar they placed under their mast when they recently had it re-stepped); flowers and bananas are unlucky on board; it is unlucky to board a ship with the left foot first….and it is worse if you also sneeze to the left while doing so. In the North of England, during the caulking of a wooden boat a shipwright could claim a ‘caulking kiss’ from any passing girl. If she refused him, she had to pay a shilling (never tried this when doing my caulking…don’t know if it is honored in the SF Bay or on fiberglass boats).

Sailors have also always regarded the naked body of a woman as a luck-bringer, whether in reality or in the form of an effigy (well, I have had it both ways…sometimes lucky, sometimes not). And of course whistling aboard ship is supposed to invoke an adverse wind, which could harm the ship and crew. There are more, many more. And pervasive among contemporary sailors, good sailors, is a profound respect for the power of wind and sea. You are the guest, the sea is boss, be respectful and humble, and don’t tempt fate.

Day One
So fast forward to May 2008. It was about 11am and Val and I readied the boat for a sail, taking off the sail covers, tying the sheets to the jib, donning life vests, turning on the battery and instruments, starting the engine. It was warm and I was in shorts and a light jacket as we motored out of the marina and into the channel towards the Bay…the two of us chatting about where to go. The predictions called for mellow tides and currents and so we decided to head for the gate. It wasn’t an hour later that the wind predictably increased and things got cold…soon I was below putting on my foulies and a fleece. Maybe 20 knots…typical.

Val can sail, so despite the increasing winds we kept heading west beating into the wind, the waves and chop gaining height and intensity. West past Alcatraz we were in 25 knots. Again, typical. We both love all points of sail, the quiet calm of a broad reach and the noisy dramatic splash-filled ride of beating into the wind. Undaunted we kept heading west.

We gabbed and gabbed about sailing and life. Val is a butch dyke, 10 years my senior. I taught her to sail a couple of summers ago and she has taken classes and improved her proficiency. Usually we start out talking about sailing and boats and then move onto the subject of grrls when we hit Alcatraz (Val and I have logged a lot of hours together on the Bay and we have noticed this pattern). Suddenly Val’s attention moved beyond our conversation….she noted that the fog was moving in under the gate, moving at a quick clip. Yep. I looked around and noticed we were also getting flanked by the fog as it creeped over the city behind us, moving towards the space between us and my marina in Emeryville. Hmmm...noted. Then I made a stupid error….I unknowingly taunted the gods. I simply said, “Ya know, in all my years sailing the Bay I have never been caught in fog thick enough where I couldn’t get where I was going.” Val looked at me…you shouldn’t say that right now. Mer, I exclaimed in my head, what the fuck were your thinking! Keep your pie-hole shut! Don’t casually make such stupid observations while in the middle of the Bay in 25+ knots of wind with the fog booking in. Just don’t do that! It was too late. My fate was sealed.

Change of plans. Lets duck behind Angel Island. We’ll keep good wind. Great. We fell off the wind, adjusted the sails and settled into a calmer rhythm of a beam reach….then a broad reach. It was sunny and easy sailing as we cruised through Raccoon Straight between the mainland of Tiburon and Angel Island. We could no longer see the gate as we emerged east of the island….it was sunny and warm. Then we looked south. Fog. Dark ominous fog so thick we could no longer see the Bay Bridge, downtown Oakland, SF, Treasure Island….all of it obscured. Val and I looked at each other and contemplated what to do.

We talked it over and agreed to go for it….to make our way through the fog back to the marina. We headed towards the closest channel marker and figured a compass course to the next one. Red 6 channel marker. Yep, we know where we are. Headed to the next one….we were back in the slot. The wind was gusting to over 30 knots. We were over powered….too much sail up. I went to start the engine to pull into the wind to furl the jib….the engine sputtered and died. Oh shit. We can’t get the jib down. I lost steerage….shit. Wait for the sails to fill….steering again we bucked too fucking close to the buoy…almost hit it. We can’t see anything to the south…all of sudden a ship as big as a building heading north pops through the fog to the west. This is insane. We could head north to Richmond and duck into the sunny Marina Bay. We agreed that we could fight it all, but why? We turned the boat around, got behind the island again…the winds moderated and we headed NNW towards Richmond. At the Richmond harbor the engine started and kept running. Thank god.

At the dock at Marina Bay a couple of little kids sat on the stairs looking down at my boat. They saw the Jolly Roger flag blowing on my stern flagpole…is that a pirate ship they asked with sweet innocence. That’s my boat. They gasped, are you a pirate? Yep. They stared at me wide-eyed and stunned. Just kidding guys, it’s just for fun, I don’t steal. I walked away feeling the hypocrite….the Bay had just kicked my sorry ass, had me fleeing north with my tail between my legs. Pirate? Hardly.

Val and I put the boat away and took a cab to Emeryville. Exhausted, we bid each other a goodnight. I called Jimmy. You’re sailing tomorrow buddy, we gotta get my boat home.

Day Two
Next day Jimmy and I sleep in, are lazy, get a late start. We get to the marina mid-day. Shit. The fog is already in thick and dark. We drive to the point and look north…the fog is still high above the water. We can see through to Richmond. We drop Jimmy’s car at my marina and haul ass to Marina Bay and ready the boat. We head outta the harbor and the wind is already strong. Into the main channel of the Bay we are beating into strong waves…the ride is rough. Into the slot, we are now into gusts above 30 knots. It’s noisy and physical…waves crashing over the bow, showering us. Again, we decide to drop the jib to get more control, reduce our power. I go to start the engine to pull the boat into the wind….she won’t start. Sputtering…again and again we try. I instruct Jimmy to go below, open the engine compartment, try to prime the engine….pump the fuel line. He does it. Nothing. She won’t work.

We are now seeing gusts close to 40 knots. That is really fucking windy. To someone who has never sailed it is hard for me to describe the noise and intensity of the experience. And when you are in charge of the boat, well, the experience is exponentially more intense.

Jimmy is nervous…but I suddenly realize that doesn’t matter. Jimmy, the boat is hard to control. I need to be at the helm. You have to go forward and fight the jib in while I steer….that is the safest option at this point. You have to do it. He understands that I am right despite his fear. He trusts me. I am not negotiating or playing nice…there is not time for that. I am the captain in charge of our safety and I have made the decision and he understands. I talk him through what he needs to do. Release the halyard and then rush towards the bow on your knees. Stay low, hold on, and pull the jib in at the stay. It will be noisy and chaotic and hard because the wind will fight your efforts….so move quickly. I turn the boat into the wind…we are bucking violently into the waves…the bow crashing through them. Jimmy heads to the mast, releases the halyard, crawls towards the bow. I am screaming directions…he fights the sail in…he’s being tossed about. He finally ties down the sail…secures the halyard again…crawls back to the cockpit. He’s soaked but safe…he is breathing hard…he rests and regains some composure. I tell him he did good….he rallied. This is not fun. For either of us.

Next I radio Vessel Assist to send a boat to tow us into the marina. I am on my handheld VHF radio and the local captain can’t hear me well…can’t hear my position. He tells me to use my cell and call central dispatch. I do. A woman in Virginia answers and asks me if I have my membership number. Fuck no! I am in the cockpit helming my boat in 35 knot winds! I am pissed. She takes my name…she fumbles around…putting me on hold…asking how to spell Emeryville. She is clueless. Tells me the boat is coming from Bethel Island! Are you kidding me? That’s hours up the delta! I know she is wrong. I know the skipper comes from Alameda. She gives an hour ETA. I hang up. I hope he is coming. We wait, sailing back and forth into the intense winds….holding a position far enough off shore to stay safe. It is cold, rough, noisy. We are hungry and exhausted. Alas I think I see Captain Gary heading under the Bay Bridge. I call on the radio and ask if that is his position. Affirmative. I say I am just off his port-bow with a reefed-mainsail up. Roger. He sees me. We’re safe now. I sail towards the channel with Gary following on my quarter. At last he says he’s gonna tow us through the channel instead of coming along side….too rough. We’ll raft up to you in the harbor. Roger. His deckhand tosses the lines, Jimmy secures them. A half hour later we are in my slip where it is relatively calm.

We start cleaning up the Donna Clare…the mess in the cabin, putting the sail covers on, hosing her off, hosing each other off in our foulies, washing off the saltwater. We settle into the cabin changing into our land clothes. We debrief. Jimmy looks at me seriously and asks if I could have picked him up if he had fallen in while fighting the jib. Probably not. Not without hurting him. It was too rough. I explain I would have circled him…thrown him the life sling to keep him tethered to the boat….called mayday…waited for the coast guard to pluck him up. Clipping him into a halyard and winching him up would have beat him up…would be safer to wait for the coasties. Their response time would probably have been 10 mintes. We were close to the station. He nods.

The Bay is cold….low 50sF. Depending on the individual response one could stay conscious for 30 to 90 minutes if they stayed still, didn’t panic, conserved their heat. One could easily die within an hour or two of immersion. Jimmy knows what to do. We have gone over it many times. If you go in, you will immediately start hyperventilating. Let it happen. Don’t fight it. It will last about two minutes and then stop. Your job is to curl up and let your vest float you. Don’t move. Don’t swim. Conserve your energy/heat. Let help come to you.

I tell Jimmy the steaks are on me. We go home and take hot showers and head to Quinns, a lighthouse bar and grill on the Oakland Inner Harbor...a place of brass and wood and model boats. We often go here after a sail. It's fitting. We watch the sunset over the boats all safely nestled in their slips. I think back….did I greet a flatfooted soul before the weekend? Did I whistle? Did I board with my left foot? Sneeze to the left? No bananas or flowers on board…of this I am sure.

There is another sailing adage I heard years ago and it is burned into my sailor-mind because it is as concise as it is true: you can learn to sail in an afternoon, but it takes a lifetime to learn seamanship. I am a humble student. I think back on the weekend…I could have made different choices. Could have hid behind the island and hove to…tried to bleed the fuel line underway. Could have tried sailing into the marina…but I don’t feel skilled enough for this. Could have headed back towards Richmond…but I had a busy week ahead and that would mean a week as a guest at the marina.

Another rule of thumb for sailing: never sail on a schedule. It leads to poor decisions. I have read many accounts of this one in action. When I invite people to come sailing they will often naively ask if I can have them back to the dock by say 4:00pm sharp. I smile. Nope. Can’t promise that. I am not that good of a sailor…and when you dance with the Bay, she leads. There are too many variables. I offer that the odds are really good that I can have them back by the end of the day…by boat or by cab. But ya never really know....

1 comment:

val said...

Hey Mer-great write up of a summer sail on the Bay. Short sleeves and mellow and then crazy winds in the slot. Then back to mellow and wondering if that really happened! I remember looking up from the engine ignition and still seeing that red buoy right in front of us. I still dont quite remember how you got us out of there but you did! It seems like alot of my favorite adventures have this quality --imminent danger but somehow skill, reflex and instinct prevailed. It was great to be back out on the Bay in the Donna Claire--and tell Jimmy that I am so glad he stayed on the boat! Suzanne heard my version, read yours and is wondering it always like this???!