Mishaps at the Golden Gate
Entering San Francisco's Golden Gate is probably one of the most iconic and visually beautiful
approaches a mariner can hope for. I've been blessed to call the San Francisco Bay my home stomping
grounds for the past 14 years and, without a doubt, sailing here will definitely improve your skill-set.
I learned to sail in Mission Bay, San Diego; you were in heaven if you saw 15 knots of wind. SF
winds can pass 30 knots daily during the summer months and a strong current may have you traveling
in reverse during the rare lulls. My learning curve was steep and costly, both in broken boat parts and
the inevitable strain it put on my marriage. She stuck it out for the first few seasons, but my initial
inexperience to adapt to these variable maelstroms brought a heightened level of diss ease,
well...maybe sheer panic is a better description. Her visits to the boat decreased as mine increased.
Eventually, I learned how to harness this incredible force mother nature was throwing my way and felt
wretched for subjecting my wife to those early, novice experiences
.Last month, I was helping bring a large yacht from LA to SF. We were limping in the gate due
to some mechanical issues and I had time to reflect on just how many times this portion of the Pacific
had handed me my ass. Here are a few.
Change the Channel
There is a horseshoe shaped, shallow bank that stands sentry to the mouth of the Golden Gate. It
extends about 5 miles out to sea. It's not uncommon to be standing on Ocean Beach and see huge,
rolling waves 2 miles of the shore – it's really beautiful to look at...from THE BEACH! There are times
when you don't have to pay it any mind (but I always do), then there are times when the swell and the
tide can make it a real mess. The funny part is how it changes with the current. NOAA radio broadcasts
the max ebb and low tide for this region and woe to the mariner who doesn't know when that is.
There are three channels that are recommended for crossing the SF Bar: Deep Water (marked
and the only option for freighters and other large vessels), North Channel and South Channel (not
marked, vaguely noted on charts, and not to be attempted when you see waves breaking on the bar). I
like to think of it like a rambunctious cat being petted; A certain area and she'll lay on her back and
purr, but you cross some arbitrary, imaginary line and walk away with a bloody stump where your arm
used to be.
Tom, a new-ish sailor had a 22 foot Catalina with a retractable keel. These boats were designed
to be trailerable and even beach-able as the keel could swing up into the hull. Perfect for taking up to
that cabin in the woods and a day on the lake; O.K. for the Bay but not really designed for crossing the
Bar. Two things I really didn't like about that boat were the unnerving thump the swivel keel made
against the hull with every passing swell, and the location of the port side mounted outboard (the boat's
only mechanical means of propulsion) that would barely reach the water when on a port tack.
We met up in a bar one night and the discussion turned to a 2 week trip I had made down the
coast recently. I was on a 27 foot Pearson Commander, a bulletproof, well designed boat with a large
cockpit; very small cramped cabin and a wet ride to say the least. The winds and the waves were rarely
in my favor and I actually got pooped (a wave hitting you from behind and filling your cockpit with
water) once crossing Monterey Bay. Tom lamented that he had never been out of the gate on his boat,
so...LET'S GO! We did a quick provisioning stop and were underway by 0200, destination: Princeton
by the Sea, 20 miles south of the Gate.
It was a beautiful night for a sail once I got accustomed to that damned annoying keel thump: a
favorable tide, perfect breeze and a barely waning moon to light our way. The night was cool and crisp,
but not unbearable. Sleep eventually became a factor so we sailed in shifts; the bar was calm and all
was well. We gave Maverick's (sight of the annual big wave surf competition) the wide berth it
commands and entered the protected waters of Princeton at dawn.
After a little rest and a stroll around town, we decided to head back to San Francisco. Another
friend got a ride down and was joining us for the return trip. I was glad that we had three sailors
aboard, but even more pleased that the new addition would make excellent ballast for such a tiny boat
should the afternoon winds pick up. I mean no offense when I state that, at that time, his girth was
We made our way north; past Devil's Slide and the inappropriately named, “Shelter Cove”.
After careful study of radio transmissions and tides, I deemed the South Channel to be open for
business. We carved northeast past Pacifica to begin our parallel run up Ocean Beach. The helm is then
given to it's captain for the channel run.
I had a great book on sailing from San Diego to San Francisco. It covers every marina, harbor,
micro weather scenario and nautical anomaly. It tells you when to change course for certain approaches
and all that good stuff. I would give you the name of it but, remember, I said HAD (I'll look for it
online and post it at the end of this blog later). This book kept me out of many jams but, over time, I
was able to rely less on it and more on those beautiful little dashes on my chart plotter that show the
routes I had taken in the past. Since I don't keep that book or a chart plotter in my back pocket when I
go out to bars, these valuable resources were replaced by my (much more fallible) memory, “Hmmm...
I remember that the South Channel is less than 1 mile off Ocean Beach... Was it ½ mile? That's it!”
(no... it's NOT).
A few glitches began to reveal themselves over that next harrowing hour: my memory for one;
the channel is ¾ of a mile off the beach. The half mile still had us well out of the beach-breaking wave
zone, but swells were not exactly small that day. 2)The captain's inexperience: I should have watched
him closer as we ended up beyond that ½ mile line that separated sanity from insanity. No problem, just
point higher into that north west wind and we're back on course... 3)Is that a tear in the jib? The jib was
old and ripped and that rip was growing. The less you are able to tighten a jib, the less ability you have
to point into the wind. Since we were on a port tack (wind coming over the left side of the boat – beach
getting closer on the RIGHT side of the boat), we couldn't claw our way back (left) into the proper
Our ballast was getting edgy. We had him low in the cabin to gain precious inches back to our
proper course. It was helping, but self preservation got the best of him; he wanted OUT of that cabin
and OFF of that boat. Visions of us making the nightly news as a beached boat with no survivors had
bought all available real estate in his brain and all hope (and rational thinking) was lost by this point. It
was a hard sell as he sat on the edge of the boat, prepared to dive in the water and swim to shore;
raising and lowering on swells that, seconds later turned into crashing cliffs of water. We explained that
it was VERY IMPORTANT that he stay on board. Not just because he was ballast and not because we
would have to retrieve him even though our plate was pretty full already, but because...
4) Remember when I said how I didn't like the outboard engine placement on that boat. The prop was
nowhere NEAR the water with wind and swells approaching from our port side and we didn't have the
forward momentum for a tack since the jib was such a mess. A jibe (rounding away from the wind –
towards the beach in this case) was out of the question and would have resulted in unwanted surfing
lessons (but hey, it's got a retractable keel).
We all got on the same page and the plan was very simple. Any sailor reading this would say it
right away, “Just tack out to deeper water!” My only response is “I know”; things just built on each
other like a slow train-wreck. A full tack wasn't going to happen but we had to get that prop submerged,
and quick! Our ballet worked: a power building angle downwind, towards the beach timed with a sharp
turn toward the channel as our ballast shifted to the starboard side gave us the momentum necessary to,
not tack, but at least dip the prop and start the outboard to gain steerage away from impending doom.
We all breathed easier when we entered the gate. That adrenaline fueled giddiness / exhaustion
which emerges when you have just cheated death kicked in and the sun was still shining on our leg
back to the dock.
FYI... that boat is now docked in a lake.