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The Perfect Daysail

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Missing the pictures? See the May 2007 eBook!

There is method to the devine madness of sailing San Francisco Bay. One way to learn it is to throw the sails up and blunder around for about five years until you figure it out. This can be fun if you are young and looking for thrills. However, for those of a more mature or efficient nature, there is a better way, and you're holding it in your hands. It is a grand tour of the Bay, done in style and comfort. We call it The Perfect Daysail, and it goes something like this . . .

Start anywhere east of Alcatraz at about 11 a.m. — at which time the fog is beginning to burn off and a light breeze is filling in. From Alcatraz you're going to be sailing counterclockwise around the Bay. Begin your grand tour along the backside of Angel Island and up Raccoon Strait. (If there's a strong flood in the Strait, you may need to motor through this part.)

Once around Belvedere Point — you do have a chart aboard, right? — you can reach off toward Richardson Bay and the Sausalito waterfront. If you bear way off to hug the west shore of Belvedere, be careful not to stray past Cone Rock or you'll run aground. The Sausalito side of Richardson Bay is dotted with everything from floating trash to megayachts and is worth a pass. Stay in the channel though, as the northeast side is shallow and the bottom is riddled with debris.

Sailing back out the Sausalito Channel, hug the shoreline and enjoy the Mediterranean look of southern Sausalito. Generally, the closer you stay to this shore, the flukier the wind — until you get to Hurricane Gulch. It's not marked on the charts, but you'll know when you're there.

Once you round the corner at Yellow Bluff, you'll have little Horseshoe Cove on your right and the magnificent Golden Gate in full view ahead. If the conditions are right (slack water or a moderate flood), you might want to slip under the most famous bridge in the world and enjoy the unspoiled scenery of the Marin Headlands. If you're on a small or slow boat, however, make sure you're not rocketing out on the start of an ebb or it will take you forever to get back in.

Now comes the best part: turn around. If everything has gone as planned, you've gone as far to weather as you're going to. With the breeze approaching its maximum strength about 2-3 p.m., there's no better time to start reaching and running.

Go ahead and cross over to the San Francisco side of the Bay. If you seized the day and sailed seaward as far as Point Bonita, aim for Mile Rock, then cruise along the Baker Beach shore (not too close) and aim for the red South Tower buoy. Don't take your eye off that buoy, because for a stationary object, it sure seems to get involved in a lot of 'collisions' with boats.

It's possible to sail between the South Tower and shore — if you know where the rocks are. If you don't, we suggest you sail through the main span of the bridge. And remember to give the South Tower Demon his due: a wide berth as you pass the South Tower. If you don't, he'll steal your wind, redouble it and throw it back at you, in which case you may find yourself momentarily heading straight for the tower's cement cofferdam. Whee-ha, we're having some fun now!

Once back inside the Gate, the Wind Machine will probably be in high gear and whitecaps will ruffle the Bay. But you won't care because you're sailing downwind at what should be close to hull speed. The proper etiquette is to wave and smile beatifically at the cold, wet sailors pounding upwind past you. And at the sailboarders and kiteboarders who, on weekends, will be whizzing by you like a swarm of angry killer bees. Don't worry, they won't hit you. At least not too often.

This part of The Perfect Daysail will afford you one of the great views of San Francisco, the place locals call "The City" (never "Frisco"). If any greenhorns aboard felt queasy earlier, roust them out from their bunks below now and tell them to enjoy the view. No one pukes downwind.

Want an interesting detour? Jibe out toward Alcatraz. The likes of Al Capone and Richard 'The Birdman' Stroud once gazed out from behind those forbidding walls. The prison closed in 1963. Now Hollywood goes there to make movies. The 1996 flick The Rock even opened there in the old prison yard!

Once you've checked out Alcatraz — no landings allowed for recreational boats — jibe back and jog over to Pier 39. Follow the curve of the shoreline around toward the Bay Bridge. The wind will usually drop quickly, giving you an easy and relatively warm sail while you enjoy the Manhattan-like skyline along the Embarcadero.

From here on, you have a number of options. You can power reach across the Slot to either the lee of Angel Island or the Tiburon Peninsula, where you can drop your hook for the afternoon or the whole evening and celebrate cheating death once again. Or you could slip around the backside of Yerba Buena and into Clipper Cove. If you're looking for a warm and gentle downwind run, keep right on going down the Oakland Estuary — an especially good destination if you happen to keep your boat there.
As you might have surmised by now, the secret to the Perfect Daysail is to get as far to weather as you're going to go before the wind really starts honking. (Most days, that's about 2 p.m., with max breeze around 4.) Remember to reef early and make sure your guests are dressed warmly — terrorizing chilly friends by sailing rail-down for extended periods is the fastest way to become a singlehander.

If you (or they) didn't bring warm enough clothes, definitely head for the warmest place on the Bay: the northeast (lee) side of Angel Island.

If you're not quite up to The Perfect Daysail yet, practice up on the lighter-air, flatter-water Richmond Riviera or behind Treasure Island/Yerba Buena. Enjoy!

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This story was reprinted from the May 2007 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with images in full color), use the subscription order form, and specify the 5/07 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: After a couple of years, the actual issue may no longer be available, but we will still be able to make photocopies or PDFs of it.

You can also see issues on eBook through our eBooks page.


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