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Bay Area Beatdown

We want to put another call out to any and everyone with a good sea story (or picture). Is anyone cruising the Channel Islands? Who’s doing unexpectedly well in their local beer cans? How are things looking in the Pacific Northwest this summer? We’d like to know.

Here’s our sea story du jour, or our most recent lesson learned: We are constantly being schooled by San Francisco Bay. As we’ve reported at length, our new editor was given a 1963 Columbia 24 last fall, and has been getting his feet wet sailing out of San Rafael. After having some problems with his outboard motor in the spring, he finally got a taste of proper Bay Area summer conditions this weekend. (Those motor "problems" were the result of having never flushed the engine, an issue first discovered when opening the owner’s manual to the first page, which stated, in no uncertain terms, FLUSH ENGINE AFTER EVERY USE. The boneheadedness offered an opportunity to learn some engine maintenance; we tore down the motor to liberate a salt-encrusted thermostat, cleaned and replaced parts, and managed to put it all back together in good working condition.)

Despite having phones and a camera, we have exactly zero pictures from our sail on Saturday. Needless to say, our hands were full. In our heads, it looked something like this.

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

On Saturday, the Bay was nuking. As we motored out of San Rafael around noon, the water was studded in white. This was probably my 20th sail since October, but only the second time with any real wind. We headed south with the ebb toward the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge on just the main to see how we handled the breeze. I’m not sure that was the smartest choice, as going out onto the bow in chunky, three-foot chop to attach the jib halyard was a little intense (I didn’t like having the halyard attached but slack and swinging loose). At this point, the wind was groaning through the rigging; it was a completely ominous, almost beastly sound.

The boat sailed nicely with a reefed main and 80% jib, but once we passed the bridge, it was Victory at Sea. My friend drove while I worked the main, having to luff it more often than not. Every five seconds we would smash into a wave and take torrents of water over the bow. We sailed on starboard toward Red Rock, then tacked to port, where the waves were a little more on the bow quarter, but it was never not intense. The violence of the boat — and the rhythmic, steady BA-BOOM! when we plowed into a wave every ten seconds or so — was completely humbling. Being the first time we had a soaking-wet cockpit, I was alarmed to find how slippery my precious footholds had become. I braced myself as best I could, and noticed that I’d cut my foot (probably on the base of the tiller), and was trickling blood all over the cockpit and mainsheet. We were getting our butts kicked.

We evaluated our game plan — the idea was to sail both ways with the tide, taking the ebb to Angel Island and riding the flood back to San Rafael. But that meant at least another 45 minutes in that gnarliness, and I wasn’t sure what the anchorages would look like at Angel given the breeze. It was time to abort; we high-tailed it back to the bridge on a dramatically more comfortable angle, though driving off the wind in such thick swell was no easy feat. An hour later we were anchored at China Camp for lunch, and licking our wounds.

A scene from China Camp in late April. Notice how green the hills are. 

© Latitude 38 Media, LLC

I wasn’t too worried about sailing against the flood, thinking there would be plenty of wind to sail against the tide. I’m not sure that was the smartest choice. As we weighed anchor (sailing away on the main), we noticed the jib halyard all the way up the mast. Whoops. We seemed to be making decent headway with just the main, so I started readjusting a spare halyard. But after about 40 minutes, we were in exactly the same spot, as if we’d been sailing on a treadmill. We finally raised the jib, but it didn’t make any difference. We had about an hour of daylight left, and had to fire up the motor.

Another scene from San Rafael Bay in April under dramatically calmer conditions, looking at the East Brother Light Station.

©2018 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

The waters were relatively flat in San Pablo Bay, but once we punched through the channel between the Sisters and Point San Pedro, it was full on again, and we were motoring dead upwind and up-current in 20 knots of wind with steep, three-foot seas. The boat’s motion was appalling, shaking everything to the core and sending buckets of water over the bow again. There were moments when I wondered if this was the smartest choice, and in the back of my head, I was thinking about an exit strategy. Should we go back to China Camp and anchor overnight?


But we eventually made (excruciatingly slow) progress, and there was nothing to do but bash into it for 40 minutes and think good thoughts about the motor. By the time we got back to the dock, it was completely dark, we were soaking wet, and we’d been thoroughly beat down by the Bay.

Have you been beaten up recently? As always, we’d like to hear.

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