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The Tables, and Ships, Are Turning in the Oakland Estuary

Last week, I was delivering my Columbia Challenger Esprit from San Rafael to Oakland, marking just the second time I’d made my way down the Estuary in a sailboat. Near the entrance, we saw that a container ship was turning behind Yerba Buena Island, rather than heading for the ‘parking lot’ of ships in the South Bay. Reaching toward the Estuary’s entrance, we decided to tack and let the ship pass in front of us before we transited the channel.

The crew had to pull out their phones to find the entrance to the Estuary, as I was headed for a maritime cul de sac on the north side of the Port of Oakland.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim
I’m not sure why I didn’t snap a photo of the ship — just to the left of this frame — entering the Estuary. I think I was enamored with being in this part of the Bay, and seeing the ‘back side’ of Treasure Island.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

We fired up the outboard as we slipped into the Estuary and motorsailed down the channel, keeping pace with the big ship, named the President Truman. This was a near-identical scenario to the last time my friend and I had sailed this stretch of water. In spring 2017, at the conclusion of that year’s Master Mariners Regatta, we were pacing another ship down the Estuary, and wondered why it had missed the port and was apparently heading for Alameda — and maybe the after party at Encinal Yacht Club.

Suddenly — in both 2017 and 2020 — the ships stopped, then began a slow, clockwise turn.

Round and round she goes . . .
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim
Where she stops . . . well, everyone probably has a good idea where she stops.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

In both instances, it was a tad unnerving to see a ship spinning in front of our tiny sailboats, but there’s obviously a plan, and a proper ‘basin’ where all this takes place, so that other boats have room to pass. With that said, it still all feels uncomfortably close to the un- or under-initiated. In addition, one must sail through the tugboat’s wash . . .

If we hadn’t had a motor going and the breeze had been light, I imagine we would have been turned around like a record on a DJ’s turntable. As it was, we all had to brace ourselves as the boat motorsailed through the turbulence.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

Anyway, got any Estuary stories? Please comment below, or write us here.


  1. Mark Simons 4 years ago

    yep, the Turnaround Basin. Amazing coordination from all vessels involved, but I’ve never been that close!

  2. Mark Caplin 4 years ago

    This is the recognized turning basin for large ships. Under Rule 9 you must give way to these vessels.

  3. Tim Dick 4 years ago

    Always stay away from active vessels operations, and especially ship turning basins where the wash can create a swirl that can suck you into the side of a ship. You’re lucky nothing bad occurred, such as your outboard deciding to take the afternoon off, as they sometimes do. PS – ships have right of way as they have limited maneuverability.

  4. Mike Bennett 4 years ago

    Since our boat lives in Alameda, we have seen this several times, including when we have stopped (well clear) and watched the whole turn-around process. Always very well choreographed between the big ship and the two to four tugs helping her.

  5. Lu Abel 4 years ago

    I was privileged to hear a talk by a SF Bay Bar Pilot (the guys who bring the ships in). The Turning Basin is 1400 ft long and some of the ships they turn in it are over 1200 ft long! If you do the math, ONE knot of speed is 100 feet per minute. Not much margin to turn one of these ships in the Turning Basin! The Pilot also told us that you sometimes see tugboats holding the ships back (!). They need the prop-wash to push water past their rudder, but don’t want to go tearing up the Estuary at five or six knots. I left the talk with a profound respect for the Pilots who bring ships into the Bay and safely dock them.

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