Exiting Chrysopylae … “The Golden Gate”

Also known as … is it safe to head out the gate?

For over two hundred years, the Golden Gate hid its existence from the Europeans transiting and exploring the coast of California by boat.  First “missed” by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in November 1542, the Golden Gate was discovered accidentally in November of 1769 by a land expedition working it’s way north along the San Francisco peninsula in an attempt to reach Point Reyes.  Needless to say, the one to two mile wide expanse of water moving into and out of what would become known as San Francisco Bay halted the successful completion of the mission.

In 1846, John C Freemont coined the name we now know.  In his memoirs he wrote “To this Gate I gave the name of ‘Chrysopylae’, or ‘Golden Gate’; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”  Freemont saw this as a “golden gate to trade with the orient.”  So, the name has nothing to do with the discovery of gold in California, or the famous bridge that spans its eastern end.

However, this is a sailing tip, not a history lesson or a linguistic exploration of the Greek word Chrysopylae, translated “Golden Gate.”  Instead, we will be looking at guidelines to follow while determining if and when it is safe to transit the Golden Gate, pass outside the line of demarcation, cross the San Francisco Bar, and sail the waters of the Gulf of the Farallons.  It is important to remember, these are guidelines which do not take into consideration your level of skill, the skill of your crew, or the seaworthiness of your vessel, all things that MUST be taken into consideration when sailing anywhere, anytime.

Gulf of the Farallones – Chart 19645


Water from the Pacific Ocean flows into (floods) and out of (ebbs) on a cycle that repeats itself twice each day.  In between each flood and ebb is a transition period referred to as slack water where there is relatively little movement of water.  Step one of deciding if it is safe to sail outside the gate is determining the best time to transit the gate.  To the untrained, the best time would seem to be during the ebb, so that you can ride the current out and get there quicker.  Unfortunately, that is actually the worst time to go.

One of the first things someone notices when approaching the bridge from the bay is that the water begins to “feel” different.  Less and less are you experiencing the wind driven waves and chop of the bay, and more and more you beginning to ride the swell coming in from the Pacific Ocean.  During an ebb, water moving out of the bay at velocities that can exceed 6 knots runs into swell coming into the bay resulting in increases in size and frequency.   A fact that is true of every river bar in the world.  Throw in San Francisco’s famous 25 knot winds and things get really interesting.

Instead, I prefer transiting the gate, in either direction, on the slack before the flood.  Second choice would be slack before the ebb, but get there a bit early.  You don’t want to get caught in transit during the ebb.  The flood would be next (makes for a slow trip out or a quick trip in) with the ebb being last.  If you must exit on an ebb, make it early in the morning before those breezes pick up.  Better yet, wait a few hours and go out on the next slack.  In the example shown, I would most likely leave Marina Bay about 10:30 to arrive at the bridge between 12:00 and 12:30.

Forecasts of the currents through the gate are found in tide books and online.

San Francisco Bar and Main Ship Channel

Coast Pilot 7, Chapter 7, contains a wealth of information about transiting the gate and crossing the bar.  The Coast Pilot Index if found at
Click on California to bring up Coast Pilot 7.  Unless otherwise indicated, all references to the Coast Pilot are from Coast Pilot 7, Chapter 7 (CP 7:7).

CP 7:7 Item 43, describes the San Francisco Bar as:

“a semicircular shoal with depths less than 36 feet, is formed by silt deposits carried to the ocean by the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems. The bar extends from 3 miles south of Point Lobos to within 0.5 mile of Point Bonita off the southern coast of Marin Peninsula; the extreme outer part is about 5 miles west-southwest of San Francisco Bay entrance. Potatopatch Shoal the north part of the bar on Fourfathom Bank has depths from 24 to 28 feet.”

The San Francisco Bar is the light blue areas of shallow water shown in the excerpt from the Entrance to San Francisco Bay chart above.  It is approximately 8 miles from the bridge to the last buoy through the Main Ship Channel (G “1” Iso G 6s BELL).  Expect it to take 2 hours (plus or minus) to transit the gate and cross the bar.

CP 7:7 Item 45 and 46 contain a warning:

Very dangerous conditions develop over the bar whenever large swells, generated by storms far out at sea, reach the coast. A natural condition called shoaling causes the large swells to be amplified and increase in height when they move over the shallow water shoals. This piling up of the water over the shoals is worsened during times when the tidal current is flowing out (ebbing) through the Golden Gate. Outbound tidal current is strongest about 4 hours after high water at the Golden Gate Bridge and attains a velocity in excess of 6 knots at times. The incoming large swells are met by outbound tidal current causing very rough and dangerous conditions over the bar. Steep waves to 20 or 25 feet have been reported in the area. Mariners should exercise extreme caution as the bar conditions may change considerably in a relatively short period of time.

The most dangerous part of the San Francisco Bar is considered to be Fourfathom Bank. Bonita Channel, between the shoal and the Marin coast, can also become very dangerous during large swell conditions. The safest part of the bar is the Main Ship Channel through the center of the bar. But even that area can be extremely dangerous when the tidal current is ebbing.

CP 7:7 Items 149 through 152 discuss currents in the area.  In essence, the ebb goes straight out, and begins to fan as it goes across the bar.  However, the main strength of the current runs parallel to the south edge of Potatopatch Shoal, and through the Main Ship channel.  The flood runs straight in, with a slight set to the north shore.  Heavy rips and overfalls can be found at each of the four corners of the Golden Gate (Lime Point at the north tower of the bridge, Fort Point and the south end of the bridge, Point Lobos near Mile Rocks, and Pt Bonita to the northwest)   Overfalls at Point Bonita can extend 1/4 mile south into the strait. Eddys, rips, and overfalls can be extreme near the south tower of the bridge, and can cause even large ships to veer off course.

Once through the gate, crossing the bar through the Main Ship Channel is generally safest.

A  forecast of conditions across the bar and through the Main Ship Channel is at:   https://marine.weather.gov/MapClick.php?zoneid=pzz545#.

Point 1 on safety out the gate:  Time your exit to minimize the impact of dangerous currents.  Generally, the slack before flood is best.

Channels across the San Francisco Bar

There are two channels across the San Francisco Bar.

  • The Main Ship Channel
  • Bonita Channel

If you are headed north, the buoyed Bonita Channel (about 1/3 mile wide), which proceeds north after passing Point Bonita, is approximately 1/4 mile off a steep, rocky lea shore and should only be used with fair weather and seas.  It is often said, “If the fishing boats are not there, you should not be either.”  I have personally seen waves breaking across Bonita Channel when conditions in the Main Ship Channel were relatively comfortable.

If you are headed West or South (or if headed north in less than optimal conditions) use the Main Ship Channel.  As mentioned earlier, forecast sea conditions for that day can be found online at https://marine.weather.gov/MapClick.php?zoneid=pzz545#

The South Channel  (aka; the one that isn’t there!)

Several years ago, a popular cruising book author indicated there was an unmarked channel to the south running about .7 miles off shore, which could be used in fair weather.  Unfortunately, the South Channel does not exist and its use continues nearly every year to claim vessels and lives.  The mythical South Channel lies off a lea shore where the bottom slopes continuously from deep water to the shoreline.  Just the conditions needed to create a surf break.  A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a much better sailor than I am nearly lost his boat in this area.  He was arriving from the South, a few miles offshore, when conditions (wind and waves) began pushing him to leaward while crossing the bar.  Near the end of his bar crossing, he was convinced he would be driven ashore.  Only his experience and skill saved him.  The moral of the story … stick to he Main Ship Channel.

Point 2 on safety out the gate:  Use the Main Ship Channel in all but the most benign of conditions where Bonita Channel is an option, and under no circumstances use the mythical South Channel.

Conditions Outside the Bar

Conditions encountered outside the bar determine safety and comfort during a sail outside the gate.

Track forecasts for several days or a week prior to your planned trip.  Look at weather forecasts, check for wind expectations, and track swell models.  Several links will be provided below to help.  Unfortunately, links change over time.  My hope is this links will still be live when you read this, however, I can’t guarantee it.  However, I am sure there will be others to replace them, which with a little effort on your part can be found.

First a couple of definitions:

Combined Seas (generally referred to as Seas)
The combination of wind waves and swell, without considering each component part separately.  For example, today’s forecast is for:  NW winds 15 to 25 kt with gusts up to 30 kt this morning. Wind waves 3 to 5 ft. W swell around 3 ft at 12 seconds. patchy fog this morning.  This particular forecast doesn’t mention the 1 foot secondary swell coming from SW at 16 seconds.  I know it is there, so I will be adding it in.

Take the 5 ft from the 3 to 5 ft wind waves, add to it the 3 ft primary swell at 12 seconds, and the 1 ft secondary swell for a forecast combined seas of 9 feet at 12 seconds.

Significant Wave Height 
The average wave height (trough to crest) of the highest third of the waves.  Using a different internet source in the example below, you can see that today’s forecast is for SWH of 6 ft at 12 seconds, increasing later today to 7 ft at 11 seconds.

Every sailor’s skill and experience level is different, as are the levels of each member of your crew.  These are two things that should always be primary in making the decision to proceed outside the gate.  In my case, I use the follow criteria:

  1. Combined Seas greater than 12 feet; or
  2. Period less than 9 seconds; or
  3. Significant Wave Height equal to or greater than Primary Swell ( E.G. 9 ft at 9 seconds or less, or 11 ft at 11 seconds or less); or
  4. Wind (including gusts) greater than 33 knots; equals a decision not to go (No Go).

Looking at today’s forecast … Seas 9 feet, Period 9 seconds, Significant Wave Height 6 at 12 seconds, wind NW 15-25 gust to 30 … everything looks OK.  The gusts to 30 might be of some concern, however, it is within my personal guideline.
Note:  Tradewinds uses the same guidelines when deciding to approve a member request for a sail outside the gate.

Forecasts are great, however, to be safe, I would get current conditions by checking a report from the San Francisco Buoy   https://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=46026

5-day plot - Wind Direction Wind Direction (WDIR): NW ( 320 deg true )
5-day plot - Wind Speed Wind Speed (WSPD): 13.6 kts
5-day plot - Wind Gust Wind Gust (GST): 17.5 kts
5-day plot - Significant Wave Height Significant Wave Height (WVHT): 5.6 ft
5-day plot - Swell Height Swell Height (SwH): 4.6 ft
5-day plot - Swell Period Swell Period (SwP): 7.7 sec

and a swell model   http://cdip.ucsd.edu/?nav=recent&sub=nowcast&xitem=sf

With the exception of the period, everything at the buoy seems better than forecast, and I know from past experience that the period provided in the buoy report isn’t just the primary swell I look at, it is more of a total of primary and secondary swells.  It quite often is less than 9 seconds without bothering me.  As long at it is greater than the wave height I am good.

Point 3 on safety out the gate:  Seas 12 feet or less, Period 9 seconds or greater, SWH less than period length, winds less than 34 knots.

A final thought before I provide you with a list of reference links.   During the planning stages of the Advanced Coastal Cruising class, the class is asked to track weather and sea state for several days before departure.  No later than 3pm on the day before we leave the dock each person is to submit a Go/No Go recommendation for the following morning.  It isn’t unusual that the conditions result in a No Go recommendation.  The requirements are pretty straight forward, so the vast majority of class members make the correct recommendation … then, about half of them follow the No Go recommendation with a “but, I am willing to do it because I know there is an instructor on board.”

My question is this … knowing that Tradewinds has established these criteria as an outside limit for safety, why would I (you can put your name here also) be willing to risk my life, the lives of my crew, and that of my vessel just to provide an experience that is outside safety guidelines.  If you are a student in any sailing class, one of the things your instructor will be looking at while deciding to certify you is if you posses the mental consciousness required to be a Captain.  Do you?  Because, the role of Captain, is a very serious role that you take on.


Here is a list of the links used above.


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Coast Piloting Part I – Dead Reckoning

I’m not a fan of the term Coastal Navigation.  It has become quite popular over the past several years, however, it’s a bit too vague to properly describe the process of safely operating a vessel in coastal waters.  The proper term, used for at least two centuries, is Coast Piloting.  Piloting is navigation which involves determining the position of a vessel relative to geographical/terrestrial reference points.  With coast piloting, the reference points can be visually seen and then identified or matched to a reference on a chart of the area. To be able to identify that point on a chart requires you to have a pretty good idea of where you are to start with.

As an example, a chart of Drakes Bay in Northern California looks very much like San Quintin Bay in Mexico, over 600 miles to the southeast.  Not having a general idea of where you are will result in some major errors in navigation.  15 miles south of Drakes Bay, 5 miles offshore, is safe water nearing the approach to The Golden Gate.  15 miles south of San Quintin, 5 miles offshore, is the Sacramento Reef, one of the most dangerous reefs on the pacific coast.  Not a good mistake to make.  The answer to having a good idea of where you are is Dead Reckoning (aka DR, Deduced Reckoning, or Ded Reckoning,) which is the primary topic of this tip.

Dead Reckoning is determining the position of a vessel by applying the ship’s course and speed to the last known accurate position (fix.) An ongoing plot of course, speed, time, and distance is marked on a chart, resulting in an approximate vessel position. A DR position is an approximate position, not allowing for the effects of tide, current, wind, helms person error or compass error.  Whenever possible, the DR position must be updated to a more accurate fix, using bearings to visible objects and other lines of position that might be available.

A DR plot requires a known starting point, and is referred to as “taking departure.”  This would be your last known accurate position fix, and is marked on the chart with a ⊗ as well as the time (noted horizontally on the chart).  The size of the circle represents the degree of accuracy of the fix.  This, and subsequent “expansion circles” around later DR positions indicate all possible positions of the vessel, and will be discussed further below.

Items to be included in the plot are:

  • Time of each DR and/or fix position using 4 digit military time with no punctuation (e.g. 0800 or 1500)
  • Time is written horizontally for fixes, and diagonally for DR positions
  • Course line (carried out for two extimated future DR positions)
  • Above the course line, the letter C followed by the 3 digit course in degrees true for the ordered course (e.g. C 165).  The letter T is not needed.  Although many professional navigators will disagree, it is not recommended that courses are designated in degrees magnetic.
  • Vessel speed in knots (e.g. S 5)

Update the DR plot at least:

  • Once an hour, on the hour
  • At every course (or speed) change
  • Any time a line of position is established

At every fix (including running fixes) the DR plot should be reset and a new DR plot  begun.

In this example taken from day two of the Tradewinds Advanced Coastal Cruising class,  departure was taken at the Pillar Point safe water buoy [RW “PP” Mo (A)] at 0900, on a course of 300 degrees true to pass just to the SW of Southeast Farallon Island.  Speed was set at 5 knots.  Visibility due to haze/thin fog was estimated to be approximately 1 mile, therefore, no identifiable features would be available to take a bearing until arrival at Southeast Farallon.

As a precautionary measure, the navigator assumed a possible steering error of 5 degrees, and created an expansion circle around each DR position.  Knowing that a traffic separation zone would be reached approximately 7.5 miles into the planned course, and would require nearly an hour to cross, the watch was notified to pay special attention to possible commercial traffic from 1030 to 1130.

Estimated time of arrival off Southeast Farallon was 1400.  At 1345, Southeast Farallon Light was sighted through the haze, and a bearing of 338 degrees magnetic was taken.  Variation was applied, and a bearing of 352 was laid out on the chart, providing a single line of position.  A depth of 180 feet was noted, providing a second line of position, and a fix obtained.  Based on the fix, the average speed over ground was 5.2 knots, and the steering error was only 2 degrees.  The DR was reset to the new fix, and the remainder of the trip to Drakes Bay plotted.  C 316 for 24 minutes, followed by a turn to C 012. Estimated time of arrival at the entrance to Drakes Bay 1745.


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A fellow Tradewinds instructor asked me the other day why we say “Roger” on the radio to confirm we’ve received a message. Why Roger, and not Reginald, or for that matter, Hermione?
If you go cruising you’ll probably want to learn the phonetic alphabet so you can spell your boat name and perhaps your HAM call sign in a way that can be understood in foreign ports. I can still quickly rattle off “kilo-golf-six-echo-uniform-delta,” sometimes involuntarily at inappropriate moments. However, even if you memorize this way of spelling things, you won’t find any “Roger” among the Mikes, Juliets, and Charlies. But this wasn’t always the case.
“Roger” is a holdover from the phonetic alphabet used by the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force prior to 1956, at which time he was replaced by “Romeo” to represent the letter “R.” In addition to changing “Roger” to “Romeo,” “Able” was replaced by “Alpha,” “Baker” was replaced by “Bravo,” and “Easy” was replaced by “Echo.” There were some additional changes due to fuzzy comprehension by speakers of Texan, Bostonian, Bronxish, Liverpudlian, and other languages, until the alphabet was adopted internationally. The current phonetic alphabet with “Romeo” was adopted by the International Commission for Air Navigation in 1956, by the International Telecommunication Union in 1959, and then by the International Maritime Organization in 1965.
During WWII, the phonetic “Roger” was used to indicate R for “Received” in radio usage. Apparently no one wished to change it to “Romeo” after combat ended and the alphabet changed, with the result that what we have today is a small tribute to the Second World War. So when you say “Roger,” remember those heroes of Normandy and Okinawa, the Po Valley, and the Ardennes Forest.

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Tradewinds Checkouts

We require our members to be “Checked Out” on every boat before they can reserve it. Some may view it as an extra chore or hurdle that is time consuming and annoying, but there are several reasons we do checkouts and several reasons that members benefit from us doing them the way we do. Here’s a list for you to ponder:

  1. Checkouts are FREE CLASSES! Only for members of course, but you get to spend 2 hours with an instructor, learning about boat systems and practicing some close quarters maneuvering and boat handling!
  2. Checkouts make you practice skills that you don’t always practice when you go sailing.
  3. Checkouts allow us to run the place with only two people on weekends! They make our members more self-sufficient and reduce the number of Saturday morning calls about boat systems as everyone is getting ready to leave. Reducing weekend staff keeps the cost down and is part of what allows us to continue to offer unlimited sailing plans to our members.
  4. Checkouts allow us to keep track of our members skill levels. By spending a couple of hours with each member each time they do a checkout, we get to evaluate ourselves and see how training is progressing.

Here are some tips for you, to make sure are getting the most out of checkouts (and that we are, too!):

  1. TAKE NOTES! We are constantly fielding phone calls asking whether a specific boat has a chart plotter, a bimini, a dodger, a BBQ, etc. If you have notes about each boat you’ve checked out on, you’ll have these answers on hand, even when we are closed and you have no one to ask!
  2. Print out the boat diagrams before you come to the checkout – or at least download them to your mobile device. They are all available on the members message board under “Technique/Boat Info”. If you print them, you can use them to take notes as well!
  3. Show up on time! There are other members in the checkout and you are taking up their time, not just your own, by being late or being in a hurry to leave.
  4. Check out on every boat you can – whether you think you want to sail it or whether it is in your fleet or not. Being checked out on more boats will make more last minute availability for you and give us more options when a boat is not working. It may mean the difference between getting out on the water or having to cancel.

Get checked out!

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Whales In The Bay

I don’t like whales. I mean … I love them, but I really don’t like them.  I am trying to remember the last time I took a class, or non sailing friends to the area around the Golden Gate Bridge where someone didn’t express a hope that they would see whales on the trip, and every time I hear it, I hear myself saying, “please, no whales.”  After one close encounter, and one “oh s***, what was that?” I much prefer whales at a distance rather than up close and personal.

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of whales seen east of the Golden Gate Bridge, which depending on how you look at it may be a blessing or a curse.  I love the fact that the health of the bay has improved to such a point that wildlife viewing events that were rare fifteen years ago are common place today.  Sadly, anytime you mix wildlife with human activities, problems are bound to happen.  Whales are an excellent example.  Here are a few rules designed to help keep you and these magnificent animals safe.

  1. Be alert and avoid disturbing whales.
  2. Never approach closer than 100 yards.
  3. If you don’t have a choice, and find a whale has surfaced closer than 100 yards, start looking for a way to exit the area. “Let’s get closer and take a look,” is not the right choice.
  4. Do not maintain a course that will take you across the path of a whale.  However, try to avoid erratic course changes and speed adjustments.
  5. DO NOT get between two whales, especially if one of them is little and the other is big!
  6. Do make some noise.  A boat under sail is very quiet.  Both close calls I had with whales happened while under sail.  I personally think a whale can hear a prop turning under power, and they tend to stay a bit further away.  If you see whales surfacing nearby, start the motor and get the prop turning.  You might also grab a winch handle and start tapping the deck.

Something else to consider doing is advising the Coast Guard (specifically Vessel Traffic Services) that there are whales actively feeding inside the bay.  Please do not notify the Coast Guard using VHF channel 16.  It works, however, it will also get every dingbat in a 2 mile radius headed that way.  My favorite example of this is the time someone made a whale report using channel 16.  This lead a “good Samaritan” in a power boat to come to where the whales were feeding, and then proceed to spend the next hour following them around, chasing away every boater that got “too close,” and chastising everyone listening on 16 about how everyone needed to leave the whales alone. The irony of course is that he was the only one acting in a inappropriate manner.  The Coast Guard eventually had to send a patrol boat to “escort” the good Samaritan away.  Instead, call the report in on Channel 14, the channel used by the Vessel Traffic Services group within the Coast Guard to control large vessel and passenger vessel service on the bay.  Be professional.  Wait for a break in radio traffic and make the hail by saying “Vessel Traffic Services this is the sailing vessel …”  When they respond, make the report, and provide as accurate a location as possible.  Simply saying that there are whales in the bay doesn’t work, tell them where.

In closing,  no, the whales are not watching out for you.  You need to watch out for them.  You are not even a speck on their “radar”.  They spend their entire life diving and surfacing, and never coming up under a boat, until 0300 hours a little north of Monterrey when the boat I was on was physically lifted into the air several feet, and rotated nearly 90 degrees, by what I suspect was a whale surfacing under me.  No, I have no proof, I never saw or heard anything, however, nothing else makes sense.  Give these magnificent and very large animals some space, and I promise, you will enjoy your encounters every bit as much as if you are right there.

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Skipper Tip, Lee Shores

“Lee Shore” is a term you learn in your very first ASA course, Basic Keel Boat. How often do we really think about our relationship to a lee shore when we are out sailing? Inexperienced sailors in particular should try to be very aware of lee shores and obstacles. More experienced sailors have probably already made a mistake or had a mishap in their past that will keep them well clear.

Always give yourself an out. Look ahead at where you will be and think, “What’s going to happen if I am in that spot and I lose engine power or miss a tack?” If you miss that critical tack and are now drifting downwind, how much room do you have before you encounter an obstacle or run aground? Sailing close to large lee obstacles such as tall buildings or moored Victory-Ships can also do strange things to your wind and actually assist in the missed tack!

Don’t learn the hard way, learn from those who have had the close calls before you! If you have a choice, take the upwind side of the channel, marina entrance, and especially sail upwind of this…


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Skipper’s Tip, Reefing Underway

Reefing Underway

With the summer winds starting to blow, we thought we’d touch upon this very important subject. Allowing the sails to flog for extended periods greatly shortens sail life and leads to torn batten pockets and lost or broken battens. The noise & perceived confusion during the evolution can also lead to the fraying of other things, such as tempers & patience! We recommend practicing at the dock or in an upwind slip before you head out so shorten the time that reefing underway will take and get your crew pre-trained before you need to reef out on the bay. Before you start, take a look at all of the lines that will be needed and prepare them so that they will run free and not tangle with each-other. A well-practiced crew should be able to reef down in less than a couple of minutes if all lines are prepared before starting. Follow these steps to keep things running smoothly:

  1. Prepare all lines & assign crew-member duties.
  2. Bring the jib in tight and put yourself on a close-haul – not head-to-wind (It’s amazing how often we ask people about reefing and the first thing they tell us is “Go head to wind”. Never give up control of your boat to the elements if you can avoid it). If your reefing lines are on the boom, pay attention to which side they are on. Sometimes it is easier to reef a boat on a particular tack so that you have access to all of the lines.
  3. Pay out the main-sheet until there is no pressure on the mainsail. Most boats will try to head down at this point, so make sure the helmsman is expecting it and holds a course as close to close-hauled as possible.
  4. Check the topping lift! Always inspect the topping lift before you release the halyard.
  5. Lower the main halyard while tightening the tack reef line – or if the boat has dog-bones and hooks, lower the halyard enough to hook the tack at the desired reef point. On boats with single-line reefing systems, it often helps to pay out the halyard as you pull in the reef line.
  6. Tighten your main halyard.
  7. Pull in the clew reef line. Don’t forget to make sure the boom vang & main sheet are loose enough to allow the boom to move up to the sail. Remember you are not lowering the sail at this point, but raising the boom!
  8. Haul on the main-sheet and you are back under-way with a reefed main.

If you have a skipper’s tip to share or have a particular subject that you’d like us to write one about, please forward it to Matt@TradewindsSailing.com!

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On Teaching Sailing

“True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”
Nikos Kazantzakis

So, we all go to school as part of socializing into civilized life and maybe we learn something.  We continue to possibly go to university or trade school, and, often with tension, in hope of a future job in mind, and some of us like schooling and only a few truly find a love from the learning, at least from what I see, having been a university teacher for most of my life.  Besides teaching, I personally do have a maritime history behind me and have been sailing for some time now, so I thought I would transfer my skills to teaching sailing, of which I do now at Tradewinds, and these are some reflections on the teaching of sailing based on my first class which just recently happened.

I have had many wonderful times teaching English and Interdisciplinary Studies and I do have a love for the profession, but teaching sailing is much on a different level.  Yes, one has to get across information and technique but something more goes on beyond any traditional classroom.  Teacher and student are with each other for the duration of the class: in a classroom setting, on a boat moving and sailing away from the comforts of land (sometimes in heavy winds), taking lunch together, chatting about life while always keeping in mind lessons in sail trim, docking and undocking the boat, learning rules of the road, operating the engine, talking about aids to navigation, and it goes on.  In other words, much is happening and at every moment the teacher needs to be alert while imbuing this sense of alertness to the students.  The student is learning a new language, new bodily motor skills, and new awareness not found on land.  As for the first-time instructor, like myself, I am also learning the language of teaching sailing.  It is possible that I am learning more than my students are learning from me.

Other than all of what goes on, what makes teaching sailing very different is that students come not out of necessity but out of love (mostly)—for the sea, for the challenge, for an elixir from the tensions on land, for therapeutic purposes, or for the purpose to escape demanding purposes.  Rarely, if ever, does one come to achieve a better career or get a job; this is not what it is all about.  It is more often to escape the job.  There are statistics to say that most people do not like their jobs, so coming to sailing is like going to a different world, as a child visits Disneyland.  Of course, a thirty-knot wind is not very Disney-like, nor are fifteen-foot swells, but now we are getting existential and entering the sublime.  I mention this in that sailing is so much more than going with the winds; it is a way of life with much growth that continues for the duration of life, and the new student learns little by little, but the first steps are the basic classes, in particular Basic Keelboat.

From my observation, the BKB class is when the student discovers the dharma within, meaning duty to one’s inner self in relation to the sea and the sea is a magnet for us all, from where we all came.  Let me give you a parable to how this comes to mean:

A person is observing a sage sitting by the running water.  This person observes that a scorpion fell into the water from a hanging branch.  The sage picks up the scorpion and places it on the ground and then the scorpion stings the sage.  The same scorpion climbs the same branch and falls in the water again.  The same sage picks up the scorpion from the water and, again, the scorpion stings.  The observer asks the sage why pick up the scorpion again after it stings you.  The sage replies that it is the dharma of the scorpion to sting and it is the dharma of the human to save.

            Without a doubt, the students I taught all had that inner duty to sail and connect with the wind.  Something other than the cognitive mind lured them to sailing.  Though mistakes were made their journey with the sea began and I feel blessed that I was there to help them.  They were one-hundred percent there but sometimes they would drift off to an imagined future of advanced sailing and my job was to bring them back to present reality, meaning you need to tack, and now.

At the end of each of the three days I felt an elation from not so much being a good teacher but rather being able to take part of it all while learning myself.  After that class, I felt myself a better sailor as I believe they did.  We all learn from each other and when this happens we begin to play, which is a form of learning.  Children learn from their play.  As soon as they stop playing they cease to learn.  We should never give up the element of childlike play.  When that happens, we cease to progress in life.  More, each movement they made was a movement for learning better sailing and with each movement it was lesson for the teacher.  Though I am a new teacher I am sure that most other teachers out there continue to learn, no matter how advanced they may be.

As a teacher I consider myself lucky, and here I will give credit to Tradewinds, a true place of learning.  First let me make note that prior to teaching sailing, one must have a Coast Guard Captain’s License and then get certification as a teacher in the American Sailing Association.  Once Tradewinds hires you, the trainee must first shadow a class, and one is able to do this as many times as needed, but more, on my actual first class being taught a seasoned teacher went along as a mentor; this is for all new teachers and this is very important.  Such a sequence puts focus on the Student/Teacher relationship on a high level bringing forth understanding more than distance.  One’s mistakes will be seen and correction can be made, and is it not through mistakes that we learn?  Any good teacher will have to admit that teaching is a learning process and I would imagine for the mentor it is also a learning process.  To have an experienced instructor along is to allow the newer instructor to be more relaxed.  The mentor also takes note of the many nuances that need correction.  For me it was time management; there is much to cover and one has to move on and not linger on one or two maneuvers.

Of course, I noticed, as it was pointed out, that I was not always using proper ASA language.  When one gets used to sailing steady with a crew, one often uses a private language.  It is so important to use the correct terminology for the sake of proper and efficient communications.  Another flaw was that I was not always speaking loud enough with the wind and sometimes the student did not hear me.  This was an awakening in that I am used to carrying my voice in large spaces, but maybe I was speaking more into the wind rather than the student’s face.

So, what did I do well?  I did get intricate on how to properly tack and jibe and tried to instruct the best I could a COB, but time was running short.  We also sat around after the three days and discussed what could be improved in all ways, including the instruction.  The feeling was positive but corrections were put forth in a very constructive way.  Will they perform a perfect COB in the next class?  Maybe yes, because the students will work together prior to that next class.  When studying something new, one needs discourse along with instruction.  I prompted them to continue to sail together and after the class they all agreed.  As a team they have the same points-of-reference and will reflect off each other via Tradewinds which always has some kind of discourse for learning sailing.  The students are signing up as members and any teacher who gets them will have a good class.  I await my next class.

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Downwind Slip Skipper’s Tip!

Got the blues leaving the downwind slips?

With the onset of summer and the steady winds, we’ve seen a few close calls in the fairway. This looks like a great time to publish a docking skipper’s tip!

When backing out of a downwind slip (wind is blowing into the slip), our Tradewinds acronym L.O.T. is absolutely critical.

Location – should be the far side of the fairway from your slip – as far upwind from the slip as you can safely be.

Orientation – the boat should be as close to perpendicular to the slip (bow is pointed down the fairway) as possible before we make our…

Transition – transition to forward motion (motion, not gear – the gear change happens while we are still moving backward, and we need to remember to steer based on the direction of motion, not the gear we are in!) should be accomplished with enough forward throttle and rudder adjustment to keep the boat pointed in the right direction. Stronger wind will require more throttle and/or rudder to accomplish this, while in light winds we can use very little of either and do fine.

Here are some diagrams to help with the explanation (click them for a larger view):

In this image, our Location is great – the safer, upwind side of the fairway. Unfortunately, our Orientation is not good (our bow is pointed at the docks). Since our boat steers from the stern, we can’t get our bow around before the wind takes us back to the other side of the fairway and into the docks. If we find ourself in position 3 above, we should consider driving back into the slip and starting over rather than trying to make the difficult Transition and turn against the wind forcing our bow down. In this image, our Orientation is good (bow pointed in the right direction), but we’ve already made a large mistake in our Location (the downwind side of the fairway). Making the Transition from postion 3 is a bad idea and will result in being blown back into the docks. If we are in this position, the safest way to attempt recovery is to continue to back with enough speed to steer to the upwind side of the fairway in reverse before making our Transition to forward motion. In this example, we are Located on the safe, upwind side of the fairway, our Orientation is in the correct direction, perpendicular to the docks (bow pointed down the fairway), and we have plenty of room and time to make a smooth Transition to forward motion and exit the docks. Well done!
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Being Underway: Advancement to Basics

So here we look at the basics of being underway and what to do even prior to raising the sail but let us first look at what is meant by basics.  To revert to the basics is to not only reflect on the foundations of what you are doing but also become a little humble, and we all need to be humbler in this hyper-intense world.  If we do not practice the foundations of the sailing that we do, we then lose touch.  More, to ignore the basics is to possibly develop a belligerent attitude of “I know what I am doing and my way has always worked.”  Such an attitude is not conducive to learning, and the wise person is always open to learning.  A belligerent attitude can actually be dangerous for sailing a boat.  In a way, to be aware of the basics is to have continual correction in that it opens up new ways of improving skills, and this is not just for sailing but for any aspect of life.


Tradewinds always stresses the basics in whatever one does and even suggests taking courses, such as docking, more than once.  The special aspect of being a member of Tradewinds is that a person can pay one fee and sail every day of the month on any of the boats and only with practice do we get better, especially while keeping the basics in mind.  So here is a scenario:

A long-time member, who started with the smaller Capris, has been sailing larger boats for some time.  This same person will often say in conversation that s/he has not sailed the Capris for some time and that maybe has even forgotten how to start the engine.  Actually, this person might even brag of not going back to the basics.


From my point of view, anyone who wants to continually improve skills needs to take out these Capris every few months to make corrections in obvious flaws, and we all have flaws no matter how good we think we are.  More, by sailing these smaller boats it will make you better on the larger boats in that wind awareness, currents, tides, etc. are more pronounced in that you are closer to the water with not such a powerful engine.


So back to leaving the dock, one truly needs to know the force and direction of the wind well before raising the sail.  Always have wind awareness.  You might be leaving while being close to another vessel to the leeward, and that could mean a rub or even crash.  In leaving a berth with the larger boats that have much freeboard there is always a danger of being blown to the other side of the fairway or even to the same side that you left.  Such a basic is often forgotten by many, just as many of us forget to lock the house prior to leaving or forgetting to turn off the stove.  Also, with any kind of docking or departing one must relax, and this does not mean slouching.  To relax is to see one’s whole surroundings and it is what I call part of the moving meditative form of sailing, of which I would like to write about another time.


Along with the wind, one needs to know the direction and strength of the currents and when is low and high tide.  Do check the tide book or better, have someone come on board prepared with the various currents in different places throughout the bay at the different times.  If you are sailing with a steady crew, such could be one of the jobs giving purpose.  When sailing each crew member must have purpose; it makes a crew stronger and better at sailing as well as creates good discourse.  Having such a purpose as knowing the tides and currents leads to conversation and that person becomes a kind of quartermaster, always letting the crew know what direction and force the water is moving.  The new sailor gains much from talk of better sailing.  Of course, the skipper needs to be well aware of this but another mind at work can only enhance the sail, and the skipper might learn something as well.


Now speaking of purpose, at all times there needs to be a lookout.  Even when all seems smooth, the bay always has surprises, such as flotsam and jetsam.  Basically, flotsam is debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by crew of another boat.  Either/or, it is all debris that can cause damage to the boat.  The purpose of a lookout is most important as there is so much movement on the water at all times.  A good lookout sees the boat being set towards an oncoming buoy or sees that tanker, though far away, which is travelling at fifteen knots.  What looks like safe distance can be an illusion.  Also, the lookout starts as soon as the boat leaves the dock maybe letting the helmsperson know when the bow is clear.


Another basic is awareness of lines, to see if any lines are hanging off the boat or are about to fall.  Quite often the jib furling line is loosely wrapped around the stern pulpit; it can fall off and catch on the prop, thus danger.  A good idea is to get all lines that will be used for raising the sail ready prior to leaving the dock.  One never knows when these lines will need to be used in an emergency.  It is for this reason that we attach the halyard to the head of the sail prior to leaving the dock, while putting it under one of the closer sail ties, so that the sail can be released at a moment’s notice.  An awareness that is most important is to not leave lines tangled on deck.  One can trip, or worse, get a foot caught in a tangle.  A good habit is to secure the lines to be ready but off the deck, and this includes the jib sheet.


There are many things to be aware on board, one being to keep fingers away from lines wrapped around a winch.  When raising sails keep the bottom part of the hand above the winch when wrapping it around and stir the line clockwise around as if you are stirring soup or stew.  Fingers can be lost, especially when the sails are full; there is much pressure.  Another good idea is to take off rings and jewelry when working with lines, and that even goes for a watch.  You will be surprised what gets caught on what.


So, what I have for the basics prior to putting up sail are:

  • to know the force and direction of the wind.
  • there needs to be a lookout.
  • awareness of lines.
  • to keep fingers away from lines wrapped around a winch.


That the number four is not the best, especially if you understand the significance of the number in Chinese, I am going to give a fifth one and that is do not rush when setting up the boat and the same for when putting it away.  Get to the boat early and just look at it all and do your check with ease rather than might so that the obvious does not escape you.  This is also the same when putting the boat away.  Sometimes it is good, if you are the skipper, to let your crew leave, after helping you secure the boat, and just stay with the boat on your own sans any distractions.  In other words, be most reflective and you might find a balance, which is what sailing is all about.  Again, I welcome any comments on something that I missed or a correction on anything I have written.  Life is but a learning process, and this is especially true with sailing.

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