By Mike Holmes
Farallon Patrol – Replenishing an Island Outpost
By: Mike Holmes
I had the opportunity to sail to the Farallon Islands recently as part of an “essential services” trip to replenish supplies and personnel that work on the island. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I have boated and sailed all over the world but I have never been out to the Farallon Islands. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
The islands are part of the City and County of San Francisco and managed by the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife in conjunction with the non-profit Point Blue Conservation Science. At any given time, there are five to eight scientists living on the island conducting field research on the mammals and birds that use the island for a breeding habitat. Point Blue utilizes volunteer boats to shuttle biologists and supplies to and from the island year-round. These supply missions are called “Patrol Runs”.
The weather in mid-May should have been relatively benign, with a higher potential for fog than during the winter months. However, a low system was forecast to come through the Bay Area and the trip, scheduled for a Sunday, was not confirmed until eighteen hours before departure. With the weather window now looking promising, we received the “GO” notice from Point Blue on Saturday afternoon.
Sunday morning, my alarm goes off at 0415. I’m not quite sure the last time I woke up this early. I’m out the front door of my house at 0445 and arrive at the Sausalito Yacht Harbor at 0510. It was raining when I left my house and driving over the Richmond San Rafael Bridge, but it has subsided now. Hopefully it won’t be too wet of a morning.
Due to COVID-19, our essential trip to restock the island was approved by the local police department, otherwise they would not have allowed us to park at the marina. The entire area had been gated off but we were granted permission to park. During the entire trip were to follow a strict protocol on wearing face masks and utilizing hand sanitizer. In addition, the boat crew were not permitted to step foot onto the island.
I greet the owner of the boat at “C” dock and he gives me an introduction to his boat, a 1980’s Beneteau 350. It’s perfect for the type of work we were setting out on. A few minutes later and another crew member arrives followed by the three biologists from Point Blue. We proceeded to load the boat.
Their gear consisted of x7 five-gallon propane bottles, ten large plastic boxes the size of large ice chests, x15 five gallon “Home Depot” style buckets filled with food, and all of their personal gear. These biologists were headed out to spend anywhere from five to seventeen weeks on the island. The biologists that we were bringing back had spent anywhere from twelve to eighteen weeks on the island. The Patrol Run frequency varies but the next scheduled trip out to replenish the island with supplies was not for another month after our trip out.
We left the dock at 0600 for the thirty nautical mile trip offshore. Low clouds persisted out past Point Bonita but visibility was still good to fair. The storm front that came through the night before left a decent sea state, with the Potato Patch in a 5’ to 7’ swell.
The wind had backed and was coming directly in line with our course for a straight route out to the island. Being on a strict timeline with a scheduled arrival at 1100, we had to motor out to the islands. As we slowly left the California coast behind us, the clouds started to clear and we had a beautiful blue sky in front of us. The choppy, coastal sea state also subsided into a gentle rolling ground swell. Nearing the NOAA weather buoy (Station 46026) eighteen miles offshore, the islands appeared in the distance, still some twelve nautical miles away.
The Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) is the largest and only habitable island of the chain and was our ultimate destination. As we motored closer, there were more and more sea birds in the water and in the air. The area was teeming with life. We spotted something splashing in the water with Western Gulls looking on with curiosity. It was a small Mola Mola, aka Ocean Sunfish, about the size of a large dinner plate.
We were now about a half mile out from the East Landing, which is one of the two public mooring balls located at the Farallon’s. The other mooring is located in Fisherman’s Bay. Just then, a water spout from a whale’s blow hole shot up a few boat lengths off the starboard bow. How cool was that! As we motored past you could see a large Grey Whale catch another breath before diving below the surface in search of its next meal.
We picked up the mooring ball in 40’ of water at 1045, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. We proceeded with setting up fenders on the port quarter. A small tender with two biologists was launched from the island to come out and start the decanting process of all the gear we had onboard. It took multiple trips to get all the gear to the island.
There is no dock on the island, so the small tender had to be hoisted out with a shoreside crane for each trip. Pretty fascinating to watch, given the swell rolling through the area. You could tell the biologists have done this before! Along with the supplies we brought out, we would also load our boat to bring back with us the trash, recycling, science equipment, and personal gear of the three biologists that were leaving the island.
At 1245 we cast off the mooring line and depart for a circumnavigation of the island. There is so much life out there. Especially during this time of year when hundreds of thousands of birds call the Farallon’s home for raising their offspring. After spending so many months on the island, it was really interesting to see the biologists and how excited and surprised they were to see the island from the water.
Finishing the circumnavigation, it was time to hoist the sails. The wind had backed further and set us up for a great beam reach to broad reach run all the way back to the Golden Gate Bridge. With sails hoisted we turned off the diesel engine and all was quiet. Just then, we looked out over the port side and not even one boat length away was a very large Mola Mola, the size of a dinner table. One word, epic.
As we approached the San Francisco bar, the wave height increased and became a little bit of a confused sea state. Not helping the situation, we were approaching a tidal change just off Point Bonita. Even so, the downwind sailing continued to prove exciting, with small surfs down waves up to ten knots. Not that impressive for a racing yacht but we were in a loaded down “RV” on the water.
We crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge and a few gybes later it was time to lower the sails and motor into the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. It was a great day out on the water and what an honor to be able to provide a valuable service to a non-profit organization that does some great work out at the Farallon Islands.
To learn more, check out their website at:
Also, don’t forget to check out my personal blog that covers my sailing adventures as crew in Leg 5 of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Make sure to watch the YouTube videos too! Follow along and don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest updates.
Fair winds and following seas.