So… why I am sharing these stories?
As we turn more instructors and members loose to sail “outside the gate”, I think it is important to share some important hard-earned lessons about sailing in the Gulf of Farallones. You’ve read the stories in Latitude 38 about recent tragedy. Most, if not all major mishaps could have been avoided. We all learn from experience. I’ve been teaching Advanced Coastal Cruising since 1992 and sailing those waters on my own since ’76. I probably have at least a hundred trips under my keel and I’ve learned important lessons on almost every voyage.
What are the key take-aways? They are: Be very, very well prepared, you must learn how to be a problem solver and don’t ever, ever get complacent. If you can do these things, you’ll wind up safely enjoying the challenge and beauty outside the gate.
Top Ten Scariest Advanced Coastal Cruising Stories
1. Boat: Hylas 44, Location: 4 miles southeast of Chimney Rock, Time: 2230, Winds: NW 35 to 40 knots, Seas: 12 to 14 ft – Steering Failure! The boat rounds up into irons and starts to broach. Everybody has PFDs, harnesses, tethers and attached to jack lines. We work on getting both sails down and lying-ahull. Upon inspection we determine that two steering cable pulleys have pulled out of rotted plywood mounts. We locate the emergency tiller and find we have to cut a hole in the headliner for the tiller to connect to the rudder post. I should have made sure I understood that before we left! The guys get a good lesson in steering a boat with an emergency tiller as we motor through rough seas and into Drakes Bay for anchoring and rest before our trip home.
2. Boat: C&C 40, Location: Chimney Rock at the entrance to Drakes Bay, Time 1830 (Summer), Winds: Light Westerly, Seas: less than 5 ft. – Navigating by Braille! -We’d plotted a nice course into the Bay from the Green No. One marker buoy. Unfortunately, the ebb tide was very strong and kept pushing us to the west. Going about 6 knots under power, we had a close encounter with Chimney rock, bouncing very hard on a submerged rock. After getting into the Bay and getting a hook on the bottom, we started a rigorous inspection looking for signs of hull damage. We found a slow leak next to cracks around the keel bolts and cracked fiberglass where the backstay tensioner was located. We determined we could motor safely back to SF if the seas were calm. We developed some contingency plans about calling for assistance and maintained a constant watch on the leak as we motored home at first light the next morning. Attention Coastal Navigators – this would have been a great opportunity to use the Danger Bearing.
3. Boat: Jeanneau 43, Location: At anchor in Drakes Bay, Time: 2300, Winds: W 25 knots, 35 knots and then 40 knots – A very long night! After a rough trip into Drakes Bay, predicted winds keep building. Winds were forecast to drop off after midnight but just kept building until 5 AM. Drakes Bay has grassy spots and “Whale Song” has a Bruce anchor as primary. These anchors don’t hold well in grass. If you’re going to Drake’s, you better have a plow anchor. This is the same day that one of my crew became hypothermic and we still had four hours of tacking to get into our anchorage. (Instructor tip: use your students to keep the anchor watch, you probably still won’t sleep, but students need to understand the importance.)
4. Boat: C&C 40, Location: 5 miles south of Drakes Bay in about 200’ depth, Time: 2100, Winds: West 20 knots, Seas: 6 ft. – Crab Pot! Crab pots are plentiful around the 200 ft. depth contour in season and, unfortunately, abandoned pots stay out there all year. It is hard enough to see them during the day and impossible at night. On one of our trips during night time man overboard drills we snagged a pot on the rudder and came to a soft stop. We immediately got our sails down. At least conditions were not miserable. We were snagged for several hours trying to free the line with a boat hook and anything else we could think of. Later we tried various sail combinations to try and sail off. Since we didn’t know if the line also snagged the prop, we stayed completely away from the idea of using the engine. We were able to turn the prop by hand in neutral, though. With enough wave action we finally were able to grab enough line to cut through. On another trip, we snagged a pot and just floated free in about twenty minutes.
5. Boat: Jeanneau 43, Location: half mile east of Southeast Farallon Island, Time: 1300, Winds: W 25 knots on nice beam reach, Seas: 6 ft. – “There be whales here!” I used to ask the universe to see whales up close. I also used to promise my students that we would see whales on every trip offshore if we looked hard enough. On one trip north we encountered a pod of at least fifty Gray whales, coming every which way including straight at us. We had several surface right next to the boat and one surface right in front of us. I am sure that that particular whale looked at me eyeball to eyeball! This was exhilarating but at the same time very precarious. These whales generally follow the 100 fathom line and can be seen all year long in the Gulf of the Farallones. I no longer go out of my way to go near whales. In fact there are official advisories about not doing this. I also turn on the engine so that the boat makes a little more noise but I’ve never seen any evidence that this makes a difference. I think a sailboat is fairly insignificant to these great creatures. I haven’t heard of an actual collision with a whale in our waters recently but I recommend giving them wide berth.
6. Boat: Hunter 36, Location: Smack-Dab in the middle of the Potato Patch, Time: 1400, Winds: W 30 knots, Seas: 20 ft – Roller Coaster! Before I knew better, I occasionally found myself in the Potato Patch, a.k.a. Four Fathom Bank, a.k.a. the North Bar at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. So… what happens when you have 15 to 20 ft. seas piling up against 4 fathoms (24 ft of water)? The answer is a wild and very dangerous ride. With only a jib, our little 36 ft. boat was making about 14 knots and barely controllable with a steep quartering sea. Never-never do this! In fact, please, just stay out of the Potato Patch as a matter of habit.
7. Boat: Ericson 39, Location: Somewhere between the Farallones and Drakes Bay, Winds: NW 25 to 30 knots, Seas: 6 to 8 ft. – Man the bilge pumps! It’s always a little disconcerting to go below when offshore and find a foot or two of water sloshing around your feet! On top of the water we also found a visible sheen of diesel fuel. The water got pumped out and we made it safely into Drakes Bay. With flat seas the next morning we had a safe return to San Francisco Bay. Tony Johnson can tell us where that water came from! This boat was his “Maverick” and went on to circumnavigate the globe!
8. Boat: Jeanneau 43, Location: north of the Main Ship Channel in between Pt. Bonita and the Golden Gate Bridge, Winds: W 10 knots, Seas: < 2 ft. – Fog! Unfortunately, I have too many fog stories. The scariest was coming back into the Bay one morning. We had purposely stayed way North of the Main Ship Channel to avoid commercial traffic. We were getting intermittent contacts on our RADAR which wasn’t working properly on this trip. We hadn’t been monitoring Channel 12 or 14 because we came home via the Bonita Channel. From the pea soup fog, two large tug boats emerged on either side of us within 100 yards each. That’ll make your hair stand on end. RADAR… don’t leave home (the Bay) without it. Even better, take Bill Yawn’s ASA RADAR class.
9. Boat: Jeanneau 43, Location: Way too close to Colorado Reef, Time: 1530, Winds: S 15 knots, Seas: 2 to 4 ft. – Mavericks Anyone! It’s usually a reach down to Half Moon Bay from San Francisco with prevailing Northwesterlies. On this day we had winds from the south and had the pleasure of tacking. One particular tack took us way too close to shore, about half way between Pt. Montara and Red Buoy “26”. Check the chart. This is just north of Colorado Reef and famous breakers of the “Mavericks” surf competition. This is no place for a sailboat. This was a good lesson for the instructor who was dazed by a good dose of the sea sickness medicine called Stugeron and relied too heavily on his student navigators to keep the boat safe.
10. Boat: Jeanneau 43, Location: 2 miles west of San Pedro Rock, Time: 1730, Winds: NW 25 knots, Seas: 5 to 7 ft. – Anyone wearing a belt? We were enjoying a nice reach on moderate seas and running the engine to keep the RADAR juiced up when the engine alarm went off. Oil pressure dropped to zero. Opening the engine compartment, we got a nice surprise. Oil everywhere! After a frantic search we found the source of the problem. The oil filter had worked itself loose. How can this happen? The engine had just been serviced and when the filter was replaced, the gasket wasn’t seated properly. You could see how it was deformed. Next question… do we have oil? How about a filter wrench? Fortunately, there was oil but no wrench. One of my students volunteered his leather belt and we replaced the filter well enough to power into Pillar Point Harbor. Then… the massive clean-up effort!