Of the American myths, the most misleading is that we achieve success entirely on our own steam.
A well-managed boat is like a startup, a small business. And while it’s not in fashion to acknowledge the specific skills, roles and hierarchies involved (at least not on the West Coast), we also can’t deny that the reason why any good adventure happens, is because they exist.
And while we do well to separate our pirate lives from our private lives, it’s undeniable that the qualities that make us successful in the “real world” are those that make us successful sailors still. Sailing benefits from having leaders, it benefits from having people who just like to sweat over lines, it especially benefits from having realists and collectivists and the sort of people who see — and love — the long game. These are qualities that exist outside of any business school or board room. Those exceptional singlehanded sailors aside, the kid who plays a good and grounded game of soccer is more likely to be successful afloat, than the inward pioneer.
The Saturday that we left for Drakes Bay, we moved smooth and fast across the San Francisco‘s “Slot”, but still didn’t make the slack tide. Our team is technical, but still can’t quite get the timing right; that would be the theme for the weekend. Nonetheless, we were optimistic about the two days ahead of us, even if it would start with a slow motor under the Golden Gate.
As is typical, the Northern Californian coastline was draped with a shifting marine layer, which at times grew thin as if burning off, then thickened again to dull the day. The air was light, but thankfully, so were the swells as we cycled from motoring and sailing up the Bonita Channel. In any case, it was swell enough on board. Kai had started with his shanties again; as we’ve grown more comfortable with them, we’ve made up my own verses, like:
No more, no more, we’re off to sea no more — with a cup of rum and a loaded gun, I’m off to sea no more.
The relaxed attitude continued throughout our northern passage, from Point Bonita to Bolinas Point and a few hours later, into the wide arc of Drakes Bay.
As we approached the northern shore, offshore fishing boats came into view, their wide paravanes reaching out to greet us. Anchored for the afternoon, they lay waiting for some unknown time to make their catch. Presumably San Francisco is too far a port to return to regularly and they were biding their time — perhaps napping, or listening to the game, who knows — until heading out to sea. We know nothing of commercial fishing, so all was speculation; we thought of scanning for their VHF channel, we chuckled at the idea of starting an (unsolicited) radio station dedicated to late-night fish love songs; this is the sort of funny crap that sailors come up with to pass the march of hours. We gave our new neighbors a wide berth and anchored outside of their field, but not too close to Drakes Beach. Where Kai and I faithfully disagree is in the proximity one should anchor to shore; I am happy to have her lie with less than 12 feet of water below the keel; Kai won’t take less than 25. The result is parking what seems like a mile offshore, but at least that’s good leeway, should our anchor alarm go off at night.
And of course, it did — multiple times. We had made dinner and had plenty time to enjoy the sunset; in truth there was not too much to see, given the persistent foggy layer. The mist came down on us on deck like light rain and sated by Kai’s cooking, we had little temptation to do anything but turn in for the night.
An hour in, Kai’s anchor alarm went off with the volume of an industrial-scale emergency — it was this awful klaxon sound, followed by Kai bolting up the companionway. I was in the lounge and sat upright to look out a nearby porthole… Of course, the lights of the Drakes Lifeboat Station were just as we had left them earlier; we hadn’t budged an inch.
Again to bed… And again, an alarm. Kai had been too conservative in setting his drag radius. I watched him run upstairs again; I guess all sailing lessons are learned the hard way.
At 4am, I woke to the low rumble of the fishing boats firing up their engines and motoring out of the bay.
At 8, I was tired, but it was what it was. The day had begun.
Naturally, we ribbed Kai about the anchor alarm over breakfast. I shared the only serving of instant coffee I had with Jackson, who had been sleeping across from me in the lounge and had equally endured these overnight anchor drills, albeit with his trademark good humor and a smile that could melt an iceberg. I really like Jackson for his (literally) indefatigable positivity and his accomplishment; as someone in his mid-twenties, he has wasted no time. He is an airman (as was my father) — we tell these little stories and jokes that tie the sky to the sea.
On this morning, he was tired, but still smiling, blue eyes set handsomely amidst that warm face, that radiant SoCal glow. A wayward thought drifted; I caught hold of it with a bashful smile.
We were soon readied and lifting anchor, only to discover that an awful seagrass had knotted itself around the chain, dark brown and alien and almost impossible to clean off. Jackson hung off the bow and sawed heroically at it with a Swiss Army knife, but every few feet of chain would bring up more of the horrible stuff… Part of me was just a little pleased at this demonstrable downside to having to drop 150 feet of rode and chain, but then again, it was a terrible pain in the ass for the entire team, who had to coordinate the cutting with weighing the anchor.
Shedding as much of this smelly grass as was practical, we closed the anchor locker. It had taken us close to an hour to release ourselves from this overcast curse called Drakes Bay.
The wind had shifted overnight — instead of a leisurely and direct downwind cruise home, we found ourselves having to tack out to sea, the wind now a southerly and not easily making it possible to head straight for the Golden Gate. For a while, it was a mystical morning against a concrete sky, with whales appearing between us and the shore, Grey whales with their heart-shaped exhalation… We tapped our winch handles on the hull to alert them, and they thankfully gave us no trouble. Then, all becalmed and we were forced to turn on our engine, the whales dispersed like sleep apparitions and our team was offshore and alone.
I had taken the helm and was just a little relieved to be motoring, as it was neither early in the day and nor were we making a quick pace. I had no time pressure, but I also fancied the idea of Sunday night dinner. Of course, it was with this thought that I turned to see denser-than-normal white smoke puffing out of our exhaust — thankfully water, too — but it was concerning enough to make us take inventory of the ship’s vitals. Sure enough, the engine was running hot. This news brought a rueful smile to Kai, who told us about an observation from his marine surveyor regarding the engine’s fuel filter; I cannot recall the exact details, but it was reason enough for us to turn off the engine. In light winds, we moved under full sail at a sluggish 2 knots, a pace that would get us back under the bridge after midnight.
Thankfully, the breeze freshened as the day plodded on, but there was not a chance of us approaching the Gate by day. Sunset, then twilight closed upon us as we passed Bolinas Point — and with our target still miles off to the south, we gathered to prepare for a night approach.
Given the light air and calm waters, I suggested cutting a corner of the Potato Patch, a moody shoal just northwest of the Golden Gate. Moody, as one day can bring the kind of steep swells that knock the air out of a bowman, the next, barely a nudge to the stern. We decided as a group that we’d take the risk, enter the Bonita Channel, march into the traffic lane, then be flushed by the flood tide under the bridge. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was the dead of night, it would have all felt very auspicious.
Now, this is when we worked as a team — and all had work to do. I was on the helm (yes, 5+ hours and still going!), Corey, our navigator was on his charts, Kai manned both radar and Vessel Traffic Services, Kasi and Jackson provided the muscle. Sliding into the southbound lane felt like a walk down an unlit hallway at night, albeit with a rocky shore on one side and a shoal on the other. The main points of visual reference were the intermittent flash of channel markers and the reassuring glow of the city in the distance. Corey noted an unlit daymark on the charts and we navigated by way of bearings; 10 degrees more to port, that’ll do. The daymark showed up as a blip on the radar and if not for these indications, we would have never seen it. Almost immediately after we’d passed this hazard, we rock-rolled straight into a turbulent patch, the swirling water pulling at the helm like a jealous child. Reflexively, I apologized to the crew, but we all knew well enough that our only error was to sail it at night. Later, there was a big, rolling wave that silently and malevolently took us aft-to-abeam. We rode up its face with a “woah!” and “hold on!”, the ocean pushing past us like a heavyset drunk in a crowd. It was a little scare by virtue of not being able to see it coming.
Thankfully, it was the worst of them; short while later the sea calmed and following an uneventful gybe, we ran smoothly under the gate. It was 10pm.
With good gratitude, Kai relieved me from the helm for the approach into the Richmond Channel; I found myself instantaneously tired from 7 hours of work and so joined Jackson in the lounge. With the cabin lights off, we sat and chatted quietly about some ridiculous flight simulator videos we had seen, but largely let the conversation drift into silence. And I was contented, a heart so happy and glad, for there in the dark so shone his irrepressible smile.
The weekend cemented our crew as family — we could trust nearly no other as much to charting a course. Above all, we had gained much respect for Kai’s leadership. Our little startup had endured the long night. Here we were, on the dock at the cusp of midnight and on the verge of falling over, but strong, so strong! And it was with that, we wished each other goodnight and godspeed — back to our dayjobs and partners and cozy blankets, yet with our heads filled with shanties and the thrill of the sea.
No more, no more
To go to sea no more
Get married instead and have all night in bed
And go to sea no more.