At Close Quarters
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At Close Quarters

‘Round the Island: An Alameda New Year’s Day boating tradition continues

“Do we push off now, or later?”

On New Year’s Day 2021, Nathan and I were still rigging Medusa, our Santa Cruz 27, when the VHF radio crackled alive. “It looks like the Park Street Bridge has opened early,” said the skipper of Pacific Star, “they might just keep the bridge open for us.”

Indeed, we — a team of volunteers from Island Yacht Club — in cahoots with our friends at Aeolian Yacht Club, had announced two start times. The first was a 10:30am rendezvous at Park Street Bridge, which instead had opened at 10:22. We could only imagine that there was a mob gathering — and the bridge operator had felt compelled to let them through.

Thankfully, Pacific Star took a leadership role and switched over to Channel 9, communicating with Park Street and the other three bridges that connect Alameda. A minute later, our marina buddies texted in, saying that they were now aiming for the 11:30am start. The race to the bridge was over.

Every year on New Year’s Day, San Francisco’s boating community converges on the Alameda Estuary for ‘Round the Island, a semi-organized parade of watercraft that includes sail and powerboats of all sizes, as well as the odd row boat. Start times and direction of travel around Alameda Island depend on the tides. As the San Leandro Channel is 4.5ft at zero tide, sailboaters in particular need rising waters and a keen watch to complete the circumnavigation successfully. As Medusa draws 4.5ft and has no depth sounder, our survival strategy was to motor in the wake of the bigger boats.

During normal years, Alameda’s six yacht clubs throw their doors open to New Year’s Day guests, offering hot breakfasts, chili and hair of the dog. Amidst the 2020–2021 pandemic, the clubs are all closed — and there was a murmur of reluctance around even being listed as an “organizing” club. Everyone wanted to celebrate the new year, just not publicly.

In December however, Island Yacht Club’s newly-elected Commodore made a few phone calls. The show would go on. Tradition would prevail, but with a few modifications. IYC would distribute a virtual flyer and share the word with friends — but make it very clear that there would be no club stopovers. Aeolian — being the club most experienced with the precarious San Leandro Channel — would communicate with the bridge operators and provide navigational support. Thus, the preferred direction of travel around the Island would be clockwise, with start times coinciding with the 12:35pm high tide. No boat sharing and BYO lunch.

As there was no RSVP system, we really didn’t know who would turn up. But from the moment the radio came alive, we knew that we were in for a special day. A parade of boats was steaming past the end of our dock at Alameda Marina; the vanguard moving at a stately pace, then the laggards maxing their outboard engines to make it through. Later, I found out that boats had turned up from as far afield as Half Moon Bay Yacht Club. Upon exiting the marina, we were immediately escorted by eight or so Islander 36’s — a fleet which makes an attempt almost every year. As the skipper of Marilyn told us, “I’ve done this sail for 20 years — but (presumably, because of tides) have only made it around 6 times.”

The Islander 36 fleet, marshaling for the Park Street Bridge opening.

In all, I estimate two to three dozen boats turned up for the starts, but beyond the peloton — on unobstructed stretches of the Alameda Estuary and San Francisco Bay — were boats en route, for as far as the eye could see.

As first-time ‘Round the Islanders asking for advice, we were made very aware of three things. First — there are four bridges. As it turns out, they are manned by friendly operators, who enjoy the annual spectacle as much as we do. Second — the shallow depth of the San Leandro Channel gives people the “heebie jeebies”. Yes, people frequently run aground on its sandy sides, even experienced sailors. I have posted a few links at the end that discuss channel navigation in greater detail. Third — it is a very fun way to spend the day. Social distancing didn’t prevent boaters from hollering out “Happy new year!” to one another, making inquiries as to whom hailed from where, or — on sails up — playfully teasing us, as our skinny little raceboat sashayed through the full-bodied Islander 36 fleet.

In all, the 15nm cruise around Alameda is immensely entertaining. Over 4–5 hours, there are bridges to navigate, glamorous homes to envy, the accomplishment of timing the San Leandro Channel just right, and should you make it through successfully, the expanse of San Francisco Bay. There is also the busy Port of Oakland (where we saw this boater end their day — during high tide!), drinking holes to reminisce about at Jack London Square, the towering Coast Guard clipper ships and of course, friends ashore at Alameda Marina. There is resemblance the grand canals of Europe, the paddleboard-friendly corridors of Southern California’s Newport… Not to mention, the approach to Long Beach — where boaters look to the container ships on the horizon, calculating how long they have to transit before one exercises its full-spectrum dominance over the shipping lane.

Most remarkable is that we can enjoy all of this in January. On the East Coast, the Atlantic storm season has given way to bitter cold, the Great Lakes have frozen over. Meanwhile, in Alameda, sunny optimism is all. There are longer days to look forward to, a Coronavirus vaccine… And eventually, a return to the heady days of Estuary boat racing, chased by cheap booze and barbecuing at the Marina. That’s our forecast for 2021.

Happy new year, everyone. It will be summer again soon; in the meantime, there’s the Alameda Estuary.




True sailing stories and salty tales by Ros de Vries — a small boat bowgirl in San Francisco.

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Ros de Vries

Ros de Vries

I’m an avid sailor and community firebrand.

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