I, Terrible Sailor

by brian lam

Like all sailors, I’ve had my share of close calls. Here’s one I wrote up for Curbed on their outdoor week.

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One would imagine that a guy who writes about the ocean and gear would be great at taking care of and sailing a sailboat. In reality, the slop of a writer’s heart’s yearnings tend towards staring at the sunset peeking through tops of cresting waves, rather than attending to sheets, sails, rudder, compass, and navigation chart. In short, I was a disaster in boats.

I traded in motorcycling after my eighth crash for sailing, thinking the absolution of cars and red lights would make it a safer sport. I was half right. The bay is the second hardest place to sail in the world* with every danger imaginable except reef*: high wind, cargo ships that bear down on little boats like iron dinosaurs in Jurassic charge, amazing current that sweep in and out of the maw of the bay twice daily like neptune’s broom.

One day I took two writer friends out for a sail. I rented a boat from the most budget-minded sailing club in town, Spinnaker Sailing, on Pier 40. The boat I usually took out was a Santa Cruz model, 27 feet long. One of the boats in the fleet, called Solitaire, was a former record holder for single-handed sailing to Hawaii in 1978. On one hand, that’s cool. But it also means the boats are old and often falling apart.

I checked my tide book and looked for bolder values in tide swing and current–bold meant the swing was severe from high to low tide, and subsequently, the water would flow quicker. When things are bolded it basically means you have to be a little bit more careful. It was not so I ventured out in the little boat and under the Bay Bride, with little worry. I sailed a course around Angel island, through Raccoon Straight along Sausalito. Hours later, on the way back, the wind slowed as it will near end of daylight and near the skyscrapers downtown. My boat drifted were only a mile away from safe harbor, but then we noticed that we were going backwards and quickly.

With the sails empty, I started the motor, and Twisted it full throttle. People stared from shore watching this boat with limp sails and a screaming outboard motor make less than a walking pace forward. With my free hand I checked the tide book again, reading the numbers more clearly–current was predicted at 5.9 knots that day, and left unbolded as any value under 6.0 knots would be. Basically, we were going to be lost at sea because of typography and shitty reading comprehension.

At any moment, I thought the motor would die. This is because the sailing club makes you sign disclaimers acknowledging each boat has only 20 minutes of fuel before they rent them out. So I waited for fate and fuel to run dry. The engine sung its song, and all the while the sun went down and it got colder. I pulled out my phone ready to call the coast guard to save us. If we were lucky they’d send a boat, not a helicopter. (The coast guard rescue is not only shameful, it is expensive and press worthy so your shame and expense is known to all watermen and friends alike so you may be mocked with such clippings for eternity.)

Thirty minute passed with the motor squealing; then 45, and an hour. We made it into harbor. We docked. And I kissed the concrete pier floor.

It was by luck that I had the one boat in the fleet–the only one of the Santa Cruz 27s–with the extra large gas tank. I should have been swept out that day. And I haven’t been sailing in the bay since.
*Only the pocked cape of good hope is more dangerous, going around the tip of south America earns a sailor the right to an anchor tattoo like popeye’s.
*Out of the classic dangers it is true reefs are missing from the bay but there is a rock shelf that threatens those unaware off the side of Alcatraz which could pose reef like danger to vessels.

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