Newport to Berkeley, by way of Half Moon Bay
We are now docked at the Berkeley marina after one of the most amazing weeks of adventure that I can recall. The sail down from Newport was unlike any other experience I've taken part in. Exciting, beautiful, challenging - physically and mentally, it was living fully in an unfiltered manner. All focus and effort was on sailing, taking care of each other and minding the boat. All other functions became secondary.
Newport had been a great base and place to recharge after our trip from Barkley Sound. My folks and cousins came to visit and it was nice to relax and catch up with them. We were lucky to meet several other people that were heading south and shared a lot of valuable insight regarding the passage south, around Cape Blanco and Cape Mendocino. Mostly reinforcing how serious the passage is and how in adverse conditions the waters around Cape Mendocino can be a nightmare. We talked quite a bit with a delivery captain with 30 years of experience sailing the west coast and he recommended that we sail 120 miles or so offshore to get away from the canyon effect around Cape Mendecino. He was incredibly generous sharing his knowledge and notes on the changes in the sea conditions this year.
The weather this summer has been unusual, the extended high temperatures inland have caused a shift in the wind patterns along the coast. Watching the weather became an obsession as we watched for an extended pattern of northerly winds that would let us sail to San Francisco and instead kept seeing winds from the south, or dead calms that would force us to motor the whole 650 miles. We were determined to find a good weather window that would let us sail, and we became convinced that the best course was to head far offshore.
When the weather finally started to line up we set out under clear skies and soon caught the northerly winds we had been hoping would arrive. We had two full days of perfect winds and sailing with either the full genoa or the genoa reefed. It was a complete change from our trip from Barkley Sound. Each night the sky was clear and the stars came out to put on an entrancing show. The Milky Way sparkled and was as sharp as I've ever seen it. The seas were moderate and we were mostly on a sort of magic sleigh ride.
Key to the improved state was using our Monitor windave. We had been skeptical that the windvane could handle downwind, contrary seas. But after talking with friends in Newport, we had been convinced that the Monitor would be able to handle the sea conditions we were in and were surprised at how well it did. Now christened "Sir Robin" after sailing legend Knox-Johnson, the windvane completely changed the experience of being at sea for such an extended period. It would have been incredibly challenging to steer by hand for a week, I don't know that we could have pulled that off. The windvane is this brilliant device that has a vane that is set to the direction of wind we want to travel and through an elegant servo-pendulum system sends the directional message to a rudder in the water that converts the force of the water to energy, and through a few lines attached to the steering wheel, helm the boat. Hour after hour, day after day we'd watch in awe as Sir Robin tilted the helm one way then corrected the other.
After two days of blissful sailing we came to the edge of a gale that was hanging closer in near the shore but the effects could be felt further out. The seas became much more confused and the winds built from the mid - to high teens we had enjoyed, to the mid to high 20's with gusts into the high 30's. We furled the genoa and hoisted the try'sl and stays'l which gave us a great balance. Sir Robin had no problem keeping us on course and unlike our trip from Barkley sound we didn't experience the tendency to round up or forced down to an unwanted gybe. It was exhilarating sailing. The seas would rise up high behind the stern and we would hang for a moment on the wave's crest before surfing down the face. The majority of the waves slid past with little notice but we'd see the occasional large set that would come and take us for a wild run.
Below decks it was near impossible to move about. Without the horizon for input, and with the waves coming in odd sets, we'd find ourselves moving through the cabin and have a bulkhead or other surface coming rushing up at us. Every few minutes a large wave would hit us broadside, and it felt like Tumbleweed was punched by a giant fist, there would be a loud crashing sound, the boat would slew about for a few seconds, the cabin would tilt and dive about, then we'd settle and carry on.
We had been tracking a gale that was closer to shore off Cape Blanco, continuing past Cape Mendocino and including the waters to San Francisco Bay. The winds and seas began to build on day three and soon we had changed over our sails to a try’sl and staysail, with winds holding steady in the mid-20’s with gusts into the mid-30’s and a few times pegging 40kts. The skies remained clear and it was a pretty wild ride for the next few days. The wind vane managed the steering flawlessly with a the occasional correction. The notion of speed on a sailboat is an odd phenomenon, although we were topping out at speeds a bit over 7 knots (which works out to a little over 8mph) the rush of water, wind and movement of the boat keeps us convinced that we are racing along at wild speeds. It is hard to reconcile that the speeds were are so exhilarated by are probably what you’d hit on a slow coast with your bicycle. It probably has something to do with the inertia of a 30,000 pound boat and the visceral sense of movement that hits deep in one’ s core.
While at sea we were visited first, north of Cape Mendocino, by pods of Dall’s porpoises, and further south by several pods of dolphins. Both are such powerful animals, speed machines that loved to race up to the bow of Tumbleweed, arcing off to one side or another before rushing back and skimming just in front of us. On our last night at sea as we made for Half Moon Bay we had a few dolphins that stayed with us, on and off, for a few hours. After the moon had set the sea was depthlessly black, a void just outside the froth we kicked up of foam and bioluminescent flecks. Out of the inky darkness the dolphins would come streaming in, near the surface, kicking up a faint white line that would come curving at us from the stern, easily out pacing us, hugging the hull and making for the bow. The water would start to burst as small fish, perhaps sardines, or mackerel, would dance from the water. The dolphins were playing along side us, feasting on a school of small fish all perhaps attracted to the bioluminescence we kicked up as we skimmed along. Douglas and I each spent our watches drawn in by the scene around us, time passed quickly, and we struggled to express out loud how beautiful and singular the visits had been.
After a few days at sea we fell into a rhythm of trading off shifts, sleeping, checking weather, tending to Tumbleweed. Cooking was a challenge, the oven would sputter out, food would fly from pans, pans would pop out from the brackets on the stove top. Even fumbling with the most basic sort of cooking was frustrating. I had prepared several days worth of meals with the plan to just pop them into the oven to warm them up, and others to serve cold. Meals with as little effort as possible were by far the most popular. It also kept cleaning the galley to a minimum which gained a lot of points with the cleaning crew.
By sailing out to around 120 miles we were able to skirt around the edges of the worst weather and make our way to the south of it. Although the winds began to settle down the seas were still developed and it was a challenge to make progress eastward. Our most comfortable heading was pretty much due south - Next Stop the Galapagos! Became our rally cry. At some point on the sixth day the winds vanished and the seas mellowed into giant, long swells, like low rumbles from the north. Fog set in and we were forced to motor, but we could now make our way to the east and set course for Half Moon Bay. After a week at sea we were not ready to navigate San Francisco, work out the timing to get under the bridge and across the bar, etc.
Half Moon Bay has a protected, shallow anchorage just outside the marina and after a night under motor we dropped anchor around noon, put Tumbleweed to bed, had a massive lunch, and slept deeply the rest of the day. The next morning we woke energized and ready to move on. San Francisco is only 19 miles to the north and the weather was perfect for getting across the bar and under the Golden Gate. The harbor was packed with small fishing boats, including a couple small boats hauling nets of anchovies. There were also many pelicans, they are such an odd yet majestic bird, the seem so unlikely and prehistoric, flying in line formation like B52 bombers.
We set out in light fog and almost no wind, motoring most of the way north. As we approached the Golden Gate the winds picked up and we were able to sail under a full genoa under the bridge, it was thrilling to be hustling along with 15 knots of breeze, under the bridge and out into San Francisco Bay. My family has a lot of history in San Francisco, my grandfather and his family had lived there, my mother was born there, as a child we often visited the city, usually with our beloved cousin Martin in his massive Buick as our guide. My first experience sailing was around the bay on the sailboat of friends of the family - I was an infant in a hammock. I have been all over the city and have heard countless stories of the family with the city as a character. Grandpa Pegot rowing out into the bay to go fishing, my great aunt who ran a small hotel, the story of my grandparents meeting, the house where my mother was born. And our own stories - Golden Gate park will always be the place cousin Martin set us up with a picnic after several stops in the city to find just the right bread or cheese, to serve with the tomatoes from his garden. And of course driving the city with Martin, his talking and gesturing, pointing out the sites, barely paying attention to the drivers around him - more or less feeling his way around the city while telling us stories.
After such a trip at sea, and with so many profound memories of the city, it was an emotional passage those few hundred yards under the bridge. Then the bay opened up, a massive oil tanker was bearing down at high speed to port, two small sailboats were edging up to us on starboard and a wind surfer doing what looked like 40 knots was aimed straight at our bow. I went from bliss to near heart attack in moments. And the wind began to climb as we moved into the bay, going quickly from 15 knots to 20 and gusting to 30. We moved to put a put a reef in the genoa, scope out our path to Berkeley, dodge what seemed to be hundreds of vessels under sail. All the while feeling sort of awestruck that we were in the bay, under sail, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
On a small scale map the bay looks like a massive inland sea, edged with marinas, yacht clubs, small communities. It didn’t really get through to us that it is also frighteningly shallow until we were in the bay and looking at our large scale charts that show us more detail. The waters up to the Berkeley Marina drop down to 8 feet and less in some areas. Tumbleweed draws 6 feet and knowing that silt can build up and charts are not up to the minute, my adrenaline started to climb. The most shallow part of the marina we crossed left us with 2.4 feet under the keel.
As we sailed up to the transient dock and made a couple of slow turns in the fairway several boats came charging through under sail. I did my best to idle in place and let them slalom around us, at once impressed with their sailing skills and also a bit overwhelmed by all the boats tacking about the marina. We found the transient dock and as we turned into the fairway saw the boat of friends from Seattle, Douglas started to hail them and we were surprised when 10 or so people on another boat started to look our way and turned out to be all friends we knew from Seattle or had met along the way. They all jumped up and ran down the dock, directing us to a slip and grabbing our lines, a nice welcome to the city and a fine capstone to this leg of our adventure.