Join us in Diverse San Francisco with (near) Calamities in California

Here’s a fun adventure. Join us in Diverse San Francisco with (near) Calamities in California. We had just purchased our new (to us) boat.

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It crept stealthily, silently blanketing everything in its path. It looked soft, but I knew the secrets it hid and the dangers that lurked beneath its cotton wool subterfuge. No, I am not writing a script for a tacky horror movie, I’m talking about the fog in San Francisco.

Fog is one of my greatest fears when sailing, I become tense and moody. Yet the rips, currents and tides in San Francisco Bay made an interesting aside, adding a dollop of daring to the exhilaration of traversing these waters.

Vital tide times

Reading the tide tables in San Francisco is a two-fold task. In addition to the times of the tides are the ‘overruns’ – the flow information. Understanding this data is essential or you could be pushing a five knot current.

Viewing the great Golden Gate Bridge from land, I wondered if we would ever sail beneath its grandiose structure. Atop a hill on terra firma, peering down into the harbour, the rips and overfalls made themselves known. Vessels stuck in their grip slowly lost the battle. Those that timed it right flew under the bridge at a speed that was almost as scary.

A scintillating city

San Francisco is one of the most diverse and exciting cities we have had the pleasure to visit. It has a unique cultural tapestry and is a gay hub in more ways than one. Open water vistas are just waiting for a breath of wind to kick up into a brutal chop. Combined with a myriad of shallows, this recipe can cause even the seasoned sailor some difficulty.

An extensive ferry system zigzags its way around the Bay. At the terminal, sweets, coffee and doughnut vendors create a jungle of scintillating smells that increase the mayhem, compounding our total disorientation. Ticket sales take a poor second place behind an array of doughnuts. It took us an hour, two coffees and several sweet sticky things to locate the ticket booth.

Join us in Diverse San Francisco with (near) Calamities in California
Join us in Diverse San Francisco with (near) Calamities in California

The city’s vibrancy is unsurpassed, but can be exhausting. The famous ‘Pier 39’ is packed with colourful locals and international visitors. Tourist attractions are scattered between the sea lions. Our memories of cavorting with these playful creatures in the Galapagos Islands came flooding back. Here they are both an attraction and a pest. Your nose is assaulted with a fishy smell sometime before sighting the slippery creatures. Like shiny black sand bags, they flop all over each other for a prime position. They are attracted to a square of major mooring real estate. They have claimed this space as their own and are now protected from developers. Boaters find them a pest. Boarding platforms are a favourite sunbathing position for these lovable but odorous creatures.

We found our boat Pyewacket II in the salty suburb of San Rafael. While searching, we would capture the chance to investigate assorted creeks, bays and inlets. All via car, we followed winding lanes that vanished around the corner of buildings, drawing us in with our incurable curiosity and desire for adventure.

Land travel

Land travel here is a nightmare. Firstly, they sit and drive on the wrong side. During the first ten minutes in the hire car we tasked ourselves with crossing a six lane highway. I said to Noel, who was driving “it’s clear, you can cross now”. To which he said, “yes, but how?” A GPS navigator is prerequisite to keep imminent divorce at bay. Care must be taken as to which suburbs you choose stop in. Around San Francisco there are more than forty neighbourhoods and no two are the same. Central SF, is a mix of vibrant madness that we could ‘dip our toes into’ with a visit via car. But a brief trip to town is enough. Onboard Pyewacket II we stayed at Richmond Marina; a place where everyone you meet says “be home by dark”. Here the streets have a unique diversity. One road is lined with the wealthy, the very next a ghetto where we found our legs pumping that bit harder on our bikes. A local claimed it to be one of the most dangerous cities in the State. The Marina itself is safe, with barbed wire and twenty-four-hour security. During the day we stayed together, we did not go out at night. That said, we did not receive one impolite word from anyone, let alone witness any aggressive behaviour.

Natural disasters

San Francisco has the fourth largest population in California, which makes it twelfth in the USA.  Because of its size, it is the second most densely populated city in the States, with a lively history of earthquakes. While staying at our sailing friends’ house in Oakland (suburb of SF), they explained, with disconcerting nonchalance, that we were all sitting right on the Hayward fault line. There is also the neighbouring San Andreas fault which caused severe earth movements in 1906 and 1989. Our friends added that should an earthquake occur, if the house doesn’t crush us the enormous water dam just over the hill will erupt and drown everyone in the valley!

In 1991 a firestorm destroyed almost 4,000 homes, killing 25 people in Oakland Hills. It was the worst firestorm in American history. Whether bush fires or earthquakes, San Franciscoians are a hardy, tenacious lot who share this frightening information with an easy shrug.

Commencing our farewell to SF, we anchored overnight in the Bay at Treasure Island to catch the tides and a dawn escape. As we glided past Alcatraz, thoughts of incarceration and the death of freedom made us shudder. The famous bridge beckoned and with a gentle ebb flow we silently sailed under the splendid superstructure. The closest turbulence we experienced was the unruly grins smeared across our faces. Our trip south served up just two small fog patches, which still managed to increase my heart rate enough to create more silver highlights.

We only scraped the surface in San Francisco. I think you need to be at least ten years younger, have ten times as much money, time and patience than we do. Avoiding summer when fog is a daily event is the key. Autumn has the best weather and it put on a fine display during our trip.

Close calamities

For us, it was time to see other parts of California, preferably quieter towns with a slower pace. Twenty five miles south of San Francisco sits Half Moon Bay. We anchored on the first night and delighted at being ‘on the road again’. We left as dawn parted the darkness. Weaving through the crab pots into deeper water, we agreed to over-night south. Storms were gathering momentum in this part of the world. Two nights later, we darted into Morro Bay to avoid a forecast gale for the Point Conception area, just south of our location. Point Conception is legendary; it is California’s answer to Cape Horn. Tying up to the Yacht Club at Morro Bay we were offered a beer and the use of a car within ten minutes. So we had thoughts of staying forever. The relief of a safe port was heightened by the heart pumping action just before crossing the bar. Pyewacket II was going great. During our ‘about to cross the bar’ check, we discovered diesel spraying over the hot engine; an engine which had been running continuously for twenty-four hours. We had yet to install a blower in the engine bay to remove the heat and fumes. One tiny spark from the alternator or the tangled mass of wiring that festooned underneath the injectors and Blammo! Fried Pyewackets. The spraying fuel was coming from the little return lines that run from the injectors. One had split and one had come off entirely! The tubes (which we later found out were not rated fuel line) were common old clear plastic that, in the heat, had almost melted to soft and gooey bomb fuses. At this point we were ten minutes from the approach to the Morro Bar. We had been receiving weather warnings all night on the VHF forecasting a gale and the onset of four to six metre swells. Morro Bar entrance was announcing possible closure at midday – it was 11am. We were a little tense.

Fear driven logic

Noel put his hands straight onto the spare fuel line. In the panic we were not game to turn off the engine, we were not sure it would start again. (This was the fear-driven logic at the time). While replacing the split tubes fuel dribbled everywhere; we thought “hey this is about right for a fire”. Fortunately, it all worked, clean up was easy and environmentally friendly. The bar gave us a few heart stopping moments; especially as the sand banks skimmed down our sides. Adding to all the excitement, America in its wisdom has navigation buoys (pronounced boo-eeys) on the wrong side. When entering a port everything is opposite to what we are used to (and most of the rest of the world), green is on port and red is on starboard; sounds easy unless your mind is filled with the potential thoughts of having imminent fire onboard.

We sat for a few days at Morro Bay, one day complete with a hangover. It would have been easy to stay and lap up the friendly town’s hospitality. The forecast hurricane winds in a weeks’ time pushed us on. We wanted to be further south before they hit.

Newport Beach, second-hand heaven

After another two days south, we arrived at Newport Beach, CA. We could pick up a mooring here for $US5 (£3.50) a night. Coupled with great protection from the developing low, we were somewhat relieved to be here. There is a free anchorage area but one person must always stay onboard. Public docks are provided as a ‘dinghy park’. With a twenty minute bike ride we are in boat shop heaven. Best of all is Minney’s Yacht Surplus, a huge store overflowing with second hand gear. Their prices are fair and they are world famous for international supply of second-hand sails. The staff are great fun, on Saturdays they provide delicious bagels washed down with coffee. We always left smiling, even if we had just emptied out our wallets.

Newport Beach on our sailboat
Newport Beach on our sailboat

Christmas had come and gone. With no friends or family and many boat tasks to fulfil (solar panels, wind generators, wind vane), we ignored the festivities and both our birthdays. We had planned to be in San Diego by now. We might have ignored Christmas onboard, but you could hardly ignore the town’s Christmas Harbour Boat Parade. With prime seats, for six nights we watched their spectacular 101st Christmas Parade. Each night 50-60 boats, lit up like Christmas trees, paraded around the harbour.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the entrance to another world and recommencement of our cruising life. California was welcoming and made us feel at home, they have been witness to our new beginning back on board; next stop San Diego, then a whole new world in Mexico.

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