Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beating to Blackaller

I powered up my iPhone and read the news today ... oh boy!

News such as this, especially when read so early in the morning before the kick of caffeine and nicotine, is disconcerting.

I gazed skyward. There was a confusing collection of continuous cloud formations. Up north, above the city of San Rafael, swam a mackerel sky of high- altitude cirrocumulus clouds. Pure cauliflower cumulus clouds sprouted out over the inland areas of the East Bay, while long, withered fingers of fog free-flowed up and over the headlands of Marin. There would be wind today - of that I was certain. But the sky was as confusing to me as what I had been reading concerning the condition of the world. I was in a funk.

Fortunately for me this day, I would go down to the sea in ships to do business in great waters - the waters of the San Francisco Bay. You see, I had a charter and was going sailing.

I find tremendous therapy in being out in the breeze, scuttling above the floors of the silent seas. For me, it is the ultimate solace.

It was freezing at the marina in Sausalito, so I layered with fleece, pulled out my oceanic foul weather gear and waited for my passengers to arrive. After consulting the tide book for the day’s current activity, I decided on the route I would take around the bay. And it would be one of my favorites.

Bobbing alone 0.2 nautical miles east of Ft. Point near the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge is a yellow sphere labeled with a large, black “C.” The buoy is anchored in 12 fathoms of water at the tip of Presidio Shoal, which runs along the western end of the city front. The buoy has no particular purpose - like most of the buoys of the bay - for navigation. Instead, the big yellow ball is known to racing yachtsmen as Mark 16, and it is the first windward mark for the 20 courses that the San Francisco Yacht Racing Association (YRA) has developed for sailboat racing along the glorious shore of San Francisco. The racing locals called this buoy “Blackaller.”

Tom Blackaller (1937-1987) was one of Northern California’s sailing legends. As a noted sailmaker (he ran Lowell North’s local loft), one-design yachtsman and general raconteur, Blackaller achieved great success in the Star and 6-Meter classes, accumulating four Western Hemisphere, three world and two national titles. He also participated in two America’s Cup competitions - on Defender in 1983 and in the radical boat USA in 1987.

Stories - whether factual or not - surround Blackaller. One of my favorites transpired around the ULDB (Ultra Light Displacement Boat) Saga during the 1985 Transpac.

A couple of days into the race, the wind settled abaft of the sleek boat and the crew set the spinnaker for the remainder of the starboard downwind run to Hawaii. Blackaller was aghast at the fact that they were going to continue to carry several hundred pounds of wet and now useless headsails the remainder of the way to Honolulu. So he went down the companionway and wrote out a check to the boat’s owner for the headsail inventory and then ordered the crew to jettison the canvas overboard.

Many more such escapades surround Blackaller. After his untimely death at the age of 50, the YRA board of directors designated Mark 16 as the Thomas D. Blackaller Jr. Memorial Buoy, with the maintenance of the buoy paid for by the Thomas D. Blackaller Jr. Fund.

Nailing a lay line to Blackaller from the central bay is no easy task. But I decided to do it the day I was out.

After crossing the bay from Sausalito, I would approach the city front east of St. Francis Yacht Club. As I got near the breakwater, I would take a hitch and put the boat on a port tack, finally flipping back over to starboard as I got to the start/finish line of St. Francis, which is marked by buoys “A” and “B.”

Then I would begin one of the most scenic and fun trips on a sailboat in the bay - beating up and out the central bay, determining a lay line and then rounding Blackaller to cruise back downwind to Ft. Mason.

This is tough. Which is what makes it fun. And this is also why it is the windward mark for world yacht racing events, like the Rolex St. Francis Big Boat Series. I was happy thinking about my impending trip. The slight depression I had experienced earlier was gone.

My passengers finally arrived and wandered down to the boat.

“Where are we going?” I was asked by one of them.

“To visit an old friend,” I replied.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Apple A Day Keeps Last Place Away

A while back, I found myself a crew member on a big boat in a very big boat regatta series. Usually, I try to grab a position at the back of the boat - mainsheet trimmer, helmsman, tactician, etc. - but for various reasons in this regatta, I was relegated to a position forward, but behind and thankfully, not before the mast.

Late summer sailboat racing on the San Francisco Bay is usually some of the most extreme racing on the planet. The big currents, big winds, big boats, and big egos present in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge give racing yachtsmen challenges that are just not available in most other venues. The conditions for this big regatta were typical of the Bay and summer sailboat racing.

This regatta consisted of a series of races using temporary tetrahedrons and a few of the standard permanent racing buoys and navigational aids to mark the courses - mostly windward and leeward jaunts.

We were doing pretty well on the first race of the second day - the traveled laylines were fundamentally sound, and the crew had not made any unforgiving mistakes. We had just crossed a starting line drawn between the hosting yacht club’s committee boat and a red buoy anchored out in the central part of the bay near Treasure Island, after racing for well over an hour.

Typically, the start line and the finish line of most yacht races are most often the same. You cross the line upwind, round the course buoys, then finish on the same line downwind, or maybe finish back upwind on a hard beat to weather.

For this race, our tactician had assumed that we were reaching back toward the starting line to finish the race. As we crossed the line, we heard him ask, “Did anyone hear a gun...or a horn?”

No one had heard either.

“Never mind, “ he said. “The committee boat must have missed us. I got our finish time.

“Jib and main down, NOW!” he yelled, not wanting to continue to flog and stretch the new wardrobe of composite canvas.

“We have about an hour before the next race,” he continued. “Let’s break out lunch.”

The owner of this racing sloop does everything in a first-class manner, from food to nifty crew uniforms. So in about a minute after the tactician’s command, the cockpit was filled with a feast - individually wrapped gourmet sandwiches with lots of mayo and with an organic vegetable garden of trimmings. There was also a large assortment of bottled and canned beers, every variety of Pringles chips, and all of the brands of candy chocolate that the Mars company makes.

Foul-weather gear was peeled off and strewn across the cockpit and cabin top, and 12 hungry souls tucked in to nibble and drink away. While everyone was kicked back and relaxed, we heard the tactician ask to himself, “What’s the rest of our fleet doing? Why the heck are they still sailing?”

He reached down and grabbed the sailing instructions. A grimace came over his sun- and wind-streaked face.

“Let’s get these sails up, NOW! We’ve got to finish this race.”

Our tactician had committed the gravest sin that any tactician can commit - not being intimately familiar with the sailing instructions and the course layout of the regatta. We had not finished, because on this course, the start and finish line were not the same. They were different. The finish line was farther down the Bay, near the Emeryville shoreline.

As the crew leaped into action to get back in the race, so did the gourmet spread. Sandwiches went flying, as did the fillings. Roasted peppers, pickles, and soggy tomatoes skittered across the cockpit floor waiting for a loose and fast foot to squish them into oblivion. Bottles clanked around, candy wrappers flew overboard and garbage was everywhere. Valuable minutes passed by us, as did the other boats in the fleet.

Not exactly ship shape. And what a mess to clean up once we got our bruised egos back home to the boat’s yacht harbor. It wasn’t funny then, and I’m not so sure it’s funny now.

Needless to say, we did not win that race. And we did not win the regatta. But boy did we LOOK GOOD and EAT WELL. Or had tried to EAT WELL.

While I am a great believer in the necessity of great food aboard a sailing vessel - I have even written an article on gourmet cooking at sea for Latitudes and Attitudes magazine - I have changed my tune about racing and eating, due to that disastrous experience.

Recently, I was rereading the book “Airborne” by William F. Buckley, Jr., which chronicles his adventures in crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. As they near the end of the journey, they catch fresh fish for lunch and have an enjoyable mid-day meal. In this section of the book, Buckley tells us that he was “appalled” at a story in Edward Heath’s book about his successful yacht-racing career.

Heath remarked that one of his crew members, Rod Stephens of Sparkman and Stephens, always only ate an apple for lunch, regardless of what the other crew members were enjoying. Stephens explained to Heath that when there was an adjustment to be made in the sails or if an emergency happened, he did not have to find a place to try to neatly tuck a half-eaten sandwich.

With his apple in hand, he could just toss it overboard or into the cockpit to be retrieved later. What appalled Mr. Buckley was that Mr. Heath took pride in his book in announcing that thereafter, for racing lunches, there would only be apples and Mars bars for his crew.

I was enthralled by Heath’s racing-lunch rule. I adopted it with enthusiasm, but made a slight modification.

Instead of the Mars bars on my boat, I went out and bought a case of Detour Bars - high in protein and low in fat.

If only we had done that on the big boat in the very big boat regatta.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rudderless In Raccoon

There is an old shellback sailor saying about crossing oceans: “The passage is usually seven or so days of silence and boredom, followed by minutes of sheer panic and terror.”

I believe these words may have been uttered by the estimable William F. Buckley Jr. - or perhaps it could have been the less estimable Geraldo Rivera - both of whom, believe it or not, are accomplished yachtsmen. Nevertheless, it was uttered by someone, someplace, sometime.

This saying may be the case when crossing oceans, but in the conditions of San Francisco Bay things can be … unexpected.

On one particular day, I arrived at the marina about an hour before I was scheduled to depart with some charter guests on a 22-foot sloop. I checked the tide book and the weather report, which I already suspected would consist of a small craft advisory with a possible gale warning.

With the work done and the boat ready for cast-off, I unzipped the large pocket of my bag and pulled out the book I was currently reading - “Fair Wind and Plenty of It,” by Rigel Crockett. I was reading the passage in which Crockett and his crew get lost in Bora Bora in a Monomoy longboat when I heard, “Capt. Steve! Capt. Steve!”

Lumbering up to the charter office, I met my two passengers for the three-hour tour, Bradley and Buffy. They were visiting the San Francisco Bay Area from Upstate New York and wanted to experience sailing the bay. Bradley’s first question after the preliminary introductions took me aback.

“Can we wear our bathing suits?” he asked.

Bradley was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki cargo shorts and tennis shoes. Buffy was dressed in a similar manner.

“Well, I guess you could wear your bathing suits, but I would not recommend it,” I replied rather unexcitedly.

“Why not? We’re in California,” Bradley replied. I noticed that he was slightly irritated with my negative response.

I explained the usual conditions one might encounter when a sailboat hits The Slot in the Central Bay while I was dressing for the occasion - Musto Gortex bibs, a matching jacket, Harken sailing gloves and Sperry boots.

Bradley looked at me with a bit of concern and decided not to pursue the bathing suit idea. He then toddled off to the office to retrieve two sets of “house foulies” while I stashed their gear down below.

When he came back, I went through my usual safety speech and then asked if the couple had ever sailed before.

“Oh yes,” they replied. “For decades.”

“Great,” I said. “Then you will really appreciate what San Francisco Bay has to offer.”

I shoved off and took the sloop out of the marina’s fairway. Turning to starboard, I pointed the boat toward the entrance bouy of the Richardson Bay channel. Already, Bradley was asking to take the helm.

“Once I get her out and settled down, I’ll let you take over,” I said.

Since it was slightly before noon, the sea breeze had not fully formed, but there was the sourdough loaf of fog beginning to stretch from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to the shores of Emeryville. We would have wind, as expected. And plenty of it.

After raising the main and unfurling the 100-percent headsail, I put the sloop on a close reach with the bow pointing toward the Transamerica building. The day was glorious, with the Bay Area’s famous fog also darting around and swooping sweetly over the headlands of Marin.

Satisfied that all was OK, I let Bradley take the helm and tucked myself on the leeward side. We had just cleared the tide line at the south-western end of Raccoon Strait and I was focusing on the current swilling around the Harding Rock buoy. The flood was on its way.

I glanced at Bradley. Although he was smiling, the sloop’s wake told me that he was having a bit of a time keeping the boat on an even keel.

“Well, Buffy, I don’t know why we really need to have a captain on board,” Bradley said, through clenched teeth and a trademark New England upper-class accent. “I’m just doing a splendid job driving.”

My head snapped back. “Trust me, there will be a time when I’m needed - before the end of the day,” I said.

Just as I finished that statement, the small boat quickly headed up into the wind and tacked over, continuing the turn downwind.

“I didn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything!” Bradley shouted.

Then the boat jibed before I could get back and grab the tiller. When I did, I felt absolutely no resistance. I looked back past the stern and saw the boat’s rudder floating away from us in the 5-knot flood current.

The boat rounded up and I let her tack over, dumping the mainsheet as we settled on a port tack.

“We’re gonna die ... we’re gonna die ... we’re gonna die,” Bradley hollered.

“Yes, Bradley,” I said. “We are going to die. Just not today. Please go below with Buffy for a minute while I get the lines cleaned up. Please.”

With Bradley and Buffy down below, I furled in a bit of the headsail and played with the sheets until we were on a slightly broad reach. The boat stabilized and I headed her back toward the shores of Sausalito. I motioned for the couple to come back up into the cockpit.

“How can we be sailing without a rudder?” Bradley asked.

This was the moment of truth.

“What types of boats have you sailed on, Bradley?” I asked.

“Only Lasers,” was the reply. “On lakes.”

"Sweet," I grimmaced.

With our keel boat heading back toward her homeport, Bradley and Buffy took some photos. The fog line had fully formed, but was about 100 feet off the water - allowing us to see parts of downtown San Francisco.

We sailed until we were closer to the channel entrance buoy and then I started the engine and took the boat back home fairly effortlessly.

As we tied her up, Bradley admitted, “I guess we did need you on board. What would have happened if I had been out there myself?”

That question is precisely why one of the things I do when holding an advanced instruction class is to practice rudderless sailing. We don’t actually remove the rudder, but we do tie it down. It gives the students a really good knowledge of the power of proper sail trim and weight placement. We tack and jibe the boat and sail on the varied points of sailing without touching the rudder.

Bradley thanked me for saving his and Buffy’s lives and getting them back to shore.

I put the boat away, grinning from ear to ear, humming a salty sea chantey. In my 40-odd years of sailing, I had never lost a rudder. What fun!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Songs Of Sail

BRRAAP - BRRAAP - BRRAAP. I reached over the gleaming cherry saloon table, grabbed the silver cell phone, and answered, “SEA-E-O SAILING.”

It was 1940 hours, with a williwaw coming in from the west. Damp and dank, with the only light coming from an old Weems and Plath Yacht Lamp.

“May I speak to Capt. Steve Stevens?” asked a polite and throaty female voice at the other end of the airwaves. She sounded as if she were taking a long drag on a long cigarette. “You’ve got him,” I replied.

“Oh hi. I’m Josie. I’m looking at your Web site, and I’d like to charter your boat Lively for a five-hour Bay cruise on the 15th. Is the boat available on that day?”

“Yes, it is,” I said, as I reached for the ceramic tumbler of lukewarm espresso. A double doppio macchiato. Three sugars.

“I see that you have a compact disc changer on the boat; can I bring some of my CDs for us to listen to?” she asked with a rather rhythmic inflection.

“Sure. But there are rules.”

“Rules?” She sounded a little confused about my rather abrupt answer.

“Well, there are tons of rules aboard boats,” I said, filling my Peterson pipe with fresh tobacco from the red tartan pouch. Grabbing my old silver Dunhill lighter, I ignited the Turkish weed into flames, filling the chilly cabin with gray smoke.

“The CD rule is that every CD brought on board must have at least one track about sailing, boating, wind, weather, or sky. A homage to the activity of sailing - so to speak.”

“You’re joshing, right? I mean the only things that we could listen to would be like drunken sailor songs...or horrors...Jimmy Buffett.”

“Nope. You will be surprised once you start digging through your CD collection,” I answered, blowing a ring of smoke over toward the chart table. “ I reserve the date for your charter or what?”

“OK. Sure. The 15th for me and three friends and my CDs. This will be a little interesting,” she replied.

We completed the details of the upcoming charter; I thanked Josie for the business and closed the phone.

Grabbing the lighter to renew the flame in my pipe, I glanced over to my personal CD collection, standing rigid on the fiddled bookshelf like little sailors grouped together for morning inspection.

It had taken me quite a while to assemble that collection of music - which, of course, met my self-imposed rules concerning the songs of sail. Feeling a little Italian and musical, I went through the inventory and tried to decide which I would load into the player for an impromptu evening of music in the cabin.

Which would it be tonight?

Musical Evenings with the Captain - In the first Aubrey-Maturin novel “Master and Commander” Patrick O’Brian has Jack and Stephen first meeting during a concert on the island of Minorca. After becoming friends and shipmates, the two often while away an evening aboard the seas playing the violin and cello. This CD features many of the pieces that they play throughout the novels, such as Haydn’s “Duet for Violin and Cello in D Major” and Boccherini’s “Sonata for Violin and Cello in D Major.”

Bobby Darin: An A&E Musical Anthology - The King of Cool deserves a spot in any musical collection. This CD contains the “Live in Los Angeles” cut of “Beyond the Sea” and, of course, his signature song, “Mack the Knife.”

Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60s - This has 16 songs by 16 artists such as Marshall Crenshaw, Loudon Wainwright III, Cry Cry Cry, and Larry Kirwan & Black 47. The cut which allows it on board the boat is Patty Larkin’s version of “Everybody’s Talking,” originally performed by Fred Neil: “I’m going where the sun keeps shining / Through the pouring rain. / Going where the weather / Suits my clothes. / Banking off of a northeast wind / Sailing on a Summer Breeze. / Skipping over the ocean / Like a stone.”

Bob Dylan: Hard Rain - Just gotta have some BOUUB on board. Maybe the whole Dylan canon. But this CD works well with “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm.” An added bonus is “Lay, Lady, Lay.”

Eric Clapton: Unplugged - The greatest guitarist who ever lived? Maybe. But everybody likes listening to Clapton, and this CD contains some of his terrific hits - like “Layla” and “Tears in Heaven.” The cut that makes the grade here is “San Francisco Bay Blues.”

Boz Scaggs: Greatest Hits - The “Boss of the Bay” must be on a San Francisco Bay vessel. I even think that it may be a Coast Guard requirement. And if it’s not, it should be. Great stuff here. “Harbor Lights” is the qualifier.

Randy Newman: Sail Away - Before he started being routinely nominated for Oscar awards and finally winning, Newman was just a struggling songwriter and piano player, with a pretty bleak-sounding voice. But, his early stuff was good and incredibly funny. A critic once described his music as “mordant, ironic, concise songs with chromatic twists worthy of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill... .” In addition to the title song, there is also “Burn On,” which is about the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, catching fire - “Burn on, big river, burn on.”

Ute Lemper: Punishing Kiss and Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill - Speaking of Kurt Weill, the beautiful, usually leather-encased Lemper sings the signature song from Weill’s “Three Penny Opera” - “Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer,” which is otherwise known as “Mack the Knife.” But, her version is in German, in the original slow, almost um-pa-pa tempo, and just reeks of a small, smoky Deutschland nightclub, filled at four o’clock in the morning with the weird and the less than normal. Berlin before the last of the great wars - nothing like that decadence. “Punishing Kiss” contains songs by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Kurt Weill. And just wait till you gaze at her pictures in the liner notes.

While I still had a lot of CDs left to go through, one suddenly caught my eye. I almost forgot I had put it on board. This would do for tonight. Lyle Lovett’s album “Pontiac” beginning with “If I Had A Boat” -

“If I had a boat,
I’d go out on the ocean;
And if I had a pony,
I’d ride him on my boat;
And we could all together,
Go out on the ocean;
Me upon my pony on my boat.”