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!