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.