After many false attempts, I really really really wanted to get out to Drake's Bay and the Farallon Islands. The weekend of the 27th and 28th looked like a good candidate for a late-season attempt, not least because my colleague Maarten was in town on business, and he's a sailor! Coincidentally, I got an email from my buddy Chris, who owns a Valiant 32 that he was planning to go up with a friend that weekend too, so it looked like a great chance to finally get up there. He even mentioned that a couple of other Valiants might be making the trip.
So I talked Maarten into coming along, which I guess seemed attractive after being in meetings all week! The plan was to head up to Drake's Bay, spend a night at anchor there, and then head back, possibly detouring via the Farallones. Although that would make for a much longer return journey, the wind would be behind us on the way back in the Gate. The weather was pretty mild, the cold summer winds being gone; the main worry was that there might be too little wind for sailing.
On Saturday, the current at the Golden Gate was going to be coming in until 11:21, so we were going to be fighting a slight flood there; but on Sunday, the flood at 8:16 pm. looked ideal for coming home. I checked the forecast about 7:00. The ocean forecast was for south winds less than 15 knots on Saturday -- ie. not much -- and then increasing to 10-20 knots on Sunday, which looked a little more promising. (I should mention that the NOAA weather forecasts always seem to predict much more wind than there actually is; a real 10-20 knots would have been great.) The swell forecast was for 4-6 feet, increasing to 5-7 feet, which is quite mild. Apart from the lack of wind, this looked quite nice.
We set off at 8:01 a.m, and motored off down the estuary. It was a very still morning, though overcast. Unsurprisingly, the estuary was pretty quiet, although we did see a couple of other boats heading out. By 8:40 we were in the bay; we were making great speed due to the nice clean hull -- I'd just had a diver do it the previous day. We passed under the Bay Bridge at 9:00, heading north. The one bad sign was the lack of wind -- just 1 or 2 knots.
Passing the S.F. city front, we gave the navy ship Cape Henry, moored at one of the piers, a wide berth, so as not to get in trouble with the coast guard. This is one of the trickiest parts of the Bay in terms of freighters, so it's important to keep both eyes open; but there wasn't much traffic around today. We rounded Alcatraz, and at 9:56, passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, heading out to sea.
Motoring out the Gate, there was even less wind; at 10:20, we turned north and started motoring up into the Bonita Channel. The Sun looked like it was finally coming out, but the wind was even lighter than before, just a fraction of a knot. We passed one fishing boat, just off Bonita lighthouse.
This pretty much set the theme for the day; chugging along under power, on a flat sea. Normally there's some swell, even if there's no wind, but on this day the ocean seemed to be completely lifeless.
At 10:48 we saw a porpoise going along slowly behind us, as we were off Muir Beach. By this time there was no wind at all, and although we were by now outside the San Francisco sea bar, there was almost no trace of a swell -- the sea was flat and glassy. Bad sign.
After a while, I decided to see if Chris was on his way up yet; so I tried to call up Amazing Grace on the VHF. S/V Anne replied, which I knew was one of the other Valiants heading to Drake's; the signal was pretty bad, but we gathered that Anne and Amazing Grace were already anchored in the bay. It turned out that they had left yesterday evening and motored up, making a pretty quick run up.
About that time we were watching what looked like a huge fleet of boats on the water ahead, off Bolinas Bay, south of Duxbury Reef -- and I mean a lot of boats. We turned offshore a little to avoid the thickest bunch of them. Maarten counted 97 boats in total -- all sorts of boats, from small fishers to charter boats from Pier 39. Firing up the radar showed a huge mass of little blips.
Another odd thing (although possibly related) was that the water was a very deep, dark reddish brown. This was clearly visible in the wake, where it looked like we were motoring through red-brown mud. We guessed that this was a "red tide", which is a dense bloom of algae that sometimes occurs offshore. We carried on motoring, still making a good pace; by noon we were off Bolinas, but we were still passing the fishing fleet!
At 12:23, we were on the last straight-line leg to Drake's Bay, and the GPS was showing a time of arrival about 14:07. The wind was still absolutely zero, and the sea completely flat -- the predicted 2 foot waves and 4-6 foot swell were nowhere to be seen. However, quarter of an hour later, we did quite suddenly find a swell, from the northwest, of about 3-4 feet; but it lasted less than half an hour, and then it was gone again.
After another chat with Amazing Grace on the VHF -- with much better reception -- we also made contact with Morning Star, another of the Valiants heading for the bay. It turned out that she was just a mile or so ahead; we could just make her mast out through the slight haze, but the radar confirmed the range. As we slowly gained on her, we watched her enter the bay; and at 14:10, we were in too.
We found waiting for us not just a couple of boats, but 6, all rafted together, and riding off a couple of anchors. Morning Star tied up at the north end, and we went alongside her, making a grand total of 8 boats in a raft; a pretty spectacular sight for a little bay in the middle of nowhere.
So that ended our the trip down, of 39.3 nautical miles, which we covered in 6 hours 26 minutes; all, unfortunately, under power. That made an average speed of 6.1 knots.
Once we were all tied up, we launched my dinghy; this is a little 7' hard dinghy that lives on the fore-deck. It's normally just a pain to have on the deck, blocking the view, but in situations like this it's fantastic -- rows well, and carries a good load easily. Launching consists of heaving it over the lifelines into the water, which seemed to work all right -- getting it back on deck was more of a pain, but not too bad.
We took the chance to row around and take a ton of pictures of Moonrise, and the raft as a whole; then we rowed over to the little beach to the south, by the old lifeboat station. Leaving the boat in good company, we hiked up to the top of the ridge, and along to Chimney Rock. This is an easy, pleasant hike; there were plenty of boat folks around, and even one or two "civilians"!
After we got back, yet another boat joined us -- Mirage II, a large catamaran. They rafted up with us, making 9 boats total -- unfortunately after our photo expedition was complete. Once back on board, we started getting to know the rest of the crews -- and hooked up with Chris at last. He and some of the
other guys had been out crab fishing with simple net traps, and caught a huge quantity of crabs, some of which were soon cooked up. I was a little concerned about the effects of red tide, so I didn't have much, but what I had was delicious. (No-one had any problems, as far as I know.)
As darkness was falling, a big fishing trawler came into the bay. At first, it headed past us deeper into the bay, but then it circled round behind our boats and started approaching us quite closely. By this time, every eye was turned toward this huge monster, slowly bearing down on us, closer and closer; then the skipper stuck his head out the door and yelled, "Which end should I tie up?"!
This provoked a big laugh, and then the trawler went off to her own mooring. We could see what looked like a large shark cage on her deck, though, which looked a little odd for a trawler; we wondered what kind of fishing they might be up to.
With the full darkness came a beautiful phenomenon -- phosphorescence in the water. I'd read about this, but never seen it; plankton that glow when you disturb them. Even with all the lights hung up on the boats it was surprisingly strong; if you swirled a stick around in the water, it looked like you were spraying pixie dust around. Throwing a bucket of water into the bay created a burst of eerie blue light.
Suddenly, a loud "WHUMP!" came from the direction of the trawler; it sounded like a muffled explosion, like a large flare gun; but there was no sign of any flare. This happened several times, and we wondered if they were trying some strange new shark-fishing gear, or were they shooting at squid, or what?
Later, the trawler guys came over and joined in the general festivities on the raft. As they motored over in their dinghy, the darkened boat rode on a blanket of shimmering phosphorescence, giving it a totally sci-fi look. It turned out that the trawler was carrying a British TV crew, who were there to make a documentary on Great White sharks for Animal Planet! They had with them a guy who specialises in shark neurology, and has spent tons of time in the water with them. he had some pretty amazing pictures of himself making friends with the sharks.
As the night wore on, they brought out their spud gun to play with. When I was at school we had spud guns -- they were tiny little pistol-like things that could shoot a little pellet of potato over ranges of two or three feet. This one was a little different. It consists of about three feet of drainpipe, with a large combustion chamber attached to the end. You ram an entire potato down the pipe, spray some engine starting fluid (ether) into the combustion chamber, close the lid quick, and ignite it by means of a sparker built into the side. Then -- "WHUMP!" and the potato flies a couple of hundred yards into the night.
I sampled some excellent seafood pasta courtesy of one of the other boats -- was it Endorphin? Anyway, thanks, guys! Finally I returned to Moonrise to turn in, finding Maarten holding his mouth strangely -- one of his front teeth had broken off, apparently while eating a yoghurt! Honest -- I wasn't beating him up for not whistling up a good wind. (Maybe I should have been...)Sat 27 Oct 2001 17:00 US/Pacific
The morning dawned quite bright, raising hopes of a nice day, but there was still no sign of any wind. However, the weather forecast was for 5-15 knot winds from the south, which seemed a little hopeful, and with waves of 1-3 feet and swell 4-6 feet (again). The bay was beautiful in the morning light.
We cast off at 8:37, and started motoring south out of the bay. Chris on Amazing Grace reported that he was heading south to S.F., but I was considering heading out to the Farallon Islands, having never seen them. On rounding the Drake's Bay buoy, we decided to head out to the islands; with any luck, we'd get a little wind later and sail in. Endorphin, one of the boats from the raft, was heading that way too; and later August Wind started heading out.
By 9:00 we were clear of the bay, heading south at 6.9 knots. The wind was just half a knot, and there was a very mild swell. We had a breakfast of fresh ground coffee and cookies -- I normally avoid coffee while sailing, but it seemed that seasickness wasn't going to be a problem this weekend. By the time the coffee was done, the wind had died completely.
At 10:00, we suddenly came across a huge shoal of jellyfish; they were huge orange ones, with large tentacles stretching up to four or five feet. There were also some blue/white jellies, 8-12 inches across, which I think are Moon Jellies. There seemed to be thousands of them; it took close to 15 minutes to pass them.
By 10:56 the visibility had closed in; there hadn't been a sign of the Farallones all morning, and it was starting to look like they were enclosed in their own private fog bank. I plotted a course between Mid Farallon and Southeast Farallon on the GPS, and cranked up the radar. It was still very calm.
By 11:27 the visibility was down to half a mile; no wind, flat sea. By now were were relying heavily on the GPS and radar for navigation; the radar in particular was very reassuring, as it clearly showed all of the rocks around in relation to our position. Between that and the chart, which shows the submerged rocks, we felt pretty sure of where we were going. But with the lack of visibility I was despairing of actually seeing the Farallones! So I grabbed a photo off the radar quick, so I'd at least have some evidence we were there.
Apart from the jellies, there wasn't much life around; but we saw occasional diving birds, and some seals or sea lions. But at 11:50 we finally rounded Southeast Farallon, and it seemed that the fog cleared a little at last; in any case, we got a good view of the island and the houses where its inhabitants -- some hardy wildlife researchers -- live. At the same time we found ourselves motoring through another patch of the Moon Jellies.
At 12:00, suddenly the engine started to lose speed -- and almost immediately stopped. This wasn't too cool, as we were quite near the reefs of Southeast Farallon; and with no wind at all, no way to avoid them. While Maarten kept watch, I jumped below and started looking at the engine. The first thing was that the active fuel filter was full of sediment -- this suggested that we had been drawing fuel from the bottom of the tank. Sure enough, a check of the fuel gauge (a wooden dipstick) confirmed that were were pretty low on fuel -- much lower than I had expected to get on this trip.
I called up the boats nearby on the radio, and August Wind came over to offer help. They had a jerry-can of spare diesel on board (seems like a good idea for the next trip), and offered me 4 gallons, which I gladly accepted. This got the level up, and I switched to the clean backup fuel filter; but the engine wouldn't go. I guessed that we had sucked some air into the system, so I bled the system according to the manual; but several attempts wouldn't get it going.
The last thing I noticed was that the manual prime lever on the fuel pump wasn't pushing any fuel through the system -- so it seemed like the pump had given up the ghost. The manual says that this is a non-repairable item, and one thing I don't have in my extensive spares kit is a complete replacement fuel pump.
Luckily, August Wind offered us a tow. I got my tow rope out and we tied on, and soon both boats were heading back to the Bay -- still making a decent 5.5 knots. At 18:28 we entered the Gate, and finally felt a breath of wind -- the first in two days! Saying thanks to our saviours on August Wind, who were heading to Sausalito, we cast off the tow, set the genoa, and started sailing south. By 18:55 we were making 4.5 knots in pretty light wind.
Unfortunately, the wind didn't last too long. We scraped by Alcatraz as the flood tide pushed us in the bay, and wondered what to do next. I called up my mate Norm on another Westsail 32, Imagine, which is based in my marina in Alameda -- just to see if he would be handy for another tow.
We had another bash at the engine to see if we would get it going. Although the engine's fuel pump was gone, the fuel line has a manual squeeze-bulb in-line for priming the system. We had already tried having Maarten stand in front of the engine pumping fuel by hand while I cranked the engine, with no luck; but we decided to give it another go. After a few attempts, the engine sprang to life! Maarten stood at his post pumping while I steered us under the Bay Bridge at an amazing 8.2 knots, at 8:00 p.m. At 8:25 we entered the estuary, and things were looking good.
Unfortunately, our troubles weren't over! At 8:37 Maarten noticed that the saltwater pump, which pumps water to cool the engine, was making nasty noises. I reduced revs to try to save it, but ten minutes later it was glowing and shooting sparks -- and that always seems like kind of a bad sign, I feel. (I'm not kidding -- it was glowing!) I stopped the engine and cut the fan belt it's driven by, then re-started the engine at minimum revs -- and called Norm again. Luckily, Norm reminded me that the saltwater feed cools the exhaust, not just the engine, and I was in danger of melting the exhaust! So I cut the engine again and waited for Norm to come get us.
The last act began at 9:25 p.m., when Imagine took us under tow in the estuary. This wasn't far outside Grand Marina, so by 9:33 we were docked. Our homeward trip was 59.4 nautical miles, almost entirely under power -- ours and other peoples'! Amazingly, our homeward speed averaged out at 4.6 knots, even after spending over an hour drifting with the sails up. The weekend total came to 98.7 miles.
So what went wrong? Well, first, 10 hours motoring was by far the hardest use the engine had had in quite a while -- the extended vibration and running clearly shook a couple of things loose. Also, I should have had more fuel on board; my calculations about how much we would use, even in two days motoring, were way off. (It doesn't help that my dipstick isn't calibrated.) The fuel pump turned out to be fine -- just the manual prime lever was broken; so that was a false lead. The saltwater pump was annoying, though, since it was new and had been professionally -- but faultily -- installed. (The boatyard put it right in the end.)
Still, no great harm done, lessons learned for the future -- and profuse thanks to August Wind and Imagine for a couple of timely rescues. We had a great stay in Drake's Bay; and I definitely know a few more things about sharks and spud guns than I did before.