Having got myself a new boat, I decided it was time to get her out in the ocean and do some real cruising! Half Moon Bay is touted as an ideal destination for a weekend sail, so that seemed like a great place to head for. The small issue of crew was solved by Paola, who's a pretty good sailor (as well as an expert skier, high-altitude backpacker, etc., etc...) and her new husband Torsten (who's a pretty amazing artist).

A map of the trip, showing our homeward course.

Half Moon Bay is down the Pacific coast from San Francisco. It's only about 20 or 30 miles from Alameda, but farther (around 40 nautical miles, or 46 landlubber miles) by boat, since it involves sailing up to the Golden Gate and down the coast. (See the map to the right.) The plan was to sail down on Saturday morning, starting from Alameda; get a slip in Pillar Point Harbor, or else anchor, overnight; and sail back Sunday. This doesn't give us much time in Half Moon, but then it's a sailing trip! And this would also be an excellent time to try out the barbecue on the stern rail.

Unfortunately, the tides at the weekend weren't ideal for the trip; actually, they were about as bad as they could be. Maximum flood at the Golden Gate on Saturday was 11:40 am., requiring us to be there by 8:54 AM to catch the ebb... which would have needed a 6:00 am. start from Alameda. (That's just not happening.) And maximum ebb on Sunday was 6:25 PM, making re-entering the bay tricky, without a decent westerly wind (fortunately, in the Gate in the afternoon this is practically a certainty). The currents were pretty strong, too; 3.2 kt. flood, and a 4.8 kt. ebb; but we really wanted to do the trip, so we decided to use the diesel and just push on through.

Fri 13 Oct 2000 17:00 US/Pacific

We filled the diesel tank and set off at 10:40 am., a bit later than intended, but this put us up against a weaker flood tide, which was to the good. Motoring up to the Gate, we found some pretty strong winds as we passed Alcatraz at 12:30; but with the wind and current both dead against us, we decided to motor through, rather than spend an age tacking back and forth across the Gate. Shame, though; another Westsail 32 (one that obviously wasn't headed out) came past astern, under full sail, and almost hanging her bowsprit over our cockpit -- it's a pity to be burning diesel when a sister boat is having a great sail. Apart from that, the Golden Gate seemed to be full of schooners of all sizes -- I guess there must have been some kind of event on.

The three crew -- Skipper Clint, Ballast Torsten, and Mate Paola.

Finally, at 1:12 pm., we cleared the Golden Gate Bridge, quite quickly -- I shot the boat through the south span, where there's usually a reverse eddy current an hour or so after maximum flood, which you can take advantage of to get out against the current. There was quite a bit of off-surface fog in the Gate, but it was pretty clear at water level, so no need for the radar, fortunately. Once out we found light winds and set all sail at 1:40 and passed well clear of Mile Rock; clear of the funneling effect of the Gate, the wind was now in the north-west, so we were able to get on a good tack to sail south.

Once well offshore, we crossed the SF bar (a semicircular shallow that basically surrounds the entrance to the Gate) with no problems, and headed south past SF. With the wind behind her, the boat fairly shifted over the mild swell, and we watched SF and Golden Gate Park slide past us. However, by 4:00 pm. the swell was building to around 6 feet; this didn't agree with Torsten, who retired below and curled up in a bunk in his sleeping bag.

The sail south was pleasant (for Paola and me) and uneventful, for the most part; the wind blew from the starboard quarter, neatly filling the sails. We'd been hoping for a sight of a whale or two, but we were too far inland, I guess; still, we saw loads of pelicans. By 5:30, though, the wind was getting a little shifty, and turning north, forcing us west to keep the foresails full. A couple of times, the wind shifted and tried to gybe the boom; however, I usually use a preventer (which also acts as my boom downhaul) to stabilise the boom and prevent gybes. Pretty clever, I thought to myself.

Highway 1 from the ocean (yes, that little thin line etched into the cliff). I can't believe I've driven an RV down that...

Still, the rubber snubber I have on the preventer as a shock absorber stretched to about 5 times its normal length at one point, which was a little worrying. It also allowed the mainsheet to go slack, and hook itself under the small Danforth anchor I keep (kept) on a bracket on the stern rail; with the effect that when the boom swung back, the mainsheet tightened, and neatly flipped the anchor (which wasn't quite as well tied down as I'd thought) into the air. Which isn't a position that a 20 pound anchor can really occupy for long, as the following loud splash testified.

So if anyone wants a free anchor, check around the sea bed next time you're off Pillar Point. Fortunately I still have my two main anchors fastened (securely -- I think...) to the bowsprit.

Pillar Point Harbor is a pretty tricky area to navigate; nasty sharp reefs and breaking waves guard the entrance, which is concealed from seaward. Basically, Pillar Point sticks out to the south from the land at the north end of Half Moon Bay, making a sheltered cove in which the harbour sits. The trick is that shallow waters, rocks, and wave breaks stretch west and south from the point, making a minefield that's treacherous to negotiate without an up-to-date chart and a deal of care and attention; the approach is well marked by buoys, but you have to know what they mean.

The approach to Pillar Point Harbour.

Coming from the north, the trick is to hook around well to the south, then strike towards shore, then turn north up to the harbor entrance (check the map for the big loop we made around Pillar Point). You pass the "1" green buoy to the right, then between the "2" and "3" buoys to avoid the reefs; then look for the light marking the harbor entrance.

Paola helming in the Pacific Ocean.

We called the harbormaster when we had Pillar Point abeam, at about 6:30 pm., and reserved a slip; we also got detailed (ish) directions into it -- slip H41, somewhere in the east basin of the inner harbor. But with the light fading fast, and all those reefs to avoid, it looked like being a little tense. Still, we spotted the first buoy easily enough -- as well as lines of large breakers pounding on the reefs. We could also see still more pelicans, busy depth-charging the fish hereabouts, although how they saw them in the gloom I have no idea.

By this time the wind had shifted astern, so we just had the mains'l up; still, we were making 5 knots. Another sailboat was following us, we presumed, into Pillar Point; both of us had our running lights on, as Paola and I crouched behind the dodger, gazing into the gloom at the breakers on the rocks, and the lights of El Granada coming into view behind.

After rounding the "3" buoy (the second one) at 6:45, we dropped the main and started the engine. The GPS led us north to the harbour entrance; by now, it was more or less pitch dark, but we could see the flashing white light at the entrance.

Pillar Point from the ocean -- incidentally the 2,000th picture with my new camera!

The entrance itself is slanted (to keep most of the weather out), so it's pretty much invisible until you're right outside it -- again, preparation with the chart and GPS helps. We could see the other boat's lights as they continued south -- heading for Monterey, or Mexico?

At 7:00 pm. we got through the entrance into the outer harbor, and started to head north, as advised by the harbormaster; but we quickly realised that there were anchored boats all over the place, mostly without lights! We veered off to the west to get round them, and then headed north to look for the marina entrance. As we crept on, we tried to make out the layout of the harbor, but it was just black; no sign of any helpful navigation lights. Talking about useful charts... my old chart didn't have the marina marked! (I've since replaced it, you'll be glad to hear.)

Pretty soon we saw a beach ahead, with what looked like a pier beside it; guessing that this wasn't it, we turned east and kept searching. Suddenly we saw a red flash -- an incredibly dim red beacon on what turned out to be the outer seawall of the marina.

Pillar Point and the Harbor.

There seemed to be a green light too, but we guessed (correctly) that it was on the other entrance, in the background. We passed inside the entrance, went east past the fuel dock as instructed, and pretty easily found H dock.

Now the tricky part -- actually getting the boat into the slip. You know, full-keeled boats don't turn too well; and I'd been hoping for an end-of-pier tieup, rather than a slip. Still, the fairway between the piers looked pretty wide, so we turned in and started looking for H41. Of course, the slips aren't numbered on the outside, so when I saw an empty double slip I just dove in and hoped. The boat turned in smartly (a first!) and neatly kissed the dock; as soon as Paola and I had the lines on, we saw that the slip was H41. Phew! 7:21 pm., so we've been on the water for 8 hours and 40 minutes, just over 5 hours under sail.

The boat at dock in Pillar Point Harbour, Half Moon Bay.

With the boat tied firmly to something solid, Torsten started reviving (yes, he was still below in the sleeping bag!). Pretty soon we were talking about dinner, while the harbormaster came down to the slip to check us in ($13-00, pretty good for 40' overnight) and Paola and I put spring lines on the boat (diagonal mooring lines to stop her sliding around too much).

We decided to fire up the barbecue (yes, I have one, attached to the stern rail) and cook some steaks for dinner.

The BBQ!

Well, the dumb captain (me) left the charcoal in the dock box at Alameda, so Paola and Torsten headed off towards the town for some charcoal and leg exercise while I filled in the log. But pretty soon we had a good grill going, the steaks were sizzling, and we tucked into a pretty decent meal in the salon. Torsten had grabbed some bus timetables on the way back -- I don't think he's too keen on another day of life on the ocean wave.

Squatter on the dock in the morning.
Sat 14 Oct 2000 17:00 US/Pacific

The next morning I got up and decided to walk up to the restrooms on the dock. I strolled along the pier, admiring the boats moored on either side (alhough not one of them was half as nice as mine, of course), and almost walked straight into a large sea lion that was hauled out on the pier! Of course, I immediately took the appropriate action -- rushed back to the boat for a camera (picking up Paola and Torsten along the way).

As we were taking pictures and wondering whether it would be safe to squeeze past, a harbor patrol boat came and docked nearby. It was probably just as well we'd kept our distance, as the harbor patrol guy told us they can be very aggressive, and can pass diseases in their bites. Fortunately for us he chased it off pretty quick using special equipment (a hose) and the way to the restrooms was opened.

Once breakfasted and ready, we set off early (10:45 am) for the sea, since we wanted to be home in good time. A quick scan of NOAA weather radio showed no major problems in the weather, which was just as well, since Torsten had decided to tough it out and come back with us.

Leaving the harbour.

On the way out, we made our way much more easily through the sea walls, and could figure out the harbor layout at last. The walls were covered with pelicans and gulls -- and huge amounts of guano, which probably explains the large number of flies we picked up around this time (a well-known hazard of Pillar Point, apparently).

We left the harbor following another sailboat, and headed west to clear the rocks before turning north (the other guy headed south-west). As we came out into the open sea (past the "1" buoy at 11:21), the swells started to build up to about 7 foot, and it looked like were were in for an exciting ride home! Bad luck, Torsten. However, as we started turning north, still under power, it became clear that the swells weren't matched by the wind -- not even a trace of wind! The weather report was talking about stronger winds offshore, so we headed north-west a little, to make way homewards and maybe find some wind too.

As the day wore on -- and the diesel kept grinding away -- we started feeling more and more alone. Not another boat was in sight, except a large cargo ship following the shipping lane to SF, way off to the south-west. There wasn't even any wildlife, apart from the flies (still with us from half Moon Bay) -- and then a flight of pelicans came into view, traversing the sea in a zig-zag search pattern, looking for food.

Paola watching the Golden Gate Bridge approaching.

By this time the water was like rolls of glass; ie. there wasn't a breath of wind. Still, with the diesel we made good progress to the north, at a steady 5.5 kt (about 6.3 landlubber miles per hour). Unfortunately, the swells were getting to Torsten, who was starting to spend more and more time leaning over the rail; so we started altering course left and right to keep the rolling to a minimum. After a while we started getting odd puffs of wind, but nothing much, and separated by long periods of total calm. Pretty soon there wasn't even any swell to speak of.

At 12:46 pm. we could already see SF in the distance; by 1:50 pm. the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge were in view. About half an hour later, we noticed a large fin flashing through the water -- a group of harbor porpoises (about 3 - 6) crossing our wake, and darting off to the northwest. Another half hour later some more passed -- we spotted a large group of birds feeding off northwest, so they were probably heading that way. Still more pelican formations were patrolling about, almost touching the water.

The Golden Gate Bridge.

Now our sights were set on the bridge, dead ahead. The visibility in the gate was good -- once again, the tops of the bridge towers were in dense fog, but the surface was clear -- but there was no wind at all. We finally made it to the bridge at just about the maximum ebb, but there wasn't a lot we could have done about it, so we just pushed on in. I decided to shoot for the south span of the bridge again, to hit the weakest currents, but that didn't work too well -- once we were under the bridge, we were more or less stopped by the current, despite the wind suddenly building behind us, and getting pulled into the centre pillar!

Well, actually, the engine wasn't pushing too hard, so a quick burst of full throttle got us through. Still, probably a situation to avoid next time. Once through, though, we suddenly found ourselves with a near gale behind us, so it was time to hoist sail and start sailing -- finally! The wind also blew away the last of the flies that had been sticking with us all the way up from Half Moon.

Paola and Torsten -- who finally found his sea legs.

With the sails up, we fairly shot across the Golden Gate; but not up it, since the current was still pushing us hard to the west. A couple of tacks later, though, and we were passing Alcatraz. Now out of the swells and into the Bay chop, Torsten was suddenly full of life again, so the three of us sailed round SF (and out of the wind) and then settled down for the usual motor back to the marina, where we docked at 7:20 pm. Another 8 and a half hours on the water; but unfortunately only one and a half under sail. Still, that made a total trip of 80.3 nautical miles, covered in just over 17 hours in 2 days; and against the tides at that. Not bad for a weekend!