January 9, 2010



The fog may come on little cat feet in some places, but the other day, on San Francisco Bay, it was an 800-pound gorilla.

And it was my day to play with the gorilla. Nice, gorilla.

We were crossing back over to the East Bay after a few days in the city. Fog or no, this was our day to go. We'd had a great time, spent all our money, used up our time at the marina, and I was out of clean underwear.

At first, the gorilla was playing nice. From the marina, we could see the Bay Bridge, a half mile away, through just a thin veil of mist. Only a real wimp would have stayed in the slip because of that mist.

As we eased out onto the bay, though, the gorilla got sneaky. North of the bridge, he'd hung a gray shower curtain across the bay. The bridge normally connects the city to Treasure Island, but now it disappeared into a Monet painting of silver, gray, and slate-colored smudges. The gorilla had swiped the island.

But I had to find that island, or rather the end of it, in order to get back to Berkeley. And to do that I had to cross one of the heaviest travelled commercial channels in the bay - the one that funnels traffic to the Oakland estuary and the port of Oakland. Big, ugly traffic lives there that eats sailboats for lunch.

One foggy day about two years ago in this same channel, a professional bay pilot couldn't see the bridge well enough to avoid crashing his 600-foot long container ship into it. And for those of you who don't know the Bay Bridge, it's larger and easier to see than a Catalina 30. When you're sailing into fog, you think about things like that.

I needed a plan. And a wing. And a prayer.

I know, I'll stay along the city front, close enough to see the shore (a few hundred yards) until the chart says I can make the end of the Berkeley pier on a straight shot, clearing the north end of the island. Crossing the channel at right angles will minimize my time out of sight of land and my time in the kill zone. I tuned the VHF to the Vessel Traffic Service to monitor ship movements.

The wind had been hard out of the north for the past few days, so once we turned away from the city front it was a reach all the way to Berkeley. No pesky tacking out in the traffic.

Five hundred yards off the city front, we may as well have been ten miles out to sea. All of the familiar landmarks were gone and we were in a giant, transluscent snowdome. Suddenly, I remembered how hard it is to steer a course in these conditions. I use a small, handheld GPS, but find it easier to steer by the binnacle compass which has a larger card and responds faster to changes than the GPS.

Usually, steering a compass course, I'll set the course then pick a point on the horizon to steer for, but now there were no points on the horizon, just a big wad of cotton. On a beam reach, if your heading drifts up or down, the changes in trim are more subtle and harder to feel than sailing close-hauled. The sail is still full, the heel is unchanged, and your only clues are a luff or slight slowing as the sails stall. Every time I checked the compass, I was 20 degrees offcourse. This was work, and a reminder of how sloppy a helmsman I'd become. The last time I had to steer in zero visibility was last summer, coming out of Half Moon Bay.

The blob on the GPS that was Treasure Island kept inching closer, but we were keeping far enough off that we should clear it OK, and the VHF was quiet, except for a Sausalito-bound ferry that would clear behind us. Quiet was good. Ships report in to VTS when approaching the channel leading to the Bay Bridge.

After what seemed like two hours, the edge of the island poked out of the muck, just ahead of our beam where the GPS said it should be, and we were clear of the island and the worst of the traffic. But we were off into the muck again, looking for the Berkeley pier.

The pier is built on the east bay shallows and extends two miles out from the marina. It welcomes you home, but challenges you, too. You want to close with it on your south side. If you come in south of it, you've got to go back out and round the end - if you're a chicken like me, anyway. Some folks like to sail through the breaks in the abandoned parts of the pier, but I'd had enough adventure for one day.

Finally, there the pier was, nicely silhouetted against the puffy gray stuff behind it and it was to our south, thank god. We bore off, eased sheets, and followed it back to the best navigational mark on the Bay - a posh watering hole named Skates, home to the world's best crabcakes, and a bewildering variety of calming beverages, some of which are reported to contain alcohol.

The thing about fog is that it straightens you up right quick. There's none of that casual lazing about that's so easy to fall into when you're sailing on home turf. You suddenly realize that this is serious stuff we're about. We take risks every time we go out there. The fog strips away all of our illusions of security. It's just us and Mr. Neptune, eyeball to eyeball.

Slocum, Moitessier, and RKJ wouldn't have been too impressed by my day's adventure, but there's nothing like surviving a passage through the fog to make you feel like an ancient mariner - or at least a mariner who's more than a day older than he was yesterday.



  1. This may be one of your best bits of writing.

    It could have used an intermission, I think - I started getting the munchies about halfway through. But still, it might just win some kind of award or something.

  2. Thanks for the kind words - why do they sound so familiar?

    Oh wait, you must have gotten a copy of Blog Commenting For Dummies. That's from the comments CD that's included.

  3. I've heard about this modern thing called radar that actually shows you (in real time) land, bridges, big ships, etc. Could that help?

  4. Amongst The Oaks, I've calculated that every modern convenience on my boat costs me 7.6235 sailing days per year, between regular maintenance and running to West Marine for parts and returning to West Marine to exchange the wrong parts for the right parts that fit, and then going back to West Marine again to get the articulated wrench for installing the parts in a place where normal wrenches won't fit.

    If I had just one more modern convenience on my boat, I'd never get to sail it at all.

  5. I remember really thick fog on one of my trips to San Fran, so can imagine it. Any crossing a busy shipping lane in fog is no fun at all.

    It reminded me a lot of the start of "The Sea Wolf" which is an interesting sailing yarn and opens with collision in the fog in the San Fran bay.

    Probably ok to read it now you're safely back!

  6. Need to reread The Sea Wolf. Think I only got halfway through last time.

    The verification word seems to want me to try licorice liqueur -- anizet.

  7. This a very timely post for the boatdejour home front. I was just yesterday launching my campaign for a new compass for Var Skibet. So far, The Admiral is not approving new expenditures, however with your help I may be able to turn the tide, so to speak. Thanks for the assist.

  8. I think I read The Sea Wolf long before I started sailing and re-reading it now sounds like a good idea.

    I see the full text is available online here.

    He's done a somewhat better job than I have of describing fog in this bit:

    the fog, like the grey shadow of infinite mystery, brooding over the whirling speck of earth; and men, mere motes of light and sparkle, cursed with an insane relish for work, riding their steeds of wood and steel through the heart of the mystery, groping their way blindly through the Unseen, and clamouring and clanging in confident speech the while their hearts are heavy with incertitude and fear.

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  10. Captain Puffy, I never realized just how much I like a compass until I watched one of those nifty digital displays go completely blank one day.

  11. The fog monster is mad today!


  12. From the looks of your chart, both the Confident Mariner and the Fog-Humbled Mariner will end up on the rocks over by Skates. Do either of them consider a left turn over towards the breakwater?

  13. One of the best reasons for going to Skates is to get something on the rocks.

  14. Hold on, you've actually been to Skates? I thought it was just Sunday Brunchers in frilly hats who went there.

  15. The happy hour appetizer menu (in the bar) is one of the best-kept secrets on the bay.

    Oh god, there, I've said it.

  16. I like maps. And turtles. I like turtles, too. But mostly maps. I really like maps.

  17. For sailing blind, I'd use a long white whisker pole to feel my way along so other boats that happen to run into me will know I am blind.