Riding the San Francisco Bay escalator

Published on January 23rd, 2022

In his January column for Seahorse magazine, Paul Cayard described San Francisco Bay as “a treacherous piece of water off the otherwise peaceful Pacific Ocean. On a summer afternoon, with the current going at 2kt out the gate and the 59° wind pushing in at 25kt, what you have is the Octagon of Sailing.”

Here are some memories from fighting on this canvas:

Steve Bossi:
During a Metropolitan Mid-winter race on the Berkley Circle, the wind went extremely light. My J/24 (Cornicchio) crew noticed that despite the fact we were “sailing” and appearing to make headway, in fact, we were basically on one of the SF Bay treadmills.

In other words our VMG was, at best, ZERO with a good dose of negative thrown in for good measure. I asked the crew to sneak below and quietly slip the anchor over the side. As soon as the anchor took hold we started passing boats. It took a couple minutes for other boats noticed what we had done. There was a flurry of anchors hitting the water.

The Bay is amazing.

John Callahan:
After sailing and racing all manner of sailboats constantly on the bay starting in the late 60s – I got deep into boardsailing and racing sailboards on the Bay in the 80s and 90s – the “heyday” of that sport.

Crissy Field, very near the St Francis Yacht Club, is where everyone would launch – and reach back and forth endlessly … straight out and straight back in that incredible 25 kt thermal every summer afternoon.

But as a keelboat sailor I knew there was much more the Bay had to offer. I made it a goal to get up to and under the Golden Gate Bridge on every session, regardless of the current. But when the outgoing ebb was at its peak, I would sail the three miles dead downwind to the south corner of Alcatraz – knowing that if the wind died or I had a gear failure, the current would bring me back up fast to Crissy Field.

On that small patch of violently turbulent water off southern Alcatraz in big wind and a big ebb – I was rewarded with my private 100 yards of giant, steep, breaking waves – a shortboarder’s ultimate whitewater playground. A downwind up-escalator that never stopped – very similar to the Columbia River Gorge – yet right in my own urban backyard – not some distant vacation destination.

I would play in those waves for an hour, surfing and jumping for joy, until I was completely spent – then take the ebb escalator up and be back home in 20 minutes. I never saw another windsurfer down there, ever. I am past that time of my life now – on to other more modest sailing adventures (though still joyous). But the conditions are still there on a big ebb. I hope someone is down there experiencing one of the great, not so hidden treasures of SF Bay.

Do you have stories from the Chesapeake Bay? Narragansett Bay? Great Lakes? Send them to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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