There and Back Again

Ah, the joys and mysteries of the unpredictable ocean that I discussed in my last post, Motives and Motivation. Let me set the stage by saying that I’d urged the owner to first go for sea trials before kicking it for Portland … no time, he said.

And given the amount of other necessary work that we had to get done to the boat before departing, it seemed he was right. We were a couple of days just getting the boat marginally ready for sea. At the end of the last day, we were going to leave, but we decided to put it off until the morning.

So finally, at 5AM the owner and I rolled out of our bunks. While the other crewman slept, we fired up the two diesels, one in each hull of the catamaran, uncoupled the shore power and water, and untied the boat. With clear skies and mild winds, we started out down the Oakland Inner Harbor, which is the waterway between Oakland and Alameda Island. The Inner Harbor is the white colored roughly horizontal channel shown below, a bit lower down from where it says “Middle Harbor”. The image is from my navigation app on my iPhone, which I used for all of the navigation.

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It’s a slow trip up the Inner Harbor to San Francisco Bay, and full of all things marine. Houseboats. Marinas. Lots of shipyards. Floating drydocks. A Coast Guard vessel with the sides blazing white in the dawn sunlight.

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Then across the bay towards San Francisco:

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We passed under the Bay Bridge …

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… and headed for the Golden Gate bridge and the opening that leads to the ocean.

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Before we got to the Golden Gate, we stopped in the middle of the bay near Alcatraz Island to work on setting up the autopilot. The owner bought the boat recently, and it was claimed to work at that time. But despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get the autopilot going.

This was bad news because we were already short-crewed with only three people. It’s much safer and easier with an autopilot because you can leave the wheel to check on things. You can go forward on the deck to scan for buoys and the like. You can make yourself a cup of coffee to keep you going, or adjust the sails. You’re not lashed to the helm.

So the loss of the autopilot was bad, bad … but both the owner and I have done long watches while hand steering at sea. So we thought, well, let’s just keep going. And wonder of wonders, about then we had some porpoises come up to the boat. I’ve never seen them inside the Bay before. Usually, they stay outside.

So we went out through that magical portal to adventure, the door to the big bad ocean, the Golden Gate. For me, going under that bridge has always been a marvelous experience, and this was no exception.

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Outside the Golden Gate, there’s a large shallow area of the ocean that’s called the “Potato Patch”. Nobody’s sure why it’s called that, but in most weather, you don’t want to be there. It’s the shallowest part of “bar”, the shallow area that naturally develops outside the Golden Gate and other river mouths.

If there is any wind, the Potato Patch readily develops a nasty, steep-sided, short-period wave that will toss a pot of beans right off of a boat stove … been there, seen that …

But on that day, the wind was just starting to come up, and the Potato Patch was pretty calm. So we started out straight across it. I figured we’d get across before the wind blew up. And things were going swimmingly … until an engine alarm went off.

We cut both engines immediately. The boat swung around until it was laying in the trough, and with the wind building, the Patch started tossing us around. So we set the jib sail and turned to the south, our only option given the wind. The owner went below while the crewman and I were setting the sail. He came up and said that we’d lost the fan belt on one of the engines … and of course, we didn’t have any spare belts on the boat.

So … we restarted the good engine, left the jib sail up, and headed back in. After a while, the scenery looked like this:

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So I got to go under the Golden Gate bridge twice in one day. Now, I’ve sailed in and out of this bay for over half a century now. And although going out is a wonderful feeling, coming back in through the Gate is even better. The two golden towers mean I’m getting near safety and warmth …

We turned left once we were inside, and went to Sausalito. I’d never been there by boat, but my iPhone showed us the way and we ended up at Schoonmaker’s marina. We phoned around and located some fan belts. The owner went and bought three of them. The crewman went to buy some food for lunch.

During that time the owner took a hard look at the weather conditions that we’d be facing. If we had been able to leave early in the week as planned, we’d have already been up by Oregon. And while we were working we didn’t give the weather much thought.

But now, we saw that conditions in northern California had deteriorated. There were small craft advisories along the coast, plus something new—predicted night-time gusts to 35 miles an hour (55 km per hour). Plus the winds had shifted more northerly, right into our faces on the northern slog.

The catamaran has lots of windage, with high sides and a cabin. This means that a headwind will slow it considerably. Plus when the wind blows from the north around here, it reinforces the south-flowing current. Plus, head waves slow you down.

All of this meant that instead of the six to seven MPH that the boat made in calm conditions, we’d be lucky to make two or three miles per hour over the ground … and it’s 700 miles to Portland.

Now, the owner has lots of sea time, he has a hundred ton Captain’s ticket. And I have no tickets to do anything anytime anywhere … but I’m a seaman with thousands of hours on the ocean. Our conclusion?

Don’t be stupid. Don’t tempt the weather gods. Instead, go back, fix the autopilot, fix the anchor windlass, get adequate spares for things likely to fail … and live to fight another day.

So, somewhat sad and somewhat relieved, we headed back for the marina where we’d started. This time we went the other way around the Bay, behind Angel Island and Treasure Island. True to the forecasts, the winds were already screaming and the bay was filled with what fishermen call “popcorn” and weathermen call “whitecaps” … and the windsurfers were loving it.

alameda 09

Because we went behind Treasure Island, on this leg of the trip we went under the new part of the Bay Bridge. It had to be rebuilt after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It only took them thirteen years to rebuild it. Originally, it was built in three years and seven months … and this, dear friends, is known as “progress”. I will give them credit for sheer beauty, however …

alameda 11

On the way back in, we passed a couple of huge container ships heading for the Oakland Harbor.

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The giant cranes that offload those containers looked like bizarre horses in the afternoon light …

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All too soon we were back at the dock. I packed up my sea bag and cleaned up the boat a bit. I thanked the owner for the opportunity and told him to keep me in mind whenever the boat was actually working, the autopilot fixed, and the weather favorable.

And then my gorgeous ex-fiancee showed up to take me back to our cozy home here in the redwood forest. Tonight, it’s blowing out at sea. Our local buoy is recording winds of 28 knots, with gusts to 39 knots (50 kmph gusting to 75 kmph) but here the moon is shining and the crickets are chirping … what’s not to like?

Was I upset to not be able to take the full trip up north to Portland? Perhaps a bit, but one of the things that I learned while living seventeen years in the South Pacific was the following truism:

From all available evidence, it’s clear that the Universe doesn’t care much about what I’d like to happen next.

However, as with all such occurrences, whether or not we created them, we always have free choice in how we react to them. Fortunately, the choice is easy, since how we respond to a given situation is pretty much a binary option—we can either dig it or whine about it.

Me, I come down hard on the “dig it” side of the equation. Consider. On a beautiful day, I got to sail under the Golden Gate bridge not once but twice. I got to deal with a dead engine in the middle of the Potato Patch. I got to be out in the sunshine and wind. I got to go into Sausalito by sea, never done that. I didn’t fall overboard or get injured. I sailed around Angel Island and under the Bay Bridge. I saw the dolphins laughing in the sea, I saw the windsurfers jumping the whitecaps, I saw the giant horses along the Inner Harbor … how on earth could I whine about being privileged to do all of that, whether I ever got to Portland or not? That’s better than a Disneyland E-ticket ride on my planet …

So to all of you, I can only say I wish that you too follow the dictates of your dreams, that you pass through your own chosen portals to adventure, and that at day’s end, you come safely home to harbor, every single one.

Regards to all,


29 thoughts on “There and Back Again

  1. Thanks for sharing your trip. Marvelous writing, as always from which I “get” something. I lived 20+ years on “the Peninsula” and miss it every day, though my new home is home and good for it. Hope you get to sea again soon. I was in New Zealand sailing the east edge of the tragic Sydney-Hobart storm. We turned around as well. When 50 foot sailboats a quarter mile away disappear in the troughs, being on the ocean is more terrifying beauty than this sailor is prepared to take in. Sail safe!


  2. Miss the Bay and the Golden Gate but do NOT miss the Potato Patch. Thank you for the story which brought back so many memories. Stay well, cousin.


    • Thank you, Stuart. My goal in my writing is indeed to bring everyone along on the journey. I want readers to feel that they are there beside me, facing the wind, taking part in the experience.

      As to the East Coast seas, I have no knowledge. My time has been spent in the North Pacific, the Caribbean, the Bering Sea, and the Tropics, with as much of the latter as I could arrange.




  3. Sailing the ocean fulfills a desire to touch the infinity – even today. It must have been much more exciting in Sir Francis Drake’s days. Progress? I would rather not sail with Sir – pardon, then Pirate – Francis Drake.


  4. You know the e-ticket metaphor is perfect for the image you’re after. But of course you realize it’s dated (by quite a while now). Kind of like; it was like “the great pyramid build”. What could get lost in translation? I’m waiting for when they translate the bible into the emoji edition.


  5. Never know what She might throw at you.
    Best to be prepared.
    I have a good friend that seems to carry repair parts for every system on his “bass boat”.
    He takes meticulous care of it, I’ve watched him connect, then not satisfied with the battery connection, re-do the connection 5-6 times, he got pissed at me for my apparent lack of attention after his fourth time.
    OCD does have its advantages.


  6. Where Old Ocean is concerned, discretion is always the better part of valor.

    I know that you, Mr. Eschenbach, are enough of an old salt to never allow a schedule to dictate the decision of whether or not to put to sea. You are well aware that a lot of people have gotten in serious trouble that way. Good seamanship and judgment prevailed in the decision to return.


  7. In aviation, the circumstances that create an accident are commonly described using the swiss cheese metaphor. When enough of the holes in the cheese line up, stuff happens.
    Fortunately both you and the owner were experienced enough to recognize that pattern. Well done!


  8. When the seas swell to whitecaps and the headwinds blow at gale force, it is time to come about, heading downwind for safe harbor.


  9. Glad you made it back safely W It wasn’t meant to happen which in this situatiin was good

    Hope you get everything repaired and working properly including Auto Pilot.

    Went through similar situation crewing for a good friend Loren Murphy who signed on also to help a friend sail a large Catamaran from Cabo Mexico…tip of Baja to San Diego.

    Was with my son Haven in late August of 1991 when just as we were about to sail around the tip of Baja we got severe hurrican warnings coming right at us so we turned around and headed back to Cabo.

    Got to late then to go with Loren so we helped drive a VW BUG up the then hurricane damaged rough highway from Cabo all the way back to San Diego. Rough trip also…

    Current 100 ft All Aluminium tri master that my good friend Loren Murphy has designed and is building in Clarkston Idaho to put into service in the future for his 25 years plus Christian Sailboat Ministry to the South Pacific.

    Loren became a Christian out of a neighborhood bible study i put together for our community when i had our large farm in Coeur d’ Alene Idaho. Look forward to sailing with him again on the Zebulen in the future.


    All the best W…look forward to your next installments for trip from Oakland up the North Coast. Great pictures on initial story.

    BLESSINGS Jim…you and crew will be in my thoughts and prayers.

    On Oct 1, 2017 12:41 AM, “Skating Under The Ice” wrote:

    > Willis Eschenbach posted: “Ah, the joys and mysteries of the unpredictable > ocean that I discussed in my last post, Motives and Motivation. Let me set > the stage by saying that I’d urged the owner to first go for sea trials > before kicking it for Portland … no time, he said. And giv” >


  10. Parted a jib halyard under the GGB a few years back, and last summer shared a sunset cruise from Inner Harbor to the bridge and back./Users/fredharwood/Pictures/WorkingCameraPics/To iPhoto/_FH64064.jpg


  11. [Willis, check your twitter account. Atomsk’s Sanakan has just called you a liar. I’ve given him enough to choke on, so I’m hoping Willis The Merciless will show him none]

    Atomsk’s Sanakan‏ @AtomsksSanakan
    Replying to @WEschenbach @peden_c and

    Atomsk’s Sanakan Retweeted Atomsk’s Sanakan

    U just lied. Not a mistake; u know you’re wrong, since Tamino corrected u on this:


    • Thanks, J.

      I can’t find Atomsk’s reply … but in any case, the idea that I know I’m wrong because Tamino says so doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Tamino blocked me from his site years ago for asking inconvenient questions. I have no clue what he has or hasn’t said since, I don’t go there.



  12. Thx your recounting your adventure & the wise decision to turn around. I enjoyed yoiur pic of the windsurfer. That’s what I would do for many years – when the wind picks up my Adrenalin picks up as well… wanting to harness the wind & ride those waves. I’ve also had situations where my mast foot has broken in high wind and getting back to shore is by virtue of a nearby boat. So I have a very healthy respect for wind, waves and chaotic seas. Your account gives a vivid picture of difficulties & delights of sailing…. which forever lingers on my mind. Thx again.


  13. I’m sure your captain is not a delivery captain.

    And I’m guessing that he hasn’t owned a sailboat before, because it seems he hasn’t heard of Murphy’s Law. If a fan belt breaks in an unfamiliar boat, is it an old belt or is it a belt-eating alignment issue? If it’s the start of storm season on a nasty stretch of coastline, is there an EPIRB and a life-raft? Maybe it’s time for that cruise up the Sacramento delta that the captain has always wanted before catching the next window of opportunity with the weather.


  14. I emailed a short summary of your voyage to my Czech friends: “Before sailing under the Golden Gate bridge they lost an autopilot. After the bridge they lost one engine.” It sounded eerily familiar. Is there a Czech angle to your story?


  15. That scenario where you’ve used good judgement to decide the weather will do for the trip, but then you’ve used lots of time dealing with a series of “this won’t take too long” issues, and then GONE (’cause it was good judgement not that long ago to GO) has caught me, both when sailing and when flying.

    It is really hard to add “reassess everything again” into the loop after each delay…. but your belt had the decency to fail early so you weren’t a few hundred miles up the coast with a rising headwind on the nose when you lost half your engine power (and probably more than half when you account for the steering issues).

    Hope you get to try this trip again. I’ve wanted to sail that coast, but never got more than a daysail north of the the GG except by flying north and daysailing where the plane took me.


    • Thanks, Paul. You’re right about “reassess everything again”. And indeed we were fortunate in the timing of the belt loss. It gave us the time and the excuse to reassess.

      As to doing it again, the Owner wanted to go on Thursday, but I have friends in from overseas, and obligations after that, so if he goes now it will be without me.

      Regarding sailing the northwest coast, you might enjoy my sea tale called “In Which I Finally Understand The Fairweather Gale” …

      Best to you,



  16. Square waves and small boats don’t mix. Congratulations on avoiding a fools errand.

    I’ve made the 180 decision more than a few times by boat, by plane, and by car.

    Weather always wins, always.


  17. Good move to return to anchorage. Sea Masters should know better than to succumb to “gethomeitis”. You should get your Master ticket, friend Pam has her 100 ton one for the family sailing yacht.


  18. Pingback: Accelerating The Acceleration | Watts Up With That? – All My Daily News

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