Last winter, while living aboard and working on CELESTE in Port Angeles, we discovered just how frequent and how deep the low pressure systems that hit the Pacific Northwest can be. So this year, after returning to Port Angeles from our Alaskan cruising, we were determined to get south of their tracks before the winter pattern began.
After saying goodbye to our friends in Port Angeles, we set off down the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the Pacific. The wind usually blows strong from the west in the Strait, which would have been dead against us, but fortunately we had a calm day and had an easy motor to Neah Bay, a lovely protected anchorage that we’ve been in twice before. Then, following a good night’s sleep, we set off for our passage to San Francisco.
The axiom of West Coast sailors that you have to round Cape Flattery (the NW tip of Washington State) by October 1st in order to have a good chance of decent weather for the passage to California. We thought this was about right, given how quickly the weather turned last winter. That had been our goal and the reason for our rushed trip down the Inside Passage this year.
We had headwinds (west winds) leaving Neah Bay, but after a little bit of beating to weather, we got around Cape Flattery and eased the sheets. It was September 29, so we’d made that deadline.
On our first day the wind oscillated between W and SW, so that we were either on a beam or close reach. On the second day, the wind came into the NW and stayed there. So we had a great run – flying before the wind as it built day by day. The seas were a little lumpy – short period wind chop combined with westerly swell – but the wind was perfect for CELESTE: on the quarter at 20-30 knots.
We had our windiest night – and our only breakage – off Cape Mendocino. A wave crashed clean over the boat and managed to wrench free one of the blocks that run the control lines from our wind vane to our tiller. Of course it happened at 4:30 in the morning in the pitch black just after I’d climbed into my nice warm bunk and handed the watch to Seth…. I steered while Seth fixed it, so no drama really. Just an annoying disturbance.
We reached the Golden Gate after five and a half days at sea and of course it was cloaked in fog. We did see the tips of the bridge poking out above the fog, and it cleared away enough to see the Marin Headlands as we approached.
The wind died in the mid-afternoon and, although we started motoring, we motor much slower than we sail, so it was dark when we were going under the Golden Gate Bridge. I really think that most of the shipping traffic transits the Golden Gate at night – or at least there was a lot of traffic when we were trying to get in. And remember it was dark and foggy… so we were dodging it all by radar and AIS. Just as we were going under the bridge, we encountered a container ship that was visible on our radar but wasn’t on our AIS. We couldn’t understand what was going on, because it’s illegal for big ships not to have AIS, but the radar wasn’t lying. We dodged her all right, but it was stressful!
Once through, the fog cleared and we had a perfect view of the moon over the lighted city and the string of lights on the Bay Bridge. We dropped anchor in Richardson Bay off Sausalito, marveling at the incongruity of being at anchor – for free – in one of the world’s great coastal cities.
And, of course, I was thrilled to have done something I’d always wanted to do as a child growing up in San Francisco – come into the Bay from the Pacific in my own boat!
Here’s some boring technical stuff for sailors contemplating the passage:
There are a lot of theories about how far to stay offshore, whether or not to hop down the coast or to make a straight shot, etc. It all depends on your preferences and what the weather forecasts show for you, but, for what it’s worth, this was my experience:
- We made a nonstop passage. We had perfect wind for it and it’s what we wanted to do anyway. While I’m sure the ports along the Washington, Oregon, and Northern California coasts are fun and interesting, we had decided that we wanted to spend more time in San Francisco Bay. We also wanted to get to San Francisco by mid-October because we had signed up to attend our club’s (the Cruising Club of America) Fall Dinner then. Finally, we didn’t really want to deal with crossing the bar entrances to the various ports en route, although I’m sure it’s no big deal in the right conditions.
- We stayed 20-60 miles offshore. That’s essentially just the rhumb line route from Cape Flattery to Cape Mendocino. With our forecast, there was no need to go any further off and add more miles to the trip.
- We saw a few crab pots but it was no problem as we were sailing, not motoring, so weren’t worried about getting them caught in our propeller.
We had a great passage and really enjoyed our time in San Francisco.