Gone Floatabout

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Passage to San Francisco (October 2017)


Passage to SF-2Last 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.

Sea stacks outside Neah Bay

Sea stacks outside Neah Bay

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.

Cape Flattery

Cape Flattery

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.

Ellen on passage to SF

Enjoying an AlpineAire meal on one of the first days of the passage, while getting our sea legs!

Sunset off Oregon

Sunset at sea

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.

North Pacific wave

A nice whitecap

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.

Birds and Marin Headlands

Flocks of birds off the foggy Marin Headlands

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!

Golden Gate Bridge at night in fog

Fog spilling over the Golden Gate Bridge, seen after sailing into the bay

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.

San Francisco in moonlight

San Francisco in the moonlight

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.


34 thoughts on “Passage to San Francisco (October 2017)

  1. Its always fun and informative to read your posts. And to find your articles in Cruising World is always a welcoming experience. Thanks so much. I’m looking forward to more.

    • Thanks, Don! So glad you enjoyed reading them – there are more in the pipeline, though I’m not sure exactly when they’re coming out.

  2. Pingback: Passage to San Francisco – feature article in Ocean Navigator | Gone Floatabout

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  7. Lovely description! Your writing took me away from my familiar world for a few moments! Thank you.

  8. Immer wieder schön, bei dir zu lesen. Grüße aus dem Gebirge.

  9. Great account of good sailing, one wave mishap, magical moments, container ship danger and a childhood dream come true. Wow and good pictures to boot! Thanks again. Happy New Years!

  10. Reading this brought back memories for me (https://svtheredthread.com/2014/10/18/our-first-ocean-passage-neah-bay-to-san-francisco/). We made the big left-hand turn on October 3, 2014, and got the last decent window of the season. Waiting until that late in the year had sailor friends quite worried (feelings exacerbated, of course, by the fact that we had ZERO ocean sailing experience until we left Neah Bay!). We, too, sailed direct and had a great passage, staying a similar distance off shore. I see in the comments that you’re already further south, but I hope you enjoyed San Francisco the remainder of the California coast. ~Jessie

    • Well, they shouldn’t have been worried! But it’s always nice that friends and relatives are worried for you out at sea, no matter what level of experience you have – it means they care about you! 🙂

  11. Brings back happy memories of your visit here. Fascinating to read about your voyage down. Come back!

    • Thank you, Sandra! We have very happy memories of our time in the Bay, too! We’ll definitely look you up again if we’re back there sometime!

  12. Are you in the Los Angeles area? If so I would love to meet and see your boat. If you need anything for the boat (woodworking wise) let me know.

  13. Sounds like nearly a carbon copy of the same voyage I did in early June 1999 aboard a friend’s boat with him and his wife, except we had 2 more days of headwinds before it switched to the NW, so the journey took 6 1/2 days altogether. There’s nothing quite like sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge when coming in from offshore!

    • Interesting that the weather was so similar for you, despite the difference in time of year. And yes, it’s really something special to sail through the famous Golden Gate! Thanks for reading!

  14. I get sea sick so boats are not my fave mode of transportation. They do look so much fun tho!

  15. Fabulous! Have a lovely Christmas! xx

  16. Ellen and Seth: At last! A proper harbor for the winter. Are you to remain in Sausalito or will you head to the other other side? If Sausalito, is the No-Name Bar stil in operation.

    Just finished reading Conrad’s”End of the Tether,” where I ran into that Chief Engineer, Mr. Massy, who managed to scuttle his ship. No relation?

    Having done around the world, and now Alaska and back, what’s next? Around Cape Horn, the right way? I keep a sharp lookout for your continuing saga.

    Felix Kloman 61 Ely’s Ferry Road Lyme, CT 06371 Tel: 860-434-5356 Email: fkloman@aol.com

    • Hi Felix,

      Thanks for writing. I’m sorry the blog is so far behind reality… Celeste is actually in Los Angeles now. We had a great time in both Sausalito and San Francisco, although we did not see the No Name Bar.

      Conrad is a great writer – his engineer Mr Massy is no relation, though 🙂

      Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean beckon all sailors, don’t they? At the moment, though, our plans are a bit tamer – just Baja in February.

      All the best,

  17. I enjoyed this immensely. It brought back memories – we left San Francisco (after studying the tide/overruns diligently!) It’s a special moment when you sail under that bridge. Great pictures!

    • Thanks so much, Jackie! Even though it was stressful coming under the bridge will all that nighttime traffic, it was still a magical moment!

  18. Are you guys still in SF? WE are in Santa Cruz for the winter this year, no NZ

    • Oh no! I’m so sorry we forgot to get in touch and find out if you were around! The boat’s actually already in Southern California, though if you fancy a trip down there in the new year, let us know! We still have our same email addresses.