Passage to San Francisco
Sailing south along the foggy, rock-strewn lee shore of the northwest coast
The West Coast of the United States is not known for its idyllic sailing grounds. From Washington’s Juan de Fuca Strait down to San Francisco and even beyond, the coast is a rock-strewn lee shore, indented by only a few harbors with difficult bar entrances. The most notorious of these is the Columbia River, infamous for its enormous breaking waves. The northern West Coast is known for fog and cold, high winds, confused seas and a south-flowing current that eddies weirdly at treacherous capes like Mendocino. In short, it’s a place most sailors just want to get past in order to reach the warmer climes of Mexico and the actually idyllic cruising of the Sea of Cortez.
Voyagers in the Pacific Northwest contemplating the passage south all agree that the trip isn’t easy and that the longer you wait in the year, the worse the passage will be. They also tend to concur on calling in San Francisco Bay, a milestone after which the hops are shorter and the weather milder. That’s pretty much where consensus ends. Regarding the details of the passage, there are as many theories as there are sailors, which is appropriate given that every day is different out there, every boat is different and each person’s passage will be an unique experience.
The theories run along several lines. One topic is the latest date by which a voyager must round Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of Washington State at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, gateway from the Inside Passage to the North Pacific. On this there is the least controversy, with most sailors agreeing it’s a bad idea to go later than Oct. 1.
A sunset off the Oregon coast.
Another point of friendly debate is whether or not to make a direct passage from Neah Bay, the harbor just inside Cape Flattery, to San Francisco or to break up the passage at various harbors along the Washington, Oregon and Northern California coasts. Related to this is the question of how far to stand offshore before turning south. One idea is to stay close — five to 10 miles — so that you can duck into port quickly when a gale is forecast and cross the bar before it becomes dangerous and the Coast Guard closes it (forbids vessels to cross).
Another idea is go well offshore — as much as 200 miles — on the theory that the swells are better behaved in the deep water beyond the continental shelf, the wind potentially more consistent, the sea room large enough to run before a storm, and the crab pots non-existent should you encounter a calm and have to motor.
Sailing the rhumb line
Yet another strategy is simply to sail the rhumb line between Cape Flattery and Cape Mendocino, which is the next big cape one has to round before reaching San Francisco. This puts you between 20 and 60 miles offshore at any given time, not ideal for ducking into harbor or for running before a storm, but — at around 700 nautical miles — the shortest and thus potentially fastest route.
The route south to San Francisco is straightforward enough, but challenging with cold, fog, high winds and an unforgiving lee shore.
All of these theories are correct, of course, depending on conditions, forecasts, each individual boat and each individual sailor’s preferences. So the story of the passage that my husband, Seth, and I made is simply one example of the many possible ways to tackle this trip.
Seth and I originally intended to make this voyage in 2016, setting off right at the end of September, as soon as we’d completed our boatyard work. Our cold-molded wooden cutter Celeste had spent the prior three years in Alaska, including a voyage to the Arctic and two winters in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. As many people know from the TV show Deadliest Catch, Dutch Harbor sees major storms every year, and one of these had damaged Celeste. In October 2015, a typhoon from Japan curved northeast through the Aleutian chain, bringing 120-mph rotating winds to Dutch Harbor.
Catching a toe rail
Fortunately, the only storage for sailboats there is in the water, so Celeste was not blown over on the hard but merely caught her toe rail under the dock. One of her chain plates and one of her shroud’s turnbuckles were bent, the jib track was mangled, her jib cars were pulverized, part of her toe rail was splintered and several stanchions were bent. Seth and I patched up the essential repairs before setting sail again in the spring of 2016, but there was much more to be done once we reached Port Angeles, Wash., and Platypus Marine boatyard. In addition to the remaining repairs, there was also some deferred maintenance — things like a new cutlass bearing that had been difficult to do in the far north.
As is so often the case, the more we did, the more we found to do — including entirely new standing rigging — so our launch date kept getting pushed back. We missed the Oct. 1 deadline but we hoped we might still find a window to go before November. At the time, we were not as adamant about the October date as many West Coast sailors. We knew the weather would deteriorate but, firstly, we had sailed in some pretty terrible weather in the Arctic and knew Celeste could handle it, and secondly, we had yet to learn just how fast and how badly conditions deteriorate off the West Coast.
We learned soon enough. October seemed to be one big low-pressure system, with high winds knocking trees onto power lines and heavy rain falling for 28 out of 31 days. November was worse, with the grib files featuring big purple and red blotches slamming into the Oregon and Washington coasts one after another. By December, we’d resigned ourselves to the reality that the only way we’d reach San Francisco that year was by car.
Cape Flattery marks the turning point for Celeste to head south.
When spring finally arrived in late April, Seth and I decided to take advantage of the fact that we were still in the Pacific Northwest and spend another summer exploring more of Alaska. We left our return to Cape Flattery just a little too late so that we had to speed back south through British Columbia, sailing day and night. Some of our friends thought we were nuts; after all, it still felt like summer in B.C. even in mid-September. But we knew from the year before how important that Oct. 1 deadline was — we were positively determined to round Cape Flattery by then.
We reached Port Angeles again by Sept. 22, said hello-goodbye to our friends there, dealt with some much-needed marine toilet maintenance, checked the weather forecasts and heaved a sigh of relief at the steady 20- to 30-knot northwesterly wind prediction. We cast off for Neah Bay on Sept. 28.
The prevailing wind in Juan de Fuca Strait is westerly, often with some force, which essentially doubles the 60 miles between Port Angeles and Neah Bay. We were blessed with a dead calm on our departure day and motored over glassy water the whole way, reaching the anchorage just in time to be positioned for the strong northwesterly that we hoped would carry us all the way to San Francisco.
With 25 knots on the quarter, Celeste powers south with a bone in her teeth.
Sept. 29 dawned gray and gusty, with the kind of cold horizontal rain that tells the Pacific Northwest that summer is over. The wind was blowing 15 to 20 knots from the southwest, which meant we faced a wet beat around Cape Flattery and then a close reach down the coast until, we hoped, the wind veered into the northwest. Between the southwesterly wind and the westerly current setting into Juan de Fuca Strait, we had a slow choppy start. By the time we’d finally rounded the cape, our foul weather gear was dripping with spray and rain and our nerves were a little frayed from dodging shipping traffic in the intermittent low-lying fog. But we’d made it! We’d rounded Cape Flattery two days before our deadline.
As if Neptune was celebrating with us, the skies cleared almost as soon as we’d rounded. The seas lay down as soon as we got out of the worst of the current, and the wind diminished enough to make our close reach quite comfortable. We had a lovely view of the famous cape, and then we were off to San Francisco!
Taking the weather window
Due to the weather predictions of steady northwesterlies, Seth and I had decided to sail the rhumb line route between Cape Flattery and Cape Mendocino. If the gribs were correct, we would not encounter more than a fresh gale (Force 8), and that from a favorable direction. We wouldn’t have to duck into a harbor and, as interesting as the ports of Washington and Oregon no doubt are, we wanted to take advantage of the weather window to do a nonstop passage. We also had a bit of a schedule, having signed up for the Cruising Club of America’s biannual members’ meeting, which was to take place in San Francisco on Oct. 12. Furthermore, with such good wind in the forecast, there seemed no need to go far offshore and add many more miles to the trip. We would be sailing, not motoring, so we were much less worried about catching crab trap lines (autumn is Dungeness crab fishing season on the West Coast), and while the smoother seas beyond the continental shelf would doubtless be more comfortable, we didn’t think it was worth it in exchange for adding two days to the passage.
Seth Leonard photographs Ellen enjoying a quick meal in the cockpit.
By dawn on Sept. 30, the wind had come into the west and we were rollicking along on a beam reach. Celeste’s combination of fairly light displacement (for a cruising boat), long overhangs, narrow beam and rounded hull shape makes her a lively ride; her motion has even been known to make some of our Southern Ocean sailor friends a little ill. So we felt no shame in eating quick and easy AlpineAire meals on these first two days of the passage — freeze-dried camping meals into which you simply pour boiling water, wait 10 minutes, and then eat right out of the bag. No time in the galley, and no dishes to wash.
By Oct. 1, when we were about 60 miles off Oregon, the wind veered into the northwest and began to build, gradually and steadily. Soon Celeste was in her element, rushing ahead with the wind on her quarter. She loves a strong wind from astern; above 25 knots and her motion smooths right out.
The wind continued to build over the next day and reached its peak as we passed Cape Mendocino 20 miles off around 5 a.m. on a moonless, partly cloudy night. We were not quite far enough away to avoid the unpleasant swirling currents and resulting steep, choppy waves. Our Cape Horn wind vane had been working beautifully throughout the passage until a big wave crashed full over Celeste, clean over her cabin top. The wave broke off one of the blocks that led the control lines from the wind vane’s rudder to Celeste’s tiller. We spent the next half-hour with me at the helm and Seth struggling with a headlamp, fasteners and screwdriver to repair the problem, but then the wind vane took over again and steered us the rest of the way to the Golden Gate.
Seth furls Celeste’s main as the wind dies.
Northern birds depart
Our northwesterly eased over the final two days of the passage and we noticed a significant increase in air temperature. Gone also were northern birds — the murres, rhinoceros auklets and northern fulmars — and instead we began to see those comic denizens of the California coast, the brown pelicans. In the late afternoon of Oct. 4, five and a half days after leaving Neah Bay, the Marin Headlands loomed out of a bank of fog: the perfect, quintessential San Francisco landfall. Reddish-brown in the evening light, they meant the end of the big West Coast passage, the completion of a tough trip.
The wind died with the sunset and we started the engine for the first time since Neah Bay. The fog remained thick over the Golden Gate, cloaking that narrow strait and its famous red bridge in a damp quilt. Between the darkness and the fog, the visibility was reduced to practically nothing. Even with an excellent radar, chartplotter, AIS, foghorn and my local knowledge as a native San Franciscan, it would probably have been more prudent to have hove-to and waited until morning to enter the bay. We went ahead anyway, though, excited to have arrived and looking forward to waking up in the city the next morning.
The tide was with us, shooting us under the bridge as our radar picked out all the ships going in and out. Everything was going well, with the radar targets lining up with the AIS-identified containerships, tankers and freighters. We were keeping well to our side of the channel, out of everyone’s way. Then a radar target appeared that had no corresponding identification on the AIS. What was it? It looked large enough to be a ship, and prior to AIS and the requirement that all commercial ships have transponders, we would have known for certain that it was. But we second-guessed our radar and were very stressed until we actually saw it looming in the fog. It was most definitely a ship. We passed each other with no problems, but it was a tense moment and I still do not know why the ship was not transmitting on the AIS. It was a little lesson, though, in how technology — when it fails — can sometimes make things more confusing than they were before, and how it’s important not to lose simple skills like listening for identifying foghorn blasts.
The Golden Gate shrouded in a classic San Francisco fog bank.
But then we were through, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco Bay! Suddenly we were motoring under clear skies; the fog was stopped up in the Golden Gate and hadn’t spilled into the bay. The moon shone big and bright overhead, the city’s lights formed a sparkling skyline and the Bay Bridge was outlined in a million twinkling bulbs. We turned north for Richardson Bay, the free anchorage area off Sausalito, opposite the city of San Francisco. Once the anchor was down and holding, the sail cover on, the lines coiled and the cabin tidied, we opened a celebratory champagne bottle and toasted our arrival in one of the world’s great cities.
Ellen Massey Leonard has circumnavigated westabout with her husband Seth. Since then they have sailed extensively in Alaska and the Arctic and recently completed their second Pacific crossing and have sailed 50,000 offshore miles. Her website is GoneFloatabout.com.
Celeste entered San Francisco Bay and was greeted with the sight of the city in full sunlight.