Sailing Vacation along the California Coast
A swan 391 strikes out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, and its crew discovers that they have the West Coast nearly to themselves.
California is home to 38 million people, but here we are, just a mile off the beach, and we’re utterly alone. There isn’t another boat in sight. When Anton Muzik and I departed from Sausalito at midday on a Saturday aboard his Swan 391, Zeus, San Francisco Bay was cluttered with scores of sailboats. Two of them headed out under the Golden Gate with us. One turned back at Mile Rock; the other, a TP52, rounded the corner heading south, then quickly disappeared over the horizon, leaving us sailing alone, as if we were off the desolate shore of an unpopulated land.
As Anton and I set out on our harbor-hopping way down the central California coast, the numbers suggest that we should have had plenty of other pleasure boats joining us to do the very same thing: More than 7 million people live in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, and the number of slips in the Central Bay exceeds 11,000. Most of them are filled with boats capable of making the same journey that we’re undertaking. It’s true that harbors on every coast contain a majority of boats that rarely, if ever, venture more than 10 miles from home, but still, this seems to be an extreme case. Very few boats cruise along the central California coast, and it begs the question: Why?
It’s true that California offers a coastline of few harbors. Thanks to its geological inheritance, the state presents a blunt face to the Pacific, one that’s long, straight, and stands tall. There are some stretches, both north and south, completely lacking a decent place for a sailor to tuck into. However, this central part of the coast features several good harbors with safe entrances, plenty of guest slips, and warm showers.
Perhaps, then, it’s the sea conditions that intimidate sailors and prevent them from venturing out for some coastal cruising? Richard Henry Dana sailed here in 1835 during the voyage that he describes in Two Years Before the Mast, in which he writes: “A painter could not have painted so clear a sky. There was not a speck upon it. Yet it was blowing great guns from the northwest. When you can see a cloud to windward, you feel that there is a place for the wind to come from, but here, it seemed to come from nowhere.” Indeed, it’s a statement that seems to dominate the impression that many modern mariners have of the area. And let them think that it’s an unyielding truth, for it keeps the snarl of traffic on the roads and the clutter of boats inside the bay, and it leaves some spectacular cruising grounds relatively untouched.
In fact, the sailing conditions aren’t quite so bad as reputation would have it, and if you take the time to pick your days, there are plenty of opportunities to sail in fair wind. During the spring months, it may blow a cool, clear gale out of the northwest for a day or two, but it’s just as likely to draw warm, damp southerlies with showers or light and variable zephyrs with dense fog. Anton and I made our trip over a two-week period in April, and we saw it all.
Reaching south under clear skies with 25 knots over the starboard quarter, we arrive at Pillar Point Harbor, in Half Moon Bay, well before dinnertime. We eat at Ketch Joanne, the focal point of the docks here, which opens at 6:30 a.m., when it fills with the fishermen who dominate this harbor and define its character. Like most harbors in California, Pillar Point is home to a small number of derelict-looking plywood trimarans as well as some perfectly seaworthy-looking yachts, but the many fishing boats here come in all shapes and materials, including wood, steel, and fiberglass. The fishermen catch crab, salmon, albacore, halibut, sardines, and squid. While it’s only a short drive north to San Francisco and a short drive east to Silicon Valley, the nearby city of Half Moon Bay nevertheless retains a small-town feel that stands in stark contrast to the urban crowds that we left behind in San Francisco.