Shuttling scientists to and from the Farallon Islands relies on volunteer efforts by sailors hungry for blue water. A special report from our August 2007 issue

November 3, 2009

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The 19th-century lighthouse-keeper quarters on Southeast Farallon provide a base for scientists and their work. Nonnie Thompson

It’s midday, and the conditions have deteriorated: The large swell running from the northwest now cradles steep breakers driving northeast like semitrucks on a narrow country road. Bittersweet, our Able Apogee 50, climbs up each face only to smash into the following trough, shake it off, then power up the next. The 40-knot wind sings in the bare poles, and the rain blows sideways, pelting my face and eyes. The six of us grip handholds and focus on the green flanks of our destination, Southeast Farallon Island, as it dips and rises over the oncoming waves. Looking back, I can just make out San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. Looking forward, I anticipate the stillness of the island, hovering out of reach. As we crawl toward it, I remind myself that we’d asked for this. We’re the Farallon Patrol, and this is our volunteer mission: We carry supplies and fresh staff to a scientific-research station. Braving the elements, revitalized by the environment, we feel alive and connected, exhausted and challenged. We carry on.

My husband, David, and I have always liked to explore wild places, to go where few boats muddy the waters. But here in the San Francisco Bay area, sailing is limited by shoals and rocky islands. On an average afternoon, we sail with blowing spray and 50-degree temperatures, as winds are sucked through the slot between the headlands at more than 20 knots. Under crystal-blue skies, Coit Tower and Transamerica’s Pyramid glow in the cityscape. Over a ghostly fog, the orange tips of the Golden Gate Bridge mark the entrance to the great Pacific. Alcatraz looms nearby, and all manner of boats fill the bay. Sleek racers finesse yellow buoys, while lovely classics and energetic daysailers rollick in a bright ballet. Sailboards, fishing boats, ferries, and freighters, all moving at wildly varying speeds, complete the scene. We sail a turn around the bay and reef, reef, reef. In time, these daily dalliances become routine. Bittersweet, a fast, deep-draft, ocean cruiser, begs for blue water. On a romp around the bay, she turns her head to the Golden Gate and tugs us toward the ebbing current. Maybe we ought to go to sea. . . .

“Going outside” is an expression of awe bandied about the docks. Sailing under the Golden Gate is pretty straightforward, but once outside, local currents against prevailing westerlies, the Potato Patch shoal, and the ever-threatening lee shore are wake-up calls to mariners. In the North Pacific Ocean, sailors crave a destination or activity to provide dimension, direction, and purpose. For hundreds of miles north and south, safe harbors are rare and, in heavy weather, unapproachable. As destinations go, the Farallon Islands, 27 miles offshore, make for a stunning daytrip, but it’s not for everyone.


This archipelago, hovering near the continental shelf, is the breeding grounds for more than 300,000 migratory birds, seals, sharks, and whales. It’s a protected national wildlife refuge and an international biosphere reserve, so it’s not open to visitors. Recreational vessels aren’t permitted within 300 yards of its shoreline; anchoring is allowed only at Southeast Farallon, one of the seven islands in the group. That island is also a research station for the scientists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and PRBO Conservation Science. The island requires revolving staff, supplies, and tools to keep research humming. To effect a biweekly supply line, the Farallon Patrol was created. As members of the patrol, we regularly hone our offshore skills to assist the research cause. We prepare for bone-chilling temperatures, taking green water over the bow, and all manner of tough ocean sailing. A trip to the feral Farallon Islands is offshore sailing with all the trimmings. And if conditions allow, the scientists offer the Farallon Patrol crew a tour of the island. When we heard a call for volunteer boats, we jumped right on board, so to speak.

For our first official run, we chose a date in March. It sounded springlike and warm, but as the date drew near, I realized that March would come in like a lion. In February, David and I began watching the weather. Lows were marching down the coast, highs were fighting back from the south, and the lows were winning. In late winter, we saw snow, hail, severe wind, pelting rain, bitter cold, and lightning. A full moon in the clear skies above us meant that our passage would be extra-cold. Then we were told that the March trip is traditionally the year’s roughest. It was also a change-of-season trip: When the scientists switch from elephant-seal research to seabird research, there has to be a complete change of staff. After three months on Southeast Farallon Island, the crew was ready to come home. We’d deliver three people, plus their food and supplies for two weeks, and we’d return with six people, their gear, and their garbage. With a full boat, inexperienced passengers, and rough conditions, we knew that safety would be our main concern. We unpacked and checked life jackets, harnesses, tethers, jacklines, foul-weather gear, and the MOB pole.

We motored away from Alameda at 0700 on a quiet, cold Sunday. As we powered for the Golden Gate, calm conditions on the bay called for breakfast. “It’d be easy to get complacent,” I warned myself under my breath. It was a good time for us to give our passengers Bittersweet’s official lecture on safety gear and basic handling, complete with a distribution of life jackets and harnesses, tethers, and water bottles. We all knew that change awaited us outside the Golden Gate, and we spied it through the dodger. Waves broke, sending foam 75 feet over Point Bonita. The sea over the Potato Patch was white and lumpy. Shortly after pushing under the Golden Gate, passing beneath church-going families and joggers savoring the quiet morning, we began to pitch in the waves. It was 0900.


Given the option of running north toward Muir Beach or hugging the edge of the shipping channel, the more direct route, we chose the latter. Visibility was good, but the seas were building against us as the wind filled. Still in the shadow of the Golden Gate, we set our course to 235 degrees and drove southwest across a northwest swell. The rain began to fall, then to beat, and finally to run across the deck and into our faces; it was cold and bracing. This continued at intervals for the entire crossing. Biologist Meghan Riley and operations tech Jesse Irwin found the sweet spot under the hard dodger; Russ Bradley, Farallon program manager for PRBO Conservation Science, and our friend, Jeff Borup, settled in the exposed cockpit. David and I took turns at the helm. As the Muir Beach headlands faded astern, a collective chattering about the island, conditions, and options held our attention and quieted our ever-present nausea. Unrolling a bit of the jib, we sailed into the 20-knot wind and the moderate, eight- to 10-foot seas. It was 1000.

Now, as the lunch hour came and went, with increasing wind and deepening wave troughs, we bashed into the squall. A ceiling of fog and rain lowered to the horizon. Uncomfortable in the wrenching movement, we sought out any distracting activity, including watching for whales. Progress was slow, and the day wore on. As we drew nearer the island, the skies cleared, and I heard a faint cacophony of the resident birds, a sudden comfort to my tired ears. A VHF call to biologist and tender captain Derek Lee confirmed that those on shore were ready for a transfer attempt. We could see the trademark orange-and-silver RIB built by SAFE Boats International swinging from the blue crane over the white water in the cove. “Looks good,” our seasoned Farallon passengers confirmed. From our pitching deck, we watched with hope. It was 1330.

As the sea surged, the transfer boat dropped, unhooked, powered up, and flew through the spray toward us; this perfectly choreographed feat would be repeated before day’s end. Derek helped us secure the U.S. Coast Guard’s mooring painter to our bow. Tied up and laying off, we were far from settling in. As we continued to buck and roll, with all fenders hung from the starboard rail, the transfer boat pulled alongside, and we began a focused and speedy exchange. Crates of food, jugs of fuel, two-by-fours, and staff with bulky duffels flew with the precision of the Wallendas over the lifelines. By the time the transfer was complete, a dark anvil cloud filled the northern sky. Oh-didn’t we want to go ashore? Not today! In the shuffle, a shore visit had become the least important thing on our minds. Next time, maybe. It was 1545. Time to head back.


Before clearing the mooring ball, all six new hands received Bittersweet’s safety-gear allotment and lecture. Then we turned the bow toward the Golden Gate, rolled out a full jib, passed out buckets-just in case-and settled in for a downwind ride. The northwest wind still blew hard, but as we closed the space toward the horizon, we felt a great relief. Derek offered to drive, allowing David and me to drop into cushioned seats and rest. And when one whale of a nearby pod rose beside the boat, we peered into its blowhole and declared it a juvenile gray. As birds of various shapes and sizes skimmed the crests of following waves, Derek was enthused by a northern fulmar, and I added it to my life list.[pagereak]

Then our new passengers entertained us with stories of their remarkable winter. As they spoke, I recalled our October training and island tour. When Derek told us of the breeding elephant seals in the coves, I imagined white waves curling around pinnacle headlands, the loud riffle of receding surf over rock, and bulbous gray seals sprawled everywhere. When they talked of their lighthouse lookouts, David and I remembered hiking to that hilltop for the 30-mile view and the sight of a white shark’s attack on a seal. Of island life, I remembered the cozy kitchen, ample bed and bathrooms, large sunny windows, and the refuge-like interior of the battered colonial-style structure built in the 1870s. When they talked of island study, I saw the broad terraces littered with nesting boxes, heard the wind hum through the bird blinds, and felt the vulnerable drama of the life-and-death struggle.

Our passengers seemed ready to resume their lives, but we sensed their sadness at leaving new friends, human and otherwise, and the comfort of the island sanctuary. They’d once again furthered the survival of the Farallon colonies, and their satisfaction shone in bright yet tired eyes.


When we reached the Golden Gate, plates of hot lasagna, bread, and salad appeared through the companionway, and everyone partook. It was a hungry lot. The fresh air and rough seas had renewed our appetites. Tying up in Alameda, we shared hugs, thanks, and fond good-byes. We wished each other well, commented on a rough but successful transfer, and offered hope that we’d meet again. As the Farallon biologists dragged their duffels up the dock and out of sight, David and I smiled, breathed a sigh, and relaxed in the moonlit afterglow of the day. It was 2200.

Contributor Nonnie Thompson was a Cruising World 2004 Boat of the Year judge.


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