With my earlier years spent in the Marine Corps, you would think that the experiences I had then would be among my scariest, and you would be right. There were a few times I thought I was going to die, but maybe because I was so young and had so little to lose, none of them would I consider my scariest.
My scariest experience did not occur until six years after my discharge, in the Fall of 1967 when I now had a wife, Barbara, and two young children, Cheryl and Charles, a lot to lose. Since that was over fifty years ago, I’ll do my best to recall the event as best I can.
For those six years after the Marine Corps, I struggled while working full-time to finish my engineering degree. It was tough, but my wife and children were all supportive and helped me finish.
Finances were not a big concern then as I had been making good money for the last two years and had already been employed by IBM for a year as an engineer despite not having finished my degree.
As a gift to myself for graduation, I wanted to buy a sailboat, so right afterward, Barbara and I took sailing lessons in Redwood City and completed the Coast Guard safety program.
The outfit where we took our sailing lessons also sold sailboats, and I bought an O-Day 23′ Tempest sailboat from them. It was a perfect boat for the San Francisco Bay as it was solidly made and had a heavy deep bulb keel for stability in strong winds. The only sails that came with it were the mainsail and a jib. Only years later did I add the Genua and Spinnaker sails.
The boat had a small, enclosed cabin with two bunks with room for the sail bags to be stored underneath and a seawater flushed head. Outside it had sizeable lockers under the seats on both sides, with access to the bilge, and a covered compartment in the stern for a small kicker (outboard motor).
We took delivery of our boat there in Redwood City and proceeded to sail it to the slip we had rented at a marina in the Oakland estuary, probably a distance of 25-30 miles. I don’t remember much about that trip, so it must have uneventful.
About a month or so later, we somehow learned that our boat’s bottom had not been painted with anti-fouling paint as specified in our order. When we contacted the dealer and complained, they told us to sail the boat back to Redwood City, and they would haul it out and clean and paint it.
That did not please us, but we had no good options other than to have it done at our expense and hopefully get the dealer to at least partially reimburse us. We figured, what the heck, it was a lovely sail, so we decided to do it as a weekend family outing.
I learned from sailing that I had to be patient, and that is what I had to be that day as we were becalmed in the middle of the Bay for several hours, hoping for some wind. Finally, I started our kicker and motored the rest of the way to the dealer’s docks, where we bought the boat.
On the trip down, we noticed that construction work was ongoing on the seven miles long San Mateo Bridge that linked the San Francisco peninsula with the East Bay. Because of the construction, only one small section about sixty feet wide was not blocked on the bridge’s western end, where we were, and available for passage.
My boat was ready by the following weekend, and rather than my family joining me to sail it back up the Bay and down the Estuary to our slip, Stuart, my brother-in-law, who was visiting us, asked to go with me. Stuart was eighteen at that time, and we were quite close, so it seemed like it would be an enjoyable bonding experience.
I don’t remember if Stuart had any sailing experience, but if he did, it wasn’t much and was only on small boats on Folsom Lake.
Barbara dropped us off at the dealer at around 1:00 PM, and I figured it would take us 4-5 hours to reach our slip. She planned on meeting us there, and we would all go out to dinner in Oakland afterward.
Up to this time, all our experience sailing in the Bay was that the weather was very light in the morning, like on our sail down the previous weekend, and did not pick up until after 1:00 PM. That was another reason for our late start. I knew we would have to tack all the way up the Bay and wanted to have at least moderate wind.
Stuart and I had no problems raising the sails and proceeding to sail out of the Redwood City inlet and into the Bay. As we passed the channel’s mouth, I noticed two red pennant flags were flying, and somehow it did not register on me that they indicated a gale warning, with expected winds of 39 to 54 miles per hour.
By the time it registered on me that there was a problem, we had already gone too far, and turning back under sail was no longer a viable option. The direction of the wind and the pounding waves was such that we surely would have had no control and been smashed upon the inlet rocks if we turned around and tried to return. The only thing I thought we could do now was to continue on, start the motor, drop the sails, and then return.
Because of the high wind, we were heeled over so far that water broke over the gunnels and poured into the boat, and I will admit it was becoming scary. The wind was rapidly building up, and I knew if I did not quickly shorten the sails, we would be swamped or capsize.
By now, Stuart was becoming terrified and was holding on with a death grip around the upwind winch.
I yelled at Stuart to grab two lifejackets out of the locker he was sitting on, put one on, and give me the other. After we both had lifejackets, I told Stuart to take the helm while I went forward and dropped the jib. That turned out to be a big challenge as the waves were now crashing over the bow, and we were heeled over almost 45 degrees.
Somehow I crawled out to the bow, dropped the sail, and safely scrambled back to the cockpit. It is worth noting how difficult that was as, at that time, my boat did not have lifelines or a railing to hold on to.
When I was back in the cockpit, I attempted to shorten the mainsail to lessen our lean, but the wind was so strong it was jammed in its tracks. After I gave up on that, I opened the hatch on the motor locker and attempted fruitlessly to start the kicker. Water must have gushed up the hull opening and flooded the motor as after numerous pulls on the starter rope, there was not even a pop out of it.
I didn’t know what the hell to do now other than to continue tacking upward into the wind and pray that it would lessen. And for several hours, that is what we did, scared shitless as it got dark and cold, while miserably making minimum headway.
To re-assure Stuart, I kept telling him that it was going to be okay; we would safely be in open water once we got past the bridge.
However, I definitely knew we were not okay. I was becoming worried we would sink as we were constantly taking on water from the waves now continually breaking over the bow and the gunnels and making its way down into the bilge. The small manual bilge pump I had Stuart now using proved ineffective, and I had him retrieve a bucket stored below and start bailing out the bilge through the lower locker hatch opening.
That proved to be a scene I, and he will most assuredly never forget. Poor Stuart was by now horribly seasick, and it seemed that for hours every time he bailed a bucket, he threw up a bucket.
We were both totally soaked and getting very cold. Stuart somehow managed to extract the one set of foul weather gear I had in the cabin that I had bought years before to walk my dog. He put on the top, and I put on the bottom or visa versa, I don’t remember which.
However, I do remember trying a rope around Stuart and fastening it to a cleat so he would not inadvertently be washed overboard.
Up to now, I was damn scared but not panicky. The conditions were frightening, but all I needed to do was to continue to follow the lighted buoys that marked our passageway northward while Stuart maintained his bailing. Those buoys would guide me through the narrow opening under the bridge. I knew that after that, it would be clear sailing to Oakland and down the Estuary.
But then it became worse, much worse. It started to rain, first lightly and then building up into a seemingly torrential downpour so heavy I could no longer make out the buoys or soon afterward even the near lighted shoreline. We were totally screwed.
Without those visual references, there was no way I could hope to clear that tiny opening under the bridge. In fact, I probably couldn’t even come close to it, let alone the bridge itself. All the sailing I had done so far had been in broad daylight, and I foolishly never bothered to buy a compass.
And if by magic, we somehow did reach the bridge, unless we were precisely at the opening, we wouldn’t have enough maneuverability to make it through, and most likely, we would be bashed against the stanchions by the waves and sink. Even with our lights on, no one would see us to provide help as we went down in this storm.
Yes, we had our life jackets on so we wouldn’t drown immediately. However, the rough seas would make it impossible to hold on to the mossy bridge structure, and eventually, we would be smashed to death against it instead.
However, most likely, we would not even reach the bridge and just sail about aimlessly in the open lower Bay until Stuart tired out, the bilge filled with water, and we eventually sunk. And, unless, by some miracle, we ended up in a major shipping channel, no one would spot our bodies. We would just be some of the many pieces of flotsam bobbing around in the South Bay waters.
All I could think about was that we were going to die, and I just wished there was some way I could have said goodbye to my family. In my panic, it never registered on me that Barbara would have the Coast Guard out searching for us.
I had completely given up hope when Stuart yelled, “There’s a buoy ahead!”
Sure enough, as if by magic, ahead, slightly to my port side, I could make out a green-lit buoy indicating we were sailing just a little outside the channel where we were supposed to be. At least now I knew we were headed for the bridge. I just needed to correct our position and pray that I would eventually spot that little opening in time to aim for it.
I had no idea how far we were from the bridge but suspected there would be at least one more buoy before reaching it. Stuart and I were now both staring ahead, desperately trying to spot another buoy or the bridge. I remember thinking blasphemously, “Thank God,” we still have a chance; it is not over.
For many long minutes, we both stared ahead, afraid to blink lest we somehow miss something. Then there was a flash of lightning, and for a brief moment, I could see the opening under the bridge only about one hundred feet directly in front of us. Although it was about sixty feet wide, it appeared so very much smaller.
In a brief instance I could no longer see anything. All I could do now was try to keep my course steady and pray we somehow would make it through.
Seconds passed agonizingly slow, and all of a sudden, I had a fleeting heart-stopping view of concrete and metal scaffolding rushing close by, and we were safely on the other side.
Stuart and I said nothing for a very long while, as neither thought we would make it through alive. I’m sure we both thought it was a miracle, and that is what it indeed appeared to be as within minutes, the rain ceased, the wind lessened, and the sky cleared.
Our sail from there to the marina, other than being cold, was uneventful. I’m sure I had gone forward and raised the jib, but I don’t remember doing it. That part of the trip was all in a daze.
I do remember that after we tied up, we went to a vending machine and spent the little amount of change I had to get something to eat, and then afterward, with our clothes still on, heading into the steaming hot showers where Barbara found us much later.
Surprisingly, within a few months, I talked to Stuart and a friend to go sailing with me. He really was brave!