Does it say something about sailing or does it say something about journalism that even the New York Times had to look for an America’s Cup tie-in when it reported the tragic deaths of five amateur sailors aboard a keelboat rounding an island at the edge of the Continental Shelf, 27 miles from the nearest point of the planned 2013 America’s Cup course inside San Francisco Bay?
In the last week I have not had a single sailor-conversation that has not turned to the tragedy of losing five souls in the 2012 Farallons Race. For that matter, it came up with nonsailors as well. The first casualties in 105 years of the Farallons Race touched this community in a powerful way. We are haunted in our imaginings, and we are haunted by the images of the 38-foot Low Speed Chase on an unforgiving lee shore, surrounded by white water. Only the edges of that could be addressed in the lovely memorial on a lovely Saturday evening in Belvedere Cove, with flowers and wreaths spread across the waters and music in the air along with memories and sadness for five fellow sailors who loved what sailing truly is, a way of living that is much more than just “sailing.” We’re calling it a hundred boats on the water, and there was no counting those who shared from the shoreline.
The names were read:
Mark Kasanin, Alexis Busch, Jordan Fromm, Elmer Morrissey, Alan Cahill
As if there might be a providence offering a gift, the evening came with none of the chill edge that often creeps late into San Francisco Bay, even along the sheltered Marin shores to the north. No, the evening was warm and calm. The San Francisco Fireboat Phoenix—itself one of the great “characters” of San Francisco Bay, and thank you, Phoenix—aimed its jets to the sky. Lilies drifted easily upon the waters, drifted in their own dream between light and dark, drifted, and then darkness fell.
It’s been a long week.
Getting It Right
Here’s a tip of the hat to Bay Area Multihull Association stalwart Bob Naber for parsing out the truth about casualties from sailboats in the Gulf of the Farallones and jumping on one news organization after another and calling them to account for inaccuracies.
I agree with Bob that I hate bodycount references, but I was a daily newsman in ’82 when a southerly buster surprised the Doublehanded Farallones Fleet—those were different times, and an updated weather report was broadcast at 0800 while starters were in sequence—and four lives were lost in the racing fleet. Boats returning from the islands in low visibility were swept north by a combination of current and storm (no GPS in those days), and many could not make efficient southing. No lives were lost on the island shore; everything happened on the return (and two non-racers perished aboard a cruising boat in the same storm).
There have been additional, isolated casualties, nothing on such a scale until now, and I reckon I’ve personally pulled a few stunts that came out all right more through luck than skill.
Anyone who sails the Gulf of the Farallones can identify. This is a demanding environment, and I observe the closeness felt now between the sailing community and the Coast Guard. You know their motto: You have to go out. You don’t have to come back. And the Coasties always go out.
As for the discussion of how such an accident might be prevented in the future, all suggestions focus on keeping boats far enough from the rocks that they don’t become eligible for bad luck, but certain ideas just won’t play out.
Station a committee boat out there? No way. It’s too rough, usually, and too nasty to ask anyone to take on that duty. And it would be too hard to either anchor or hold station, and it would be irresponsible to station our people off a lee shore.
Put a buoy out there to round? Nope. It’s a long rounding, so you would need more than one buoy, and they’d never stay in place. We have enough problems in the bay with YRA marks going walkabout. The Farallones are a harsh environment.
Create a series of (probably three, minimum two) GPS waypoints? This could work. Surely there is not one of the 31 finishers of the 2012 Farallons Race that did not have a GPS aboard, and it’s more common than not for crewmembers to have a GPS in a pocket. Probably, this is part of the long, coming conversation.
(Along with the conversation around whether to prefer a spelling of Farallones or Farallons. I prefer the former; I use the latter if that’s officially the name of a race, and we are speaking here of the Farallons Race, a long-established tradition when singlehanded and doublehanded races were begun late in the 20th century.)
I have no truck, meanwhile, with any talk of whether this race, or racing in the Gulf of the Farallones, has a future. This is our home. This is our patch of ocean. Those are our islands. And this race is a tradition begun by The San Francisco Yacht Club in 1907. It was the first ocean race ever sailed out of San Francisco Bay. It’s part of what makes us “us.” The race is not going away any more than the islands are.
Living with Sacrifice
The Low Speed Chase memorial was a right and a fitting thing, and yet, I am nagged by a contrast. Our country is still fighting the longest war in its history, and the suicide rate among veterans is a national scandal. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it seems, receive more lip service than service.
But not everyone is ignoring our people. Wednesday through Friday of last week, our former Marine Ronnie Simpson—he was gravely wounded outside Fallujah, then lost, emotionally, for a time, but he self-rescued through sailing—shared the way of sail with five other veterans of fighting in the Middle East.
Ronnie, now a Transpac and solo Transpac vet, says of the three-day clinic at Team Hope for the Warriors, “We taught them how to sail at South Beach Harbor using Access class dinghies from the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors. We went to a Giants game, took a sunset cruise on a schooner, and on Friday we participated in the South Beach Yacht Club beer can race. The list included a blind male, a paraplegic female, a man who is missing part of his skull (half of his body is paralyzed), and two individuals whose wounds are primarily psychological.
“I’m striving to keep this diverse, instead of merely accumulating as many wheel chairs or prosthetics as I can.”
This is intended to be only first such clinic for Hope for the Warriors.
Simpson’s own story was an inspiration at first hearing, and his story just keeps on building from there.
I thought you ought to know.
Racing to Tahiti
For the record: Beau Geste and Rage departed Point Fermin, California on Friday to race 3,700 miles to Tahiti, a course first run by the Transpacific Yacht Club in 1925. Before the start I spoke with the owner of Rage, Steve Rander, and came up with this for the TPYC web site:
People who like boats just naturally want to take a boat ride every now and then, so how about a 3,700-mile boat ride, Los Angeles to Tahiti?
With the clock winding down to the start, 1 pm Friday from Point Fermin, Rage skipper Steve Rander was sounding nonchalant. “We’re just sitting around trying to think of anything we’ve forgotten,” he said. “I’ve done 23 Transpac crossings, all between the West Coast and Hawaii. Now it’s time for something different.” And if that something different, all the way to French Polynesia, turns out to be a race with only two boats entered? “You have to commit a long way ahead,” Rander said. With a veteran crew of longtime friends and family (“no rock stars”) the argument comes down to doing it now, regardless, “because if not, we’ll be too old.”
And, when he committed, there was the prospect of five or six entries. So how does he feel now? “It’s still a race. We’re racing every boat that ever sailed to Tahiti.”
That makes it quite a few boats. The Transpacific Yacht Club staged its first race to Tahiti in 1925. Four boats started from San Francisco Bay, led by the redoubtable L.A. Norris, whose 107-foot schooner, Mariner, made Papeete in 20 days.
Rage, a 70-footer designed by Tom Wylie, has a shot at the Overton Memorial Trophy if it can win the crossing on corrected time. Built at Rander’s Schooner Creek Boatworks in Portland, Oregon, she’s been a campaigner since 1993, but Rander and family cruise the boat as well as race. And who wouldn’t like to sail to Tahiti?
To that question, you won’t find any doubters among the crew of Rage’s opposition, the mighty Beau Geste out of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Owner Karl Kwok is a longtime member of the Transpacific Yacht Club, and he has been on a tour of the great American and Caribbean races with his twin-ruddered 80-footer. Kwok’s target is the elapsed time record of 11 days, 10 hours set in 2008 by Doug Baker’s Magnitude 80, and however that comes out, racing to Tahiti is the most interesting way possible to get the boat a bit closer to home.