(More than 20 years ago, I was the boating columnist for the Marin Independent Journal. I had that job for 19 years and used to race sailboats all the time. Here is one of my columns published around the holidays in 1993. It is longer than the normal blog...just warning you.)
"While most people like to reminisce about Christmases past, sailors have a different way of looking at the same subject. It doesn't matter what time of year it is, when two sailors get together, they end up reminiscing about past voyages, races, or boats they have owned.
Christmas and New Year's are perhaps the easiest time for a sailor to be nostalgic. The bad memories of the past voyages are fading and what is remembered is the fun part, the camaraderie, the joy of exploration and the excitement and contentment of completing a day or week or month on the water....
I met Liz in 1982 during the St. Francis Yacht Club Big Boat Series. She was on the foredeck of the first all women's team to compete. I was a new mother and couldn't practice very much. But I did manage to get on board and crew for one race.
That summer when I chartered a boat and I needed a foredeck person, Liz came quickly to mind....
Our crew of two grew. Soon we added Fran and Sue -- then Julie and Viola. Each summer the boat we picked grew in size, until we decided to do an ocean series on an Express 37.
Although I had sailed to Hawaii, this would be my first experience at ocean racing off the Northern California coast. That made me nervous. The boat I had chartered had a wheel, not a tiller. That made me more nervous. I had never steered a boat with a wheel before.
Our first race out to the Lightship and back was fine -- relatively easy and fun.
The next race was a long one. From the San Francisco city front, we'd sail down to Ano Nuevo, round a buoy and head out to the Farallones,keep going and end up in Drake's Bay.
An overnight race like this required much planning, not to mention a sizeable crew. We would be a boat full of women except for the navigator. I felt we needed about 12 people just to have enough weight on board to hold the boat down.
"Rail meat" is the not-so-attractive term given to human ballast. However, not having anything to do except move from side-to-side didn't deter the crew. I was able to get the bodies that I needed.
Viola and I were the two drivers. It was my turn to be at the helm for the start and leg down to Ano Nuevo.
Although I was concerned about the increasing velocity of the wind in the bay, I hoped the ocean would be calmer. The starting gun was fired and we were off. My eyes flicked from the luff of the jib to the water in front of me and back again. We tacked a number of times and headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge.
That's when I heard LIz gasp. Standing next to me, she whispered in my ear, "Glenda, look up." I did and I swallowed hard.
Due west, and as far as the eye could see, were whitecaps--breaking, rolling whitecaps....
As we sloshed past Mile Rock and turned left to head down the coast, waves were already starting to break over the bow of the boat. I just remember thinking "I hope I can do this."
The trip down the coast was frightening, as well as remarkable. The tumbling waves hit the lightweight boat broadside and we bounced around like an empty plastic soda bottle. Waves broke underneath the boat and over it. White foam and cold green sea water drenched the crew and filled the cockpit.
We were all tethered to the boat with safety harnesses and I was glad of it. I hung on to the wheel, trying to keep my balance as well as trying to keep the boat moving and away from the biggest waves. I didn't succeed. A huge wall of green water crashed over the boat, threw me off the wheel and I landed on the other side of the cockpit.
It was then that I realized that I was in over my head. I didn't have the skills or the experience to be leading a crew in this type of weather. But on board were people who had both and I hoped we would be all right.
Viola took over as we approached Ano Nuevo,rounded the buoy and headed out to the Farallones. The trip down the coast was only a taste of what was to come.
If you can imagine a 37-ft surfboard, riding inside the waves --- that was us. As we crashed up and down and got wetter and wetter, more of the crew became sick. All except Viola. She had taken some seasickness prevention type drugs and she was having the time of her life. Just five feet tall, she was almost smaller than the wheel. She stood up to her knees in water with the biggest smile on her face. Everyone else, including me, was becoming a deeper shade of green.
After about an hour of thrashing to weather, I looked at Liz and said, "This can only get worse. I think we better head back to San Francisco."
She readily agreed. We conferred with the navigator, an experienced off shore sailor who had raced singlehanded to Hawail. His response was, "It's definitely OK with me."
Then we told the crew and started the three to four-hour journey back up the coast. As we sailed back under the Golden Gate Bridge, the winds and seas died down. I felt like I was looking at the Emerald City. San Francisco glowed in the late afternoon.
Boy, was I glad to be back in the bay. But I was embarrassed. We were the first boat to drop out of the race. This was not the debut I had hoped for. A few days later, I was interviewing the winner of the race. Only four boats had finished. He told me that conditions at the Farallones were horrible -- 12 foot waves, 40-45 knot winds. He was worried about hypothermia and losing crew overboard.
We had done the right thing.
Liz and I still hash over this aborted race. She cackles when she remembers Viola's drug induced smile while she was driving the biggest surfboard afloat and my startled grimace when I looked up at and saw all those waves.
Yesterday, I received LIz's Christmas card. She signed it simply, but looking at it brought back the memory of that race. To a sailor, that's a Christmas memory."
Top: Scuttlebutt Sailing News
Middle: Mariah's Eyes Photography
Bottom: Farallone National Wildlife Refuge (on a good day)