Moving Ahead Blindly

Lights play funny tricks on you at night when youíre sailing ó especially in a busy area like San Francisco Bay.

By Scott Alumbaugh
Published: March, 2007 

For starters, sailboats donít have headlights; the Bay doesnít have streetlights. In many ways, it feels like youíre moving ahead blindly. And, with a certain amount of blind trust.

Just about everything in and around the water that concerns safe navigation is lighted, and in a particular way. Port-side channel markers have flashing green lights; starboard markers have red. Mid-channel markers have a white light that flashes a Morse code A pattern Ė short-long, for dot dash. Boats have running lights: green (starboard), red (port), and white (stern). By knowing these and the significance of other light patterns and placement, an observant sailor can tell where things are, what they are and the direction and speed they are or arenít moving.

But tricky light stuff gets to you sometimes . . . For one thing, with all of the lights near the water around the Bay, itís sometimes easier to realize that something is moving on the water because of what you donít see: lights on land get blacked out by the hull of the moving vessel. That can kind of spook you, especially if youíre a little tired. And the color of all those lights? Well, street signals have red and green lights; streetlights and headlights are shades of white. Makes things kind of confusing when moving in close to shore. When approaching a harbor, it can be hard to tell whether that red light is a traffic signal or a port running light.

Yes, lights play funny tricks on you sometimes, which is how I managed to drive right through the middle of the entire San Francisco Bay herring fleet one winter night.

It was a calm night, so I was motoring back to my slip in Sausalito. As I cleared Tiburon, I saw white and red lights. But I always saw white and red lights here, and it meant I could see traffic on Bridgeway Avenue and would be home soon. But that thing happened where lights started to disappear. Then I saw a white beam of light swash frantically from side to side in front of me, which is a signal for pointing out danger. I realized the red and white lights meant someone was fishing (red over white, fishing at night), and the swashing light was pointing out fishing nets I was about to wrap around my propeller. So I put my boat in neutral to stop the spinning prop and looked around to make sure I could veer off. And thatís when I realized that there were dozens of fishing boats practically on top of each other everywhere I looked.

I got through the fleet with a couple of near misses and, I imagine, a lot of curses from skippers on the boats I almost hit. Once I calmed down a little, it struck me that in years of sailing on the Bay, I had never actually seen the commercial fleet fishing inside San Francisco Bay. As it turns out, there is a good reason. Other than herring, there arenít enough fish in the Bay to support commercial fishing. There havenít been since the 1950s.

Between about 1870 and 1915, San Francisco was the leading fishing port on the West Coast, and most commercial fishing took place inside the Bay. Chinook and coho salmon beat their way through the Bay to spawning grounds in the Delta; blue whales surrounded ships inside the Golden Gate. Native California oysters Ė a staple for the Ohlone and Miwok Ė thrived alongside eastern oysters transplanted here.

Over the decades, they all declined. At first, the cause was overfishing and landfill flowing downstream from mining. Later, urban pollution took its toll. Another factor has been invasive non-native species. And thereís the lack of fresh water flow from the Delta, which has been drastically cut since the 1970s when huge pumps in Tracy came on line to divert Delta water to Southern California.

It may not seem obvious at first, but this last factor Ė the interaction between the salt-water ocean and the fresh-water rivers Ė is really a key to understanding a lot about the Bay, its health, and the future of marine life in California. For the last 150 years, we have treated the Bay and the Delta as separate systems. While the Bay has been used as everything from landfill to dump, the Delta has been sectioned off by a massive series of levees and repurposed as farmland. The result has been to stem the flow of saltwater upstream, and freshwater downstream.

The Bay has lost much of its marine life, and the Delta is teetering on economic and environmental collapse. In Feb. 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California proposed a radical solution: that we see the the Bay and Delta for what they really are Ė two parts of an estuary. An estuary is an inlet where rivers reach and mix with the sea. And itís that interaction that makes all the difference. If saltwater was allowed to flow up the rivers as it used too, it would, among other things, kill the invasive non-native species. Restoring the flow of fresh water to the Bay would decrease its salinity, increasing food sources for larger fish.

Seeing the Bay as part of an estuary means treating the Bay differently than just a saltwater inlet. Itís kind of like seeing a red light as a fishing boat youíre about to smack into rather than a street light on land: it requires a different action. So, maybe it isnít the light that fools you. Maybe itís how you perceive it and what you choose to do moving forward.

Scott Alumbaugh is a US SAILING certified, Coastal Passagemaking instructor. He holds a 100 Ton Masters license, has worked as a delivery and charter skipper in the United States, Mexico and in the Mediterranean, and is a sailing instructor at OCSC Sailing in Berkeley Marina.