What Could Go Awry? (Part 2)

In last month's column, I began relating the story of the strongest winds I've ever experienced while out on the water.


Published: August, 2018


In last month’s column, I began relating the story of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced while out on the water. Because it is such a frequent question from students, I’ve told this tale quite often.


It happened during a U.S. Sailing Association Cruising Instructor Course that I was conducting, and we had been anchored overnight in Clipper Cove, which is the water between Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands. Just after dawn, incredibly forceful gusts of wind pulled our anchor out of the bottom and blew us out of the cove. (See last month’s column for all the exciting details.)


Having retrieved the anchor, we were now motoring slowly north along the east side of Treasure Island. Because the island is so low, it provided us with protection from the waves, if not the wind or the sideways rain. This gave us a chance to fully appreciate the astonishing event happening all around us. I remember my first impression was the extraordinary noise of the wind. It was truly deafening, making it necessary to yell in order to be heard by a person standing right next to you.


Because it was directly downwind of us (and therefore easy to get to in these conditions) and also because I was very familiar with it, our destination was the Berkeley Marina. To get there, all we had to do was cross a bit more than two miles of open water between the north end of Treasure Island and the western end of the old Berkeley Pier—and then follow the pier to the marina entrance. We plotted the course to the end of the Berkeley Pier on the chart. At the time it seemed redundant because we could see the pier.


As we approached the north end of the island, what we saw in that open water was amazing. The waves were six to eight feet high, close together and very steep. This maelstrom was one of the most uncomfortable crossings I’ve ever made. The boat was constantly bucking and pitching in unpredictable ways in the confused seas.


With the wind blowing the tops off the waves, there was so much water in the air it was difficult to tell where the sky ended and the Bay began. Part of the way across, heavy rain squalls completely obliterated our visuals of the pier; the compass course we had plotted proved very useful. Once we arrived at the end of the pier and began to follow it to the marina entrance, the pier acted as a breakwater of sorts and the waves were a little smaller.


At the entrance to the marina, waves were breaking completely over the breakwater. The fairway (the main channel down the center of the marina) was covered with waves about three feet high. Two people from OCSC’s Fleet Service Department came down to the fuel dock to help me get tied up, but the fuel dock was heaving so violently in the waves that they were unable to stand on it. This dock was not going to provide us with the shelter we were seeking, and we passed it by.


Further down into the marina, there is a turning basin that was better protected from the wind and I knew of an empty slip with the upwind orientation I wanted. This way I would be able to turn into the wind as we docked, with the wind stopping the boat. In a downwind docking, I would have to rely on the motor to stop the boat—and I wasn’t sure that it was strong enough to do that in these conditions. I was sure, however, that these were not the conditions in which to experiment, especially in a boat that had been loaned to me for this course!


We rigged fenders and docklines, then pulled into the slip. My crew quickly secured the lines to the dock cleats. A gust of wind drove the boat backward against the lines and one broke. While motoring at almost full throttle just to remain stationary in the slip, the broken line was replaced, then doubled, then tripled. Now we were secure. We had arrived safely, with no crew injuries and no boat damage.


All this excitement had happened in about 90 minutes. It was now 8:30 a.m. and we’d had a full day already. After everyone had a chance to clean up and dry off, we set about making and then eating a very hearty breakfast. By noon, the wind was down to very reasonable 20 knots or so and there were even hints of blue sky. The adventure was officially over.


Ray Wichmann is a US SAILING-certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Master Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty.  He holds a 100-Ton Master’s License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean and Greece. He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC Sailing in the Berkeley Marina.