A lot can change in 20 minutes.

Fisher of Fishermen

Notes from a mostly successful rescue on San Francisco Bay

The new iPhones advertise water resistance with a rating of IP68 —meaning they can withstand a maximum depth of 6 meters for up to 30 minutes. That’s pretty neat, but I recommend against testing this feature in saltwater. The three shivering, soaking-wet fishermen pulled out of the water next to their sinking boat each had newer-looking iPhones, and while two out of the three still lit up after their owners were safely aboard my sailboat, within a few minutes all three (phones, that is) had all given up the ghost.

After just 10 minutes in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, mere gadgets were a trifling concern for the unlucky fishing hobbyists. Their 19-foot skiff was nose-up, stern-down, and sinking fast. Only a couple meters were left above the surface when I tossed them a life ring and hauled them one at a time into my cockpit. Even the total loss of their boat seemed trivial compared to what they may have briefly thought was the end. The third to come aboard was coughing up seawater for a few minutes afterward. I pointed below deck and told him where he could find a towel to dry off.

What went wrong to lead to this scene? From what I gathered over the course of our short motor-sail to the nearest harbor at Treasure Island, they had been fishing with the anchor out on a typical windy spring day. It was about 3:30 pm when the accelerating ebb tide started to clash with the gusting nor-westerly “Broadway Blast” to create a hellish chop that most boaters try to avoid. They were in the shipping channel, across from the Embacadero by Treasure Island’s new ferry terminal — an odd place to anchor, considering the depth and density of traffic. When the first big wave swamped the boat, they tried to get the anchor up to no avail. Subsequent waves must have led to a cascade of failures until the boat started to go down.

I had just dropped off some charter passengers in the city and was quickly making way against the ebb thanks to strong tailwinds and a following sea. At 3:48 pm I took a picture, where you can just barely see a boat in the distance — floating soundly. Eight minutes later, I saw what looked like a pointy little cathedral sticking out of the water about 250 meters off my port side. At 3:57 pm, I called 911 and alerted a not-particularly-helpful dispatcher who seemed to want my cross streets so he could send a patrol car out to assist. Being busy operating my boat, I couldn’t get to my radio down in the cabin to directly reach the Coast Guard via channel 16. [Note: You can reach Channel 16 by cell phone — check the number for your area and save it in your phone!]. With the dispatcher on speaker, I pulled out my life ring and heaved it over to the sinking boat, where the three men were waving their arms and holding on for dear life, as if I might change my mind last minute and depart from the wreckage.

One by one, they traveled along the bright yellow nylon line until they reached Sun Kiss. The first man was able to muscle his way up with little assistance, while the second — lacking a foothold — struggled to clear the high freeboard, even with two of us pulling as hard as we could. The third poor soul had the life ring around his neck and, clutching a life jacket in one hand, only made it up after taking a few large gulps of seawater with the help of all three of us pulling up on every free article of clothing we could grab.

By this point, a Golden Gate Ferry had noticed the scene and diverted course to check on us. A smaller Treasure Island ferry also came by to see if all passengers had been recovered (they had) and whether they could help. I told them to radio the Coast Guard since I’d lost my connection to SFPD and had to operate my boat again to escape the ever-quickening ebb.

Unfurling the jib, and keeping the engine near the maximum RPM, I set a course back toward the Bay Bridge — continuing onward to my original destination at Treaure Island Marina, calling ahead to the let the harbormaster know that I’d be late, and that I’d have some cold, wet passengers with me. The harbormaster, a former Coastie himself, offered to call the Coast Guard for us, and I soon got another call from the S.F. Fire Department requesting details of the incident, our destination, and basic information on the rescued passengers.

I put the dispatcher on hold to furl the jib before entering Clipper Cove on engine only, and we were soon greeted at the dilapidated dock by about 12 firefighters and EMTs, bearing blankets and hot pads.

Three went in, and three came out. The boat was not so lucky.

Apparently, the Coast Guard was unable to locate the sinking vessel, or any debris. Given the speed of the ebb, it could have easily reached the slot by the time they arrived. Had the Treasure Island Ferry actually called the Coast Guard? In hindsight, I should have taken a minute to go down to get my handheld VHF and radio’d myself, but in the moment my thoughts were first and foremost centered around avoiding a secondary cascade of failures on my own crowded boat, strewn about with about 20 meters of yellow nylon life ring line.

The big lesson I draw from the situation is that while time is of the essence, composure, communication and cautious but deliberate action are the key to a successful rescue operation. Perhaps we could have saved the boat if I had gotten the Coast Guard on the line right away. I had the number for Channel 16 saved in my contacts [(415) 399–3630], but fell back on the more obvious “9–1–1” call like a scared kid.

Another lesson I draw from this is the importance of having a good swim ladder — or even a bad swim ladder. I’ve heard of people rigging up makeshift footholds with simple knots, but in the chaos of a rescue situation, it’s hard to summon any but the crudest and most direct solutions for getting the bodies into the boat. In short, call the Coast Guard and keep it simple.

I never learned my passengers’ names (they mostly spoke in Spanish to each other), but I felt their relief at being out of jeopardy. As Zeno the Stoic once said, “Now that I’ve suffered a shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.” Nothing like a brush with the Eternal Deep to make one appreciate the little things in life. As we rounded the Coast Guard station on Yerba Buena Island, going from the contrary ebb into a favorable one on the eastern side of the island, I joked that it was an Easter miracle. They laughed.

But I couldn’t help to see a deeper significance beneath the afternoon’s events. Not only was it extremely unusual that I happened to be sailing from San Francisco to Treasure Island that day, but I had also been feeling some good old Catholic guilt for foregoing the Easter vigil that evening — the first time I’ve skipped it since being confirmed in the Church five years ago. The night before (Good Friday), at a Stations of the Cross in Berkeley, I had gone to pray in front of the Marian Shrine, which features a mural of the entire San Francisco Bay. I’ve knelt there many times before embarking on a difficult sailing trip or nerve-wracking charter. I prayed for fair winds and an uneventful trip. In the end, I got more than I had bargained for. The west-wind-east-ebb combo had been every bit as harrowing as I’d expected while crossing the slot to finish my charter, but I had felt at ease even as the 4-6 foot waves washed across the rudder with so much force that I had to brace my core just to keep the wheel tiller from turning and causing the boat to broach.

When Jesus converts his disciples from the hard labor of fishing to a new mission of evangelization, he tells them that they will now be “fishers of men.” I often feel that I fail in this calling, but I hope that some small photon of Christ’s compassion was able to shine through me as I became a fisher of fishermen.

I don’t know if their boat was ever recovered, but I heard the next day from the Coast Guard that it was last seen — barely floating — somewhere around Sausalito. By that point, it was the US Army Corp of Engineers’ jurisdiction. I hadn’t seen an oil sheen on the water when picking up the men, and I can only hope that the tanks were well sealed. No one was hurt, and property can be replaced, so the biggest liability in a wreck like that is environmental damage from the gas and other hazardous materials aboard a boat.

Reflecting on the events of the day, I plan to always keep a handheld radio accessible in the cockpit along with a swim ladder and perhaps a few hand warmers for good measure.

If I hadn’t been there, it’s unlikely that the men would have drowned. The ferry boats would have either picked the men up themselves or stayed nearby until Coast Guard units arrived. However, given that none of the men were wearing life jackets, it’s always possible that the cascade of failures would have continued to the point that hypothermia or drowning became a possibility.

What’s the ultimate moral of the story?

No fishing in the shipping channel? Always wear a lifejacket? Be ready to cut your anchor loose if things go south? Those are all good advice, but for me it’s “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

He is Risen! Alleluia!

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