Stuck in the Mud
A day in the life of a San Francisco Bay Charter Captain
I’ve often taken comfort in an old saw in sailing circles that there are two kinds of sailors:
Those who have run aground, and liars.
Non-sailors picture running aground to be catastrophic, involving jagged rocks puncturing the hull or mangling the keel. In reality, the ground of the entire San Francisco Bay is a soft, thick layer of mud — the result of thousands of years of sedimentation pouring in from the Sacramento — San Joaquin river delta. The sediment is especially thick in the area known as the Berkeley Flats. The flats are a broad, open, and shallow area east-by-northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge, which bleed into a marshy bird sanctuary at the shoreline. When the tide is low, you can see a gradual slope that extends underwater some 3 miles out, before the depth drops off a literal cliff. Once a river valley that poured into the Pacific Ocean through what is now the “Golden Gate,” San Francisco Bay was created by the flooding event some 10,000 years ago, when sea level rose to separate the two distinct peninsulas of San Francisco and Marin County (connected by bridge), along with the East Bay.
Before there were any bridges connecting the different regions of the Bay Area, people in Berkeley had to either go around the long way to get to the city, or else take a boat. The problem with the latter option was that the water was too shallow to allow passenger ferries of any significant draft to get close to land. This problem was solved by the construction of a 2.5-mile-long pier, originally built as a two-lane road extending from University Avenue in Berkeley to a ferry terminal in the middle of the Bay
Later, the road was replaced by an extension of the railway to make it easier for people traveling west by train to get to their final destination in San Francisco. About 10 years after the pier’s completion, the Bay Bridge was built and no one wanted to take the ferry anymore. Today the pilings still stand as a reminder that the water is not so deep in these parts.
However, of all the shallow regions of the Bay, the Berkeley flats were one of the few places I’d never actually run aground. Whenever I start to think that I’ve pretty much got the Bay figured out, it always throws a surprise at me.
I had left myself almost 2 hours to make it the 7 miles or so across the Bay to Pier 1.5 at the Embarcadero, where I would pick up my charter passengers for an all-day Angel Island excursion. The customer was a manager at Salesforce, who heard about my Airbnb Experience from his colleague in Atlanta and decided to book it as a work offsite for his new team, who he was meeting for the first time. With the customized San Francisco pick-up, the trip would take me some 9 hours round trip, and as such it came with the biggest payout for my fledgling charter business to date. I wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly, to earn another good review and the word-of-mouth advertising that comes with that.
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After stopping at the pump out in the Berkeley Marina to ensure a properly functioning head onboard, I headed toward the breakwater — south exit, given that it was low tide and the north exit notoriously hasn’t been dredged in ages. My Islander 36 draws six feet (the depth between the waterline and the bottom tip of the keel), which is usually not a problem in designated boating areas. Usually, marinas are at least 10 feet deep even at low tide. On this morning, it just happened to be the lowest of the low tides – a King low tide – of 1.87 feet below the average low-low tide*. After noticing that my speed was slowing, I turned sharply to get off what I assumed was just a particularly tall mound of sediment in the fairway. Making my way closer to the edge of the channel, I tried again, only to stall again.
Calling the marina office in a panic, I read the poor guy who answered the phone the riot act.
“This is really unacceptable — you guys need to dredge more often. If I don’t get out of here in the next half hour I’m going to be in big trouble,” I yelled.
He put me on hold while he relayed the situation to the harbormaster, who soon came on the line and noted that with the state of the tide, even if I could get out of the marina, it still might be too shallow to sail out of the Berkeley Flats. Undeterred by her pessimistic outlook, I retreated to deeper waters in the marina and began to hoist the sails so I could attempt to heel over in the light morning winds — changing the angle to reduce the depth of the keel and perhaps escape. Lining up with what I hoped to be the deepest part of the exit, I went full throttle, trimming the sails in as tight as possible and picking up speed until once again I found myself jousting with an impossibly stubborn opponent — the muddy marina bottom. After making it about 20 yards further than my first attempt, I shouted to a fisherman who was leaving to see if I could bribe him into towing me under his twin 300 hp outboard engines.
“Once you tie onto me, I’m legally liable for any damage to your boat. My depth sounder isn’t even registering 4 feet. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I can’t help you.”
Fortunately, the Berkeley Harbor Master was kind enough to send their skiff out to check on me, and I was able to convince the operator to give towing a try. Even though I was already stuck in about a foot and a half of mud, I assumed that it would start to get deeper as soon as we got out of the marina. I heaved my bow line over to the skiff, and he tied it onto his bow before powering up in reverse.
“We’re moving! Keep going!” I called.
Lining up my sights, I could see the land retreating behind the Berkeley Yacht Club — slowly, but surely — suggesting that my release from the sludge was imminent. Once past the breakwater, I was able to get a bit more wind in my sails and started moving forward parallel to the rickety old Berkeley Pier a bit faster than before. In these situations, any forward progress usually means accelerating progress as the boat speeds up upon being freed from the bottom. My pace, however, seemed constant. I kept cajoling the skiff operator to keep going a little bit further, seeing on my digital chart app that the water really only starts to get deeper about a quarter-mile out. He assumed that my forward motion meant I was good to go, and tossed me the line back. I thanked him profusely, but soon I was back to being stalled.
He circled back again, tied on, and we were back at it, moving only about a knot towards my destination. I was already running late, but if I could get free now I might still be able to make it on time if the sailing conditions were right. Another 100 yards and now I was getting more wind in my sails, heeling over more, and seeming to be moving on my own power. The marina employee took the liberty once more to cut me loose, reminding me to grab the bow line before it got caught in my prop. I felt that I was stalling again, so rather than run forward to grab the line and risk losing my forward progress, I kept my eyes on the prize — the waters marked with a “7” on my depth chart just ahead. That was a mistake. The pitch of the engine’s hum suddenly changed, indicating that the prop was struggling to turn. I immediately shifted into neutral to avoid damaging the transmission and then went in reverse to see if I could free the tangled bow line by spinning the prop in the opposite direction. No luck.
Once again, the boat stalled and started to pivot on the mud to the leeward side, nearly turning around completely and sending me back into the shallow waters from where I had come.
“No, no no no!!” The skiff was now out of sight, and I’d have to get out of this fix alone — and quickly — if I was going to make it to my charter in time. Without thinking, I stripped down to my underwear, took off my wedding ring, and — stern line in hand — jumped overboard to manually unwrap the line from the prop. After 30 seconds or so of underwater struggle, I got the line free and used the stern line to muscle my way back on board. Turning the engine back on, and straightening out my course, I continued to trudge forward, accelerating each time a gust made the boat heel. It took a good half mile before the boat powered up to hull speed, but luckily for me, the southerly winds were strong and picking up speed, and I was soon motor-sailing at close to 7 knots with just under an hour to get to my destination.
The rest of the sail was mercifully uneventful as I dried my underwear on the sunny deck and tried to steer as straight a course for San Francisco as I could. I pulled up to the Embarcadero five minutes late, only to find that two of the manager’s new employees were running late. Not the best first impression for them, but I was off the hook and out of the mud.