Boating in San Francisco

By Kimball Livingston
Published: June/July 2013

San Francisco is the hot spot this August, as the America's Cup races bring the international sailing world to the West Coast. Here's a boater's inside guide to the bay, to river hideaways and wine country, and to the main event.

Photo of surfers in the break below the Golden Gate Bridge
Photo: Abner Kingman


Only expert surfers belong in the
break below the Golden Gate Bridge.

For visitors with boats, the visceral punch of this region is important to understand. A powerful summer sea breeze, sea to land, stirs up daily between an inland valley that can heat into the 100s while the ocean, cooled by a south-moving current that stirs up deep water, might have temperatures in the 60s or even below. Between the valley and the ocean there's one sea-level breach, and it's called the Golden Gate. If you remember your high-school physics, and the Bernoulli principle of a fluid accelerating through a narrow tube, enlarge that dramatically, and you have the Golden Gate. It is common in summer months for the afternoon breeze to funnel through at 18-22 knots, and if it hits 35 knots, familiar locals shrug and say, "Yep, it's honkin' today." And that breeze will be chilled by those offshore waters. Locals often wear fleece in July on the bay, even when there's bikini weather 20 miles away. Honest. And one-sixth of San Francisco Bay flows out, and in, with the tide, twice a day. A four-knot outbound current working against a strong sea breeze will serve up washboard waves such as many longtime boaters have never experienced, and no one could love, and not every boat is fit to meet. If you're going, you need to know. You might also know that San Francisco Bay is, frankly and simply, glorious.

Photo of washboard waves on the San Francisco Bay Photo: Abner Kingman

"Washboard waves" on the San Francisco Bay.

Exploring Inland California

Up the river from San Francisco Bay lies the breadbasket of the country's most populous state, producing more than half the nation's fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The river deltas also are a refuge for San Francisco Bay boaters escaping our peculiar summertime chill, with streams running through low country, mountains in the distance, and marsh lining the shore.

Truth: It's possible to waterski on San Francisco Bay, but except for a goof, it's no good. There's plenty of small-boat fishing on the bay, but many days it's just too rough. Upriver, with the sun beaming down and the fog line gray in the distance, the waters are shared among skiers, jet skiers, fishermen, determined sailors, powerboaters, and houseboats loaded with kids with water guns at the ready. This is summer in America.

There are resorts and marinas ample enough to always tie up for the night, but the greater joy along the rivers and sloughs is "simply messing about" in your boat or anchoring out. Four fundamentals: 1) The mosquitoes are voracious; they want you. 2) These waters are tidal. It takes seven-plus hours for a flood tide crest to travel inland from the Golden Gate to the Port of Sacramento. Two knots of flood current, twice a day, can happen. Ebbs run harder. 3) If you're anchoring, you need two anchors, a small boat to set the second anchor, and a means to rinse the mud later. 4) Some passages include drawbridges; you'll need to do your homework.

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