Rudderless under the Golden Gate

Fellow adventurer Doug Armstrong relates his scary adventure last weekend.(My neighbor Mark runs a 40 foot salmon trawler out of San Francisco and told me yesterday he got really scared motoring back in past Point Bonita last week.)

Doug: Robin and I set out on my Santana 22 at 8:55 Saturday morning from Horseshoe Cove at Fort Baker to sail out into the ocean and up to Muir Beach.  I’d sailed solo from Berkeley to Horseshoe cove the afternoon before and had an amazingly straight sail through Raccoon Straights and only a minimum of difficulty with the squirrelly eddies at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge near the approach to the cove.  Saturday was the first time past the bridge for my boat, and I had some trepidation as we reached Point Bonita and turned north atop the large swells and up between the Headlands and the confused currents of the Potato Patch.

But all went without difficulty and we cruised beneath the fog to Muir Beach.  As there seemed inadequate protection to anchor there for lunch, we turned back toward the bay and continued our sail.

We made up to 6.2 mph (my iPhone’s GPS only reads land speed) as we sailed happily back toward home.  While we made our way back toward the bridge, I had some concern about the strength of the out going tide and the equally strong opposing wind.


Just past the inside of the bridge and feeling accomplished, the boat swung up and around in a violent 180.  I cursed my seamanship and was trying to bring her around when it spun a 270 in the opposite direction.  Now I was embarrassed and hoped to gain control before my picture ended up in Latitude 38.  As I struggled for control, the boat did a couple of more 180s and 360s.  It was in the midst of them that I realized that the tiller had been completely unresponsive from the first spin.  My rudder, in fact, was on its way to the bottom of the channel and the boat was caught helplessly in a struggle between wind and tide.

I quickly lowered the outboard and cranked it up, no match for the fight, while Robin desperately furled in the strongly resisting jib.  We pulled down the wind filled main as the boat thrashed between uncontrolled tacks.  Now, I thought, it was only the strong outgoing tide and side winds we had to battle.  Wrong!  We looked up, still not in solid control and saw a large tugboat pulling a huge barge through the same slot beneath the bridge. We would miss the tug, but certainly hit the cable before being run over by the giant barge. The tug captain could see we were in trouble, but there was nothing he could do. The tiny 4 hp outboard finally managed to turn our boat but then sputtered and died. The boat bobbed and crashed in the rough current but missed the cable and barge by 40 feet.  That’s when the triple decker tourist ferry coming from the other side must have realized that we were helplessly out of control and turned from it’s path with incredible quickness and missed us on that side by less than 70 yards. Finally, I managed to restart the motor and slowly escape the strong current under the bridge and eke our way to the eddies at the north end the bridge.

Shaken significantly, we pulled into the Presidio Yacht Club and docked.  There she sits, battened down and without a rudder.  I’ll tow her back to Berkeley this week somehow and start looking for a rudder.

Robin was tremendous at following my frantically barked commands. Without her I would certainly be lying along side my rudder at the bottom of the channel.  Our GPS track looks like a plate of spaghetti beneath the bridge.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

3 Responses to Rudderless under the Golden Gate

  1. An old friend who is an accomplished single handed blue water sailor once told me "good seamanship is no accident". When he put his Islander 34 on a reef I said "take no chance have no adventure".
    Early on in my sailing I found myself without a rudder in Corpus Christi Bay due to my not inserting a critical cotter pin. That never happened again and as my boats got bigger I never sailed without some kind of back up. Doug did good.

  2. That was some adventure but the kind that can take a toll on your nerves. I have sailed under and outside the GG bridge many times on sailboards, it's always thrilling but there's always a nervous buzz running through me the whole time. There have been days where I really struggled to fight my way back into the bay against a big ebb tide, going deep downwind over huge swells and overpowered the whole time. Some years back a guy broke down late in the day and got sucked out under the fog; he ended up spending the night in the ocean near hypothermic till the tide turned and brought him back to the headlands where he climbed the cliffs just before dawn and broke into the scout hut at the old Nike base.

    They say if you can sail SF bay you can sail anywhere. Yeah, you did good, yahoo!

  3. Scary story, good ending! Any sailor who ever lost control (and that would be most!) at some point could feel that feeling, reading your words. Good back up, good presence of mind, good crew, well done!

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