On April 14, five of the eight crewmembers of the 38-foot racing yacht Low Speed Chase were swept overboard into the rough waters off the Farallone Islands. One was killed, four lost at sea. Coast Guard and Air National Guard helicopters rescued three survivors. Seattle-based salvage crews airlifted the wrecked yacht's hull off the barren shore late Monday.
It was surreal to watch the news coverage with reporters standing in the familiar parking lot of Belvedere’s San Francisco Yacht Club. I grew up sailing there almost every weekend, taking El Toro lessons in their Junior Sailing program and picnic sailing on our family’s Pearson 30, the Blue Eagle.
I loved sailing on the Bay close-hauled to the wind, the leeward rail beneath the waves. I braced my feet against the opposite side of the cockpit, salt spray tightening the skin on my sunburned cheeks. I loved the grinding sound the winch made when I cranked in the sheets, and the skipper’s calls of “Ready about… Helms a-Lee,” as the boom swung overhead and the opposite rail dipped toward the bay. We would let the sails out and run down the panoramic length of the City waterfront. When we got hungry we headed for the protected side of Angel Island and pulled sandwiches, soft drinks and beer from the food locker while the tide rocked the boat gently. Seagulls hovered just above the stern, waiting for the tossed crusts from our bread.
We rarely sailed past the Golden Gate, and never as far out as the Farallones. Once, though, when my parents were both still alive, we did sail quite a way out. My brother, Bob, was at the helm.
Just past the bridge there’s an area called the Potato Patch where the water is rough and choppy, like a cold gray Jacuzzi with its jets turned on high. The halyards clanged against the hollow mast as the boat shook in protest. Farther out, the water lost some of its chop, but the waves were intimidating — so big that several times Blue Eagle was airborne. I was grateful and relieved when Bob decided it was prudent to head back into the familiar waters of the Bay.
Years later, he took me out in a 14-foot Laser from his twin’s dock in Tiburon’s Paradise Cay. As the wind filled our sail, I tightened the sheet and we picked up speed, slicing through the water toward the deeper part of the Bay.
We hiked out to counter the force of the wind against the nylon sail, leaning back almost flat over the water. Suddenly the wind shifted and we were dumped into the cold bay water, fully clothed. The small boat “turtled,” her rigging a spaghetti tangle beneath the gray-green water and her mast pointing straight to the muddy bottom.
I opened my eyes into the salt, trying to figure out which way was up, fighting to escape the tether of lines that threatened to bind me tight beneath the surface. I swallowed brine and started to panic. I kicked hard — so very strange to be swimming in jeans and canvas sneakers.
Anyone who has taken a water safety course and jumped into a pool fully clothed knows it’s a challenge. Imagine the same test, but in murky water where you can’t see the black tiles on the bottom of the pool or the sunlight on the surface and you’re tangled in a web of ropes and metal poles.
I made it to the surface, and when I stopped coughing I started swearing at my brother. I was the mother of two young daughters, and drowning was not an option. He laughed and chided me for being a drama queen. “You didn’t ‘almost die,’ Honey Bun. If you had just shifted your weight faster, we wouldn’t have dumped the boat.”
My brother was right. I didn’t almost die. Not even close. But that moment trapped beneath the boat, the disorientation in that nautical spider web remains with me.
And my imagination puts me 28 miles out past the Gate, far from the familiar and more forgiving Bay waters, right in the ravenous mouth of an unforgiving sea. My heart is with the families of the lost crewmembers of the Low Speed Chase and the three survivors whose lives are now forever changed.
In the coming months, people will continue to debate whether the tragedy was the result of bad luck or human error. Committees will argue about whether to mandate that sailors be tethered to their boats. And, undoubtedly, there will be litigation.
The only solace in the midst of this tragedy is that even though it was way before their time, those sailors died doing what they loved.