The water community was saddened by the tragic accident at the Farallones on Saturday, where five sailors died during a race. Two weeks ago there was a serious accident in a ’round the world’ race, farther off shore, but it was also caused by a breaking wave. Fortunately in that accident no one lost their life. Both of these incidents highlight the potential ferocity of the Pacific at our latitudes, close to the roaring forties.
There was a double handed race around the Farallones in April 1982 – thirty years ago, almost to the day- that turned out to have rougher than forecast weather. In that race seven boats and six lives were lost including two J-24s, small racing sailboats. If you read the end of the article in the above link you will be amazed at the stories, one boat trying to get back into the gate started as far south as they could was still blown onto the rocks at Pt. Bonita and destroyed, however both crew got to shore alive. Others were not so lucky. One of the J-24s was named Bad Sneakers, every time I hear the Steeley Dan song I am reminded of it. The ’82 race was an epic disaster at sea, 17 boats had to be rescued or were lost. Not to take away from the hardship, but this seems to be one boat hit by a freak wave or a case of cutting it too close to shore to make time.
The biggest difference any small boat encounters when moving from the protected waters of a bay to the ocean is breaking waves. Even if the water is deep enough to sail through it may be shallow enough to cause a swell to break onto the boat.
The islands are remote and windswept, rocky and steep, with no harbor, and landfall if you could do it, is forbidden. There are only two trees on the entire group of islands, and they are cowering from the wind in the shelter of the two houses. One each, without a branch higher than either roof. It’s a tough place to make a living.
A natural turning point for open ocean sailboat races out of San Francisco, the rocks are visible from most of the coastal bay area on clear days, just scan the western horizon. You have to be up a few hundred feet above sea level unless you are in Marin, but they are not hard to find. They are located about 25 miles off the coast and just north of the Gate. Currently they house a research and weather station and are a destination for fishing and whale watch cruises that depart from San Francisco. Compared to Monterey whale watching cruises the trip to the Farallones is longer, the sailings more infrequent, the cost higher, and the ocean is usually much rougher. The bonus is you get more time on the ocean and you get to travel under the Gate.
The islands are famous for great white shark attacks on seals, which should be expected because seals haul out there; it’s simply sharks looking for food where it lives. It’s a popular white research area, and there is lots of video footage of whites attacking pinapeds here. Often the islands are described as one anchor point of the “Red Triangle”, enclosing the waters from the mouth of the Russian river to Point Pinos in Monterey and swinging west to these islands.
The Farallones are no stranger to environmental disasters either, and mostly at the hand of man. During the gold rush unregulated egg hunting destroyed entire populations of sea birds that bred on the islands. The hunters would go through the nests once and destroy any incubating eggs, then come back a few days later and take the new eggs the birds laid to replace them. The species they targeted could only lay two eggs a season. This was done year after year until the populations crashed, after millions of eggs were harvested. The resident seals and sea lions were also harvested to local extinction, then our ancestors started on the fish. The last American commercial whale fishery hunted these waters as late as the early 1970s. Today the birds are recovering, the whales are down to a few percent of their historic populations and are still threatened, and the fish are in bad shape.