Wings & Water: Boat Camp
"Man overboard!” Electrified, the crew members leap into action. On
this blustery March day in the Pacific Ocean off San Francisco, the water
temperature stands at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If a sailor remains in the
water for only a couple of minutes, he could suffer cold shock and
When a passenger or crew member falls overboard, you turn the sailboat
around, return to him, snag him with a long-armed hook, and drag him onto the
vessel’s aft end. The fastest way to reach an MOB—to use the nautical
vernacular—is by motoring to him, but the engine on this boat has died.
20 feet away, the MOB floats silently in 4-foot swells. With every second, his
distance from the boat increases. “Don’t take your eyes off him!” someone
shouts. “Do not take your eyes off him!”
In what seems like slow motion, the
boom swings and the boat heads back. The helmsman brings the vessel close by the
MOB, and another crew member reaches out with the hook.
He misses. The crew
The boat swings around again.
Another miss. The crew is hushed
this time. Some 10 minutes have passed since that first shout.
the third try, the hook catches, and Thomas Perry, a straight-backed,
regal-looking man in a bright yellow waterproof suit, yanks the dripping victim
from the sea.
It is not, in fact, a human being but a proxy for one: a life
Perry regards the other sailors gravely. “You seem to have killed your
man,” he says.
Perry is a sailing instructor with Club Nautique, a yacht club on the small
island of Alameda on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Like the Bay Area’s
other sailing schools, Club Nautique’s has good cause for conducting rescue
exercises, as evidenced by an incident in January of this year. Software
executive James Gray, a skilled sailor (not affiliated with Club Nautique),
disappeared during a solo trip to the Farallon Islands, located about 27 miles
west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Searchers have found no trace of his 40-foot
Fog shrouds San Francisco Bay frequently and quickly.
Beyond the bay, winds regularly reach 35 mph, and waves of 15 feet are common.
These conditions are well suited to Club Nautique, which yachtsman Don Durant
founded in 1990, as its school teaches passage making, a term for long-distance
sailing on the ocean. A graduate of Club Nautique should be able to sail
confidently along the California coast, to Hawaii, or even around the world.
Club Nautique’s programs range from classes on 25-foot keelboats for
beginners to multiday voyages through open ocean on 49-foot sailing vessels, at
costs ranging from about $500 to $2,600 per course for nonmembers. (Club members
receive discounted or free courses, depending on their membership level.) In
March, Perry led five students in a weekend trip on Horizon Hunter, a
single-masted, 46-foot sloop, to test their skills at coastal passage
“Yes, we’re rigorous,” says Daniel Glennon, Club Nautique’s
membership director, as he settles back in his office chair on the afternoon
before the trip. “But would you want it any other way?” A thin, friendly man,
Glennon joined the club in 2002 after working for about two decades as a sailing
instructor. “Things can turn bad so quickly,” he continues. “Once, I saw a boat
approach a fueling dock too fast. A crewman tried to slow the boat by grabbing a
rope and wrapping it around his hand. The rope cut off three fingers—they just
Not all the club’s activities are intended for hard-core
sailors. Glennon is well aware that many people aspire to no more than a
pleasant few hours on the water. For this reason, the club arranges events such
as evening tours of San Francisco Bay and cruises up the Napa River to visit
wine country. But Glennon notes that people who begin as passengers on these
tours often catch the sailing bug and eventually want to study for more
challenging adventures, such as a trip to Mexico.
The club’s fleet consists
of about 50 boats, almost all of them owned by members. The organization offers
nine levels of membership, at prices ranging from about $600 to $7,250 per year.
It focuses mainly on sailing but maintains some powerboats as well, and it
conducts a few courses on motorboating. The club operates facilities in
Sausalito and Richmond (both located on San Pablo Bay north of San Francisco
Bay), as well as Alameda.
“We take a very synergistic approach,” says David
Forbes, the club’s vice president and general manager. “Essentially, we develop
our own members, and the best sailors among them often become our instructors.”
Forbes, who once served in the British Royal Navy, focuses heavily on instructor
training. “I love working with local sailors,” he says. “They’re among the best.
Many of them go on to win the Sydney Hobart,” one of the world’s most
challenging sailboat races. “When you learn to sail in San Francisco, you can
Just before the Horizon Hunter trip, the students gather for a briefing in
the Club Nautique office, a two-story building facing San Francisco Bay. “The
safety of the crew is paramount, the safety of the boat second,” Perry says. “We
can have fun, but that comes last. Remember: The lives of your colleagues are in
your hands. The ocean is unforgiving, and if you make a mistake, you can
Perry, a marketing executive for AT&T, is a soft-spoken man, a
crackerjack sailor, and a demanding teacher. When a trainee disappoints him, his
expression of mingled sadness and reproof can make the recipient cringe. He
joined the club in 2003, and school director Gary Walker recruited him as an
instructor last year. On this Friday afternoon, Perry is simultaneously
preparing the crew members and evaluating them. To qualify for the coastal
passage making class, each has completed several beginners’ courses, including
ones on basic cruising and coastal navigation. But those classes took place some
time ago, and the students undoubtedly have forgotten some of what they learned.
So today, Perry intends to establish what they remember.
The five students
are males. They include Jan Weber, a physician from Menlo Park, Calif., who will
serve as navigator, and Patrick Fletcher, an attorney from Alameda, who will
focus on sail handling and helmsmanship. Ray Jensen, a software executive who
also lives in the Bay Area, will be skipper. To pass a coastal passage making
course, each student will take about five trips (the school requires at least
three), during which he must demonstrate his skills as a crew member, navigator,
and captain. Once he proves his competence in these roles, he will receive
certification in coastal passage making from U.S. Sailing, the national
governing body that devised the instructional programs used by Club Nautique. If
he fails a class, he can continue trying until he succeeds, like a law school
graduate trying to pass a bar exam.
At this meeting, each of the students
briefs the others on his area of responsibility. Weber, for example, discusses
the routes the boat will take and the likely challenges that lie ahead. Perry
leans forward, pointing to weather and navigation charts and asking
“What is the wind strength on this chart?”
“What is the wave
“What does it mean when the isobars are close to each
Perry asks particularly demanding questions of Jensen, who, as the
skipper, will take charge of the crew. Perry examines the passage plan, which
summarizes Jensen’s intentions for the trip.
“Tomorrow night, what direction
will the wind blow?” Perry asks.
“From the northwest,” Jensen says.
we anchor in Drake’s Bay [a body of water about 35 miles north of San
Francisco], will we have a lee shore?” (A lee shore is the shore toward which
the wind blows. If a boat anchors near a lee shore, it could drift onto
Fletcher peers at a personal digital assistant. “This says the wind
could come from the southeast.”
“My information says northwest,” Jensen
“This is serious, you guys,” Perry says. “If the wind blows from the
southeast, we will be on a lee shore. Do we have another source of
The crew studies documents from the National Weather Service.
They conclude that the wind will blow from the southeast tomorrow afternoon but
switch to northwest in the evening.
“Ray,” Perry says. “Where do we anchor
Jensen hesitates. Finally he points to a map. “The north end
of Drake’s Bay.”
So it goes. Do we have a ditch bag? (A ditch bag holds food,
water, flashlights, a GPS system, and a radio, in case the crew must use the
life raft.) Who is responsible for the EPIRB? (An emergency position-indicating
radio beacon emits a radio signal in an emergency.) What frequency does the
EPIRB use? (No one knows.) What channel do we use to call Mayday? (Channel 16.)
What kind of fire extinguishers are on board? What kind of personal flotation
devices do we have? Who takes watch duty, and when? Who cooks the meals, and
“Remember,” Perry concludes, “you’re all experienced sailors. This is
college-level course work, and the skipper and navigator are in graduate school.
If there’s an accidental jibe [an unplanned swing of the boom] during this trip,
the person responsible will fail the course.”
Sobered, the students prepare
to board Horizon Hunter.
The trip will begin Friday evening and end late
Sunday afternoon. During this time, the boat will not touch the shore. The
students will sleep where they can find room, and to conserve water, they will
not take showers. They have brought several layers of clothing, because the
weather will be chilly and, despite the protective suits that they will wear
while on deck, they expect to get wet. Each also has a life vest that can attach
to the boat’s jack line, a yellow strap that runs the length of the vessel. If a
student steps on deck, he must attach his vest to the jack line.
night they will anchor in the relative calm of San Francisco Bay, near the
channel leading to the Pacific. On Saturday they will set a course toward the
Farallon Islands, then head north along the coast. They will sleep in Drake’s
Bay on Saturday night and head back to San Francisco on Sunday. During the trip,
Perry will conduct a number of emergency drills, and he also may sabotage the
boat in some fashion to see how the students react.
Friday night, as Horizon Hunter rocks at anchor in the bay, the skyscrapers
of San Francisco loom to the south, dotted with countless lights. Terns fly in
long V formations past a half-moon, uttering high cries. The crew beds down: two
in the boat’s one bed, the rest on the cabin’s furniture and floor, except for
Fletcher. He tries to sleep on deck, but the night is cold, and so he spends
most of it awake.
In the morning the boat sets out, passing beneath the
Golden Gate Bridge. The crew members have started the journey later than they
had planned and now must contend with traffic, including a fast-moving barge and
an early morning kayaker who forces Horizon Hunter into a 360-degree turn.
Consequently, the boat barely beats an ebb tide as it enters the Pacific.
Perry focuses on navigation. He and Weber check the maps. Each line in the
course begins and ends with a bearing, which Weber can establish through various
means: with a buoy, a landmark such as a tall tree, or a point derived by having
the helmsman turn the boat in a circle while he studies a compass. He also can
use a GPS device, but Perry wants his students to learn traditional navigation
because a GPS can fail, and indeed, the boat’s system does not work at the
moment. Some of the students speculate that Perry deliberately broke it. (Later
they will discover that someone inadvertently had rested his elbow on a button
in the cabin, turning the device off.)
The morning is clear. “This is rare,”
says Fletcher, whose home in Alameda faces the bay. “We almost always have fog
this time of day.” As the boat sails west, it is followed first by six sea lions
and then by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. The crew looks for whales, a common
sight in these waters, but none surfaces.
At about midmorning, Perry
approaches Jensen. “We have a fire,” he says.
The blaze—imaginary—is located
in a cabinet beneath the cabin stairs. A crew member jerks open a door in the
cabinet wall, making the mistake of feeding oxygen to the fire and rendering it
uncontrollable. The sailors have not handled their first emergency
Calmly, Perry points to a tiny hole in the cabinet door.
insert the fire extinguisher’s nozzle here,” he says. “That way the door stays
At midday, the Farallon Islands come into view, tall and jagged. The
islands are a bird sanctuary, and the crew members want to sail around a bit to
see the wildlife. But given their late start, they do not have time and must
head up the coast. During this part of the trip, Perry conducts the ill-fated
In the late afternoon, the boat approaches Drake’s Bay. Because
the wind, as foreseen, is blowing from the land, the crew must tack into the bay
from a good distance offshore. The water is choppy, and several of the crew
members are suffering from mal de mer.
Most students of Club Nautique find
that Dramamine, scopolamine, and other antinausea medications work only so well.
Navigators are particularly susceptible to seasickness, because they must study
fine print in a rocking boat. Weber has sagged into bed, and another student has
assumed his duties. One of the skipper’s jobs is to identify a backup for each
crew member in case he becomes ill. In some cases, the backups have
For those well enough to appreciate it, Drake’s Bay is a serene
place. Horizon Hunter floats on still green water near the north shore. Deer
graze on the empty scrubland. Coyotes howl, but the deer seem not to notice.
With a soft plop, an elephant seal surfaces in the middle of the bay.
sight of the seal jogs a memory in Fletcher. “Once I was scuba diving, fishing
for lobster,” he says, “and a 7-foot elephant seal came within inches of me. The
fellow was using my light to look for lobsters. He followed me for about an
hour—I didn’t catch many lobsters. The seal took them all!”
Night falls, and
Fletcher cooks a spaghetti dinner. (Jensen has assigned one meal to each
student.) Now that the boat has stopped rocking, the men who had fallen sick
feel somewhat better, and they gather with the rest of the crew in the cabin to
eat and banter.
“We could be fogbound tomorrow morning,” Perry says. “If
that happens, how do you sound the air horn?”
“One long, two short,” someone
Perry smiles. “Good.”
No fog appears on Sunday morning, but
there is no wind either. After conferring with Jensen, Perry decides that the
boat will motor home.
The trip back is not a cakewalk. Before noon, Perry
conducts another MOB drill, and at one point he announces that the boat has
sprung a leak. The crew members feverishly check the vessel’s
through-hulls—spots where water is most likely to pass through—and finally find
the leak (a pen wrapped with blue tape) next to the bilge pump.
afternoon, Horizon Hunter’s steering purportedly fails, causing another
scramble. Fletcher leaps to the boat’s aft end and yanks up a steel plate,
exposing the rudder. He inserts a steel bar in the mechanism and steers the boat
manually, swinging it away from a buoy to which it had come dangerously
The Golden Gate Bridge appears, and the crew members sag with relief.
Privately, Perry is asked if any accidental jibes have occurred during this
“Two,” he says.
How many students have passed?
Club Nautique, 510.865.4700, www.clubnautique.net