Alcatraz is just eclipsing the southern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge when my crew screams: “Man overboard!” We’re sailing in one leg of the race channel to be used for the America’s Cup in July, when sailboats will scythe past San Francisco’s Camelot-like towers at 75km/h.
It feels as though my hair is on fire at a quarter that speed, and that any man who’s fallen overboard had better be Chad le Clos.
Grabbing the life belt behind the tiller in a panic, I yell the only appropriate words in the circumstances: “My Old Flame Seduces Boys Regularly …”
The crewman, Jay, shoots me a stunned look.
Seconds later, after clumsily performing my turn, I finish the chant: “… But They Can’t Sleep Over”.
Exactly 50 seconds after Jay’s “man overboard” call, our boat coasts up to our not-so-stricken crew member Bob — who is a canary yellow plastic bottle, drifting on an ebb tide toward Sausalito.
The chant is a mnemonic I invented for the figure-eight sailman overboard drill; something you have to master in under 45 seconds or Jay — my sailing instructor who had surreptitiously pitched Bob over the side — will fail you on the basic keelboat course.
Shout “Man overboard!”; throw “Flotation” device; appoint a “Spotter”; turn to a “Beam Reach”; do a radical “Big Tack”; “Carry” the mainsheet across your lap (so the yards of loose rope don’t end up in a lethal tangle); and “Shift Over” to collect him on the lee side of the boat.
With Bob back in the boat and the sails flapping, the view from the centre of the 10km-wide estuary is of icons in almost every direction. To the port side, there’s the spaceship-like TransAmerica Pyramid and the elegant Coit Tower crowding the Golden Gate, with Al Capone’s old prison digs in the foreground.
Forward, it’s an eyeful of San Quentin Prison — with its massive death-row complex; the giant redwood forests of Marin County; and Angel Island, with its weird history of missiles, racism, quarantine and immigrant hope.
To starboard, it’s the University of Berkeley and the former home of almost every lefty rebel who ever caused a White House migraine, from Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg to Francis Ford Coppola and Daniel Ellsberg.
Actually, on these waters, every breeze seems to gust from the left. The birthplace of the beats, the anti-war intellectuals, the hippies, the acid-rockers and the free-love long-hairs, all seem to have their own discrete point on the compass.
Drift closer to the western shore on the Bay’s foggy time machine and you can easily imagine Janis Joplin wandering Haight Street like a priestess, or the Grateful Dead arguing with uptight venue managers on Ashbury.
Heading south for Oakland, I hear “Man overboard” yet again.
The trouble with my drill mnemonic is that it doesn’t occur to me that someone else will yell “man overboard”, so, when I launch into “My Old Flame Seduces”, I lose precious seconds as I think “My — M for Mainsheet? O for … Oh God!”
Man overboard drills are serious business in San Francisco Bay, because, according to sailing school owner Anthony Sandberg, “next to the Bay, every other stretch of water in America is like a bunny slope in skiing”.
The Bay is blasted by a 20-knot westerly almost every day for nine months of the year; a phenomenon organisers of the America’s Cup hope will help to revive flagging interest in the sport. And this, after all, is the ultimate place to launch any movement.
You’d expect the Bay’s northern and eastern shore — among the most expensive real estate in the United States — to be lined with waterfront mansions, or resorts, but it’s not. Instead, the near view is of highways, prisons and bridges, with scores of small parks and pretty wetlands mixed in.
The rotting piles of the old Berkeley Pier stagger out 4km from the east shore, like broken black teeth.
But it remains movie-epic grand, taking on the look of science-fiction cover art at the end of each day as the sun sets precisely beneath the Golden Gate’s orange, 2.4km span.
Fifty years ago, San Francisco Bay was a cesspool. Or, as Pete Seeger sang: a “sludge puddle, sad and gray”. It was ringed by municipal rubbish heaps, infested with raw sewage, and shrinking weekly because of deliberate landfill efforts and developers’ projects.
Sandberg founded his Olympic Circle Sailing School on Berkeley’s compacted garbage dump.
In 1959, the US Army Corps of Engineers had a plan to reclaim 70% of the Bay, leaving only channels for ships. This was deemed possible — and even desirable — because the entire eastern half of the Bay is only as deep as a swimming pool.
And the City of Berkeley — which lies exactly opposite the Oakland Bay Bridge — had an even more serious plan to double in size, using the eastern bed of the estuary.
The Bay has a richly storied history of being overlooked as a treasure in its own right. For hundreds of years, European explorers sailed right past the entrance, missing its green, Knysna-like heads in the fog. Incredibly, Europeans only discovered the 80km-long Bay within a year of the US’s independence; almost 300 years after Columbus landed on the opposite coast. And it took just 200 more to all but vanish again.
In 1961, the wives of three university professors — Caherine Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick — formed the lobby group that would reverse it all. According to Robert Redford — a huge fan of this waterway — the three literally “saved the Bay”, and it’s now back to 18th-century levels of near-pristine health.
Sandberg lives on the Berkeley Marina, and has a low meditation table — complete with rocks, incense and Eastern books — set up at a picture window 10m from the water.
He knows the Bay’s secrets, and has a personal interest in many of them staying that way.
Sandberg remembers getting caught by San Quentin searchlights and chased by guards while skinny dipping with a date in the 1970s.
It had been an interlude during a massive, cowboy-themed party he was throwing near the prison — on the very site where Clint Eastwood had growled the line: “You gotta ask yourself: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya? Punk?” He remembers that Robin Williams was among the guests at the party on the Bay’s north shore, and that it went on for days.
Garrulous and almost aggressively hospitable, Sandberg is all 1970s: an alpha-male pioneer who nevertheless gets away with saying things like “encounter” when he means “meeting” and “exquisite” when he means “nice”.
Californian love affair
Bay Area folks love the Bay the way Capetonians love their mountain. But, as a man who grew up in Hawaii and who gets to go on paid vacations to places like Antarctica and Turkey, Sandberg’s love affair is compelling.
When he has a VIP meeting, he’ll set a lunch at a place like Cavallo Point, a former army officer’s outpost on the shore beneath the Golden Gate, now a lodge and spa that feels like a Spielberg movie set.
When he has a yen for the “world’s best dim sum for under $10”, he knows just the place — over the Bay Bridge, and into the maze that is Richmond. (And he’s right.) He knows where, from a roadside market in Sausalito, to pick up authentic Argentinian chimichurri sauce, and where not only to get the best crabs for a cook-out on the marina, but also “where to get the best guests!” And almost every Sandberg dinner party is preceded by a “fun sail” to Angel Island and back.
On one of these boozy outings I meet a surprisingly humble military test pilot who is applying for the astronaut programme; on another, I meet three bubbly nobodies: a multimillionaire, a man who has photographed the world’s tallest mountains, and a penniless geek-kid who may or may not invent the gizmos we need to finally map the ocean floor.
They have nothing in common but the Bay and Sandberg’s address book, but ideas fizz around the cockpit: for online clothing sales that would grant dignity to plus-size women shoppers; on rethinking parking lots in the future; on energy and vacation time; and the importance of salsa dancing lessons.
It’s not just chatter — afterwards, the kid with the cheap submersible is hooked up with a Nasa ROV team, business cards are exchanged and followed up, and we do all go salsa dancing.
Not quite the folk-war protest movement, perhaps, but still.
There is, I think, something about the Bay that somehow binds strangers together with ideas. Why not? Redford is one of many who hold the Bay to be “sacred”; perhaps, the bowl that washed America’s feet in 1969 — cleansing it of both the righteousness of its bigotry, and the physical ring of trash that was its symbol.
Even rescuing Bob comes to seem more ritual than drill as I perform another ham-fisted figure-eight manoeuvre, and think: if I screw this one up as well, they’ll let me come out here again tomorrow …