Anybody been sailing in San Fransisco Bay lately? I don't mean Sunday afternoon, lazing under the sun, draped around the cockpit of your 47 foot Carver. I don't even mean scudding before a stiff breeze on your 14 foot Hobie Cat hanging on a lanyard with only one hull in the water.
I'm talking about the serious, no holds barred, get dirty, get wet, darn near get drowned kind of sailing, best done in a 300 foot pleasure liner with more shaft horsepower than you can talk about and a power plant you only refuel once every twelve years, if you get my drift. I'm talking about taking the Bates into Alameda and Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Serious sailing.
Every sailor knows that the approach to San Fransisco Bay is one of the most dangerous in the world. The coastline and the wave action combine to produce truly horrendous sea states, with hard to predict wave action and treacherous currents. Rocks and shoals abound and eye your boat with salacious greed, ready to grind you up for a single mistake. Bridge crew have been lost here. Shipping traffic is nearly equal to the straits of Malacca, and the seascape and Golden Gate bridge combine to produce a relatively narrow channel. And that's when the weather is good!
So we were on our way into Alameda to off-load weapons in preparation for some time at MINSY. I can't remember when or what for, but it must have been in the early eighties. We'd made our approach to the bay during the night, and whether we were hours early or had to wait for daylight for a pilot, or what, I don't know. What I do know is that we were on the surface, doing circles at the hold point, just outside the channel in the mouth of the bay. It was dark, the middle of the night kind of dark, and a storm was howling like I'd never seen. Rain was driving horizontally, the wind was whipping the wave crests into foam, and you almost couldn't tell where the sea ended and the air began.
The three or four of us on the bridge were in double parachute harnesses chained to the boat. We weren't going to lose anybody overboard on this one, even if they drowned on the bridge. Waves were breaking over us as we tried to keep our act together. The boat rolled in the troughs, the fair-water planes were in the water, and the wave crests would break over you. The upper hatch on the access trunk was shut, because of the water we were taking over the bridge. All you could do was try to anticipate the next wave, grab a deep breath, and try and hold it until you broke out of the water. A man overboard on a night like this was a good as dead the moment he hit the water.
You couldn't hardly see a thing. Clouds obscured the sky, and only occasionally would the weather break enough for you to see a light from the shore or a buoy, and then you had to turn off the submarine beacon because the glare reflected off the driving rain and spray would blind you. Radar was near useless - sea clutter took on a whole new meaning as one moment the radar was rotating into the sky, the next moment it was submerged. We puttered along just making steerage way, with bulged eyeballs, straining to see a light, a buoy, anything to get our bearings and keep us off the rocks and out of the channel. Don't forget to sound the ship's horn once every minute or so, just to add to the confusion and chaos.
Straining to see a light, fighting to get a good breath in between waves, soaking wet, freezing, chained to the bridge. We were 'living the dream!'
Suddenly the spray clears for a moment, just a moment, and in that moment I see a distinct green light.
"Captain," I holler at the top of my lungs, pointing, "green light off the starboard beam!"
"Where?" he yells in reply.
The whole bridge crew stares into the night, following my arm, as we desperately seek some hint of a buoy, anything. For a brief moment the wind drops, and there it is, bearing 80 degrees relative.
"What the hell is that?" cries the OOD, "there's no buoy out that way!"
And then we see the other light. Bearing 110 relative.
For a moment you realize that you are voluntarily controlling your bowels so you don't blow sanitaries in your shorts. It's a ship, a big ship, a f_____g big ship, a g___d_____ f______g big cargo container ship about to give you some serious PT109 action, and head on into Oakland without ever realizing they've just cut a Sturgeon class boat into sliced salami and sent her to the bottom. It's now 30 degrees between lights, and now you realize you're looking UP at them. "Buddha H...." as Gene Diana would have said.
"Ahead Flank, Cavitate," the CO screams into the MC. "Rudder amidships!" All we can do is hang on to the bridge and our shorts, offer a silent prayer, and hope everyone isn't asleep below decks. Boom, boom, you feel the check valves slam under your feet as the pumps go to fast speed. Thank God they got the message, you silently offer. The ocean behind the boat erupts in an explosion of white water, which would be spectacular on any other day, but tonight it just blends in with the roar of the angry sea.
Now you realize you can't see the port and starboard lights of the ship, but you can feel it! The Bates is starting to accelerate. The container ship is so close you can actually feel its mass in the darkness. This is 'life flashing before your eyes' time in a big way. You don't hardly even have time to wonder if you are going to make it as the boat starts to heel coming out of the turn. Then you see the ship's name, in six foot high letters, illuminated by their own lights, go streaming by into the storm over your head.
And it's over. At least as far as the 'being run down by a huge cargo ship' part of the story goes. Somewhere not two hundred yards away, on a nice cozy bridge, the deck gently swaying under his feet, a helmsman yawns, puts down his cigarette, and reaches for his coffee cup, completely and absolutely unaware that there was a 5000 ton nuclear powered warship close enough to spit on. And so it goes.
The rest of the night was just normal and boring, compared to the last two minutes. Back to ahead one third, back to our circle, back to trying to breathe between waves. You know, just normal and boring.
Later on, hours later, probably next to the pier, I pass the CO in the passageway. He stops me and says, "What's the most important navigation rule to remember from this night?" I give him my best 'confused' look.
"Red next to green - don't sail between." He grins. "Green next to red, you're going to be dead."