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Offshore Adventure - The Farallon Islands

On, July 17th at 7:49am a crew of six departed Pier 39 marina in San Francisco for a trip around the South Farallon Islands. Months of boat preparation, safety infrastructure, and crew training had been completed prior to the 65+ mile trip. ‘Rascal’ and her crew were ready for big winds, large ocean swells, and open ocean navigation using dead reckoning as a backup to GPS. Little did the they know, the day unfolded very differently than forecast or expected . . .

WBFV longer term goals include sailing Clover, the historic 68’ gaff rigged topsail cutter, to Hawaii and back with an all vet crew. Question is, how to you build a deep reservoir of experience with WBFV volunteers to be prepared for such a voyage? Most Wooden Boats for Veterans (WBFV) sail training to date has remained within the bay and occasionally up to 5nm off the California coast including a trip to Monterey in early 2020. But there’s a big difference between coastal and blue water sailing. The Farallons provides a necessary stepping stone for future WBFV blue water excursions.

The intrepid crew included Navy veterans as and a well established veteran of SF bay tug and pilot operations, WBFV board member, Patrick Mulcahy. A common thread among these volunteers was the number of hours dedicated to our wooden boats restoration program (primarily Clover) in past twelve months. Future Farallon roundings and other WBFV blue water sail training will give priority to those vets who have completed multiple wooden boat restoration and sail training days.

Unfortunately the winds did not develop as forecast, making the morning more of an adventure in ‘motor-sailing’ with light winds. This meant the boat was less stable in the large ocean swells. The constant churn and aroma of the Univeral 25MXP diesel engine along with the motion tested the crew’s mettle along with their stomachs. For several onboard, lingering down below for navigation training proved to be a bit uncomfortable, but still it was a realistic blue water experience and building block for future offshore sailing.

So, how did the crew and boat fare amongst the challenges of the day?

Eventually the winds filled in after the crew navigated a large feet of chartered fishing boats and losing sight of the California coastline. And then something amazing happened . . . whale sightings. Not one, two or five whales – but at least ten whales of different types spotted beyond 15nm from the Golden Gate. It was an epic experience for the crew to be greeted by such a host of these amazing creatures. Whale water spouts, whales dramatically breaching and then crashing back into the sea, and even a mother escorting her calf were observed. This phenomenal show of nature was a wonderful prelude to the South Farallon Islands, which also exceeded crew expectations.

About 8nm out, the craggly outline of the infamous ‘Devil’s Teeth Islands’ emerged from the haze. Once within 3nm of the rounding, the sloop Rascal was greeted by playful sea lions – acting as escorts for Rascal to visit more of the Island’s unspoiled treasures. And then something else showed up the crew hadn’t expected. More whales. A lot more whales.

Upon completion of the rounding, another half-dozen whales had been sighted near the island, undoubtedly enjoying the pristine waters and nourishment of this unique, protected marine ecosystem. But it didn’t stop there – many unusual birds and sounds of their calls provided a great soundtrack to the spectacular and sparse geological mystery that unfolded before their eyes. Steep cliffs, light shining through crevices in the rock formations, and the continued sounds of whale spouts, waves crashing the island shore, and the calls of Murres (penguin like birds) provided a very impactful full sensory experience of nature.

Oh, and one more thing . . . how would any sailing trip to the Farallons be complete without actually spotting the namesake for the infamous Devil’s Teeth Islands; a great white shark! Yes, we were escorted in by playful sea lions and escorted OUT by a great white that paralleled our 055 deg return track for what seems like a LONG 30 seconds. The ominous dorsal fin was less than two boat lengths from Rascal’s starboard side. Whew!

And just as the crew was beginning to recount their personal observations while the ragged rock islands were still within view from astern, yet another 5-6 whale sightings occurred. Perhaps several of the same whales were seen just a few hours earlier. This was a perfect backdrop for the crew as the boat’s chef (and veteran of our Navy’s nuclear subs) prepared gourmet hot pulled chicken sandwiches on fresh, toasted baguettes for sailors whose stomachs had returned to normal.

The remaining return trip was less eventful as Rascal was on a broad reach doing 5 - 6.5 knots in moderate breeze with following seas. Tired sailors took turns at the helm and then napping. Finally, they returned back under the Golden Gate as the sun began to set on a long, but very satisfying day on the ocean. It was a day of great blue-water experience and training, shared group comradery, and replenishment of the soul which fosters readiness for more wooden boat volunteer experiences and ocean adventures to come.

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