Riding the Slot

Travel Stories: As she struggled to make sense of her father's final days, Lenore Greiner sailed across a treacherous patch of San Francisco Bay

03.19.16 | 12:09 PM ET

Sailing San Francisco BayPhoto by May Wong via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

Watching my father wither like a leaf about to fall, I couldn’t make sense of his impending death. After a sad, shell-shocked week in my childhood home, I received a call from an old friend, Tom, who invited me to spend a day sailing on San Francisco Bay. An only child, Tom had recently lost both his parents. I jumped at the chance.

Early one August Sunday morning, I drove across the Richardson Bay Bridge from Marin County toward the Alameda marina. The Golden Gate Bridge figures prominently in the landscape of my childhood. During my many bridge crossings, I’d admire the pretty white sails set against the jade-green of the bay. My father had commuted across this bridge daily and drove with my mother to parties in the city. One full moon night, they hurried across the bridge before my mother gave birth to twins. As a small child, I’d found comfort lying drowsily in their car’s back seat, watching the bridge’s amber lights race by, a sign that home was near. Years later, I took another trip across the bridge inside a limo with my husband of one hour, traveling to our wedding reception. Tom was our best man.

But on this August Sunday, the bridge’s rust-colored spires only instilled a deep sadness in me. That bridge and my father had been fixtures in my life and now he was slipping away from me. My grief created crazy-angry, illogical thoughts: Why is the bridge always there? Why the bridge and not my dad?

Tom and I rode his 38-foot Catalina sailboat, the Déjà Vu, through the marina channel, and I asked him about losing his parents. How did he get through it?

“It’s tough,” he said, scanning the water. “But you live with it.”

But how? I thought.

We motored into the bay just south of the Oakland Bay Bridge. We skirted between the bridge’s two giant tower anchorages and passed a white 1873 lighthouse standing on rocky Yerba Buena Island. Tom raised the sails and the bow shot northward into the rolling current. The breeze whipped the American flag on the stern.

Then, on a hard breeze, we raced into the crowded chaos of San Francisco Bay. To me, the bay from atop the Golden Gate Bridge had always appeared as a wide open body of water with room enough for fleets of sailboats and freighters heading out to sea. At sea level, that illusion dissolved in the spray. Every type of watercraft was buzzing toward any number of possible collisions. Intent on broadsiding the Déjà Vu, bay ferries and tourist excursion boats took nautical pride in staying their courses until making last-minute corrections to avoid disaster.

“Is it always like this?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Don’t we have the right of way?”

“That doesn’t stop them.”

We sailed along the Embarcadero, lined with the spires of the Financial District. I searched for the windows of my father’s former office in Embarcadero Two, a skyscraper towering near the water. On long ago Saturday mornings, I accompanied my father there so he could, as he put it, “Get some paperwork done.”

I remembered twirling in the chair at his secretary’s oak desk and releasing the treasures in its drawers—gummed labels and odd typewriter erasers, grey, flat disks with small stiff brushes. My dad worked away, serenaded by my stamp-pad thumping and the whine of the electric pencil sharpener. I had never gotten in trouble for my merry destruction. Instead, we went to lunch in Chinatown in a restaurant where nobody spoke English and the menu was written in Cantonese. My dad always managed to order enough food for us to stuff ourselves. As I spotted Chinatown from the water, I felt a stab of grief. How long will it take until everything around me stops creating more sadness? How long will it take me to learn how “to live with it”?

Alcatraz, that massive prison block atop a colossal rock, loomed ahead. A black reef of rocks pierced the watery swirl in the island’s shallows. Tom steered a wide berth and maneuvered around the island.

Meanwhile, slow-moving tankers from the Richmond Fuel Depot and container ships from the Port of Oakland joined the bay’s flotillas. This was all nerve-wracking to me, so I consulted with my captain.

“Do those tankers and big ships have right of way?”

“They can’t respond fast enough to avoid collisions,” Tom said. “So, yeah, they have the right of way. As long as I can see them, I’m OK. I just try not to get awash in their wakes.”

We ran along San Francisco’s waterfront, avoiding the weekend sailing races. Occasionally, a suicidal kite-surfer would narrowly miss our bow, charging across wakes cut by larger vessels. Or I’d point out another obstacle to Tom—an open water bay swimmer, the most insane kind of San Franciscan.

Then a current started tossing the Déjà Vu about. We had entered the Slot.

Every ship, lowly tub and weekend sailor on the bay must tackle the Slot, an area eight nautical miles long running from the Berkeley flats to the Golden Gate. Famous for ferocious winds and speeding currents from April to October, the Slot’s conditions funnel two trillion gallons of water through the bay daily on powerful incoming flood tides and outgoing ebb tides.

A product of California’s extreme geography, the Slot arrives when temperatures rise as high as 115 degrees F in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. As that hot air rises, it lures the Pacific Coast’s frigid marine air inland, creating fierce conditions. They can throw boats off course or create near-shore eddies that twist boats into the opposite direction of the prevailing current. To head out to sea, freighters and tankers hop aboard the Slot during an outgoing ebb tide to catch a mighty ride, shooting through the Golden Gate and then riding the current another 20 miles into the open ocean.

To sail toward the Golden Gate Bridge, sailors must tack back and forth across the Slot between Marin and San Francisco. When I was a kid out for the occasional sailing trip on a boat belonging to a family friend, I found those traverses loads of fun. When we bounced and rolled, I’d balance my sea legs and yell, “Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Passing Sausalito today, I remembered other sailing trips with my dad on a friend’s boat. That sailor had a penchant for overloading the vessel with passengers, so my dad had nicknamed it the “slave ship.” Another wave of sadness came flooding in.

“OK, we’re going to beat up the Slot to the bridge,” said Tom as we rocked on the chop. We tacked in the deep-water channel near Angel Island, heading back and forth across the bay as the current carried us toward the Golden Gate.

Sea birds wheeled above us, hanging on the wind and scouting for food. Tom was watching the water. He’d beaten the Slot many times, and I wondered, is that how you learn to live with it? Keep making the same passage over and over again? Keep making the necessary corrections until you avoid floundering in currents of grief?

As we slid close to the bridge, we could hear the drone of traffic from the roadway above. Faces of pedestrians popped over the railing to look down at us.

Right underneath the Golden Gate, there was dead silence. The Slot’s wild winds had turned to an eerie calm. The only sound we heard was the wave slaps upon the concrete anchorage of the bridge’s north tower. An insect-like armature of red steel soared above us like a monster in a Japanese sci-fi film. Dark headlands as tall as skyscrapers rose steeply above the waves.

“This is the Potato Patch,” Tom said once we were outside the Golden Gate.

I studied the flat, disordered water as we rose and fell in high swells. Above a shallow ocean bed, a muddle of open ocean waves and outgoing tide bashed together. The resulting swells can spell havoc for sailors; keels have run aground on the shifting shallows and rogue waves have upended boats or laid them over entirely. Surfers have tried, and failed, to catch the giant curls breaking inside the Potato Patch.

“People have died out there,” a San Francisco newspaper editor once told me.

This was true. During one open ocean race, the Potato Patch swallowed a sailboat whole and spat three bodies upon a nearby beach three days later.

Adding to the creepiness, 27 miles offshore, the dark Farallon Islands appeared deceptively close. Those unfriendly isles harbor shipwrecks, Great Whites and a U.S. Navy radioactive dump. In the Potato Patch, just as the old maps had declared, “There be dragons.”

Tom pointed the Déjà Vu eastward. We sailed back inside the bay and beheld one of the world’s great views: the Golden Gate Bridge and the gleaming City on the Bay. Tom began tacking again, and the Déjà Vu’s white hull sliced the water. A red tourist boat rollicked by as happy passengers waved to us.

There on the water I realized I had no choice but to change tack, and that I would have to attempt the impossible—to live without my father. Life is full of Potato Patches and Slots, I thought. You just have to navigate them the best you can. From here on out, I’d have to ride with the tide.