In Which Team Hobie Almost Freezes To Death

In Which Team Hobie Almost Freezes to Death

by Alex Q. Sailor

(The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Around 9 am on a Saturday in December, I was talking with the yacht club port captain on the phone when there was a knock at the sliding glass door. I looked out to see John “Danger” Jones, wearing a motorcycle jacket with his nose red from the cold. He waddled in wearing four pairs of pants and planted himself in front of the fireplace. “It’s… really… cold… out… there,” he managed. I did what any reasonable person would do when faced with a frozen motorcyclist: I shoved a mug of tea in his hands until he thawed out enough to speak. “Want to get breakfast?”

The morning was calm but the tide was high, so we elected to head out to the club and see if the wind would build. “We could always go for a motorcycle ride,” he offered, “but I’d rather go sailing.” At the club, there was enough wind to merit sailing, so we started rigging his boat, a Hobie 18. I had checked the daytime tides and knew we were fine until at least sunset in terms of having water.

Eventually we headed off the dock into the wild blue yonder of Tomales Bay. We headed north-northwest, pausing once to admire Heart’s Desire Beach, and again to look at the abandoned Coast Miwok dwellings and artists’ colony at Lairds Landing, then continued on towards our goal: Hog Island, eight miles up the bay from the club. The wind had been building throughout the day, so John and I traded who was on the trapeze wire and who was controlling the tiller. I had him close his eyes so he could practice “feeling” the boat while steering. Fortunately, no one died. John mentioned how much he loves sailing on this bay and how special it was, despite having lived all over. We both established that we return home from sailing with faces sore from smiling so much.

We put ashore on the island’s northwestern edge along a conveniently-located beach that pointed right into the wind. We trudged ashore, tied up the boat, and scrambled up a shallow cliff into the trees, feeling not unlike characters from a Swallows & Amazons book. The first thing we noticed about the island is that it had gone to the birds: the ground was white from droppings, almost as if it was covered in a layer of snow. On Duck Island, Hog’s companion to the south, the trees were full of cormorants sunning their black wings in the sun. Strange plants that looked like hollyhocks grew in gaps between dying eucalyptus and cypress trees, and wild onions poked their way through the leaf- and guano-covered ground.

We ran down the hill to the boat, noticing the tide had gone out a significant amount in the half hour we’d been on the island. Untying the boat from a fallen tree, we found what looked like a scapula for some sort of sea mammal, a lobster claw, crab parts, and a femur. A flotilla of kayaks approached the island but didn’t land. We pushed off, me getting my feet wetter in the process, and turned south.

The sun set as Marshall Beach appeared to our right. We were still five miles from the club, at the same point where we turned around a few weeks ago an hour before sunset, which had resulted in landing at the club an hour after sunset in the dark November night. As the sun slipped behind the hills to the west, the wind disappeared and the tide continued to rush out of the bay, changing in height almost eight feet in as many hours. We floundered, becalmed, as the stars came out and the bay fell silent. The sky turned from periwinkle to velvet blue, the last tinges of orange disappearing from the clear western sky.

I asked John if he thought we should try to hail the the fire department via radio. He said we’d be fine. I stewed, starting to get cold. After the commodore’s lecture three weeks prior on the importance of carrying safety gear while sailing in winter, I had charged my radio and brought it along on this sail. Ignoring John, I finally called the Coast Guard on the emergency frequency but made John do the talking. They asked us if we had flares (no) or a cell phone (no). Tut tut. We said we’d try to land in Marshall. Except there was no wind to guide us into the marina. So we drifted south, slowly against the falling tide as the boat started quivering from the tidal swells. We tried paddling with the daggerboards, though I eventually gave up because my hands were getting too cold to hold the blades.

Could we land in Marshall? I thought we might be able to dock at the boatworks, but then there were the 14 miles of road between us and the yacht club where my car was, along with the keys for John’s motorcycle. We could try hitchhiking home to Point Reyes, but then we’d have the problem of my car being at the yacht club and the boat being in Marshall, and no way to get to either. John offered to run from wherever we landed back to the club. “It’ll only take me an hour!”

Eventually the wind picked up to a few knots from the south and we made the either astoundingly brilliant or incredibly stupid decision to sail the remaining four or so miles back to the yacht club. We told the Coast Guard over the radio what our plans were, and John was rather optimistic about our arriving at the club at a reasonable hour. The Coast Guard told us that they had talked to the Inverness Volunteer Fire Department and that the fire department couldn’t send anyone out because the tide was too low. Jolly good! Another repeat of three weeks ago, complete with slogging through the mud! Except we were miles further north than we were last time when the night fell! And it’s 10˚F colder than last time! We told the Coast Guard we’d call them when we got back to the dock. The last thing I wanted was them sending a boat out from Bodega Bay to “rescue” us from our own stupidity.

It got colder. We had thumb wars and bounced our feet on the trampoline to try to regain feeling in our digits. I saw Eskimos making igloos on the eastern side of the bay. I wondered if I had the radio frequency for an icebreaking ship.

A waning gibbous peach-colored moon rose above the eastern hills as various winter constellations climbed disturbingly higher and higher into the sky. We pulled closer to the club and were able to resolve the Golden Hinde Inn & Marina to our right. Suddenly, a bajillion candle power beam of light swept from what had to be the yacht club towards our sail. A few minutes later, the light focused on our sail. At least someone knew we were out here and was looking for us. Shame on us for ruining their Saturday evening!

The ghostly figure with the searchlight shone it along the dock, showing us precisely how much water remained at the dock (not any). We headed as far south as we dared where there were a few more inches of water and struck the ground. I wrangled up the daggerboards as John flopped over the side like a dead fish and started pushing the boat. “This mud is warm!” he called from the water. “It feels great!” I groaned as the boat ground to a halt in the mud, 50 feet from the dock. I gingerly hopped over the starboard side, fell up to my knees in the mud, and started pushing toward the dock.

The figure on the dock resolved itself into a certain former fire chief (who else would own a blinding electric flashlight?) who did not look entirely pleased to see us.
“I should have known it was you two,” he called out as we shoved the boat through the last 30′ of mud to the dock. Good thing my sheepish expression was invisible in the dark. John clearly felt no remorse for hauling the former chief out to the club in the dark to babysit two stupid Hobie 18 sailors in the middle of a Saturday night.
“I am so glad to see you!” John hopped up on the dock to tie the boat off and face whatever verbal onslaught was to come. I cringed as I clambered onto the wooden boards of the float.
“Watch out; there are some icy patches up there,” the former fire chief advised. So much for following the safety lecture from last month.
“Do you know what time it is?” continued the firefighter, sounding not entirely irate. I ran for the clubhouse, not wanting to know either the extent of his displeasure or the answer to this question. My thoughts were on the shower and rinsing off my boots so I didn’t make too much of a mess.

I glanced at the clock in my car and the tidetable on my phone. It was 9:30; low tide of -1.34 feet had been at 9:13. We had been out in the dark for over four hours after sunset at 4:00.

The shower was painful. I couldn’t keep my feet or hands in for more than a few seconds before they’d be horribly painful. Eventually I struggled out of my wetsuit and tried to regain feeling in my appendages, but one pinkie toe reluctantly stayed a virulent shade of purple. I started shivering and heard John fumble into the bathroom next door. A few minutes later I heard him emerge and he offered to get me my dry shoes from the car. Eventually, I stumbled out into the clubhouse to see a barefoot John, already changed and apparently not wanting to shower.
“Where are your shoes?” I inquired, shivering uncontrollably.
“I only had that one pair.”
“What… ? You’re joking,” I shook my head. “What are you going to do for footwear?”
“I’ll just go barefoot back to the boat to finish taking the sails down.”
“The dock’s icy! And for riding back 90 miles home on your motorcycle tomorrow?”
“Well, I’ll just have cold feet in wet sneakers. I did it all summer.”
“While riding for an hour and a half? It’s December!”

The former fire chief called the Coast Guard and told him that we were “safe”. Walking out to the end of the dock, I noticed a patch of ice where I had washed off my boots not 20 minutes ago. John’s sail was jammed at the top of the mast and there was no way to get it down in the dark, so we gave up, secured the boat to the dock, and drove back to Point Reyes.

Sunday morning dawned dark and cloudy, with quite a lot of wind. The anemometer in Marshall indicated wind gusts to 30 mph, so perhaps John’s sail was not doing so well out in the building storm. I drove into San Francisco to help a friend with a baking competition and John straddled his motorcycle to drive back to the club to put his boat away. The port captain reported that John wanted to go out single-handing in the stiff breeze preceding the coming storm, but she put her foot down and said under no circumstances he was allowed out by himself in the wind. Snow was forecast for John’s town tonight, so perhaps either freezing his feet off or getting waylaid by more ice and rain would serve him right for his contributing to my losing nerve endings in my toes.

Since then, we’ve gone sailing a few times and we’ve yet to a) invoke either the Coast Guard or the Fire Department; b) return to the dock after sunset; or c) wade through unholy amounts of mud on the way back to the IYC. Perhaps one of us has learned his or her lesson, though I’ll let you know if John’s Holy Grail of sailing out of the mouth of Tomales Bay in a catamaran ever comes to fruition.