What I Saw – by Jackie Philpott
Once the rains had subsided in the middle of April, I jumped on my boat and sailed over to Angel Island. It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky, finally warm enough to ditch the sweatshirt and wool hat for a long-sleeved t-shirt.
It doesn’t take long to sail over to the island from Richmond, and once I got there, I tied my boat up next to a Boston Whaler. Besides the Whaler there was only one other sailboat down near the sea lions who were laying around on each other making those snarfling noises.
There were some people walking around enjoying the sun, but not too many. The bike rental concession stand was open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Two fellas in brown uniforms were standing on ladders putting a new wood shake roof on the ranger booth. They looked like rangers to me, so I asked them whether roofing was in their job description.
“Well. Yeah,” said Willis Hindle. He explained that he and Michael Dolan are members of the Angel Island Maintenance Crew. They smiled for my camera.
Michael Dolan is a full-time member of the crew, and he gets his own house. Willis, who is a seasonal worker, lives in a dormitory room. How does one get a job doing maintenance on Angel Island? There is a civil service exam, with a recommended three years’ experience in a building trade. I asked Michael what the best part of his job was.
He spread his arms around his head in a slow arc and said, “I get to live here and look out at all this every day.”
There was no ranger on duty on this Wednesday, so I tucked $15 cash into the small envelope and dropped it into the drop box. Then I hiked my favorite path, up the hill and past the West Garrison, avoiding the poison ivy, which is everywhere. At this time of year its leaves were deep red and glossy. It’s easy to avoid if you know what it looks like.
I had carried my lunch in a backpack and ate it in the shade of a pin oak tree. Once I had sat quietly for a while the critters got going again: big yellow bumblebees, butterflies and so many different birds. I had a splendid view of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
There were yellow lupines and lots of other wildflowers. I saw an Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) and a huge turkey vulture up on a power pole.
After a long while I hiked back down to the dock. As I approached the boat slips, I realized that the Whaler was already gone at 4 p.m. Willis and Michael were loading their tools onto a truck. The roof was almost done and they would finish it the next day. During the summer months the Angel Island Cafe is open Thursday through Sunday, but there would be no latte for me on this day. It’s a big island and it takes only a few minutes to walk or bicycle away from everyone else on it.
I stepped aboard Dura Mater and sailed away, leaving the island just the way I found it: Practically empty.
Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club
In March I spent a couple of days in Monterey. While I was there, I decided to walk down, see what was happening at the Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club (MPYC). Every year, on the first Wednesday following daylight savings time the club hosts its first buoy race. It’s the first race of what is called The Sunset Series. MPYC’s races start earlier than San Francisco’s buoy races, and the excitement on the docks on this evening was palpable. As I approached the marina gate, I followed a man who was pushing a dock cart and asked him if he was racing. He laughed, and said, “What!? Do I look like a sailor? No! I work for a living!”
I held the gate door as he entered and then slipped in behind a woman who carried a sail bag.
I turned right at the first dock where I found a fleet of smaller sailboats. Some of them were beat up, some of them were pristine. Some had racing sails, some had well-worn Dacron sails. All of the people preparing their boats looked happy to be out there on this first day of racing.
I approached a fella standing next to a nicely tended Santana 22 with a tangerine hull, and introduced myself.
The boat’s name was Feisty and the man’s name was Anthony Zavitsanos. Anthony insisted that he is not a racer. He repeated that with some emphasis: “I am not a racer.”
A little confused, I asked, “Are you going out on Feisty to race?”
“Yes.” He grinned. Then we talked some more about how he self-identifies. One can do that nowadays. Anthony explained that he is a cruiser.
“Ohhhh,” I said. “Do you have a boat?”
“No,” said Anthony. “I gave it up.” Then we talked about the good old days, back when he could charter a sailboat all through Europe just by proving to the charter company that he knew how to sail by sailing around briefly outside the harbor. But that was 35 years ago. Nowadays he goes out with his friend who owns S/V Feisty. His friend has removed Feisty’s wooden coaming and almost everything down below so she is very lightweight and fast. Anthony was as proud of that Santana as if he owned her.
I wished him well and went looking for the Shields fleet. I admired a beautiful slender red hull, then started back up toward the exit. I noticed a fella walking toward me. He was wearing shorts and had a satisfied look on his face. In other words, he looked like a sailor on his way to his boat. I did an about face and walked along with him. I asked if he owned the Shields sailboat with the red hull. Why yes, he did indeed.
Garth Hobson is the owner of S/V Stillwater, a Shields sailboat. The U.S. Naval Academy postgraduate school is located just up the street from the Monterey Public Marina. Originally owned by the U.S. Navy, S/V Stillwater was initially raced by Navy sailors. She was then sold to someone else, who named her Storm, who then sold her to the next person with the understanding that her name would remain Storm. Somehow, she showed up here with the name Stillwater, hull #257.
Before his crew arrived Garth and I had a few minutes to chat. There are 10 boats in the Shields fleet in Monterey. He told me that the owners appreciate the fact that the Monterey harbormaster gives them upwind slips just inside the entrance. Shields boats don’t have engines, and they must raise both main and headsails, then catch wind in order to sail out of their slips and through the narrow entrance. Sometimes it is difficult and he admitted that he has miscalculated a time or two, scraping the boat’s paint against the pier on the way out.
Garth is S/V Stillwater’s 4th owner; he bought her in 1999 and gave her a new paint job just last year, a candy apple red. She’s a beautiful boat with classic lines, long overhangs at each end and a wooden mast. When I asked how long he had owned her he sounded a little surprised as he reminded himself that he has owned her for 24 years. Earlier on this day he had expected a new sail to be delivered by Dave Hodges of Ullman Sails in Santa Cruz. Highway 1 was closed because of flooding though, so he would have to wait another week.
Garth explained that Shields fleet rules allow each sailor only one new sail per year. It can be the jib, a spinnaker or a mainsail. That way no one boat will have a new sail advantage over another. In theory this makes the fleet more evenly matched. From a sail perspective, anyway.
His daughter, Ashley, drives the boat and she soon arrived with the rest of the crew. The wind was a solid 19 knots with gusts to 25. They got right to work preparing the boat. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do. Later I learned that Ashley owns her own boat, the former S/V Domino, a Wilderness 30 that won the SHTP in 2018. This is a serious racing crew.
Later in the evening, as I was walking home, I saw S/V Stillwater’s crew walking toward the yacht club carrying their gear. I called over to them: “How was the race?”
Ashley responded, “We won!”
Of course, they did.
The first time I sailed to Monterey myself I arrived just as the Shields fleet was exiting the Marina. It was windy, as it was on this day, and they looked like a flock of birds emerging from a cave as they flew out of the marina past me. The wind is flukey in that area, and typically out of the west. After the race it was impressive to see them return to their slips, too. Most were able to tack and tack and tack, then whoosh through from the outer harbor even though the wind was directly on their boats’ noses.
Beginner sailors need not apply.
North Beach Canvas
Every morning I read two newspapers, both of which disagree with each other about almost everything. One of the very few things they do agree upon is the real estate situation in San Francisco: Businesses are shedding office space, retail spaces are closing and landlords are tearing their hair out in frustration. But then, when I walk around the Bay Area and talk with people who work in the maritime industries, I hear stories about how they are desperate to maintain their businesses along the edges of the water.
I did some research and found this study from Nancy Kum of UC Berkeley in 1986, entitled “The Objectives of the Port Commission.” In 1968 the State of California transferred ownership of the Port of San Francisco to the City and County of San Francisco. The Port Commission took over the administrative duties of the state-established San Francisco Port Authority. These duties include the enforcement of three objectives guiding the use of Port property, one of which is that it must maintain maritime activities. Although many development proposals for the Port are offered by developers, the Port Commission can adopt only plans which enhance the Port’s function as a maritime center. With this in mind, I got on BART and rode over to the City from North Oakland. I employed a highly sophisticated method of choosing my subject matter: I knock on a door and see who will open it and talk with me. Which I did.
I walked along the Embarcadero to Pier 40 and knocked on the door of North Beach Canvas, interrupting Liz Diaz, who was working at her cutting table. Despite its name, North Beach Canvas creates boat interiors, not Biminis or dodgers.
Liz was resistant, but then I dropped the name of a mutual friend: Synthia Petroka. It was as if I had submitted a magic password. Liz opened her door and then I was in.
She was cutting a paper pattern which would be used for the interior cushions of a Swan 52, S/V Into the Mystic. And wow! Liz designs and makes gorgeous interiors from beautiful fabrics. For another yacht she showed me soft navy-blue leather, to which she might add red piping. Think Bugatti racing car.
While she measured and cut, we talked about the San Francisco Port Commission’s decision to award development rights to a company that plans to displace the maritime businesses from Pier 40 in order to rebuild the pier, put in offices, retail space and a public swimming pool. According to the report, “the goal would be to relocate the businesses during construction and… eventually bring them back into the new Pier 40.”
I asked Liz what she thought about this development plan, and this is what she had to say:
Liz: The only reason my business is located here is because the Port says maritime businesses can exist for maritime customers. We’re on Port property. The Port is this unique entity. It stands taller than the City itself. It operates on its own, non-elected agenda. The Port is not making the kind of money they wish they were making. They’re losing tremendous amounts of money because, hey! They’ve got all this old crumbling infrastructure and they can’t put anything on it to make any money.
The Port is a bunch of crumbling cement and they’re only going to do the best they can do, which is the best they can do. Developers have to make money.
In 1999 I visited a canvas shop in Auckland, New Zealand. It is the only canvas shop in Auckland and it is located in their maritime park. They’re sitting there in front of sewing machines making things for boats… on subsidized land. Us little micro maritime businesses? We may end up somewhere near the national park because that’s subsidized turf. That’s a logical location for us because that is subsidized space.
The people who are making these decisions are in public service. They need to listen to the public. If you are in public service you have to listen to the public. That’s also why the public has to say something. The overall goal is to maintain the waterfront. The public needs to articulate that kind of argument.
The best comparison is what Sausalito is trying to do with its working waterfront. This is what remains of San Francisco’s working waterfront. Right here on Pier 40. It’s not random that we’re here. We’re here because of the mandate to maintain maritime activities.
People with boats generally need us, but there are only about half a dozen of us. [big sigh] Ya gotta think outta the box. Because if you don’t think outta the box, you don’t have anything. You’ve gotta ask, “What do we want to preserve?” Do we have a need to preserve maritime businesses? [she shrugs] We’re the least part of the real estate equation.
I worked one year in North Beach in my flat, then I worked seven years up the street at Third and Townsend. Then 20 years ago this place became available for maritime businesses. I worked on boats in this harbor, so I could see that they were moving businesses in. I said, “I can do that. Whatever the hell that is, I can do it.” I created this business.
I bought my trailers, transported them here, came down here almost 20 years ago! We were all marine businesses before the Port took over. I am here as a canvas shop, a cushion shop. I compete with other maritime businesses in the Bay Area. I do not compete with other businesses in downtown San Francisco. I am not here renting commercial space. I rent the tarmac underneath this trailer. I own the trailer. That’s what the redevelopment said we could do to be here. This is MY BUILDING on THEIR tarmac. I had to bring in electricity. We all had to bring in electricity. We are not somebody’s created businesses. We own our businesses.
I have been a PTO president. I helped to organize the largest West Coast free jazz festival. I was born and raised to believe in volunteering, but also in being pragmatic. People have to think about how the port can make some money while subsidizing businesses like mine. I’ve been working in this city for almost 30 years. Here’s what’s happened during the last 30 years. For 20 of that, nothing happened. The rent was a nice, low number.
Then, less than a year ago, there was the hearing, and we all got rent increase notices that virtually doubled our rent. We were told, “Your rent is this,” and then we were told, “Well those leases ran out” and then we were told, “Okay, now your rent is going to be almost double because that’s the going rate for storage.” I went to the Board with the other little businesses and I said, “You can’t just randomly choose to define us as commercial storage because a real estate company has decided to call us that in order to value this property according to the going rate for downtown San Francisco real estate. We are maritime businesses.”
Then they said, okay we’re not going to double your rent.
The Port is kind of like the Catholic church: It’s in it for the long haul. We haven’t established my appropriate rent. They did say they would adjust my rent accordingly. I thought they would do it on their own accord, but they haven’t yet.
While we talk Liz has been cutting a pattern for upholstery out of paper. She cuts it and tapes the pieces together in a way that makes sense to her. Sometimes the sound of ripping paper overcame the conversation.
J: So, you don’t care if you are moved from Pier 40?
L: On a scale of one to ten, where my business is located is less important than the survival of the business. Am I going to quibble? No!
This is San Francisco’s only maritime center. Richmond has a couple of different little maritime spots and Sausalito has its little cluster of maritime spots. These small number of maritime spots are diminishing. For example, when I started in canvas, Tenara Gore-Tex thread was the rage. And I realized that I was sewing with thread that has a lifetime guarantee. That meant that anything I sewed I would never again have to repair. So, re-sewing is no longer built into my business model.
What I aspire to do is be the best that I possibly can be. I prefer to stay in San Francisco. I had to get smart down here. I don’t make a lot of money so I have to work smarter, not harder. I am not worried about where they put us. My experience with the Port is that it takes a long time for anything to happen. And that doesn’t worry me either because I’m not in a hurry.
The current maritime environment has resulted in a sort of survival of the fittest. So, that is an example of the evolution of a maritime business! Anything made right now is going to last 10 to 20 years. On the inside or the outside of a boat. Obsolescence is built into our current models.
I like what I do, I like where I’m at, I support the Port, I support the Port’s mandate. I like the director of the Port. I like all the businesses out here; I like the fact we have a community out here. I feel that we’re similar to the businesses in Sausalito. We have parallel maritime environments. Parallel. Not the same, but parallel. Also, with Richmond. Maritime businesses are dying. Everything on boats is just lasting longer. The fact that you can mail order most of the things that you want, sort of shakes that out a bit, too.
I walk around Liz’s workshop and admire all the fabrics piled high on shelves according to color. The rich textures are impressive. Some of them look very expensive. She and I talk about the expense of boat interiors.
L: Think about it this way: There’s only so much you can buy for your boat. We’re not upholstering multiple couches and chairs. There’s usually only one settee. We’re not doing 18 dining chairs. Look at this! It’s only nine inches long! You can have whatever you want! We’re not buying 36 yards! And it’s so personal! It’s your yacht! It’s your pied-a-terre! And you know what? You’ve got somewhere beautiful to go!
I studied printing and typesetting and architecture in college. I bring architecture into what I do and I bring sewing because I’ve been sewing since I was three or four years old. Mom said I could sew before I could write.
I tell Liz that my boat still has the original brown and gold plaid cushions from when it was built in 1979. I tell her that they are scratchy when I sit on them wearing shorts in the Delta. She starts pulling down woven cashmere materials in beautiful rich hues. She piles them into my arms.
L: You don’t want scratchy. You want cozy. Like this. That’s a nice color. You have a little teak in your boat. That would look nice with that. It’s good with white. Here. This is 60 bucks a yard, and you only need, what? Only a little bit! Here, this is durable. [she whispers] And I can do piping.
If someone told me they were taking their boat to the Delta I would design their boat to reflect the Delta. For example, here’s a roll of fabric that I bought 30 years ago, Japanese fabric from Tokyo [the art of Japanese tie-die is called Shibori]. They tie die grains of sand and make this fabric. I bought it a thousand years ago to put in my boat but never did.
Liz is a very persuasive salesperson and I almost ordered new cushions right then. At this point I had been at North Beach Canvas Shop for two hours. Reluctantly I replaced all the fabrics. As I prepared to leave Liz asked me to be sure to write that she supports the Port of San Francisco’s mandate to maintain the maritime culture of the San Francisco Waterfront. This is the last thing she told me:
L: Wooden boats are exponentially aging and the amount of money it takes to maintain the wooden boats is exponentially increasing, and the amount of people who can not only not afford it, but also understand what they’re doing is exponentially decreasing. All of this, whatever little bit will be left, will be in some museum in 20 years. It won’t be here.
I live in Oakland and will never have the opportunity to vote on anything that affects the San Francisco waterfront. I have read that the former Ladd’s in Stockton has changed ownership and is in capable hands. Everything seems to happen faster in urban environments. Decisions about San Francisco Bay’s many waterfronts are dependent upon good decision making by public stewards. It will be interesting to look back in five years to see what changes have been wrought.
If you have an opinion about anything I write, send me an email here: firstname.lastname@example.org so we can exchange ideas and argue till the cows come in. We won’t publish your responses if you prefer not, but we can still communicate.
How else to learn from each other? In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your time on the water and let’s all be careful out there as we get out and enjoy the summer.