What I Saw – by Jackie Philpott
On The Bay
This started out as a simple story about a chaotic sailboat race around San Francisco Bay in the middle of winter.
Then somehow, the story got away from me and became several different stories, not about the race at all, but instead about children and their parents, sailing traditions and how boats come to have greater meaning to families than just bits of wood and fiberglass and sailcloth. Once I started talking with people, it got more complicated and more interesting than any race. Then that became the story. Let me explain.
First of all, let me describe the Three Bridge Fiasco. This year’s Fiasco was held on a clear, cold winter day. It was another long underwear, wool hat and mitten day on the San Francisco Bay.
It is always held on the last Saturday of January when the wind is rarely reliable. Some years there is a lot of wind, but most years it is a drifter. To say that the Fiasco is a sailboat race is to misunderstand the larger significance of the event. The truth is that the Fiasco is not a simple race around buoys. It doesn’t even have a designated course. It is much more complicated than that.
The race is a fiasco for everyone, but especially for serious sailors.
It is an inclusive race insofar as you don’t have to know anything about sailing or strategy to participate. It is open to anyone who is willing to spend $50 or $70 on registration. Sailors come out who don’t have racing boats or expensive sails. They aren’t likely to be the ones who win, or even finish. But the Fiasco will teach them an appreciation of currents and tides, the way the wind curves around islands and how ebbs affect forward motion around a land mass.
The race is certain to frustrate and teach humility. It requires careful scrutiny of the tides and currents, which must go hand in hand with an understanding of their changing effects according to your starting time, the characteristics of your boat and the size and type of your sails. Do you have stiff racing sails made of high-tech materials or blown out sails made out of cloth? Use of your boat’s best features is absolute. Like a person’s use of his/her best qualities in life, highlighting the advantages is crucial. Is your boat heavy and therefore faster in high wind, or does it skim across the water like a water bug? Scrutiny and paying attention to these details will pay off. Unless, of course, you go the wrong way.
Sailors love to talk about the Fiasco beforehand and long afterward. It’s a crapshoot as to whether anyone will finish the race at all. It’s such a weird race that serious racers feign indifference. In the end, they’re almost all out there on the water though. No matter how much they may pretend, finishing the Fiasco is a testament to sailors’ understanding of the quirks and tricks of the San Francisco Bay, its currents and counter currents along the edges. It requires analysis of how Red Rock, Yerba Buena Island and the hills of the City Front affect the wind depending upon the direction from which it comes on that particular day. It changes everything if the wind comes from unexpected directions. It depends upon whether a west wind fills in at the end of the day or not. It requires consideration of your boat’s equipment, the sails you carry and when you choose to deploy them.
The Fiasco is also singularly dependent upon the decision to start one way or the other, that is, to go clockwise or counterclockwise around the course. Even the most knowledgeable of sailors joke about being totally committed to a particular plan for the day until five minutes before their start time when their plan falls apart and they decide to sail a completely different course.
At the end of every Fiasco, people who went the “right” way bask in the glory that is given them. They were so smart! Their decision-making skills were so prescient!
At the end of every Fiasco, people who went the “wrong” way berate themselves for their own decisions. They ask themselves, “What were you thinking?” These are the people who are most likely to describe the race as a sophisticated act of sheer and utter folly. Their friends, if they are sailors themselves, sympathize with them, or if they’re polite, avoid them.
Aside from sailing skills, a level of perseverance is required. Are you willing to anchor while waiting for the current to change from ebb to flood and back again? How many times are you willing to raise and drop your spinnaker? How much energy do you have to raise and drop your spinnaker over and over again, and tack back and forth to avoid the other 300 plus sailboats out there?
But let’s forget all about that for now and focus on three people who raced in the 2022 Fiasco since their stories represent the tradition of sailing and racing on the SF Bay, how and why people become sailors and reflections upon the ways sailing is handed down from generation to generation. I interviewed three sailors who raced in the Three Bridge Fiasco, all of whom have deep roots in the Bay Area sailing community. Milly Biller sailed on a friend’s boat, as did Skip Allan. A month after the race I interviewed Jim Quanci who won the singlehanded division of the Fiasco on his own boat, Green Buffalo.
Skip Allan And Kim Desenberg
Shortly after this year’s Fiasco, I drove to Capitola and interviewed Skip over lunch at the Avenue Café. We talked about his childhood in Southern California and how he grew up in a sailing family. The Allan family’s boat was a Lapworth 36, s/v named Holiday.
Skip’s father named her Holiday “because nothing is faster.”
Skip said this about the boat, “Our Lapworth was hull #2. Henry Meininger’s father, George Griffith had hull #1. Griffith was a great sailor. Numbers 1 and 2 were built at the same time. My father and George Griffith flipped a coin and Griffith got #1. They were designed by Bill Lapworth, were one of his earliest designs, and were very good boats built out of wood.
“We’d go over to Catalina just about every weekend when we were kids. The alcohol stove would catch on fire, invariably every evening when my mother was making dinner. My father would throw it overboard, and it was my job as the kid on the boat to dive down and bring it up the next morning. They’d put it back in the gimbals and it would catch fire again.”
Skip Allan and Kim Desenberg won the doublehanded Power Winch division of the Fiasco this year. Fifty years after they sailed with their families in the same bay in Southern California they raced together aboard the 39-foot custom Wyliecat Checkered Past. Skip told me about his long friendship with Kim, “We were at opposite ends of Balboa Bay. There’s the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and the Balboa Yacht Club. Kim and I knew of each other, but we didn’t hang out. He was at the other end of the Bay. But we ended up sailing together at Stanford.
“He was about two years behind me. And then, a few years after that, he called me up and said, “Skip, we’re starting a bookstore. Do you want to be a partner?” So I was a partner in their bookstore in Palo Alto. We’ve sailed off and on with each other because we knew the same people. We sailed across the Pacific with each other in 1973. We went all the way to Australia with each other on the 42-foot race boat Improbable.”
Then Skip and I talked about the Three Bridge Fiasco. There is not a more knowledgeable sailing analyst than Skip Allan.
“You know what a steeplechase is, right? The horse has all these obstacles to overcome. The Three Bridge is a bit like a steeplechase. It’s an obstacle course; you have currents, points of land, shallows, restricted areas, wind shifts and other boats coming at you in different places. It is such a fiasco, and that’s a perfect word that it’s almost fun to see what arrangements can transpire. Even though you have a bunch of really smart people who have sailed in the Bay their whole lives, it’s an even/even chance they don’t go the right way. And even if you do go the right way, it doesn’t mean shit because you can go the right way and still not finish or win anything.
“The Three Bridge is a challenge because of all these obstacles. Usually, there’s a right way to go. I thought we were going the right way because I thought that the wind would get lighter during the day, which it did, and the current would get stronger during the day. If you’re gonna round Blunt before everything starts to go light, it should be Red Rock because otherwise you’ll never get around that.
“The preponderance of boats that finished went to Red Rock first, then Treasure Island and then Crissy. Would you call that clockwise or counterclockwise? I don’t know. The westerly filled in at the end of the day a little bit, just enough for all the boats that had gone to Red Rock and made Crissy their last mark. They were drifting out between the South Tower and shore, which isn’t legal and where there are rocks.
“You don’t want to get swept out there, and the only way to prevent that is to anchor. In other words, they all came up from Crissy in order to go to the finish line and turned a little bit. There was no wind and the ebb started to take them out the Gate.
“We anchored real near there. We got around Crissy, and at a very slow speed, went down the shore. Just when we got to Anita Rock we started losing and said, “Well, we’re losing.” So, we anchored there. We got real close. You can’t pass inside Anita Rock because it’s a restricted area.
“Once you pass a line between the South Tower and shore, you’re through with the race. Once you’ve passed the line between Anita Rock and the shore, you’ve rounded inside it. I don’t think anybody allowed themselves to get in that precarious spot because half way between the shore and the South Tower there are rocks hidden.
“The Fiasco can be anything. It’s a wonderful thing to see who’s emerging out of where. You don’t really know because they’re a long way off and you’re squinting, “Is that a race boat in Raccoon Straits? Huuuuh? Maybe not. No, it looks like he’s motoring.”
“So, it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy racing with Kim. He’s got a good sense of humor and he’s a good sailor.”
Skip and I are distracted as our breakfasts are served. His last profound comment?
“The only reason I order toast is because it’s a vehicle for the jam.”
About two weeks before the Fiasco, I had spoken with Kim Desenberg in the Richmond Yacht Club parking lot. I mentioned that the Three Bridge Fiasco trophy, the one in the RYC trophy case up in the clubhouse needed defending or it would go to someone else, maybe to a different clubhouse. I suggested that he and his crew would have to win their division in order to keep the trophy.
Kim hedged and said, “Well, there are a lot of fine sailors on the Bay with faster boats.” He smiled modestly and added, “Younger sailors.”
I scoffed and said there were none with better racing experience than him and Skip Allan. Afterwards, I learned that Checkered Past, the boat he would sail two weeks later in the Fiasco sail with Skip was at the sailmakers. Even as we spoke, it was being fitted for a new “flat-top” mainsail that would enable Checkered Past, a 39-foot custom Wyliecat, to sail even faster. But he didn’t mention that to me two weeks before the race. He’s a sly one, that Desenberg.
Did Checkered Past win its division because of Kim and Skip’s combined sailing experience? Was their win a testament to their tenacity and competitiveness? Or was it an act of pure unadulterated determination to retain the trophy in Richmond Yacht Club’s glass trophy case? I have no way of knowing this. It is one of the great imponderable questions.
Milly Biller And Big Pink
Milly Biller grew up Milly Bratenahl in Inverness, a little town up the coast on Tomales Bay. For those of you who love oysters, that’s where they are harvested before coming to a restaurant near you at the Ferry Building or in Napa.
During Richmond Yacht Club’s Sail a Small Boat Day covered by Jillian Humphreys in Bay & Delta Yachtsman’s January edition, I sailed with Milly on her boat, an International 110 named Big Pink.
Milly towed Big Pink down from Tomales Bay behind her F-150 truck, the one with 250,000 miles on it. When Milly misplaces her keys, she knows how to hotwire her truck with a modified screwdriver that she bought for $2.50. That knowledge alone should make Milly famous, but it isn’t well-known. It’s supposed to be a secret.
A week after Milly sailed in the Fiasco on a friend’s boat, I had a chat with her about how she started sailing. Growing up, Milly learned to sail on shallow draft sailboats because Tomales Bay is a shallow water place. Her father was a physicist who raced a boat called an International 110, so Milly learned to sail and race on her father’s boat.
That boat, with her father at the helm beat everything else on the water. It was very fast. The original International 110 was a 30-foot, sleek wooden boat with a wooden mast and big sail area, originally built in the 1930s. If you know how to shift your weight and hike way out in big wind it feels like flying across the water, which is what Milly learned to do very well.
As Milly tells it, her father was a distracted academic type of fellow, always with his head down cogitating. One day she drafted a bill of sale and asked her father to sign it while he was working. Instead of the field trip permission slip he thought he was signing, he found out that he had signed his locally famous boat over to Milly. She recalled her gleeful self, dancing around him, laughing, “Look what you’ve done! The boat is mine!” Ha Ha! She thought her 13-year-old self was so clever.
“When I handed him that paper and he realized it wasn’t a school permission slip, but that he’d signed Big Pink over to me, he said, ‘Okay, this weekend we’re going down to San Diego. There’s another International 110 down there. We’ll go down there and buy it for me. Then you can have your boat and I’ll have mine and you are now in charge of maintaining them both.’”
Milly told me, “He made me his slave. It kind of changed my life. He taught me most of the woodwork I know. A lot of the tools I still have are from him. They are his tools. It makes them really special. It really does.”
Regarding her father’s sailing ability, she said, “I never beat him once.”
Milly still maintains and sails that boat. It is Big Pink. Owners bring their International 110 boats from all over the country to race each other around Tomales Bay and San Francisco Bay and it’s in no small way because of Milly.
Jim Quanci And Green Buffalo
Jim Quanci won the overall singlehanded division of the Fiasco aboard his Cal 40, Green Buffalo. Jim and his wife, Mary Lovely are well-known as sailors/racers on the San Francisco Bay. In this year’s Fiasco, Jim sailed solo on his family’s boat because that’s what he does. He sails on Green Buffalo.
Jim met with me a month after the Three Bridge Fiasco. I asked whether he sailed as a kid and this is what he told me, “My dad grew up two blocks from the beach. I’d say he was more a fisherman than a sailor. I have four brothers. Four of us were less than a year apart. Bam, bam, bam, bam. So, my dad said, “Okaaaaay. What am I gonna do here?”
“So, he bought a 16- to 17-foot terrible old boat, I don’t even know what kind of boat it was. Back in the day when we were 6, 7, 8 years old he always had small wooden motorboats. They were cheap, kinda beat up, cuz he had all those boys to maintain those wooden boats. So, we were on boats the whole time. But sailing?
“For me, sailing didn’t start… until we went on this trip to San Croix… My dad didn’t want to take the glass bottom boat cruising. He said, “Let’s go charter an old wooden, gaff-rigged sailboat. A native on the Island is gonna take us out to the reef to go snorkeling!” My dad was a bit of a character. He’s never gonna fall in line with tourists. That’s never gonna happen. So, he took us on some interesting sailboat rides and some interesting old wood boat rides.
“He had this old 26-footer, I don’t know what you’d call it. It was a light boat that we took from Staten Island to West Point. It was kind of a long weekend. Through the East River Hell’s Gate. He’s got all these kids! All five of us. I was probably eight and my youngest brother was probably three or four. Yeah, yeah. It was a bit of an adventure.
“This is in the sixties when we went through the East River. People were throwing crap at us from the bridges! It was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was fun! You gotta think, what was he thinking? But as a kid, this was wow! This is a great time! Then we ended up at West Point, the military academy! It was way cool. It was a destination, something we could do together over a long weekend. There was a lot of time on the water, fishing pole out the back, trolling and trying to catch stripers or something.
“Then, when I was 12 or 13 he realized we were getting to the trouble age. So he wanted to keep us busy. He joined a local yacht club, Richmond County Yacht Club. Staten Island’s formal name is Richmond County, like King’s County is Brooklyn.
“What he immediately did is buy two penguins and a laser. Two of my brothers got penguins. I got a laser. I have the same laser today! The first laser came out in 1971. My boat was built in 1972. If you’re not familiar with lasers, there’s probably 200,000 built so far. You always ask people, “What’s your number?”
“My laser is #729! Yeah! I still have it. It’s at my house sitting on a trailer in the driveway. It’s an antique, over fifty years old now.
“When my kids learned to sail here at Richmond Yacht Club, it was the whole race scene. They’re kinda like their grandfather. It’s not their thing. Mary and I insisted, we said, “You need to do this. You need to learn the basics.
“One of the cookies to get them to take lessons was that, at the end of the day we would take the laser out and flip it over. They’d get three of their friends and they’d all climb on the laser and flip it over! These were 9 and 10 year-old kinds of things. That was more fun, you know than this organized sailing thing.
“I used to have a Freedom 21. I bought it before we got married. We used to take the kids to Angel Island all the time.
“In fact, we cheated in the 1991 Three Bridge Fiasco, because it was Mary and I and Andrew as a three-month-old strapped in a car seat. Tied to the mast! It was one of those ‘we never finished’ Fiascos.
“We are Catholic, and before we got married we had to go through this counseling. It’s a formal thing. They want to make sure you’re not lying to them. They asked, “What are you looking for?” I was honest about what I wanted. I wanted three things: being married, having kids and my third one was always, a 40-foot boat. I wanted to do long ocean trips.
“So, going to Hawaii? In order to keep sailing together with Mary with the kids getting older, we decided that we wanted to take them. We needed a boat so we could take the kids. Mary and I bought Green Buffalo for that reason.
“Green Buffalo was kind of a basket case. It was pretty bad. I bought the boat in 2004, but the first race was not until mid-2005, a year and a half later. The boat needed a lot of help. Then we did the 2006 PAC Cup. That was the target. We were going to Hawaii in 2006 on our own boat with the kids.
“The boys were 13 and 15. At 13 and 15 you’re kind of along for the ride, but they had a great time. Thirteen and fifteen, driving the boat under the chute, they thought, ‘Wow! This is cool!’ Not really racing, but just sailing. Again, they’d been aboard sailboats since they were less than one year old. The whole thing for them was quite comfortable.”
Then Jim was off, checking out the new Ballenger mast on Green Buffalo. I started off on my own boat to participate in the Singlehanded Sailing Society’s ill-fated Corinthian Race. Of the 127 registered boats, only one finished the race. Sort of like the Three Bridge Fiasco, with fewer boats and even fewer finishers. We sailors take what we can get when we can get it, and sometimes we only get big ebb and glassy water.
Generations of families sail on the San Francisco Bay together. Whether they sail in the Fiasco or not, nothing is more important for a family than being together. It’s a way for parents to teach their children lessons about the Bay. It is a fun and easy training ground for you and your child to learn to sail together. Some sailing families start discussing their Fiasco strategies during Christmas dinner. Competitive sailing families start strategizing during Thanksgiving weekend. No one can expect to win it or even to finish. Whatever you think about sailboat racing, the Three Bridge Fiasco offers up a no-regrets experience.
Sailors can be a little… single-minded and a little obsessive. They spend inordinate amounts of time maintaining old wooden boats. They cage their children above and below decks in order to sail. They keep dangerous and flammable objects aboard, then send small children into shark infested waters to recover them from the ocean floor. But that’s who they are. I wonder whether the non-sailing community has similar tales to tell? There’s only one way to find out. I must venture out and ask them.
Next week, Dura Mater will be on the hard at Berkeley Marine Center. It’s where I have taken my boats since 2011. This year, for the first time, I’m springing for the “Bottom Package,” which means that the fellas who work there will sand and paint it, doing all the work for me.
Ruben Gabriel is the yard manager at Berkeley Marine Center. On my way out of the office I had a chat with him, told him that I was having his guys paint the bottom instead of doing it myself. Ruben did a doubletake.
He was like, “What? Really?”
Ruben is accustomed to me scheduling a two-night in-and-out: lift the boat, Jackie slaps the paint on and drop it back in. He was speechless. I explained that I have a new job writing for this magazine, and that I was confident the publisher would pay me six figures so I could well afford it this year. Ruben laughed and laughed.
“Alrighty then. You’ll be getting the racing bottom job then? Right?”
The racing bottom job is even more expensive than the simple roll-on paint job. In the marina business, this is called the up-sell. It doesn’t usually work with owners of 43-year-old sailboats, but Ruben is an ambitious guy. “Not so fast,” I said. “Baby steps, Ruben. Baby steps.”
While I’m at Berkeley Marine Center I plan to buttonhole some unsuspecting boat owner, preferably the owner of a boat without a mast or a keel. The kind of boat that is completely dependent upon an engine. I’ll repeat, it doesn’t seem safe to be on the water without a sail to raise.
If you have something you wish to share, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading and let’s be careful out there.