A Race Across San Francisco Bay on the Grace Quan

I took part in the Master Mariners, a five-hour race across San Francisco Bay in a classic replica Chinese junk.

I had the great fortune to take my first sailing trip on San Francisco Bay on Saturday. Not only was it a sailing trip, but it was a race, the Master Mariners. The boats were classic schooners for the most part, a couple of them from the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. I was on the crew of the Grace Quan, a boat that is docked at the Hyde Street Pier most of the year. It moves to China Camp State Park in the summer months and is one of the main attractions at the annual Heritage Day celebration in August. The Grace Quan was named after the mother of Frank Quan, the last remaining resident of China Camp Village, which was once a thriving shrimp fishing community with over 500 people.

One of the first things to learn about sailing is a new language. Left is port, right is starboard, the front is the bow and the back is the stern. Having never sailed before, I’ve picked up most of my sailing terminology by reading such maritime classics as Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, and The Sea Wolf, by Jack London. I learned a lot as the crew mustered before setting sail, gathering together to hear a talk from the skipper John Muir. We learned about the basic safety measures, such as what to do when the boat is keeling to one side, or leaning heavily. Dismasting is another danger to watch out for, when the mast of the boat breaks. In addition to John, our skipper, we had a crew of seven people: Trisha, Tim, Todd, Gina, Emilia, Rachel, and myself.

The Grace Quan is a 43-foot replica Chinese junk, the traditional type of sailing ship used by fishermen in the Pearl River Delta of southern China. It was built in 2003 by our skipper John, who works for the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The boat is designed in the classic style of a southern Chinese junk, although the materials used are more native to California. The boat itself is built of redwood, a sturdy, long-lasting, and reliable wood. The mast is from an 80-foot Douglas-fir found in Napa County. The reddish brown rust-colored hue of the sails comes from a traditional sailing practice of using the crushed dried bark of tanbark oak to treat canvas sails, in order to preserve them in the harsh elements of the sea.

The other ship in the race from the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park was the Alma, a flat-bottomed scow schooner dating from 1891 that is a designated National Historic Landmark. The Alma was used for hauling freight around the Bay and up into the Delta to Sacramento. In 1918 she was converted into a barge, and then in 1926 she was modified again, this time for use as an oyster shell dredger. Oyster shells were dredged from shoals on the Bay and then brought up the Petaluma River, where they provided the many chicken ranches with calcium-rich chicken feed. There is a friendly rivalry between the Alma and the Grace Quan, and we spent much of the race neck and neck with each other.

It was a busy day on San Francisco Bay. In addition to the Master Mariners race, there were considerable festivities surrounding the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay was crowded with sailboats, charter boats, ferryboats, plus the usual workaday container ships, oil tankers, and barges. On top of all this, the battleship Iowa was making its way from the port of Richmond out the Golden Gate and down to its permanent home as a museum in Los Angeles. The Iowa was accompanied by a procession of tugboats, fireboats, and spectators on surrounding sailboats.

As we got out onto the open choppy waters of the Bay, I remembered the stories I’ve read about the native Miwok and Ohlone peoples crossing the Bay in small tule reed balsas. The Miwok chief Marin, for whom Marin County is named, was called Huicmuse in his native language. He was given the name Marino by the Spanish, because of his formidable skills in navigating the challenging and treacherous waters of the Bay. I kept this image in my head as our crew dashed around, constantly reacting to the changing conditions of the wind, the water, and the currents. To try to do this in an even smaller boat, made simply out of tule reeds, would truly be a daunting challenge.

From the middle of the Bay, it becomes easy to imagine what this area must have looked like to the crew of the San Carlos, the first Spanish ship to sail into San Francisco Bay. That was in 1775, when San Francisco would have been covered in sand dunes, and the hills of Marin and the East Bay would have been forested in redwoods. The Spanish must have noticed the majestic profile of Mount Tamalpais. They noticed the willow groves along the southern shore of Marin and knew that this meant there was fresh water available. Their mapmaker, Jose de Canizares, gave this place the name Sausalito, or "little willow grove."

Each leg of the race was marked by a buoy and we were required to go around that buoy to complete the leg. The Grace Quan is considered to be in the historic schooner class of boats, which means that certain rules apply in a race like this. Because a Chinese junk does not have the maneuverability of more advanced boats, it is not always easy to go around a buoy, so the rule is that we must get close enough to the buoy "to throw a potato at it." We had our bag of potatoes at the ready and were eager to make use of them.

The starting line of the race was offshore from the Saint Francis Yacht Club, just inside the Golden Gate. The course took us first to a buoy near the entrance to Richardson’s Bay, and then we turned west to Yellow Bluff, above Fort Baker. Todd threw the potatoes with vigor at each buoy and we were on our way again. We then had a long haul past Alcatraz and up along the eastern shore of Angel Island. Here the wind laid down and we took advantage of the calm to have a nice leisurely lunch. Some of the boats in the race had motors, although the rules specify that they were only allowed to use them for a total of 15 minutes. The Grace Quan does not have a motor, so we were entitled to up to 15 minutes of tow time when the winds were not strong enough to keep us going. We were accompanied by a National Park Service safety boat, affectionately known as the "tin can," which helped us out from time to time with a tow or to retrieve Tim’s cap when it was blown overboard.

Throughout the race, we were able to spot a fair amount of wildlife. Pods of dolphins rode alongside us, jumping out of the water in unison with the waves. A harbor seal poked its head above the water, curiously watching us off the port bow. A sea lion dove underwater at our approach, probably wondering what sort of strange creature we were. Double-crested cormorants skimmed the surface of the Bay, while pelicans glided past us, elegantly surveying their domain just inches above the water.

The last leg of the race took us down the eastern side of Treasure Island and under the Bay Bridge. We were treated to dramatic close-up views of the new tower and roadways of the eastern span of the bridge, which are finally nearing completion. Just past the Bay Bridge, we crossed the finish line. We didn’t win, but comforted ourselves with the idea that it was "actually a parade, not a race." After the finish, we entered the channel between Oakland and Alameda, sailing alongside the port of Oakland. The massive cranes and lines of container ships towered above us in their industrial precision, a stark contrast to the wild open waters of the Bay we had left behind. We pulled into the Encinal Yacht Club in Alameda, where we disembarked and tried to regain our footing on solid ground.

The Grace Quan is going to be docked in front of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park on June 20, as part of a fundraiser for Friends of China Camp. The fundraiser will feature an oyster bar, a dim sum station, and a performance by musicians from the San Francisco Symphony. A silent auction will feature a number of valuable items, including rides on the Grace Quan. Tickets are $50 per person and can be purchased online, with the money going to help keep China Camp State Park open. The scheduled closure date of the park is July 1, so the urgency is upon us to save China Camp State Park.

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