Sailing in San Francisco with Spinnaker Sailing

Spend any time in San Francisco and you’ll be hard-pressed to ignore the Bay. While the sourdough bread bowls and cable cars get a lot of press along with the world-class dining and Golden Gate bridge; the sailing in the Bay is what should attract you to this Northern California city.

Be careful not to leave your heart here and always save time for some on-land diversions.

We asked the sailors at Spinnaker Sailing-San Francisco about their love affair with the city and they were more than eager to tell us why you should be choosing San Francisco as a sailing destination.

What are your top three reasons to sail in San Francisco?  

Can’t limit it to three!

Number 1, The Wind – There’s perhaps no other location on earth with the possible exception of Sydney Harbor that affords the predictability of big wind at certain times. For the beginner, we send them out early in the morning when the winds are light and everything is easier so they can learn how to be a great skipper without the pressure of HAVING to be a great skipper. As their skills develop we schedule them later in the afternoon so they can enjoy the building breeze. We typically will see gusts into the high twenties most every day throughout the summer – fun and exhilarating for those who are prepared and confident. Our whole goal at Spinnaker Sailing – San Francisco is to teach the skipper not just how to sail but how to TEACH sailing. We fully know that they will rarely get to sail with an experienced crew so the more they know on how to teach sailing, the more they know about how to sail. Their ability to teach a friend directly supports their confidence in their own sailing skills!

Year-Round Sailing – Yes indeed. You can sail 24/7/365 here. The summer’s strong thermal winds give way to fall’s lighter breeze and even lighter air in the winter. The great thing is with winter’s light winds it can actually be warmer than a summer day with the missing windchill factor that 20+ knots of wind bring.

The sheer size of it – San Francisco Bay is HUGE, covering over 1600 square miles. Filled with microclimates you can sail in the Slot (from Pier 39 to Angel Island) in a huge breeze while a mile south, just past the Bay Bridge, the wind’s velocity abates, thanks to the San Francisco skyline, to the low 20s with flatter water. Head further South and you’ll be in the South Bay where you can sail all the way to Redwood City and beyond. Heading Northward you sail past San Pablo Bay and have literally a wealth of options including trips up the Petaluma or Napa rivers or take the long haul all the way up to Sacramento via the famous San Francisco Delta. For those who have the offshore itch (and a great deal of preparedness and skill) the Pacific ocean just outside the Golden Gate affords incredible sailing and challenges. A lap out around the Farallon Islands, some 30 miles past the Golden Gate, will provide even the most adventurous person serious challenges and thrills.

The People – San Francisco Bay sailors are a hearty folk. Conditions that would send many sailors home are the bailiwick in which we regularly sail. Big Breeze, huge current, big ships…bring it on. The people here are skilled and happy to share their knowledge with any and all who happen across their decks. I’ve spent a lifetime teaching sailing here and have sailed in so many locations throughout the planet. Flying home is such a pleasure, final approach over the Golden Gate watching my fellow sailors frolic out in the Slot, big ebb making huge chop, laughing in their challenge to keep the boat moving quickly and safely in big air while a 500-foot freighter navigates past hundreds of boats. It’s a rare breed who love to sail in 20-30 knots daily, rare indeed!

What is the Best time to visit/sail in San Francisco?

Any time is the best time. The summer thermal winds start roughly with daylight savings time and build to a furor peaking in the months of July – Sept. Fall brings warmer temps to the Bay and somewhat lighter winds. At the end of Daylight savings, the winds are much lighter and the Bay experiences an absolutely beautiful Indian Summer. Warm days and light winds prevail. Midwinter can be lovely and is dotted with the occasional storm. Weather forecasting accuracy allows you to plan 5 days out so you have a great idea what you’ll experience in the near term.

My favorite time is the middle of summer – big air, big current, fast and fun! It’s not for the uninitiated though. The level of camaraderie that happens when a crew goes out into 20-30 knots, sails to weather in 4’ chop, turns & sets the kite back from the Gate to the Bay Bridge and safely gets the boat back to the dock is huge. Survival of the fittest!

What kind of sailing community is there in San Francisco?

SF Bay is a huge racing environment. There are hundreds of regattas every year. Any given weekend will see dozens of events, some of them huge (Vallejo Race, Delta Ditch, Rolex Big Boat Series, Master Mariners, etc.) or some just club events. My own club, South Beach Yacht Club, hosts a popular Friday Night Series that typically has 30-40 boats on the line every week.

The cruising community here is large. Hundreds of owners sail weekly and we know of quite a few owners who manage their retirement funds from the deck of their boat. The Bay can be anything you want it to be. The summer winds are predictable so if you want the light stuff, up early and out you go. Looking for a more bracing sail, just wait ‘till noon, tuck in a reef or two and study your current tables. When a building breeze coming in through the Golden Gate hits the strong ebbs, the infamous San Francisco Bay chop can beat up even the best-prepared boat and sailor.

Is San Francisco a good spot for first-time cruisers or is it more for experienced sailors?

What many people don’t realize is that all the water that leaves San Francisco Bay exits through the Golden Gate. However, there are hundreds of sources that fill the Bay, not just the flood tides. San Francisco Bay essentially drains the majority of the western side of the Mighty Sierras. Of the four naturally navigable rivers that drain into the Pacific, three of them drain through SF Bay. The Petaluma, Napa and San Joaquin rivers flow with trillions of gallons of water, particularly during spring runoff. This volume of water makes for some impressive ebb tides, occasionally seeing ebbs in excess of 6 knots. This backdrop is a wonderful palette for the prepared sailor, both novice and expert. The key thing is to do your homework before heading out. Know the current forecast, study the wind forecast. Look at the shipping schedule just so you see how busy the shipping channels will be as they all enter and exit in narrowly marked channels right through the middle of some of the best sailing on the planet!

Are their Charter opportunities/Leisure sails available through your school?

With its high winds, big current and huge ship traffic San Francisco Bay is a tough charter environment.  Nearly every charter location here, with the exception of Spinnaker Sailing-SF, requires you to join their club prior to being eligible to charter.  If you plan to charter in the Bay bring your A-Game and be ready to prove your skills. There are no ‘walk-in’ charters available. At our location, you have to be ASA certified to the 103 level for boats up to 27’ and 104 for boats 28’+  You’ll need to pass an on-water skill check-out too. In this environment of high-cost insurance fewer marinas are offering guest docking. Plan ahead, always make reservations and you can go just about anywhere you want.

Just a few of the favorite spots here are:

  • South Beach Harbor (Spinnaker Sailing’s home base). This is one of the few spots that keep guest docks year round for all to enjoy. Make reservations, though, as they do sell out continuously. This marina is adjacent to Oracle Ballpark (SF Giants) and a stone’s throw from Chase Arena (GS Warriors) plus there are dozens of restaurants, markets, clubs, etc within easy walking distance. It’s one of the warmest spots in SF and still enjoys the fresh breeze and flat water as it’s located on the windward side of the Bay.
  • Sam’s in Tiburon – Stunning Views, decent docks, however, VERY shallow at low tide (under three feet) so be aware.
  • Angel Island – Beautiful park setting with BBQs, great hiking and docks for daytime use. $15 for the day is a steal. Some of the docks sit in shallow water during low tides so check your sounder and do the math.
  • Angel Island Moorings. There are 18 moorings in Ayala Cove. Unfortunately, these have gotten more shoaled up over the years and the outside moorings are under 4’ at MLLW.
  • Jack London Square – Oakland. This is a great spot to sail to. Lots of docks and dozens of restaurants. The Estuary is great light air sailing, deep and fun.

We suggest Carol and Bob Mehaffy’s book, “Cruising Guide to San Francisco Bay.”  It’s filled with tips and great info.

If you’re a racer, you have found heaven, if you’re a cruiser, this spot will prepare you, perhaps like none other, for that ‘out the Gate—turn left’ adventure of a lifetime!

Spinnaker Sailing San Francisco – Spinnaker Sailing has been in business for 35 years. and is located in one of the Best Marinas on the West Coast, South Beach Harbor. This location is perfect as the breeze is fresh, the water is flat and it’s only 3 minutes from the boat berth to our teaching grounds…no long channels.

South Beach is located downtown San Francisco with plenty of easy parking and is centrally located in the famous San Francisco SOMA neighborhood.