Archive for the 'California' Category

The Story of Suomi and the Spooky Life Rings

Clark August 17th, 2018

With all five aboard perishing, the 1955 sinking of Suomi (pronounced swami) stood as the worst yachting accident on the California coast. In 2012, 57 years later, the Low Speed Chase tragedy on the South Farallon equaled her death toll, and equally devastated the Bay Area sailing community.

Suomi was one of Myron Spaulding’s masterpieces. Completed in 1947 to race in that year’s Honolulu Race, the 50-foot yawl was the largest boat he ever built. At the time of the accident, Myron was building Chrysopyle, another of his masterpieces. Myron had been commissioned to build Chrysopyle by Henry Meiggs, to race her in the 1955 Honolulu Race. Myron wasn’t going to finish in time for the race, so Henry Meiggs bought Suomi, in Newport Beach, and was going to enter her in the race instead.

Henry Meiggs and his crew of four sailed Suomi from Newport Beach to San Francisco, to prepare her for the race, but it was on the trip north, just off Point Arguello, that disaster struck.

From the US Coast Guard Commandant’s Action, dated June 20, 1955:

“1. On a dark night with intermittent light rain, the SUOMI was underway using power and sail, exhibiting a masthead light and side lights.

2. The SUOMI was on a crossing course approaching the PARRAMATTA from the starboard and as the privileged vessel, her operator should have sounded the danger signal permitted by Rule 28 of the International Rules to alert the PARRAMATTA.

3.When it became evident to the operator of the SUOMI that collision could not be averted by the action of the burdened PARRAMATTA, he should have taken such action as necessary to avoid immediate danger.

4. That at the time of collision there were five persons on board the SUOMI, namely:

1. Henry Meiggs
2. William Lawrence Meiggs
3. Colonel William S. Conrow
4. Sandy Wilson
5. Ralph Cooper

four of whom perished in the vessel. The fifth, Ralph H. Cooper, who was the operator at the time of collision, died as a result of amputation of the right leg and pelvis with partial evisceration of the abdomen due to contact with the PARRAMATTA propeller.

5. The SUOMI sank immediately after the impact.”

The report goes on to find the PARRAMATTA at fault for failing to keep a proper lookout and discharge the responsibility of the burdened vessel. The report recommended commendation of the captain, crew, and owners of the SS BENNINGTON, which responded quickly and searched the area for survivors.



Anyone who has been to sea, especially at night, knows the horror of just contemplating such an accident, much less experiencing one. I was run down by a big ship at night, but my incident had a happy ending.

The Coast Guard report goes on:

“17. In response to an urgent Coast Guard notice, the SS BENNINGTON, which was then bound from Los Angeles, California, to Portland, Oregon, searched the area where the collision occurred from 0525 until 0845. At 0525 some wreckage was observed (transom of SUOMI dory). Later a pillow, section of spar, an identified life raft and other debris were sighted. At or about 0640 a body, which later was identified as that of Ralph Howard Cooper of San Mateo, California, was sighted 2.8 miles 180 degrees true from Point Arguello Light. The body and wreckage, which included one 30-inch approved ring buoy, were recovered by a Coast Guard motor lifeboat from Point Arguello Lifeboat Station. The following day another approved ring buoy was recovered by the CGC MINNETONKA in the same general area. The search was continued until 1530 on 22 April, 1955, with negative results.”

Those life rings certainly have a story to tell, having been right in the middle of the terrible loss of life that night. If I listen carefully from my desk, I can almost hear them breathing:


When I first started here I thought they were just cool pieces of sailing memorabilia, but now I know they are ghosts of something more sinister. But of course this (the Spaulding Marine Center) is the proper place for them to rest, even though Suomi was built before Myron built the current boatworks.

But one question still remains: How did the life rings get from the site of the 1955 wreck to my wall in 2018? Actually I have a second question: How did they know that Ralph H. Cooper was at the helm at the time of the accident? Was the amputation done later at a hospital, and he was able to talk about the accident before he died? Finding a survivor would have certainly been in the report, yet isn’t mentioned.

This excellent video about Chrysopyle mentions the incident:

The Email You Don’t Want to Get from a Customer as a Marine Elecrtrician

Clark June 29th, 2013

By now Im sure you are knee deep in diapers. I hope all is well. As for me, well I have been better. Today, I was getting the boat ready for fishing this week and unfortunately, it caught fire. I haven’t been out since you worked on it so Im not sure what to do moving forward. Can you make some time to come look at it and possibly figure this out. I can explain all the steps I took prior to the fire when we speak. Hope to hear from you soon.
Dave (name changed)

Gulp. I emailed him back and was there bright and early the next morning, ready to confront an awkward situation. The boat was not burned. The only thing that caught fire and burned was the alternator. Whew. I asked him about this, and why he didn’t say it was just the alternator, so as not to give me a heart attack. Email is dangerous.

It turned out he’d bought a new battery for his two bank system, which has a standard 1-2-both-off battery switch, only he connected the battery backward, with the positive to the negative and the negative to the positive. He then turned the battery switch to the #1 position and the alternator burst into flames.

After doing some deconstructing and poking around, I figured he was very lucky it was only the alternator (about $300 to replace).

By doing what he did, he’d reversed the polarity on his system, making for a positive ground. For many things aboard, like lights, this wouldn’t make a difference. For other things, like electronics and the alternator, it would make a catastrophic difference. When he turned on the battery switch it created a dead short somewhere in the alternator and up it went!

If he’d try to start the engine, something very bad would have happened to the starter, and maybe the engine.

AND, by reversing the connections on Battery 1, he would have inadvertently wired Battery 1 and Battery 2 in series, creating a 24-volt battery. Had he turned the battery switch to the “Both” position he would have created a dead short, at 24 volts, at the battery switch. The battery switch was rated to 300 Amps or more, so the fireworks would have lasted a while before the battery switch finally melted down…in flames. Of course there were no high capacity fuses anywhere in the system.

I’ve spent twenty minutes drawing diagrams and trying to figure out all the implications of such an error. There are many and it gets confusing, so probably best we just connect batteries with the proper polarity.

Godspeed, Old Mainsail

Clark May 27th, 2013

IMG 1010
On our trip up to Petaluma last week, the old mainsail finally gave up the ghost. I guess they don’t make things like they used to: That mainsail only lasted through one circumnavigation, about a thousand days in the sun, and (with a bit of sail tape here and there) another five years of hard sailing out of San Francisco Bay before it just fell apart. I’ve had a new mainsail near the top of the list for years, but of course sails are quite expensive so I’ve been making do. My 1967 ketch has a long boom compared to modern designs, so not a lot of ripe hunting on the used market. I guess now I’ll have to pony up and just buy a new main…wait a minute, look where the tear is. All is not lost. It certainly isn’t worth repairing because the sailcloth tears like tissue paper, but the tear is below the reef points. Double reefed it’s still definitely useable. Might even get away with it single reefed. In San Francisco it blows like snot and she’s reefed most of the time anyway. Reefed, she might make it through another summer. What do I have to lose?

Proof of Concept: Surfing/crabbing adventure

Clark May 8th, 2013

paddling out
A few months ago I started asking myself how to justify dumping all my free time and money into a boat I can’t afford. April alone included six days in the boatyard, at about $2000, including an insurance survey, plus berthing fees, a robbery, and about ten days of my life. The answer was more boat adventures.

The plan would be to sail to Bolinas, just 15 miles from my marina, where we’d paddle in and surf. On the way we’d drop off a crab trap in hopes of catching some Dungeness crabs, the “Maine lobster of the West.”

In short, total success. Six dudes left at 6 a.m. on the ebbing tide with our surfboards and crab trap. About halfway to Bolinas we dropped the trap in sixty feet of water, baited with some chicken legs and a can of cat food, and – very important – marked the spot with the GPS.
tony bonnet
Bolinas isn’t known for great surf, but it’s the only place I know of within daysailing distance of San Francisco where one can surf with a boat anchored in reasonable protection. The surf was unremarkable, but nobody has ever regretted paddling in for a surf, and paddling in from a sailboat holds a certain frisson.
taking offrog on board
After brunch the wind came up and we sailed away from our anchor, arriving at our crab trap an hour later:
pulling trap
Inside were six Dungeness crabs, four of which were keepers (greater than 5-3/4 inches across the carapace):
crabs on trap
elias crab
For rank amateurs we did alright, but next time we’ll invest in a wire mesh bait box. We just tied the chicken legs to the bottom of the trap, and they were all picked clean! If they can eat all the bait, it won’t be there to attract any more crabs.

As usual, it was howling by the time we got to the Golden Gate, and we finished our day with a spirited sail, back in the berth by 4 p.m., to return home with fresh meat, wily hunters of the sea.

Crabs boiled for fifteen minutes in salt water, served with drawn garlic butter. Once you know how to work over a crab, there’s a full meal in each, and I dare say it’s just as good, maybe better, than lobster.

Anchors Astay

Clark July 18th, 2009

The saga began when I took friends out for the day on Condesa for a sort of bachelor party for John Caron. We anchored behind Angel Island, right off the ruins of the old quarantine station, and had a barbeque.


When it was time to go I went to pull up the anchor and it was fouled. I pulled in all directions with Condesa and tried every trick in the book. After forty-five minutes we had an additional hundred and fifty feet of chain hopelessly fouled and it was getting dark. I dumped all 300-feet of chain and marked it with a buoy.

Apparently I’m the last one to know. Every cruising guide on San Francisco Bay says never to anchor in this spot because it is a notorious anchor-eater. I called the Angel Island rangers and they were quite cool about leaving ground tackle and buoys in their state park on a temporary basis.

We returned two days later, again with a bit of a party for a barbeque, and anchored Condesa nearby. We launched the dinghy and my brother Jim and I set out to recover the anchor. I donned snorkeling gear and my very warm wetsuit for the 48-degree water, while Jim did the heavy lifting from the dinghy.


To be read with a Jacques Cousteau accent:

Following the chain down into the depths, the last of the light disappeared at twelve feet. Below this was only darkness. The murkiness of San Francisco Bay makes the visibility just a few inches. My dive light was useless, and I could only see its light underwater if I pressed it against my mask. Upon reaching the bottom, at a depth of 25-feet, I was in a cold, dark, formless world, where my eyes were useless, but my other senses would become more acute.

I made about twenty dives over two hours, hyperventilating and holding my breath each time. After the first or second dive I came up and said, “It’s wrapped around a mushroom-shaped rock!” Then a few dives later I said, “I think it’s a sunken boat. I can feel the bowsprit, and I think I fell in the hold.” Then after a few more times fumbling around on the bottom the truth was known: “Pilings! Piles of broken pilings!” Indeed, there must have been a large pier extending from the old quarantine station. Now the pier is in ruins, and the mish-mash of broken pilings makes an anchor trap for the unwary. With each dive I got better at orienting myself, but feeling one’s way in total darkness, 25-feet underwater, in a big pile of pilings, is a little disorienting and unnerving. The flashlight was useless in the best of times, but I tried pressing it to my mask to see if it was working and it was half full of dark, muddy water, as was my mask. The chain seemed to be wrapped around one particular piling, and after many dives and over an hour of trying, there didn’t seem to be any hope…and it was getting late.


We got back to Condesa and everyone was happily barbequing away and drinking beers. I felt like I’d been to another planet. My ears were clogged, my eyes were more sensitive to light, and I was generally chilled and disoriented. People kept asking me questions, but I still had my hood on and couldn’t hear a thing. I’d been a blind and deaf man for the last two hours, and recovering my senses was a slow process. Andrew had been manning the barbeque and chumming the water with raw bloody meat the whole time, which is always nice to find out after you’ve been diving.

So there stayed my anchor and chain, floating with it’s little orange buoy. It was about $2000 worth of gear, and not to be left behind lightly. Hiring salvage divers would be expensive, and fraught with complications, like how would we get 800 pounds of recovered gear from their boat into mine?


Act 3: Another week later, we returned again. This time my friend Roger (above with his wife Laura on their boat) was a star in renting scuba gear for me and meeting us at the dock in Tiburon. Once again Jim did the heavy lifting from the dinghy and I went in with the scuba gear, which completed the whole spaceman going into the unknown motif. Roger also got me a brand new dive light, which was totally useless in zero visibility. Once again we made a day of it, and left eight or ten friends partying on Condesa nearby.


The scuba gear allowed me a lot more time on the bottom for assessment and contemplation. The chain was indeed looped around a horizontal piling, and after feeling this piling up and down, it seemed an impossible situation since neither end of the piling was off the seabed. I braced my fins against–whatever is down there–and tried to move the piling. It wouldn’t budge. I thought about it some more, and figured that the piling moving was the only possibility, so once again I grunted to move it. It did move, albeit very slowly because it was stuck in the muck on the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Finally, there I was in total darkness and zero visibility, standing in the muck, holding a 500 pound, 18-inch diameter, barnacle-encrusted piling on my shoulder…which I could easily drop and hopelessly pin myself to the bottom. I got the chain unwrapped and gave the signal to Jim to pull up chain, which was two sharp yanks, or was it many repeated yanks? The yanking got confusing for both of us, and more chain kept falling on my head.

I went to the surface to report the good news and sort out the yanking. Jim pulled in another hundred feet of chain and we got to the original snag. I went down again and could actually see a little before stirring up the silt. The anchor itself, my 45-pound CQR, was wedged under yet another piling and quickly freed. Jim pulled it to the surface and we were now in a very overloaded little 8-foot dinghy with 800 pounds of anchor and chain, scuba gear, and two grown men.


We returned to Condesa like conquering heroes. Once again I felt a veil of distance between me and the earthlings barbequing on Condesa. I was only down for half an hour this time, but it might as well have been a lifetime.

The next day I went to return the scuba gear and the guy at the dive shop had a good laugh and let me know, once again, that I wasn’t the first to lose an anchor at this particular spot. In fact, he said the spot would yield some pretty good hunting for a little amateur salvage operation.

Halfway to the Farallons

Clark May 27th, 2009

It’s been almost a year since Condesa sailed outside the Golden Gate. About a month ago we made a short trip to Point Bonita, which is just outside, but we were swarmed by flies and beat a hasty retreat, so that doesn’t really count.

This week we planned to properly get out on the high seas, with harnesses and jacklines, and make a lap around the South Farallon, which lies 28 miles west of San Francisco. It is known for being steep-sided and inhospitable, smelling of guano, and being home to lots of great white sharks.

Earlier in the week we got up at 5AM and it was already blowing 25 knots, so we gave it a miss. Yesterday, however, the forecast was for winds in the low 20s all day. My girlfriend Alison, my little brother Jim, and I set sail on the ebbing tide…which promptly crashed into the North Pacific swell with great violence, making all aboard queasy.

We raised sail, then minutes later triple-reefed in the freshening wind. We pounded seaward, passing a few container ships on their way into port. At about ten miles offshore we were engulfed in a fog bank, making us peg our eyes nervously to the radar, knowing that more big ships were lurking in the fog. With the spray and vomit flying, we called the fight, tacked, and shooshed back into San Francisco Bay to lick our wounds and take a nap anchored behind Angel Island.

Daysailing is so nice in that one can just walk away from such weather and be in a hot bath by nightfall. On a longer voyage we’d just have to make do, meaning be cold, wet, worried, and sleepless. I’m out of practice for such adventures, and I didn’t know that could happen to me. Last year I was charging through conditions like that for weeks on end without a complaint, while yesterday I was drained after just a few hours. Finally, San Francisco sailing is not to be taken lightly. It howls pretty hard inside the Bay sometimes, but outside can be a real trial, even on the good days.

Speaking Schedule

Clark April 8th, 2009

I’m scheduled to give three talks at the Strictly Sail boat show at Jack London Square in Oakland next week. You can click here for complete information.

My gigs are Wednesday, April 15th at 6:00PM in Tent C; Friday, April 17th at 3:15 in Tent A; and Sunday, April 19th at 11:45 in Tent E.

I’ll be doing a slide show and regaling the crowd with fascinating anecdotes and invaluable information.

Hope to see you there…

Latitude 38 Article

Clark January 6th, 2009

If you pick up the sailing magazine Latitude 38, January edition, you can read…well, you can’t miss it. Articles don’t seem to be available online, but Latitude 38 is free at most chandleries, marinas, fuel docks, yacht clubs, launching ramps, etc. in California.

Wine By Sail

Clark December 14th, 2008

After gallivanting around the world on Condesa for ten years drinking wine, it’s time to buckle down, get serious, and start working…at sailing around on Condesa drinking wine. If you followed my posts from a few months back, Condesa made some delightful trips up the Petaluma and Napa Rivers, into the heart of wine country and the idea of Wine By Sail was born. I could tell you all about it, but it’s probably better to leave it to the pros…wait, I’m a pro. You can check out our (very basic) website at and you can read our favorable press in leading wine industry magazine Wines and Vines.

People love wine and people love sailboats, so I think I’m onto something. Stay tuned!

On the writing front, I’ve got a six-page article on Colombia in this month’s issue of Yachting World. They allow limited access to the digital edition online. My article starts on page 94.

My Feel Bad/Good Story

Clark October 21st, 2008

I just got back from a trip to Mexico to attend the Morelia Film Festival, which is organized by some friends of mine. It’s now in its sixth year and has a fully-developed red carpet/movie star/paparazzi/lavish party culture.

Morelia’s Cathedral:
Morelia\'s Cathedral

It’s always a guaranteed good time, but two weeks before the festival someone pitched a couple of hand grenades into the town square during the Independence Day celebrations. Ten people were killed and a hundred wounded. They say it was a message from one of the drug cartels to Felipe Caldron’s government.

Because of the attacks, most of the foreigners backed out of the festival, but we decided to stick with our plans. A good time was had by all, but the tragedy weighed heavily on everyone’s minds and there were many dedications and speeches honoring the victims.

The sea of votive candles at the massacre site:
The sea of votive candles at the massacre site

To add to the dark side, we flew in and out of Tijuana. In the few days before we flew out, thirty-seven people were murdered in TJ, many of them handcuffed and beheaded. During the week we were in Morelia there were another seven found murdered in TJ, but bodies in various states of wholeness seem to be turning up every day.

As to the dangers in TJ, I figure that if you don’t happen to be a member of a drug cartel (I’m not) you’re not in too much danger. In Morelia they thought they’d caught the guys who were responsible for the grenades, and security was cranked way up. Obviously we made it back to California without incident.

I was wondering around during the last few hours before my flight out of Morelia, looking for a knick-knack to buy. As I walked down a back street there was a knot of people on the sidewalk ahead of me. I saw a girl in a Girl Scout uniform hug another girl, then I noticed there were eight or ten Girl Scouts and their Scout leader, a man in his fifties, all in uniform. When I reached them a cute blond Girl Scout came up to me and said, ‘Abrazo gratis!’…free hug. I hesitated for a second, perhaps my American hesitation about touching strange young girls, then hugged her, or rather, let her hug me. She really put some effort into it, then gave me a big smile.

I walked past the knot and watched this spontaneous outpouring of goodwill. Cute little Girl Scouts kept announcing ‘abrozo gratis,’ and were hugging old ladies, old men, kids, vendors…anyone who walked by. I watched one girl go up and hug a surly-looking cop and the guy pretty much melted. A few people broke into to tears after their hugs and looked visibly better and relieved. I certainly felt better about life in general, and considered walking around the block for a second go-around.

I kind of already knew the answer, but I asked one of the Girl Scouts (when she had a short break from hugging strangers) why they were giving free hugs: ‘With all the murders and violence, we asked ourselves at our meeting what we could do to help. We decided we could give free hugs. Everyone feels better after a hug.’

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