Cruising San Francisco Bay
By Monique Burns
Some cities, like San Francisco, are best seen from the water. It isn’t that they aren’t stunning when seen from the ground. It’s just that their monuments, buildings and bridges, as well as their topographical features, swim into crystalline focus when viewed from a watery vantage point. Against the blue of the sky and the deeper blue of surrounding waters, the city’s splendor is only heightened.
Afloat between its namesake bay and the Pacific, San Francisco was made to be seen from the water. Fortunately, several companies run boat excursions on San Francisco Bay, which boasts moderate year-round temperatures and consistent winds. Three of the best and most entertaining are Ride the Ducks San Francisco, a combination land-and-water tour; Adventure Cat Sailboat Charters, with spacious (and stable) catamarans, and ACsailingSF, offering cruises aboard the powerful yet graceful America’s Cup yacht USA 76.
Ride the Ducks San Francisco is perfect if you want to combine a land tour with a bay cruise. It’s also lots of fun for families with kids. The 90-minute tour—including an hour on land and a 25-minute bay cruise—is aboard a replica of an amphibious World War II DUKW, essentially a big floating truck that the U.S. military used for the Normandy Landing and other major operations. In 2005, Ride the Ducks San Francisco helped with rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
From the moment you arrive at the ticket booth, across from the big round Fisherman’s Wharf sign, you know you’re in for 90 minutes of pure fun. At check in, you get a yellow plastic “wacky quacker,” shaped like a duck’s bill. Feel free to quack at will, though your driver—or, rather, your captain—will ask you to quack at various sights, as well as unsuspecting pedestrians, while en route.
Cruising through San Francisco streets in the huge ark-like vehicle, painted orange, yellow or white, you’ll see famous neighborhoods like North Beach, where 19th-century Italian fishermen settled; Chinatown, the largest outside Asia; Fisherman’s Wharf, with its many seaside attractions, and downtown Union Square. While passing on interesting tidbits about various landmarks, your captain will blast retro songs from the radio, and make your Duck bounce up and down on its springs. Adults seem to enjoy the tour, but children absolutely love it. Few things are funnier than watching an infant in diapers dancing to ‘70s hits like “Macho Man” and “We Will Rock You.”
After about an hour, your Duck plunges into McCovey Cove. Bounded on the north by AT&T Park, where the 2014 World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, play, McCovey Cove was named for former first-baseman Willie McCovey. You’ll see the stadium perched near the water’s edge, and hear how San Franciscans take to their power boats, sailboats and kayaks on game days to retrieve “splash hits” that land in the cove.
There’s also an evening tiki-themed Splashtacular Sunset Duck Tour. Money-saving combination packages including the “Fish… and Ducks Combo Package” (with admission to Aquarium of the Bay), “A Waxed Duck! Combo” (with admission to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum), the “Ducks and Dungeons! Combo” (with admission to the San Francisco Dungeon) and the “Shrunken Heads and Odd Ducks Combo” (with admission to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium).
If you’d like to spend all your time on San Francisco Bay, sign up for a Bay Sail or Sunset Sail aboard one of Adventure Cat Sailing Charters’ catamarans. The company, which celebrates its 15th anniversary next year, was founded in 1991 by three recreational sailors who spent 17 months and 10,000 man-hours building the first Adventure Cat catamaran. In 2003, Adventure Cat 2 joined the fleet. Though the company is completely professional and the crew of two who pilot the boats are U.S. Coast Guard-certified, Adventure Cat’s homespun beginnings might help explain the casual, easy-going feel aboard ship.
Given once, twice or three times a day, depending on the season, the 1 ½-hour Bay Sail takes in many of San Francisco’s top sights. You’ll see Fisherman’s Wharf and the city skyline behind it, including the Transamerica Pyramid, and Coit Tower, the 210-foot-high, Art Deco-style National Historic Monument atop Telegraph Hill. You’ll also sail around Alcatraz Island, known as “The Rock,” where notorious criminals like Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” were once incarcerated. You’ll sail directly beneath the towering Golden Gate Bridge.
En route, you can relax on the foredeck or lie down on the trampoline, sturdy netting slung between the catamaran’s two hulls. If it gets too sunny or chilly, head into the spacious covered cabin, where you can buy beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks. Though the two affable crewmen actually sail the Cat, passengers can help raise the sails, or take a quick turn at the wheel, which makes a very nice photo for the folks back home.
In addition to the Bay Sail and the evening Sunset Sail, Adventure Cat Sailing Charters has several special combination packages. The “Sail and Jail: Alcatraz Island Tour Package” includes a 11/2-hour bay cruise, plus a separate cruise to Alcatraz aboard the Alcatraz Lines ferry and a 45-minute Cellhouse audio tour. The “Surf and Turf: Hiking and Sailing Package” includes the bay cruise and a hike up nearby Mt. Tamalpais with TAM Hiking Tours and/or a hike through the “Urban Landscape” with Urban Hiker SF. In summer, the company has fireworks cruises and special-event cruises, all listed on its website.
Adventure Cat also does private charters, perfect for engagement parties, weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations. Catering choices range from light appetizers or a fajita bar to party platters or a full lunch buffet.
Serious sailors, or those who want to experience the thrill of sailing aboard an actual racing yacht, should book a cruise with ACsailingSF Charters. The 2 ½ hour sail is aboard 84-foot USA 76, which challenged for the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, and made it to the semifinals.
The company was founded by Brad Webb, a New Zealander who competed in six America’s Cup races during his 18 year sailing career, including serving as bowman aboard USA 76 for the 2003 America’s Cup challenge. When I sailed, the yacht was captained by Jon Buser, who crewed aboard two America’s Cup yachts, the Stars and Stripes and Abracadabra, earned a USCG 100 Ton Master License, and served as a deck officer aboard U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker ships in the North Pole and Antarctica.
Leaving the docks at Pier 39 and heading into the waters of San Francisco Bay, you’re immediately aware of just how powerful USA 76 is. “She’s yare,” as an old salt might put it. With a top speed of 22 knots, the 50,000-pound yacht barrels gracefully through the waves. A 19-ton keel keeps her upright and balanced even when heeling over at a 90-degree angle.
When I sailed there were only six other passengers, although USA 76 comfortably accommodates 20 guests. Passengers can help sail the ship, cranking devices known as “coffee grinders” to hoist the main sail, emblazoned with a silhouette of the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest trophy in international sport, or taking a turn at the helm, a special thrill since the boat leaps forward in your hands like a huge, powerful marine animal.
Beyond the thrill of sailing aboard such a strong and well-designed vessel, the long 2 ½-hour sail gives you a chance to really see San Francisco Bay. In addition to viewing Coit Tower and other landmarks on shore, you’ll sail around Alcatraz Island, and back and forth beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Heading east, you’ll see Angel Island, where Japanese-Americans were detained during World War II. You’ll also see the hills of nearby Sausalito.
USA 76 has day and sunset sails year-round. You also can sign up to crew on three-hour Race Sails when USA 76 competes against other sailboats in San Francisco Bay; no experience is necessary. For private groups of 6, the 40-foot TOMCAT racing catamaran offers 90 minutes of thrilling sailing up to 25 knots.
IF YOU GO
Ride the Ducks San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf, 2766 Taylor St., San Francisco 94133; 415-922-2425 or toll-free 877-887-8225; www.sanfrancisco.ridetheducks.com
Adventure Cat Sailing Charters. Pier 39, Dock J, 2 Beach St., San Francisco, CA 94133; 415-777-1630 or toll-free 800-498-4228; www.adventurecat.com
ACsailingSF. Pier 39, Gate B, 2 Beach Street, San Francisco, CA 94133; 415-990-9992 or toll-free 855-227-3201; www.acsailingsf.com