ferryboat commuters and recreational passengers can relax and enjoy the expansive
views of the San Francisco Bay, trusting that technology will keep them safe from
collision with other vessels.
In addition to traveling in designated lanes, modern
ferryboat captains can rely on radar, electronic chart plotters, an automatic identification
system, and backup from the U.S. Coast Guard. “These safeguards reduce chances of a collision to as close
to zero as you’re going to get,” says Jim Swindler, deputy general manager of the
ferry division of Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
|Photo by Aleta George|
technologies were absent during the ferryboat heyday when as many as 25 ferry
companies crisscrossed the bay transporting people, goods, livestock, and even
railroad cars. From
the 1850s until the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges were
built, a captain relied on a compass and his senses in fair or foul weather,
skills that proved inadequate to prevent the worst ferryboat collision on the
San Francisco Bay.
On Saturday, November 30, 1901, in
tule fog denser than anyone remembered having seen, the 1766-ton Sausalito left its Marin County slip 90
minutes after sunset. Five minutes later, the 692-ton,
jewel-box San Rafael cast off from
San Francisco with an unusually large number of children who had been to the
|The Sausalito, Sausalito Historical Society|Steaming against a strong ebb tide, the captains of the Sausalito and San Rafael plowed their usual routes across the bay under slow bells,
a go-easy signal rung from a device on the bridge known as an engine order
telegraph that communicated the desired speed of a vessel to the engine room. By
necessity, captains and their crews were fluent in the language of bells, and knew the meaning of whistles blasted from other vessels that told of a
boat’s location and a pilot’s intentions.
|The San Rafael, James Bard, 1877|
The pilothouses were dark as was the custom at night, and crew members
were stationed on deck, their ears strained to hear other vessels. Somewhere
near Alcatraz Island, with both ferries blasting their whistles, the Sausalito
and San Rafael were upon each other. Both ferries ordered three reverse bells,
but it was too late. The Sausalito rammed
into the side of the San Rafael, fatally
pinning a waiter in the restaurant beneath crushed timber. Another passenger,
who lost an ear from a felled post, later said he’d still have two ears if he
had been in the bar where he belonged.
crews acted quickly. They tied the boats together and laid a plank so that the
passengers on the sinking San Rafael could board the Sausalito. During the 20-minute rescue, the
majority of the 250 passengers on the keeling boat stepped safely onto the Sausalito, but about eighty souls fell
into the icy water, either upon impact or because they jumped in panic.
|San Francisco Call, November 31, 1901|
ferries launched rescue boats and lowered lanterns to pluck swimmers out of the
dark water. One man was close to losing
consciousness before he was rescued. Another wasn’t so lucky. His life-jacketed
body was found on Angel Island a few days later. Without a detailed passenger
list, the number of casualties could only be estimated, with up to five people reported
San Rafael went down with her
lights still burning, but the Sausalito
returned to work. Four years later, Jack London transformed the infamous
ferry boat accident into a dramatic opening for one of his bestselling novels, The Sea Wolf.
1934, a year after the bridges opened, the Sportsmen Yacht Club moved the
retired Sausalito to Antioch, where the bar is still open to members.
|Sausalito pilot house, drydocked in Antioch.|
the popularity and use of ferries is nowhere near what it was in its heyday, usage
will likely increase due to the passage of Regional Measure 3 in 2018, which
calls for an expanded regional ferry system. And when the fog rolls in, as it inevitably will,
Golden Gate’s Swindler says that even with all the layers of advanced
technology, ferryboat captains will continue to put staff on the bridge to
“look and listen.”
A longer version of this article by Aleta George was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Estuary News.