Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Slow Bells Could Not Prevent Ferry Disaster

Today’s 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.

Photo by Aleta George
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.

These 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.

The Sausalito, Sausalito Historical Society
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 matinees.

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.

The 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

The 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 dead.

The 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.

In 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.

Although 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.