After what seemed like an eternal amount of time, I finally made it back out onto the water and did a little sailing. However, “little sailing” couldn’t be less accurate, this was big sailing on a big boat — an afternoon spent on the Alma, a 59 foot two masted, flat bottomed scow built in 1891 that’s now part of the National Maritime Museum of San Francisco. It’s an impressive craft with a storied history, accurately restored right down to the vermin below deck. Organized by the folks at BAADS with the participation of the National Parks Service, it was a rare opportunity to sail on something straight out of our nautical past.

When I got to Pier 40 that morning the weather was cold and gray — sadly typical for July in San Francisco — and I was wondering whether I’d made an appropriate clothing decision by wearing thin tear-away sweats, a short sleeve T-shirt and a hoodie. But according to my now-looked-upon-with-skepticism weather widget, the clouds were supposed to burn off and it was going to be a 70° day. I didn’t have anything else in the mix, save my baseball cap and sunglasses, so if my widget was correct then I was going to be comfortable, and if not, well, then I was probably going to be a little cold. Either way I was locked in for three or four hours.

By the time the ship set its sails and we were out from under the Bay Bridge, it was clear my clothing decision was a bad one. And by the time we sailed past the Embarcadero and were out in front of the Golding Gate, I realized I was grossly underdressed. Those around me had clearly gotten information I hadn’t — aside from the obvious fact it was mid-summer on the San Francisco Bay — and apparently had weather widgets that looked out for them and didn’t have a sadistic streak. Because their clothing decisions seemed to be geared more towards the Arctic conditions we were sailing in, rather than my “I’m going to shoot some hoops with Jimmy Buffett down in the Keys” attire.

Still, I didn’t complain or let it be known I was freezing my ass off. We were heading to Angel Island, so by that point in the journey it was looking like an exercise in acceptance more than anything else. The thing is — and Buddhists frame this around the idea of the “second dart” — the cold was inevitable, but it was up to me whether or not I wanted to suffer. In this, the “first dart” is the event beyond your control i.e. getting shot with a dart (or in this case being cold), and the “second dart” is your dwelling upon the pain i.e. shooting yourself again in addition to what came before. I didn’t see any point in making myself more uncomfortable than I had to, so it was pretty cool to see how well I could keep my mind focused on other things.

Nevertheless, so you understand where I’m coming from and just how cold I was — and because it’s all behind me now — let me just say I’ve never been that cold in my life. Seriously, this was something extraordinary, and I’ve surfed in some really cold water with less than adequate wetsuits, skied in blizzard like conditions with frozen solid jeans and sat through summer concerts at the Greek theater here in Berkeley. So when it comes to cold, I think I have a pretty good handle on what I’m talking about.

But the difficulty with being cold now — as a quadriplegic — is twofold: to begin with, I’m a very skinny guy, I’ve got no fat on me to speak of — no blubber. And second, and more importantly, because I’m unable to move any muscles below my level of injury, my circulation sucks. The former of these two functions as a barrier/insulator and the latter functions as a regulator. The upshot being, if I get extremely cold it’s going to take me hours to get warm again, and that’s exactly what happened after this trip.

But I don’t want to give you the impression this trip was solely an exercise in Buddhist tolerance techniques — though that’s certainly one of the more useful things I took away from it (aside from not foolishly trusting my voodoo weather widget, or better still, knowing where and when I’m sailing) — because at the heart of the trip, it was about getting back out on the water after being in bed for a week and a half with the pressure sore, and spending time with a bunch of really cool folks (and dogs) on a truly unique boat.

It’s not exactly my kind of sailing — I prefer being closer to the water, on a heel, feeling the speed of the craft and every bump of the waves — but in the end, for me at least, none of that stuff really matters if you’re not in good company. And like I said, this trip had good company in spades.


One of the great things about sailing here in San Francisco is being so close to such dynamic structures. Sailing under either of our bridges — the Bay Bridge or the Golding Gate — is an awe-inspiring experience. The vantage point at sea level of such massive engineering wonders is a perspective I love.

Currently, they’re in the process of building a new Bay Bridge that will replace the not-so-earthquake-safe old one and looking at these two bridges side-by-side is very interesting. The old one (current) — gray, boxy, industrial — is a steel suspension bridge that looks very much of its time, while the new one –a sleek, curved concrete behemoth — seems like something out of the future. Both of these are beautiful in their own right, but side-by-side they are a true architectural treat.

I think the photos below illustrate a little of what I’m talking about. But like all the great wonders of the world, pictures ultimately can’t do it justice. You really must be there to appreciate the scale.

The two Bay Bridges side-by-side

bay bridge

The two Bay Bridges side-by-side

The two Bay Bridges side-by-side

The two Bay Bridges side-by-side

Photos by Steve Dexter.

One comment on “zen and the art of sailing the arctic

  • Boy, you hid it well. I figured that if the laws of physics and
    physiology were holding true for you, you HAD to be freezing your ass off, but you were not only very convincing, but a surprisingly lifelike shade of pinky-beige. I checked, several times.

    I figured you were one of those physically-impossible types I come across occasionally, like my old acquaintance who walked around with a blood pressure of 80/40 — technically dead. She could do (& talk) a lot for someone who was technically dead.

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