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Sailing the Cowpie to San Francisco (1970)

One of the more interesting women I met anchored out was Diane Allen from Memphis, Tennessee. I was enchanted by her southern accent, and I couldn’t resist her dimpled smile. She taught classes on how to interpret your dreams. I remember telling her in our first dream conversation, “The only dreams I remember are wet dreams…how do you interpret that?”

She laughed, and told me maybe I needed a girlfriend. She continued, as if I was one of her students. “Write them down when you first wake up, before you get out of bed. Have a pen and paper handy…” and she paused, giving me that dimpled smile, “…and maybe a Kleenex to wipe up the mess.” We both laughed.

The first night I stayed with her on her boat, sure enough I woke up in the early hours to find her writing in her notebook. “Have any good dreams last night?” I yawned. She turned toward me and answered with, “Did you?” I told her I dreamt I was sleeping in my mother’s womb, but wanted to crawl out of the wetness and on to dry land. To which she wondered if I thought floating on the water felt like being in the womb? Then wondered if babies in the womb snore?

One day she told me her aunt just got engaged to a well known character actor named Henry Jones, and they were having an engagement party in San Francisco. Did I want to go?

I’d been wanting to sail the Cowpie over to Frisco, and this seemed like the perfect time, so I suggested we sail over on my boat. She liked that idea, so a few days later we sailed across the Bay, anchored the Cowpie in Aquatic Park, rowed to shore in my 8-foot dory that I always towed behind, pulled it up on the beach, and walked to her aunt’s party.

It turned out to be in a top floor penthouse that had an awesome view of the Bay. This was classy stuff for a Milwaukee farm boy, and the obvious truth was that I really looked and felt out of place, with my long hair and beard, not to mention my flannel shirt, torn jeans and sockless tennis shoes.

She introduced me to her aunt and her aunt’s fiancé, and I realized I had seen his face in more than a few movies and TV shows. He was usually the saloon keeper or the store clerk in old westerns. I should add a photo of him to go with this article…better yet, if you’re interested just go to Wikipedia.

Since I didn’t know anyone, and Diane was talking to her aunt, I walked over to get a better look from the north facing living room windows. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Aquatic Park—and there was my boat, the only boat anchored in Aquatic Park. I was so excited to see my boat down there I turned to show Diane, but instead this tall fellow introduced himself as Art Hoppe.

Before it dawned on me that he was the Art Hoppe who wrote a daily column for the San Francisco Chronicle, I pointed to the Cowpie and told him, all proudly, “We just sailed over on my boat.” That seemed to pique his interest, and the ensuing conversation kept returning to me and my lifestyle and what it was like living anchored out on a small boat, and hanging out with the other “waterfront misfits…I mean artists,” and he laughed. It was almost like he was interviewing me for a future satirical column.

No doubt what stood out the most in my conversation with Hoppe was his laugh, sort of a machine gun ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, going up and down the musical scale. It sounded like the Great Gildersleeve’s laugh on that old 50s radio show, and if you remember that, you’re older than me.

After a few drinks and getting a few more unapproving looks from a few of the more snobbish guests, I told Diane it was time to go. The most important thing to keep in mind when sailing a boat without a motor is to know the tide table, which was printed in a little blue booklet that I always carried with me.

We had to leave Sausalito on the outgoing tide, but by the time the Golden Gate Bridge came into full view the tide was turning, the west wind was picking up, and soon we were sailing all of 4 knots, about as fast as the Cowpie was meant to go.

Keep in mind that steel life boat hulls were not built for speed, but for safety, and they are double-ended for protection from oncoming waves. To make the Cowpie even slower, I may have put too much ballast in my bilge. Then I added another cabin for headroom, a woodstove for heat and cooking, not to mention all the rigging and two anchors. It added up to slow sailing.

Whenever I was in the doldrums with not much wind, my old canvas sail would sag, and the boom would have to be secured. I would get out my huge oar called a sweep, set it in an oarlock on the stern’s gunnel, and scull in sweeping motions. That was a hell of a workout, but saved me from a few close calls.

We said goodbye and headed back to the boat. The tide was still coming in so I decided to return in a counter-clockwise circle around the east side of Alcatraz and Angel Island, and hopefully catch the outgoing tide by the time we hit Raccoon Straits, between Angel Island and Tiburon.

We got fairly close to Alcatraz, and could see some of the American Indian occupiers watching, a few waving at us. By the time we got around Angel Island and into Raccoon Straits we got caught in a rip current, where the incoming tide meets the outgoing tide, making for violent choppy waters and nearly impossible to control the boat.

To make matters worse, we had to tack into the west wind, and we weren’t really making any progress, but soon the outgoing tide took over and we made it around the Tiburon Peninsula and back to Richardson Bay before dark.

A few days later, no doubt inspired by Art Hoppe and a few of the snooty guests, I wrote the following poem.


Unable to row out to my boat at low tide

I sit on the finger dock and look at the mud.

The people on the hill find mud

dirty and disgusting.

They tell me it stinks just awful.

I listen without argument.

How do you tell people with scented bathrooms

that mud just smells different?

How can I explain mud to those who think

Marine toilets will Save the Bay?

How can I carry on a good mud conversation

with people who have looked down so long on mud

they’ve even forgotten how good it feels

between the toes?

* * *

One unexpected plus was that Yvonne had a way of turning all that bulk food into delicious meals, explaining that she learned from her Mexican Grandmother, often helping her in the kitchen while growing up.


  1. Jim Armstrong February 11, 2015

    Gee, I was just getting to like Diane and here comes Yvonne.

  2. Jim Gibbons February 11, 2015

    Gee, sorry Jim Armstrong, but as usual I messed up,that was not supposed to be there…it’s part of another piece that I shoved out of the way instead of deleting it…some day I may learn to do a cleaner job, but don’t hold your breath…

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