Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors

Continuing with the theme Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors, there are numerous legends about the single most dramatic landmark of the Bay—the Golden Gate Bridge. I sailed under the bridge a lot teaching coastal sailing, heavy weather techniques, and damage control but I always kept a wary eye aloft, especially after hearing about the Monterey fishing smack.

The Coast Guard on the San Francisco Bay have two official designations for suicides: jumpers and floaters. Floaters are what jumpers become after a week on the bottom. It takes that long for decomposition to create gases in the stomach with buoyancy sufficient to refloat the corpse—shorter for warmer water. The body then rises to the surface, less the soft parts eaten by crabs and bottom feeders

The story goes that a jumper—whether intentionally or by simple inattention—landed on a fishing boat returning from sea. The Monterey smack was a local design, a wooden boat typically about 30 foot, double-ended and sea kindly. The jumper had reached terminal velocity by the time he (or she) passed through the pilot house, through the engine room, and through the hull, promptly sinking the boat.

Sailing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge
A sailor’s view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Photo attribution: Dean Eckles

When I was sailing out of San Francisco the newspapers no longer reported the bridge’s body count but I figured it was a greater risk than being struck by a lightning or those frozen blocks of feces they used to jettison from high altitude air liners, the ones that always crashed through some poor bloke’s roof in Kansas, so I looked as much aloft as alow when directly beneath the span.

There’s also a story of several men falling simultaneously from a broken scaffold while working on the Golden Gate Bridge—or it might have been the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. (Urban legends often get jumbled.) All of the men died except for one who had presence of mind to throw his hammer before him. The story goes that the hammer broke the surface tension of the water a second before he struck and saved his life. Its sounds reasonable but what do I know about hydrodynamics?

And a guy I worked with always threw one shoe overboard beneath the Golden Gate whenever he was outbound on a long passage. He left the other shoe behind; said it ensured he would return safely. He also said he had a closet full of orphaned shoes.

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