A SailGP Report from The North.

I watched the Big Cats in 2013 from shore, including the comeback, with my pregnant wife. I was thinking the whole time, one day I’d be watching The Cup on the water, from my own boat. I’ve only spent about eight years of my entire teenage and adult life without a boat. The Cup certainly didn’t come to pass, but the 0.001% brought some table scraps in the form of SailGP. After my first kid was born, I got that boat. My wife describes it as “like a 1980s RV” when friends in the ‘burbs ask questions.

A veteran of many Fleet Week air shows, I have a firm understanding of the exclusion zone for that event. However, information about SailGP, and the authority to close publicly navigable waterways for a private event, is a little harder to find. Enter the Federal Register and the Mystery of Zone C. The Federal Register is where laws in the US get changed. New laws, and temporary requests governing how federal agencies operate, are proposed and approved there. So I look up the permit, requested by the Coast Guard and DHS, and delegated to the Captain of the Port of San Francisco, who in-turn delegates certain responsibilities to the race organizers.

The FedReg entry contains a list of waypoints and says “Located within this footprint” there are areas for racing (Zone A), areas for VIPs (Zone B), and an area for spectators; the Mysterious Zone C. The only thing you can’t do in Zone C is drop an anchor. The FedReg also says to watch the Coast Guard notices to mariners in for more information about the zones. Week 18’s notice only contains a list of waypoints for the event footprint, with the northwest corner inexplicably about 200 yards south from those published in the Register.

Wanting to plan ahead, I contacted the email address listed in the Federal Register and asked about Zone C. The reply included a map showing that spectator areas were divided into North-South, and East-West, with the event authority having control over the prime viewing from shore and from the North side. But the FedReg shows a key difference between the language of last year’s permit, and this year’s. This year does not break apart Zone C. Great, I thought, we can be close to the start and watch the race from the North Side. No need to buy a flag. I wrote the Coast Guard noting that their map may be out of date, and the Federal Regulations changed this year. After four emails were exchanged, no reply.

Race day comes and from a distance, you see a few slim shapes moving against the city front. Too fast to be anything else. Exciting. I carefully watch my XTE and bang the corner of the exclusion zone near Alcatraz and head West along that line. There is a line. Everybody has a GPS or a tablet, or a chart plotter, and knows exactly, within a few centimeters, where the line is and if they are over it. There are buoys, which are not exactly on the line, but good enough for government work. Or possibly a private, for-profit entity, I wasn’t there to see who set them. But hopefully good enough for the government to at least work by.

I’m first intercepted by Coast Guard Aux, who positions their vessel in front of mine. I slow and wave. Then a Local Law Enforcement intercept. I indicate I’m monitoring 22A. Next, it is the Regular Coast Guard, and they want to talk, but not on the radio. I say something to the effect of “I’m far from the line. Am I in Zone C?” They have no idea about Zone C. “I need you to go 100 yards North.” “Is this from the race organizers?” “No, it’s from me.” OK, fair. That’s an order from a Coast Guardsman. I turn to starboard. Another encounter and I’m easily a quarter mile from the line. I ask, “Isn’t it 100 yards from the line?”. “No, it’s 100 yards from your current position. See that (Local Law Enforcement) boat. Outside of them.” Complying with the instructions I’m still confused. I try to explain what I’d read but it’s loud and they won’t use the radio. Unnecessary friction.

The next vessel down the line, a local County, that thankfully I don’t pay property taxes to, insists I continue to move to the North as I approach. I ask again, “Am I in Zone C? I’m confused because the published waypoints are over there, near the buoys, and we’re allowed to be inside there.” Orders to move back, then comes the wake. Throughout the event, this County authority conducted a series of unprofessional passes at high speed intended to generate wake. After another encounter with them, I ask again about Zone C and all I get is a shrug from the crew.

A second encounter with the Coast Guard ensues. “I know you guys want to get close.” “No,” I say, “just find the spectator zone. The only thing you can’t do there is set an anchor.” These orders were issued to keep me safe. During the first race, however, some lithe athletes, hardly cocooned in a mere tens of kg of carbon fiber WAZPs, were safe watching from what I could only imagine was the designated spectator area. I bet that looked good on TV. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard continues to push boats East of me a solid 500-1000 yards North from the designated boundary. The Guardsmen on the boat were repeatedly intervening in spectator passage east and west. All made “safe” by an extra quarter to half of a mile from the permitted boundary.

The worst part was when my vessel’s name was aired out on Ch22 for “failing to comply” and “possible referral to the boarding team.” A few other boats got this treatment. We were a motley bunch after all. Some clean-looking J-105s, a couple of interceptor-style motorboats, and an Oceanus 48. My wife sized that one up like a scullery maid; look at the space in the stern quarters, the size of the bimini! They have wine holders!

Maybe you want to keep people “like us” off TV. But there are laws, and laws are best when they’re fairly enforced. Decisions made at some level we’ll never see, and not published in any forum, weren’t fair to spectators or front-line law enforcement. Relaying what the race organizers want, but not what they’re allowed, isn’t fair to the guys working the line, the Service Members in the Coast Guard boat. There’s a story here about what “the system” is designed to do and how that’s inevitable. Walters on the water.

We stayed for all three races and when I got back to my car the passenger window was smashed. Broken glass covered the little kid’s car seat. Didn’t seem like they were after anything. I’m a gentrifier, but it bites double hard when they want you gone from above and below. Now I know what it’s like to stretch the power of the state to make it happen. Being a sailing forum, this seems like the right place to complain. Because, in the aggregate, I’m among fellow travelers. Where do you go when a group of 99.999th percentile white men aggrieves a community of 80th percentile white men? That’s right, a sailing forum.