Earlier this year, the San Francisco Port Commission commended a boat captain for safely delivering 23 passengers from danger during a “tidal event,” an honor so rare it hasn’t been bestowed in at least 20 years.
Even more unusual is that many questions surrounding the event, which broke chains, nearly sunk a moored boat and endangered lives, remain unanswered.
Commendations from the commission have been so infrequent that Port staff were unable to find records detailing when and why the last one was issued. Captain David Crumpler has become the first in recent memory.
Crumpler was commended for “demonstrating outstanding judgement, boat handling and navigational skills when he maneuvered his boat out of “squall-like weather,’” broken infrastructure and loose debris during an unusual “tidal event” that occured on Jan. 20.
On that fateful day, the sky was gray and heavy with clouds. Crumpler had just finished taking his passengers on a tour of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and was piloting “The Lovely Martha” past the breakwater into the safety of the lagoon.
The boat was approaching the west side of Pier 43 and nearing the Fisherman’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel when Crumpler noticed something was wrong.
The boat began to slow down. Crumpler said he knew they were in serious danger when it started going backwards.
Video footage released by the commission show water levels began to drop rapidly, creating a strong surge rushing back out into the bay. Crumpler’s 51-foot boat with a 405-horsepower engine can be seen struggling in place, like a runner on a treadmill.
“It was like somebody pulled the plug on the drain, and the water just kept sucking out,” said Crumpler.
The tidal drop was so severe that moored boats in the area began to keel over on their lines and chains holding buoys snapped.
In that moment, Crumpler said he knew he had to get all of them out of there. The relative safety of the lagoon had become an obstacle course as strong tidal currents threatened to smash “The Lovely Martha” into the pier and other boats, including one belonging to the landmark waterfront restaurant Scoma’s.
“I was going against forces that wanted to pull me into the Scoma’s boat. I had to use the strength of the boat to get out. It was like making an eight-point turn in a San Francisco alley,” said Crumpler.
Even though Crumpler managed to swing the boat around and thread her through to safer open water, the strength of the surging water alone damaged the pier and nearly sank one boat, according to the Port Commission incident report.
The “tidal event” nearly sunk the Scoma’s fishing boat, broke the restraints of a buoy, snapped the chain of two “camels,” long floating log-shaped devices that act as bumpers between boats and the pier, and ripped out five wooden pilings that support the dock, according to the report.
“My first thought was tsunami or a tidal wave,” said Crumpler.
Initial damage reports made by fishermen mirrored Crumpler’s fears, with many of them calling the event a tsunami, according to internal documents obtained by the Examiner.
However, the “tidal event” was not a tsunami, since a giant wave did not sweep into the Bay shortly after the water surge.
To this day, the exact nature of what occurred on Jan. 20, which has been vaguely labeled a “tidal event” by the Port Commission, remains unclear.
The Examiner reached out to groups that study the oceanography of the Bay Area, such as the Estuary and Ocean Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Unfortunately, despite video footage and tidal data from sensors along the Peninsula, neither organization felt there was enough information to determine a cause.
Some fishermen near Pier 43 who witnessed the event noted two large tankers coming into the Bay at roughly the same time, which they say can sometimes cause water levels to fluctuate.
Others, like District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who also sits on the Coastal Commission of California, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the North East Waterfront group, suspect it’s related to “king tides.”
The term “king tide” is not scientific, but is used to describe an unusually high tidal event caused by an alignment between the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon, according to data posted by the California King Tides Project.
For the Bay Area, Jan. 20 was a king tide, Peskin pointed out.
Peskin has a particular interest in king tides because “they are a preview of what sea-level rise will look like.”
“What you will see over time if the United States and the planet Earth doesn’t get it together is sea-level rise that will look like ‘king tides.’ Which brings around a whole set of profound policy issues,” said Peskin.
San Francisco has begun addressing a future defined by a changing climate and rising sea-levels by approving a $425 million bond to repair a crumbling seawall, as part of a much larger 30 year, multi-billion dollar project addressing earthquake preparedness and flooding.
But almost four months after the “tidal event,” the only thing any port officials can say with certainty is that by thinking quickly on his feet and “responding with calm resolve to a severe situation,” Crumpler “upheld the highest traditions of what it means to be a Captain on the San Francisco waterfront.”