Boat Watching on San Francisco Bay

In the course of a few hours on San Francisco Bay, you can see dozens of different kinds of boats and ships, from sailboats to classic motoryachts and kayaks to warships.
Here’s a quick guide to the common types.


Most of the sailboats on the bay are sloops—sailboats with one mast.

A sailboat with two masts, with a relatively short aft mast set near the stern (technically, aft of the rudderpost) is a yawl. A ketch also has a smaller mast aft, but it is set forward of the rudderpost and carries a larger sail.

Sailboats with two masts, with the taller mast aft, are generally schooners.

Tall Ships

A brigantine is like a schooner but has a square-rigged sail on the foremast.

A full-rigged ship has three masts with square sails on each one. There are none that make their home on San Francisco Bay, but visitors arrive every year or two.

A barque is like a full-rigged ship but has fore-and-aft sails on the aft mast.


San Francisco Bay is blessed with a number of painstakingly restored classic motoryachts.

In some parts of the world, megayachts over 200 or even 300 feet long are not uncommon. On San Francisco Bay, however, Larry Ellison’s 197-foot Ronin is about as big a motoryacht as we usually see. This ship’s military heritage—he design is from a frigate built for a South American Navy—is evident in her angular lines.

This Sunseeker exemplifies the European style of swoopy design and fast express cruisers. This is a four-stateroom boat.

One of the larger yachts to visit San Francisco Bay, the 160-foot Attessa is also one of the few visitors to carry a helicopter. This is the older, smaller Attessa; owner Dennis Washington has since upgraded to a 220-foot yacht.

Commercial Ships

Medium-size oil tankers are a common sight in San Francisco Bay, mostly in transit to and from Richmond. The biggest tankers are too big to enter the bay.

Oakland is one of the largest container ports in the country, making these ungainly looking container ships very common in the bay.

Military and Law Enforcement

San Francisco has its own small fleet of law enforcement vessels. Many bay area counties have their own Sherrif’s boat.

Coast Guard Island in the Oakland/Alameda Estuary is home to several large patrol ships.

If you’re in trouble out on the water, this is what you want to see coming your way. These boats are built to take a full roll and keep going, and the crew is highly trained to operate in the surf.

A new species of Coast Guard boat that has become common in the bay since 9/11 — the small, high-speed boat with a machine gun in the bow.

Once a year during Fleet Week in October, and occasionally at other times, warships visit the bay.

Human-Powered Boats: Rowboats and Kayaks

What could be more beautiful to look at and joyful to row than a varnished old Whitehall row boat such as this one?

There’s a dedicated group that rows these slender shells on Richardson Bay for exercise and recreation. The most technical of human-powered boats, they’re also the fastest.

Kayaks are a fun way to explore the edges of the bay in good weather.


Some of Sausalito’s houseboats, such as the prominent ‘Taj Mahal’ in Sausalito Yacht Harbor, are in regular marinas.

Some houseboats are anchored out, and often show creative construction that dramatically increases their living space.

Most of Sausalito’s houseboats are now in a few large houseboat marinas.

Converted old ocean-going tugs make especially attractive houseboats.

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