4 min read

A round-engine float plane dropped through a hole in a thick, low overcast to land, banging and clattering on choppy San Francisco Bay. It coasted to a stop a quarter mile dead-ahead of our Lapworth 40 sloop. We kept driving her, rail-down, hard on the wind, and quickly closed with the aircraft, a bit concerned. None of us had never seen a plane land way out there, and this one was familiar. It was from a sight-seeing operation based at the north end of our hometown, Sausalito, California.

The seven of us aboard the boat worked well together by then. We were nearing the end of a long day of practice for a big race the next weekend. We were a team and didn’t need the boat’s engine; we merely luffed up, came to a stop and hove-to a few yards from what I think I remember was a Beaver (it’s been 40 years since that day).

As we drew near, a rotund pilot dropped onto one of the floats, his weight pressing the float down until waves lapped over the top. He didn’t notice his feet getting wet.

“Can you give us a tow?” he yelled.

“Sure,” we answered, and one of our guys ducked below to fetch a long line.

From on-deck, we clearly heard two women talking excitedly, loudly, in Spanish or Portuguese, their voices carrying easily out of the aircraft and over the water.


Not your typical floatplane tugboat…

We saw the float that the pilot stood upon was sinking ever lower and called it to his attention. Foam-rubber balls stuffed into small ports atop several chambers in the floats had popped out during the choppy landing. A couple of the balls were hanging over the side on light lanyards, others appeared to have gone lost. The bay chop slopping over was slowly filling chambers. The bay was already rougher than the pilot liked for takeoff without the weight of the water in one float, or even to taxi. Besides, there remained the heavy low overcast which extended over his landing area a few miles north.

With his new sinking feeling, the pilot jumped back into the plane to even the load on his floats at least a little, then a minute later he leaped down again to fetch the line one of our guys tossed underhanded in split coils to land across the same float. The pilot quickly passed it around struts, got the end back to us and climbed back into his ship.

“Can you take my passengers aboard your boat?” he yelled from his open door while we were tying off the line.

“No way,” came our spontaneous reply in unison. Those women remained loudly unhappy.

We filled away for Sausalito, the town just north of the Golden Gate, an easy high-reach under sail in a brisk westerly. Our speed was, um, dignified for the four miles before we got to a long floating dock without obstructions suitable to land boat and plane. It meant towing along much of the town’s waterfront. We must’ve been an interesting sight and hoped a friend would take a photo, but no luck.

We got boat and plane to the dock OK, still without the engine, but before we had boat or airplane secured to the dock, the two women, one young, one older – both made up and dressed to kill in tall, gold spike-heel sandals, white pants, colorful blouses, jewelry aplenty – slithered out of the airplane and stalked the dock toward shore, still chattering indignantly, followed a minute later by a quiet, sportily dressed young fellow.

“They’re from Brazil,” the pilot said, cleating a line. “The young couple are on their honeymoon. The older woman’s the bride’s mother.”

There was laughter, then silence as we absorbed that.

Sure pilot and plane would be OK, we prepared to shove off minutes later. The pilot passed out business cards: “I really appreciate this, guys. Any of you want a flight over the bay, let me know – it’s on me.”

We said thanks, though all were thinking, “You got any other ideas?”

Later we considered the afternoon’s event and noted the guy’d done OK under trying circumstances. We all felt for the bloke, though none of us took him up on his offer.

In the evening calm, he was able to taxi the mile or so to his base with pumped-dry float chambers, alone, only that wonderful radial engine to listen to.

Brooks Townes
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4 replies
  1. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Well that was quite a different story! Too bad there wasn’t a photo of it! The power of the wind harnessed is amazing indeed!

  2. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    What a great and off-beat story! I take it the pilot was able to fix whatever the engine problem was that forced him to land in the first place?

  3. Toodie Marshall
    Toodie Marshall says:

    Great Story Brooks,
    Gotta be Mike Brown from Homewood/Tahoe City CA. He flew rides during the year at Sausalito then moved over to Pier 39, also flew rides from Homewood at Lake Tahoe. Loved to hear the big engine, we were based at Truckee-Tahoe airport where Mike and Lois had a hangar. Too bad no one took a photo, would have been quite the picture.
    Glad you flew gliders, I learned in my teens, flew for a very long time. Power too and had a glider tow pilot endorsement flying a Super Cub and Scout.
    Thanks for the memories of Mike, saw his wife Lois at Trader Joes in Reno not too long ago, doing very well.
    Toodie Marshall

  4. Brooks Townes
    Brooks Townes says:

    Thanks Toodie ~ ‘Mike Brown’ rings a faint bell, and as I recall there was just the one float-plane ride operation from near the heliport by the freeway north of town in those days, surrounded by far too shallow-water for us to get near it with the boat. Good to hear he continued what sounds like an enjoyable career! And, I envy you soaring out of the Trucke-Tahoe area. I’ve done a couple of flights out of Minden and wow – what great conditions and beauty! Good stuff!

    Jerry, I can’t recall the airplane having engine trouble but perhaps it did. The pilot was sure he could get himself back to his base from that dock so if he had a mechanical problem I guess he could fix it. Our skipper & fellow crew wondered if it was another source of noise he sought to escape.


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