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Lost in the Fog: Bay Bridge Beacons Keep Failing, Right as the Weather Turns Foul 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015

Driving-by-feel may be borderline acceptable when parking a car in a half-spot in North Beach. But it's not the best way to navigate a supertanker through the Bay. Twice of late — the Cosco Busan in 2007 and the Overseas Raymar in 2013 — hulking freighters have rammed the Bay Bridge.

The latter collision was chalked up, in large part, to a malfunctioning Bay Bridge radar beacon. So it came as somewhat disturbing news when, last week, media reports revealed the very same beacon has conked out once more.

After being informed by the Coast Guard on Dec. 17 that the $40,000 "RACON B" beacon was on the fritz, Caltrans officials replaced it one day later. But that beacon failed as well, and was replaced Jan. 28. That third beacon also failed, and is emitting only a faint signal.

The silver lining is that the latter two beacons are still on warranty. Also, more importantly, you will note that no ships have recently struck the bridge.

Caltrans spokesman Myeast McCauley notes that, in addition to the (malfunctioning) beacons, ships navigating the bay are aided by lights, fog signals, and buoys. They're also equipped with radar, GPS systems, and actual human beings perched on the bow who'll grow agitated if you're approaching a bridge.

McCauley adds that, while Caltrans has maintained beacons on the Bay Bridge since 1992, it does so because it chooses to: "Caltrans is not mandated to have RACONs on the bridge."

While beacons can be of great assistance in foul weather, San Francisco wasn't exactly a beacon of foul weather in January: For the first time in 165 years, the city received no rain at all. If you're searching for more silver linings, this dryness should have helped with regard to bay fog: The high pressure systems accompanying parched weather often lead to offshore winds, which blow low-lying moisture westward to the open ocean.

But predicting fog is beguiling: Per the Western Regional Climate Center, San Francisco Bay's dry January of 2015 was actually foggier than nearly any in recent memory. Last month, San Francisco International Airport recorded 23 foggy days (with visibility of three-quarters of a mile or less) and six heavily foggy days (with visibility of one-quarter of a mile or less). That's up from 10 foggy days and one heavily foggy day in January 2014 and 11 foggy days and zero heavily foggy days in January 2013. Meanwhile, at Oakland International Airport, there were 23 foggy days last month and four heavily foggy days. That, too, is up from January 2014 (23 foggy, one heavily foggy) and January 2013 (14 foggy, 2 heavily foggy).

As to why this is — and why the beacons keep failing — nobody has the foggiest.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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