I hate crowds, so I was fairly sure the experience would be more stress than fun, especially since my sister and I chose to go on Saturday. However, we went, we saw, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I'll tell you the choices we made in terms of transportation, viewing spots, and events to make the experience more enjoyable in case this is an event you want to try in the future.
First, let's talk transportation. Driving, for me, was absolutely out of the question. After spending five hours stuck on the freeway trying and failing to make it to the McCartney Candlestick concert, I vowed to drive into San Francisco as little as possible. I also didn't want to take BART or AC Transit because I wanted a faster and less crowded trip in and out of the city. I also wanted to avoid the F line at all costs. During special events and tourist season, the F line cars are often packed so tightly that passengers are literally sealed to one another or hanging from doors. No, thank you.
Instead, I took the San Francisco Bay Ferry. There is, really, no better way to get into the city. Even when the ferry is crowded, there are amazing views and nice breezes to make one forget the noise and bustle. There are also plenty of opportunities for pictures. The ferry passes right under the Bay Bridge and pulls in to the Ferry Building and Pier 41, allowing passengers to snap pictures of the cityscape, ships, and the occasional curious seagull. The ferry ride is a bit pricier than other public transportation at $12.50 for a round trip ticket, but when one considers the combined cost of BART, bus, F line, etc., it's a pretty good deal. Plus, if you have Clipper, it's only $9.50 for a round trip.
We departed the ferry at Pier 41, which is only a short walk from the action. I wanted to do a couple tours of visiting ships docked at Piers 15/17, 19, 35, and 50. However, the lines for these tours were outrageously long, and I had seen the ships from the water on the ferry ride in. I decided to pass on the tours. Nothing can ruin an event faster than waiting in a long line in the heat.
We then strolled Pier 39. We perused booths selling Fleet Week souvenirs, and we listened to The Destroyers rocking away on the stage near the Hard Rock Café. Despite all the complaints and warnings about the crowds, I found Pier 39 no more crowded than it is during the height of tourist season.
Our next challenge was finding a place to watch the air show. Box seats were available for a hefty price, but my sister had read about numerous free locations that offered a great view. We originally intended to walk down to the beach near Crissy Field. However, the time got away from us, and the air show started while we were still at Pier 39. So we went out to the deck by The Candy Baron to check out the view, and it was perfect...especially since we no longer had to hike over to Crissy. There weren't too many people crammed into the area yet. We got a good spot behind the glass partitions that shielded us from the wind, and I had an excellent view of the Golden Gate.
The air show was better than I expected it to be. The planes from Team Oracle, Super Dave Air Shows, Lucas Oil Air Shows, and The Horseman Flight Team did not disappoint. While the fog stayed clear of the Golden Gate, they often passed under and over it. They went as high as they could before dropping straight down and buzzing the ships on the Bay, many of which honked their horns (excitement or alarm?). Sometimes it seemed a plane would crash right into a ship as it skimmed over the water. The Coast Guard helicopter also hovered over the Bay to the delight of many, and I saw the Navy Leap Frogs zig zagging down to earth.
The thrills really started with the jet teams, of course. The Patriots Jet Team was amazing. They flew in trailing red, white, and blue exhaust. Their sleek, black jets--the L-39C Albatros--were surprisingly quiet as they buzzed the ships, the bridge, each other, and occasionally the crowd. Many people mistook The Patriots for the Blue Angels and left after they were done. One woman near me said that we'd know the Angels when we heard them, and she was right.
The deafening roar of the F/A-18 Hornets definitely caught everyone's attention as the Blue Angels shot overhead toward the Golden Gate, which was covered in fog by that time. The Blue Angels played chicken, flew in formation, flew upside down, scattered and came back together...everything one hopes to see jets do. They didn't fly as low to the water as the other aircraft, and they were often out of sight more than other aircraft, but they were, of course, awesome.
The Blue Angels were followed by what appeared to be the C-130, a heavyweight that impressed me with its nimble maneuvering. Then a United 747 buzzed the Bay a few times. I was amazed by how close it got to the water and the ships and by how quiet it was.
The air show alone was worth the trip into the congested city for Fleet Week. The crowds became an issue only after the show as people filled every area restaurant. There were one- to three-hour waits at most restaurants we visited. We debated on traveling into the city for a bite, but the F line was as packed as we had expected. However, as my sister and I read the menu outside Alioto's Waterside Café on Fisherman's Wharf (she does not eat seafood), a staff member actually came out and called us in to an open table. Alioto's staff and food are amazing, and I had a great view of the Wharf while we ate. I had the crab sandwich, and my sister chose the chicken parmesan. A girl at the table next to us ordered a whole crab, or I should say, a monster crab that drew passerby in.
We wanted to stay for the fireworks, but we had been warned by people, news outlets, and even the ferry staff that it might be challenging to catch the ferry back. We were told to line up early. We decided to watch the fireworks while in line for the 9:15 ferry. The fireworks started at 8:30, and we got in line a little past 8. The line wasn't long at this time, but it quickly passed from sight as 8:30 arrived. However, as long as it was, we all got on the ferry just fine and with plenty of room to spare. And we were able to enjoy the Bay Bridge lights, Coit Tower decked in orange for the Giants, and views of the city at night on the ride back.
If done right, the event is actually pretty cheap. The air show is free, and you can pack snacks and meals to save money. Keep in mind that if you want to eat at a restaurant in the area after the show, there will be long waits at most of them. This is definitely an event you have to be flexible for. Be willing to change your plans. Also keep in mind that your experience can differ greatly depending on the mode of transportation you choose. Make sure to pack a sweater and a hat, and I recommend taking your phone charger or extra batteries for cameras. After the right preparation and with the right attitude, I would definitely count Fleet Week on my list of Bay Area Miss-Me-Nots.