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Kayaking Into San Francisco
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Kayaking Into San Francisco
get up before dawn and I’m nervous. The plan is to paddle a kayak into San Francisco from Bolinas ( see map), something I’d been talking about doing for years, and for a variety of reasons, it’s now or never. Conditions couldn’t be better: the swell is small, the weather calm, I have a 16’ ocean kayak, my friend and kayak master Michael Jeneid had taken on a grueling test run earlier in the week, so here goes.
by Lloyd Kahn
I stash my wetsuit in the front hatch, take about a gallon of water, 4 hi-protein snack bars, a piece of barbecued steak. In the back hatch I put some dry clothes, my wallet, 3 flares and a freon horn (for possible trouble in the Gate).
In Bolinas there is a channel from the lagoon out into the ocean and I get down there about 6:30 and unload the kayak. Drive the truck back to my house, then hurriedly walk the mile and a half back to the beach. The idea is to go on my own power from my doorstep into SF.
The channel is an easy place to launch from, as you can get set up (spray skirt on) and going without ocean turbulence. The trouble is that then you have to get through the breaking waves into the open ocean. I don’t know how this kayak will work in punching through waves. Luckily the surf is really small and I only have to go through a couple of small waves. Whew! Out into the foggy early morning ocean off Stinson beach, and awaaay we go.
© 2000 Lloyd Kahn
It seems to take a fairly long time to get to the end of Stinson, but by then I am warmed up and rolling along well. The Looksha IV kayak skims along. I use the foot pedals to steer with the rudder. The big rocks at the end of Stinson, Red Rocks beach, Steep Ravine beach, the cabins at Rocky Point. The water is glassy, like a lake. Lucky.
The coast looks so different from the water. Surfers and especially fishermen know this. The ridge, the north flank of Mt. Tamalpais, is spectacular, with the golden autumn California hills, and canyons running down to the ocean where there are watersheds. The rock faces of the ocean cliffs change colors, textures, and height as you head south.
Pretty soon I’m off Slide Ranch, then the steep oceanside cliff just north of Muir Beach. I’m putting the dots together since I’ve been running on coastal trails between Slide Ranch, Muir Beach, and Tennessee Valley lately, and here is how it looks from the water.
There’s a huge rock south of Rocky Point, with hundreds of pelicans on it. It’s an awesome site, this mass of pelicans standing with long bills pointed downward. I get a little past the rock and stop to adjust some gear. I don’t notice that I’ve drifted closer to the rock until there a mass exodus of pelicans, they’re wheeling around above me. Suddenly, splat! It hits the water all around me and then my head. Shit upon. Literally. Luckily I have a hat on. Makes me think of “The Birds,” which had been on TV recently.
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he trip goes well. I want to land and stretch but worry about getting rolled in the shorebreak before I can jump out of the kayak, so I pass on Muir beach and Pirate’s Cove. Fort Cronkhite has a big sandy beach but I skip that because I see guys out surfing and Michael has told me he did an end-over-end landing there one day.
Finally, at about 3-1/2 hours I come around Pt. Bonita (the lighthouse), and can see the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time a thrill! and head for Kirby’s Cove, which is the last landable spot before the Gate. I go into the beach and stretch very stiff muscles, have the piece of steak and some water and a protein candy bar and look around. It’s around noon. There’s an old brick tunnel, maybe 4’ high, that goes through to a place about 200 feet back behind the beach. The floor of the tunnel is also brick. I climb up and over the bluff and lo and behold there’s a huge dug-into-the-ground fortlike concrete structure. I’ve seen the old pillboxes that dot the Marin coastal hills and that were built during WWII, but this is an immense thing and doesn’t look like a pillbox. Below on a lower level are windows with bars in the 2 foot thick walls, looking into dark dungeon-like rooms. Creepy.
I find a ranger and he tells me there were two big guns there that were eventually dismantled during WWII when the military realized an attack would more likely come by air than by sea. When I tell him about my kayak adventure, he says, “Yeah, I saw a guy in a kayak out here the other day, it looked like a toothpick!”
I see a big tanker come through the Gate, and wisps of fog start to move into the city from the bay, so I get back in the water and get going. I don’t want to be crossing in the fog. I get in the cockpit, snap down the spray skirt and get a guy on the beach to launch me into the water. Toothpick, I’m thinking. Great, and here comes the tricky part.
The wind is starting to blow, and the tide is still going out for another few hours, but I figure I’ll go under the bridge, paddle a ways along the north side and then start across. If the tide starts taking me out the Gate, I’ll angle back over to the Marin side and wait for the tide to start coming in.
Coming up to and under the bridge sitting on this little boat is awesome. (Sorry, but this was an awesome day.) The bridge is beautiful from any angle, and here the fog is covering the SF third of it but the Marin side is in the bright sun. The orange color is perfect. The scale from near-water level is immense. The water gets a bit choppier here and I go under the bridge with numerous looks upwards. There are disconcerting noises: as the vehicles hit the steel roadbed, it sounds like something is loose.
Once under the bridge, I paddle into the bay right along the north coast. Here is where I’m most nervous, getting across the Gate without being run down by a tanker, capsized by rough waters, or swept out into the ocean by the outgoing tide. I get far enough in, and then turn south and start paddling hard. The water is rough enough to keep me on edge. I keep an eye on the bridge above to chart my progress. Pretty soon I’m at mid-span. Hey, I’m gonna make it! The wind is blowing in from the ocean and it must compensate for the tide going out because I hold my course and pretty soon am in calmer waters and heading along the coast at Chrissy Field. All right!
There are hundreds of sailboats of various sizes in the bay, skimming along, tacking and turning with the wind. Turns out it’s a regatta day. There are three or four America’s Cup type boats, with serious hardworking crews of over a dozen sailors hanging off one side, pulling on winches serious sailing stuff. There are fishing boats, a few high-powered speedboats, some elegant gentlemen’s yachts, a lone windsurfer flying along, jumping over the chop. It’s an instant community, a maritime village for-a-day, and it obviously takes awareness to avoid collisions: every crew has to watch everything happening out here, what everyone else is doing. Competence.
’m elated, and pretty tired. It’s been about 5+ hours on the water. I decide to head for Aquatic Park. I get a great view of the northern city waterfront. Anywhere there’s a pier there are fishermen. I go past the SF Yacht Club, the harbor at Marina Greens, the buildings on piers at Fort Mason and finally around Muni Pier into the little sheltered cove in Aquatic Park. Home of the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club. Pull kayak up on beach, get into some dry clothes, head off in search of food. I’m hungry. At a food stand built to resemble a cable car I get a great Polish with sauerkraut on a fresh roll, load it up with chopped onions, relish and spicy mustard. A gourmet meal!
I walk by the maritime museum and decide to look in. It’s a great art deco building, brilliantly designed and it looks wonderful today. Granite floors sparkle, the brass used for trim inside and out is shined. The first thing I see on walking in, on the right, is a meticulous 4-foot long model of the huge German sailing ship, the Pruessen. Built in 1902, the Pruessen was a 400 foot long (!) steel hull, five-masted square-rigger that hauled 8000 tons of cargo at a speed of 20 knots. I count 44 sails. The largest sailing ship ever built without motors, it was called “The Pride of Prussia. A marvel and a wonder. (It sunk in a collision in the English channel in 1910.) The model must have taken years to make. It was done by a San Francisco model maker who worked and lived along the waterfront and obviously loved the boat. The five spars are fashioned out of old pool cues.
I have about an hour until my wife picks me up in my truck, and I start looking around the museum. It is intelligently and immaculately planned and conceived. We do after all live on the Pacific coast, and here is the rich maritime history of San Francisco and the north coast.
There’s a wonderful exhibit, the story of a sailing boat loaded with cargo from China wrecking along the Mendocino coast. The coastal Pomos came upon the wreck took as much cargo as they could. Soon, Chinese pottery and lacquered furniture was being traded among Pomo villages. In the 1960s some divers discovered the wreck. Then a few years later an archaeologist found Chinese pottery in a Pomo dig. In the display, there’s a reconstructed redwood-bark Pomo tipi, with pottery fragments on the earth floor, to show what the archaeologist found.
There are a lot of beautiful ship models, including one of the Flying Cloud, the great American clipper ship, that, in 1852 (during the gold rush), sailed from New York City around Cape Horn to San Francisco in 89 days, a record never beaten. And then along came steam.
There are great photos of the ferry boats of the bay, including one that ferried an entire train across the Carquinez Straits. And the elegant San Rafael ferry, with enclosed paddlewheel, built in New York and shipped around the Horn and assembled in San Francisco.
There’s a unique set of panoramas of early San Francisco, showing hundreds of sailing vessels in the bay. Just as I’m about to leave I see a small sailboat on exhibit. There’s a write-up about a 23 year old Japanese guy who sailed single-handedly in a 19-foot homemade plywood sloop from Japan to San Francisco, some 5000 miles, in 1962, arriving unexpected and unannounced at the Golden Gate. It’s a beautiful little boat, immaculately maintained. It took him 94 days, and was the first solo North Pacific crossing. Inspiring.
his is turning out to be a pretty good day. It’s sunny and warm, and the tourists are down from summer max. Turns out is the SF Blues Festival is in the neighborhood and you can hear it clearly here. Sounds like Joe Louis Walker. What next? I look around and see the Buena Vista Cafe and darned if it doesn’t seem like time for an Irish coffee. I go in. I’m wearing my “Retired Stinson Beach Lifeguard Assn” t-shirt and a pretty strange looking floppy sun-protection hat. No alternatives, that’s all the clothing I’ve got.
I sit at the bar and point to one of the glasses lined up behind the bar. In the BV when you do this or say “I’ll have one,” it means an Irish coffee. The bartender lines up about four glasses, and makes 4 Irish coffees lightning fast. Coffee, two lumps of sugar, a big shot of whiskey, and a half-inch of whipped cream floating on top. A justifiably famous drink.
I ask the bartender, “What kind of whiskey you use?”
He gives me a look. “What else can be? Is Irish coffee…Irish whiskey!” Duh.
In spite of my dumb question we start talking. The drink was invented in 1952 by the owner of the BV and Stanton Delaplane, the Chronicle columnist. The trick was to get the cream to float on top. Cream in those days was heavy and it would sink. They consulted the mayor, George Christopher, who owner a dairy and they ended up aging the cream for 48 hours and voila! It floated. These days they put the cream in a blender for a minute to make it float.
We start talking. He tells me they serve about 2200 Irish coffees per day. They have their own brand of Irish whiskey. He says he’s been in the city 40 years. I tell him I grew up here, that my grandfather had a bait and tackle shop on Polk in the early 1900s, that I got summer jobs working as a carpenter on the waterfront, shoring ship’s cargos. “You Italian?” he says.
go back down to the waterfront and climb the stairs to the roof of the circular building next to the Dolphin’s Club. It’s warm in the sun, but not hot. I can keep an eye on my kayak down on the beach below, watch for Lesley to show up in the truck, and hear the Blues Festival music as it rolls across the cove.
Two days later I go over to my brother Bob’s house. I tell him all this, and I get to the part about the Japanese guy in a sloop, and he says, “Oh, you mean Ken’ichie Horie. Yeah, I towed him out to sea in 1986, he had an 10’ sailboat.”…Huh?
Yes, he said, he met Horie at the SF Yacht Club, in ‘86, 24 years after the solo Pacific crossing. Horie was sailing this tiny boat from SF to Japan, and the day he left, there was no wind, so Bob towed him out through the Gate with his Grand Banks 32. Bob said he had tears in his eyes as he watched the tiny boat head out into the open ocean. (He made it.)
Bob went on, “Then we sailed out with him when he sailed his beer-keg boat to Japan.”…What?
Yes, Horie had then sailed a 32-foot catamaran built out of small stainless steel beer kegs to Japan, and Bob and a bunch of other people from the yacht club had sailed out in their boats alongside him. (This time there was wind.) When was this, I asked. “Last year, 1999…”
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