Saturday, May 23, 2015

Under the Golden Gate

I come back to the sea. In my case it is usually San Francisco Bay, than which no lustier, tougher, sheet of water can be found for small-boat sailing. It really blows on San Francisco Bay. During the winter, which is the best cruising season, we have southeasters, southwesters, and occasional howling northers. Throughout the summer we have what we call the "sea-breeze," an unfailing wind off the Pacific that on most afternoons in the week blows what the Atlantic Coast yachtsmen would name a gale. ---Jack London

When I think back on all those places I have ever wanted to kayak. I would dream of clear forest lakes, whitewater in a rocky mountain canyon and a sea view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
It is undeniably one the greatest views ever. The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon of America. As I began unloading my kayak into Horseshoe Bay just to the north of the bridge, even in the early morning hours,  folks have already begun to congregate at the water's edge with their eyes fixed on the bridge in reverence.
It is a calm and beautiful morning. Out of the safety of Horseshoe Bay, I have heard about what  challenges await. San Francisco Bay is legendary to the sea kayaker. Some of the wildest sea conditions on the entire West Coast can be found just past that sea wall. The bay is known for steep waves, fast and swirling currents and howling winds blowing through that Golden Gate. The last time my paddling partner, Erik Allen and I paddled the bay we faced a tiring wind on the return trip. I laughed at it anyway.
"You have never paddled Lake of the Woods at Zipple Bay, have you." I told Erik, and then exaggerated just a little, "They use a log chain for a wind sock there."
Erik might have been concerned about the wind,  however I'm worried about the tides and currents. Sea kayaking is still a foreign language to me. Ebbs, slacks, floods and tide tables make up words in a sea kayaker's secret code. A flood tide makes it easier to paddle out while ebb will aid in the return. Finding the ideal time optimal for one's paddling experience.
Adding to even more the chaos are the pleasure crafts, ferries and ocean-going vessels competing for the same waterway. All of these factors should be considered when paddling in the bay and caution should always be exercised.


I picked a good time to paddle. It is early and the winds are light and the tide is in my favor.  I'm going solo across to Angel Island to join my camping party for an overnight on the island. They came the day before and I will be joining them. My kayak is loaded up with my camping gear, a change of clothes and assortment of freeze-dried foods and power bars.
My heart races as I exit the Horseshoe Bay and enter the swells of the ocean. It is an exhilarating feeling as I round Yellow Bluff, a 90 foot cliff just of east of Horseshoe Bay. The waves crash gently against its walls. I enjoy views of seals bobbing their heads up above the surface of the water.  They are my only company so far. It is way to early for ferryboats. Their traffic won't begin till mid morning. I stay along the shore for a while before making a northeastern turn towards Angel Island's Stuart's Point. To my left is Richardson Bay and Sausalito, to my right,  Alcatraz Island and San Francisco while behind me is the Golden Gate Bridge. Straight ahead is Angel Island silhouetted against the sun. Its dark mass rises out of a hazy glow.
It's a little less than 3 miles across to it. The island looms larger and larger with each stroke. I spot a few fisherman and sailboats on the horizon. It is an easy paddle till I catch the swell of and rapid water of Raccoon Straights. It pushes me past Stuart Point and towards the kayak in campsite. In the grass I catch sight of my party's kayaks nestled in the grass. Up the hill,  I'm just in time for breakfast.

The day had just begun. After unloading my gear and quick breakfast I'm back on the water again with the group of paddlers. We make a quick trip across Raccoon Straights to Tiburon followed by a trip back through the straights and around the island.
  Angel Island is the bay's second largest island. It's about five miles to hike around which gives me idea of the distant I will paddle while circumnavigating the island. I team up with fellow paddler Phil Montanes for the trek around the island. I watch Phil and his kayak disappear and reappear in the bounding waves while crossing the ferryboat lanes to Stuart's Point. Going around the west end of the island we take on the full brunt of the bay's winds. At times we don't even seem to be moving. We paddle hard past the rocky ledge before the bay winds decrease. From there, we sweep along the south side of the island, where we have the best views of Alcatraz and the cityscape of San Francisco. After Blunt Point, the bay is as calm a Minnesota lake on summer's afternoon. The eastern side of the island usually offers protection against the prevailing west winds. Here we catch our breaths and pass the historic sites of the island. The fort and the immigration station stand like silent witnesses to another time. Rounding the corner again we catch the wind and the view of Ayala Cove. This where the tourists arrive and depart the island via ferry boats. We have almost made it. Just past Point Ione, we see our kayak camp's beach and the far off view of the Golden Gate.

 Part Two of my trip to Angel Island next week in Outside Adventure to the Max.