Monday, September 25, 2017

I've seen the Golden Gate from both sides now

Before a paddle under the fog-draped icon of San Francisco Bay…

 …our leader asked, “What are your goals today?” An easy one for me: “I want to paddle out the Gate – and I would prefer to come back.” As it turned out, that would be the right goal for a kayaker who ended the day feeling nearly as time-worn as the span that symbolizes San Francisco.

Thousands of kayakers have paddled under the Gate, and they’ve done it many thousands of times. I bet all of them remember their first trip. For me, the allure had little to do with kayaking and everything to do with another trip under the Gate in 1943.

It was a clear night. A troop transport ship chugged out of the Bay carrying hundreds of  soldiers. Including a 19-year-old, Blue Ridge Mountain farm boy. He had never traveled 

A paddler's wish comes true: "...and I would prefer to come back"
more than ten miles from home before he volunteered for the Army. Below decks, the heat from jammed bodies was so stifling that men were allowed to sleep on deck. “I could see all the stars in the sky – and then suddenly it all went dark as we passed under 
the Golden Gate,” Dad recalled years later, awe still in his voice. My own Gate voyage began with those nostalgic thoughts and ended very much in the present.

It began on a unsettling note. Even an hour's drive away from the bridge in late July (erroneous time stamp on video), a cold, westerly wind blasted straight into the Bay. That gave pause even before we launched from Horseshoe Cove, just inside the North Tower.

Swells became larger as we moved out the Bay 
I kept reassuring myself that favorable tides and adrenaline would pull me through. A seven- or eight-mile paddle was not that unusual. We had an experienced paddle leader. The gray gloom would surely clear. 

Lost in my own mental fog, I ignored Brank’s Fourth Law: You can survive for a week without water, but you can’t live for an hour without a rationalization.

So as wind and spray slapped our faces, we paddled into the choppy ebb tide and under that iconic rust-red span, moving roughly in parallel to the Marin Headlands toward the Point Bonita lighthouse. Leader Jennifer Yearley described the trip in a Facebook post:

“Great day on the water yesterday in our Open Coast Skills class! Three students had their first trip out the Gate, and no one had been to Point Bonita before. A direct headwind in the 12-14 knot range heading out added some interest and combined with roughly a 4-foot swell as we approached Point Diablo. Upper parts of the bridge and of the headlands themselves were hidden in fog.

“Lots of practice maneuvering close in along the rocks with the swell and surge, exploring the nooks and crannies. Assisted and self-rescue practice on the way back in the swell and chop, refining technique!

“Coming back under the bridge at max flood, with the tide race there, the wind kicked up to around 20 knots-plus as we rounded Lime Point for a whiz-bang exciting return! Really great job done by the students all the way along, and a very fun day!” she concluded.

If you hadn't figured it out already, Jennifer has a lot of spunk. I hate spunk – just kidding.

By the time we reached the Point Bonita lighthouse, exhilaration turned into exhaustion   

But I couldn't kid around about my own less-than-optimal conditioning for this paddle. I also knew full well that Bay winds usually ramp up as the day goes on. As for the 14 kn (16 mph) headwind,  Jennifer noted that it helped flatten out the swells. Oh yeah, spunk.

To me, it seemed to take a long time to paddle only about three miles out to the Point Bonita lighthouse. Which stirred up those pesky doubts again, though I gamely yelled “Yo!” whenever Jennifer checked on us. Along the way, we paddled by a couple of small fishing boats at anchor. The anglers actually applauded us.  Admiration or amusement? I wondered.

Rocky archway at Point Bonita
By the time we reached the lighthouse, waves were crashing around the rocks off the point and we didn’t hang around long. A paddle through the archway was ruled out due to the conditions.

And a good thing, too, as fatigue began to wash over me, but I didn't let on. Jennifer found a good beach on the headlands for a lunch stop. Once on the beach, I began to feel a chill set in, despite the fact I wore my heaviest thermal base layer under a drysuit. That was a bit disquieting.

Even more so after Jennifer gave us a lunchtime lesson on how kayakers should assess and manage risks. Her informal, off-the-water talks are always useful and informative. She discussed various risk factors, many involving the kind of metrics you might expect – wind speed and direction, currents, tide and timing, and the like.

But a couple of intangible risk factors really hit home to me. The first when Jennifer asked, “And what does that little voice inside you say?” Instantly, I knew. My enthusiasm had matched the conditions of the day, but not my physical stamina. I was pooped, which led to the chill, which could lead to worse. I had ignored that inner voice at the launch and again along the way. In doing so, I had failed to recognize the other immeasurable risk factor Jennifer had emphasized – good judgment.

Time to come clean, so I explained to her that I was going to take it easy for the rest of the day – no practice rescue reentries, thank you – to focus on conserving energy for paddling the return leg. She expressed both concern and support, and offered to supply an extra layer of warmth, but I felt fine once we began paddling again.

Some big company, but at a safe distance
And my more focused sense of judgment provided an uneventful – yet challenging – return through swirling waters under the Gate.

Still, it was disappointing to have a sub-par paddle, even after reassurance from Jennifer that all went well. Later on, I began to feel better when I came across this: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.”

(This class was organized by River and Ocean, a team of Northern California kayaking coaches and guides. Check the Web site for classes and trips.)   

© Glenn Brank, 2017