The group of paddlers I joined was planning on paddling out to Alcatraz Island, waiting for the QM2 there and using the ebb tide to pull us back towards the bridge and our cars. We arrived at Alcatraz early and even after circumnavigating it on a beautiful sunny day we still had an hour before the cruise ship arrived. What to do with ourselves? One group decided to paddle over to San Francisco and look at the empty pier where the ship would dock. Joe Petolino, Glen Nunez and I decided to paddle directly to Aquatic Park and land on the sandy beach there for a snack.
While crossing over to San Francisco I saw puffs of dark smoke rising over the city. I feared that there was a fire somewhere. Next I saw white water boiling out from under the stern of the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, the Liberty Ship normally moored at Pier 45. The smoke was coming from her stacks and finally I noticed that there were hundreds of people lining her decks, heading out to greet the QM2!
As we approached the beach we saw two guys strip down to shorts and jump in the water. The ocean has been unusually cold the last few weeks and we were hearing stories about Dolphin Club members, who regularly swim in The Bay, hesitating to jump in. Watching these two tourists, I predicted that they would only be in the water for 30 seconds. If anyone had taken me up on that bet I would have lost because they jumped out after only 12 seconds. We talked to them and they turned out to be classical musicians from the Czech Republic on a break from playing in the Bay Area.
With only a half an hour before the QM2 was supposed to arrive, we jumped back in our kayaks. There was a lot of boat traffic and all of it heading towards the gate. Joe and Glen started talking about hanging out near the San Francisco shore where it was safer. But I figured we would have more fun farther out. I also saw that the ebb tide was becoming strong and we might not make it back to Horseshoe Cove if we didn’t head across soon. I took off fast, ducking between sailboats and ferries. Joe and Glen saw the wisdom of my decision and followed a little behind me.
After the gauntlet of sailboats near the waterfront, the bay opened up and was empty across the middle but for the occasional supertanker or cargo freighter. I heard the horn from one going north way over near Berkeley. I knew that it would be turning near Angel Island and heading out the gate but figured I would have time to get across the shipping channel before it passed me. I paddled hard, watching the parallax change on the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. When the freighter made the turn I hoped to see their right side which would tell me it was aiming behind me. But after it made the turn I could still see a sliver of their LEFT side! It was still pointed in front of my bow! I paddled harder and eventually saw the ship go behind me. Joe and Glen watched it pass in front of them before crossing the channel. Glen says that he barely made it across without getting sucked out under the bridge by the current. He can’t believe he did something so foolish as “follow Mike Higgins”.
When I arrived back at Horseshoe Cove there were dozens of kayakers hanging out in front of the cove waiting for the QM2. We tracked down all the people from our original group and waited. The great ship was an hour and a half later than we expected and we had time for several kayakers, Fred Cooper and Mary Ann Furda, to get sucked out around Lime Point and under the Golden Gate Bridge. There they discovered that the current was too strong to paddle back. So they enjoyed the arrival of the QM2 from the other side of The Bridge and landed at Kirby Cove later.
The Queen Mary 2 came under the bridge with the traditional fire boat salute, the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien and thousands of other smaller boats trying to all squeeze under the Golden Gate Bridge at once. The sky was full of helicopters including several Coast Guard birds that were probably pulling their hair out trying to make this zoo “safe”.
I predicted that our two lost kayakers would land at Kirby Cove and volunteered to drive over there and give them a ride back to their cars. But when I got to the Presidio Yacht Club where my car was parked, I found the whole neighborhood grid locked. Not only was it Stupid Bowl Sunday, but tens of thousands of people had trickled in all day long to watch the Queen Mary 2 come under the gate. When they all got in their cars to leave at the same time, none of them could get out. We heard one traffic report that predicted it would take two hours to clear.
So we settled down in the parking lot and had a tailgate party while we waited. It was an unusually warm winter evening with clear skies across the bay to admire the lights of the QM2 slowly moving into dock.