Gonzo Paddle, March 19th 2011

The day before the Gonzo I crashed at a friends boat in Saucalito (Thanks Phil!). I could not get on the Internet to check conditions again in the morning. I had checked the weather on Friday and the forecast was that Saturday would be a mild day between storms with very little rain. There should be a small wind from the west in the morning and 10 knot winds from the south the rest of the day. The longest and hardest part of our day was supposed to be the trip north and this wind should help us. There should be a huge ebb in the afternoon to help us paddle into that wind.

On the beach at 6:00 AM the moon was shining on us from between patchy clouds. The first surprise of the day was the swell. As we paddled out of Horseshoe Cove some big 8 foot rollers came in under the gate and picked us up. The wind was not out of the west but from the south already, and it turned to come at us around every land mass.

One pleasant surprise was the flood, which was much stronger than I expected. After we passed Alcatraz Island the flood pulled us past Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands at over 4 miles an hour even into the teeth of the wind and a rainsquall. Of course when wind and a tide oppose each other you get big “standing” waves. I didn't mind plowing through these because my GPS told me I was making good progress. This course brought several of us around the main shipping channel.

My GPS lead me to the northern-most tip of Alameda, an island that has never been on the Gonzo before. I expected to find a pile rocks there. We would tap them with our paddles and turn north. But tucked into the rocks was a little sandy beach and some of us landed and got out to pee. There have been arguments in past about how to count coup on islands during the Gonzo. If I circumnavigate an island in the course of the day, or even paddle between two related islands, like The Brothers, I say I have bagged those islands. Dave Littlejohn (who could not come this year) claims you have to touch each island with your hand or it doesn't count. But there can be no argument with Alameda Island: It is the right shade of yellow and has our scent on it now.

I grounded my kayak on the beach but drifted back off and the current started pulling me into the Alameda channel. So I turned and started across the channel and worked my way around the docks on the other side. I talked with Dennis Holton (Woody) on the VHF a few minutes later as they launched. I started north and went under the Bay Bridge against some of the flood that was still against me. Several other paddlers went closer to Treasure Island than me and reported having a hard time with the flood. As I got farther north of the bridge the tide died down and the wind predominated, helping to push me on my way. The fetch became longer and wind waves developed. I only got real surf rides on these waves once or twice, but they still helped a lot. Facing up a wave I would look down and see 4 miles an hour on the GPS, facing down a wave I would see 6 miles an hour!

I stopped paddling for a minute as I crossed the line of the old Berkeley Pier and looked back. I picked up my VHF and announced where I was and that I saw two kayakers behind me. Nobody answered me but I figured they were too busy paddling. Before I made it to Brooks Island Doug Huft caught up with me and we rounded Bird Island together. I looked back and saw another kayaker coming. Again I announced where I was and got no answer.

Here's where everyone was at this time as I reconstructed it later. John Boeschen and Phil Safer in a double had pulled ahead of everyone. They were probably at Red Rock or already leaving there. Kevin Morey was the kayaker approaching Brooks and Bird Island. Woody had become separated from Doug and Kevin and was heading straight for Red Rock (skipping Brooks and Bird). Tim Yarish (The Mayor) and Johan Niklasson had stopped for a break at Yerba Buena and had been the last to touch Alameda. Then Tim's rudder cable broke as they headed north past Treasure. Without a rudder, Tim had to work incredibly hard to keep his boat from turning across the wind. He and Johan also decided to go straight up-wind to Red Rock and avoid Brooks Island entirely. Once you turn the corner at Bird Island, you have to travel down the length of the Brooks Island spit across the wind trying to push you into the brick-brack. With a rudder (or a well tracking boat like Doug's) this trip down the spit was surprisingly easy. We zoomed across this stretch at over 4 miles an hour without working too hard.

When we turned the corner at the end of the spit and started across the mouth Richmond Channel, every tugboat in the bay suddenly changed course to enter that channel. Doug and I sprinted to the middle of the channel where there was a red marker. I assumed that an incoming tug would go around their right side of the red marker behind us, but this one was headed left of the marker, still across our path. So I turned and paddled perpendicular to my desired heading and let him go past. There was a tug pushing a barge that I had seen earlier heading north and thought was not a problem. But it started turning as if it was heading in the Richmond channel. I guessed it would follow the first tug in so I turned farther left. But every time I turned a little more left, the barge turned again and headed towards me. I would have given up and turned right but a third tug came in from the north and paralleled the barge. Doug convinced me that we could probably dash across the channel in front of them (with the wind helping us). This probably would have worked without help, the barge did go behind us without stopping. The third tug probably would have missed us but they throttled back just to make sure. Then they yelled at us on the megaphone “You are out of your f---ing minds!”. I chose to think they were commenting on us being on the water at all, not for crossing in front of them.

The crossing to Red Rock was down wind and with the flood so we made good time. There was a rip around the corner of the island with big standing waves, then a calm beach to land at for a break. We looked behind us and Kevin was no-where to be seen. Several people tried to contact Kevin with several different VHF radios, but we did not hear any answer. Later we found out that he decided to get out at the Richmond Yacht Harbor. He called us on the VHF and tried to tell us but we did not hear him. Tim decided to use the flood to get to China Camp where he could call for a ride back to his truck. As we started under the Richmond Bridge we saw the Coast Guard helicopter buzzing back and forth across the bay and several of their boats. They were looking for a sailboat reported sinking. Doug and I discussed it for a while and eventually decided to contact the Coast Guard and tell them about our missing kayaker Kevin.

We ran into another group of kayakers including Dave Littlejohn who came over to talk. His group was doing the “Classic Gonzo”, just riding the flood north and the ebb south without trying to hit all the islands. They were working hard to go south against the wind and tide. I had been in a hurry all day and all day I had seen us get farther behind schedule. Answering the same questions over and over again to the Coast Guard slowed us down even more. I was in a hurry and worried about our time because the ebb tide was due to start at 2:00 PM and it usually starts earlier in rainy weather. But to my relief the flood tide was lasting longer than I expected and we still had help going north between the Sister Islands and even up around Rat Rock, island number 12. As we approached China Camp to stop for lunch we met John and Phil in the double, they were already starting back.

I hesitate to call the Coast Guard because they are like bull-dogs, you CAN'T call them off. The first people back called them and told them that Kevin's car was gone, so he must be home by now. That is not good enough for them! They wanted to talk to him. They wanted contact information for him that we did not have. They wanted our cell phone numbers. Despite the fact that we told them cell phones will not work until late tonight they called mine twice while I was on the water. I didn’t even hear it ring in a dry-box inside my boat.

Calling the Coast Guard is always a huge time sink. First they want you to stand still while they interview you. I didn't mind that too much going north to China Camp because the flood was still pushing us the right direction. Then they call you back on the VHF and interview you some more. Then when we landed at China Camp they dropped someone off on the dock who came to interview us. Then he handed his cell phone to Doug and let the SF office interview him for another half hour. Then they had to pull over and talk to us from a cutter later in the day and ask us for our cell phones again. While the wind pushed them into us and threatened to knock us over.

Coastie: "Please tell me your cell phone number"
Me: "I already gave you my cell phone number"
Coastie: Yes sir, what is your cell phone number?"
Me: "We're the ones that reported a kayaker missing earlier"
Coastie: "Yes sir. What is you cell phone number"
Me: "Do you listen to anything I say?"
[I really didn't say that, it is easier to give them my f---ing cell phone number again]

My friends all know I have little respect for authority figures. Especially the Coast Guard since they became part of Home Land Security. I DO NOT FEEL MORE SECURE. They guy who came ashore at China Camp? He was wearing more Kevlar than all our boats and paddles put together. He left his helmet on the boat and stood around in a military buzz cut in the rain (so he would not look so intimidating he said). He was not allowed to step inside the old building there with us out of the rain because he could not get out-of-site of the crew on his boat, especially in an enclosed space with an unknown group of people. (He told us this; I'm not making that up). They probably had their guns trained on us from the boat. The Coast Guard used to consider us all idiots, now that they are "military" it is worse, they consider us to be <sneer>>civilians</sneer>, the true enemies of all military personnel. He considered himself extended into enemy territory to be standing on a beach with a bunch of tired kayakers.

When we finally got back on the water it was around 2:30 PM. But this was supposed to be the easy part of the trip. We had already done 26 miles of the 40 mile route. There was supposed to be a big ebb in the afternoon. The ebb should be bigger than normal due to the rain the last week. But there was no ebb! We kind of expected to have to work to get to the Marin Islands, but hoped to pick up the current again by the time we got to the Richmond Bridge. We crawled along at 2.5 miles per hour into the teeth of the wind and it took 6 hours of this to get back to Horseshoe Cove. We never saw any hint of the current until we arrived at the mouth of Raccoon Strait. There we saw big standing waves as the wind opposed the current. Inside the strait the wind died down for a while and we got a welcome respite. Then the wind hit us in the face again as we made the crossing to yellow bluff. Again we looked forward to riding the big rip current at Yellow Bluff only to find a strange current pushing us back and towards Sausalito. The Golden Gate Bridge was supposed to come out behind Yellow Bluff but instead we watched the tops of the tower moving backwards as we were pushed to the right. Tim hypothesizes that there may have been a current going out underneath, but the wind pushed the surface current backwards into us.

The last few years we have been lucky with calm weather for the Gonzo paddle. I have wondered what it would be like to do this long paddle in bad weather. If I had better weather predictions for the day I would have called it off. But it is good to know that we can paddle long distances in terrible weather if we try.

All text and images Copyright © 2011 by Mike Higgins / contact