East Brother Island, July 13th 1997.

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When I met Joan on Drakes Estero the day before, she invited me to come along with her to a birthday party on the East Brother Island. This island is a rock in the San Francisco bay that has had a lighthouse on it for decades. Currently it is a Bed and Breakfast. I have paddled around this island before and long wanted to land on it. I did not know the "birthday boy" but jumped at the chance to get invited to land here.

I meet Joan and four other BASKers at China Camp State Beach in San Rafael at 10:30 AM. We launched at 11:00 and headed southwest bast The Sister islands. We turned into a strong unseasonable wind from the southwest. To get to the Brother Islands we had to paddle across the strait to Point San Pablo. This involved plowing over the largest wind swell I have ever paddled over on The Bay. As the only kayak without a rudder I was afraid that I would have a lot of trouble with my boat. But the wind and wind-driven-waves blew directly into our faces. This is one of the few stable angles this kayak will stay at in very rough conditions, so I was able to keep up with everyone else.

We paddled into the lee of the island and stopped there to rest for a minute. One at a time we zipped around the southwest corner of the island to make a "seal landing" on the rocks. There were plenty of people on the island already to help catch the kayaks as we nosed in for a landing. Everyone else had come to the island on the regular boat and we six (two double kayaks and two singles) were the first people to arrive by a more hardy route. Then Kendal arrived a few hours later. He had paddled his kayak from Bolinas. He paddled fifteen kilometers south to the mouth of The Bay, then thirty kilometers northeast to get to East Brother Island. (The last 30 km he did have a tail wind). We spotted him from the lighthouse on the roof only a few kilometers away as he came under the Richmond Bridge past Red Rock Island. Now that is the hardy route to get to a birthday party on this island!

When we landed on the island, there was a downy (but still large) baby sea gull wandering around on the between the kayaks stacking up above the highest tide line. Penny Wells warned us that they will hop into your kayak if you leave the hatches open. I had been under the impression that sea gulls raised their young far from the coast and have never seen one before! Later we saw two baby ostercatchers. The cormorants were more shy and stayed far away from us on nearby West Brother Island. If they had baby chicks as well we never saw them.

I had a lot of fun wandering around the small East Brother Island. We got to peek into all the bedrooms and climb up to the top of the lighthouse, a small third floor on an otherwise two story building. From up there we had views around the bay and down onto the center of the island which is a concrete collection field around a cistern. The collection field is a small central "patio" around the white dome of the cistern. On this day it was covered with sea gull droppings, but I leaned that the water on the island is regularly tested and passes county requirements.

In winter the storms wash off the collection field while the water is allowed to drain into the bay. Then wooden plugs are re-arranged to allow the water from the next rainstorm to flow into the cistern. This system is still used today to supply all the water for the bed and breakfast inn and the resident hosts. This small concrete patio has been sufficient for years, except during the bad drought we had recently. Then when the cistern ran dry, the owners developed a plan for re-filling it: They made a weighted hose system on a spool and unrolled it across the channel to the mainland on the back of a boat. The hose floated until filled with water which would make it sink. Unfortunately a barge came by while they were still hooking up the hose. They tried to warn off the tug pushing the barge, but it could not stop on short notice. They hooked the hose up as fast as possible and got it to sink deep enough for the barge to pass over in time. But the tug captain reported them to the Coast Guard. The Guard came over and told them they could never block a traffic channel like that again. However, since the hose was in place already, they were allowed to fill the cistern this one time before pulling it up. Fortunately the drought ended before the cistern ran dry again.

In the fog horn equipment building, there was a beautiful Frenel lens system sitting on the floor. I asked if this was the old lens from the lighthouse, but the answer was no. This was a lens recovered from a different lighthouse, but the same type that used to be on East Brother. The original one was destroyed by vandals during the years that the island was abandoned. The current light in the house is owned and maintained by the Coast Guard and is a much more modern light.

After the birthday party, we all sat around a long time waiting for the weather to improve. The tide reversed and started flowing strongly between the East and West Brother Islands. The wind died down a little bit in the afternoon, however, the tide was really coming in and the combination of the higher tide, the wind, waves, and current made our landing spot look pretty scary for a launch. Almost everyone carried their kayaks over to the lee side of the island and lowered them down into the water. (With a peanut gallery up on the island shouting "JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!") I didn't want to bother with all the carrying and lowering, so I carried my kayak (with help from just one other guest) down to the south edge of the rock near where we landed. I found a solid place to plant my foot under water and waited for a calm time in the waves. Someone handed me my paddle, I shoved the boat away from shore, and jumped out onto it. I swung my feet into the pockets and paddled into the wind. In control and safely away from the rocks! I was willing to turn back and paddle with the current, wind, and waves closer to shore than I launched from.

We paddled across the current but more-or-less with the wind and waves across the channel and close to the Sister Islands and the point. Near to shore the wind died down and we hugged the shore to keep the evening sun from glaring in our eyes. We made a calm and easy landing on China Camp Beach around 8:00 PM in the evening, just before sunset.

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All text and images Copyright © 1997 by Mike Higgins / contact