Drawing Inside the Strait to a Golden Gate

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 13-14

Morning weather report: Fog. Heavy at times. Photo by John Weed.
Morning weather report: Fog. Heavy at times. Photo by John Weed.

Our ocean loop around Point Reyes the previous day had covered about 25 aquatic miles, but many of them had seemed featureless and surreal, as though we paddled within a spherical fog-globe, only a dot on a GPS screen to mark our position or progress. Today’s proposed route, from our Reyes nook to Bolinas, was a much shorter distance, about 18 miles, but any new landscape we’d pass would appear exactly the same –  a pudding of thick mist.

After a modicum, of good-natured grousing we gobbled some breakfast, packed up, and launched. Then something interesting happened: we lost Bo Barnes.

Hey, Where’d He Go?

One moment our three kayaks were bobbing around together, and I turned to talk to Weed. But when I looked back, Barnes was gone. Turned out he had glanced down at his deck to check on his own GPS, an imperceptible breeze had shoved us apart, and abruptly he’d gone invisible. Fog was that thick.

Paul McHugh paddling out from the wharf at Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

Know those small plastic whistles most kayakers wear for safety reasons? We got a chance to use ‘em. Repeated blasts echoing weirdly through the mist brought our trio back together. We set out, and after three hours passed the low clouds parted and we became able to glimpse the looming landmark of Double Point. All the fog was being shoved away now by a rare blast of easterly breeze. Looking far ahead in the direction of the Golden Gate, I caught a distant view: a huge wedge of brown, stained air emerged from the Bay Area to spread far out above the sea. It was a plume of pollution that constituted the conjoined exhalations of some five million humans, their vehicles and their industry.

The Task at Hand

The view disturbed me. However, there were much nearer phenomena that I needed to focus on. We bent our course southward to skirt the end of Duxbury Reef and slid in to make a beach landing at Bolinas on the faces of a mild swell.

Afloat o’er the foggy mystery of Drakes Bay. Photo by John Weed.
Afloat o’er the foggy mystery of Drakes Bay. Photo by John Weed.

Our day then was transformed into something that was not at all like adventurous coastal paddling. Barnes had a friend in Bolinas who’d previously agreed to rent us a comfortable house for a night; local personage Mark Frazier had arranged for us to stash our boats in a secure yard right by the beach so we didn’t have to haul them far; and Bolinas also boasted a bodacious boîte, the nearby Coast Café, ready, willing and able to ply us with juicy cheeseburgers and cold brews. Bonus: our rented house had a hot tub. Roughing it? Not hardly, not on this night. So we wound up in rather a good mood as we arose the next morning to make a quick dash down to Point Bonita and the entrance to the Golden Gate Strait.

How They Mist the Point

McHugh and Barnes give a paddle salute to the Point Bonita light. Photo by John Weed.
McHugh and Barnes give a paddle salute to the Point Bonita light. Photo by John Weed.

Except that fog had seeped back to sock in the shore with a vengeance, which felt somewhat daunting. That omnivorous blanket could hide more hazards the further south we went, due to commercial ship and recreational fishing boat (salmon season was now on) exiting and entering the bay through the Golden Gate. Very low “viz” meant a higher occurrence of problems. As it always has done.

A classic volume of local history, “Shipwrecks of the Golden Gate” (by James Delgado and Stephen Halter) observes that from the Gold Rush era well into modern times, nearly 100 vessels were lost within or near the strait. Perhaps twice that number of ships got stranded or rammed as well, yet somehow were rescued afterward.

Prior to man’s invention of electronic aids to navigation, such a robust casualty list was mainly due to a lack of visibility, unfamiliarity with the strait’s mighty tidal currents, fretful impatience on the part of ship captains, or an unholy alliance of all three elements. Economic imperatives of the time (Ross Perot’s “sucking sound” then boomed mightily out of California gold fields) drew so much sailing ship traffic that the fleet of incoming bowsprits seemed akin to a thicket of arrows aimed at the heart of San Francisco Bay. Yet once kedged or moored within, sailors and officers alike poured over ship gunnels the way lemmings do over a cartoon cliff, all determined to become rich as Croesus by shoveling, then sifting, infinite acres of mountain rock and mud in search of tiny glittering specks.

This development left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of empty ships jammed together, lashed side-by-side and bow-to-stern, along the “Frisco” waterfront – the famed Venice of Pine – and their proud, wave-carving hulls became converted to temporary warehouses, taverns, brothels or brigs, or – only occasionally and most happily for the owners – managed to be repopulated by a crew of fresh human dregs, shanghaied from the Barbary Coast. These unfortunates the captain sought to coerce out to sea well before they recovered from splitting hangovers or multiple instances of blunt force trauma to their thick skulls.

Ships abandoned on this waterfront would eventually burn, rot or be crushed under landfill as the city shoreline built outward and upward. Most such hulks remain anonymous to this day, until and unless their bones are disinterred when a basement or deep foundation gets carved out, to accommodate some new condo tower.

A Dramatic Beach Landfall

Ships that sank dramatically in or around the Golden Gate Strait, though, are remembered because each contributed a vivid page to maritime history.

Take the wreck of the S.S. Tennessee, whose name is now forever attached (much like her keel) to a rocky cove on the Marin County shore. Some of the arrows aimed at the mile-wide throat of the Golden Gate did, in fact, miss by a considerable margin. In 1853, this was the fate of the Tennessee, a new 1,275-ton wooden ship powered by both a side-wheel steam engine and a full complement of masts and sails. She was the pride of the Pacific Mail fleet, founded just five years before.

Her captain, eager to adhere to his delivery schedule, merrily steamed away through heavy fog when he spotted what he thought was Mile Rock, two miles to the westsouthwest of the Gate’s entry. Figuring himself almost home, Captain E. Mellus poured on more steam. However, an ebb current had pushed him five miles too far to the north. There was only about 60 feet of visibility at 9 a.m. on that March morning, and truth had been veiled to his eyes. What he’d really glimpsed was a knob at the end of a tall ridge on the Marin shore now known as Tennessee Point. And what he saw a few seconds later probably knitted his brows and put a lump in his throat.

Close-up view of Point Bonita’s light from the land side. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Close-up view of Point Bonita’s light from the land side. Photo by Paul McHugh.

He broke out through the fogbank to observe directly ahead no channel of open water, but a steep, sandy beach bordered by rocky bluffs. He was already trapped within the cove, with neither enough room to halt nor to come about. But credit that good captain with making a good and swift judgment. He compensated for his error by ordering full speed ahead, then rammed his ship right up onto the beach. Whereupon all passengers and crew evacuated over the bow in an orderly manner, without loss of a single life. All major goods, sacks of mail, chests of valuables, & etc. were safely off-loaded as well.

The ship herself? Not so fortunate. Before she could be dragged off by the SS Goliah and SS Thomas Hunt, sent to her rescue from San Francisco, heavy seas arrived to pound Tennessee into the sand, starting her seams, staving her ends, and sinking her. (Nowadays, at extreme low tides, the big rusty lump of her mighty engine can still be seen half-buried in the cove – presumably with a hunk of her keel pinned beneath.)

Going Straight for the Strait

Golden Gate Bridge, during the approach to Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.
Golden Gate Bridge, during the approach to Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

As our trio of sea kayaks neared the Golden Gate, we achieved a level of visibility similar to that enjoyed by Captain Mellus. We could hear surf beating against Tennessee Point, then the offshore outcrop of Bird Island, but see neither of these prominent features. We approached a bell buoy that surged and clanged, riding the swell, then watched a pair of power boats charge at speed around it with bows high and pale wakes sweeping out from their sterns. Fortunately, their skippers spotted us (we hung closely together to make a more visible clump) and veered around us.

And next, like an aged ghost appearing on Elsinore’s crenellated battlement, a tiny lighthouse at the tip of Point Bonita floated from the mist, with the vivid white spark of the beacon flashing out from its lantern room.

Barnes and I clashed our paddle blades together in a spontaneous victory salute, while Weed snapped a photo.

But we had not safely made port ourselves, not quite yet.

Ayala’s Ebb Tide Treadmill

Out here at the mouth of the Golden Gate, a decent ebb tide (3.3 knots) was about to peak. Such ebb forces had bedeviled not only Captain Mellus, but also the very first skipper to ever seek to penetrate into the bay. That was Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala commanding a 58 foot-long, square-rigged packet boat, the San Carlos, back in June of 1775. In Ayala’s case, a maximum ebb tide (above 6 knots), draining the bay at a furious pace had shoved him off toward the Farallons. It took him a full twelve hours to tack back in – by which time, of course, the day’s second ebb had started.

Our small sea kayaks boasted a unique advantage, though: we could safely paddle close to the north side of the strait, heading for Point Diablo and the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, well outside the main thrust of the current.

Snug Harbor - our camp against the bluffs at Kirby Cove.
Snug Harbor – our camp against the bluffs at Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

Barnes found an even bigger advantage. He’d paddled the Golden gate more often than Weed or I, so he knew that a strong eddy or counter-current rotated against the main force of the ebb, inside both Bonita Cove and Kirby Cove between Diablo and the bridge. So, although it seemed the long way ‘round, he found and rode on that secret stream, and shot out way ahead of the rest of us.

We made landfall on the brown sand of Kirby Cove, drew our boats up out of reach of the waves. I’d sought and won special permission from the Park Service to camp there, so I hiked up the steps to scout out the small, bowl-shaped valley and select a site. This had been an army artillery site, 1898-1934, then became re-jiggered and transfigured into a primitive Golden Gate Recreation Area campground. But the path was steep, our gear bags numerous and heavy, so – not for the first time – my partners mutinied.

And this time, they were right.

Selection of a Site on the Sand

Jewel box – night lights of a famed bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. Photo by John Weed.
Jewel box – night lights of a famed bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. Photo by John Weed.

I argued that my special access pass had been issued for the campground, not the beach, so we should stay up there. They riposted that if my permission was nearly as special as I’d claimed it was, it should apply anywhere. I went on to warn that, with a full moon scheduled to rise, the beach was looking at a pretty high tide, of plus 5.7 feet, combined with a good-sized lump of swell. Should we camp down on the sand, even close to the bluff, we might all get swept off into cold, wet darkness around 10 o’clock that night. OK they responded, when-and-if that looked near to happening, they’d both happily evacuate to higher ground – but why go to all that trouble before we absolutely needed to?

Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tides and large swells.
Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tides and large swells. Photo by Paul McHugh.

I hated to admit it, but it made sense. And so I acquiesced.

We wound up nestled at the edge of a maritime wilderness, on the threshold of one of the world’s grand ports, which featured the glow of an immense gilt bridge, twinkling lights of distant cities and, the prospect of a spectacular sunrise, all wreathed about by the random ebb and flow of swirling veils of cloud and mist. Soundtrack for this movie consisted of the hoot of foghorns, a steady suck and boom of swells rearing up to expire on the Kirby Cove beach, and – as it turned out – exactly zero human complaints.