Cliff House to Fort Mason, July 15th 1995

I have wanted to go on a paddle around the south side of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay for quite some time. My plan was to get in the water near the Cliff House, paddle in under the Golden Gate Bridge and meet Marty at Fort Mason to see the show at the NPR "West Coast Live" radio broadcast. Dim Sum at Yet Wah afterwards would help induce Marty to drive me back to my VW bus.

When I got to the Cliff House at 6:30am, the waves there looked very intimidating. I had remembered Ocean Beach as being a mild sandy beach, and the NOAA report said only 5 foot swells off shore here. There were surfers out in the water already, a bad sign in my book. But right under the cliff under the Cliff House, there was some calm water between the beach and the nearest Seal Rock. I decided to get in the water there. There were a bunch of guys fishing into the surf there, and I had to pick a spot to weave my way through the fishing lines. I got in the water, on the kayak, and headed into the calm area behind and between the three Seal Rocks. The rocks were covered with pelicans and cormorants, and looked to tall and steep for seals, in my opinion. The birds seemed very nervous at my approach, so I went around the left side of the rocks. The waves were breaking on to the beach on that side, but the deep water right next to the rock created a clear path with no breakers. Between a rock and a scary space, I made it out to see with a wall of rock on my right and breakers behind me on my left.

The rocky area here north of Cliff House is called "Lands End". As I came around the next point, Point Lobos, I paddled into the full force of the tidal current coming out of the bay. It was 7:00am and the tide was at maximum ebb, which means 4 miles an hour or so through the Golden Gate. I was going to take my time getting to the bridge and plan on the water calming down by the time I needed to go through. But even getting around Point Lobos, I could see and feel the current. It looked to me as if you could actually see the difference in height in the water between one side of a big rock and the other. The swells were coming in diagonally across the current, and rising up into breakers closer to the cliffs. To avoid the current, I skirted as close as I could to the area where the breakers started, and got a boost from the waves to help me paddle into the current. But soon I was around Point Lobos, and the current calmed down enough for serious sight seeing and paddling between rocks. A little farther around the point, and I caught sight of Fort Miley Veterans Administration Hospital, where my dad once had a bed with a view of this beautiful stretch of coast.

The next section of coast is a long stretch of sandy beach called Baker Beach. As I found out later in the day, this is a very popular beach on hot days in the city. At 7:45am, however, it had only a few fishermen watching me go by. There was a serious backwater cycling back from the tidal current here, and I made great time, getting to the Golden Gate Bridge by 8:00am. The current running out of the bay was still very strong. I watched as power boats played in the current, running in under the bridge, then turning off their engines and drifting back out as fast as they went in. I figured I could portage across Fort Point, but when I got there, the fort had 8 foot chain link fences with 2 more feet of barbed wire on top, running from the first pylon to the buildings, and from the buildings to the base of the bridge. There was public land on both sides, even people on both sides already, so why have this intimidating fence in the middle?

So I paddled right around the corner of the first pylon. The water was shallow just north of the pylon, with lots of rocks sticking just above water level. I went as close to these rocks as I dared, even going between a few of them. The current was there, but a few waves came and broke over the rocks, giving me a shove when I was in danger of slowing down. Then I was inside the bay and in calm water. I paddled down the whole length of Crissy Field, watching joggers and people walking their dogs. When I came to the Marina Park, I saw a welcome sight: My beat-up VW bus was there waiting for me. Marty had already been out to the Cliff House and swapped her car for mine. Soon I saw her walking along the marina and paddled over for a few words. I was early, so I told Marty I would go to the beach at the North Point Aquatic Park, and meet her later. I went past Fort Mason, almost getting tangled up in all the fishing lines radiating off the corners of the buildings. I passed two other kayakers heading out from Aquatic Park. They turned west and headed towards the bridge. I landed on the beach to photograph my kayak with the Hide Street Pier behind it. This pier is a naval museum with a few sailing ships and a paddle wheel boat tied up to it. As I came out of aquatic park, I saw Alcatraz Island with Angel Island behind it. I want to go to Alcatraz from here one day soon, it's only a mile away. Even as I watched, a freighter ship came by beween me and the island, going alarmingly fast.

I rushed back to the Yacht Harbor, where there was a dock right next to the Fort Mason parking lot. When I got there, Marty told me that she had been unable to get the VW bus started, and had to walk here from the Marina. Now that I have the Bus's front end all fixed up, it's electrical problems have gotten worse. I changed into my clothes, which I had carried with me the whole trip in a dry sack, and jogged back to the Bus. It was hard to start, but did start for me. By the time we got the kayak stowed, the West Coast Live show was already starting and I didn't get there in time to volunteer for the Digital Audio Aquaphone. (Listen to NPR on Saturday mornings at 10:00am to find out what that is). After the show, we went to Yet Wah as planned and had a great Dim Sum lunch.

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All text and images Copyright © 1995 by Mike Higgins / contact