Golden Gate to Pacifica with Max, October 1st 1997.


Max is a kayaker who is traveling around North America. When I first got in touch with him I suggested that I travel along with him for a few days. When I met Max at the Mendocino Campout we talked about traveling down the Mendocino or Sonoma coast. But Max went to the Bay Area and Yosemite Park (an inland side trip) first and skipped my coastline. We agreed to do a two day trip together when he launched from San Francisco, but the starting date kept being delayed. Finally Max got ready to launch on Wednesday morning. This was a little late for me, because I had to work in the South Bay on Thursday and was initiating a trip in Mendocino on Friday through Sunday. I met Max at 7:00 AM on Wednesday anyway and planned on only doing a day trip with him. My dad agreed to follow along and give me a ride home afterwards.

I had once suggested to Max that we travel down the coast from the Golden Gate to the Montara Lighthouse Youth Hostel and stay the night there. This is a distance of around 36 kilometers which would be a long day paddling. Max didn't want to stop at the Youth Hostel and wanted to go on to Half Moon Bay in one day. I calculated this at about 44 kilometers, but Max said it was a lot shorter than that.. Then he arranged to stay at a house in the town of Moss Beach, wich is only three or four kilometers past the Montara Lighthouse. With an early start I figured I could do this. Ken Mansardt, who met Max at the Mendocino Campout, came along with us but had to turn back part way to go to work.

Ken had warned Max that my boat had a plastic hull and would not be able to keep up, so I borrowed a Tsunami Rangers X15 kayak for this trip. Unfortunately this one did not have a seat back, and did not even have a good place to attach one. I have heard that some kayak designers do not approve of seat backs, claiming that your stroke is better if you sit up under your own power. I tried to adjust my seat back to fit, but there was no good place to attach the forward straps. I ended up running them under my thighs where they hooked together on the attachement for the center hatch. This held the seat back upright under light pressure, but if I really leaned back, the straps lifted my seat up out of the boat and messed up my balance. Max had a lot of stuff to pack so I had plenty of time to fiddle with the seat and got it adjusted as well as I could before we launched.

I assumed that Max and Ken had planned the trip to catch an ebbing tide, but was surprised to see the flood tide starting as we headed out. Apparently the plan was to duck accross under the Golden Gate Bridge and ride the eddy current past China Beach. But as we started accross it was apparent the current was already pretty strong. Ken zoomed ahead and was the first across. Max had some trouble, saying that it felt like he was standing still paddling as hard as he could against the current in some places. In an unfamiliar boat with my stomach muscles complaining about the seat, I dropped way behind. I think the current was increasing the whole time we were crossing, so the slowest person (me) had the strongest current to fight against. I had a difficult crossing.

Ken thought that the rest of the trip would be easy. I tried to warn him that from my experience the current around the next point, Lands End, was almost as bad as the narrows under the bridge. He didn't believe it until we made it to Lands End and had to fight our way around the corner. By the time we made it all the way out to sea, I was already very tired and sore and didn't think I could make it if the next 33 kilometers were as bad as the first 7. Ken figured the trip would be easy from this point on, as long as the unseasonable south wind died down in the afternoon and the northwest wind came back and helped push us south. Ken turned back at this point and Max suggested that we work hard for another hour to get away from the current still trying to pull us back into the bay. Then we could relax and take the rest of the day to get down to Moss Beach.

We worked hard for an hour and then another hour and then another. A 12 knot head wind (according to the NOAA data for San Francisco when I checked later) rose up and blew into our faces all day long. Max thought it was a 20 knot wind, but I didn't think the whitecaps were developed enough to indicate that much wind. At one point Max tossed his paddle up in the air in frustration and boredom. Apparently he often does this by himself, tossing the paddle up with a twist to make the blades spin in the air and then catching it. This time the wind grabbed it and tossed it four meters behind him. Fortunately the wind blew him back to his paddle and he did not have to get out his spare.

Once we had started around Lands End, there were no good places to land until we got to the town of Pacifica. There is a long sandy beach, called Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco, but this is a dumpy beach with large waves breaking on it. Once south of Ocean beach cliffs rise up with narrow dumpy beaches, when there was any beach at all. There were virtually no rocks to rest behind an no kelp to tie up to to prevent the boats from flying backwards every time we stopped paddling. Neither of us liked loosing ground when we stopped paddling, so we just never stopped. This ment that there was never a chance to rest, never time to heat up the warm lunch I had brought, (a self- heating MRE), never time to stop and pee.

Max has a zipper accross his drysuit for disposing liquid waste into a cup. I usually prefer landing on a dumpy beach rather than peeing in my wetsuit. I have managed to avoid sullying this wet suit until this trip. I waited until I was really desparate and had difficulty telling which hurt more: The pain from the unacustomed exersize my stomach and thigh muscles were getting from the seat, or the pain of the full bladder. Then I jumped out of the boat to hang vertical in the water in the hopes that most of the pee would run out the legs of the suit. Floating in the water for a minute was a blessed releaf from the paddling, and using myself as a sea anchor I hoped that I was not loosing too much ground.

We finally came to an offshore rock which I hoped was a point just north of Pacifica Beach. No such luck. There was a tall cliff past this rock and no place to land for another six kilometers. Dad waved at us from the top of the cliff, and Max suggested landing here and getting a ride. But there was no way to get the boats up the cliff so we kept going. Max rested in the lee of the rock for a minute. I discovered that resting did not help me: Paddling sent pain shooting up my stomach and down my thighs from the unacustomed seat position. However, the same muscles are used to balance the boat in the choppy water and caused the same pain. I figured I might as well be getting closer to a landing while I suffered. I told Max this was a personal worst: I have never been this miserable on the water before.

We decided to land on the first beach on the north end of the town of Pacifica, which has a huge concrete fishing pier. Dad was waiting for us on this pier so we were able to make arangements to have him pick us up on the beach. We went under the pier and along the beach looking for the best place to land. The sand sloped steeply down from a retaining wall, promiceing a dumpy landing. I offered to land first and stand ready to help pull Max' boat out of the water, assuming I could still walk. Max saw a mild time in the waves and suggested I start in, but as I started I fell out of the boat. Just tired and bad timing on a paddle stroke, there were no big waves at the time. By the time I slipped back on the kayak and started for shore a larger set of waves came in. Max yelled "Paddle for all you are worth!". I was so tired that I could only manage the same slow stroke I had been using for the last 4 hours. Waves broke around me and behind me, but I leaned back to brace over the tops of them. The boat wallowed in the breakers and rode up over the top of each one and didn't surf out of control into shore. I managed to stay in the boat until the nose hit the sand.

Max waited out beyond the breakers for a few minutes, then headed in during a calm window. His timing was perfect and no waves broke around him the whole trip onto the beach. He slid up on the sand with no problems. Dad drove us the remaining 10 kilometers we were supposed to paddle to Moss Beach. We had planed to paddle around 40 kilometers to Moss Beach, but the headwind had slowed us down and we only made 26 kilometers in eight hours of gruling paddling.


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