Geoffrey Smart is an active BASK member who recently took the Novice Clinic and has a relatively new passion for kayaking. He lives in the Bay Area but has never paddled under the Golden Gate Bridge. Since no-one else in the club had recently scheduled a trip like this he scheduled one himself. He asked for some help from a more experienced BASK member (Ken Mannshardt) to pick the time to match the tides. It was a popular trip and many BASKers showed up to join Geoffrey. I was one of those.
We paddled out of Horseshoe Bay, a small cove on the north side of the Golden Gate and soon went under the Golden Gate Bridge. We kept going around Diablo point and staying close to shore. Eventually we made it to a small beach behind the Point Bonita Lighthouse and stopped for a lunch break. Geoffrey said that his goal of going under The Bridge had been met and he had no plans beyond that. Several of us wanted to paddle around Point Bonita and look into the caves and arches nearby. Others wanted to climb up to the lighthouse which was apparently open. Geoffrey and I went with the group paddling around the point.
Also in this group was John Somers and Gino Thomas. John is a very good paddler and was looking for some excitement. Under the lighthouse near the end of the point there is a crack in the rock that goes completely through the point and out the other side into a little rocky cove. I have never been through this "cave" but Joe Petolino, who was also along this day, says he has been through it in his large double kayak. John looked into this cave and considered going through it. I looked through and saw waves breaking on the other side and decided it was not a good idea. Gino also decided to forego it, but thought that John was going to try, so Gino paddled around to the other side to be there when John came out. Gino was so intent on watching the cave and looking for John that he didn't pay enough attention to where he was. I saw him close to shore in shallow water and cringed thinking that I wouldn't want to risk being where he was.
While I watched a large wave came in and rose up between me and Gino. I saw him rise up on this first wave and start surfing! Gino has been practicing surfing at Bolinas quite a bit and in one regard this paid off. Instead of being knocked over by the wave he rode it for a while and pulled back over the top of it. Unfortunately, this ride moved him closer to shore and into even shallower water. I pointed to Gino and shouted to Don Fleming next to me that "Gino is in trouble"! Sure enough another even larger wave passed under us, rose up, and broke down on Gino. He says that he tried to broach into the wave, but it sucked him out of his boat. After the wave passed, I saw the boat upside down banging against the rocks of the shore. I held my breath for fear that Gino was still inside his boat until Don pointed to Gino swimming towards shore through the surf. Gino still had to make it to shore with large boulders in front of him and waves slamming him from behind. But soon we saw him standing on the rocks and apparently unhurt.
John, who had wisely decided not to go through the cave in the point, came around the point and saw Gino in the surf. He immediately started working his way to shore to assist. The Coast Guard and many other organizations tell you that you should not do this. If you dash in to someone’s rescue the thing that is most likely to happen is that you will get stuck in the same dangerous conditions and then there will be two people who need rescuing. Sure enough, I saw the tail end of John's boat rise up and over on a wave and soon John was swimming in the water with his plastic boat banging on the rocks. The waves that got Gino and John were only the first few of a set of very large waves that rose up and threatened to break on the rest of us farther from shore. Don shouted a warning about one of these and we all turned and paddled away from shore for a while until the waves calmed down.
We collected together to talk about what we should do next. The correct thing was to wait to see if John and Gino could get back in their boats and paddle back out on their own. Don offered to paddle around the point to the lunch beach, hike up to the lighthouse and talk to the ranger there. Joe and most of the other paddlers collected far offshore. Eric Lee and I volunteered to hang out close to shore so Gino and John would see us waiting to assist when they came out. As we waited the ocean did calm down several times and we saw "windows" in the waves when it would have been possible to paddle out. But Gino's boat was apparently damaged. We watched as John wrapped ductape around the prow of Gino's boat. We watched as John helped Gino get back in his boat and attempt to launch. But Gino fell over again on the next wave and decided that he was not going to be able to make it without help. Apparently the wave had somehow sucked out one of this foot-pegs and he was having difficulty balancing his boat. Also water had gotten in through the neck of his drysuit and he was cold, not to mention exhausted from his swim.
By this time Don was watching from the lighthouse trail above and he decided to ask the ranger there to call the Coast Guard for assistance. John down on the beach was in contact with Sid Wolf up by the lighthouse, since they both had marine radios. (I had left mine behind on such a short urban trip). The first emergency vehicle to show up was a San Francisco Police Cutter. All the remaining kayakers were safely outside the breakers, but still inside a partially submerged rock offshore. This rock was convenient because the larger waves would break over it and warn us that they were coming. But the Police Cutter stayed well outside this and Geoffrey had to paddle out to talk to them. Apparently they seemed to know less about what was going on then we knew. The next vehicle to arrive was the Coast Guard Cutter, and they also had to be briefed by us kayakers to find out what was going on. Like the police boat, they stayed well offshore. On his radio John heard the big boats talking to each other about him on the beach, but when he tried to talk to them directly they never responded. Finally the National Parks Department Surf Rescue boat arrived and came in close to shore. Again, they didn't seem to know what was going on and had to be briefed by us.
The Surf Rescue boat is a Zodiac with two guys in it wearing wetsuits. They were willing to get closee to shore, even inside the breakers, but they still would not approach closer than a hundred meters! One of the guys hooked himself to a rope and swam closer to shore but still stopped 50 meters away! He shouted to John and Gino that they had to swim out to meet him. Gino asked if he could bring his boat and the swimmer said yes. So Gino borrowed John's tow rope, buckled it on himself and clipped the other end to his boat and started swimming. Although the guy in the water had said yes, his boss in the Zodiac started shouting "LEAVE THE BOAT!". Gino's boat, a Coaster similar to mine, rose lightly on the breakers and easily followed him out to the swimmer, who grabbed on while the Zodiac towed them out past the danger of the breakers.
I paddled up and asked Gino if he wanted help getting back in his boat and he refused. Instead he asked me to help by towing his boat out to the Coast Guard Cutter, which had agreed to take it (and him) back to their base in Horseshoe Bay. This was convenient since that was where Gino's car was parked. Gino was unfamiliar with the buckle on the tow-rope and had trouble getting it off. The driver of the Zodiac, who was pissed that we had not abandoned the boat on shore, got out his knife to cut the rope. But I managed to reach over the side of the Zodiac and unhook the belt. I loosely wrapped the line around my waist and headed out to the Coast Guard Cutter.
As I paddled out to sea I heard a huge outcry of shouting behind me. The area the Coast Guard was waiting in is called the "Potato Patch" because of all the boats hauling potatoes that were sunk there in rough weather. It is a relatively shallow area where a tidal rip forms every day and the water becomes very choppy. I had seen this happening several years ago when I didn't understand what was going on and wisely stayed away from it. It was happening again and although I felt up to paddling in it I wisely decided this time that I should not turn around here while towing a boat. So I didn't get to see what all the shouting was about. I handed the tow line to the guys on the Coast Guard cutter and managed to stay upright while maneuvering away from their big boat. When I turned around John was paddling out to sea past the Zodiac rescue boat. Apparently when he started getting back in his boat the shouting had erupted. The rescue swimmer had started shouting encouragement to John, while his boss was shouting at him to abandon the boat and swim out. The BASKers on the cliff and in the water saw that it was a calm window in the waves and shouted at him to go for it! Which he easily did.
I applauded John as the man of the hour. He had gone in to assist, had been prepared with ductape for repairs, a radio for calling for assistance, a tow rope for saving Gino's boat, an indestructible plastic boat, and then he calmly managed to rescue himself! What a guy! He paddled back under his own power with the rest of us while Gino got a ride on the Coast Guard Cutter and beat us home. The Coast Guard fined Gino $100.00 for "creating a situation that endangered the lives of the rescue team". But we all kidded him that this was a small sum for having his boat towed back to harbor. If he had abandoned it in this rocky location it would have been smashed to pieces before anyone could have attempted a recovery.