Wednesday was going to be THE DAY for my 2nd attempt to set a new record rowing around the Farallon Islands. Then it wasn’t THE DAY, so I committed to moving a sailboat.
Wednesday, 7AM I wake up and instantly know there is no wind. Except I have committed to moving a sailboat…
We move the sailboat, which takes 3x longer than expected, (which in itself SHOULD be expected) and then I race home.
I dress, stretch, make lunch, grab everything I need and am at my boat within the hour.
“The wind is up again,” one of my neighbours says. His tone adds, “you’re not going to row out there are you?”
The afternoon breeze had arrived. I am late, if not too late.
“I am going to try and cross the bay! I want to row to the Farallons tonight.”
He plunges his head in his hands.
“I might be back in a few hours!” I wave merrily as I row past.
For an hour I heave my boat towards the breakwater. In my mind, if I could just get to the gate and away from land, the path to the Farallons is a silvery mirror of undulating glass.
The effort is pointless. I am simply going to have to wait.
All week I had felt a new level of determination. In fact, my determination had begun to know no bounds. For 6.5hrs I had tried to row across the bay on Tuesday and when the wind at the bottom of Angel Island was too strong, I rowed to the NE corner of Angel where I was defeated by the tide.
At 9PM I leave the house.
The realisation of what I am about to try and do is in perfect in balance with how I feel. I am brimming with positivity and optimism! My body feels strong! Let’s give this everything!
The Richmond breakwater at night is mind boggling. The breakwater is low-profile and so the lights of San Francisco the city, Angel Island and Tiburon create the illusion that there is no breakwater. Where is the breakwater? I scan the horizon. I see jagged objects all along the horizon and can’t imagine there are that many ships in procession. There aren’t. It’s the breakwater, but it takes me a surprising amount of time to work this out.
Inside the breakwater is a shipping channel and until I clear the breakwater, I’m in the shipping channel.
The bay at night is a jungle of lights. I pause to see what’s moving. I scan for tugs and tugs with barges under tow. They have tall chimneys with stacks of white lights, red and green either side. They look like metal Christmas trees. I spot a couple.
Halfway across to Tiburon, I remember how much I love rowing at night, in the bay and in general. I have the bay to myself! The view of San Francisco lit up is glorious, the air is cool but not cold and halfway across I am in the wind shadow of Angel Island and my speed increases.
My track past Angel Island is fast with the tide now ripping and soon I see the gate poking out behind Point Stuart. There is breeze now, but the tide helps me battle on. At 12:44 I make it to the North Tower of the Golden Gate! I feel triumphant, more triumphant than I’ve felt on any other row.
I am going out! It’s happening! The bridge looks spectacular against the moody night sky and I am off under it, off on an adventure, committed to at least one cycle of the tide.
In truth, I don’t think I expected to get this far and this becomes apparent when I start routing around for food. I have everything I need onboard, but before I left I didn’t prepare any meals (and by that I mean throw cold water into a dehydrated meal packet and leave it to sit for a couple of hours).
I reach for more clothing, my harness, my fleece hat.
I am 3 hours of rowing in.
I pass Point Diablo and Point Bonita with no one on the horizon in any direction and am parallel to what I call ‘the run way’, the main shipping channel with its pairs of blinking red and green markers. My row is going EXACTLY as planned. This never happens!!!
I row a good pace 2.5-3 knots, keen to get to my waypoint WEST SPUD (9 miles west of Point Bonita and west of the Four Fathom Shoal known as “the Potato Patch” an area of very bumpy shallow water.
By 3:44AM I am 1 mile from WEST SPUD and begin to fight the desire to sleep. I am on a great trajectory towards the islands, what is there to say this won’t continue while I sleep? I think. I can’t be bothered to throw out the sea anchor. I let the boat drift and the tide when it turns, takes me with it at an alarming rate. Every 40 minutes I check for ships. I check to see that I am safe and away from land. What I don’t check is speed over ground.
When I get up ready to row again, I get an unpleasant surprise! I am back at Point Bonita!
And so begins an interminably long day.
I really only have one choice: row north with the tide towards Bolinas.
Each hour is a slog. I am 1-2 miles from shore. The waves hit the beach and rebound. The result is a mess, a mess of waves – new collective noun. My oars go in, some don’t, my stroke isn’t uniform, my speed fluctuates, the boat rocks from side to side and I am too tired to get annoyed. I plod on.
Nine hours later I am beyond tired. I am antsy, delirious, desperate tired. All I can think about is sleep. I need to sleep and I can’t, I am too close to shore. A tow, I am so ready for a tow. Who could tow me? I reach for my phone: no reception. The Bolinas lagoon is one option, but I am 2 hours more plodding to even get close. I can’t do 2 more hours. RED BULL! I have RED BULL onboard! Now I have a plan. I will drink a few sips of RED BULL and row upwind until I feel it’s safe to deploy the sea anchor. I may not be able to sleep on anchor, but at least I can stop rowing. That is a start.
An hour and a half later I am on sea anchor. The anchor is holding. My track shuffles a little north, but when the tide turns my track shuffles a little south. All is good. I climb inside my cabin and lie down. I expect to fall into a blissful sleep. I can not sleep. Why? RED BULL. Dear God.
I rest. Rest is good. Rest is better than rowing.
Four hours later and the wind has dropped a bit but not much. Perhaps I can row into it now? I feel reenergised. I try. It’s pointless. What to do? When I stop rowing the tide starts to draw me back towards Point Bonita. I deploy the sea anchor again, but my indecisiveness costs me time and now I am on anchor 1 mile from the shore. I am less comfortable with this. I watch the waves smash the rocks again and again.
What if the wind doesn’t die down at all? I imagine trying to spend the night like this. In theory there is no reason why this would not be safe…
What if a fishing boat runs over my sea anchor retrieval line? I would hear the fishing boat coming. You could swim to retrieve the sea anchor or cut it away. But in the dark, over and over again, I imagine myself ending up on the rocks.
I know that if I am too paranoid about fishing vessels hitting me /running over my line /coming over out of curiosity, I will not sleep.
I feel determined, so determined to make it to the Farallon Islands. But is this now a realistic possibility? I have to admit that it is not. I could overnight in Bolinas lagoon, but then I would have to row back tomorrow and the conditions may not be favourable to do so. I may be stuck in the lagoon for days! How do I get into the lagoon? Depth is an issue. I may need a guide.
I pull in the sea anchor around 19:52 and start to row back towards Point Bonita, but half-heartedly at first. Then when I realise that if I’m going to make the tide I need to up the pace, I up the pace. It’s now critical I round Point Bonita by 11PM. The tide isn’t strong on this day and the waves are sloppy near the coast. I round Point Bonita by 11PM.
I am in the ‘driveway’ rowing towards the gate. I think I am a mere 30 minutes from sleep, glorious sleep. It takes a while for me to understand what the Garmin instrument display is trying to tell me. My speed over the ground is 0.9 knots. My boat speed is 3.5. What I fail to understand immediately is that this 3.5 knots is the outgoing tide taking me in the opposite direction. I snake out into the middle to look for the last of the incoming tide. I snake towards the rocks to hunt for the counter current. Nada. I am not going to make it to the gate. I am not going to make it to Horseshoe Cove. I am not going to be sleeping anytime soon. 20 hours of rowing. 3.5 hours of sleep. I am screwed.
Next I get wet. A rain cloud that had been shifting around the horizon all day, now dumps on my head leaving me scrambling into my foulies.
Option 1: get a tow
Option 2: go back out to sea for the cycle of the tide
I text friends. It’s midnight. No one replies. I call Phil at TowBoat US. The charge is $700. And in that moment, when he tells me the cost, I reset my mind. I am suddenly OK with going back out to sea! Almost, looking forward to it. Phil suggests I call the Coast Guard. I try Travis Marina first to see if anyone in Horseshoe Cove could come out with a whaler. I am so achingly close to that marina. My phone call is answered!
“What’s your name?” I ask the lady. “Maria” she slurs. “I run the bar.” This makes me smile. “I see a few lights on boats. I’ll go down and see if anyone is around.” Maria calls back. She can’t find anyone, but it’s OK. I am happy to hear from her nonetheless.
By now I have called the Coast Guard. “Will you come out and get me?” I ask. Coastguard lady checks and says they will. “Will there be a charge?” I ask. Coastguard lady says they won’t be. Oh well then I think. Coast Guard it is.
The Coast Guard take what feels like an interminably long time to appear. I stop rowing. I sit there and reflect. I look out to sea. I realise that I am surrounded by light, looking out into the dark. The lights of the bridge, San Francisco, the headlands, I am amongst the known, looking out into the unknown. If I let go and go out with the tide, I don’t know the script. I don’t know what will happen next. And I start to feel regret, because all of last year there was a sticker on my boat that read FOLLOW YOUR FEAR and in this moment I am doing everything but following my fear. I am clinging to the known.