I wanted an evening adventure.
I knew rain was forecast. I knew strong winds were forecast, 22-25 knots from the south. I figured I’d be in before they hit.
My plan was to head to Alameda, a 5-7 hour row, a long shot admittedly.
I left with the last hour of the ebb pulling me towards the Golden Gate. Except it didn’t really. The last hour of the ebb was weak and the wind was already up. By the time I reached the safe water mark, demarcating the entrance to Richardson Bay, I had wrestled my boat through 2 squalls. ‘How do you feel Lia?’ I asked myself. ‘What does your gut say?’
I love the sea. Just when you are convinced that you have to turn back, defeated, the wind stops. Just like that. And so I continued.
Progress was meagre. The wind was hitting me side-on. The waves tugged and released my oars and water slopped into my boat. I plodded on. The tide was about to turn after all. There was hope. I was convinced that if I could get south enough towards San Francisco, the incoming tide when it came would projectile me under the Bay Bridge towards Alameda.
Parmesan! Yes! I remembered my block of Parmesan stashed in one of the food lockers. It tasted of mould, the white kind that grows on cheese. I didn’t care. Happiness for that moment was Parmesan!
Nearer the Gate the wind was stronger and I began to lose my heading towards San Francisco and arc towards Angel Island. For a while I considered diverting to the Corinthian Yacht Club. I imagined the steak dinner I could be having in a matter of half an hour. I continued rowing.
Angel Island seemed to be creeping closer. Were my eyes deceiving me? I look again. Angel Island was even closer and not the south side, the west side. There was no diverting anywhere now. I was committed. Worse, the wind was pushing me towards the rocky headland. I picked up my pace. My pace wasn’t good enough. I rowed hard. I pointed my bow towards San Francisco and rowed beam to the sea, beam to the wind, with only the current taking me sideways. I cleared the headland. Next headland: I could see the white of the beach, I rowed hard towards San Francisco. I may have cleared the land with more sea room that I think, but in the dark the mind plays tricks and distance is hard to gauge. ‘Your boat’s tracking device will show you tomorrow how close you really are.’ I thought to myself.
Next headland. This went on and on. Then finally I veered towards the rocks on the SE tip of the island and I wasn’t south enough. I could see the bird shit on the top of the first rock, in the dark. I could see a wave break against the second rock, in the dark. I was that close. The current was ripping, dragging me towards the rocks. I rowed hard. I breathed hard. I was sweating inside my clothes. I rowed for my boat. I rowed for my life. I made it.
Forget Alameda, I’m going to Berkeley! So I point towards Berkeley and I think all I have to do now is row my girl home. But it’s not over yet. Oh boy is not over yet.
I am 3.8 miles out from the Berkeley breakwater when I see black cloud engulf the Marin headland. Rain. I taste parmesan in my mouth when it eclipses the entire Golden Gate Bridge. When Angel Island and Tiburon are smudged out, there is a rumble of thunder and a flash of lightening to the right. A few wet drops hit me, but I’m rowing away from the squall so I row out of the fringe of the rain. Oh god, I think, I’m not going to make it. Richmond is gone. San Francisco disappears too. All I can see is the flashing red and green of the channel markers on the Berkeley breakwater. Berkeley becomes a blur. The silhouette of the waterfront and those flashing lights, it’s all I’ve got. My heart races. I haul on my arms and shove my legs back and forth. ‘Row Lia Row!’ Then the rain hits. I didn’t make it. Big fat droplets plop me in the face and I am almost jubilant, rain, only rain. Maybe there was nothing to worry about. Maybe the sea will flatten out. But deep down I know otherwise.
I turn my head towards where the Golden Gate Bridge should be and wind howls in my eyes. The boat wants to spin sideways and I won’t let it. Oh my god no. I keep focused. I keep my head turned. My eye is on that flashing red at the breakwater. If I lose sight of that I am really in trouble. I begin coaching myself. ‘Aim for the breakwater.’ ‘Once inside the breakwater the waves will be less.’ I am heaving and breathing hard and rowing as hard as the oars will allow me to plunge them in and pull them through the water. And the wind is taking me past the flashing red light to the other side of breakwater. We’re going to hit the breakwater. We’re going to hit the breakwater. “No we’re not!” I say out loud. “No we’re not!” And I haul on the oars. I give it everything. I am relentless. Determined. Focussed. And we’re in. Safely. Brilliant!
I allow myself a moment, just one, before re-engaging. Right: next challenge. Find a dock. Fuel dock? The wind is peaking at 30-35 knots of wind by now. I have visions of crashing into the dock and damaging my boat. “I’m coming in hot!” I manage to make myself smile.
Once inside the harbour wall, the water is flat but the wind is furious. I’m thinking downwind. I can only get to a dock downwind of me. But of course I want to head to where I know and Berkeley Marine Centre is what I know and it’s upwind. Fuel dock? I look and to my sheer delight it’s free. I can’t imagine how I’m going to fight upwind to get to it, but I commit to trying.
A gust hits and the boat spins. I fight to stay put, I fight to continue heading to my beautiful fuel dock. “Yes you can.” “Yes you can.” I chant to myself with each fighting stroke. “Yes you can.” The gust peaks. “Come on Lia!” “Come on Lia!” “Come on Lia!” “Yes you can.” The gust passes and I line up the bow with the fuel dock. Another gust hits and tries to spin me out of control. Off we go again. “Come on Lia!” “Come on Lia!” “Yes you can. Yes you can.” And when the gust ebbs, I edge towards the fuel dock. I manage to ferry glide on. No crash, no impact, no damage. What a blessed relief. What a wonderful fuel dock.
“Get out of the rain.” I secure the boat and climb inside the cabin and laugh at how I’m supposed to undress out of my wet gear in such a ridiculously small space.