When Don Bekins and I rowed under the Golden Gate, out to Point Bonita and back on September 22nd, there was no wind, no wind at all. Not even a puff to send us home. Yesterday, we knew, would be different.

Our original plan was to row today, but Don and his wife had made plans to go away for a long weekend so we changed our plan. This is one of my learnings from yesterday. For me, the weather forecast must come first.

To the north of San Francisco Bay, there is a huge low pressure system off the coast right now. As a result, the normal pattern of air flow is disrupted and so this week we have wind filling in from the east. Warm wind from the central valley. 

My fear was that we – me especially in my higher-windage boat – would get “locked out” of the gate as the wind funnelled not from the ocean to the bay as usual, but the other way round. 

I like rowing with Don. Don is the grand master when it comes to rowing in the bay. I have fond memories of our early attempts to row around Alcatraz, when Don would shout,

“You need to row faster Lia!” and I would reply,

“Don, you are rowing a soap dish and I am rowing furniture!” 

I also like rowing with Don because he dips and dives in and out of the current, using everything to his advantage. At times it’s not prudent for me to follow, because the counter currents run close to the shore and I need to leave space in case the wind gusts. I’ve used many of Don’s tricks while out on my solo rows. Don is my SF Bay guide. He’s also 86.

I do my homework. I calculate that if I leave the dock by 6am and Don by 6:30am, we will reach Mile Rock Lighthouse before the tide turns at 08:39. Roundtrip, the row is 12 miles. At 2 knots, 6 hours max. 

I leave the dock late at 6:30. Don is also a little late setting off. Pre-dawn the sky is a spectrum of neapolitan colours, from black to pink changing by the minute. San Francisco is a silhouette against a ruby orange. It’s a magical hour of the morning. The air is warm and while I drift past the Marin sewage works waiting for Don, the first rays of sunlight bathe the houses facing east in Sausalito. It’s like someone gold-leafed the windows. This is the reward of getting up and out on the water early. 

Don arrives.

“I rowed from the yacht club to the headland in 26 minutes!” he says. “It usually takes me 30!” A new PB – personal best – for Don! 

We set off for the gate. 

The bridge is a rich coppery red in the early morning light. The North tower soars above my head like a statue. ‘Will I ever get tired of looking at this bridge?’ I ask myself. Cars thunder overhead, commuters on their way to work. Out and under the bridge Don and I dip our oars, off to Mile Rock. 

Don peels off in the direction of the south shore, while I opt to stay in the stream. I’m doing 5 knots! ‘Nothing wrong with that!’ I say to myself. 

I lose sight of Don. I can’t make out the shape of Don and his boat because of the sun. This causes me some concern. My phone rings. It’s Don. “You need to get over or you’ll go past Mile Rock!”

I am of course thinking that I would quite like to go past Mile Rock and see what’s beyond round the corner at Ocean Beach, but I heed Don’s advice and turn my bow. I spot Don creeping along the shore. 

From what I can see by eye, it may not be safe to pass between Mile Rock and the headland. I watch another wave surge between rock and land, engulfing the base of the lighthouse. I pull up the Navionics app on my phone. According to the map, there is depth. I aim for the deepest part. Mile Rock lighthouse, incidentally is no longer a lighthouse and is neither a mile from the bridge (it’s 2 nautical miles) nor a mile from Land’s End (it’s 0.5 nautical miles)! But whose counting!

Having almost passed Mile Rock and then been redirected, Don reaches the rock first. We’ve made excellent time – 1hr 30 minutes from Sausalito. “By my calculation, the tide should turn in 10 minutes.”

“It’s already turning closer to shore,” Don says.

Between Mile Rock and the cliff top, we bop around for a bit taking pictures. I watch the surf hurl itself on the rocks at Ocean Beach. Each wave runs in, sheering at the top, crumbling down the face. RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA is the sound and its continuous. Then every now and then a wave detonates – “BOUF!” 

For a moment I see Don line up between Mile Rock and Little Mile Rock and I think, ‘no way! He’s going to surf between the two!’ and then I think, ‘if he’s going for it, I’m going for it!’ I acknowledge that this would not be sensible, but I also acknowledge that it would be thrilling! When I tell Don this later, he laughs. 

Don heads round Little Mile Rock away from temptation and we set off back to Tiburon. 

See part 2.