It’s 6:30pm at night and I am wandering around Vallejo, sore, tired and desperately hungry. All three taquerias in my vicinity are closed. I follow my nose. This leads me to a Chinese restaurant, where the answer to everything is no. ‘May I order half a $12 portion of bok choy?’ ‘No.’ ‘May I get some more sauce to go with my rice?’ ‘No.’ The duck is mostly fat and bone. I leave feeling like I’ve not eaten at all.
By 9:30pm I am asleep in my boat. There’s a stiff breeze blowing from the west, which fills me with dread. I can only hope the breeze dies down later.
My alarm goes two hours later at 11:45pm.
Further down the bay the tide has already started going out. Where I am in Mare Island Strait, the tide has yet to turn. This worries me. My window to get back to Tiburon isn’t a full 6 hours.
I set off bucking a knot of tide. The water feels extra sticky, clinging to my oars.
Mare Island Strait is a thoroughfare for tugs and barges, but at midnight no one is on the move. As I make my way south the tide starts to slacken and my speed increases. I wonder how productive it was leaving before the tide turned. If I had left later, I would have gone faster. I would have reached the same place in less time. I would have had more time in bed.
The breeze is still blowing circa 12-15 knots. I slip out of the river, thankful that the tide isn’t yet in full flow and so against the wind creating standing waves.
I am a block of parmesan and a Carrot Cake Cliff bar down. It’s going to be a long night.
I always imagine that a positive tide will have me cruising along, rowing effortlessly to my destination in less time than planned. This never ever happens! In fact at this point it’s worse than that. I am rowing forwards but going sideways towards Tormey. The tide isn’t helping me at all.
I hook up my JBL speaker and start listening to Cold Case Files. I listen to 2 podcasts in a row. The first is about a man who sexually assaulted 11 young girls and women, and keeps evading capture. The second is about a man on Long Island who discovers a 55-gallon barrel hidden in the crawlspace of his house. Except when he pries off the lid, he realises it isn’t just a barrel, it’s a tomb.
The wind drops, mileage is good and the podcasts are an excellent distraction. I opt to row in the deep water channel to take maximum advantage of the tide. There’s no one around.
It’s a bumpy ride and I am getting tossed about when I look up. A ship. I see both red and green, port and starboard lights. On the masthead is a vertical bank of red, white, red lights. The ship is bearing down on me.
Red, white, red means ‘restricted in ability to manoeuvre.’ The ship is probably deep draft and tugging or towing. I kill the podcast and start rowing at a 90 degree angle to the shipping lane. I can gauge the ship’s speed so am not afraid of collision, but I am in the deep-water shipping channel, where I shouldn’t be, and I want to do something about that as fast as possible. We are half a mile to a mile apart.
Then I am blinded. The ship has turned on it’s search light, an apocalyptic beam of light. I am transmitting my position via AIS so they know I am out here and are looking for me. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but 5 am must be bored o’clock, because instead of turning off the search light almost immediately, they have the light trained on me.
‘Seriously?’ I keep saying. ‘FFS!’ It’s like staring into the sun. I can’t see the ship at all, which means I can’t gauge where I am in relation to the ship. It means I don’t know how far or how fast I should be rowing. I am so blinded by the light that I row with my eyes shut in an attempt to keep calm. My anxiety level is through the roof. The light is on me for what feels like an eternity. I reach for my VHF radio, but the ship’s captain beats me to it. ‘This is Essayon calling Rowboat, we have you in our light,’ he says. No shit.
I am no longer in the channel at this point and I know this because the red flashing channel marker is behind me. ‘The deepwater channel is for commercial shipping only,’ the ship’s captain proceeds to chastise me. I want to say, ‘YOU COULD SUMMON BATMAN WITH THAT LIGHT!’ or ‘FOR PETE’S SAKE TURN OFF YOUR SEARCH LIGHT!’ but being British what do I do? I apologise profusely. ‘I am really sorry I am in your area.’
The light goes off. I breath a sigh of relief. What I should have done next is turn off my AIS transmitter.
By now there is another ship in the channel going the other way. Having broadcast my presence on the radio they too turn on their search light and fish around the horizon looking for me. I am absolutely no where near them! Then I think of the situation from their perspective. They are doing their due diligence, but that aside, THERE IS A WOMAN IN A ROWBOAT, ROWING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!
Then there’s a third boat, a tug and they turn on their search light. I want to scream! All these boats have radar, radios and AIS. There is no need to look for me with flood lights. But they want to see. There has probably never been something this exciting happen in San Pablo bay and it’s 5 o clock in the morning. Most definitely bored o clock.
Click here for Part 3.