Just needed some incentive:
   by Bill Vonnegut

Its amazing how your perspective can change over years of kayaking. What once looked like something dangerous to a person, could someday just be routine play. And you could end up making a video out of something that you once thought was crazy.

Gregg Berman and Lily Kelsey enjoying a nice day in the headlands

The Golden Gate Bridge can be a gateway to unknown adventures in the Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean.

I still remember my first time paddling under the Golden Gate. It was eight years ago, and up until then I had been doing some SF bay paddles, but had never ventured under the bridge. I really wanted see what was out there. So one day I put up a post on the BASK club website looking for a paddle. I received a response from someone who was a member of Petaluma Paddlers and said they were going to head out Saturday and I could come along.

When Saturday came, I met them at Schoonmaker Beach, a sandy little beach amid the harbors of Sausalito. We launched into what was a warm sunny day and paddled the three miles along the waterfront and out to the bridge. As we got closer to the bridge, I started to get more nervous. I could see out into the ocean and the water looked exactly as it did in the bay, but still, as we passed under the bridge, I was much more nervous and my boat all of a sudden felt less stable. We spotted another group of paddlers out there who had launched next to the bridge at Horseshoe Cove. They were paddling just in front of us as we made our way around Point Diablo, the first small point about a mile out the gate. Once rounding this point you can see Point Bonita off in the distance. As we meandered along, I saw the craziest thing. There were a couple of guys in kayaks right next to one of the rocks on the point. I watched as they were playing around in the white water surge right next to the rocks and thought that these guys must be advanced kayakers. It looked like a scary place to be. Then one of them did something I had never seen before. As a wave came in, he positioned his boat next to the rock and rode the wave over the top. “These guys are crazy!” I thought, “I would never do something like that!”

First time out the gate

Since then, I have done many paddles out the gate and found the Marin Headlands a great place to paddle. Not only is it a great place to practice your skills, including the use of current and swell forecasts, it also has a few gradually increasing levels of conditions that can be found as you make your way out to the open ocean. (more on this below)

About seven years since that first trip and many paddles later, I got together with a group of friends and we started Neptune’s Rangers. We had been having fun making some rock garden videos, and I had this idea stuck in my head that I wanted to make a rock garden skills video. Something that would just show the skills people should have in case they ran into trouble while out playing in the rocks, landing, launching and swimming around rock gardens type of thing. The headlands offers some wonderful rock garden opportunities, so I thought that would be a good place to film it.

I had been doing my typical thing of putting off this video as something I wanted to do at some point, when one afternoon I ran into a little incentive. My friend Peter Donohue and I had decided to head out to Half Moon Bay and do a surf session at Mushroom Rock. We met up that morning and Peter loaded his crab trap that he was going to drop on our way out of the harbor and we proceeded to head out for some surfing. It was a nice day, and after dropping off the trap we spent a few hours out there catching some good rides, until we were worn out and decided to head back into the harbor. On our way back, we stopped near the entrance to check on the trap that Peter had dropped. It was empty, no bait, no bait box, and no crab… oh well. Peter stowed the trap and we started to paddle back into the harbor. When we noticed a couple of paddlers on their way out, one in a cool looking Tsunami boat. After a closer look, we found it was Eric Soares and John Lull on there way out for a paddle. I had met Eric a couple times at the yearly local Reef Madness Race, an informal paddle race in Half Moon Bay that goes on regardless of conditions. Also was able to very much enjoy listening to John’s blues band at the race after party.

Earlier that year, Eric and I had exchanged some emails when he was doing the article about our Neptune’s Rangers group completing his Big Sur challenge. Peter had also worked with Eric when he had written a couple of articles for Peter’s magazine, California Kayaker 

We chatted a little and found that Eric was out to get some pictures for the first of two articles he was writing for his blog, the first on seal landings and the second on seal launching. At that point, he pulled out his camera and told me to go land on that rock over there. “OK!!” I said, and proceeded to do a few seal landings and launches while he snapped away. Then with a goodbye, Eric and John continued on there way out, as Peter and I headed home.

Later on, Eric and I exchanged a couple of emails and I mentioned my landing and launching video I wanted to film. He was very positive, as he was every time I had contact with him. He thought it would be great to add my video to his landing and launching articles coming up in the next two months. That was the incentive I needed to get beyond talking about filming the video and actually getting out on the water with the cameras. The next weekend I grabbed friends Gregg Berman and Tony Johnson and headed out the Gate to film the video. Tony volunteered to film the whole thing so Gregg and I could just be the stars. We brought our friend Elizabeth Rowell with us and got her into a scene, too. This video shows some of the rock garden features that can be found along the first two miles as you head out the gate.

After the video was done I sent it to Eric and he liked it. He was planning on putting a scene of an unexpectedly wild seal landing by Gregg in his first article ” Seal Landings in Ocean Rock Gardens” and the whole video in the next. After his landing article was done I exchanged a couple of emails with Eric. I was always amazed at how encouraging and supportive he always was to a guy he barely knew. Sadly he did not ever write the launching article.


As a reference, the day we filmed this was a about 9@16 from the north. This area, being sheltered from the north swell, made it very possible to get out there and have some fun.

Marin Headlands:
The Marin Headlands are accessible in just about any condition. My favorite place to launch is Fort Baker, also called Horseshoe Cove. Not only is it conveniently close to the bridge, there is a cool little yacht club right at the launch where you can get a burger and beer after a wonderful paddle.

All on the map

The water in the headlands is deep, it is protected from the large ocean swell by Point Lobos to the south and Point Bonita to the north. The main thing that would regulate getting out and back in the gate are the tidal currents. There are a couple ways to plan a trip out into the headlands depending what the currents are doing that day. You can simply head out on the ebb and back on the flood (but there is a little more going on out there) or you can go against the current.

The headlands are separated into two major coves, the first being from Lime Point under the bridge to Point Diablo approx. one mile out and has a small lighthouse. The next being from Point Diablo to Point Bonita. Both of these areas tend to be back eddies and the current runs opposite of the ebb and flood when paddling near shore. However, when rounding the tip of Point Diablo, the current generally runs true.

The Lime Point area has a few features to talk about. It is possible to exit the bay on a flood because of a large eddy directly in front of the North tower of the bridge. It is possible to paddle around the point up to the west end of the tower without any effort. From there, you will see a well-defined eddy line where you will have about 50 yards of hard paddling against the current before you can get out of it and into the small cove near shore. Then there is plenty of sheltered paddling to make your way out.

Returning on a ebb is possible using the same eddy which is created by Lime Point. It is possible to get right up to the point and punch your way around and into a small eddy approx. 50 feet inside the point. From there you can work your way along shore back to Horseshoe. However on a very strong ebb of around 5k, this eddy gets washed out and it can be a hard paddle home. One more note on this spot, it is possible to get some help back in by riding a swell around the corner, but be warned that just past the small eddy inside, there is a submerged rock that creates a breaking wave at low tide. This can be a very fun spot to play if you are ready for it, but on a big set, it will suck you backwards into the rock and the next wave will land on your head. There is a very good example of this spot in the last minute of the video below, where Tony is looking down on me as I am paddling flat out against the combination of the ebb and the suction of the long period wave wrapping around the corner.

Lime Point to Point Diablo:
Once getting outside the bay, this area is a great place to play in some protected rock gardens. The area is very sheltered from the ocean swell, but still gets enough action to make it fun. There is a very nice beach to land on just outside the gate in Kirby Cove. This spot is also a campground and is a beautiful place to spend the night, the best spot being campsite #1. It’s right on the water and has a wonderful view of the Golden Gate and San Francisco all lit up at night. But if its a foggy night and you have trouble sleeping near a fog horn, you’re in for a rough night.

Point Diablo to Point Bonita.
Once rounding Pt Diablo, there is a good sized change in conditions. This area is more exposed to the ocean swell and wind. There are some cool features between here and Black Sand Beach to explore. You will know when you have arrived at Black Sand because this is a very long sandy beach. When arriving at this beach the end nearest you has the most forgiving landing and launching, as the break tends to get bigger as you proceed north. There are a couple of rock piles scattered along this beach and it is fun to try to get around the inside without getting washed up on the beach. After passing the beach, there are a couple of scattered features until arriving at the large cove nearest Point Bonita. This cove should be avoided and is closed to landing because of a large seal population.

So now you have made it to Point Bonita:
Point Bonita is a real cool spot and very worth making it a destination for a paddle. For starters, you can get a great look at the ocean from a sheltered area inside the point. We headed out there last winter on a 20ft day to see what was going on in the ocean. Staying behind the point, it was possible to sit in calm glassy water, and by paddling only a few yards out, you could be exposed to what was left of the 25ft waves that were breaking outside the point. A few of us ventured out into this area for some fun and got it for sure, as can be seen in this video.

The day we filmed this, there was a 3.5k ebb running at the time. Since the current was pushing against the incoming swell, it would cause the waves to wall up and break. It also brought up a big factor of danger being in this area, if one of us had happened to come out of our boats and swim, the current would have drug us outside into the heart of these waves outside the point. When we arrived at the point, the smart few of our group headed behind the point to watch the wave show, while the less smart (Tony, Sergey and myself) decided to log some play time in these waves. After about 15 minutes of messing around in this stuff and thinking about the danger of what we were doing, I turned to Tony and said “Let’s get the %^#@ out of here!” It did not take any convincing for him to agree.

I should note that on a flood tide, the current in this spot flows out to sea because of the large eddy I mentioned earlier in this article. So caution should me made when planning a trip into the ocean and returning on a flood tide above approx. 3k. Besides the possibility of it being difficult to paddle a short distance around the point, you may find tide rips and very choppy water just outside of the point where the counter current hits the oncoming flood.

So with all that in mind, it brings me to the jewell of Point Bonita. There is a beautiful arch that can be paddled through when conditions allow. And it also makes for a great picture spot.

Once rounding the point, it is a short paddle to Rodeo Beach where landing is possible on the far south end in just about any condition. See the next article for more on this section, coming soon…ish.