There are 18 islands in San Francisco Bay. On December 15, we visited four of them, The Sisters and the Marin Islands, all off limits. Our adventure started at China Camp Village Beach. Four of us were on the water at 10 a.m. We paddled out to The Sisters where we “threaded the needle,” Grendel’s Needle, a narrow slot in the rock on the west side of the west Sister. With the ebb current, it was simply a matter of lining your boat up with the slot and letting the current woosh you through. From The Sisters it was an easy paddle with the current to reach the Marin Islands.
We adjusted our ferry angle to compensate for the current which would have caused us to overshoot our goal without correcting. Sometimes you have to paddle in what seems like the wrong direction to compensate for the current. The islands which constitute the Marin Islands National Wildlife Refuge are named after the Coast Miwok man known as Chief Marin. We recently learned that not only are the islands protected, but much of the water to the north of the islands is also protected.
Once around the islands we headed for Loch Lomond Yacht harbor where we took advantage of the new kayak dock to disembark from our kayaks. After lunch we made our way back to China Camp, taking the most direct route. We logged 8.5 miles over the course of the day, landing back on the beach shortly before 2 p.m. It was another very pleasant day on the water.
On the morning of March 1, six of us gathered at the beach at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor with a plan to paddle across the bay to Bullhead Flat, a destination in China Camp State Park. Since currents, wind and shipping traffic are concerns, we spent some time discussing the plan before launching our boats. With a slight flood we expected the current to push us north, up the bay, so we set a ferry angle taking us more directly across the shipping channel with the current carrying us towards our destination.
We were on the water at 10 a.m. David turned his radio to channel 14 to notify Vessel Traffic Control (VTC) that a pod of six kayakers would be crossing the shipping channel. He was not able to raise VTC. We paddled on until we were outside of Point San Pablo where I was able to contact VTC on my radio. I reported our location, our destination, and the estimated time for our arrival across the shipping lanes. The red buoy marks the starboard (right) side of the shipping lane.
Once across we headed for The Sisters, a couple of islands off of Point San Pedro. Several of us decided to “thread Grendel’s Needle,” a gap in the rocks on the westernmost Sister. We had calm water paddling through the needle. With a stronger current and wind, there can be quite a surge of water.
We were a bit hesitant to paddle the needle since there was a flock of cormorants on top of the island, and we try our best to not disturb the birds when we are paddling. From The Sisters, we paddled north past McNears Beach, past the China Camp Village beach, and on to Bullhead Flat. There we pulled our boats out of the water and found a picnic table to use as we broke out our lunches.
After lunch, it was back on the water for the return trip. The current was now ebbing a bit, so we had the current working with us as we crossed the bay. Again, we set a ferry angle to compensate for the current. The gathering clouds caught my attention on the return paddle, and I thought they made for a lovely photo composition with the kayaks. I’ve posted an online gallery with more photos. You can see a track of our paddle below. We logged 8.3 miles for a very pleasant day on the bay
March 11. Another glorious day on the Bay. Seven of us launched our kayaks from Loch Lomond Yacht Harbor in San Rafael. Our paddle plan included an 11 AM departure to coordinate our paddle with the tides, pushing a little bit against the current paddling out past Point San Pedro and riding the current home. We launched under a blue sky with dramatic clouds on the horizon and calm water. From Loch Lomond we paddled to the Marin Islands, passing between the two Islands and then heading North East to The Sisters where we paddled through the slot called Grendel’s Needle. We found a little bit of turbulence where the current coming at us through the slot was constricted. A few power stokes and a forward bow rudder gave us a bit boat control practice and took us safely through the needle.
From The Sisters we paddled over to China Camp where a part of our group that opted to bypass The Sisters were already spatially distanced and eating lunch at picnic tables.
After lunch we were back on the water and we had a quick ride back to our launch site. As we were ready to launch I handed my camera to Alan, one of our paddling buddies, and asked him to take a photo of Joann and me with our boats. The longer boat is a Pygmy Coho built in 1999. The shorter Pygmy Ronan was built in 2017. Too often I’m the one that’s missing from the photos.
Over the course of the day we averaged a little under 3 mph on our way to China Camp, and a fast ride back getting up to 5 mph when we were riding the current. Our course covered 9 miles.
There was some discussion on the water and by email after the paddle regarding tidal predictions which don’t always match the published tide and current tables. Always good to paddle with friends that can temper the predictions with local knowledge. Please view additional photos here and to take a closer look at our track go here.
On July 13 it was time to get back on the water. We had a six week hiatus while playing grandparents and dealing with the challenges of social distancing and staying-at-home. With a prediction for afternoon winds we decided to get an early start. China Camp State Park was our chosen launch site and we were on the water at 9:40.
Our plan was to paddle south around Point San Pablo, check the wind and water and round the Marin Islands if conditions looked good. We were paddling on an ebb so we would have the current with us going south, and the wind with us on the return. Once we were on the water two small islands, The Sisters, looked inviting so we set course for the islands thinking we might “thread the needle,” passing through a narrow slot in the west Sister called Grendel’s Needle. Once we were through the slot, we headed back to Point San Pablo. We found that on crossing back we were experiencing the full fetch of the wind blowing from the southwest, giving us some steep wind waves up to three feet with a few whitecaps slapping us; not a place for an inexperienced paddler, but we found the challenge invigorating.
As we rounded the point, we left the rough water behind. I find when I’m paddling in challenging conditions I’m intent on keeping my hands on the paddle and practicing boat control. Putting the paddle down to take photos is not an option.
We took a quick reconnoiter of the Marin Islands and decided that rather than slog into the wind, we’d turn into a little beach near McNear Brick & Block, a brickyard that was established by George P. McNear and his son Erskine in 1898 which still operates today. You can see the chimneys of the brick works in one of the photos.
Once we landed, we pulled our boats out of the water and dipped into our lunches for a mid-morning snack. With the wind building though, we decided that it was prudent to get back on the water to begin our journey back around the point.
We were back at our launch point at noon. We finished our lunch and went back on the water to practice boat control drills and rescues. My Eskimo roll needs more practice.
Our paddle covered six miles, and we were glad to be off the water as we watched whitecaps build in the afternoon.