Kayaking Around Alcatraz
Mendocino: Rock Gardens 101 With Helen Wilson

City Kayak, San Francisco


The condo I was staying in under the Bay Bridge happened to be located about three blocks away from an kayak rental shop called City Kayak. I arrived one warm sunny day having walked along the Embarcadero carrying my gear and already wearing my drysuit with the top down and gathered around my waist.

City Kayak is located at Pier 40. The kayaks are stacked on the dock, and the office is located way in the back corner of the warehouse, basically a desk surrounded by racks of paddles and gear, all caged in with a chain−link fence. I found the proprietor, Ted, sitting there, not looking too busy.

Rental was easy. Sixteen bucks an hour. Sign a waiver. Not many questions asked about experience. “A drysuit?” he said. “Are you planning on doing some rolling practice?”



When he asked what kayak I wanted I asked him to give me something sporty. He suggested the Chatham 17. It was the favorite among the guides he hires to lead tours along the waterfront. We hauled it down from the rack. Safety orange plastic. Skeg had broken off. Looked well used −− I guessed fifteen years old, but he said it was only three. “Watch out for the front compartment,” he said. “It leaks.”

I got in and adjusted the footpedals. Comfortable. Slid it into the water and I was off.


It was a gorgeous, clear breezy afternoon. City Kayak doesn’t open until 1 PM. And even then, as would I learn later, you might have to call Ted on his cell phone to get him out of the house, ride his bike in and open up the shop to do business with you. Calling in a reservation beforehand may be the way to go here. 

I kept my distance from anglers fishing off the piers. With the breeze coming from the west I preferred to paddle close to shore though to stay in the lee of the land.


Just before I reached the Ferry Building a saw a big brown spotted fish swimming on the surface and chased it around. A leopard shark. It came up close enough for me to pet it.


I paddled right along the Ferry Building and watched the diners sitting outside of the Slanted Door. It was as if they didn’t even see me. That’s the thing about being in a kayak. You are invisible, because no one really expects you to be there, sneaking under piers and looking into windows. And there aren’t a lot of “No Trespassing” signs anywhere. Not many rules either.

P9156776 P9177054

By the time I got to Pier 39 I was fighting both the wind and current. I found a path underneath the pier from a protected marina to the sea lion colony on the other side. The sea lions have taken over here. The yacht owners constantly chase them off and try to keep the docks clear. It’s futile though. They'll swim around the water a while but later climb back up to sun themselves again.




Bruce Stitt

Too bad you have to work.......we could watch you blog indefinitely.

Mel Mashman

The SF waterfront is indeed a beautiful place. However, be careful out there. The wind usually picks up in the afternoon in the SF Bay. The tide and current are very important in trip planning. Not a place for a novice paddler alone.
Western Sea Kayakers (WSK) and Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK) are two wonderful sea kayaking clubs in the Bay Area.
Thanks for the pictures and the story.

David Kurtz

We used to paddle on Spring Creek next to the Bush House Hotel where guests were dining on the veranda overhead. Bellefonte, PA. Here they noticed us and we would call for bread pieces to be thrown to us. Or we would ask what was being served for dinner.

Now the Bush House has burned down and there are no guests looking at us from overhead...

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