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September 2009
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November 2009

A Skin-On-Frame Joel White Shearwater



Richard Lovering has been putting in some long days lately, absorbed in the final stages of construction of a skin-on-frame pulling/sailing boat based on a Joel White design, the Shearwater, 16 foot lapstrake double-ender. Here are some pictures taken as he was stitching the skin on. Since then the nylon has been dyed black and sealed with polyurethane.  The frame is surprisingly light. He has installed a compartment along the keelson to hold a couple steel plates weighing 100 pounds each for ballast. The sails will be fashioned from hardware store canvas drop cloth sealed with Thompson's Waterseal. 



There is enough space to stretch out and sleep on the deck, so it'll be perfect for gunkholing around the San Juan Islands. I can't wait for the initial sea trials in Commencement Bay. It will be cool to see how she performs compared to my Joel White Pooduck Skiff!


Mendocino: Rock Gardens 101 With Helen Wilson


I rented a car in San Francisco and drove north about four hours to Mendocino. Helen Wilson drove down from Arcata to meet me there with her two kayaks. The coast at Mendo is stunningly beautiful, so dense with caves, tunnels and rock gardens that you could spend several hours exploring all the little nooks and crannies, then turn around to head back at the end of the day only to realize you’ve traveled just a couple miles along the shore.

Helen showed me a little guidebook published a few years ago by a local kayak club. It contained detailed descriptions of all the launch sites, beach features and hazards, and included details from nautical charts.

“Don’t spill coffee on it," she said. It was a very rare book loaned to her by a friend. Thumbing through it I saw that each route had a hand-drawn map of the shoreline, with notes on interesting features. I imagined touring this part of the coast over an entire week, a different beach every day. When I had finished I could start over at the beginning and see each place again at a different tide level. It would be like never paddling in the same place twice.

We parked at Van Damme beach, three miles south of Mendo. A small crowd had already gathered −− a mix of individual abalone divers and a group of sit-on-top kayakers getting ready to head off on a guided tour.


Earlier that day we talked about the basics of rock garden paddling over breakfast. Corncakes and coffee. Mimosas sparkling in the sun. 

“So what do I need to know about rock garden paddling?” I asked. “Remember that you're talking to a total newbie.”

She said first of all you have to exercise some judgement about when to go. The best time is when the swell is small. Ideally around 2−3 feet. When the swell is too small to go surfing it can be the best time to play in rock gardens. There is still plenty of action around the rocks. Pay attention to the swell period as well. At the same swell height a longer period will give you waves with more water and energy behind them. Good conditions would be a swell around 2−3 feet and period less than 7 seconds, for instance.

As you paddle out, stay alert and anticipate how conditions and waves can change several minutes ahead. Plan a course through the rocks and stay on the lookout for optional routes. When you come to a cave or a slot or playspot, wait and watch it for a while. Five minutes. See what the largest sets are doing. You will occasionally see "set waves” that are much larger than the typical waves. It may happen only once every 20 minutes. A “monster wave” can appear only once every 3 hours. You have to be alert for them.

As far as caves go, make sure it’s big enough to roll inside before going in. Face the ocean and back into it. Avoid caves with low ceilings. If you’re in a cave and a big wave surges in, capsize to avoid getting pushed into the ceiling, which can be very dangerous. Then roll up when the waves has passed. If you are trapped between the ceiling and your kayak, the few hundred pounds of buoyancy in a kayak can crush your spine.

I felt like having another mimosa. On second thought, I figured I should stay sharp that morning.


Once back in the green Chatham, I followed Helen out into the middle of the protected cove, over kelp forests and then north. Waves were breaking over the reef and around the headlands. Along the way we passed a cliff with a cave in it.

“How about that one?” I asked.

“Oh, that? That’s not a cave, Andrew. That’s just a hole in the rock.”

Ha ha -- silly me! People get all excited about little holes like that where I’m from!

She found a tunnel and led us into the cool and dark. Sunlight shone through the green water below. It led into a larger chamber where the ceiling opened up to the sky. A passage led around back toward the cove.  Opposite that, a longer tunnel led toward the ocean. It was as if this place was made for kayaks! We paddled on through, against the surge coming in from the exposed side.


Once outside we headed back south, passed teams of abalone divers working off the sit−on−tops, and over forests of kelp.

“Let me borrow your knife", she said. “I’ll show you tricks you can do with kelp.” She sliced off of a length of kelp. Fashioned it into a horn. “Don’t breathe the gas inside. It’s carbon monoxide.” She put her lips to one end and blew, but it made only a weak hissing sound −− not quite as musical as she expected, I think.

“You can also cut it at the bulb like a funnel and make it into a Freshette.” (Clearly it's one of the tricks they teach in those “women only” kayak classes).


We paddled through narrow slots, and rode small surging waves around and over submerged rocks. I practiced timing the swell, and controlled my boat with a hanging draws while the surge pushed me through.

Helen told me another thing about caves and tunnels. The walls sometimes project outward above the water and are more open underwater. You can see this at low tide and sometimes when the water level changes with the surge. This can present a hazard if you capsize and are trying to roll up while being pushed against a wall. Your kayak can get caught under this rock shelf and you won’t be able to roll up.

Sometimes the wall can open up to an underwater chamber. If you capsize and are caught under the shelf, and then wet exit because you’re not able to able to roll up, you could get washed into this chamber and not be able to find your way out. Visibility underwater is poor. People have died this way, trapped under the rock, disoriented and in the dark. 


Helen found a long narrow slot that led to a playspot behind some rocks. She watched it for several minutes, sizing it up. I waited as she paddled through. Once she was out of sight I started to head through myself, but I hesitated. Just then a huge set wave washed in. Suddenly the slot was all chaos and whitewater −− a roiling cauldron. I backed out quickly, and thanked God I didn’t follow her through! I met her as she exited the other side, a big smile on her face.

“Did you hear me yelling at you not to go through, after that wave came in?’ she said.

I hadn’t heard her. That’s what she meant earlier about “set waves” -- those waves that come in larger than the overall "significant wave height", which is the largest 1/3 of the waves. Statistically, the highest 10% of waves are 1.27 times the significant wave height and the highest 1% of waves are 1.67 times the significant wave height. These are referred to as the “set waves”.

Back on the beach we met up with some abalone divers. California is unique in that there has been a moratorium on commercial harvesting of abalone for more than 50 years. This has resulted in the densest population of abalone in the world, open only to recreational harvesters. All harvesting is all done by freediving −− no SCUBA is allowed. It’s quite a skill to be able to harvest in that challenging exposed coastal environment.

We asked to see their catch and they showed us. The shell was covered with marine growth. Underwater it would be difficult to distinguish the abalone from the rocks. Divers look for the characteristic black border of the foot. They turned it over to show us the underside. It had a huge fleshy foot, 7 or 8 inches across. A very impressive sea snail!



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.

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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.



Kayaking Around Alcatraz


On our second day exploring San Francisco, Helen Wilson and I decided to launch at Crissy Field in the Marina District. We found a parking spot right on the beach, unloaded the boats and set off for Alcatraz.

Helen had been told on more than one occasion that kayakers are not welcome around the island, and have been told to keep their distance. But as we approached the island from the rocky south end I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t just paddle right up to it. The only warning posted was half of a large rotting sign that dated from the days Alcatraz was a penitentiary. We could easily have gotten onshore without anyone noticing. Helen spotted some steps that reached down into the water, one of the very few friendly landing sites on the island. I could tell she was tempted to scramble up them while no one was looking, just to be able to say that we sneaked onto Alcatraz!

We made it around to the north side in time to watch a ferry loaded with tourists arrive. I played in the currents of its prop wash as the passengers emptied onto the dock. 


A sea cave is located at the bottom of a tall cliff on the side of the island that faces San Francisco. In 1943 a prisoner named Floyd Hamilton spent two freezing days in this cave before turning himself in. He had been presumed dead after guards fired at him as he was swimming and saw him disappear under water. After hiding in the cave and presumably giving up on trying to swim to San Francisco, he climbed back up the cliff and through the same window he had escaped from. He is known as the only person who ever broke into Alcatraz.

There is only one proven case of an inmate swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco. On December 16, 1962 John Paul Scott reached Fort Point where he was found naked and hypothermic by a group of teenagers. You would think he would have picked a warmer time of year to try to escape! For some reason a lot of these escapees are found with their clothes off after attempting the swim. The park rangers suggest that the strong currents of San Francisco Bay ripped their clothes off. Or maybe they removed them themselves because of the extra weight and drag. Another possibility is that they took them off while in a hypothermic delirium.


Helen and I headed back to toward the city and meandered along the waterfront, passing the sea lion colony at Fisherman’s Wharf, sneaking underneath the piers, and paddling alongside open water swimmers in Aquatic Park. I would realize how lucky we were that day, when later in the week the wind picked up in the middle of a warm clear day and pushed fog in passed the Gate to surround Alcatraz and completely obliterate the view from the city just a mile and a half away. Conditions around here can be so dynamic!