I got my bathing suit and nylon shirt on, still unwashed from the previous weekend. Pulled together some fruit and a Clif Bar, and got going. As the crow files, Tomales Bay is only 20 miles from Santa Rosa, but the roads between here and there are not your average roads. These roads wind. The trip takes about an hour, especially if you get completely turned around and start inadvertently heading back the way you came!
Luckily I got myself reoriented and made my way to Marshall, on the mainland side of Tomales bay. The class had two other members, a man probably in his late 30s and his mother. They already own two kayaks, but were looking to improve their skills. We got into wetsuits (I don’t think my body is shaped appropriately for a wetsuit), packed our watertight bags, and put on skirts and floatation vests.
Our instructor, John, talked a little bit about the history and the shape of the boats. We’d be paddling in 15 foot long sea kayaks, learning a series of basic strokes and recovery techniques. The first rule of kayaking is: paddle with your torso and not your arms!
So we get in the boats, attach our skirts to the deck, and John pushes us off into the water. It’s kind of like being on ice skates for the first time (in a long time). Since I’m attached to the boat, small adjustments in my center of balance cause the boat to rotate dramatically to the left or the right. I don’t want to be the first to spill into the drink, but I worry it’ll be hard to know my limits until I do.
We practice a series of forward and reverse sweep strokes, intended to turn the boat without moving forward (much). Though the kayaks come with rudders, we won’t be using them, as they’d defeat the purpose of learning any proper strokes at all. After a good bit of practice, we learn the forward power stroke, and prepare to traverse the bay and lunch on the Point Reyes side.
According to the Gmaps Pedometer, a one way trip across the bay was about 0.82 miles. We stopped on a beach, and the sun conveniently broke through the fog long enough for me to wolf down a banana and a Clif bar. Now the real fun began.
John went over assisted and unassisted recovery techniques on the beach. The number of important steps to take so that one doesn’t fall back into the water while trying to get into their boat was alarming. Luckily I was nominated the first to capsize.
We paddled out, I gave a un-deux-trois, and rolled myself over. Cold. Water. Actually it wasn’t that bad, but it’s pretty shocking to be upside down and still attached to my boat. Thankfully I’ve been through this drill before—meanwhile the other guy’s mom was freaking out about having to do the same. I pull the skirt release tab and woo, I’m still alive.
This was going to be an assisted recovery, and John was going to be my assistant, so he walked me through the steps. I float towards the stern (the back), while he manuevers his kayak to the bow (the front) perpendicular to my upside down kayak. He grabs the bow (with two hands!) while I push down on the stern so he can yank my boat up onto his. He lifts it up so the water drains out while I bob in the bay. Then he turns it right side up and maneuvers it so our boats are parallel but facing in opposite directions. He takes my paddle, and holds onto the lip of my cockpit, creating a stable platform which I have to jump up on to (on my belly), then rotate around (still on my belly), push my feet down into the kayak (on my belly still), and then slowly rotate my body around and sit back up. Yey! A successful assisted recovery.
We then spend the next while practicing assisted and unassisted recoveries, the unassisted kind requiring a special paddle float that I assemble and inflate while my kayak patiently waits upside down. Once I get myself back in, having used the paddle+float as an outrigger, I get to bail the kayak out with a bilge pump. I admit this was all a lot of fun (maybe the most fun all day), and I managed to do about twice as many recoveries due to my lighting fast re-entry speed.
The wind and the waves started to pick up, so we began the journey back across the bay. The rougher conditions meant that I was mostly paddling on the left side just to keep the boat going straight, and even that wasn’t always enough. Eventually I made it back, practiced another unassisted recovery while the others came in, and that was pretty much it.
Except for food. Just down the way was The Marshall Shore, advertising the best barbecued oysters on the planet, and I hoped, a damn good chowder. It’s a really cute little place, right over the water, with a veritable ton of oyster shells lining the shore outside. Inside it’s set up like a general store, serve yourself, take your time, and pay before you go. I put my order of barbecued oysters in, helped myself to a cup of clam chowder, and cracked open a bottle of Boont Amber Ale.
For the uninitiated (of which I was recently one) a barbecued oyster is shucked, but left in the half shell. A little bit of butter and a ketchup based “barbecue” sauce is put on top of each and they’re cooked, shell-side down on the grill. I’m coming to realize it’s practically Northern California’s national dish. And I could have had a lot more than 6.