Back in the Boat- reflections on tides and currents

This morning felt balmy for February as I prepared my one person canoe to get on the water and paddle with my club, San Francisco Outrigger. I tag along with the six person canoes. We launch at Crissy Fields, just inside the Golden Gate bridge and Fort Point by 9:30. After a warm up paddle to the Golden Gate bridge, we head along the San Francisco waterfront towards the Bay Bridge in hopes to catch the ebb tide home before it turns into a flood tide by 11:30 am. The forecast is also for unstable weather, south winds with showers likely.

Just west of Pier 45, almost an hour later, south winds pick up and dark clouds now obscured the distant Golden Gate Bridge. Rain was imminent. Both crews in the six person canoes stop to put on a layer. I watch the rain jackets appear, wishing I had brought mine. I am a bit of an outdoor geek, and usually, prepared like a girl scout. I thought about bringing along a warm hat and a paddle jacket but arrived a bit late and didn’t take that extra minute to grab those things. As the wind increased, so did our hull speed. Warm showers started to soak us as we approached the basin where the Navy ship is docked. My body fat is only 15%, not much to keep me warm with winds and rain now. We have another hour or so more before practice would be over. I scanned the shore looking for coverage to wait out the deluge with an intent to stay a little drier in hopes the rain would let up in a few minutes. Felt like a squall. I sprinted over to the towering Navy Ship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien, where its 444 ft. steel hull provided shelter, being leeward to the wind. The two canoes paddled by me. After a few minutes, the rain let up. I left my shelter and put some pep in my step to catch the other two canoes. I knew I just needed to keep moving to stay warm. Thankfully, we only took one other brief break to complete our ten mile, 2 hour training run. Intermittent showers continued.

Being prepared for conditions you may encounter that include cold water immersion, weather and the ability to re-enter your craft is a responsibility of each paddler. These are the basics. Those who are unprepared become a liability to the rest of the crew or group. A little oversight on my self care today- making a note to take that extra moment. A consistent practice.

A closer look at today’s tides and currents are provided here for those who like to ponder and reflect on wind, current and waves as interactive energy. I am fascinated, some would say obssesed, with the dynamics of San Francisco Bay- winds & waves, tide & current, ocean swell, and seafloor topography. I have studied them closely for the past 14 years. All my life, I have been a student of the sea. That said, learning to read the bay area waters, and understand what I see and feel has been so fun while making me a better paddler and steersperson for my team. Feeling the water and canoe is another aspect of reading the water. Life long learning from the sea, ocean and each other.

Today was the second time this month I took note of the current changing from ebb to flood between the Embarcadero near the Bay Bridge and Fort Mason, closer to the Golden Gate bridge (see map below). The tide was supposed to be ebbing along the waterfront until 11:30, noon at the south end of the Golden Gate bridge and 2pm at the north end of the span. When we turned around, the ebb was strong until Aquatic park, and even past Fort Mason, my speed hitting 9 mph.  The two six person canoes took a line close to shore while I stayed outside to follow the current, faster moving water, because I was still moving along at 6mph. I could see I was gaining on the other canoes and started to pass them.

Halfway between Fort Mason and the Marina Jetty, the current changed rapidly, my speed dropped to 3 mph. Then, suddenly, boom, my canoe hit the wall of water, flooding now, plus headwind, pushing against the canoe. The texture of the water changed and became more choppy. The waves were unorganized. I have noticed the current change in this spot many times during team practices when I am steerperson for our crew. I decide now to head closer to shore but the current is still slowing me down. I see the six person canoes, in more favorable water, walking away from me. At the jetty, the water is rushing around the point against my canoe. Staying inside the eddy as much as possible, I am happy to get past the point. My next strategy is to paddle just several feet from the shore along St Francis Yacht club where I pick up speed with the surges and reflective energy of the waves and current. I narrow the distance with the six person canoes, finally trailing them. I continue just outside of the beach break, pick up speed on those surges and find a little wind protection from the bluffs. A familiar paddle home to Crissy Fields against the wind and current with the Golden Gate in sight again. Amazing place!

One Question: Trying to understand the extent that surge from the ocean swell at the gate may play as a factor for an early flood, if any. Today the swell was W swell 5 to 7 ft @ 10 seconds and creating some nice surging shore break along Crissy Fields and beautiful surf breaks at Fort Point. Maybe not so much today but two weeks ago we had 22-25 ft @18 seconds NW swell.  Mavericks surf report was for 60 ft waves that day. That was the last time I took note of the tide change in this same spot. Today the flood started 30 minutes early so not significant. Two weeks ago, it started an hour or more earlier than predicted. It is common to have an early ebb tide after big rains and spring snowmelt. I have attended the tides and currents lecture by the Pineapple Sails owner, Kame Richards, at the Bay Model twice now. It is geared to sailors but interesting. He says consistently the tides start to change two hours earlier along the shores. After we got off the water, I had to chat with Coach Steph who said she also had noticed that the tides have been starting two hours early in the past two weeks. What triggers early flooding? Thoughts?

Feature Photo credit: Cody Sylvester

San Francisco Bay fun tides and currents links:

  1. Visit the Bay Model, click here to their website. They have occasional interesting events and speakers on local tides and currents, marine mammal research and film festivals.
  2. Here are two links of my favorite tides and currents short videos: a) Flying over the seafloor of San Francisco Bay, very cool simulation, click here. b) America’s Cup Tactician discusses tides and currents of the SF Bay race course, click here.
  3. CaliPaddler article on tides and currents for paddlers: Click here.


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5 Thoughts to “Back in the Boat- reflections on tides and currents”

  1. Beautiful picture, great posting.

  2. You are an amazing athlete, Priscilla. Can’t believe you’re out there in such turbulent waters.

  3. Amy

    I really enjoyed reading this article! I found myself paddling right along there with you…Mahalo!

    1. Thank you Amy for your positive feedback! See you on the water.

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