2010 Aug – Alameda & Ballena Bay

I invited the girls to spend the weekend on the boat at Ballena Bay and explore the island of Alameda with its historic Victorian homes.  Darlene said she couldn’t make it but Annie said she was game.

The weekend before I had put my newly repaired dinghy in the water and ran the dink around the marina and the channel for an hour getting the feel of it and how it handled.  I have never had a dinghy before so I thought I should try it out before committing someone else to a ride in it.  I figured, how hard can it be?

My ride started off badly because when I put the 4-stroke outboard into gear that first time I forgot to throttle down from the rabbit icon to the turtle icon, so the dink reared up – obscuring my view – and took off at high speed.  I shot out of my slip, ricocheted off the guest dock, bounced back into the channel, roared off towards an expensive looking yacht, and did a few frantic wheelies until I managed to kill the engine.  Not a very auspicious start.  However, after about an hour of alternating between careening and stalling, I figured I had the hang of it and returned my dink to my dock.  I was ready to run around Alameda over the coming weekend.

I had previously asked a delivery skipper in my marina for local advice on entering Ballena Bay and we went over the charts together.  He indicated my route and said I had to hug the outside of the breakwater all the way down the channel until I could turn into the marina.  That was the safest way because of shallow waters all around that bay.

I called the Ballena Bay marina on Friday to get my assigned slip and the harbormaster said I should head straight down the main channel, pass the first 4 docks, and we were the end-tie on the fifth dock to port. She said if I hit the fuel dock then I had gone too far.

Ballena Bay marina - Google Earth

Annie arrived Friday night and we carefully went over my NOAA nautical charts, examining our intended route and studying a satellite photo of the Ballena Bay marina that I found on Google Earth.  I am always extremely cautious when traveling somewhere that I have never been, and always carefully examine my charts.  I also like everyone on board to know where we are going and how to get there and back using the official NOAA charts.  Careful navigation is critical whether you are out to sea, coastal cruising, or running around the San Francisco Bay.  At any rate, I take it very seriously.



We slept on the boat and were up early Saturday morning.  Well, we meant to be up very early but only roused ourselves around 9:00am.  Typically the mornings are wonderful in the south bay, with gentle morning light and absolute calm weather.  And getting out of the slip in the early morning is usually pretty simple – untie the boat, give the boat a gentle shove backwards and out of the slip she glides.  Not this morning – the wind was blowing hard enough that Annie couldn’t hold the boat against the port dock finger.  I cant back out when the boat is against the starboard finger because the solar panels – which the previous owner extended 2 feet off starboard – would bash into the piling at the end of the dock and be smashed as I back out, so I have to back out as close to the port finger as possible.

Annie couldn’t hold the boat against the port finger with the wind trying to knock her off her feet, so I jumped off the boat to help, but even with 2 of us we were struggling to hold the boat.  Eventually with lots of semi-helpful suggestions yelled back and forth we got the boat going backwards against the port finger enough so that we could both leap on board, and I hit reverse.  We were free.

We motored up the bay with the wind howling thru the rigging.  As we approached the San Mateo Bridge heading for the Bay Bridge, it didn’t ease my tension any when the Coast Guard came on the radio and put out a high winds alert for the area and warned – All Mariners exercise extreme caution in the region of the San Mateo Bridge.  Any warm fuzzy feeling I had about Freedom and being Out On The Bay promptly evaporated.

It took 3½ hours to motor against the current and against the winds to Ballena Bay.  The winds were still so high as we approached the marina that I decided that we should anchor outside the marina until the winds abated.  I was reluctant to go into an unknown marina in a fat trimaran with high winds blowing me around.  But incredibly the winds suddenly died to nothing as we approached the marina buoys and by the time we turned down the marina’s main channel, it was dead calm.  We counted off the docks and identified our berth.  I continued down the channel to the fuel dock, did a pirouette, came back up the channel and docked facing the exit with my starboard against the dock.  Annie jumped off and secured the bow while I leapt off the stern and tied that off.  It was around 1:00pm Saturday and we were safely docked.

We only had Saturday and Sunday for our adventure, so without much ado we grabbed money, camera, sweaters, and drinks… locked up the boat and headed out for the afternoon to see Alameda’s famous Victorian homes.


Well, this is art decor - but a beautiful example

The city of Alameda was founded in 1853 and has a population of around 73,000 living on the island today.  A Victorian home should have a minimum of 7 colors, they say, and Alameda has the highest concentration of Victorian homes with over 3000 Painted Ladies built during the 1800s. It is said that Alameda has more pre-1906 earthquake era homes than any other city in the Bay Area.

(Alameda is also famous for its Fourth of July parade which is one of the largest and longest in the country.  It features homemade floats, classic cars, motorized living room furniture, fire breathing dragons, marching bands and lots of enthusiastic people. The parade route is about 3 miles long.  This parade is going on my list of places to visit for next year’s July 4th).

We went by the harbormaster’s office and picked up a flier that had a rough map of Alameda about the size of a postcard with the borders of the flier taken up with advertising… you know, the kind they give tourists.  The harbormaster marked the map with various places of interest and we walked out of the marina up to Central Ave and turned right towards Alameda’s historic downtown following the route marked on our trusty map.  Having a digital camera means you can be trigger happy and I snapped every lovely home we came across.  We saw whole streets of gorgeous homes, all beautifully painted, with intricate and delicate embellishments.  I snapped away happily.  I had done some research online and I specifically wanted to see a special house that looked stunning online.  We walked and walked until we reached the Meyer House in Alameda Ave.  Aaaaaarrrggh – that wasn’t it – how did I mess that up??  The Meyer House is all white!!!  Well, maybe it is 7 shades of white, but who can tell white from white in stark sunlight.  Annie said that maybe they were base painting the house with primer getting it ready for its 7+ colors…..  but I would not be mollified.

Annie sitting on a carriage stop - with ring for tying horses

We continued on down Alameda Ave until we reached the historic city section.  By this time we had been walking for over 3 hours and we were hungry and thirsty.  We stopped for falafels at a little Mediterranean eatery and the food was delicious.  Then Annie spotted a museum which we visited.  They had a wonderful collection of Victorian artifacts as well as a glass cabinet displaying beautifully beaded women’s purses.  Grandma’s beaded purse used to be tossed out as too old fashioned but today they cost a fortune on eBay.

Grandma's beaded purses

The woman in the store suggested we walk down to San Jose and Willow where a stunning example of a Victorian home stood on the corner. We followed her suggestion and after another half hour of walking there it was!!!  The beauty I had seen on the internet.  What a gorgeous gorgeous example of a Victorian home – covered in color, resplendent in embellishments, and standing tall and proud on the corner.  All the exquisite homes on Alameda pale in comparison to this one.  I stood and stared in wonder.  After four hours of walking my feet ached, my back ached… actually my whole body ached, but it was all worth it.  This is a fabulous example of a Painted Lady and a must see for any visitor to the island.

close up detail

close up detail

more exquisite detail

By now the sun was low, the pain in my feet was high, my digital camera’s battery was running low and I was ready to head for the boat at high speed.  Neither of us relished the 5 mile walk back to the marina and so it was that by some miracle Annie spotted a taxi just then.  We hailed it and to our great relief it stopped.  Within 10 minutes we were back on the boat and I was flat on my back with my aching feet held in the air, draining the engorged blood out of them.  Oh my god but they hurt.  I keep forgetting that at my age I should be wrapped in a shawl, sitting on a rocker watching the sun set every evening.  Well almost….

Annie and I had talked earlier about crashing the party that night at the yacht club around the corner and checking out the sailors, but just the thought of putting any further pressure on my aching, swollen soles was enough to put me off.  I lay flat on the bunk, feet in the air, and complained until Annie shoved 2 Ibuprofen at me to shut me up.




Sunday morning dawned beautiful and calm.  My feet didn’t hurt anymore!!!  What bliss.  I sat in the cockpit watching the morning’s activity as Annie cooked up a mouthwatering breakfast.  It’s a busy little marina where they obviously have a training school on Boat Handling because boats went up and down the channels, backing up, docking, turning, and maneuvering busily.

A monohull came down the channel towards me and someone called out for a 160 degree turn.  160 degrees, I mused, such a precise metric?  Not 180 or 360 but 160?  How peculiar.  I watched interestedly to see what would happen.  The helmsman executed a neat 360 and everyone hi-fived him.  I’m guessing that all of the crew on that boat failed Geometry at school.

Then a mature woman and her man came down the channel in a dinghy, the kind of dinghy that has seats and a steering column in the center of the boat (as opposed to mine where you steer the boat by turning the outboard’s handle).  She was in the seat with both hands on the wheel giving the impression that she was steering.  However, husband was sitting on the port pontoon with his right arm extended holding the steering wheel.  He was making very forceful turning moves and was clearly in control of the dinghy.  Suddenly she threw up her hands, said some choice words to hubby, gave up fighting his overbearing control, and released the wheel.  Unfortunately she lost that round because he simply took over control of the wheel which is what he wanted all along.  Why do men do that to women?  More to the point, why do women let men do that to them??  Assuming she can steer a car down a busy freeway at 65mph, why would he think she is incapable of steering a dinghy down a quiet channel at 3mph?  In fact, she is probably also capable of doing a perfect 160.

The kids on the boat next to mine are having such fun swinging around in the bosun’s chair that their dad rigged for them.  Their happy laughter is such a delight.  I must remember the bosun chair trick the next time my grandchildren visit me on my boat.

The channel looked much wider this morning than when I came in yesterday until I realized that all the catamarans and trimarans that clogged the channel yesterday were all out sailing.  When you have multihulls on the end-ties of the docks, each extending 25 to 30 feet into the channel, then your nice wide channel suddenly becomes very constricted as you lose 60ft.  This marina has an astonishing amount of mulithulls in it.  A 40ft Norseman came by and the skipper yelled out that the boat went to weather very well for a catamaran.  I immediately experienced severe pangs of “go-to-weather” envy.  My trimaran thinks that “go to weather” means find a sunny spot on the Bay and anchor!

The start of our circumnavigation of Alameda island

Around Sunday noon Annie and I pored over my NOAA charts examining the island.  According to the chart the channel was deep enough all along its length such that we could circumnavigate the island in the dinghy if we wanted to.  We decided to try.   Little did we both realize at the time, but the circumnavigation distance is over 18 miles!

As I placed my precious Charts back into the navigation station Annie laughingly picked up the tourist flier we used yesterday with the rough map of Alameda.  The map is not drawn to scale, and is not drawn very precisely in general outline either, but Annie said that it would be our chart as she laughingly tucked it into her pocket.

credit: http://gotoes.org/kayaktours/20070128_CircumnavigateAlameda/

Map of Alameda, credits:  http://gotoes.org/kayaktours/20070128_CircumnavigateAlameda/

We dropped the dinghy in the water at which point I noticed that I hadn’t pumped the pontoons very firmly, or they had lost air.  In any case they were not as taut as I would have liked.  I dug out my foot pump that had never been used and found the obvious reason for this – I couldn’t find the connector that joined the pump hose to the pontoon valve.  Annie said, What are we going to do about this?  And I said, Nothing, just don’t sit on the pontoons.  And I flung the oars in the dinghy for good measure.

Annie insisted that we visit the fuel dock and fill the gasoline canister.  I was sure we would have enough gas for the afternoon but Annie was insistent.  As we dinghied down to the fuel dock I mentioned casually that I didn’t have much experience with dinghies and so she should be prepared for unexpected maneuverings.

We came up to the fuel dock calmly enough giving the false impression that I had the dinghy under control.  Annie crouched ready to exit the dinghy in a dignified way, and tie up.  I put the outboard into neutral but unfortunately I pushed the handle too far back and it clicked into reverse.  The dinghy started backwards.  Realizing my mistake I quickly pulled the lever forward but over-corrected again and the dinghy lurched forward in gear and t-boned the dock heavily.  I quickly rammed the lever into reverse again.  The sudden forward jolt coupled with the rapid backwards movement caused Annie to squawk and fall over backwards into the dinghy.  I did the only logical thing – I clutched my sides and rolled around hooting with laughter.

At the next attempt to dock Annie had completely lost faith in my dinghy handling ability and flung herself out of the dinghy before we even made contact with the dock.  We tied up, filled the gasoline container, and took off again down the channel somewhat more sedately I thought, with Annie firmly wedged up front not trusting me to get us down even the main channel unscathed.

In my defense I said contritely, Well I did warn you that I didn’t have much dinghy experience.  Last week was the first time I ever handled a dinghy but I did run around the marina for at least an hour, I asserted.

Annie said, One lousy hour?!  When you mentioned you had just a little experience I thought you were being self-deprecating and humble.  I didn’t know you meant you REALLY didn’t know what the hell you were doing.

I am claiming absolute innocence on this one…. In the interests of full disclosure I did mention it, albeit vaguely, up front.

Annie said she hoped no one was filming our fuel dock fiasco because otherwise we would be on YouTube by evening and viral by tomorrow with 2 million viewings.  Not to mention them winning $10,000 for their entry of us in America’s Funniest Home Videos.

We exited the marina and began our circumnavigation in an anti-clockwise direction.  We decided we would head for the first bridge that marked the beginning (or end?) of the Oakland Channel.  At that point we would see how long it took and decide to go forward or turn back.  The bridge seemed a long way away but we reached it in 30 minutes and decided to proceed.

We would go to Coast Guard Island and then decide if we wanted to turn back or proceed.  We reached the CGI in the next 30 minutes and decided to proceed.

We would go to Jack London Square and then decide if we wanted to proceed or turn back.  When we got to JLS we had been in the dink for about 1½ hours.  Annie hauled out her postcard sized tourist map of the island and we decided that as close as we could tell from that particular map, we were more or less half way around the island.  At this point we could go forward or retrace our steps to the marina.  We palpated the pontoons gently and decided to go forward.

As we made our way down the Oakland Channel towards the open Bay the chop increased significantly to the point where Annie suggested we don our life jackets, which we did.  Water was slopping into the dinghy at the rate of about a ½ a bucket per splash and very soon I was sitting in 6 inches of water.  However, the buoy to the entrance of the channel was just ahead egging us onwards so we decided that we would round the buoy/point and then decide if we would proceed or turn and run back down the channel.

At this stage we also decided we should start bailing.  Annie was wearing a baseball cap which I considered using as a bailing cup over protestations from Annie.  We were both wearing bras which gave us another 4 cups to bail with, but then Annie pulled out her little water bottle and we decided to try that first.  Annie couldn’t help because she couldn’t reach behind me so I steered with one hand and bailed with the other.  I was almost up to my waist in water and the gas tank was semi-submerged.  With the water coming in at the rate of ½ a bucket per splash and me bailing at the rate of one little water bottle at a time, it was a bit of a losing battle.  But I persisted.

I was hugging the shoreline so I figured we weren’t really in deathly danger.  Absolute worst case would be that the dinghy sank and we had to swim for the shore 40ft away.  And then we would use my iPhone which was sealed in a plastic bag to call 911.  No problem.

Eventually we rounded the point and were now in the open Bay.  Now the chop had turned to swells that hit us broadside as we turned south.  The good news was that the sea wasn’t pouring into the dinghy anymore.  The bad news was that we were rolling sideways over the swells which could tip the dinghy.

Annie suggested we “run like hell” for the marina.  I palpated the pontoons again which felt to me somewhat limper than 2 hours ago – but maybe it was just my overactive imagination.  The dinghy’s “run-like-hell” flat-out speed was rather more of a waddle as we rolled over the swells, which considering my lack of skills was probably just as well.

Note to self:  buy a hand pump for the dinghy, with all appropriate connections.

Since we were so near the shoreline, Annie was crouched in the front of the dinghy keeping a watch for submarine pipelines, sunken hazards, submerged rocks, and sandbars – or more accurately, mud bars.  I continued to bail and steer.

We saw another point up ahead and decided that must be the final point and then we would see the marina.  The broadside swells were somewhat unnerving as we flopped over them.

We rounded the point and saw another point up ahead and decided that that must be the final point before the marina.

We rounded that point and saw yet another point up ahead and decided that that absolutely must be the final point before the marina.

I had managed to get ahead with the bailing and was down to just 2 inches and decided I could tolerate sitting in that for another hour. My skin was all crinkly with sitting in sea water for so long, so I can now categorically state without a shadow of doubt that the southern regions do not like being submerged in sea water for extended periods.

We rounded the point and saw yet another f%#$ing point up ahead.  There was no sign of the elusive breakwater.  We were nonplussed – the distance from buoy to breakwater hadn’t looked so great on the NOAA chart this morning?

I mused aloud, I wonder where we are right now?  At this stage Annie pulled out her now incredibly soaked tatty tourist map that we had used as our “chart”, pointed to a soggy spot and declared firmly – We are right here!  It was such a ludicrous gesture that we both burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.  We laughed until the tears ran down our cheeks and we thought we would wet ourselves.  I was fine with that since I had been sitting in a pool of sea water for hours anyway, so who would be able to tell the difference?!

We dinghied onward in our now stalwart fashion, but every time we looked at each other we would lose control and clutching our sides we would roll with laughter all over again.  The contrast between our careful perusal of the NOAA charts this morning, and the incredibly soggy tourist map that Annie held was so vast that we couldn’t stop laughing.

We finally rounded a point and there was the marina in the distance!  What a welcome sight.  We cut across Ballena Bay heading directly for the marina – no fussing around following the breakwater this time!

Once we were well out and angling across Ballena Bay, the swells became fairly large following seas – relative to a dinghy’s size anyway.  We were doing some serious surfing.  Annie was looking behind to warn me of large swells while I concentrated on the front so that we didn’t get tipped over since it was now a very long swim to shore.  Then Annie raised the question of me dumping us in the drink by mistake.  I pooh-poohed that on the grounds that I had so much experience in dinghy handling by now that I was practically an expert.  Annie snorted – You have already admitted to only 1 hour last week and 2 hours today giving you a total of 3 hours experience.  Expert my ass!  Its just plain dumb luck that you haven’t tipped us into the sea already.  But I staunchly defended my Expert label and refused to concede on that point.

There were 2 yachts further out into the bay and as we surfed past them they both turned and followed us.  I maintained that they had been lost and were only too pleased to see someone who obviously knew the way and could lead them back to the marina.  Annie maintained that they were so shocked to see 2 women in a dinghy come surfing past them, that they decided to follow us and render assistance when I dunked us in the sea.  Well, I might have to concede that point to Annie, albeit reluctantly, because they followed us to the marina and then fell off when we were safely inside.

All in all it took over 3½ hours to circumnavigate Alameda Island in the dinghy.  It is an 18 mile circuit and an exciting adventure but not recommended for the fainthearted.


We got back to the boat around 4pm Sunday afternoon, hauled up the dinghy, cast off, and headed out while we were still both soaking wet.  During the trip back home we took turns to go below and clean up.

We got back to my home marina around 8pm Sunday night, exhausted but exhilarated.

It was a fabulous weekend.  Huge fun.  And Annie and I got on like a house on fire.  We found we are both Geminis we were born just one day apart, she on the 25th and me on the 26th.  I want it to go on record here that Annie is the older of the two of us – okay, its only by 24 hours but details like that are important to a woman.

Annie and I have the same sense of humor, and we laughed a lot.  We like the same music, and she can cook like a dream!  And both of us were happy to exit unwise marriages – good solid common ground there.

Annie is a good foil for me – I seldom think before I leap.  Annie wisely suggested filling up the dinghy gas tank, which never even occurred to me, and we would definitely have run out of fuel when surfing out in the bay had we not filled up.  That tank had just a few cups of gas left over when we got back home… although we did have the oars… and a very long row home.

She also suggested putting on our PFDs rather than wait until I dumped us in the drink and we had to swim for them.

And rather than motor majestically down the center of the channel in my little dink, she suggested I should hug the shoreline to minimize our swim to shore should I sink us.

And to seal my iPhone in a plastic bag should we need it at any time during the afternoon – it’s not as though we had an EPIRB handy in the dink.

I know that I tend to carefully study my charts for ages, and review my route with local experienced skippers, listen to their advice and take all the precautions they suggest – but otherwise I tend to live in the moment.  Annie is more practical than me.  I am boat safety conscious, and Annie is people safety conscious.

I asked Annie to write down a few of her thoughts on the weekend for my blog.  She said that any invitation from me to go boating for a weekend can be covered in just 5 words….. Be afraid, be very afraid.

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