Six Salty Memoirs of Life in the Water

As told to Katherine Guzman, David Helvarg, and Annie Tittiger | April 3, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Hanging Ten in the Shipping Lanes
“Ocean Beach can get 40- to 50-foot winter waves, but you can see these even bigger waves miles out in the potato patch, the hazardous shallow sand bar that got its name for sinking a ship full of potatoes in the 1800s. Just paddling out from Ocean Beach can be a real challenge, but one day, I realized that if I rode a current off the cliff house at a certain time, it would take me three miles offshore. I went out there by myself and had to triangulate with landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, from where I was—on my board just outside a major shipping lane. I caught a wave for what felt like a solid mile. It was almost a three-minute ride! My legs started shaking because you don’t ever have that long a ride!” -Mark Renneker, surfer

Tripping Out on Psychedelic Jellies
“The Monterey Submarine Canyon is an enormous valley in the continental shelf off central California, roughly the same size and scale as the Grand Canyon. I got to fly the deep Rover—a one-person, prop-driven sub—down there. At between 500 and 600 meters down, I set the trim to neutral buoyancy, turned out all the lights. Once I had adjusted to the dark, I began to see patterns and displays of light—bright flashes shaped by the bodies of translucent jellies. Sometimes they’d appear singly, and other times in sequential chains. There were these ripples of luminescence, like heat lightning in a cloud, and then more sharp and distinct flashes of light. It was mind-boggling, like certain hallucinogenic drugs that people took in college…but real.” Dr. Bruce Robison, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Saving a Family From a Burning Boat
“It was New Year’s Eve, 1999. There were thousands of people on the waterfront, hundreds of boats in the bay, as well as three fireworks barges. Midnight struck, the fireworks went off, and smoke engulfed the barges. About 15 minutes in, I saw a small boat disappear into the smoke. No one in his right mind would go in there, so we went after it. Golf ball–size debris was falling, it was hard to even breathe, and then I heard shouting. It was a woman, her life vest smoking, protecting two screaming girls—maybe 5 and 10 years old—under a smoldering towel. At the other end of the boat was a man hovering over the engine, cursing. My crew tied a quick tow line around their boat, and I gunned it out of the danger zone. As the smoke cleared, the waterfront appeared, with thousands of spectators staring right at us. The two little girls stopped screaming. There was a split second of absolute silence, then an uproar of cheering and clapping, as deafening as the fireworks.” Jason Gale, Coast Guard boatswain mate

Hitching a Ride to Alameda via Bat Ray
“About 20 years ago, I was fishing for halibut with frozen herring on my line. I had launched my kayak near Mission Rock and was working along the shoreline when I suddenly hooked a fish. I got a good tug and started reeling up, and this fish took off, straight out into the middle of the bay. If it happened to me now, I would know exactly what it was. There’s no other fish like a bat ray—they take off like a fucking airplane. I put my feet up and held on to the rod. The ray took me into the shipping lanes near the Bay Bridge. Then it stopped—bat rays go down in the mud and suction themselves to the bottom. As I was trying to horse it up, it started going further east toward Alameda. Then the hook straightened and pulled right out of its jaw—the fight was over. I looked around to see where I was and realized that I was very far away from where I started. I began to paddle back, but the tide was huge—it was like trying to paddle up rapids. So I drifted north to Treasure Island and called a buddy to come pick me up. It was a self-inflicted, painful lesson in bay fishing.” Kirk Lombard, owner of Sea Forager Seafood

Playing Tug of War With a Prehistoric Monster
“It was a dreary-looking day in 1995, really windy, typical sturgeon-fishing weather. We had put down anchor near the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay. While my buddy and I were talking baits, I noticed a tiny twitch in my rod. I swung back on the rod as hard as I could, and then I saw him: a 5-foot, 60-pound sturgeon jumping out of the water like a missile, with my hook firmly attached to his mouth. And so the battle began. It felt as if my line were attached to a car that was driving away. Finally, he came up next to the boat and blew bubbles as if to say, “I’m done.” When he was on the deck, he made one last attempt at escape, but once we removed the hook from his mouth and grabbed him by the tail, he relaxed. After a few pictures and high fives, we released him to live another day.” Aaron Lee, recreational sturgeon fisher

Duke It Out with a Great White over a Dead Whale
“Whitecaps lapped our 64-foot boat, the Superfish, as we dipped below the Golden Gate on a gray, windy evening. Our task was to find the dead blue whale reportedly floating off the coast of Marin, wrap a rope around her tail, and tow her back to a beach for a postmortem examination. She appeared under a cloud of gulls just off Point Bonita. Our skipper slowed alongside the phenomenal 87-foot-long creature and I struggled into my wetsuit as the boat rolled with the swells. Just as I was about to jump overboard with the rope in hand, a sleek black body leapt from the water. It was a white shark feeding on the whale’s tail! The shark leapt several times, and I hesitated just a moment before turning to the captain. We simultaneously announced that I would not be jumping overboard!” Dr. Frances Gulland, senior scientist at the Marine Mammal Center

Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.

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