Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Alcatraz Incident

The Alcatraz Incident - New Years Day 2018


The tides in San Francisco Bay on New Years Day 2018 were perfect for a “Ride the Tide” day on the Bay. My friend Drew Altizer agreed to join me at Horseshoe Cove on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge for a 10:45 AM launch. Max flood was about 9:00 AM with slack tide around Noon and max ebb a little after 3:00 PM. Our plan was to quickly cross under the Bridge and ride the end of the flood tide up along the San Francisco waterfront then cross over to Angel Island, passing just east of Alcatraz. On Angel Island we would have a lunch stop before riding the ebb tide down Raccoon Strait and back to Horseshoe Cove.  We also planned to play in the tide races at both Raccoon Shoal and Yellow Bluff, which would be going really strong in one of the strongest ebb tides in 2018. The whole circuit would be about 15 miles, so we had elected to paddle our fast NDK Explorer kayaks.

Tide Prediction from BASK Trip Planner
Our plan went well as we crossed under the Bridge to the San Francisco side with just enough visibility through a clearing fog to avoid a fast-moving container ship and a tour boat. We cruised up the waterfront, making good time catching counter eddies along the shore as the tide began to ebb out the Gate. We passed under Fort Mason and other piers right along the shore. Eventually, we arrived in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, where we turned north towards Alcatraz, being careful to watch the traffic before heading across.

Our Track around the Bay
By the time we approached Alcatraz, the rising ebb current was trying to push us west toward the Golden Gate Bridge. During the ebb cycle, water from the direction of the Oakland Bay Bridge splits around Alcatraz, with a strong flow going on either side of the island.  As a result, we had to paddle hard upstream to reach the easternmost point of Alcatraz, where we were suddenly coursing downstream in the flow going around the northeast side of the island.


The east side of Alcatraz is where visitors land on some large docks to visit the island, which is in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Now riding on a downstream current going north, Drew and I quickly approached those docks. We paused a few moments and agreed that we might as well head for Angel Island since federal law prohibits you from landing on Alcatraz. I was in the lead and paddled out into the current past the dock and headed towards Angel Island. I was quickly moving at 5 knots pushed by the current and had gone about 200 meters when I realized Drew had not followed me. I turned my kayak around, paddling briskly to keep from going further downstream. Drew had not appeared yet and I was baffled as to why, though not really alarmed yet. I started paddling back into the current towards the docks making only about 2 knots and becoming more and more worried that I couldn’t see Drew.

Detailed Track of the site of the Incident (Ferryboat was not there)
As I made it back to the south end of the park service dock, at first I was relieved to see the stern of Drew’s kayak around the corner, but almost immediately became aware that the kayak was angled up and lying on its side rather than being flat on the water. As I further rounded the corner, a terrifying sight confronted me. Drew was partially submerged in the water and clinging to the end of the dock, with his kayak being pulled under the dock by the current. It took a couple of seconds to process the gravity of the situation. Fortunately, I resisted the temptation to approach him directly to help. I turned my kayak back towards the east, away from the island, and managed to stay away from the dock as the current tried to push me towards the same fate as Drew.

Drew and his kayak were trapped just left of the white capped metal piling
Five minutes earlier Drew had paused for a moment before following me out into the current. At first glance there is little evidence that a large amount of water is flowing under the dock instead of around it, so being near it did not set off any alarms. When Drew’s kayak contacted the dock he instantly flipped upside down. He made one attempt to roll, but because he could only roll on the side the current was coming at him, he immediately realized rolling wasn’t going to work so he wet exited. He was now under the dock and being pulled by the current further under. By some miracle he managed to grab the kayak cockpit rim and pull himself back toward the light, grab the bottom edge of the dock, and pull himself up to get a breath of air. The overall floatation of the kayak had stopped it from immediately going under the dock. Drew was then able to slowly pull himself up slightly above the waterline by climbing up the partially submerged kayak. He managed to find a fragile, temporary equilibrium where he was not going to be pulled under the dock as long as the kayak did not move. In the meantime he was screaming for help to no avail because the Island was closed for the New Years Day holiday. Fortunately Drew did not panic and realized that I would return shortly. He also had the presence of mind to pull out his VHF radio and make a Mayday call to the Coast Guard. “Mayday, Mayday, kayaker caught under dock at Alcatraz by current, need help immediately”. He actually called them twice because he did not hear their response so was not sure his message got out.

By the time I reappeared, Drew was barely hanging on but had assessed the situation. He communicated to me how desperate he was and suggested I paddle to the island, ditch my kayak, climb up the rocks over a guardrail, and try to approach him from the dock. I agreed with his assessment and quickly paddled over to the edge of the island, jumped out of my kayak, and began climbing up the small cliff to the guardrails. I made one quick attempt to drag my kayak on the rocks before I heard Drew yelling “LEAVE IT”, which I did. I was so frantic to get to him that I managed to fall back in the water twice before making it up the slippery rocks to the flat ground of the island. In these moments I was acutely aware that I could lose Drew under the dock at any second. I yelled for help as I ran out of breath to find a way to get to him. At this point, a security guard heard my calls for help and came from the opposite direction. I quickly found a way to get on the floating dock and made my way to Drew, where I grabbed him by the shoulder strap on his life jacket and pulled him partway up when the security guard helped me finish the job. I detached Drew’s towrope from his waist and was going to clip it on the kayak, but I was too slow. As soon as Drew was no longer holding the kayak from moving, it slowly rotated around and was instantly sucked under the dock. In our moment of relief, this sight was very scary. The kayak did not reappear downstream, so it apparently was snagged under the dock, a fate that could have been Drew’s or even mine if I had come too close to him in an attempt to rescue him.  

Scene of the incident, water piling up before going under the floating dock

The security guard had called the San Francisco Police, who arrived in their patrol boat fairly quickly. They offered us a ride to San Francisco, but by this time the Coast Guard arrived and gave us, along with my kayak, a ride back to Horseshoe Cove.  My kayak was only a little scratched up after floating around in an eddy.

As we thanked the Coast Guard for their assistance, they insisted that it was their job and they were happy to help. They told us that we were not their usual customers because we were well prepared. Most of their rescues are of folks that have little experience and are not wearing life jackets, helmets, and dry suits.  We filed a report with a National Park Service ranger who met us at the Coast Guard Station. We described Drew’s kayak in detail along with serial number. Three days later the Alcatraz ferryboat Capitan found Drew’s kayak in damaged but repairable condition and returned it.

Lesson Learned:

The key lesson was one about current. Extreme caution is essential near any place current is flowing near, or especially under, any kind of fixed object. Floating docks are particularly bad because they may not appear to have current going under them when in fact there may be a lot of current passing under them. The dock we encountered appeared to be almost part of the island, with current going around it. The dock was in fact floating on the water with no air space under it at all. This is the case at all water levels.  As sea kayakers, we are not used to dealing with current the way a river kayaker might be. Skilled river kayakers constantly watch for anything that might be a strainer. Sea kayakers tend to be around current that reverses with every swell, so is not dangerous in the same way a river or tidal current is. As sea kayakers, we must think differently any time there is the potential for any kind of steady current. Another example is when a dock, barge, boat, or any floating object is being towed, which creates the same situation with current flowing underneath it. A kayak can get sucked under one of these objects and be trapped as if under a dock.

Practices we had right:

Practice number 1 was not panicking. Drew probably did more to save himself by not panicking than any of the other efforts done to save him. He kept his head and helped direct his rescue.

Practice number 2 was assessing the situation before putting yourself as the rescuer in danger. My quick realization of the danger of approaching Drew when I first found him trapped probably kept me from getting sucked under the dock before even having a chance to help him.

Practice number 3 is always having the proper gear. Drew and I have paddled together for several years and always carry VHF radios, dress for immersion, wear life jackets, wear helmets, and carry spare warm clothes and extra food, etc. Several of these items were very important to Drew’s survival in this incident.

Perhaps Drew and I made some strategic errors in our outing that got us into trouble, but it is our hope that in telling this story we may save others a worse fate than we endured.

Kim Grandfield

Drew with the Coast Guard Capitan