by Will Norby
During the time I was safety chairman for BASK (Bay Area Sea Kayakers), I learned of many kayaking accidents around the San Francisco area. But none caught my attention quite like this one:
On Monday morning, around 10 on January 18, 1988, two men arrive at Sea Trek in Sausalito to rent kayaks for an outing in Richardson Bay. Employee Iain Wilson has them fill out rental slips and sign the required release forms. He notes they are brothers and the older of the two, John, has previously rented from Sea Trek. The younger brother, Steve, seems to be a novice. Since their destination is Richardson Bay, a protected branch of San Francisco Bay, Iain is not excessively concerned. More renters arrive, along with a group for an introductory kayaking class. As Iain and his assistant Doug turn their attention to the new arrivals, Iain makes a mental note to check John and Steve against Sea Trekís master training list. The brothers select an Arluk III and a Solander, load their gear, and launch at 11 A.M. for their day trip in Richardson Bay.
Coast Guard, "Two hikers observe one kayaker holding on being dragged out to sea!"
Iain receives word at 3 P.M. that the Coast Guard has a report of kayakers in trouble at the entrance to the Golden Gate. Shortly afterwards, the Coast Guard calls to say two hikers near the Golden Gate Bridge observed one kayaker holding onto the otherís boat while being carried by the ebb tide towards the ocean. Iain relates the description, number, and presumed whereabouts of all rented kayaks, noting that none of the renters listed the Golden Gate as a destination. This information is relayed to the Coast Guard search team already on patrol.
At 4:40 PM, Iain and Greg leave to look for the kayakers. Before leaving, Iain asks the carpenters and plumbers remodeling Sea Trekís office to keep an eye on things until they get back. Upon returning two hours later after a fruitless search, Iain sees that all rental kayaks have been returned except those used by John and Steve. The Coast Guard calls again wanting details on John and Steve but Iain canít locate the rental slips. To complicate matters, a local television crew arrives, wanting an interview. Iain declines, agreeing only to answer a few questions off camera.
At 7 PM, Iain goes home after informing the Coast Guard where he can be reached. Shortly afterwards, Bob Licht, the owner of Sea Trek, returns from a business trip. He hears the story and rushes to the office. He has the Sausalito police check the license plates of the cars parked near the office to see if one belongs to John or Steve.
Who picked up the kayakers ???
Around 10:30 PM both the media and Coast Guard call Bob. According to the Coast Guard, rumor has it that a fisherman picked up two kayakers without their boats. Half an hour later the Coast Guard phones to say that a sailboater reports rescuing two kayakers near the mouth of the Golden Gate at 4:15 in the afternoon--their first names are John and Steve.
The next morning John phones Bob to explain what happened. He claims heís upset with himself for not informing the Coast Guard of their rescue. He says heís been kayaking for years and everything was going well until they paddled out to the mouth of Richardson Bay (where it joins San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate Bridge). It was at this point that his brother in the Solander tipped over near Buoy #2. Using a TI rescue, John succeeded in getting Steve back into his kayak. But in the process, Johnís sprayskirt came off and water filled the bow of his Arluk III and the boat sunk. As John clung to Steveís kayak the ebbing tide carried them under the G.G. bridge just off the northern shoreline. This panicked Steve and he capsized. Together they drifted along the shoreline toward the ocean. Near the last point of land a sailboater spotted them and pulled them aboard. They arrived back at Sea Trek about 5 PM and found only the carpenters and plumbers at work. When John asked where Iain was, one of the plumbers told him heíd gone home. This angered John and he took their rental receipts as they left.
Everyone's Claiming to have picked up the missing kayakers !!!
Bob listens to Johnís story and notices the many discrepancies. He decides to get more information before pressing the matter. Shortly after talking with John, Bob receives a call from a Bay commuter boat informing him they have picked up his Arluk III. Unfortunately, they didnít see the waterlogged kayak until they had run over it with their propeller. As a result, the kayak was nearly cut in two.
In talking with the Sausalito police, Bob learns the hikers spotted John and Steve calling for help at about 2:45 PM. The hikers, in turn, notified the California Highway Patrol at the Golden Gate Bridge office. The California Highway Patrol called the Coast Guard and also the Golden Gate National Park Police. Immediately, the Coast Guard launched a search and rescue operation in the area reported by the hikers. It was at this time that they called Sea Trek for more information. Ironically, about the same time, John and Steve were drifting near Point Bonito when a lone sailboat rounded the point. The skipper was sailing close to shore to avoid the stronger current in mid-channel when he heard a faint voice above the wind and water noise. Looking ahead, he spotted John and Steve. A few minutes later he hauled them aboard. As the skipper moved to his radio to call the Coast Guard, John told him it wasnít necessary, that he was a doctor, and that both he and his brother were alright.
YOU RENTED ME A DEFECTIVE KAYAK !!!!
After having talked with the various people involved with the search and rescue operation, Bob Licht confronts John with the obligation to replace the two kayaks that were lost. Instead of acknowledging his responsibility, John threatens to sue Bob for renting him a defective kayak.
He claims the Arluk III had a crack in the hull which allowed water to flood the bow compartment when he did the TI rescue of Steve. Although Bob would like to pursue the issue in court, he doesnít want to spend the time or money. Judging from Johnís aggressive demeanor, there seems little doubt the doctor intends to have the court costs exceed the worth of the two kayaks. The result is that Bob and John acrimoniously part company knowing they will never do business again.
I first learn of the situation a day later during a regular visit to Bobís shop. On the floor are the ripped remains of the Arluk III. When I hear the details from Bob, I know Iíve got to investigate the situation and bring it to the attention of the sea kayaking world. The rescuing-sailboat skipper, Guy, tells me John and Steve were extremely lucky to be picked up because there were no other boats in the area. And it was a last minute decision by Guy to sail near shore instead of using his motor to travel in mid channel. Had he not arrived when he did, the brothers would have been swept into the ocean to probably die of hypothermia or else drown. He fully intended to call the Coast Guard but was persuaded by John, the doctor, that it wasnít necessary. Also, they seemed to be in good condition as they were both wearing full wetsuits.
On route to Sausalito, John told Guy how he and his brother came to be in the water. After leaving Sea Trek they paddled in Richardson bay then decided to go up to the juncture between Richardson and San Francisco Bay. Once there, John thought it would be nice to land at Horseshoe Cove for a break. The cove was next to the Golden Gate Bridge--clearly beyond the area John noted in his rental agreement.
Swepted Under the Golden Gate Bridge !!!
When John landed at the cove, he impacted the kayak quite hard on the rocky beach. It wasnít until he and Steve started back to Sausalito that he noticed water filling his bow compartment. He apparently cracked the hull in landing. Concerned that he couldnít make headway against the ebbing tide, he abandoned the Arluk and clung to Steveís kayak hoping they could make it to shore. Instead, Steve panicked and capsized. The strong ebb swept them under the Golden Gate Bridge where they yelled to the hikers.
Guy returned the brothers to Sea Trek at 5 PM. They changed their clothes and asked one of the plumbers where Iain was. Mistakenly, the plumber said Iain had gone home (Iain was, in fact, searching for the brothers at that very moment). Enraged, John and Steve took their rental receipts and went home.
The Coast Guard Search Cost $30,000 !!!
That evening Guy was watching the 11 PM television news when he was stunned to hear that the Coast Guard was conducting a search for the two missing kayakers. Immediately he phoned the Coast Guard and told them he had rescued the kayakers six hours earlier. The petty officer in charge of the rescue efforts, Doug Metzler, was furious. He had used two crews in three hour shifts to conduct the search and the cost to taxpayers was $30,000! A chastened Guy apologized and related how John insisted on not informing the Coast Guard. Doug later talked with John and undoubtedly got his attention.
Knowing that the ĎJohn and Steve Incidentí could adversely affect the way the Coast Guard perceived sea kayakers in the Bay Area, I arranged to have Doug address our club at the next monthly meeting. I also contacted Guy, the hikers, as well as a representative from the Sausalito Police to have them relate their involvement. And of course, I talked to John in hopes he would come to the meeting. He didnít know I was a friend of Bob. I identified myself as the safety chairman for BASK and said I was interested in knowing the details of his outing. He proceeded to tell me the version he told Bob. When I told him what Guy related to me, John became very defensive and abruptly hung up on me. It was clear he would not be at the meeting. If there was any good to come from the entire incident it was the substantive discussion the BASK membership had after being addressed by Guy. Moreover, a greater understanding on both sides was achieved. The good relations continue to this day.
Now that ample time has passed, this story can be told !!
I initially didnít write about the ĎJohn and Steve Incidentí for fear of provoking a suit against Bob. I think sufficient time has now passed and the possibility is diminished.
I have related the facts as I know them. It certainly would be easy for me to comment on Johnís actions, but Iíll leave it to the reader to make those judgments.
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