Accident Database

Report ID# 1038

  • Other
  • Near Drowning
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

On Sunday, November 2, StinsonBeach lifeguard staff responded to a report of a capsized boat at the mouth of Bolinas Lagoon. This channel of water between Bolinas and Sea Drift spit has recently become and area of increased aquatic activity. It is also the only place in the immediate area where small, trailered powerboats have access to the ocean. It has long been one of the favorite surf breaks, both on the Stinson side and the Bolinas side, for the local surfers. During the past year, the kayaking community has taken to the area in larger and larger numbers.

The capsized boat was a 17-foot Boston Whaler with a 115 h.p. engine and four persons on board, two of whom were children. When the boat was exiting the channel, it was swept over by large waves, lost power, and became a sitting duck for the next large swell, which tossed it over. At the time, there happened to be several surfers and kayakers around who witnessed the accident. The two adults on board the vessel were thrown clear but the two children were not and remained under the overturned vessel. As the kayakers and surfers paddled over to help out, one of the children came up on his own and was pulled out of the water by a kayaker and ferried to a second vessel. The two adults from the first vessel were in shock and not communicating with the kayakers clearly. The two men kept trying to dive under the vessel but could not because of their life vests. The kayakers were able to pull the boat outside the surf line and prevent it from being rolled to the beach in the surf. During this time, a surfer was able to remove the last child from the vessel and a kayaker ferried him to the second vessel, which transported all the victims to shore and medical services.

At this point, I arrived on the scene. Having ascertained that all persons on the vessel were out of the water and accounted for, I headed for the vessel to determine how to remove it from the area. Again, some of the kayakers volunteered to help and instead of beaching the vessel, which was the original plan, we were able to right the vessel and bail it out. This made it possible to tow it back to the dock and prevented a major loss of property.

All in all, the kayakers, most of whose names I don’t know, are to be commended for their assistance in this operation. Special thanks to Renny Renard, also Jerry Albright, Steve, and anyone else who helped out. This is not the first time the kayakers have helped out. Earlier this summer Renny and a few other kayakers helped an overturned ocean kayaker out of the strong currents off the channel. This rescued kayaker is the prominent husband of a well-known mayor. He misjudged the skill level required for this channel and didn’t have a reliable roll so he took a swim, a long one. He was not the first, and will not be the last, to do so. 


On the afternoon of Monday, November 3, three women went for a scenic paddle around the lagoon in a 15-foot canoe. None were wearing life vests nor were there any on board. The tide started to go down and the women became caught in the current draining out the lagoon. They were carried out the channel from the lagoon and capsized in the surf. Two of them made it to shore on their own and the third was rescued by surfers, who luckily for the woman, saw her. She was semi-conscious, hypothermic and had aspirated sea water. The accident could have been prevented had they observed the tidal conditions and used caution regarding the channel under these conditions.

It needs to be emphasized to the kayaker community that the Bolinas Channel can at times be very dangerous. I am especially concerned about the ocean kayak types whose interests are in scenery rather than a solid foundation of paddling skills. Often, the current can change from calm flood tide conditions to horrendous sucking current in a matter of twenty minutes. This freight train current can carry the unwary paddler out over the sand bar and through the surf zone in a few short moments. Another problem is that the channel is very narrow, shallow, and tends to shift around from month to month. The power boat traffic is restricted to this narrow passage of deeper water. There is no real room for maneuverability, so surfers and kayakers in the channel pose a real problem for the vessel operators. So far no accidents have occurred between persons, but the kayakers should keep in mind that although kayakers can go “anywhere,” the powered vessels have little choice in the matter. This is especially so during larger surf conditions because vessel operators will be timing for a lull in between sets as well as navigating the channel.

I am sure more than one kayaker has been confused and angered when they were sitting in their kayak minding their own business and all of a sudden, a powerboat comes blasting out of the channel right at them. This is most likely not an unsympathetic boater hell-bent on clearing the channel, but a boater faced with a very real test of skill and timing. One obstacle in the wrong place at the wrong time could spell doom for the powered vessel coming out of the channel. Even more alarming is the thought that a powered vessel might choose to press on through a pack of surfers or kayakers rather than place his passengers or vessel in danger due to trying to maneuver out of the channel to avoid these obstacles. As the populations of recreationists at the Bolinas channel increase, so do the chances of mishap. If the potential is addressed now and we pay attention to all the factors, we may mitigate a serious or fatal accident.


As time goes on the problem of the depth of the water in the channel is likely to worsen. The sand, gravel and silt from the great storm of 1982 have arrived at the channel and unless dredging or possibly seismic activity (since the channel sits right along the San Andreas Fault ) occurs, I believe that the channel may become unnavigable to powered traffic in the near future. If this comes to pass, the surfers and kayakers need never look over their shoulder again for that speeding power boat.

In conclusion, I think the kayaking community is conscientious enough to go to the channel prepared with the skills and equipment necessary, particularly the whitewater kayakers. The ocean kayakers and canoe people must be more cognizant of the hydrodynamic forces at work in the channel. Again, much thanks to those paddlers who have helped out when others are in trouble.


SOURCE: Robert J. Del Secco, Paddlers News Bulletin, January 1987

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