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Night Cruise to San Francisco

This is part of our ongoing series of Dave LeMoine’s memories of growing up in Alameda. Further installments will be published every Friday.

It was another warm fall evening, about 7:00, still about 70 degrees, with a full moon. Ben had left the Chiquita tied to the float thinking it would be used the next day. Red, Budda and Frank owned small, very fast, 11-foot boats with 35-horsepower outboard motors. We used to race up and down the estuary and run through a slough called Sweet Pea at high tide, off San Leandro Bay.

“Let’s take the boats out for a cruise,” one of us suggested.

Alameda Post - Oakland Showboat ad
Ad for the Opening of the Oakland Showboat from the Oakland Tribune. Photo Oakland LocalWiki

“Yeah, sounds good,” we agreed and cruised toward the Oakland Airport where there was an old ferry boat converted into a restaurant. “Let’s tie up, climb the outside, and peer in at the diners. Yeah!” That worked just long enough for the maître d’ to give chase. Back to the boats and on to the next adventure.

Budda and Red were in the back, with me in the front cockpit; the boat was almost too heavy. With Flip, Frank, and Heater alongside in Frank’s boat, going full speed down the estuary, flying through the warm night air racing each other, I thought, this feels so good. Until Frank’s engine snapped a shear pin at Jack London Square. Luckily, we had another, the fix was done quickly, and we were back in business.

Soon we had arrived at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay and were surprised at how calm the water was. Again, being dumb teenagers that are invincible, with no more shear pins aboard, someone said, “Why don’t we run over to Fisherman’s Wharf and get some crab? It’s not that far.”

Well, it sounded good at the time to a bunch of imbeciles. No lifejackets, dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, black water that could turn and suck us out through the Golden Gate without a trace. No radio, no flares, no one knew where we had gone, and no brains; off we went.

Forty-five minutes later under the Bay Bridge in the dark, someone said, “Ya know, it looks a lot higher than it did from Alameda.” We suddenly seemed very small.

“What’s that big thing coming at us?” one of the guys yelled.

“The Vallejo Ferry! Look out!”

We took evasive action but couldn’t avoid the wake. We hit the waves and were airborne. The boat returned to the water and my knees returned to the ribs of the boat, which was a jarring reminder that I shouldn’t have stepped in that hole running through the forest dressed as a werewolf a couple of years back. We almost capsized and I thought to myself again, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. My kneecaps hurt and we’re getting wet. But soon we were cruising in the lee of San Francisco Harbor. It’s not so bad, I reasoned.

Alameda Post - Vallejo Ferry Calistoga
A postcard of the Vallejo ferryboat Calistoga. Photo

Arriving at the Wharf about 9:00 p.m., we climbed up the pier, emerging dripping wet and shivering to the surprise of a group of tourists who didn’t see any kind of boat below that could navigate these waters. We walked around for about a half hour and then realized we didn’t have the money for crab. We went back to the boat and the thought of a painful ride back across a now daunting waterway on an outgoing tide … I hope we have enough gas, I thought apprehensively.

The only silver lining was that there were two boats running together. Yeah, right. That lasted for maybe 45 minutes. Now, again under the Bay Bridge, with the wind and waves increasing, the tide against us, the two boats separated, and we were in a desperate race to get home before we lost power. I wonder where the other boat is.

To make any headway we had to keep on a plane, which means we were airborne half the time; my knees were wearing a hole through the bottom of the boat. I hope we make the channel before I see bilge water, I agonized.

Now, soaked to the bone with mild hypothermia setting in, I could see the estuary channel marker blinking ahead of us. It seemed to be saying, “Hey, over here!” Yeah, I see you, I complained inwardly, but the tide doesn’t want us to get there.

Two hours into the trip, we passed that blinking light. We made it!

Someday I’ll have to write a story called, “Another Day in the Life of Dumb, Dumber, and Associates,” I thought. I would rather have been home with Mom and brother.

As our heads cleared out of survival mode, we remembered the other boat. Then we heard that wonderful sound of the 35-horse outboard and, out of the shadows, came our wet but smiling trio back home in the channel, alive. That’s enough fun for one night, I determined. We headed the three miles home to go get something to eat.

Oh, a small detail we forgot: no navigation lights and the possibility of a Coast Guard patrol boat that would love to ticket us.

Heading east with eyes wide open, we saw ahead of us – you guessed it – a bright and shiny Coast Guard cutter coming right at us down the middle of the channel. It didn’t look like he had seen us yet, so we decided to separate and move way to the outside edges of the estuary and make a run for it. If we could get past them going 35, we might be able to lose them at the Fruitvale Bridge as they have to wait for it to open, and we could just go under.

Alameda Post - 1950s Coast Guard Cutter
Another postcard showing a typical Coast Guard Cutter of the 1950s. Photo Flickr

Crouched down on the deck, we passed. But they heard the motors in the dark. We saw the floodlights and heard the P.A. system sounding with authority, “This is the Coast Guard! Stop your motors for inspection!”

Yeah, right! We were committed and kept going. The cutter turned, but we were now ahead with maybe a quarter-mile lead. We thought we were fast, but the cutter was gaining. Our only hope was the Fruitvale Bridge. We crossed under the Park Street Bridge, with only one more to go, but the cutter was maybe an eighth of a mile away and closing.

Looking ahead now, we saw the Fruitvale. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was starting to open! Those dirty rats on the cutter must have radioed the bridge. Under the bridge, now only 10 houses from home, the cutter was still waiting. What do we do?

Red thought quick as he saw the Chiquita in the water. “Let’s see if we can get the two smaller boats on the lift!” he said.

They fit and started to rise, just as the cutter cleared the Fruitvale Bridge. “Everybody duck and hold your breath!” We could only hope that Ben and Joanie stayed in the house watching television.

The cutter passed slowly, floodlights scouring the piers. I must have held my breath for two minutes while it continued down through High Street. Then they returned, leaving the scene after having lost the objects of their pursuit.

No harm, no foul, no brains, no loss of life, no remorse, no return to San Francisco by small boat. Mom never knew.

The Prototype Skateboard

Alameda Post - 2x4 skateboard
A homemade skateboard fashioned from a 2×4. Photo

We were in need of a new challenge. Someone remembered the old orange crate coasters we built as kids. Why didn’t we improve on that concept? Let’s take an old 2×4 and some steel shoe skates, merge them, and try balancing.

Well, it kind of worked, but there were no hills in Alameda, so off we went to the Oakland Hills. Instead of a gradual hill, of course we went straight to Joaquin Miller Park. Big mistake. Gravity does work but not always to one’s benefit, as flatlanders would soon find out. At that time in history, bloody, holey Levis were not in vogue. Mom, on our meager budget, had to buy new pants for her stupid teenager; we decided to let someone in later years develop a better skateboard.

David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.

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