Stephen Linaweaver paddles out from the South Beach Marina in SF after work. Photo by Dan Suyeyasu of Oakland.
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How would you describe your commute? A drag? Hilly, boring, sweaty, tedious? Those are a few of the words people in our newsroom used to describe theirs.
But recently, we heard a man characterize his commute in this way: "Conditions: sunny and absolutely bluebird. Number of seals spotted: 8. Amount of road rage experienced: none. Number of waves surfed: about five."
That’s how Stephen Linaweaver describes his daily commute to work crossing the Bay in his kayak. And, as far as we know, Linaweaver is the only person to get to work this way.
KALW’s transportation reporter Casey Miner met Linaweaver one early morning at the Port of Oakland as he set off for his workday across the Bay.
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CASEY MINER: If you met Stephen Linaweaver after 7 a.m., you probably wouldn’t think he’s much different from any other Bay Area professional. He’s 38. He works for a company that does sustainability consulting for corporations. He’s kind of outdoorsy. Whatever.
But if you met him before 7 a.m., you’d definitely think he was unusual. For starters, you’d have to do what I did, which is drive down to the Port of Oakland before dawn and talk with him while he’s getting ready to launch his kayak into the Bay.
STEPHEN LINAWEAVER: So, I basically put all my work clothes in here, in this dry bag, and just kind of roll them up, and they actually turn out surprisingly normal when you get to the other side. So, I bring that and I bring one other dry bag, which has like phone and keys and all that kind of stuff. Then I bring this flag, which I’ll show you when we get in, this is a late addition. I realized that no one can see me out there, so I put this on like my back, between my life vest and my body. I know it doesn’t look like anybody can see it now but on the way back in the afternoon it’s super-helpful. Because you’re actually really low in the water, and with waves in a blue boat, no one can see you.
If there’s someone else who paddles a whitewater kayak from Oakland to San Francisco to get to work, Linaweaver’s never seen him. He’s never even heard of anyone else doing it, which means for the past year or so, he’s been figuring out the logistics on his own. And there are some serious logistics.
There may not be other kayakers, but there are plenty of other boats. Really, really, really big boats. Linaweaver shows me the radio that helps him keep track of what they’re doing.
LINAWEAVER: The cool thing about this is that you have to travel in channel 16, and you hear all the big boats coming in, talking to the Coast Guard. On any given morning you’ll hear like four or five different languages, it’s pretty cool. You hear all the big freighters comin’ in.
Not that you need to hear them. Those ships are enormous. So big, when you look up from ground level, they block out most of the sky. And they’re fast. Linaweaver is surprisingly calm about all this.
LINAWEAVER: There’s one channel you have to worry about, which is right off the coast of the Port of Oakland right here, and it’s only about two football fields wide. So you know where they’re going to be. It’s kind of like a little bit of early morning human Frogger. But once you get past that section it’s pretty straightforward.
As he talks, he’s pointing at one of those freighters. By the time he’s ready to go a few minutes later, there’s another one coming. He says he’s going to wait for it to pass – but then he doesn’t. He picks his way down the slippery rocks – there’s no dock or anything – and just goes.
LINAWEAVER: So that’s it. I’m gonna shove off. And hopefully not scrape too much of the boat. Alright, see you at the other side!
MINER: Yeah, have a good ride!
MINER: [into recorder] The sun is just starting to come up over San Francisco Bay, and I can still see the tiny little light of Stephen paddling away towards the city. The lights just blinked off on the Bay Bridge and it’s very calm. The water’s actually very calm this morning. It’s a little nerve-wracking to watch right now because at least optically it looks like he’s on a collision course with this giant container ship. He’s like this little tiny dot, and the tugboat that’s in front of the freighter is bigger, sort of boat-sized, and the freighter is just unbelievable, it’s like an apartment complex. A big, fast-moving apartment complex. God, it’s like David and Goliath out here. Don’t do it Stephen!
In the end, Stephen was okay. I know because I gave him a tape recorder so he could tell us what it was like out there.
LINAWEAVER: This is what the commute sounds like. [silence, distant freeway noise] That’s amazing.
In the meantime, after I saw him off I recorded my own trip across the Bay Bridge. See for yourself which you might prefer.
MINER: [in car] So, I’m in the car right now, and I am driving across the Bay Bridge, it’s 6:43, you know it’s fine, it’s not like too congested or anything, hang on, let me turn the radio down there.
LINAWEAVER: [in kayak] So you can hear the train whistle from Amtrak, the foghorn from Alcatraz … And a lot of cars on the Bay Bridge.
MINER: [in car] There’s mist over the Bay just a little bit. You can see the water, much clearer than it’s been. It does indeed look very, very peaceful out there. I’d much rather be out there than dealing with the S-curve.
LINAWEAVER: [in kayak] It’s amazing when you’re out here, you pretty much don’t hear anything besides the planes and the faint hum of the cars. But it’s amazing to be in the middle of several million people and you just don’t hear anything. It’s beautiful out here.
Out there, the commute usually takes Linaweaver about an hour, but it’s so calm this morning that he makes it in only 45 minutes. There’s not even that much traffic on the bridge, but he still almost beats me across. Once he gets out of the water, he picks up his kayak and walks the three blocks to his work, where he stores it, where else?
LINAWEAVER: It’s a little bit of an unceremonious spot to end a kayaking trip, which is a large parking garage. But I’m actually lucky I can put it down here, there’s not a lot of places you can store something this big.
Right now, Linaweaver makes the kayak commute a few times a week, to and from Oakland. If it were up to him, he says he’d do it every day.
LINAWEAVER: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about moving to the city but don’t think I’m going to move because I wouldn’t be able to kayak commute. So I’m going to stay in Oakland.
If you’re a car commuter, the sound of cars and traffic reports might be familiar to you.
Not to Steven Linaweaver. Here’s how he described his commute in a recent email: "Conditions: Sunny and absolutely bluebird. Wind: Glorious, ridiculous tailwind between 10 and 15 miles per hour, directly eastward. Number of waves surfed en route: about 5."
So what time is it? Rush hour? Not for everyone. If you’re traveling across the Bay Bridge, and you can, take a peek over the side. You might just see a little kayak making his own way home, too.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Casey Miner.
Click here to see a slideshow of pictures from Stephen Linaweaver’s first kayak kayak commute in 2009.