After reporting on regulatory issues over the past few years, we feel like we’ve developed an existential difference in opinion with certain policy makers who often tout waterfront trails — as opposed to ramps and marinas — as the be all end all of access to the Bay. We fear that if trails satisfy enough of a demand for access, then the West Coast waterfront will turn into an aquarium where hordes of people line well-paved shores to look at an empty Bay. This may seem like an extreme view, but it’s an objective fact that there are fewer boatyards and marinas, and that existing waterways are in great need of being dredged — and all the while, trails have proliferated.
We believe in docks over trails, in other words. But as it turns out, we believe in trails, too.
Latitude 38 recently opened a satellite office in San Quentin Village, on the west side of the Richmond/San Rafael bridge. By ‘office’, I mean that I’m renting a room in the neighborhood, and I sometimes work from home. After exploring the new neighborhood, I am happy to report that access is robust, even if it challenges this magazine’s notion of what we’d prefer access to be.
(And also, bikes are awesome.)
For months, I’ve heard about a windsurfing spot near the Marin Rod & Gun Club — I’d even drive there, but only found an endless rim of riprap. It’s astonishing, actually, how few breaks there are in the rocky Bay border, especially here in Marin.
But from a bike, nooks and crannies quickly reveal themselves. Just a three-minute ride from the ‘office’, there was the tiny crescent of beach in the southwest corner of San Rafael Bay. Other windsurfers have told me that in the spring — when cold north winds prevail — this is the spot to be. Sailing on a high tide is recommended to stay above the mud. Even without wind, people sat by the beach, as one does, and stared at the water.
The beach is also where the trail into San Rafael begins — it is officially the John and Jean Starkweather Shoreline Park (John was a pioneering clinical psychologist and teacher at UCSF), which borders several miles of reedy marshes packed with squawking birds. These last few weeks in the Bay have been glassy, even as high-wind warnings have caused pre-emptive power outages to hedge against wildfires. The hills are not gold or brown, but parched white and bone dry.
I should take a moment here to wax poetic about the joys of riding a bicycle, which I haven’t done in years, because the idea of riding in Bay Area traffic seems at best masochistic, and at worst, like expediting a death wish. But give me a long, empty trail along the water and I’m good. Not unlike sailing or paddling, there is something deeply charming about non-motorized automotion. Not unlike windsurfing, there is a satisfying grace and flow in using your muscles and balance to go fast and quickly cover great distances.
After zigzagging past industrial offices and businesses, then toward the hills in San Rafael, and finally toward the narrow strip of water that cuts the town in two, the Starkweather trail eventually deposits you onto busy streets in the Canal Area, a densely packed neighborhood that’s mostly condos and apartment buildings. If you like good food, then you will find the Canal Area a heaven anointed with wafts of delicious smoke floating off the grill.
You kind of have to run into the Canal to find it. Never has a body of water been so well hidden and thoroughly under celebrated. “San Rafael is technically a waterfront town, but it’s hard to find,” said sailor Peter Brown in a 2018 story. “As the town developed, they seemed to have tried” their best to hide the waterfront.
I thought I know all the waterfront restaurants in San Rafael (because there are like, two), but I stumbled onto Pier 15, which has a small, covered deck butting up against a crowded marina packed with old and obviously stationary boats loaded with stuff and covered in tarps.
I forgot to be happy to have stumbled across a funky, old marina, because it felt a little melancholy, the way boats seem to become floating storage units, or maybe even headstones decaying in a cemetery commemorating a once-active sport and lifestyle.
Sorry, that’s a bit extreme.
After riding the Starkweather trail over the past week, I saw a well-used trail cutting through a multitude of neighborhoods full of walkers, joggers, dogs and their owners, and fisherman. But the Bay was empty, empty — but those were weekdays. This past weekend, as the Blue Angels practiced their choreography across the sky, there was a steady stream of boats transiting the San Rafael channel to and from the Bay. The majority were motorboats, but beggars can’t be choosers.
While Latitude would prefer to see San Rafael’s trails leading to abundant marinas full of well-used boats, biking the city’s waterfront has still been a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Will the ratio of trails to boats continue to skew into the future? Only time will tell.
What are some of your favorite waterfront trails, both here in the Bay and anywhere in the world? Also, are bikes an important part of your sailing repertoire? Please email us here, or comment below.