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The best commute ever

Dan Suyeyasu of Oakland

If you met Stephen Linaweaver after 7am, you probably wouldn’t think he’s much different from any other Bay Area professional. He’s 38 years old. He works for a company that does sustainability consulting for corporations. He’s kind of outdoorsy. Whatever.

But if you met him before 7am, 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.

“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,” explains Linaweaver.

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.

“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,” Linaweaver explains.

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.

“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,” says Linaweaver. “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.

“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!” he says.

I head out by car to meet him on the other side of the Bay. I gave Stephen a tape recorder so he could tell us what it was like out there. 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] This is what the commute sounds like.  [silence, distant freeway noise] That’s amazing. 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 at a parking garage.

“It’s a little bit of an unceremonious spot to end a kayaking trip,” says Linaweaver, “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.

“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,” he says.

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.

Click here to see a slideshow of pictures from Stephen Linaweaver’s first kayak kayak commute in 2009.

This story originally aired on September 20, 2010. Since then, Stephen Linaweaver has gotten a new job, closer to the Fisherman’s Wharf, but he still commutes by kayak. He says it’s trickier to get under the Bay Bridge, but that it’s still challenging and “fun.” What is your commute like? Let us know, or take a photo and share it with us on our Facebook page.