About 30 people kayaked, rowed or sailed to the Ashby Shoal for a community breakfast on June 16 to celebrate one of the lowest tides of the year. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Four in the morning, at 37°-50.72’ N 122°-18.94’ W in the San Francisco Bay, River Pember heard a thud. 

Location of the Ashby Shoal in Berkeley’s South Cove. Courtesy: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Her 26-foot sailboat had struck sand and, over the next couple of hours, as the water slowly receded with the tide, the vessel began to keel, ending up at a 45-degree angle. At sunrise, Pember and her two crew members jumped off the boat onto dry land. It would be another few hours before others would arrive and make a fire to keep warm. 

This was no shipwreck. 

Pember and her crew had intentionally moored at the sandbar that appears just twice a year a little northwest of the Emeryville fishing pier. The beached mariners were there to take part in this summer’s Ashby Shoal Gourmet Breakfast, one of two quirky, biannual low-tide festivals that for more than 40 years have been organized by Paul Kamen, a longtime Berkeley sailor, naval architect, maritime enthusiast and bay expert. 

About 31 people boated or kayaked to the June 16 breakfast held on the sandbar. The unofficial dress code: bare feet, helpful when embarking and disembarking from watercraft. 

“We pick one or two extreme events per year and have a big picnic or clambake out on the sandbar that comes out,” Kamen explained. Most years, half the participants are paddlers from the DragonMax team and half are from the Cal Sailing Club, both of which Kamen has been active in for years. “Everybody has a lot of fun being out there. It’s an anachronistic event.”

A few heave-ho’s

Exploring the Ashby Shoal in search of algae and critters. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“Shoal” comes from an Old English word meaning “a place of shallow water.” For sailors, shoals are usually hazardous places, clearly demarcated on nautical maps. 

On the website of the Spinnaker Sailing school in Redwood City, instructor Patrick Twohy warns boaters departing Berkeley’s South Cove to “watch out for the Ashby Shoal, which guards part of the entrance to the cove between the Berkeley and Emeryville marinas.” 

At high tide, the water at the shoal is generally around 8 feet deep, plenty of clearance for most boats. But during the 8:15 a.m. low tide on June 16 the water was 2.1 feet lower than a normal low tide, or about 5.4 feet below average sea level — causing the several acres of shoal to appear out of the bay waters. (Low tides usually follow the highest tides of the year, the King Tides, which this year occurred June 15.)

An hour before low tide, a 48-foot dragon boat, a replica of a traditional Chinese riverboat, disembarked from Berkeley’s M dock. Kamen served as steersperson for the 17 paddlers.

The boat headed south, about a half-mile offshore, passing under Berkeley’s defunct 1926 pier. In the distance, Pember’s tipped-over sailboat served as a marker.

River Pember’s 26-foot Columbia sailboat, Lonchivar, rests sideways on the Ashby Shoal (its anchor is seen at left). Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

After a half hour of synchronized paddling, the dragon boat slid into the soft sand and, after a few heave-ho’s, came to a halt, a noisy transition to quieter moments of awe. Crew members took in the odd location, looking landward to the hills and seaward to San Francisco, while a handful got to work on breakfast, the grounded sailboat providing an eerie backdrop. 

“It looks bad, but it really doesn’t hurt the boat at all,” Kamen said. “It’s soft mud.”

DragonMax team members Shirley Cheng and Emma Regev tow their boat into the Ashby Shoal. Cheng, who turns 80 this summer, has been a paddler with DragonMax for a decade and Regev, a recent college graduate, joined the team after a competing in high-school. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Pember’s partner and co-captain, Marco Perlin, used the boat’s unnatural position as an opportunity to seal joints underneath in preparation for an upcoming sailing trip on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

In addition to those who came by sailboat and rowboat, others embarked from the Berkeley dock in a canoe and the empty His Lordships restaurant in a kayak. Four kayakers came from the Emeryville marina, including members of Bay Area Sea Kayakers, and a 3-year-old mutt named Hazel, who arrived in a sparkly mermaid life vest on the lap of her owner, Heidi Kearsley. She went to her first shoal happening 17 years ago, with members of the Cal Sailing Club.

“We’re here all the time,” said Kearsley, who lives on a boat in the Emeryville marina. “This is my backyard. I check the tides and the weather often and look forward to the shoal’s appearance.” 

Emma Regev, a recent graduate of Haverford College, said one of the best things about being on a DragonMax team was the “intergenerational friendships” she made, a diversity also apparent at the shoal. The crowd ranged from age 13 (Eva Doucette, an incoming Berkeley eighth grader) to 84 (Grant Bennett, who arrived in a wooden rowboat). 

A ‘freeing experience’

Watercraft of all types converged on the Ashby Shoal sandbar for a clambake on Jan. 2, 2022. Credit: Paul Herzmark

Though Kamen organizes the event, it’s an all-hands-on-deck affair. 

Kathy Baylor, a retired hydrogeologist cum dragon boat member, brought donuts. David Janinis, a veteran sailor who sailed with Kamen to Hawaii, was “the pancake guy.” Phil Freeman, arriving in a kayak, brought kindling for what became a classic, triangular-shaped campfire. The scent of coffee brewing in a white enamel pot combined with the salty air. Pember sampled eelgrass, the local delicacy lying horizontal in the low waters. 

Potluck style: Fare at the breakfast included pancakes and eggs, banana bread and mimosas. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Novelty was certainly part of the allure, along with witnessing a somewhat freaky natural occurrence. Participants ate their eggs, sausages or gluten-free banana bread on sand that only hours earlier was a different world teeming with tiny crabs, blobs of jellyfish, the occasional stingray and whatever animals make tiny swirling sand piles. Flocks of pelicans hung out on the shoal’s narrow strips to the north, a safe distance away.

“This is about doing something in nature that doesn’t happen that often — and being social,” said Wallace Bastein, who, with his wife, Ana, was a DragonMax paddler. This was their fourth low-tide event with Kamen. “It’s a freeing experience,” Ana added. 

Small groups meandered to the sandbar’s outermost reaches, closer to the pelicans, and around its many sides. May Soong, a job coach at Berkeley’s East Bay Innovations, was so inspired, she went off on her own to perform the slow-mo movements of qi gong. 

“I am barefoot. I am on the sand. To just feel like you can get the energy of the universe in the environment propels you to do it,” she said. “It feels very different from doing qi gong in the living room.”

Such low-tide festivities are not part of some age-old nautical tradition, Kamen said, but a modern-day phenomenon usually involving the local yacht club. He knows of similar festivities that take place on Oahu. 

A long underwater tradition

A 1984 black-tie affair at the Ashby Shoal. Organizer Paul Kamen is in the front row on the right. Courtesy: Paul Kamen

Kamen began organizing low-tide events around 1978 with a member of the Cal Sailing Club who has since moved away. Over the years, the event has taken many forms, depending on the time of year and time of day the low tide occurs. 

One era that stands out to Kamen was when a black-tie dress code was required. Kamen captured one such event in a 1984 photo, which depicts a keeled boat in the sand. 

In January, Kamen organized a clambake to accommodate a nighttime low tide. 

Kamen’s passion for the water has flooded all aspects of his life. Originally from Cold Spring Harbor, a hamlet on Long Island, New York, he arrived in Berkeley to attend Cal in 1973 and immediately joined the Cal Sailing Club. In fact, he blames the Cal Sailing Club with why he didn’t get a Ph.D. and why his master’s degree took six years instead of two. He served as the club president from 1979-82.

Paul Kamen. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

He’s the founding president of the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center, which hosts DragonMax, and has been its vice president for the past 17 years. An accomplished sailor and Berkeley Yacht Club member, he sailed his 25-foot Merit to Hawaii and back in 1986. By day he’s a consultant who works for lawyers litigating boating accidents.  

Being on the water for so many years, Kamen has noticed changes in the shoal. Its highpoint has moved a little to the south. 

“The bay is trying to realign its natural shoreline,” he observed. “If we wait long enough it is going to form a barrier beach connecting the Emeryville and Berkeley landfills and probably the Albany Bulb also.” 

Kamen has advised what was previously called the Berkeley Waterfront Commission (now the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission) on all issues involving the waterfront. Appointed in 1999, he served as chair for six terms. (Kamen is also an occasional Berkeleyside contributor known for his annual April Fool’s Day news story parodies — like a floating football stadium that would keep the Raiders in town.)

“Paul is not only central to Ashby Shoal events, but more broadly, a central figure in everything related to the Berkeley waterfront,” said Baylor, a dragon boat member who has known Kamen since 2012. “So when he picks the date, he issues all-hands invitations to everyone in the community. Anyone can show up and bring whatever they want. It’s fun for everyone.”

Kamen-organized events are often the largest, but are not the only ones that take place on the shoal. Last winter, Kearsley kayaked out to a shindig involving a jug band and live chickens. She’s been to gatherings at sunset and sunrise, at midday and midnight. On the Spinnaker Sailing website, Twohy writes of attending a wedding and reception on the shoal: “The happy couple wore formal wedding attire and rubber boots.” 

At around 9:20 a.m., as the tide began to rise, Kamen gathered up his crew. 

“Fair paddling,” wished Leo Richiuso, from Pember’s boat. He helped shove off the dragon boat, likely to return when the shoal next appears.

River Pember, captain of the sailboat Lonchivar, takes a swim in the shallow waters off the Ashby Shoal. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...