Categorized | Northern California

Point Reyes National Seashore Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock

An opportunity had come up last fall to spend the weekend at Pt Reyes Lifeboat Station in the old Coast Guard Station on Drake’s Bay. It was for a writing workshop sponsored by the Point Reyes Field Institute, a nonprofit which helps preserve the seashore and also which provides educational opportunities for children and adults. Over the years, I have been to several events at the Point Reyes National Seashore: two weekend writing workshops at the Clem  Miller Environmental Education Center and a one-day drawing workshop with my mother at the Red Barn.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station

The Point Reyes Field Institute workshops have always been magical – fueled by great topics, great classmates, even greater teachers, and an unbelievably beautiful location. These workshops also offer an opportunity to spend the night at Point Reyes in places that are generally closed to the public.

Although I had been looking forward to coming to the workshop, I had almost cancelled at the last minute. My father had recently passed away after weeklong series of debilitating and ultimately fatal strokes. Two days after my father died, I had a cancer recurrence scare and the tumor testing had taken several weeks. It had not been a pleasant time, especially since I decided to conceal the situation from my family, who were still dealing with the aftermath of my father’s passing.  We had a burial at sea for him two weeks previous to the workshop, and the day after the burial I was felled by a vicious cold that ended up sidelining me for an unbelievably long time. Was still feeling particularly punky, but decided I would head down to the workshop anyway.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Writing Room

Quite frankly, until the workshop, I hadn’t been aware of the existence of the lifeboat station.  The last time I had been in the area had been several years ago when I had visited the Point Reyes Lighthouse on the other side of the peninsula. Isolated and cold, the lighthouse was only accessible by going down 300 plus steep steps. That lighthouse location is best known for not only being extraordinarily windy, but for also being the “second foggiest place on the North America Continent”.  Also dedicated to saving lives along the coast, both the lighthouse and the lifeboat station are silent reminders of the countless heroes who staffed them and the countless lives they saved.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station View

In the not so distant past, ships were our main mode of travel and trade, especially in California with its state-long coastline. Shipwrecks were common and the coast along Point Reyes was particularly perilous.  Cold, isolated, and foggy, death was almost inevitable when a ship would collide with the coastline. The original Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was built in 1890 directly on Great Beach, a stretch known for bad weather and pounding surf.  As perilous as the coast was for ships, it was equally perilous for the rescuers to live and work at that site and their bravery and skill saved many as they set out in non-motorized boats to rescue victims from the violently pounding surf.

In 1927, the new lifeboat station was built in Drake’s Bay to accommodate the upgraded lifeboats, which were longer, heavier, and motorized. These boats were launched from the boathouse down a marine railway into the calm waters of Drake’s Bay – and then setting out to where they were needed along the Point Reyes Peninsula.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Interior Boat Launch

 

 

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Marine Railway

By 1969 the lifeboat station was obsolete.  Helicopters and bigger and better Coast Guard boats were more effective at rescues, fewer people were taking ships to get where they needed to go, and modern instrumentation had replaced guesswork for boats navigating near the Point Reyes Peninsula.

The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was decommissioned at that point, and is now used for educational programs. It is occasionally opened to the public.

Getting to the Lifeboat Station was a tad challenging. Instead of turning right towards the lighthouse, you turn left towards Chimney Rock.  The road to the parking lot was pretty – passing by meadows and low hills, all baked gold in the fall sun. There is a large parking lot with restrooms and the next time I go to the Lifeboat Station I will park there and call it a day.  But having permission via the workshop coordinators to drive down to the Lifeboat Station itself to unload my gear, I did drive down there.  Narrow, steep, and only one lane wide, the road was OK going down, less OK coming up back up when I came head to head with another car coming down.  It’s basically not that far to unload gear and walk it down to the Lifeboat Station from the parking lot, so that’s what I’ll do next time, because I am a wimp.

The first thought I had when I reached the station was how much my dad would have enjoyed being there.  We had both loved old buildings, especially deserted ones.  We like empty hallways, half open doors to forgotten rooms, finding the occasional sweater hanging off a peg, a bottle lying on its side. We would speculate about what had happened, who had lived here, their last thoughts and actions, why they had left. It is a fascination that has never left me.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Persimmons

One of our best finds took place when I was a teenager.  The San Rafael Military Academy in San Rafael, California had shut down and someone had forgotten to lock one of the doors.  Somehow, we had discovered this, I don’t remember how.  My father and I ran through it in delight, sprinting up and down the staircase, opening doors, and peeking into the dorm rooms, still furnished with hard narrow cots. We gorged ourselves on this treasure trove and delighted in slipping out the back door before we were ever caught.

This old lifeboat station building was no exception.  Although it had been re-purposed for institutional use with its solid simple furniture and no-nonsense interior, it still had character and drama. The moment I walked in, I had immediately thought of my father, and how much fun we would have had exploring this old building.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Hallway

 

Most of the downstairs area is taken up with the boathouse. The original launch equipment is still in there, as well as exhibit materials explaining the history of the lifeboat station.  Alongside one of the walls was a long row of plastic folding tables and folding chairs where all the workshop participants ended up eating our dinners together. The rest of the first floor held the kitchen and a small living area.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station LIving Room

The top of the stairs opened up into a long hallway, on either sides doors opened to bunk rooms, bathrooms, and showers.  and at the end of the long hallway, the writing room. Originally a meeting / conference room, the writing room was the most beautiful place to be.  All of the windows looked out over the water – you were suspended over the water. One day I would like to have a room like that, where all you see is water and sky.  We had our writing classes in there and the rest of the time, it was a quiet place to set up with a notebook and write, uninterrupted.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Writing Room

I could not get enough of the water. You could see the bay from almost every window and hear the waves hitting the shore at night. Occasionally a sea lion would travel from across the bay and set up shop directly under the lifeboat station, loudly honking and bellowing.

I didn’t move much from the lifeboat station that weekend.  Somehow, the weekend at the station in Point Reyes ended up being very healing for both my spirit and my body.  I slept, I ate, I wrote.  Spent some time on the sunny station deck and strolled up the hill one afternoon and looked at Drake’s Bay.

Drake's Bay Point Reyes National Seashore

 

I thought a lot about my father, and how I had watched his ashes disperse across the water a few miles south in the waters of the San Francisco Bay. Although many people do not care for burials at sea because there is no fixed resting place, I feel great comfort in knowing that my father is now everywhere. That weekend – and every day – I feel his presence all around me, with every beat of the waves on the shore.

Point Reyes Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Candle

 

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