There’s Something in the Water

By Brad Rippe

Kevin Lorne at Bolinas Lagoon in 2022. Photograph by Brad Rippe.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, October 17, 1989. The Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants are warming up for game three of the World Series at Candlestick Park. Bay Area baseball fans are finishing up the day, getting ready for the game. Among those fans is Kevin Lorne, longtime Stinson Beach resident, surfer and open water swimmer who just emerged from the Waldo Tunnel (today called the Robin Williams Tunnel) on his way to meet fellow swimmers from the South End Rowing Club who are training at Aquatic Park for the grueling “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon, and seeing traffic at a standstill on the Golden Gate Bridge, Kevin opted to turn around, head back over Mt. Tamalpais to Stinson Beach, and swim in Bolinas Lagoon as he often did. Kevin wanted to finish his swim and watch the baseball game which was to start at 5:30.

Kevin’s typical training plan was to swim to the middle of the inner lagoon — formed when a levee was built by William Kent to extend the Seadrift subdivision — and head to the southern end and return; about a 1–1/2 mile swim. In 1989, Stinson Beach and Bolinas were sleepy towns. Few people were out midweek. Kevin had the quiet inner lagoon to himself...so he thought.

Kevin Lorne at Bolinas Lagoon in 2022. Photograph by Brad Rippe.

Long distance, open water swimming is a solo activity, and while there may be teammates, a crew, or a dog nearby, the swimmer is immersed in their own watery world and their own thoughts, while always aware of shifting current, wind, objects floating in the water and unusual situations that may never had occurred to them. For several years Kevin was joined by a friend’s dog, a lab named Big John who would swim alongside him. Kevin felt Big John was watching out for him.

Around 5 o’clock Kevin jumped in the lagoon and started his workout, the sun low and glaring; the water, calm.

Deep below Kevin, miles below him, now a tiny speck suspended on the surface of the lagoon above, one of the largest and most dangerous earthquake fault lines in the world is about to violently rupture and unleash an unimaginable amount of energy as the Pacific Plate severs its tenuous bond with the North American Plate and ferociously grinds northward. This movement, which has been ongoing for millions of years, occurs mostly as a slow creep, but sometimes not. Geophysicists sometimes eerily illustrate this rate of creep as the same rate fingernails grow, conjuring a ghastly image of ancient hands and withered fingers deep in the earth’s crust desperately trying to grasp and hold the plates together.

Sunset over Stinson Beach, February 1989. Photograph by Brad Rippe.

The Pacific Plate has brought an entirely different geology to the Northern California Coast; the rocks match the granites from the Tehachapi Mountains 350 miles south of Stinson Beach, slicing that range in an earlier geologic era. This is why Point Reyes and Bodega Head, part of the Pacific Plate, are composed of granitic and metamorphic rock. It’s also why Tomales Bay, the Olema Valley, and Bolinas Lagoon all line up perfectly on a map; they were created and are defined by the San Andreas Fault. In the Olema Valley, a curious metamorphic anomaly occurs where Olema Creek flows north to Tomales Bay while Pine Gulch Creek flows south to Bolinas Lagoon; two main creeks in close proximity, separated by a series of low ridges and parallel to each other, flow in opposite directions!

The Flagstaff Inn and the Bolinas Tavern, tipped into the Bolinas Lagoon during the earthquake of April 18, 1906. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.
“Map of Lands in Bolinas, Marin Co., Surveyed November 15th 1878 for A.H. Stinson, by H. [Hiram] Austin.” Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

On April 18, 1906 the plates violently crushed and slid against each other, causing two hotels, the Flagstaff Inn and the Bolinas Saloon, and other buildings along Wharf Road to be cast into the muddy Bolinas Lagoon. At Bear Valley, the Earthquake Trail exhibits a fence line displaced 16 feet as a result of this ground movement. In Point Reyes Station a 36-ton North Shore locomotive with passenger cars tipped over like a toy. A famous photo shows botanist Alice Eastwood observing a long and ragged rupture in a hillside near Olema due to the earthquake.

Left: Botanist Alice Eastwood stands along the fault trace, near Olema, following the earthquake of April 18, 1906. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection. Right: The North Shore Railroad was preparing to leave Point Reyes Station and head to Sausalito when it tipped over during the 1906 earthquake. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

At 5:04 pm, a few minutes into his swim, Kevin suddenly felt an enormous surge of water that lifted him up and slammed him hard, as if he was hit by a great white shark. A longtime surfer at Stinson and Bolinas, Kevin understood the danger he might have been in. Anxious and mesmerized, Kevin froze and watched the water, which was calm moments earlier, undergo a dramatic change as it became a choppy chaos with waves crisscrossing the lagoon, rising, falling and making his return to shore a difficult priority. He was in the widest part of the lagoon where the waves would reflect off the opposing shorelines, then race back to him in another round of turbulent motion. It’s hard to imagine what he was thinking at that moment; sea serpent? Probably not earthquake.

Finally, making it ashore and dragging himself out of the churning water, a friend told him what happened. Kevin just swam in an earthquake-induced tsunami directly over the San Andreas fault during the largest Bay Area earthquake in 83 years. It took him several minutes to grasp the reality of his experience. The Loma Prieta quake took the lives of 63 people, injured
thousands, collapsed hundreds of buildings and caused a section the Bay
Bridge to fall during 15 seconds of shaking.

Game three of the World Series was cancelled that day, and sadly the Giants were swept by the A’s when play finally resumed. Later that evening, Kevin and his wife drove over the hill, stopping at Bootjack Camp after seeing the fires in the Marina District. They watched the fires and unfolding tragedy in San Francisco from the prominent rock near the picnic area.

Kevin completed five “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlons, and still swims in Bolinas Lagoon. I imagine he quickens his stroke sometimes after looking down into the dark waters below.

Earthquake Note:

FEMA provides important guidelines for “Earthquake Awareness: The Next Steps.”

https://www.fema.gov/blog/earthquake-awareness-next-steps

The US Geological Survey has a wealth of information about preparedness in the event of an earthquake. The probability of a large Bay Area earthquake increases daily, please do what you can to prepare. The Point Reyes National Seashore has a splendid website with a trove of information on the geology of the Pt Reyes peninsula.

https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2005/1127/chapter9.pdf

https://www.usgs.gov/programs/earthquake-hazards/earthquakes

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