“Johnny,” says the memory of my grandma to the 4-year-old me, “that’s not safe! Be a smart boy and stay here.” She hesitates, then adds, “I’ll give you a jelly bean if you do.”

The “not safe” are white caps breaking on East Brother Light Station, the evening’s destination. 

The underwater cable supplying power to the small island-lighthouse-B&B recently croaked, and the powers-that-be have asked Don’t Follow Don and a handful of others to submit their proposals to install a battery-backed solar system, restore the station’s power.

“I’ll give you a red one,” says grandma. Oh man, oh man! I love red jelly beans. They’re my favorite.

The trickle of power left on the island is from a 1930s generator named Gentry. Gentry is used sparingly, his reliability not so much; when he manages to fire up, he roars like a jet plane taking off. 

Gentry charges a rack of old batteries that power the light in the lighthouse tower. The small shuttle boat that runs between the island and the mainland is raised and lowered by an electric hoist, also powered by Gentry. 

Power can’t be spared to raise and lower our kayaks. We’ll have to bail out of our kayaks at the base of a long ladder that climbs up the steep rock face to the island’s elevated dock. White caps are beating against that ladder.

“I’ll give you a green one, too,” grandma says, a look of worry washing over her face.

I like green jelly beans, too. Not as much as red ones, but I like ‘em. But here’s the thing: Don’t Follow Don really wants to install solar, restore the island’s power. 

He wants to restore power so badly, he’s shaved today, wants to make a good impression. I’ve never seen Don’t Follow Don’s face clean shaven. To top it off, today’s his birthday.

I have no choice. “Sorry, grandma.”

When Don’t Follow Don and Dragon in their singles and Gandalf and I in our double near the island, the bay’s calm, no white caps. 

No white caps, but Desiree, the Station Keeper who’s been watching our approach from the elevated dock, shouts, “Ferry coming! Ferry coming! Move away from the island.”

Sure enough, Cujo’s moving up fast in the channel that separates East Brother from Pt. San Pablo. The channel’s narrow, and Cujo’s wake, when it slams into the island, can be huge.

Forewarned, we 180 our boats, face Cujo’s wakes , ride over them, and Bob’s your uncle. 

Hoisting ourselves up onto the island’s another matter. 

Desiree tosses a rope down to Don’t Follow Don, he ties it to his bow, hauls himself outta his boat, clambers up the long ladder, pulls his boat up, smiles down at us, says, “Your turn.”

Part of me’s thinking, “I shoulda listened to grandma, taken the jelly beans.” Another part of me’s thinking, “I’ve paddled by this island a buncha times the last 20 years, never had a chance to see what it’s all about.”

Gandalf, Dragon, and I aren’t confident hauling our boats up, but we have enough confidence to haul ourselves up. We secure our two boats to the dock via a long rope, leave the two in the water, scramble up the barnacle-encrusted ladder to the top. 

Climbing up, I’m worrying what the wakes from a big, fast boat could do to the boats while we’re on the island. I’m definitely my grandma’s grandson. Can’t help it.

Well now, I gotta say it’s worth taking a chance with our boats to see the island. Desiree, the Station Keeper, gives us the grand tour, shows us the guest rooms, the game room, the kitchen, the generator room, takes us up into the lighthouse tower. The whole shebang.

No wonder the station’s a California Historic Landmark. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, too.

Don’t Follow Don’s taking notes, laying out potential solar arrays in his head. Tells Desiree he’ll email a proposal tomorrow, Friday. 

Walking back to the dock, Desiree exclaims, “Look at that! Look at that boat coming into the channel.”

I run to the waist-high, white picket fence that surrounds the light station, thinking, “There go our kayaks.” What I see coming into the channel’s as big as a house.

Fact is, it is a house. A two-story house towed by a strange looking boat, a Burning-Man-Lite boat. The house isn’t on a barge, is floating upright on its own. Awkward. Escorting the house/boat is a small Coast Guard zodiac. The procession is slow moving, no wakes, no threat to our boats.

We bid farewell to Desiree. Don’t Follow Don lowers his boat to the water, slides down the ladder, boards her. Gandalf, Dragon, and I drop down the ladder into our undamaged boats, the three of us paddle after the house.

The house and Burning-Man-Lite boat are anchored around Pt. San Pablo. The Coast Guard zodiac has left. The boat’s two-man crew tells us the house was part of a homeless anchor-out community in Redwood City.

“The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission told us we couldn’t live there anymore, told us to leave,” says one of the crew.”

“So we left,” says the other. The fellow tells us they’re moving their anchor-outs to Rio Vista in the north bay. “More houses’ll be following us,” says he.

“Soon,” says the other.

Not sure how distant “soon” is, we wish the two good luck, paddle back to Pt. San Pablo Harbor, do dinner under the harbor’s big white canopy tent. A dinner surprise is Don’t Follow Don’s veggies, the lot of ‘em chopped, not spiralized.

A few more words about East Brother Light Station. Due to the pandemic, the station is short of funds, paying guests the major source in non-pandemic times. Once pandemic restrictions ease, the station needs power to provide services. To help pay for their new power source, the station has set up a Go Fund Me campaign. You can find out more about the campaign and about the station at              .


Date: Thurseve, 22 April 2021.

Distance: Two point two nautical miles.

Speed: Zero point five knots.

Time: Four point five hours hours.

Spray factor: Coulda been.

Dessert: Chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies