Christmas Bird Count by boat, Part 2

By George Peyton

The longtime skipper of the North Boat, Ed Jepsen, was an excellent sailor and navigator, and even taught classes for the U.S. Coast Guard. However, one day many years ago, we sailed into a phenomenon that could have led to the death of Ed’s then-wife.

It was a clear and cold day for the Oakland Christmas Count, and the North Boat was headed north from the Bay Bridge paralleling the eastern shore of Treasure Island.

Ed’s wife loved the outdoors and birds and had come to love being out in the Jepsens’ boat. But by that time her health confined her to a wheelchair, where she was enjoying the expansive view from the back deck.

Suddenly, the prow of the North Boat lurched substantially upward into the air as we emerged from the calm waters behind Treasure Island and encountered a very strong rising tide coming into the Bay from the Golden Gate.

Scaup on SF Bay / Photo by U.S. Geological Survey
Scaup on SF Bay / Photo by U.S. Geological Survey

We all grabbed onto something to steady ourselves. But right away I noticed that the wheelchair did not have its brakes fully engaged and was rolling rapidly toward the rear of the boat — with Ms. Jepsen in it.

I remember jumping and grabbing the arm of the wheelchair. Fortunately one of our other bird spotters did likewise, just before it hit the back railing, where it could have thrown Ms. Jepsen out and into the water.

We could hardly believe what had happened and how fortunate we were that a tragedy had not occurred. Naturally our minds were at least temporarily off of counting birds.

Another extremely memorable North Boat experience took place on another cold, clear day that was quite windy. We had rounded the south side of Yerba Buena Island and passed under the Bay Bridge heading north on the San Francisco side, scanning the small rocky beaches at the base of the island’s steep cliffs for birds.

Yerba Buena
Yerba Buena Island, with Oakland and Alameda in the background and San Francisco across the bridge to the right

Suddenly, Pete White called out that he had seen something strange on the beach that looked a little like a human body. He asked Ed Jepsen to come about and get closer, so that we could better see what was on that small beach.

I ran over to the railing and, sure enough, my binoculars showed a dead body washed up on the beach. Because the wind had increased, the North Boat was wildly pitching up and down as Ed Jepsen tried to hold us in one location to observe the body.

Ed used his marine radio to call the U.S.Coast Guard, which was located only a short distance away on the other side of Yerba Buena Island. However, the Coast Guard responded that it was not their problem because it was within the city limits and jurisdiction of the City of San Francisco and instructed Ed to call for the San Francisco Fire Boat. Because the small beach where the body was located was at the base of a rocky cliff, accessing the beach from the water seemed the logical thing to do.

What they hadn’t considered was that the wind kept getting stronger and the waves higher and more choppy. So when the San Francisco Fire Boat arrived on the scene, it was simply too rough for crew members to get safely onto a rubber dinghy and make it to the beach.

The Fire Boat headed back to the City. We also decided to head back to port, since fortunately the location near Yerba Buena Island was the last stop on our normal birding route.

I read the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle that the S. F. Fire Department had eventually sent a Search and Rescue Team that rappelled down the steep cliff to the beach below and hauled the dead body back up  the cliff face with ropes.

My other half, Lani, said that this would be her last voyage on the North Boat. She loved the birding, but never wanted to see a dead body again.


George Peyton practiced law for 44 years, half of those as City Attorney for Piedmont. He has served on the boards of Golden Gate Bird Alliance, Point Blue (formerly PRBO), Audubon Canyon Ranch, and National Audubon. He played a leading role in National Audubon’s work to save Mono Lake. He has been an active birder for 66 years and seen about 6,500 bird species. George is currently managing a Big Year planned for 2015 by his spouse Lani, in which she hopes to see at least 600 different species in the Lower 48 States. You can read Part 1 of his North Boat CBC memories here.


Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s 2014 Christmas Bird Count will take place on Sunday, December 14 in Oakland and Tuesday, December 30 in San Francisco. Join us for the count and the festive dinner afterwards! Registration for the Oakland count is now closed but you can register for the SF count until December 10. We are especially in need of Yard/Feeder Watchers — take as little as an hour to report on the birds in your backyard!  Click here for details and registration.