Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Caught at Maqtaa Bridge

Photo by Terry Mercer
This is a cautionary tale, although everything turned out fine. Sometimes we do things even though we know better. This was one of those times.

Terry and I had been waiting for another opportunity to use the ULI inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP.) For a couple of weeks, the weather was windy and, for this 24°54’ latitude, chilly. Finally we got a good beach day, warm and calm, and Lucy and I headed over to Terry’s place at the Shangri-La. We got a nice early start, and by about 10:30 or so we had the board inflated and I was paddling.

Mark had suggested that it would be cool to get some photos with the Grand Mosque in the background. In order to set that up, we had to head toward the Mussafah Bridge, one person on the water and the photographer walking through the Shangri-La’s outdoor restaurants and souk, out to the main pool for hotel guests. As I took off from the beach, the tiny female lifeguard asked worriedly, “Can she swim?” Yes, Lucy assured her. No problem.

The Shangri-La’s beaches are protected from the current by rock point bars. Once you get beyond the floating line marking the swimming area, you are in the wide part of the channel, and while there is some current, it’s not that much. On this morning it was ebbing, and the Musaffah Bridge was upstream; perfect. As I paddled, I watched Terry hustling to meet me; it took longer for her to walk through the hotel than it did for me to paddle past the beaches and marina.

Photo: Terry MercerI’m not very experienced on the SUP. I tried out a board at the Richmond Yacht Club’s annual July 4th cruise out to Potato Slough in the Sacramento Delta two years ago. I managed to paddle around the little tule island without falling off the board, even discovering how to range against the current on my way back to the boat by paddling at an angle. That, and the first ULI tryout in Abu Dhabi, constituted the total of my experience.

Overconfidence and the memory of my successful island circumnavigation in current would lead me astray later this day.
Meanwhile though, Terry snapped photos, and then I headed back to the beach so that we could switch places and I could get some shots of her. I am still a little wobbly, so I don’t do a lot of looking around but as I paddled, I noticed that a large group of life guards and other beach attendants – there are many – were gathered, watching me paddle. I have to admit that it felt cool, and I was also glad that there were so many official eyes on me.

Terry paddles past the marina with Musaffah Bridge in background

Blue water in foregroud is the infinity pool

After Terry’s turn, it was time for Lucy to give the board a try. Lucy is the first person to admit that she is not steady on her feet; she seems to have a little issue with depth perception. As she got onto the board the same lifeguard came by and again asked worriedly, “Can she swim?” Yes, yes.

DSC_0252DSC_0254Lucy’s first move was to head out beyond the swimming area into the channel. Then she stood up and promptly fell off the board, her hat floating away downstream. But she swam back to the board, climbed back on and paddled in, and I went out and rescued her hat. Terry and I suggested she stay inside the swimming area. “Well I was just doing what you guys did,” she said. After that, she got the hang of standing and did pretty well paddling in the still water.

Terry was smart and didn't venture as far as I did

As we relaxed on the beach, Terry took another spin on the board. She was gone for quite a while. When she got back we talked about lunch, and the margaritas that we were going to make with lemonade, since lime juice was hard to find. I decided to go out for one more paddle before lunch, and Terry said “You should go down that way, it’s nice,” indicating toward the Maqtaa Bridge.

The Maqtaa Bridge, which links the island of Abu Dhabi to the mainland south, was constructed in 1968. Before that, people crossed by foot during low tide. This is where, legend has it, the first people to inhabit Abu Dhabi followed a dhabi, or gazelle, to the island giving Abu Dhabi its name, “Father of the Gazelle.” There is a little round island next to the bridge, and on it is the historic 200-year-old Al Maqtaa Fort. The round fort is typical of ones you see everywhere in this region. Beyond the bridge and fort is another newer, much larger bridge, the Zayed Bridge, which connects Abu Dhabi to the highway leading to Dubai. Far beyond that, on another island, is the power plant.

Here is where the “What Was I Thinking?” part begins. I paddled along in the calm water, getting closer to the Maqtaa Bridge, when it occurred to me that it was probably getting near slack tide, maybe. Maybe I could even go under the Maqtaa Bridge, wouldn’t that be cool? Then I decided to paddle around the island, just like in the delta.

Photo: Terry Mercer
Maqtaa Bridge in front, Maqtaa Fort on left, Zayed Bridge, and desalinization plant beyond

I was thinking, all right, but I wasn’t thinking it through. The problem is, and I already knew this but ignored my own prior knowledge, there really is no such thing as “slack tide.” The Maqtaa Bridge is built in the shallowest, most narrow part of the channel. Water doesn’t stop when it changes direction; it swirls. And as the channel narrows and the bottom rises, the energy in the water is concentrated and the water goes faster. I had seen the water swirling around the little island, driving over the bridge. How could I forget?

Well. As I passed under the Maqtaa Bridge, with the traffic roaring in my ears, I suddenly realized that the water that looked so smooth ahead of me was churning. I was starting to paddle slower and, at the same time, I noticed that I was going much, much faster. I drifted past the bridge.

First things first, stay on the board, stay WITH the board! I dropped to my knees and turned the board around. Then it really hit me how much current I was in; there was no way that I would be able to paddle back upstream. I didn’t want to be swept under the Zayed Bridge and beyond, out toward the power plant. The officials would certainly not appreciate that. And were Terry and Lucy watching me disappear? Were they worried?

Get to land. The shore that I had come from was too far away; I had been heading toward the little island, which was nearer the opposite shore. Get to land, even if it’s the island. If I made it to the main island I would be the wrong side of the bridge, but at least I would be safe and could think. Yes, I was starting to think things through, finally. But I was really worried that Lucy and Terry would be frantic. They are both moms, and I knew that their instincts could be in overdrive. I had nothing – no cell phone, no ID, and no money. Just me and my ULI board.

I paddled mightily toward the island, ranging in the current just like I did in the Delta. Then I realized that I could get between the island and the base of the Maqtaa Bridge. The tide was far enough out that the coral bottom under the bridge was exposed. I could see that if I made it there, I could walk under the bridge in the low tide and get to the other side, where the water was still enough that I could paddle back up the shore toward the Shangi-La. I didn’t have shoes on, but I would have to take the consequences. Luckily, my judgment was correct and as I neared the island I was shoved away from it, and landed under the bridge.

Unfortunately the coral is dead, but it helped me because it didn’t cut me up or damage the inflatable board, which I had to awkwardly drag. Weighing about 30 pounds, it’s not that heavy, but with my bare feet, I couldn’t carry it. I came out from under the bridge, and resumed kneeling on the board and paddling against the now manageable current. I was making pretty good time upstream, and although I knew that the further up I went the easier it would be to cross, I chose to cross earlier rather than later. I was a little concerned about getting into big current again, but the area I was in on that shore is a sensitive military zone. I wanted to make it clear to anyone who might be watching that I was getting out of there.
Al Maqtaa Fort
It's not as calm as it looks

As I paddled, I reflected on how useful it was that I had been doing a lot of swimming lately. My arms, shoulders, and back were in great shape for paddling, and I wasn’t getting tired at all. Plus, I have never thought of myself as a strong swimmer, but I think the reason I didn’t panic when I got into trouble was that I knew I could swim if I had to, although I don’t delude myself into thinking that I could have swam against that current; I would have had to ride it out.

Anyway, as I paddled I looked for Terry and Lucy; they would look like specks on the beach. I didn’t see them. We had been talking about a dip in the pool, then lunch and margaritas, right? Were they eating and drinking without me? Or were they calling the Coast Guard? Just then, the Coast Guard zoomed by. They didn’t even look at me. I started to relax, and even stood back up on the board.

Then the wind started to come up. Just what I needed! I could feel the resistance of my body slowing me down almost to a stop, so I kneeled back down on the board.

Then I noticed the construction workers watching me. It was lunchtime, and I could see their blue uniforms clustered together in the shade against the buildings they were working on. They had probably seen the whole thing. Dumb tourist.

Finally I landed on our beach; no Terry, no Lucy in sight. I left my board and hurried up the few steps to the residents’ pool. There they were. Terry was sunning herself; Lucy was in the pool. They were engaged in a relaxed conversation.

“There she is. You were gone a long time."

“Well . . . I went a little further than I should have. Let’s go eat lunch. And I need a margarita . . .”

I learned some important lessons. Fortunately I didn't panic, but I did a lot of things wrong, starting with going so far alone and with nobody watching. I ignored my understanding of tides in San Francisco Bay, and wandered into a place where I should not have been. I was lucky because I didn’t panic and fall off the board. I could have ended up in real trouble if I had lost the board; I didn’t have a lifejacket on and I don’t have a leash. Although there were jet skis in the water, I didn’t see any of them while I was under the bridge, so I really was alone out there.

My river boarding and rafting friends probably think this story is pretty tame. Just a little bit of current, no big deal. People who surf big waves on paddleboards won’t be impressed either. But for me, it was some serious drama.

And it makes a pretty good story, doesn’t it?

Thanks for reading.
Lucy demonstrates how to use the paddle as a "third leg" to steady yourself

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