IN EMERGENCY: Contact US Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay on VHF CHANNEL 16 or call 911 and ask for Marin County Dispatch.
Learn about the area and what to expect. Check local tide tables and maps. Download the Boating Guide (176 KB PDF) and Tomales Bay Boat-in Campsites map (249 KB PDF). Bring adequate liquids and food, as well as portable animal-resistant food storage containers if camping. Check all equipment to ensure that everything is in good condition before you get on the water. Carry extra dry clothing. Know first-aid and be alert for signs and symptoms of hypothermia, sunstroke, heat exhaustion, etc. Know how to re-enter your kayak or canoe from the water. Check at park visitor centers and/or via the park web site for current weather forecasts and wildlife sightings. PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICES MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES. Personal water craft (PWC), such as a JetSkis or Waverunners, are not permitted on Tomales Bay.
Share Your Plans
It is easy to underestimate distances and times required to paddle to and from locations while kayaking, so allow plenty of time to accomplish your intended route. We suggest paddling no more than 10 miles per day for beginners or 15 miles per day for seasoned paddlers. Be sure to inform a friend or relative of your travel plans so that someone will notice if you are overdue. Park rangers and the U.S. Coast Guard monitor marine channel 16. Try to notify a park ranger if conditions force you to change your plans.
Kayakers should use wet suits or dry suits when paddling in the Point Reyes area. This is especially important in winter and spring when the risk of hypothermia is greater.
Regulations require boaters to carry one U.S. Coast Guard-approved Personal Flotation Device (PFD) for each person on board. Those using kayaks, canoes, and other small craft are encouraged to wear their PFDs at all times when paddling. (more information below)
Paddlers should also be equipped with:
- bilge pump or bailer and sponges
- charts and maps in waterproof case
- compass and/or GPS
- one paddle per paddler, plus one extra paddle per vessel
- paddle leash
- paddle float
- towline/floating throw line (with throw bag)
- throw bag
- a spray skirt (if kayaking)
We strongly advise boaters to also pack such items as:
- marine radio
- cell phone in protective waterproof bag
- signaling devices (i.e., whistle, mirror, strobe, flares)
- first aid kit
- extra paddle
- self-contained stove
- insect repellent
- fifty feet of lashing line
- rain gear
- waterproof matches, lighter, and/or fire starter in a waterproof container
- dry storage containers
- knife or multi-tool
- headlamp or flashlight (with extra batteries)
- filled water bottle and energy snacks
- extra clothes (in a dry bag)
Be sure to drain, dry, and clean your boat, canoe, kayak, etc., before and after using it in the Point Reyes area to prevent the spread of invasive species.
Personal Flotation Devices
With only a few exceptions, under California law:
- Every child under 13 years of age on a moving recreational vessel of any length must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket in serviceable condition and of a type and size appropriate for the conditions and the activity.
- A Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be carried for each person on board a boat less than 16 feet long, or a canoe or a kayak of any length. If stored, these life jackets must be readily available (easy to get to), and you must show passengers the location of life jackets and other safety equipment.
- For a boat 16 feet or longer, you must carry for each passenger the same requirements as above and one immediately accessible (easy-to-reach) Type IV device designed for throwing—such as a ring, cushion, or horseshoe buoy for each boat.
Visit the California Division of Boating and Waterways' Life Jackets page for more information about the regulations pertaining to PDFs in California. Visit the North American Safe Boating Campaign's website for additional information about PDFs and safety tips for responsible boating.
Weather can change rapidly and with little warning at Point Reyes. Point Reyes is renowned for its strong winds, fog, rough seas, and temperatures that are cooler than elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Weather radio stations can provide some of the most useful information for boaters, who should monitor marine weather forecasts and be constantly alert to changing conditions. Always observe and evaluate wind and wave conditions before entering the water. Extreme weather conditions may be encountered at any time.
Average daytime high temperatures range from ~15°C (~55°F) in December to ~22°C (~72°F) in September. Average lows vary from ~5°C (~41°F) in December to ~11°C (~52°F) in September. Water temperatures in Tomales Bay may be as low as 10°C (50°F), although they tend to warm to ~18°C (~65°F) in the late summer and early autumn. What is the temperature of the water in Tomales Bay today? Check the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory's Tomales Bay Buoy for current seawater temperature and wind observations.
Be aware that Tomales Bay can act as a wind tunnel as northwest winds are concentrated between Inverness and Bolinas ridges. Check wind forecasts before departure, paying particular attention to the afternoon winds, which tend to be stronger than morning winds. Some of the more consistent strong winds occur in the spring, with many consecutive days with small craft advisories (wind speeds of 39–61 kph [21–33 knots])—or even gale warnings (wind speeds of 62–87 kph [34–47 knots])—issued by the National Weather Service. Winter weather tends to be the least consistent, with pleasant, calm weather one day followed by stormy weather with gale force winds the next. While summer and autumn tend to have the most consistently favorable weather for kayaking, any given day of the year can be windy.
Sea kayaks ride low in the water and are difficult for other boaters to see, especially during rough conditions. Always keep a lookout for approaching boats and use your paddle or flag to alert boaters to your presence, particularly if oncoming boaters approach too closely. Brightly colored boats are more easily seen than those that blend with the surroundings; many brightly colored boats traveling close together offer greater visibility, as does wearing brightly colored clothing. For greatest visibility, install a kayak safety flag. Exhibit a light if paddling after dark.
Paddling After Dark
More and more visitors to the Point Reyes area are interested in kayaking after dark in order to observe bioluminescence. While kayaking at night, it is essential that you remain visible to other boat traffic. While powerboats are less common after dark, you may still encounter motorized craft at night. We strongly recommend the use of a working 360-degree light for all vessels, including kayaks and canoes. Several companies make lights that can be easily mounted on your kayak. In addition, wear a bright LED headlamp and carry a reserve flashlight. If another watercraft approaches, you can turn your headlamp in that direction to alert the other boat to your presence. Using reflective materials—such as reflective patches or piping on one's PFD and reflective tape on paddles—increases visibility. We also strongly suggest that nighttime paddlers carry a sounding device, like a whistle or airhorn, and some sort of telecommunication device, like a VHF radio or cell phone in a waterproof case.
See the U.S Coast Guard's "Rule 25 - Sailing Vessels Underway and Vessels Under Oars" on their Navigation Rules - Amalgamated page and the answer to the question "Where do kayaks and canoes fit into the Navigation Rules?" on their Navigation Rules Frequently Asked Questions page for more details about rules concerning lights on kayaks and canoes, as well as on other vessels.
- Do not exceed your skill level. If you are new to sea kayaking, it is recommended that you take a guided trip with an outfitter. Ask NPS personnel if you have questions concerning weather, safety, regulations, or destinations.
- Be capable of re-entering your kayak from the water, especially under rough conditions. If you capsize and re-entering your kayak is not possible, stay with the capsized boat.
- Use the buddy system. Stay together and conduct your watersports within the skill level of the group's least experienced member.
Water temperatures in Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero may be as low as 10°C (50°F) in the winter and rarely reach 20°C (68°F), even in the summer and early fall. Any water below 21°C (70°F) is "cold," and the human body cannot generate enough heat to keep warm for long in "cold" water. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable fits of shivering, slurred speech, and frequent stumbling. Cold water can be more dangerous than cold air since body temperature can be drained away much more quickly. Wear a wet suit.
Tides and Currents
The change between high and low tide can create strong currents, especially at the mouth of Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero. Check the tide charts. Low tides also expose mudflats at the south end of Tomales Bay and you may become stuck at Millerton Point or White House Pool access points.
White sharks are sometimes seen in coastal waters off Point Reyes National Seashore in the fall when high numbers of juvenile California sea lions, northern elephant seals, and harbor seals are visiting the Seashore's beaches and rocky shores. Even though white sharks visit the waters near the mouths of Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero, the chances of being attacked by a white shark is extremely small.
According to the Shark Research Committee, from 1900 to the 2016, there were 139 authenticated unprovoked white shark attacks reported in California, with only thirteen fatal shark attacks reported from California between 1952 and 2016. Between 2000 and 2016, there were only four white shark attacks reported in the Point Reyes area: a surfer at Stinson Beach in 2002, a surfer at Limantour Beach in 2004, a surfer at Dillon Beach in 2006, and a kayaker at Dillon Beach in 2008. All four individuals survived the attacks.
In general, white sharks are most likely to be encountered near seal resting areas. So, to better avoid white sharks, avoid water activities in locations near where seals congregate. The most likely place for a shark encounter in Tomales Bay is the area north of Tom's Point.