Night Crawler

To the Farallones

Having sated our curiosity about the islands, the crew prepares for the real task at hand: safely delivering a researcher and his equipment to shore, while picking up two bird-loving carpenters who are headed back to the mainland.

A Boston whaler dangles from a crane hundreds of feet above the ocean; it holds the carpenters, who are lowered down a cliff face and then dropped unceremoniously in the ocean. Immediately, their tiny craft disappears behind a swell to re-emerge only occasionally during its arduous journey to our waiting vessel. The transfer of supplies and people is ridiculous and somewhat terrifying to the Farallon neophyte: In the split second when the tiny Boston whaler and the 60-plus-foot Oceanic Society craft are level, each passenger must leap across the large chasm of icy salt water between them. Even with the little whaler lashed to our boat, this rarely occurs as each craft plunges and rises on its own conflicting wave crest. Eventually, though, the trade is complete, the researcher blinking in and out of view on his way to the crane pickup at the island, and one of the carpenters saying with a grin of satisfaction, "Nice, smooth day."

On the way back, with all the excitement done, several passengers succumb to the ravaging rhythm of the Farallon waters and are barely able to lift their heads to watch the giant sea turtle and two seals that follow the boat. Nearing home, we finally catch sight of two tremendous humpback whales, engaged in an intricate ritual of rolling somersaults and water slapping for which our naturalist has no definite explanation.

"Just playing, I think," she says with a satisfied smile.

Nearing the Golden Gate channel, our skipper spots an exhausted windsurfer who has been blown past the point of return and calls the Coast Guard to pick him up. A little farther on, the captain receives a distress call from a friend whose engine has cut out with his boat sitting directly in the path of an incoming cargo ship. We change direction and rush off, arriving just in time to see the stalled engine sputter back to life with the cargo ship looming a very short distance away.

Almost nine hours after our departure, I am beaten. Russey is talking about going dancing.

"Hey, it's just a day on the water," he says. "It's no big deal, Night Crawler."

Oceanic Society Expeditions leave from San Francisco and Half Moon Bay every Saturday and Sunday through May 14; call 415-474-3385.

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