The Day We Didn’t Launch Forbes’ Island

By Keith Emmons

A cum laude graduate of Harvard College, Keith Emmons lived on the Sausalito waterfront for ten years in the free-wheeling hippie days of the 1970s. He recently penned the following memoir for the 80th birthday celebration of Forbes Kiddoo, creator of Forbes Island.

I was a water rat. I bobbed anchored off an old mooring with my fiancée on Richardson Bay. We lived on an oak-planked Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, the sort of boat you see dropping soldiers off into machine gun fire in D-Day movies. Bob Spotswood named it the Moondrifter, and converted it into a compact three-cabin houseboat. Our mooring was a pile of chain with ten-inch iron links lost in the mud after holding the five-thousand-ton Liberty Ships built on the Sausalito waterfront, launching a new ship every thirty days during World War II. But that’s another story.

I had a job working hard-ashore as a building maintenance man. But when I heard Forbes was going to launch the Island, I knew I had to be there.

Forbes Island in Richardson’s Bay in 1987. Photo courtesy of the Sausalito Historical Society

Forbes Island in Richardson’s Bay in 1987.
Photo courtesy of the Sausalito Historical Society

A Yellow Line tugboat piloted in. From atop the Island, Forbes Kiddoo directed with hand motions. It backed in, churning up turbulence. The tug was equipped with a three-inch diameter white polypropylene hawser. Forbes secured it as the Island’s tow line.

This tug was big. Four-stories tall. The last time I’d seen a tug this big it was pushing me in the three-stack, two-thousand passenger Queen Mary out of New York Harbor. I was three, on a ten-day journey with Mom and Dad to Europe. So maybe everything looked big to me then. But that’s another story.

Liberty Ship steel came into Sausalito during World War II on railway cars and one railroad stop – a triangular structure of creosote-soaked beams, massive enough to stop a rolling locomotive, still stood at the edge of the water. On the land side of the Island, Forbes set up a one-hundred-ton jack between the railroad stop and the Island. A hundred tons of push shore-side, and an eight hundred sixty-three-ton tug pulling from the water – Forbes didn’t do things small. Forbes Island was definitely going to launch.

Three hundred of Forbes’ friends jockeyed for standing room only along Lefty’s Pier to watch the spectacle. Shoulder-to-shoulder they chattered in the morning sunlight, full of anticipation and ready to party.

The launch began. Forbes signaled the Yellow Line Captain and the tug’s props began to turn. And it churned up rooster-tails, frothing and racing toward the shore and the water swelled toward me like a fast-incoming tide where I stood by the jack. The jack operator furiously pumped the jack handle: ten tons, twenty tons, fifty tons.

And nothing moved.

Forbes waved the tug on. Its diesels revved and black belched from its stack. The white braided tow line began to shrink. And that tow line began to bleed seawater like a twisted dish rag. Forbes peered over the Island’s lip to check, “Is the jack doing anything?” Sixty tons, seventy tons – I watched the jack’s red arrow advancing. The poly tow line shrank like stretched taffy as the tug bucked and lurched in its own turbulence but made no headway. The tow line shrank from three inches, to two inches, to one. And then it stopped stretching. And I had a vision. A vision I didn’t like.

I envisioned that poly line snapping in two and saw three hundred thrill-seekers’ slit neatly in two at the waist, before torsos and legs tumbled into heaps. Crack of the whip.

Eighty tons. Ninety tons. I watched the dial’s red arrow begin to shudder.

Lindsey told me – heavy loads: never use chain, it’ll snap unexpectedly and kill you. It’ll hit you or drop what you’re lifting, but one way or another it’ll kill you. Use rope. You can see it begin to fray, popping one fiber at a time so you know when it’s about to fail and you can call it quits. But that was back in the day of hemp, the rope of clipper ships and the days of Old Ironsides. This was polypropylene, made of plastic or oil or I-didn’t-know-what. I could see it striking like a rattle snake, striking so fast you couldn’t even see it until it was too late.

Ninety-three tons, the arrow chattered higher. Ninety-five tons. The railroad stop began to collapse.

“CUT!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

I looked up to Forbes pacing bow to stern atop the Island. I looked him straight in the eye – hey, I really had nothing to do with this, I just dropped in. I sliced my open palm across my throat and bellowed:

“CUT!”

And Forbes shut down the whole operation.

He sent the tug back to San Francisco: five-thousand dollars down the drain.

Everybody wandered off Lefty’s, wondering what happened.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” Forbes told me later.

I had some blame fool idea that I had get back to work, so I left while Forbes and his construction crew and a few friends went below into the Island to enjoy the champagne, bread and caviar set out to celebrate a successful launch. I suppose the celebration was a bit sad, as they wondered why, after five years of construction, the Island didn’t want to go to sea.

That evening, as the shore-side light was slipping behind Tamalpais, Forbes Kiddoo had a brilliant flash. While the team partied, Forbes himself slithered on his back with a flashlight under the Island to inspect each one of the twenty-four railroad wheels that were supposed to glide the Island into its aquatic life.

Sure enough. One of the wheels had been missed: it was still welded to the railroad rail. Forbes torched out that weld and the next morning the Yellow Line rolled that island out into open water as easily as dawn arriving without a sound.

Forbes and crew and a few diehard lookie-looks enjoyed a small quiet celebration. Peaceful. Aboard the Island. Under water. And afloat.

And that’s the story: The Day We Didn’t Launch Forbes’ Island.

After using the island as his personal residence, Forbes Kidoo turned it into a floating restaurant.  Approaching his 80th birthday, he decided to close the business and terminated his lease at Pier 39. The island is now in Suisun Bay, where plans are to turn it into a venue for private events.