Wednesday, July 9, 2008

2008_July 8th Napa River from Oakland

(Click on any picture to enlarge it...)

The weather forecast called for more hot, but a building wind in the afternoon with small craft warnings in the north Bay by afternoon. Just the type of weather that gets this boat to lift its skirts and hustle along. We got down to the dock in Alameda early to make sure we had a full case of daylight should we encounter any difficulties, and made final boat preparations.

For this journey, I was joining Aquavite, a Catalina 34 and her jovial captain Stu Jackson. Stu and I have a long history and have enjoyed many sailboat outings together. Stu had planned a trip up to the river to rendezvous with another boating acquaintance and I thought I'd tag along for the day to see what "river" boating was all about. Every trip is a mixture of fun, adventure, and some degree of boat mechanics. A combination of shop class, PE, and spring dance all wrapped up together.

The air was still and the marina water ways reflected the slowly bobbing boats like a glass topped coffee table. The lingering smoky pall from the surrounding wildfires clung to the landscape, and the morning sun had more of an afternoon quality about it. None-the less, despite the haze, there was no real fog, and we puttered out of the fairway ready for an adventure.

Our plan was to make our way north, past Berkeley, and under the Richmond Bridge, across San Pablo Bay, then just south of Mare Island and into the Napa River. From there we would follow the narrow channel markers upriver until a low bridge thwarted our progress right in the town of Napa.

There was not a wisp of wind to be found, besides that which we made by our own motion, so we puttered northward under motor, the reassuring throb of the tractor engine happy at its 2200 RPM beneath our feet. Once we entered the bay proper from the Oakland inner harbor, we engaged the autopilot and set our course for the east tower of the Richmond bridge. Besides occasional course adjustments and a regular lookout for shipping and fishing traffic, we spent the time tinkering with the GPS, monitoring engine temperature, watching for wildlife, and sipping our morning coffee.

(Click on any picture to enlarge it...)

The first interesting landmark is Red Rock, the small island just south of the Richmond Bridge. From the water, it makes a much more prominent impression than when zipping along 150 feet higher from the drivers seat of a car crossing the Richmond Bridge. Steep red colored cliffs protect the island on all sides except for a very narrow beach which appears at lower tides. The island is covered with scrub like a thin crew cut on every surface that is not a cliff, but it somehow has not been overtaken by nesting birds that have a tendency to kill off all vegetation.

Just north of the bridge is the Brothers, two rocky outcroppings. The larger, taller east Brother has an old lighthouse- which has been converted to a B&B. The West Brother is guano covered bird nesting site, covered with cormorants. A strong ebb current was flowing past the East Brother so we got a good look at the dock – as it were, some piers with a hoist to pluck cargo out.

Now we had entered the vast San Pablo Bay. With a size similar to San Francisco Bay, but mostly surrounded by much lower surrounding topography, the shores receded into the building heat haze and it felt like we were crossing a much larger sea. We skirted the 20 feet depth line on the south east shore, and stayed clear of the shipping channel. Even at 20 feet, the nearest shore was often almost out of sight. Occasionally a swooping pair of pelicans would drift by, but otherwise we transited the bay without company. With the binoculars we could cut through the surface haze and barely make out the towers of the Carquinez bridge, but without them, we needed to rely on the depth guage, compass, GPS and occasional navigation buoy to stay on course.

Just as we were closing on the narrow Carquinez straight, so was a large cargo ship, and as if choreographed in advance, we both reached the narrow entrance to the straight at the same time. A light alteration of course and we dropped behind his stern, and then we were in the mouth of the Napa River and in for an eyeful of history.

Entering the river, the vast Mare Island Shipyard and its history swallow the landscape. There are building after building at the high tide line during our approach used in the past to store something. They were not housing buildings, but warehouses. Then the maintenance docks and cranes. This was a major Nuclear submarine maintenance facility, yet only the single forlorn sail of sub 658 sits on the dock. Dry docks, maintenance shops, cranes, and empty maintenance buildings. A gold mine in real estate sits waiting to be absorbed by the building pressures of the surrounding megalopolis. Some day this will all be housing. Until then, it’s a ghostly water side museum – testament to an era past.

Read more about sub 658 here

We call ahead on VHF Channel 13, and the Mare Island Causeway lift bridge slowly raises timed almost perfectly for our approach. Somehow, the bridge operator knows the height of our mast, because he only raises the bridge 4 or 5 feet higher than the tip of the radio antennae.

Once north of the next bridge, the new causeway bridge span for the Sears Point Road, the river reverts to its more natural state. Now, the river narrows and the marsh and grasslands dominate the shores. We begin to see bird life in the shallows. From the air I’m sure the channel is obvious, but the river widens, and narrows and consistent surface texture conceals the fact that just outside the deep channel, the depth shortens to just a few feet rapidly. We watch the depth gauge carefully, and follow the channel markers. We steer the boat in the center of the main channel and think like a fish. It’s not hard, but after the wide open waterways of the Bay this takes a different type of attention.

Along the way we see these white pelicans. These are an endangered species whose wingspan can reach 9 feet. They often fish as a group.

At 3:45 we finally reach the end of the line. A low bridge crosses the river in downtown Napa. The remnants of a town dock remain at the waterline, a few sad looking piers jutting out of the mud at odd angles. No turning basin, no welcome sign, just dead end for sailing vessels at marker 45. Stu turns the boat on its axis and we head back down river looking for a place for me to hop off and go ashore.

The Napa Yacht Club will do nicely, although its locked dock access may pose some challenges. Stu noses the boat towards shore, I hop off, and he is away – and I’m on land, 108 degrees F land. Whoah. Today the temperatures hit a record around here. Stu will head down to a more secluded bend in the river and set two anchors for the night along the shore. I’m off by bus back to Oakland and home.