Boating in San Francisco

By Kimball Livingston
Published: June/July 2013

San Francisco is the hot spot this August, as the America's Cup races bring the international sailing world to the West Coast. Here's a boater's inside guide to the bay, to river hideaways and wine country, and to the main event.

Wine Country Rivers

Photo of harvest in Napa Photo: Kimball Livingston

Harvest time in Napa.

There are two rivers that lead to the beginnings of the wine country, the Petaluma and the Napa. Each flows through a town of the same name, and the Napa River drains the most fabled wine appellation in the USA. The Petaluma, however, is the better excursion, unless you're renting a car to explore farther in the Napa Valley. In Petaluma, there are tie-ups downtown, so it's easy to stay aboard or walk to a hotel. There's a Wild West hangover, with extravagant Victorians, ample atmosphere, and the streets where George Lucas filmed "American Graffiti."

Headed upriver on the Petaluma, your first miles pass through marshland, a wildlife paradise. Chinook salmon run here in the winter, and this is a spawning ground for steelhead trout. Approaching the town, a soaring, concrete overpass announces that you're reentering people country. There also is the operable D Street Bridge, with a closed vertical clearance of only five feet. Dockage downtown is first-come, first-served and competitive. Petaluma Marina is two miles away.

Photo of Napa River in California's wine country Photo: Kimball Livingston

A lazy turn of the Napa River leads to California's wine country.

Napa River, like the Petaluma, was once a commercial artery, an avenue for produce and people between the countryside and the city. Bound upriver, the low hills ahead and to port mark Appellation Carneros, where cool temperatures — this area is still exposed to the winds of San Francisco Bay — favor pinot grapes and chardonnay. Off the bow is the lower end of narrow, mountain-protected Napa Valley, where summer temperatures soar and cabernet grapes are tortured to perfection.

The Napa becomes unnavigable, for most boats, short of the town. Napa Valley Marina, six miles downstream, is the best option for most travelers. Think friendly folks and good haul-out facilities, and the vineyards begin on the other side of the fence.

BoatUS member Michael Slater of advises that going on to downtown is safest at low tide, when the hazards are more visible. Slater knows about this firsthand. While running a line between two markers — maybe slightly outside, he admits now — "The most awful noises began. Thankfully, we were able to limp back to the Napa Valley Marina, where the crew did excellent work replacing both props and one strut, straightening the shafts, and patching a little fiberglass damage."

The Big Rivers

The Sacramento River gathers the flow of 16 rivers en route to the Golden Gate. The lower stretches tend to be industrial, at some points dismal, and I've seen 4-foot-square waves where the waters widen into Suisun Bay and (ahem) Honker Bay. Big breeze against big current can happen, even this far from the Golden Gate.

Windsurfing and kiting are popular at Sherman Island, not far from the fork of the Sacramento and San Joaquin. A century ago, the Sacramento was prime, but the focus today is on the river and tributaries of the San Joaquin, where you'll be running between levees and looking down at birds flitting over farmland that has subsided below sea level (with potential for a disaster, yes). This is waterski country, and bass boat country, and a destination for traveling yachts from around the world. With names like Potato Slough and Three Mile Reach, honestly, does this require a lot of explanation? Coastal fog (almost) never reaches here, and even when it's breezy, there's not enough fetch to build a "sea."? If it happens on a lake in the middle of the country, it happens here.

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