Boating in San Francisco

By Kimball Livingston

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.

Photo of a powerboat passes beneath the Oakland-Bay Bridge with the San Francisco skyline beyondA powerboat passes beneath the Oakland-Bay Bridge with the San Francisco skyline beyond. (Photo: Abner Kingman)

The beauty of San Francisco Bay packs a visceral punch that you won't find just anywhere. There are times when the currents run strong against the sea breeze, driving the bay to a white-capped froth. There are times when the fog cascades over the north shore headlands, and roils and rebounds in a raw display of the power and indifference of nature, all at the doorstep of a major city. There are also calm, still mornings when the waters mirror the slanting sun, and the storied hills of San Francisco soar above the waters, and above the hills the towers of the city shoot up, brash and unapologetic. Those are hills that, a mere century-and-a-half ago, lay bare. Many people are drawn to this young but "most European" of American cities. San Francisco sprang up out of a gold rush that is more than a lingering memory. Some people come here for a new beginning, others for a getaway. At the moment, flush young techies rule, but there is more than meets the eye at a glance.

Connected to the bay are a thousand miles of inland waterways, marshy rivers, and sloughs with something for everyone, whether you're looking for bass country or the wine country. The ocean waters beyond the Golden Gate are prime salmon fishing. And for something completely different, the waterfront of San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the new Cruise Ship Terminal at the foot of Telegraph Hill, is home in 2013 to the sailing world's greatest gathering, the America's Cup sailboat races.

Photo of Spectators crowding the bleachers for America's Cup racingSpectators crowd the bleachers for America's Cup racing. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

As one of the world's top tourist destinations, the San Francisco Bay Area draws people from every corner of the globe and from every state and county in the USA. It's a big, surprisingly (even strangely) varied region. People who live here, in the space of a morning's drive, can experience something entirely different — in views, open space, forest, altitude, and even weather — from what they have at home. In 2013, many people will visit for the sake of viewing the America's Cup, now transformed from the slow, social-set game of old to a new beyond-the-X-Games gamble, multiplied exponentially in terms of money and speed in 72-foot catamarans entirely capable of instant self-destruction. For the first time ever, an America's Cup match will be sailed in view of an audience ashore, with a television production that makes the racing understandable to all. No one visiting the region, whether here for this purpose or not, will be able to ignore the world-class event that carries so much history and so much freight and is happening in an entirely new way.

For visitors with boats, the visceral punch of this region is important to understand. A powerful summer sea breeze, sea to land, stirs up daily between an inland valley that can heat into the 100s while the ocean, cooled by a south-moving current that stirs up deep water, might have temperatures in the 60s or even below. Between the valley and the ocean there's one sea-level breach, and it's called the Golden Gate. If you remember your high-school physics, and the Bernoulli principle of a fluid accelerating through a narrow tube, enlarge that dramatically, and you have the Golden Gate. It is common in summer months for the afternoon breeze to funnel through at 18-22 knots, and if it hits 35 knots, familiar locals shrug and say, "Yep, it's honkin' today." And that breeze will be chilled by those offshore waters. Locals often wear fleece in July on the bay, even when there's bikini weather 20 miles away. Honest. And one-sixth of San Francisco Bay flows out, and in, with the tide, twice a day. A four-knot outbound current working against a strong sea breeze will serve up washboard waves such as many longtime boaters have never experienced, and no one could love, and not every boat is fit to meet. If you're going, you need to know. You might also know that San Francisco Bay is, frankly and simply, glorious.

Photo of washboard waves on the San Francisco Bay"Washboard waves" on the San Francisco Bay. (Photo: Abner Kingman)

Exploring Inland California

Up the river from San Francisco Bay lies the breadbasket of the country's most populous state, producing more than half the nation's fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The river deltas also are a refuge for San Francisco Bay boaters escaping our peculiar summertime chill, with streams running through low country, mountains in the distance, and marsh lining the shore.

Truth: It's possible to waterski on San Francisco Bay, but except for a goof, it's no good. There's plenty of small-boat fishing on the bay, but many days it's just too rough. Upriver, with the sun beaming down and the fog line gray in the distance, the waters are shared among skiers, jet skiers, fishermen, determined sailors, powerboaters, and houseboats loaded with kids with water guns at the ready. This is summer in America.

There are resorts and marinas ample enough to always tie up for the night, but the greater joy along the rivers and sloughs is "simply messing about" in your boat or anchoring out. Four fundamentals: 1) The mosquitoes are voracious; they want you. 2) These waters are tidal. It takes seven-plus hours for a flood tide crest to travel inland from the Golden Gate to the Port of Sacramento. Two knots of flood current, twice a day, can happen. Ebbs run harder. 3) If you're anchoring, you need two anchors, a small boat to set the second anchor, and a means to rinse the mud later. 4) Some passages include drawbridges; you'll need to do your homework.

Wine Country Rivers

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."

Photo of harvest in NapaHarvest time in Napa. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

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 countryA lazy turn of the Napa River leads to California's wine country. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

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. 

Kimball Livingston is an international sailor and journalist often called upon to explain the strange goings-on of the America's Cup. He also wrote the book on his home waters, Sailing The Bay.

— Published: June/July 2013

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