Cruising

Wine Country Cruising

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Come harvest time, the California sea breeze blows toward Napa Valley

Some things are worth doing because they’re a big deal, others because they are not. Take my trip up the Napa River, nosing into the richest wine-growing region in California. No big deal, but I’d never explored the Napa Valley by boat. ’Nuff said.

The city of Vallejo, a former Navy town that now has a former Navy yard on its hands, was my first stop. The depthsounder’s alarm heckled me at the entrance to Vallejo Yacht Club—my borrowed deep-draft J/42, Merry J, draws 6.5 feet—but the sailors of San Francisco Bay have an 83-year tradition of racing to Vallejo as a season opener. It was special to tie up and trade tales with the locals without the animal-house atmosphere I’ve experienced at the end of those races. And I am grateful. More than one of my new friends on the river warned me about Nasty Number 7. That would be a stake, FL G 4s 15ft “7”, where the Napa River takes a lazy bend to port, bound upstream. The consensus: Get too close to number 7 and you’re there for the tide.

Duly warned and in no hurry at all, I set off the next morning, called to have the Mare Island Causeway Bridge opened, and right away felt guilty looking at all those stopped cars and bottled-up people waiting for one guy in a boat to pass. Almost guilty? A few calls to potential crew had established that when it comes to sailing around in the middle of the week, most people have it harder than sailing writers. I’d fix that, if I knew how. I wasn’t lonely. I always talk to boats.

Thus “we” entered a world of big sky and thin horizons. The Napa River is only 55 miles long, but deceptively wider than the channel. The navigable portion runs less than 20 miles, to the town of Napa, and I wasn’t going even that far. Most of the bottom is soft mud, and I was warned that farther upriver there is hard stuff to hit. With massive reconstruction under way on the town’s riverfront, this expedition would rally up at the Napa Valley Marina and taxi into town.

In passing I accorded great respect to Nasty Number 7—the stake stood in seductively-open water, away from the riverbank—and along my way I passed exactly three fishermen and no other boats.

To port and ahead lay the southernmost hills of the Carneros Creek region, the first U.S. appellation designated by climate, not politics. Spanning the south of the Sonoma and Napa valleys and exposed to a cooling sea breeze, the Carneros favors the growth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But few places have the likes of Northern California’s microclimates. A handful of miles farther north, in mountain-sheltered heat, Cabernet vines are tortured to greatness by celebrated winemakers from Mondavi to Coppola. The Napa Valley Appellation is a gold standard.

And, speaking of gold, some of my East Coast friends have issues with the way our California hills turn “brown” toward autumn harvest time. To my eyes, those hills are golden, thank you very much. And this was a new view, looking beyond a broken levee to the Carneros and back to the coastal range across country once marshland, then diked and farmed, now flooded through broken levees. The Napa River was a commercial artery, but grain scows and fur traders are distant memories now, except for the occasional rotting hulk and the snowy egret that flies at your approach.

In a few more turns Merry J was weaving along with Milton Road, a thin-line levee community one house deep, each house with a dock, backed by flooded fields. There were prim cottages; fashion-forward architectural assertions; a few shacks melting into the tules and matched by some eccentric floating creation melting into the shallows.

Then came the Brazos Railroad Bridge and Napa Valley Marina, with its 200 deep-water slips and capacity to lift catamarans to 70 feet. Picture a mix of very good boats alongside broken dreams. But this is a good stop, with a quality marine shop, and—who would have guessed—the grape vines are greener on the other side of the fence.

I taxied into Napa town and treated myself to a walk-around, then a bite of trout and a taste of Sauvignon Blanc at a restaurant with a view of dredging on the riverfront just a few feet away. Beyond the working barges the open strip of water was less than the beam of a J/42. Merry J would not have done well here, and they tell me the new waterfront that will open sometime next year is not for deep-draft boats. Anchor in the tules and cover the last few miles by dinghy, or stop at the marina. Your long-distance cruiser can get within sniffing distance, but not walking distance, of the valley’s celebrated nouvelle cuisine.

Add a day of loafing and yet another morning calm and free and we find me motoring downriver on an outbound tide with a 1-knot current boost. Outbound tide adds motive to avoid going aground, which is why I took Nasty Number 7 extra, extra wide.

Oops, too wide.

Surely, my friends, you know Kenneth Grahame’s tale of the Water Rat as he informs the Mole of the eternal truth that there is nothing so much worth doing as messing about in boats. But quick, what happens next? Why, our Wind in the Willows heroes have a boat wreck. That’s what. A b-o-a-t-w-r-e-c-k. Immediately then we find Ratty, not the least bit shaken, “picking himself up with a pleasant laugh.”

That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.

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