The boat ghosts up the calm river. Grassy banks punctuated by eucalyptus and California bay trees reach off to vineyard-serried hillocks backed by golden-and-oak hills.
A cool breeze and the briefest of soft, late spring rain showers sweep over you with a wave of aromas. You close your eyes and breathe deeply. You smell tangy trees and fresh cut grass...is there anise, too? Dark, damp alluvial clay with a rich mineral smell, hard to place, perhaps zinc.
North of San Francisco, across massive, windswept San Pablo Bay, you come to Sonoma and Napa counties and storied appellations such as Los Carneros and Sonoma Coast. The two counties produce nearly one in seven glasses of California wine, and the Petaluma and Napa rivers carry a hint of the sea, wildlife and delicious cruising into their respective valleys.
“Petaluma” means “valley of the little hills” in the language of the native coastal Miwok tribe. The city of Petaluma is a rich cruising destination, and no other Northern California town is more welcoming to sailors. The historic downtown encircles a turning basin and docks, complete with a yacht club, 30-amp power hookups, water and security gates. The city’s visitor center has a complete guide to visiting by boat—the legacy of a plan implemented a generation ago to make boaters part of downtown revitalization.
You get to Petaluma up the Petaluma River. But with a wink and a laugh, proud Petalumans love saying that the river isn’t really a river. Instead, they’ll tell you this saltwater estuary is only called a river because Congress declared it so in 1959 to facilitate dredging. (The Army Corps of Engineers won’t dredge a slough.)
Tides range more than six feet and generate over a knot of max current. The waterway was once the state’s third busiest, back before long-haul trucking, when Petaluma was best known as the world capital of egg and chick production, thanks to the chicken incubator invented here in 1879. The Petaluma Yacht Club burgee features a hatching chick, and as many as 75 boats cram into town for the annual Butter & Egg Days festival.
A CAREFUL APPROACH
Sailing from San Francisco with friends and family aboard my Catalina 310 Time & Tide, we’ve got 12 miles to cover from the San Rafael Bridge to the green “1” buoy off the river entrance. The way the Marin headlands bend the wind, this part of the trip can be a delightful reach, though today our broad reach is unseasonably cool.
San Pablo Bay is darned shallow in parts. At the Petaluma River approach buoy, you’re still more than 5 miles from the visible mouth of the river, but depths of one and two feet lurk on either side.
The Petaluma Yacht Club musters Memorial Day weekend cruisers, and we’ve made our way with as many as two dozen other boats, visible both ahead and astern, from the South Beach Yacht Club and the Islander 36 association, among other groups. Most carefully follow the channel, and whenever a boat drifts toward the shoals you can almost see question marks floating up from the other skippers. Sure enough, one drifter slows to a stop, and a cloud of mud soon appears behind an engine struggling to back off the submerged bank.
But we’re fine in the channel. In January 2010 soundings up to Petaluma were no less than seven feet at mean lower low water, with the average tide three feet higher.
The first of two swing bridges of the Northwestern Pacific rail line crosses the river right at its mouth near Black Point, just before the dramatic Highway 37 bridge, which has 70 feet of clearance at mean higher high water.
Swing bridges pivot around a central point like a gate and thus have unlimited overhead clearance. For over a decade the 1907 NWP rail line has been moribund and the bridges have been left open for boats, prompting jokes that NWP stands for “nowhere particular.”
Rounding a bend about four miles in, we arrive in wine country. Stretched out before us is the La Cruz vineyard of Keller Estates. Chardonnay, syrah, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes are ripening in the cool Pacific air flowing through the Petaluma Gap, now off our port bow, and are absorbing the distinctive mineral character of the soil.
We could stop at Gilardi’s Lakeville Marina for a hike up to the Keller tasting room or enjoy Greek dining, music and belly dancing at Papa’s Taverna. But we have only five miles to go and want to stay with the other boats to catch the Petaluma D Street Bridge opening and get a good docking spot. So we kick on the engine and motorsail into Petaluma Gap’s northwesterly wind: past the second NWP swing bridge, past the Petaluma Marina, and past the US-101 bridge with 100 feet of clearance.
A WARM WELCOME
The banks of the town press close, and around a slight bend the D Street bascule bridge looms ahead. Openings between 0600 and 1800 require four hours notice, 24 hours notice otherwise. We’re part of an officially registered cruise-in, so the friendly bridge tender is waiting for us, and with barely a pause the bridge raises and he waves us through from the window of the cream and terra-cotta control house.
From here the river opens up to a festive turning basin. At least 30 boats are already tied up stern-to or rafted along the 531 feet of dock to port in front of the Petaluma Yacht Club and a plaza called Steamer Gold Landing. To starboard, Cavanaugh Landing has another couple of hundred feet of dock space, which connects with downtown over a pretty footbridge. The city handles berth payment by mail and charges just $21 per night. Contacting us on VHF Ch.9, the bridge tender guides our group to a recommended spot to raft up.
The turning basin is nearly full, with some 50 boats, and the place is hopping. Crews, boats and clubs are mingling. Land-bound tourists and residents lean over the dock railings to admire boats and shout greetings.
The all-volunteer yacht club has prepared its traditional massive costume party. One particularly memorable year, the fun of tie-die, miniskirts and leather fringe for its “feelin’ groovy” theme was outdone only by the joint-rolling contest (using regular tobacco, of course).
There’s a river walk, an historic walk, a Victorian home walk, two wine tasting rooms, and plenty of dining, drinking, shopping and entertainment. The famous 1906 earthquake didn’t destroy Petaluma (chartered in 1858, it is one of California’s oldest cities), so it boasts one of the best-preserved California downtown areas on the National Register of Historic Places. Its unusual iron-front buildings have appeared in several movies, including American Graffiti and Pleasantville.