A VISIT TO NAPA
Napa County is better known than Sonoma. If you casually mention you’re sailing to Napa, the stunned response is invariably “How the heck do you get to Napa by boat?” The Napa River, surprisingly, is not well known, but is just as beautiful as the Petaluma.
Just west of the Carquinez Bridge, a little over 13 miles from the San Rafael Bridge, the Mare Island Strait separates the city of Vallejo from the shuttered shipbuilding center of Mare Island and also serves as the entrance to the Napa River.
Bit by bit, the city of Napa—a decade older than Petaluma—is being transformed from a heavy industry blue-collar town into a river destination, despite a difficult relationship with its namesake, which drains 400 square miles and has flooded 22 times in 140 years.
Busting out of San Francisco on a flood current, I once made the 27 miles to Vallejo Yacht Club in four hours to pick up a buddy. The Mare Island Causeway lift bridge then gave us a swift opening with a radio hail, after which we sailed on under the Highway 37 bridge (both with 100 feet of clearance) and up the Napa River a dozen miles to town.
Coasting along under jib alone, we enjoyed the tail end of the flood and a gentle southwesterly breeze, as the setting sun gradually turned the hills, vines, and our sail a golden color.
We weren’t in a rush. Folks out enjoying the early July evening on their porches could be seen to nod, approve the boat’s name—“Ahh, Time and Tide”—and give a friendly wave. Cows browsed the shore, and Latino families fishing and splashing in the water smiled at us; at one point a boy laughingly asked for a ride. To port, the glorious Los Carneros hills slid by, with the estates of Ceja, Etude, Acacia, Bouchaine, Domaine Carneros and Madonna all within four miles.
Some years back the river was tricky to navigate, but dredging in 2009-2010 and some new nav aids have improved things dramatically—so long as you follow your chart carefully and keep track of the tides and currents.
Thanks to a “living river” flood protection project and city planning, the levees are gone, the wetlands surrounding the river are filled with egrets and herons, and a spectacular riverfront is emerging, complete with a promenade, parks, an opera house plaza and elegant bridges.
A new 226-foot floating public dock has also been approved for installation at Main Street before the 3rd Street bridge. This is the historic embarcadero area called the Downtown Reach where, in 1879, seafarer and industrialist Captain Albert Hatt began construction of a complex of buildings now called Hatt Market / Napa Mill that houses the Napa River Inn, shops and restaurants. Twenty wine bars and tasting rooms are nearby.
Assuming dredging is approved (the river here has silted to three feet), the dock will be installed by late summer in 2011. City officials are still deciding if berthing for more than an hour or overnight will be allowed.
Meanwhile, Napa Valley Yacht Club has a 185-foot dock with power, water and a security gate and is just a half-mile walk away from the Downtown Reach. The club is not open regularly, so check its website to contact their port captain, who can deliver a key and collect the $30 overnight fee.
Napa Marina is available for boats with masts higher than 60 feet or those needing a pump-out and fuel. It costs $25 for an 8-mile cab ride into town (it’s less than 6 miles by water), but it’s more popular to ride bicycles to Napa and the nearby wineries.
For breakfast, lunch or a game of pool over beer on the way back down the river, check out the funky barn-red Moore’s Landing, which sits next to a huge rotting riverboat hull. Tie up at one of the two 50-foot docks at the Cuttings Wharf boat launch. Just don’t be a pain to Debbie when she comes to take your order: the menu warns you’ll be “subject to a PITA surcharge or a cold dip in the river, server’s choice.”
Sometimes the wind, chop or current will thwart an afternoon return to San Francisco Bay. Loch Lomand Marina is just up the San Rafael Channel past East Marin Island and has diesel fuel and pump-out facilities. China Camp, McNear’s Beach and Paradise Cove are pleasant anchorages, unless a northerly wind comes up.
Looking back toward Highway 37, you can see cars crawling along in the usual weekend wine-tasting traffic jam. “You went wine tasting last weekend? Wasn’t traffic terrible?” “Nah, we sailed up and back.”