Bottoms Up in Napa Valley
When your boat is 26 feet wide (46 feet long) there are very few places along the Pacific Coast that can haul it out for repairs like the semi-annual renewal of its bottom paint. Ventura Boat Yard is one and I was headed there until the call came to sail the INNcredible Sea Lodge up to SF Bay for the America’s Cup this summer. I was sure and assured there were boat yards in SF Bay that could handle the haul out.
The Beneteau Group (maker of the Lagoon catamarans) sponsorship of Oracle included providing a handful of their wide range of boats to Oracle during the races to host Oracle’s VIPs on the day of each race for ‘in the water’ viewing. My INNcredible Sea Lodge was the one and only catamaran on display – a Lagoon 450. When the America’s Cup was over with the spectacular comeback by Oracle, it was time for me to enjoy SF Bay’s greatest month of the year – October on the Bay. The weather has been exceptional and many of our friends and extended family have enjoyed a sailabout on SF Bay over the past few weeks.
Every day the conditions were different, every day our course unique, every day the weather was beautiful, everyone was relaxed and happy and every day memories were made to last a lifetime.
But behind the scenes I had things to get done on the boat to get ready for its next INNcredible journey south 1500 miles to the Sea of Cortez. So when it was time to schedule the haul out, all the assurities that there were boatyards in SF Bay that could do it drifted away with four phone calls. My only possibility lay six hours north up the Napa River – Napa Valley Marina. Their technique was unique too.
Getting there was going to be an adventure and since I had to arrive at high tide, which was 1330 on Monday, we pushed off at 0700 from the Brick Yard Cove Marina in Point Richmond (our temporary home in the Bay). Heading north with a cold low marine layer looming overhead our first obstacle was the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. I knew we had to fit under that span with our 70+ foot high mast reaching high out of the water; but, as we approached the elusion was so strong that we may not that I brought the INNcredible to a halt and inched forward underneath this behemoth of steel just to make sure a most catastrophic disaster didn’t occur. Imagine the mast slamming into the bridge overhead. In an instant of tweaking back until something had to give – the mast breaking off at the top, the shrouds snapping sending the whole mast in a freefall down, the potentially lethal impact of mast meeting topside and the chain of events that would unfold. That’s why my heart was in my stomach and I played the overly concerned mother and stopped this 25 ton vessel from its 6 knots of momentum before ducking under that bridge.
Everyone on board breathed a sigh of relief (not knowing that the most challenging was yet to come) and we all enjoyed a leisurely ride through San Pablo Bay on way to Vallejo. And except for the occasional wake of the high-speed ferries the ride was smooth and a healthy breakfast of fresh garden veggies and eggs was prepared and enjoyed underway.
With the Carquines Bridge to our right it was time to turn left up the mouth of the Napa River. Its width was generous at this point as we motored alongside Mare Island Naval Yard. Next obstacle was the Mare Island Bridge, which is the only way in and out of Mare Island so it’s always down. I called ahead to the bridge operator to inform him of our coming and asking for instructions. After quite a long chat filled with history, both of the bridge and his own life, we had a plan that I would follow. He said the tower lifts the bridge in 6 minutes so I could keep my speed as I approach and he’ll have it open on time. The bridge opened to 92 feet so there would be no problem.
However as we approached, nothing was happening. I began to slow a little despite the instructions. The bridge started lifting up the two towers but ever so slowly, so I began to slow more. Putting both engines in reverse I had to come to a stop right in front because the bridge wasn’t up high enough yet. There were swirling eddies about, pushing and pulling the INNcredible as they wished. I went into forward but cutting to the right and doing a complete circle to keep from slamming into the bridge and maintaining control. Coming out of the circle and forwarding slowly to go under, the bridge looked dangerously low, way more than the perception we got from the first mega bridge. I inched forward asking for everyone’s opinion of ‘Is it high enough?’. We made it.
About a half mile up the river I get a phone call. The bridge operator wanted to share what happened. The bridge lifting mechanism defaults to 73 feet. He hardly ever has to lift it higher. And to do so takes resetting the controls and then a slow ascent beyond. He’s riding in a windowed box atop the bridge section so his depth of perception is a lot like mind but in reverse – not very good. He saw I might not get under at 73 feet so frantically powered the bridge up to 85 feet. Both relieved we chatted a bit and he told me he wouldn’t be on duty next Saturday when I’ll be passing under again. So I said I’ll tell the other operator I’m 80 feet tall just to make sure. He did part with a soothing note that the train bridge a ways up river is always in the up position and has been for two years, there’s no operator there but no worries. Great.
But next was the rigid arced span of the HWY 37 bridge which looked tight but had to be tall enough after all we can’t possibly be the tallest boat that comes this way. The river looks wide but the depth is only suitable in a winding narrow channel occasionally marked but I just had to watch my depth gauge like a hawk and keep myself in the deepest water 12-20 feet. Approaching this bridge with a little more confidence, that confidence dwindled as we neared. Yes I came to a crawl, a near stop again, it’s just too darn deceiving looking up at a 65 foot mast going under an unforgiving steel structure. We made it.
A new challenge laid ahead – High Voltage Power Lines. Two towers, one on each water’s edge held the lines up high but sagged in the middle. The water was way too shallow near the shores and it left only a narrow unmarked channel of adequate depth right in the middle. The middle is where the sag hangs the lowest. I don’t need to bore you with the whatifs our aluminum mast touched, or should I say crashed into, these high voltage lines. Nowhere on the charts do they say how high or how low these lines hang. But they must be high enough. Right? It’s like playing chicken motoring at 5.5 knots toward these obstacles. Would speed make a difference, if we did hit? Call me chicken, I slowed again and inched underneath. All concurred it looked closer than the Mare Island Bridge. But we made it.
Winding now up the river which has dramatically narrowed leaving just a small channel meandering through these narrows to follow by watching one’s depth gauge, there are occasional markers occasionally. Looking out over the marsh lands way out there, stand two towers, but just two towers. No cross piece, no bridge up and spanning these two towers. What does that mean? Maybe that’s not the bridge, the bridge that is always up, the one that no operator remains on duty, maybe we go straight at this fork and not to the right. But at green marker 13 it becomes obvious that we go right, right headed for that bridge which is down.
Past an enclave of houses on the left bank, who front yard lawns are tall rushes with wood docks protruding through to the river’s edge, the downed bridge lay ahead. I call my only number, the marina. What’s up with the bridge that’s always up? There’s a train approaching. So it is still an active train bridge. The voice at the marina says she will do some calling to find out if there’s an operator on duty to raise it after the train crosses. We approach the bridge as we watch the train slowly cross. We do donuts twirling around slowly down stream of the bridge patiently awaiting its rising. Sure enough the bridge rises up, up but not all the way up. I think the operator is part of this game of chicken. So we head forward and stall inching our way under until its clear we can make it. Done, we made it, well almost.
The Marina’s entrance we were warned is shrouded on both sides by shallow shoals. Both sides? The entrance is only 40 feet wide and the water is 8 foot deep at high tide. So I stay dead center going through, luckily I only draw 4.5 feet of water and the bottom looks muddy, soft that is just in case.
The method of hauling out the big boats here is old fashion but ingenious. No overhead lift but a set of tracks fitted with a variety of frames attached to cables that once fitted underneath the boat can winch the boat out of the water. Our wide catamaran is a challenge and got the attention of the most experienced workers, even one of the owners jumped into his chest high waders to walk into the cold water to precisely support the boat. An effort of 6 men working like they’ve done this before spent a careful hour measuring, planning and setting the underpinning for a successful lift.
Power-washed, sanded, multiple coats of biocide rich paint (totally environmentally approved) and the INNcredible Sea Lodge will be back in the water Friday ready to head back to the Bay.
That means I get to go through that maze of obstacle again. And I’ll probably be just as careful, after all she’s my baby.