Cruising Stories – by Chuck Artigues
Cruising To Petaluma
My sweetie and I have been exploring the Delta on houseboats for many years. So, after our recent purchase of a 1990 Bayliner 3888 last fall, the warmth of the Delta seemed like the ideal choice for our home port. Even though we love the Delta, we had been looking for an excuse to take it to San Francisco Bay.
When my partner Betty was asked to co-direct a production at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma it gave us just the reason we’d been looking for. Her expertise was needed for two weeks starting in mid-April, and I proposed that we bring Livin’ the Dream down to Petaluma and stay on her rather than staying in a hotel. Betty agreed, suggesting that we combine our trip with the Giants home opener on April 9 and have a party in McCovey Cove.
A plan was hatched to bring the boat down to San Francisco, explore for a few days then adventure up the newly dredged Petaluma River. While we had completed several overnight trips during the winter, this would certainly be our longest outing so far. To prepare for our adventure, Ernie, our mechanic from Wilkie’s Mobile Marine did a thorough check on our twin 351 Windsors while I double-checked our other systems. Betty provisioned the boat and enlisted our good friends Windi and Brian for companionship.
The way the tides were, we left Delta Paradise Island (Perry’s) on the afternoon of April 6 and spent a very pleasant evening at the Second Bedroom on Potato Slough grilling dinner, sipping wine and bird watching. This allowed for an early morning get away that achieved the twin objectives of giving us favorable current all day and pushed us past both Honker Bay and Suisun Bay before the wind picked up. It was a very nice run going from the Delta into the commercial area between Antioch and Vallejo, past the Golden Bear tied up in front of the Maritime Academy and into San Pablo Bay. The ebb was running strong and our engines hummed nicely. My plan was to anchor at China Camp on the west shore of Marin County. Unfortunately, a strong northerly was blowing, which would have made for a rather unpleasant evening so we had to pivot. I jumped on the phone and called Loch Lomond Marina to reserve a spot at their guest dock. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan. The staff at the marina office were welcoming, and warned me to stay in the channel as we were approaching a -0.4 tide.
Loch Lomond Marina is just south of the Richmond Bridge, right at the end of San Rafael Creek. The channel is well-marked and my depth sounder never showed less than four feet of water. It was around 1600 when we tied up to the dock and relaxed after a long day on the water. Amenities are conveniently located within walking distance, with a grocery store right in front of the well-kept marina and Downtown San Rafael about two miles away.
The next morning, we took our time and motored across the water, through Raccoon Straits, past Alcatraz Island and into San Francisco Marina Yacht Harbor. Along the way just past Angel Island we spotted a small pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming by. Later, between Alcatraz Island and Aquatic Park we saw a blow and spotted the back of a gray whale. Sometimes you just know you are in the right place at the right time.
San Francisco Marina is efficiently managed by the Recreation and Park Department. Ahead of time, I contacted them to provide the required documents and payment to assign me a berth. We pulled in right across from Golden Gate Yacht Club and our card key was waiting for us in the electrical pedestal. While this marina is usually a bit cool and windy, it is very close to my mom’s condo, has plenty of parking and many restaurants and shops are only a few blocks walk away along Chestnut Street. Be aware that you need a parking permit (free and easily obtained from the marina office) to park overnight in the parking lot.
The next day was Opening Day for the Giants and we had 10 eager fans on board for the short run along the city front to Oracle Park. There was a large group of boats awaiting us in McCovey Cove, most notably the 80-foot topsail schooner Freda B. The Giants provided fireworks, a flyover and the fire department sent over Fireboat 3 (aka the St. Francis), which put on quite a display spraying water high in the air and downwind of the anchored flotilla. As lifelong Giants fans, it felt especially celebratory to be in the cove for Opening Day.
After a couple of days enjoying life in the city, our guests departed and Betty and I headed over to Angel Island. There are a couple of places you can anchor on the west side, but I wanted to go ashore and hike so we grabbed mooring buoys in Ayala Cove. The array of buoys can hold up to 27 boats on a first-come, first-served basis. There are also 19 boat slips available for day use only. You need some way to get ashore because the pay slot ($15/day use, $30/overnight) is at the top of the gangway.
A colony of harbor seals was hanging out in the cove. They slept on the docks, played and splashed in the water. We even spotted a couple of moms with pups. It was very quiet when we visited; only one other boat was also moored that evening. Let’s hear it for midweek boating! Since the regular ferry service had been curtailed, there were very few visitors on the island. It was so quiet that when we hiked around the entire island the next day, we saw no one outside the cove itself.
Angel Island has a long, meaningful history in the Bay Area. There are several military compounds on the island spanning over 100 years of history. The Angel Island Immigration Station, which is only a mile or so walk from Ayala Cove was in operation from 1910 to 1940, primarily for immigrants from Asia. Several buildings have been restored, and there are some very poignant plaques there honoring the memory of those people.
On the morning of April 15, we began our journey up the main channel, steaming north past the East Brothers Lighthouse. It was easy to locate the channel that leads to the Petaluma River. There are twin channel markers all the way. Stay between them as San Pablo Bay is very shallow here. The first big landmark you get to is the Black Point Railroad Bridge. It is a large old wooden swing bridge that is only closed when the rare freight train crosses it. Here lies the small village of Black Point. Older small houses lined the water’s edge, some with docks, with fancy newer houses dotting the hills all around. Under the Highway 37 bridge you begin to enter the Petaluma River proper with flat green expanse on both sides of you; Highway 101 to the west and Lakeville Highway to the east. At one point, a big white dog bounded along the levee, a greeting or a warning we weren’t sure, but he was amusing. A few miles along is the small village of Lakeville Landing with a few boats and a couple dozen small shacks next to the river. Later you pass an active gravel operation on the west bank. Sometimes you share the river with these gravel barges.
It is 15 miles from Petaluma River #1 to the Petaluma Marina. The marina appears on your right just before a big bridge marking Highway 101. The City of Petaluma manages the marina and the gas dock. Be aware that although the river was dredged in the fall of 2020, the marina was not. We did visit the marina on one occasion to get fuel and empty our holding tank. We went at the top of a 5.0 high tide and measured (using our depth sounder) and confirmed the reading by probing the bottom. There was eight feet of water at the fuel dock and seven feet of water next to the pump out. You must call ahead to use the fuel dock. Marina and fuel dock info: 707-778-4489.
If you want to go further upstream, you must get past the Haystack Landing Bridge. This relatively new bascule bridge is run by the SMART train people. It is supposed to be open at all times except when a train is coming, but I found it closed every time we went by. The bridge is staffed 24/7 and they respond promptly on channel #9. We only had to wait a few minutes for an opening.
Directly past the bridge you are in the City of Petaluma. In this area along the river, you’ll find houses in some places and old warehouses in others. It’s always fascinating to see a place from the water. After about a mile you get to the D Street Drawbridge. This bridge is run by the City of Petaluma. You must call them four hours in advance to schedule an opening. Keep your eyes peeled. Just before the bridge, on your left between some apartments and a warehouse is the 47-foot statue of a female figure. Constructed by a bunch of Burning Man style artists that utilize the adjoining warehouse, it is quite a sight. This place is only a few blocks from the turning basin, so it is worth the walk for a closer look. If it is open, chat up the artists in the warehouse and get a look at their latest project.
Go past the bridge and make a sharp left you see the Petaluma Yacht Club and 300 feet of public docks. This area is referred to as the “turning basin,” and is also administered by the City of Petaluma. The dock provides 30A power and water for only $32/night. Not only that, but at this time there is no limit to how long you can stay. We spent 16 nights, and most evenings we had the place to ourselves. On the weekends, two to three boats would show up, except on one weekend when Marin Yacht Club had a flotilla in and there were 10 of us. This dock is protected by two locked gates (key code provided) and I never saw any problem while we were there. Keep in mind, on holiday weekends like Memorial Day, they report between 50 and 70 boats staying over.
Being in the heart of Downtown Petaluma was quite lovely. There is a hardware store, coin laundry and a grocery store within three blocks. All around are numerous restaurants, sometimes live music, outdoor cafes and a very good bagel bakery! What more could you want?
Betty went off to work every day while I spent spare time working on our bright work. Sometimes we would cook on the boat, or if we weren’t in the mood, it was easy to go out. We especially liked Risibisi, an Italian restaurant located on Petaluma Blvd.
Two weeks went by rather quickly and Betty’s theater project wrapped up. We recruited another set of friends and retraced our steps back to the warmth of the Delta. I can’t say enough good things about Petaluma. I found the run up the river very beautiful, lots of birds and pretty scenery. Put this on your list of places to explore. I believe you will have a grand time.
Chuck Artigues is a fourth generation San Francisco native. An avid boater, he’s been sailing on the waters of the San Francisco Bay, both competitively and recreationally for more than five decades. He is looking forward to exploring parts of the Bay and Delta on his Bayliner that a sailboat wouldn’t have allowed. He and his partner, Betty, live in Fort Bragg and are excited for the adventures their new boat will provide them in their retirement.