Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Water Rat's Other Tale

The Water Rat had friends on the river, and so do I.

Otherwise, I might still be there.

Heading up the Napa River, I stopped overnight at the Vallejo Yacht Club, and I am so glad I did. Not only were they nice to me (we sort of expect that among sailors, right?), more than one of the people I met went out of their way to tell me about Mean Nasty Number 7. That would be a stake, FL G 4s 15ft "7", where the Napa River takes a lazy bend to port, if you're bound upstream toward the California wine country.

The consensus: Get too close to "7" and, baby, "You're there for the tide."

Now, when one person tells you something like that, it's a note to consider. When five people say it, you start to believe. Here's the J/42 Merry J at VYC. I got to play with it, but the boat belongs to Rob and Teri Moore, who are both past commodores (how rare is that?) at Encinal Yacht Club, Alameda . . .

The Napa River is close to my home in San Francisco, but going there is all about looking at our local landmark, Mount Tamalpais, from the opposite side. Beyond this levee bordering the river is low-lying farmland where a levee has been breached.

Rivers change, river bottoms change, and charts are one thing but local knowledge is everything. The Napa River is not heavily traveled by commercial vessels, so there is no great incentive for the government to make sure of the details.

I rounded "7" wide on a rising tide—lots of tide. Out in the big river, where this is a mere tributary, flood tide rises and current flows turn around, all the way to Sacramento. And I passed "7" clean and clear and grateful for the word. The stake is well away from the shore, so the natural thing would be to cut it close. When I got to the Napa Valley Marina, the first guy I met asked me, had I stuck the boat at "7" ?

No, but I reckon I woulda' had I relied on the chart.

Instead I did my walking-around-the-town-of-Napa thing, enjoyed a decent glass of cabernet, and looked at the massive rebuilding project that is changing the face of the waterfront (while perhaps lowering the risk of flooding). At the same time, I kept up my online reading and saw the thread in Scuttlebutt about team racing, and how much fun it is, and I can endorse that thought. Not long ago I was part of a team that got creamed at the Hinman Masters team racing at Harbour Court in Newport, Rhode Island. We indeed had a great time scrambling up the learning curve: Their boats, their game. I come from a coast where there are more Bigfoot sightings than team races.

But team racing truly is a great way to amplify the game. How to catch up to the active scene in New England? Well, that's a chicken and egg problem, and One Must Ask, would Sonars really be happy on San Francisco Bay? In Southern California or Puget Sound, sure. Anybody ready to buy a fleet?

Here's the new Napa waterfront as a work in progress . . .

Working upriver to Napa was not a big deal as boat journeys go—some things are worth doing because they're a big deal, others because they're not—and in just a few days I made it back downstream as far as Vallejo Yacht Club again in time to pick up a ride for the last Wednesday night race of the season. Because, that's what people like me do. The boatride on Steve Strunk's Luna Sea was just fine, and so was the rising of a full (as the Spanish say) luna. I took my camera along but was too busy to use it.

Oh yeah.

Number "7".

The return.

Coming back downriver, I skirted it so wide, I ran aground.

Now, dear reader, if you're around boats, you're frequently reminded of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows character, the Water Rat, and his famous remark of messing about in boats, simply messing, as the thing most worth doing in life.

It's a marvelous bit of wordsmithing and so true.

But what comes next is less often noted.

Allow me to remind you:

"Look ahead, Rat!" cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

"-- about in boats -- or with boats," the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. "In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not."

I needed this river trip. And I feel an America's Cup blog coming on. I can just feel it boiling up from somewhere—Kimball