Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sailing Lake Sonoma

Sailing Lake Sonoma
Boat Camping Close to Home

 Lying at anchor, Buck Pasture campground

“This has been the crappiest summer I can ever remember in the Bay Area,” lamented Craig, who has been living on his 57-foot Chinese junk in Marina Bay for two years now.

I wanted to laugh at his plight, because Marina Bay is cold in the summer, and we all told him that before he moved onto his boat. But Craig has also been sailing on the Bay, mostly out of Berkeley, for 35 years, so he knows a little bit about local summer weather. And I had to agree with him. Bay Area weather had gotten stuck on June, maybe May. It was early July, and I was still barbecuing in a parka. And that was in Fremont, which is a whole lot warmer than Marina Bay.

“You want to go boat camping?” I asked. “I’m thinking about going to Lake Sonoma.”

“Lake Sonoma? Never heard of it.”

“I hadn’t either. But it’s a big lake, with 14 different boat-in campgrounds. I found it while searching for ‘boat camping’ on the internet.”

Craig thought for a moment. “Okay. It’s got to be warmer than here.”

The first thing you discover is that Lake Sonoma is a motorboat lake. I had suspected as much, since most lakes in California are motorboat lakes, but my suspicions were confirmed when I was picking up my parking pass at the Lake Sonoma Visitor Center. An officious and unfriendly woman wearing an official uniform with a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers patch on the sleeve handed me a form to fill out. I entered the information she indicated and handed back the form.

The woman reviewed my information. “What type of boat do you have?” she asked in an exasperated tone, pointing to a line she had not asked me to fill out.

“It’s a Chebacco sailboat.”

“A sailboat.” She seemed to scowl at the very thought. “We don’t get too many of those.”

The woman handed me a parking sticker to put in the window of my truck, and then quickly reviewed the lake rules and regulations. “It’s a no wake zone here and here and here, and you can water ski here and here, and the speed limit in these other areas is 50 miles and hour.”

“Fifty miles an hour!” I was shocked. “Not really much of a limit.”

“Oh, some of the bass boats that come out here will do 70 miles and hour,” she said proudly, “but we limit them to 50.”

“Bass boats are an abomination,” I said. I was pretty sure that the woman behind the counter had a bass boat.

“Well, the kind of people that use our lake like them.” With that she went back to her officious duties, and I returned to my car. One thing was certain: Lake Sonoma is a motorboat lake. But, as it turned out, Lake Sonoma is also a pretty good sailboat lake.

Map from

Lake Sonoma lies about 11 miles west of Healdsburg at the end of Dry Creek Road. The road winds through beautiful vineyards, and dozens of wineries offer the traveler a chance to taste wines and relax while taking in the view of the valley.

The public boat ramp is one and half miles past the Visitor Center, directly across the lake from the Warm Springs Dam. There is a large parking lot at the top of the hill with spaces reserved for preparing the boat for launching. However, to get from the lot to the ramp one has to go under the Rockpile Road bridge, and clearance is only sixteen feet. I had to take my boat down to the ramp to raise the masts. The ramp is large, so rigging on the ramp was no problem, at least not on a Wednesday afternoon. However, the ramp is shallow, and a deep boat would require a tongue extension to float free.

My sailboat, Inspector Clouseau, is a cat-yawl with gaff-rigged main, 19’6” long with a beam of eight feet. The boat features a full keel rather than the centerboard of the original design. Even with the keel, it draws only 20 inches. Eliminating the centerboard case opens up the cockpit and the small cabin, and makes the boat much easier to move about in. I had modified the design with exactly this kind of boat camping in mind. Three years later, it was time to try it out.

Craig showed up while I was rigging the boat, and together we loaded the boat with all of our stores and camping equipment. By the time we had finished piling stuff into the cockpit, I had to wonder where it would all go. But somehow it all got put away, and we were ready to launch. I was just climbing back into my truck when one of the other boaters stopped alongside.

“Hey, nice sailboat!” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied,

“Yeah, very pretty. We don’t get too many of those on this lake.” With that, he hustled back down the ramp, hopped into his bass boat, and sped off in search of a good fishing spot.

There are fifteen campgrounds on the lake. Seven of the campgrounds are on the Warm Springs arm, and all of these campgrounds can be reached by boat, on foot, by bike, or on horseback. There are also seven campgrounds on the Dry Creek arm. All of these campgrounds are accessible by boat, and two of them can also be reached on foot or by horseback. Large sections of the lake are no-wake zones, which is where most of the campgrounds are located. The last campground is on Bummer Peak, and is not accessible by boat. There is no piped-in water at any of the campgrounds, but one can drink water from the lake provided it is properly filtered.

Our plan had been to spend the afternoon sailing, establish our camp, and then decide what to do next. It was a good plan, except that the wind died about 500 yards from the dam. Though we were just happy to be warm, the adventurous spirit is hard to maintain for long at zero knots. So we decided to motor to our site, set up camp, and then go sailing.

Since neither of us had ever been to Lake Sonoma, I had to rely on advice from one of the rangers at the Visitor Center. Her advice was both good and bad. The good part was her suggestion that we camp on the Warm Springs arm; the bad part was that the Quicksilver Campground, which she recommended, was the ugliest one on the lake.

The bay where Quicksilver is located was empty except for a large houseboat beached on the northern side. Two guys were fishing off the stern deck and drinking beer, though not necessarily in that order. The bay is a quiet no-wake zone, but the hills are steep, the sites are small and get sun all day, and the ground is baked hard as rock. There is very little shade, and very little to recommend this campground.

Boat camping is permitted anywhere on the lake, but one can only camp and cook ashore in designated campsites. After a brief swim and a cold beer, we made the decision to take our chances with the boat camping. The whole western end of the Warm Springs arm is a no wake zone, and by our reckoning, had to offer something better than where we were.

The Warm Springs arm is beautiful, with lots of small, shady inlets, and plenty of quiet places to anchor. Neither Craig nor I were enthralled with the first three campgrounds that we came across, although they were an improvement over Quicksilver. The next two campgrounds were much better. The Black Mountain and Buck Pasture campgrounds offered several very nice sites with good places to pull up the boat, and, if one wanted to camp ashore, good places to put the tent.

We talked a bit about sailing as we motored slowly up the Warm Springs arm, but the wind was fitful, and we were a little concerned about finding a place to camp before nightfall. The remains of trees that were drowned when the valley was flooded still line the shore in many places, and the water shallows quickly in many of the narrow inlets. With a draft of less than two feet, I did not worry too much about the water depth—the bottom was visible to depths of at least four feet—but the snags were a hazard, and one that might not be obvious in the dark.

The sun was down behind the hills to the west by the time we decided to poach one of the campsites at Buck Pasture. This worked out very well. There were two unoccupied sites that offered good lake access, level tables, and soft banks on which to pull up the boat. The site we selected had an old tree poking out of the water about 30 feet off the shore, so we were able to tie off the bow to the anchor, which I had buried in the soft ground, and we were able to tie off the stern to the tree. A stake that we could pound into the ground would have been an improvement over the anchor, but I did not have a stake to pound or a hammer with which to do the pounding.

While I set up the stove to make chicken burritos, Craig collected firewood and got a small fire going. At one point, I saw him on the top of the hill at the next site over picking up garbage that I figured had been strewn about that site by some previous tenants. However, later that night, we heard the garbage can being pried open, and the lid banging down onto the ground. Both Craig and I turned our flashlights up to top of the hill, and in the smoky light beams cast by the lights, we could see the beady eyes of the offending raccoon staring back down at us. 

 Craig enjoying the moment at Buck Pasture. What's not to like?

I had originally thought that we would sleep in tents, but sleeping in the cockpit of the boat was easier. The cockpit benches are six-and-a-half feet long and plenty wide enough, so all we had to do was roll out our sleeping bags on top of the cockpit cushions and climb in. Any thoughts of leaving the food and cooking gear out evaporated with the arrival of the raccoons, and I was plenty glad to be able to put a little bit of water and freeboard between me and them. We fell asleep that night watching the stars, and listening to the breeze blow through the rigging while small waves lapped at the side of the boat. I remember thinking as I drifted off to sleep, “ I could get used to this.”

One consequence of hauling all the cooking gear and food onto the boat the night before was that I had to haul it all back off in the morning. Craig was still sleeping, and even with all my banging and grunting and splashing as I pulled everything off the boat, he gave no indication that he was awake.

One advantage of staying in a campground is access to the pit toilets. I have a head on the boat for emergencies, but I discourage people from using it. Although pit toilets are rarely pleasant, these weren’t a horrific example of the type—toilet paper and seat covers were included for the price of admission—and they better than having to clean out the head.

The wind had been blowing down the lake toward the dam all night, but died as the sun came up. As the air began to heat up, however, the wind began to blow up the lake from the dam. Craig and I were happy to see a bit of wind, even if it meant that we would have to beat the length of the Warm Springs arm.

Our plan for the day was to sail up to the marina, pick up some ice, and then explore the Dry Creek arm of the lake. However, these things never really work quite the way you draw them up. I figured that even with light winds we would be able to sail the two and half miles to the marina in an hour and a half, maybe two. Two and half hours later, we were becalmed just shy of the narrows, the sun was high overhead, it was hot, the drinks were warm, and I was getting irritable.

“Why are you so anxious?” asked Craig, as I started the motor to get us moving again. “It’s not like there is anyplace we have to be.”

“I have one thing I want to get done today,” I responded while striking the mainsail, “and that is to buy ice. I just want to get it done. Then I can have a cold beer, and I will feel better.”

“Maybe you should have two,” Craig muttered. “Then we’ll both feel better.”

“Just drive us to the marina,” I snapped.

The Lake Sonoma Marina is a small private marina with perhaps 50 slips, a gas dock, a launch ramp, and a small store. The store offers just about anything the boat camper might need: ice, drinks, charcoal, gas containers, motor oil, barbecue tools, cutlery, paper plates, flotation vests, ski tow ropes, ibuprofen, you name it. They even offered ice cream. With ice in the cooler and ice cream in our bellies, I know I felt better. I imagine Craig did, too.

The Dry Creek arm is much better for sailing than the Warm Springs arm. Afternoon winds flow over the dam and directly up the Dry Creek arm, which is also wider and longer than the Warm Springs side. The day was starting to get hot, and even though we were drinking a lot of water, it was hard to cool off with no way to get out of the sun.

A brief swim out in the middle of the lake offered some relief, and the water was a perfect temperature for swimming. However, climbing back up onto the boat without a boarding ladder proved to be a bit of challenge. A loop of line hung down into the water off the stern cleats was better than nothing, but climbing up to the boat, even with its low freeboard aft, required a lot of upper body strength, and might have been impossible after a long and tiring swim.

Winds were light but steady in the 4 to 5 knot range, so we rounded the boat up into the wind and set the sails. The run down the lake was delightful. Inspector Clouseau really shines in light air with the wind aft of the beam and the big gaff main swung way out to one side. There aren’t many coves and inlets in this big part of the lake, and the whole northern side of the lake is a wildlife management area that is closed to the public. 

 Warm weather sailing

One of the great attractions of the lake turned out to be the abundance of birds, and particularly birds of prey. While sailing past the Falcon’s Nest Campground, we passed a large nest high atop a dead tree at the water’s edge. Peregrine falcons inhabit the wilderness area, but this nest looked more like the nest of an osprey or bald eagle. As we slid silently by, Craig and I could hear the three baby birds clamoring for attention. It was one of the high points of the trip.

 Osprey or eagle nest, with big babies

The high temperature for the day did not exceed 85 degrees, but we had been on the boat for six hours, and the July sun was exceedingly bright. Repeated applications of sunscreen soon proved inadequate. After a cold summer in the San Francisco Bay area, I was committed to the idea of being warm and spending the whole day in a bathing suit, but I was starting to feel half-baked. Cold beer did not help.

Good fortune smiled upon us, however, when we found a nice little shady spot to tuck into at the back end of a no-wake zone. Craig was skeptical that this spot was the best we could do, but I didn’t care. I was feeling the effects of the sun and the compounding effects of the beer; I needed some shade.

The spot in question featured a dead tree to tie off the bow and a sunken log along the shore to tie off the stern, and the little bay proved a delightful place to take a swim. I still did not have a boarding ladder, but this time, we hung the loop of line from the bow. This worked better because the loop could be adjusted so that one would not slide under the boat when stepping onto the line, but it was still a challenge to climb back on board.

I think we spent about an hour and a half in that little shady spot. Several boats came and went in the time that we were there, seeking out their own bit of shade, but ours was the only spot in that entire bay that featured both shade and a way to tie off the boat, so none of the other boats stuck around for long. 

 Hanging out in the shady spot

By the time we left our shady refuge, the steady easterly we enjoyed as we sailed up the lake was replaced by fitful and fluky winds that varied in strength from 0 to 15 knots. But eventually a westerly breeze settled in. For half an hour we enjoyed brilliant sailing, first exploring a couple of small bays that included sailing amongst and around submerged trees, and then sailing a ways up the main arm in 15 to 20 knots of wind. Spray was coming over the bow, and I found myself quickly trying to stow all of the food and gear and clothing that had been allowed to accumulate around the cockpit on a long day of lazy breezes.

Despite the joy of sailing in wind, our destination was either the Thumb or the Skunk Creek campground, which were tucked well up into the northern end of a large bay. The entire bay is a no-wake zone, so we would have been obliged to slow down in any case, but the wind pretty much died as soon as we entered the bay. This was, at first, a real letdown, but only briefly. The steep hills surrounding the narrow entrance caused what little wind there was to swirl around, and any efforts to trim the sails were entirely ineffective and counterproductive. As soon as I would achieve trim, the wind would shift.

Craig had been lying motionless on the starboard bench with a bemused look on his face, as if to suggest that I was working too hard by half (or perhaps three-quarters), and though it galls me to admit it, he was right. There was no way to keep up with the change in wind direction, and eventually, I gave up. With no way to keep up with the shifts, I just dropped the sheet and pointed the boat in the direction we wanted to go. Somehow, the boat kept sailing. The water was flat, and the breeze was so light that you couldn’t even feel it on your cheek, but the boat kept sailing. 

 Submerged forest

We slid past the skeletons of a submerged forest, marveling at the reflections on the water and the wood ducks on the logs. Wood ducks are notoriously shy, but these ones seemed content to let us sail within twenty feet or so. As we rounded a corner, our quiet reverie was shattered by the shout of a little girl on the far shore. “Look mom, it’s a sailboat!”

“Yes, it is. Sure don’t see many of those on this lake.”

Craig and I waved. The little girl and her sister both waved back. “Mom! They waved at us. Just like all the people on the motorboats!”

“Yes, sailors can be nice, too,” replied the mom.

“That’s not what daddy says. He says sailors are ass. . .”

“Don’t say that,” interrupted the mom, “they might hear you.” She smiled and waved.

We smiled and waved back. No use demonstrating that daddy might be right.

As we slipped along, the breeze steadied and filled in from behind. It was still not blowing hard, but at least we could tell where it was coming from. The Thumb and Skunk Creek campgrounds are immediately adjacent to each other on the eastern side of the bay, separated by a narrow inlet. To our surprise, there were a lot of folks set up at these campgrounds, and plenty of other boats pulled up on shore on the western side.

It was at this point that we learned that campsite poaching is a competitive business. As Craig steered the boat through the drowned trees toward a nice site in the Skunk Creek campground, I lowered the main so that we could sail in under mizzen alone. With less than 150 yards to go, we noticed a small cabin cruiser heading the same way. As soon as the driver realized where we were headed, he sped up a bit, then a bit more, and finally, no-wake zone be damned, he just gunned it. As he passed by our bow, both he and his girlfriend smiled and waved, happy to leave us bouncing in their wake.

The loss of this site might have seriously damaged our good time, except that there were two other sites that were almost as nice just around the corner. So we took one of those.

The site we chose featured its own small inlet in which to beach the boat, a nearly-level table, convenient but not-too-close access to a pit toilet, and a great view of the bay. Dinner that night was a simple jambalaya, cobbled together from items I had stocked away at home, with cookies for dessert. 

 Camped at Skunk Creek

The raccoon showed up at nightfall. Raccoons may look cute, but they are nasty creatures with sharp claws and fangs and some kind of parasite that can damage human brains. This raccoon was very tame, and would not leave until I put the fire between him and me. I figure that this bugger had learned that a flashlight beam was followed by a meal, which is bad for the raccoon, and bad for the people in the campground.

Once the quarter moon disappeared behind the hills about 10:00, the sky was riot with the light of a million stars. The breeze died with the setting of the sun, and with the exception of the people out drinking on a 30-foot cabin cruiser anchored in the middle of the bay, the singing of the crickets was the only sound disturbing the night air.

The decks were wet the following morning without any wind to keep the air moving, and everything on the boat, including our sleeping bags, was damp. I nudged Craig awake, and then hefted the cooking gear off of the boat. We opted to hang our food bags from the hook that is conveniently supplied at each site for hanging a lantern, but I didn’t want to leave my cooking gear to the whims of the raccoons, the crickets, or the staggering drunks that had vacated the cruiser in the middle of the bay and taken up residence in one of the campsites on the next hill over.

Our plan was to reach the launch ramp early to avoid the crowds and to get home before the Friday traffic really got thick. So all we had time for was a quick cup of coffee and some hot cereal before loading up and heading out.

The cool morning air felt a bit chill once the boat started moving. We had stowed all of the cooking gear and the food, but since the sleeping bags were still damp, we left them out to dry. So I figured I’d climb into mine, and I was mighty glad I did. Leaning back against the cabin with the sleeping bag pulled up around my chest, I was able to watch the world slip by at 4 knots from the cozy warmth of my bed. This was too much for Craig. I had reached a state of casual comfort well before he even knew he was uncomfortable, which was a source of some chagrin. Craig has dedicated many hours to the study, dynamics, and sources of casual comfort, and he was not to be outdone. So he too climbed into his sleeping bag, and not only was he watching, he was driving the boat at 4 knots from the cozy warmth of his bed. 

 Dry Creek Arm in the morning mist, the dam in the background

We motored the five and half miles to the ramp in about an hour and a half, stopping only once to let some of the coffee out. Over the two days, I figured we motored about 12 miles, and we used only ½ gallon of gas, which is just about what it takes to fire up the motor on a bass boat.

Just before reaching the ramp, we saw a bald eagle light upon the top of a pine tree, a reminder that even with all the boats and skiers and fisherman, this place still had some wildness to it. The moment was short-lived, however, because then we were at the ramp. It was 9:15 on a Friday morning, and the ramp was already crowded with boats and people and cars. We had not been at the dock for more than two minutes before a lady with a bass boat and a cross voice demanded to know if we planned to be there long.

“No,” I replied, “I was just on my way to get the car.”

“Okay. Good. But don’t be slow,” she added. “Nice sailboat, by the way. We don’t get too many of those on this lake.”

Lake Sonoma might be a motorboat lake, but it’s not a bad lake for sailing. And who knows. If enough of us sailors show up there, we won’t be such an oddity when we do.