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Land of the Hay Scows

Sausalito, Calif., offers a window in time-if you know where to look.

October 4, 2007

One could say that Sausalito’s glory days, when she was the Lunenburg of the West and Madam Sally Stanford held court at the Valhalla, are behind her. The dot-coms have driven up real estate prices and driven shipwrights to Oregon, Washington and places as far-flung as Europe and the Pacific.

Yet, the boat traffic is still thick enough to support inventories of precision instruments and worldwide charts. The mold shops and other buildings that produced Liberty ships now house Sutter Sail Loft, Maritime Electronics and a giant West Marine. Priceless California waterfront is dedicated to a shipbuilders’ cooperative and to Bob Darr’s Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding, where you might find a Kingston lobster boat and a 19th-century gill-netter in progress. Here, Bill Martinelli and builders like him-men and women with perseverance and a dream-still find the moral and financial support to bring their projects to fruition.

With fantastical houseboats, tall ships, maxis, megayachts and the local fishing fleet sharing the same harbor, a visit to Sausalito can bring innumerable pleasures. When I arrive, she never fails to provide an interesting way to be on the water. Once, it was a vintage S&S yawl that needed crew; another time, a World War II-era Stevens wanting a boat sitter and a Hans Christian I helped rig with Christmas lights for a ride in the parade.

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This time, I strolled from the ferry terminus to Plaza Viña del Mar in the heart of town, the obvious place to eat an ice cream, have your picture taken or meet a friend-in this case it was Mary Crowley, world-cruiser-turned-charter broker, a friend to all yachtsmen and yachts. Sausalito is a town of networks, and if you’re tuned to the waterfront, you’re bound to find Mary. Her living rooms-one in Sausalito, the other in Tiburon-are the second home of sailors from every compass point. Her mind is in a constant state of alertness for the inspiring and rare.

I found Bill Martinelli from Bob Darr’s at the dock finishing the interior of his replica San Francisco Bay scow schooner Gaslight, the current darling of Sausalito’s waterfront. With him were naturalist Trish Mirabella, a visiting sailor from Hawaii, and several aspiring crew, all happy to break for a sail with a newcomer bearing bottles of cabernet. The wind in Gaslight’s crisp Dacron reported like gunfire as we raised sail in open water, and the new old girl took off faster than any cargo boat I’d seen.

Once, Bill said, some 400 vessels like Gaslight plied the Bay from Petaluma, Stockton and Sacramento. Known as hay scows for their principal cargo, they provided a good living for sailors returning from the square-riggers after the Gold Rush. The scows’ shallow draft let them sit on the bottom at low tide or be lashed to the banks and loaded with hay. When Bill completes Gaslight this year, he will use her to show charter guests and students a San Francisco Bay that differs from the one you see on the standard “doughnut run”-the historic Delta and nature-rich waters where deep-draft boats can’t go.

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Our course, if we had one at all, tacked between the San Francisco fog and Sausalito sunlight, cityscape and island oasis, with a soaring Oakland Bay Bridge always in view. We watched the sun drop below Sausalito from Belvedere Cove, home to the San Francisco Yacht Club and one of the best juniors programs in the country. As many as 200 pass through the program in a day, the little ones training on El Toros, Flying Juniors, 420s and 29ers, and the teens on Cal 20s and J/24s.

In one weekend in Sausalito, I found a Heath serving bowl to add to my collection, heard a fabulous jazz quartet at the No Name Bar, admired Larry Ellison’s wonder-yacht berthed at Schoonmaker’s marina, and met people worth knowing a lifetime.

The food was just as wonderful. I tried the Basque lamb shank prepared mutton-style at Guernica, a pumpkin-and-ground turkey enchilada at Avalon, and venison at the Buckeye Restaurant north of town. All are worth a night off from the galley.

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Could a spontaneous outing in a foreign harbor get any better than this? The next time I’m in Sausalito, I’ll let you know.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE

Winds prevail from the north at 10 to 20 mph during the fall. A rolling swell accompanies standard wave heights.

It’s best to depart early and time your exit through the Golden Gate Bridge at the start of the flood tide.

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TRANSPORTATION

You’ll find transportation by taxi, bus, rental car, bike or kayak just steps from your slip.

Mary Crowley’s Ocean Voyages, (415) 332-4681, arranges charters from an afternoon on the bay to a month in Patagonia.

LOCAL MARINAS

Sausalito Harbor, (415) 332-5000, the oldest basin north of the yacht club, is one of the rare marinas whose gates are open to strollers. Clipper Yacht Harbor, (415) 332-3500, harbors small sailboats. Schoonmaker’s, (415) 331-5550, handles yachts 60 feet and longer. Armchair Sailor owners David and Tamara Kennedy are a font of local knowledge. Their shop is on Caledonia Street, (415) 332-7505. Anderson’s Boatyard, (415) 332-5432, houses a full-service repair hub and marine specialists for everything from fine cabinetry to acoustical engineering.

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