Historic downtown

We planned to visit Petaluma over Memorial Day weekend.  Monday 30th was the official holiday and Annie and I made it a 4-day weekend by taking Friday 27th off as well.  We slept on the boat Thursday night, threw off the dock lines early Friday morning, and headed north up the Bay.  We passed under the San Mateo Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the Richmond Bridge and then veered north across San Pablo Bay towards the Petaluma Channel. The buoys marking the Petaluma channel are close together with the chart showing 0 and 2 feet depth on either side, which is a strong incentive not to stray out of the narrow channel.

Eventually we entered the Petaluma River and within minutes Annie’s allergies kicked in from the myriad of plants that clogged the riverbank.  Miles of mustard seed, fennel, and grasses swayed in the wind and liberally disgorged their pollen so that Annie spent the next 2 ½ hours down below bathing her swollen eyes – and bored.

A deluge of pollen from a variety of plant life

The countryside along the river is beautiful with rolling hills and farmlands, but with a surprising lack of animals.  I didn’t see any cows, or sheep, or horses – or even chickens for which historic Petaluma is so famous.  Just rolling hills.  One after the other.  The river curves back and forth constantly so I sat at the wheel for the next 2 ½ hours steering with no one to talk to – and bored.

We finally reached the bridge that blocks entry to the Petaluma turning basin and when it lifted we entered the basin expecting it to be somewhat empty since this was a non-holiday, but the dock on the west bank was already jammed with power boats.  So we docked on the east side of the river.  A very sweet, very drunk hobo insisted on helping us tie up and was so unsteady on his feet that he very nearly fell off the dock.  I was afraid to give him a tip in case he hung around – like a stray cat that won’t leave if you feed it.

The policeman manning the bridge walked over after we had docked and handed us the “secret” code for gate access to the west dock.  We found out that the code has not changed in the last few years and is a somewhat open “secret”.  Since our East dock was pretty quiet Annie and I decided to walk over and see if there was any party action on the West dock.  It was a beautiful evening and the boaters were out and about and spoiling for a party.  One boater had put down tape on the dock with USA written on the one side and MEXICO on the other.  He claimed it was the border and he had MX decorations and food ready on his side.  Everyone was very friendly and in a jovial mood but we were tired after a day at the wheel so we decided to hit the sack early and party on Saturday night instead.

Med moored

Saturday dawned overcast and raining – so much for the Weather Channel bragging about a sunny Memorial weekend with temperatures in the 70’s.  It was FREEZING.  And WET.  While sipping my early morning coffee I glanced into my dinghy and noticed that the line I had fastened to reduce swaying on the davit had chafed the paint off the dinghy seat.  I made a mental note to buy a piece of leather to place under the rope as a chafe guard.

Notwithstanding the weather, we decided to explore in the rain.  Well, I was eager to explore historic downtown and Annie was resigned to her fate.  During the previous week I had printed off a number of walking tours around Petaluma so we set off to do the Historic Petaluma walk.

Iron building - rediscovered when they pulled off the ratty old siding

Olde town Petaluma has some beautiful old buildings and we traipsed from one building to the next, with me shooting photos indiscriminately while Annie kept disappearing into the nearest shop.  I spied a short leather skirt on a mannequin at the door of a thrift store and Annie looked at me askance thinking I meant the cute little cowgirl skirt with cheeky fringe for myself.  But I was thinking how perfect it would work as a chafe guard for my dinghy, so I talked the price down to $5 and walked away clutching my prize.  It worked really well in the dink although Annie was concerned that the brown dye would stain the hypalon.

Meanwhile on the east dock more and more boats had arrived all day and had side-tied to me and every other boat unlucky enough to be first at the dock, so by mid-afternoon we were rafted 4 deep in the turning basin.  I was afraid that my regular dock lines were not strong enough against the jerking loads exerted on FastAlley, so we tied extra lines to ensure that FastAlley did not break loose with her flotilla of 3-rafted boats.  As I tied down the extra lines, I noticed the cleats on the dock moved and jiggled, so then I was concerned instead that the cleats would pop loose and hurl my 4-boat raft, which was weaving and jiving in the high winds, into the clot of surrounding boats.

By Saturday night the high wind and rain had dampened even the enthusiasm of the West dock and all was quiet on the western front.  Even the party in the yacht club looked uninspiring.  Since the balmy 70degree temps had never materialized, we had the heater blasting away in the cabin and pretty soon it was pretty toasty.  We had dinner, watched a movie, and settled down in our respective bunks for the night.

Sunday dawned clear so I grabbed my Tours of Petaluma printouts and off we went.  We headed in the direction of the Petaluma Victorian Homes tour – with Annie disappearing into every store we passed.  Petaluma has a wonderful selection of stores selling everything from funky pop-top jewelry to rusty chicken farm antiques.  I have always wanted to own a glass house with lots of glass art backlit by the sun so every time I saw a pretty glass piece I would also abandon our tour and dive into the shop to examine it.  But I guess California’s earthquakes would make short work of my glass house with glass art, so it remains just a dream.


On the Victorian tour we visited a delightful catholic church from the late 1800’s.  Annie was brought up Catholic so she explained the beautiful contents of the church and their significance to me.  The church has gorgeous stained glass windows, marching columns of marble, three Rose windows, and an intricately carved marble baptismal font.  Along the walls of the tiny cathedral are a series of carved reliefs illustrating the last hours of Jesus, from Pilate to the Cross.  This little gem is a must see.

Walls of stained glass

As we drifted back to town, we lacked the enthusiasm to do the Hollywood Walking Tour, but then Annie heard blaring rock music so we followed our ears.  We came across an American Graffiti function complete with a diner surrounded by beautifully restored vintage cars.  The rock band played to a motley crowd of 50’s car enthusiasts and we ate delicious garlic fries as I snapped away happily.  I really am an incorrigible tourist.

Vintage cars lined up

Monday dawned cloudy but dry and we made leaving noises.  The Petaluma River is tidal and at 9:30am it was low tide.  There were already boats stuck in the mud of the basin as some boaters had tried to exit early.  FastAlley only draws 2 feet but the remaining boat rafted to me was on the mud.  I thought we were stuck at the dock for 2 hours until they floated free but it turned out that they had a retractable keel, so they raised their keel and they were free.

Unfortunately I was still surrounded by rafted boats 4 deep on all sides, with maybe 6 feet clearance at my bow and 3 feet at my stern for maneuvering.  Annie suggested asking a boat circling in the basin to pull our bow around and tow us out but I was nervous about giving motion control of my boat to anyone else, especially when I was so closely and deeply packed in by other docked boats.

FastAlley buried in a 4-deep raft up

Getting away from the dock was interesting.  There just wasn’t enough space, forward or backwards, to turn a 41ft boat at the slip.  I had to go forward a few feet, then the bow was grabbed by a boater and walked forward 2 feet along his deck, then reverse 3 feet, then forward till my bow was grabbed and walked forward along a deck, then reverse again for a few feet.  Annie’s suggestion of being towed out by the bow looked better and better.  Man, it was tight.  Imagine a car parked in a tight spot doing a 10-point turn to extricate itself – that was me and FastAlley.    Amazingly we got out without even tippy-touching any of the rafted boats that clogged the basin.

We exited past the boats stuck in the mud, the policeman opened the bridge for us, and we were headed down the river and homeward bound on Memorial Day.  Our 4-day holiday was coming to an end.

Pretty Petaluma in Pollen season had been quite the experience!  Within hours of docking in the basin FastAlley was submerged under a layer of pollen.  Pollen clumped and congealed around the cleats and filmed over my dock lines.  Pollen coated our clothes and hair, plugged up our noses, and clogged our eyes.  Clouds of pollen choked us and made us sneeze… if you have even a minor allergic reaction to pollen you don’t want to visit Petaluma in the Spring.

The ladies of Petaluma in the late 1800s erected a drinking fountain to discourage the drinking of alcohol - I thought this was the fountain

I have never been allergic to anything but even my skin itched from the constant coating of pollen.  And I awoke each morning with my eyes clumped shut.  On the way back downriver, Annie disappeared below for the next 2 ½ hours to bathe her eyes and relieve their allergic swelling with ice.  It was wonderful to finally reach the Bay and have the fresh sea breezes blowing in our faces and blasting the pollen off us and FastAlley.

..... It is not this fountain either

On our way up the Bay I had been at the helm – and a lousy job I did of that.  I just ASSUMED that a huge ship ahead was anchored because I didn’t see a bow wave so I ignored it.  Imagine my horror 10 minutes later when I looked up and the leviathon passed within 300 feet of us.  Then I was so busy taking pictures of Red Rock that I had us headed straight for the Richmond Bridge buttress.  Over the summer one works up a vigilant attitude from being on the water all the time – but I guess the extended Winter eliminated my watchfulness.

THIS is the fountain the ladies erected with its LOUD AND CLEAR message!

So with Annie at the helm we passed under Richmond Bridge homeward bound and noticed the Coast Guard in the Bay.  They were doing maneuvers and practicing retrieval and boat handling.  They paced us for about 10 minutes and I thought – Oh No, Not Again.  FastAlley got boarded on our last trip out when we went up to the Waterfront to watch the Blue Angels air show.  Annie explained the obvious… that if you are a Coast Guard on maneuvers and you have to pick a boat to board for the practice, you would pick something unusual.  And my trimaran FastAlley is unusual.

Eventually a zodiac detached itself from the mother ship and zoomed towards us with 4 young, eager Coast Guards on board.  They approached and asked; “Have you ever been boarded by the Coast Guard?”

I replied, Yes.

They asked, When?

I said, During the air show last October.

This caused some discussion as the young men debated whether or not they should board us again so soon after the last boarding, but eventually their curiosity to see the boat exceeded their caution about intruding yet again.  So they zoomed up and 3 of them climbed aboard while the 4th followed in the zodiac.

The 3 men were very young, maybe baby 20’s and very sweet, polite, and friendly.  The leader was disarmingly honest and said happily – I’ve never been on a trimaran before!!  Which is why we got boarded, I guess.  One of the young men was obviously being trained by his equally young leader and as they worked their way steadily thru their checklist, they asked to see everything and examined the boat from front to back.  They were just darling, and intrigued with FastAlley.  After 30 minutes they assured us that they would log their inspection with the Coast Guard so that we would not have to be boarded again.

As the young men left, Annie said we should just resign ourselves to being boarded throughout the summer because if a young Coastie has a choice of boarding yet another monohull or FastAlley, they would probably choose FastAlley because she is different from the norm.  They were so curious and so darling that I really didn’t mind.

Annie was in control of the boat so I went below to doze for a few hours.  She roused me as she turned FastAlley into Redwood City Slough and we docked 10 hours after leaving Petaluma that morning.

The small city of Petaluma is beautifully restored.  They have a variety of stores that sell a vast collection of goodies.  Their restaurants are reasonably priced, the food is tasty, and the beers are inexpensive during Happy Hour.

Stud muffin - literally

The locals are exceptionally friendly and helpful, and everyone we stopped took the trouble to pause and point us in the right direction.

I highly recommend a visit to Petaluma.  If you don’t have a boat, then drive up there on the 101 freeway, and stay in a B&B for the weekend.  It’s a lovely little city.  You will enjoy your stay.

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