Boats pass under the Park Street Bridge. Photo by Dave Bloch.
CIRCUMNAVIGATION. It's a big word, and a huge challenge, making it all the way around the world in a sailboat. Alameda is fortunate to have quite a few sailors in this very elite family who live or sail here.
Ah, but you can also circumnavigate geographical features that are much smaller than the Earth. An island - for example, an Island City - might be challenge enough for the day following the traditional party night of New Year's Eve.
With that spirit in mind, dozens of sail and power boats set out every year for a traditional New Year's Day cruise around Alameda Island. Each of the yacht clubs - Oakland, Encinal, Alameda, Island, Aeolian and Ballena Bay (in clockwise order) - opens its doors and offers some combination of snacks, a meal, drinks, entertainment and camaraderie for anyone making the journey. There are some who "blacktop" the trip as well, visiting the six club facilities by car or other land-locked vehicle.
Were you driving on New Year's Day, and perhaps trying to leave or enter the Island but were delayed by the drawbridges? Mea culpa; that was indeed US making our way down the Estuary and around the East End. New Year's Day is probably the biggest day of the year for the bridge operators as they stop car traffic and open the bridges to let our tall boats through.
This was our first time calling those bridges to be let through. I can tell you the operators are very friendly and helpful. They are also efficient; they don't want to hold up car traffic any more than is necessary. That means, on a day like this one, that they wait until a group (A bevy? A fleet?) of several boats has gathered before they open for us. But unlike your car, which you simply stop and put in PARK for a few minutes, our boats can never stop moving or they will drift onto the rocks. So it's like bumper cars out there as we make tight turns and maneuvers to keep from running into each other.
At last the bridge begins to open, and we watch and try to estimate when to start moving toward it. Somebody has to lead the way as we go single-file, and the viewing angle from the helm of the boat makes it very difficult to tell whether our 50-foot mast will clear the bridge. The operator tells us to keep our distance between boats. That slows us down and makes your wait a bit longer, but it's important for everyone's safety. The Park Street Bridge operator coordinates with the ones at Fruitvale and High, so we cruise through them one at a time, doing our bumper-car thing at each one.
After High Street, we have to look for some navigation markings sticking up out of the water. The dredged route is narrow, and slipping outside of it can ground a boat in a heartbeat. We follow the other more experienced boats through the channel, until we get close to Aeolian Yacht Club and the Bay Farm Island Bridge.
Bay Farm is actually two drawbridges. One if for cars, but the other is, I'm told, the only bicycle drawbridge in the country. It turns out I'm the only boat not stopping at Aeolian for lunch (having just filled up on bacon and pancakes at Island YC) and it takes a while before the operator and I know that's what's happening, so I have to make some very tight maneuvers inside the narrow channel. An Aeolian member in an inflatable dinghy gives me a lot of help staying off the shoals.
Now we're through that final bridge, and navigating the narrow, dredged lane down the San Leandro Channel. Having lived on Bayview Drive for two years, I know how many boats get hung up in the mud here! We're very carefully watching our digital map and depth gauge, but it's still nerve-wracking to see that there's just a few feet of water underneath our keel.
That dredged lane takes us far out into the Bay before we can turn to starboard and start our trip toward the west, paralleling Crown Beach. We have to go past the entrance to Ballena Bay Marina and double back, again following our charts that show the dredged channel.
Ballena Bay Yacht Club is always fun, and they're doing hot dogs and burgers on the barbecue. The place gets really crowded as boats come into the marina. As one of the first we end up getting blocked in by two others, but that's OK. We take pictures and share stories of the trip so far (and circumnavs past) until the other boats are ready to go and we all cruise out of the harbor together.
Out in the Bay, the wind comes up unexpectedly, and we hoist the sails! The trip becomes a relaxed, beautiful afternoon sail without the noise and vibration of the engine; it's a whole different world under sail. We head out almost to Yerba Buena Island before turning around and heading back toward the Estuary and home; once inside that narrow channel we reluctantly roll the sails up once again and motor back to our slip in Marina Village.
Around the world? No, not quite. But it still feels good to have earned our Alameda New Year Circumnavigation certificate! Which I'll put on the wall as soon as I print it up.