Thursday, July 28, 2011

Napa Valley Marina

The Boatyard That Time Forgot

A user's guide to the best kept secret boat yard in the S.F. Bay Area.

The view from our boat while at Napa Valley Marina.
We needed to haul out our 25' wide catamaran, somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, preferably somewhere close to our home port of Emeryville, in the S.F. Bay.   So I started calling around looking for yards that could accommodate us.   Much to our dismay, there were none within our immediate vicinity, and only one, the Napa Valley Marina, within fifty miles!  It sucks that they are the only game in town if you own a big, wide catamaran, but as it turns out, they are a really great marina with an extremely competent staff.  They can also do just about anything you need, and there are long term dry dock options if you need to be "up on the hard" for a while.

Some of the grounds & facility.
What follows is a description of the marina, and our very positive experiences there.  Although the yard got off to a bad start with us, we think that overall they are a great place to go for boat work, especially if you own a catamaran or trimaran, and we would gladly recommend them to anyone looking for a safe, inexpensive boat yard to have work done, and especially for the DIY types-- but we would also caution you to be very, very explicit about schedules, expectations and arrangements, which we'll explain in greater detail a bit further on.  But we really do like this yard, the folks who work there, and the area in general.  If you are looking for a place to haul out, we give them top marks.

The railway lift, Napa Valley Marina
The marina is nestled in the bucolic, rolling hills of Napa, surrounded by wineries and orchards (there are herds of cows grazing just across the road from the marina) and an amazing restaurant within bicycling distance of the yard, with a dozen other great places to eat within a ten minute drive.   It is a very quiet, peaceful area, with animal life everywhere.   There were flocks of geese and ducks wondering around the boat, we saw every type of water fowl imaginable, and all the folks we met there were more than helpful.   The marina was built by two brothers, mostly by hand, and has been a family business ever since.  It has a very large yard with short, medium and long term storage.  Most of the staff have worked there for decades, and they have a great (and well-deserved) reputation for being a very friendly place to keep your boat and/or work on it.

 There is quite a large flock of
geese and ducks milling about
the water's edge.  Don't get too
lackadaisical, a seemingly friendly
 goose may still bite your ass. 
The only exception to this was the marina's salesman, who created a bit of a challenge for us.  And to be clear, he was also very friendly, it was just that everything he told us turned out differently.  We had originally scheduled our haul-out months in advance, over the phone, and were told that there was no need to leave a deposit.  We took that at face value, and had sent out requests to numerous friends asking for their help.  We knew that, in addition to replacing the thru-hulls, we also wanted to repaint the bottom, and that was going to be a lot of work, and we expected to be out of the water for at least a week or two.  We had over thirty folks volunteer to show up to help.

Mike riding the rail car down in preparation for hauling.
We hauled out early Friday morning after all.
With less than a week to go, we found out that Kirby, the sales rep there, had forgotten to put us on the schedule, and that we'd have to haul out "some other time".   We were really thrown for a loop, and if there had been any other marina to use we'd have gone elsewhere then and there.  The problem was that elsewhere was San Diego, and the sail there and back wasn't that appealing.   They say that politics is the art of saying "nice doggy" while you look for a big stick.  With that in mind, we reluctantly rescheduled, and then spent two hours calling everywhere and everyone we knew to see if maybe we'd overlooked someplace else that could haul us out.  No such luck, we were going to haul-out in Napa in July, but in retrospect, we're glad it worked out that way.
Triton up on blocks.  You can see the heavy duty railway
winch used to pull us out of the water in the foreground.

We then had to ask our friends' indulgence and cooperation in setting up the new date.  We even arranged for a Friday morning haul-out so that we could get started early and have everything set up and ready for when our hoard of friends showed up for the weekend.  As it worked out, we had a half dozen friends who volunteered to ride up with us and be there all day Friday to help us set up!  Things were looking good . . . did I mention Kirby?

When we rescheduled, we made very certain they wouldn't forget us a second time;  we called or emailed them every week or so leading up to the haul-out just to check in and remind them we were still coming.  Then, with only days to go, we were told by our favorite salesman that there had been a slight mix-up, and that they wouldn't be able to haul us on Friday morning, but it was "no big deal", we would just have to wait until Monday.   "You have got to be fucking kidding!",  I think was my initial reply, followed by "Was it something I said or do you just not want our business?!?".  They assured us that this was just an unfortunate series of events.  Apparently the only two guys who could supervise the haul-out, Mike (the yard manager), and Tom (one of the owners) had scheduled their vacations on that same Friday without telling each other, and there wouldn't be anyone there to haul us out.

We then made it very clear to Kirby that we had over thirty folks showing up this weekend, and no, we weren't going to cancel on them a second time, and yes, this was a big deal, and if need be, we would sail to San Diego.   There followed some very tense talks with Mike, the yard manager, who turned out to be a great guy to work with, very professional and who tried his best to resolve the situation.  I definitely wasn't in a good mood before I first spoke to him, but after we got off the phone I felt like we still had a chance of pulling this off.

He assured us they would work everything out.  Later on Kirby called back to say that they would haul us on Friday after all (both Mike & Tom had postponed their vacation plans for a day and agreed to come in) but that they wouldn't be able to do it until that evening.   That pissed us off, because it meant we had to turn away the folks who had offered to help us on Friday, and we'd pretty much waste the entire day just sitting at the dock waiting for the late afternoon high tide, but at this point we would take what we could get.
Make sure you time your transits during bridge hours.
We sailed up to Napa leaving Emeryville Thursday around nine in the morning, arriving at the marina around 3PM.  We had a pleasant trip, but the ride up the Napa river can be a bit tricky.  For one thing, the bridge only operates between the hours of 9AM and 7PM, so you need to take care that you time your trip appropriately.   You will also be at the mercy of the bridge operator, who delights in raising the causeway about three feet higher than your mast (which he can clearly see from his perch on the bridge, and you cannot) and then berating you for taking so long to get going.   No doubt this is an endless source of amusement for him, but it made us a bit nervous the first time it happened.  We've since come to appreciate the thrill of finding out just exactly how good our insurance really is.  One other word of advice, the currents around the bridge can move quite fast.  Make sure you have good head of speed and complete control of your vessel when going through, especially if you are running with the current.

None the less, we'd arrived safe and sound, and tied up along the utility dock and wandered in to the office.   We were now a bit gun-shy about anything Kirby promised, so we immediately checked in to see if things were still on track.  That attitude turned out to be a bit more justified than we wished.   Our friend Mike had just recently hauled, scraped and repainted his boat there had warned us that it was critical to reserve enough of their special paint grinders, which we'd made a big point of several times, both verbally and in email.   Mike had been burned because there were a limited number of them and you couldn't use your own.  Kirby had assured us that it would be no problem renting three, but when we got there, he told us that they only had one available for the entire weekend.

R2D2's ugly cousin.
We were pissed.  We had thirty people coming, but we wouldn't have any equipment for them to do the work with.  Great. Just great. At that point we were so upset that we started talking about just turning around and going home.  Surprisingly, it then turned out that there actually were other grinders available for us to rent, in fact for much of the time we had the use of four.

But to put salt in the wound we discovered (and only by a chance conversation) that they also intended on hauling us Friday morning, not in the afternoon, as Kirby has told us!!  No one had let us know that they'd changed there mind, so we'd told our friends not to show up without reason.   We were not amused.

The power distribution panel, bring your own
extension cords
From our perspective, it seemed like anything we tried to do to save time or money, Kirby found a way to hamper.   We saw that pattern repeated several times with other customers as well, but that was the only gripe we had with the marina.  Otherwise, the employees were friendly, helpful, and extremely professional, we could easily get whatever parts or supplies we needed, and we got great help and advice from Mike (the yard manager), Steve (who gave us great tips about how best to paint the hull stripes), Jeff (whom they called "the new guy" because he's only been there twenty years and told us a very useful tip about protecting the topsides, which we foolishly ignored), Kelly (who did most of our fiberglass work on our boat, was incredibly patient and knowledgeable and also an impressive artist in his own right), Cory (who worked in the marina store and would always either know the right answer or admit that she didn't) and even Kirby, who despite an unfortunate series of events, was always warm, cheerful and tried his best to help.
If you're gonna have a vice, at
least enjoy it.

[editor's note: the phrase "an unfortunate series of events" is how we came to describe any failed attempt by any customer to save time or money because of misinformation provided by Kirby.  We do not believe this was intentional, but...]

Our advice is to double check every stated claim or assumption with at least two other employees (preferably those actually responsible for providing the service or equipment) and get everything in writing.  Ultimately, we found that in this one regard, being extremely paranoid paid off.  Otherwise, we loved the place, and have since gone back to have other work done, and intend on going back again.   If you have a big cat, or trimaran, this is the place to haul in the bay area.

The marina itself is located pretty far up the Napa river.  Most of the river's waterway is quite deep, but there are a few short sections past the bridges (you go under three of them on the way up there) where the depth is less than six feet in spots and you'll need to pay close attention.   Keep your eyes on your depth gauge and study the charts carefully.  It is easy to hit the bottom and we met a few folks who had; the river has sunken boats all along it, and the bottom isn't necessary well marked or exactly what is shown on the charts!

But you are now in the land of multi-hulls.  Because they can easily haul large and unwieldy boats, you'll find a lot of them up there.   In fact, we joked that it is where trimarans go to die.  We saw hundreds of them in the yard, some that had obviously been there for years, and were rotting away.  I'm not sure why folks continue to pay rent on a boat that  is the moral equivalent of a rusted out '79 Pinto on blocks, but people do.  We also saw a lot of really cool boats in various stages of repair.  This is clearly a DIY yard where you can save a lot of money doing most of the work yourself, and rely on an expert staff when you need to.  [editor's note: DIY is pronounced "die", which is often what you will want to do after you've spent three otherwise beautiful, sunny weekends hanging upside down in your bilge breathing toxic dust, instead of just chartering someone else's boat.  But I'm not bitter.]
Kelly & Jeff lower the rail car down into the water.

To haul large catamarans the marina uses a rail car with a metal I-beam structure welded on top, which they lower down into the water and float the boat over, then pull the rail car (and the boat) up out of the water by means of a massive winch and cable system. That means the boat is dangling ten feet up in the air when you are working on it, but it also means both hulls are completely exposed and it was easy for us to get at anything on the hull that needed work.   The yard has adequate power and water available.  We would caution you that the water comes from a local well, and although we showered and washed with it, we didn't drink it.  We recommend topping off your water tanks before you go there.
AnnMarie displays the Owl Of Yurin

There are men's and women's (hot!) showers & bathrooms, but you'll need a key, which requires a $25.00USD deposit per key, and you'll need at least two keys.   One of which you will loan to one of your well-intentioned friends, who will immediately forget where they put it, then you'll waste approximately four hours looking for it.  The other key you'll use to keep from dying of peritonitis caused by a burst bladder that occurred while looking for the first key.

To prevent this "moment" from ever happening again, we created "The Owl Of Yurin", a very large plastic owl, to which we attached the "loaner" key.  Believe it or not, we still managed to lose the owl, but just not as often, and it usually didn't take as long to find it when we did.  Not surprisingly, when you really, really need to pee, it is no fun looking for a large plastic bird.  BTW, the other key we attached to the recently removed propeller, which made losing it only slightly harder. 

We can not stress how useful it was to have a relatively
clean place to sit and relax in the shade.
The other thing we did, that turned out to be a good idea (for us at least, I don't think the marina was as happy about it) was setting up a shaded rest area along side the boat.  Normally, I don't think we could have gotten away with this, as they usually have all six rail lines in operation.  As it turned out, the car next to us was in need of repair that week, so we used it's frame and a couple of their cradles to help create an awning, and placed our cooler and chairs under it.   If you are doing any boat project that is going to last more than a day or two, we strongly recommend you set up a protected area somewhere you can sit comfortably out of the sun and relax with a beer.   This is probably why so many of our friends came back to help a second time.

Each night we covered everything
in plastic tarp to keep the dew out.
The other thing to be aware of is that during the late summer you will be fogged in every morning, usually until about 10AM, and everything will be covered in dew and soggy.  We always wrapped everything in plastic tarps when we quit for the evening.   We also created a separate workbench underneath the bow of the boat, where we kept all our tools and supplies.   If I had to do this all over again, I'd recommend creating a completely enclosed space out of tarps right there, so that you always had a clean, dry, shady spot and could keep everything organized.    On any big project like this if you aren't extremely organized you are going to spend a significant amount of time wandering around looking for things.   Having a well organized area really made a difference.  Also, spending the time each evening to put everything back in place and clean up turned out to be especially important.  We can't stress that enough.

Why I had to take 2nd grade over again.        

In fact, everything I know about boat work I learned in kindergarten:

  1. Put away your toys (or tools) when you are done with them.
  2. Listen to what the teacher (or yard workers) tell you.
  3. Don't yell or bite anyone's head off, just because you're tired or hungry or didn't get your way.
  4. Take frequent naps, and drink lots of water.
  5. If you need to go to the bathroom, tell someone.  Also let them know where you left the key.
  6. Don't leave the lid off of the Elmer's glue, paint, or caulk.
  7. Don't run with scissors, or grinders, or Exacto blades.
  8. If you break something, don't blame it on AnnMarie.
  9. If you make a mess, clean up after yourself. Don't make AnnMarie do it.
  10. Don't pull down the girls pants.  Especially not AnnMarie's.  Especially if she is standing on scaffolding and holding a paint brush.

They actually didn't cover that last bit in kindergarten, I think it was at least fifth or sixth grade before anyone mentioned anything about it.

The other thing we're glad we did was set up a way to haul things up to the boat from the pavement.   To that end we strung a milk crate on a line through a pulley.  When you are that high up in the air, climbing a dew soaked ladder while holding something is a very dangerous act.  Especially when you are exhausted from boat work, and suicide seems like a good alternative to finishing the project.  
[editor's note: It shocked both of us to admit that, about 1 week into the project, the thought of serious injury did not seem as bad a fate as having to finish grinding the bottom paint off the hull.  If you are harboring these kinds of thoughts, it's best not to be standing twenty feet off the ground on a wet ladder while holding a can of acetone.]

It is far better to just throw things in the crate, climb up the ladder, then pull up your treasures.  It may also be the closest you ever come to recreating your childhood tree fort.

Also, place a pad between your ladder and the boat, and then tie the ladder securely to something solid on your boat.  The marina was kind enough to give us a great "orchard" ladder, but I wouldn't want to have relied solely on it to stay in place.   Knowing that the boat had to fall down before AnnMarie could collect on the insurance made climbing up and down far less nerve-racking.   And you will climb up and down a lot, BTW.  I think we both lost about 15lbs while we were up on the hard, and a lot of that I attribute to that fucking ladder.   By the end of the project I'd have paid double for a boat yard with an escalator.

The one big mistake we made was not following the great advice we got from Jeff (the new guy), who suggested we cover all the boat's horizontal surface with plastic, and/or wash down the boat every evening.   If you are doing any serious scraping, sanding, or grinding (or if any boat within 100 yards of you is) you'll want to protect your topsides from dust accumulating on it.  It took us about a week's worth of extra effort to wash off this grime, and we ultimately had to resort to a mixture of "On & Off" and bleach, which makes a scary strong cleaner, and is probably outlawed by the Geneva Convention's Ban on Chemical Warfare.   If you have to use this stuff, it is worth investing in one of those chemical suits your see on crime shows.

[editor's note:  My critics tell me that I need to finish with an upbeat ending, because almost everything I write usually terminates with me being dirty, smelly, exhausted, an emotionally broken man, financially destitute and miserable.  I will do my best to try to complete this entry on a positive note.]  

There is a restaurant just down the road from the marina, called The Boon Fly Cafe.   If you are stopping at Napa Valley Marina for any reason, you should go there - even if you think you aren't hungry.  They have amazingly good food, wonderful service and are one of the main reasons we survived the haul-out.   This is a top notch restaurant and we strongly recommend your try their "Green Eggs and Ham" breakfast.  It will give you new reason to live.  Trust me.  You won't be disappointed, especially if you are covered in paint dust, wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday, haven't showered in three days, aren't sure if you've got enough space left on your credit card to afford breakfast, and grumpy, which was how I began every morning.  It went downhill from there.


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