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At Play on the Bay 

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
When it comes to summertime, this East Coast transplant gets nostalgic for beach culture -- warm evenings in halter tops and shorts, dining on lobster tails and fried clams, and frolicking in the surf on the beaches of Cape Cod.

And while people actually swim in the San Francisco Bay, being numb from the waist down in 20-knot winds is not my idea of rockin' good summer fun.

There are, however, ways to enjoy the bay without freezing your ass off. From quirky, industrial tugboat tours to romantic clipper ship cruises, the best way to experience the bay in summer is to be not in it but on it.

The two-day, two-night maritime history tour aboard the tugboat Robert Gray is truly unique, allowing access to the working bay, past and present.

This cruise, aboard a 120-foot, vintage 1936 tugboat, eschews laps around touristy spots like Alcatraz and Angel Island for grittier sites such as the "mothball fleet," a naval graveyard in Benicia where a hundred ships (tugs, tankers, barges and battleships) have reached their final destination. Some of the ships are headed for the scrap yard, while others are used for parts or turned into museums. The Gray anchors overnight next to ghostly gray hulls that reach heights of 50 feet, saddled together in row after row.

The tour disembarks on Mare Island, a shipyard that once housed and maintained the Pacific fleet. Atomic submarines were built here, and the vast shipyards and neighborhoods lay as vacant as though a hydrogen bomb had gone off. Marvel at the irony of the landscaped Weapons Park and the unexpected gem of the29 Tiffany glass windows in St. Peter's, the country's oldest naval chapel.

Docking beneath the flight deck of the massive USS Hornet aircraft carrier is a formidable and unforgettable experience. Guests can board and tour the engine room and traffic control tower. Films are screened in the ship's theater.

Other highlights include the Bay Model in Sausalito, Rosie the Riveter Park in Richmond, and American Navigation, a working tugboat company in Oakland where tour guests can board and explore new and old tugs.

This cruise isn't all heavy metal though. Gourmet meals include homemade cranberry nut scones, thick-cut bacon, and made-to-order omelets for breakfast. Dinners such as grilled salmon, New England clam chowder, and roasted red peppers with lemon basil-infused olive oil are prepared in a spacious galley or out on the aft deck's grill.

Between meals and stops, guests can visit the captain in the wheelhouse, pester the mate for a sea chantey, or lounge in the salon with a cocktail. The cozy cabins are furnished with comfortable bunks, double beds, writing desks, and sinks.

In addition to maritime history tours, the Robert Gray hosts "foodie" tours featuring cooking demos and workshops with professional chefs, premium wine tastings, and visits to wineries, organic farms, and specialty shops. Summer charter trips to Alaska's Inside Passage are also on tap.

For the romance and charm of an old-world sailing craft, take a bay excursion on the Hawaiian Chieftain or one of the tall ships owned by Rendezvous Charters. The square-rigged Brigantine Rendezvous and the Bay Lady bring out the inner swashbuckler; the Chieftain is a replica of a turn-of-the-century European merchant ship like ones that sailed the Baltic Sea. The Rendezvous looks like a Gold Coast clipper ship with its 80-foot masts, velvet-cushioned staterooms, and carved mahogany and rosewood accents. The stately Bay Lady was fashioned after Maine coastal schooners, and her salon is a beautiful combination of cherry and alder hardwoods.

Sunday brunch cruises and sunset sails are available on all three boats, and the Chieftain offers a Saturday adventure sail -- a four-hour interactive sail during which guests can lend a hand with the lines, take the helm, and try their hand at tying nautical knots.

A buffet-style brunch on the Chieftain includes mini quiches, vegetable crudités, sliced roast beef, pastries, beer, champagne, and live music from bands like The Hip Bones, and Eugene Higgins & Friends. Brunch on the Rendezvous ships starts properly with a mimosa and is served before leaving the dock.

Adventure junkies have a number of options for en- joying the bay. Come Sailing, a company that arranges various yacht and sailboat cruises, offers a team development program where guests get a thorough briefing, then set sail themselves -- navigating, steering, and setting and trimming the sails of a 35- to 45-foot sailboat. Don't worry if it seems like your rookie crewmate is heading into the path of an oncoming freighter -- there's a licensed captain on board to take over. Although this program attracts mainly business and corporate groups, it's also a fun way to spend the day with friends.

Sea Trek in Sausalito is a sea-kayaking outfit that provides instruction, rentals, and a variety of exciting trips. The romantic full-moon paddle, an Angel Island overnight adventure, or a more advanced coastal trip from Muir Beach under the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito are among those offered. Custom tours can be arranged, and there are lots of options for kids and families. Sea Trek also organizes an annual regatta that attracts more than 200 kayakers to paddle the bay.

Serious thrill seekers can get a fix with an aquagliding trip offered by the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center. A special hang glider is fitted with pontoons and has a powering system that allows for taking off and landing on the water. Flights are 25 to 30 minutes long and include a video.

For pure luxury and style, try the Camelot and the Voyager, two motor yachts owned by Compass Rose Yacht Charters. Picture Jackie O., hair swept back in a white scarf, signature shades on, lounging on the deck somewhere in the Greek Isles, and you get the idea.

Camelot's handsome mahogany-paneled salon is appointed with European tapestries, chintz sofas, Stiffel lamps, crystal dishes, and a sterling-silver tea set. Slightly larger, the Voyager has a hardwood dance floor, spacious formal dining salon, and a flybridge that seats 30. The polished interior of these vessels and the gracious, professional crew impart the easy elegance of cruising aboard a private yacht. Both are available to charter for weddings, parties, and other events, and an extensive gourmet menu is offered.

It will take some serious global warming before I could bear to swim at Baker Beach sans wet suit, but there are a few advantages to summer in San Francisco -- no humidity, no mosquitoes, and plenty of ways to get out and enjoy the bay.

Lisa Crovo is a writer and editor in San Francisco

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Lisa Crovo


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