Special to The Bee

Water-sport fans, take heart: The sea won’t go dry despite the drought. Access to the ocean can begin with San Francisco Bay, essentially a long tongue of the ocean.

A new and growing “water trail” system is devoted to providing recreational access to the bay’s rippling blue expanse of 470 square miles.

Current sites along the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail range from Suisun City to the new Tidewater Boating Center at the south end of the Oakland Estuary to Alviso Marina County Park in the South Bay, McNear’s Beach County Park in Marin and even a Main Street boat dock on the river in downtown Napa. And there are more to come.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

“When an opportunity arose to get two units of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail designated on our waterfront, we leaped on it,” says Suzanne Bragdon, the Suisun City harbor master and city manager. “We want people to see us as a recreation and vacation destination.”

Suisun, now the nearest outpost of the Bay Area Water Trail to Sacramento, offers a visitors dock next to a hotel and restaurants on the north side of Suisun Slough, and launch ramps and guest slips at a marina on the south side. Bragdon says both fit nicely into a sparkling redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, a $60 million project decades in the making. Fans of power craft, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes, dragon boats, Jet Skis, rowboats and the latest craze of SUPs (stand-up paddle boards) all have a close and choice spot to ply their craft just a 45-mile drive from Sacramento, or a 40-minute ride via Capitol Corridor rail.

“The water trail was a fabulous idea to get people out on the water,” Bragdon says. “We’re happy to participate.”

A band of ardent kayakers in San Francisco waterfront bars and bistros schemed in 2001 to improve their ability to use the bay, not just for day outings but also for overnight camping and multiday jaunts. These informal gabfests gave birth to a nonprofit organization dubbed Bay Access, which identified 135 sites that might be utilized.

Some of those sites were existing marinas and launch ramps that could be improved to accommodate nonmotorized small boats; some were informal access spots hallowed by use; some were just gleams in the eyes of navigators who saw no easy way to get from Point A to Point C unless some type of Point B happened to be established.

“It’s been a long slog, much longer than I thought it would be, to get this project up and rolling,” says Penny Wells, an early member of Bay Access and its current president. “After all our surveys and research, we had our lawyer members write a law to establish it, then lobbied to get it through the Legislature in 2005.”

Because the bay’s shoreline properties were held in so many different hands – state and county and regional parks, federal and state wildlife agencies, cities and private parties – an umbrella authorization was a preferred method to get them to operate in unison. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission took the initial lead on feasibility and environmental studies as well as planning. Then the State Coastal Conservancy served as lead agency for getting the project’s environmental information regulations accomplished. Other collaborators included the Association of Bay Area Governments and the state’s Division of Boating and Waterways.

Ann Buell has been a water trail project manager at the conservancy for the past 10 years. “Participation in the trail is entirely voluntary,” Buell says, “whether it’s an agency or an individual site owner.

“We’ve got 10 sites formally signed and designated now, and we’re in a good position to begin expanding much more rapidly. It’s all very exciting,” says Buell.

The plan is to fill in facilities between the existing sites like adding spokes to a bicycle wheel. Buell says around 110 sites will likely be available at full build-out.

Proponents hope to integrate the shoreline access with The San Francisco Bay Trail, a 500-mile walking and cycling route that has 340 linear miles already finished. That plus the outer ring of the 550-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail at higher elevations (with 330 miles built) could produce a sizable recreational synergy as these three huge activity loops grow toward completion. Visualize paddling or sailing for a day, hiking for a few more days and then relaunching your craft to top off a journey.

One of the hardest nuts to crack on the water trail system has been establishing overnight accommodations. For years, the only legal and easily accessed lodging sites on the water trail route were camps at the state park on Angel Island and just outside the Golden Gate at Kirby Cove, in the national recreation area. But recently, the East Bay Regional Parks District put in a camp at Point Pinole, and Marin County has permitted some group camping at McNear’s and Paradise Beach. Buell says that fresh options may open up soon at Candlestick Point State Park in San Francisco and Hudeman Slough in Sonoma County.

Other options under consideration include persuading shoreline inns and hotels to provide shuttles and boat storage, and perhaps invoking the new “sharing” economy by locating Airbnb-like rentals on houseboats and yachts that are moored in marinas.

There was a brief spate of objections to the water trail from members of the Audubon Society, who thought encouraging small-boat traffic might lead to wholesale disruption of wildlife – such as basking harbor seals and rafting waterbirds. However, Buell says, these complaints were answered by mandating new signage at all official sites to explain how to preserve distance buffers between humans and animals while traveling. Since the sites were already in use, the hope is that educating users will minimize or eliminate problems.

From a pipe dream of a handful of kayakers, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail has grown into a robust project that’s already outlived some of its initial visionaries. The torch is still being passed, with Buell planning her retirement from the conservancy. New personnel will take up water trail chores there and at ABAG. But, Buell says, she feels sanguine about the potent legacy left in place.

“The water trail will meet a real need for people to get out and enjoy the largest natural area in the bay,” she says, “which, of course, are those bay waters themselves.

“And it’s not just a system for the water sports elite. I don’t own a boat; I can’t even lift a boat. But there are plenty of groups that can and will assist and teach newcomers. I’ve taken trips with outrigger canoe clubs in Benecia and Alameda, and the people were all very friendly and welcoming. And with our focus on making sites quite accessible, the water trail can also be useful to retired folks and even the elderly. Getting out on the bay and learning new ways to exercise and appreciate nature is a very healthy thing to do.”

Wells illustrates this point rather well. Now 71, she reckons she’s paddled all over the bay for 30 years. It’s kept her fit as well as alert to the chance for more adventures. Soon she plans to take a break from her work with Bay Access and trot her bay-honed skills up to Alaska for a fresh bout of shoreline exploration.

Wells says her feelings about her kayak paddle are not unlike Charlton Heston’s attitude toward his flintlock rifle: It will take a maximum effort by the universe to pry it from her hands.


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