A Beautiful Day on Lake Berryessa (with the Sheriff)

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

by Peter Kilkus

The sun was bright, the air was warm, the lake was relatively flat, the boat was smooth and powerful, the ride was a delight. I’m sure that this is an experience enjoyed by many Lake Berryessa lovers over the years. But this was not a pleasure trip. I was riding along with Sergeant Jon Thompson, head of the Marine Patrol Division of the Napa County Sheriff’s Office and another deputy on a high speed run to the Putah Canyon Recreation Area launch ramp. They had just received a report of a possible domestic violence incident.

The reason I was on this ride stemmed from an expansion of the No Wake Zone in Neither Cove. (See next story.) I remember when I first saw that name on a map many years ago. The Steele Canyon Recreation Area launch ramp is on the south end, and the Spanish Flat Recreation Area launch ramp is on the north end. The cove namers decided they couldn’t designate the cove after “either” of those locations so they decided to call it “Neither” Cove. The Capell launch ramp is in the middle (west side) a short way up Capell Creek. This makes three launch ramps leading to a single narrow outlet to the main body of the lake.

Those of you who have been there will remember the high traffic levels on a busy day as boaters and jet skiers raced through the cove on the way out to the lake. Now that the water is more than 25 feet down the cove is even narrower and obstructions are coming out of the water on the west side. The lake will soon be at the 414 foot level. Once the lake reaches the 403 foot level the Bureau of Reclamation will close the Capell launch ramp as it has done in previous drought years. The closure will probably occur earlier this year (July?) since rainfall to date is the lowest in 24 years.

The Sheriff’s  Department is responsibly planning for the future and this no wake zone decision is part of that plan. As Sergeant Thomson pointed out, the number of people buying new boats due to the pandemic is skyrocketing. There are waiting lists for new boat availability and it is difficult to find used boats. Folsom Lake is going dry as is Lake Sonoma. 

Thus, the number of new, inexperienced boaters coming to Lake Berryessa will be higher than ever, putting additional launching pressure on Steele Canyon and Spanish Flat, as well as the other launch ramps. And if you are 40 years old or younger make sure you get and carry your California Boater Card or you won’t be allowed to drive your boat on Lake Berryessa.

Sergeant Thompson explained that the Marine Patrol’s objective is safety through education. The goal is not to write tickets, but they will if there is serious boater misconduct.

So with apologies to Gilligan’s Island how was my 3-hour tour?

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from Steele Canyon’s ramp
Aboard this very cool ship.

The mate was a mighty deputy,
The Sergeant brave and sure.
The Lake Berryessa News set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

Enough singing - what actually happened? (Spoiler Alert: We all made it back safely.)

When I arrived at the Steele Canyon launch ramp I noticed a boat out in the middle of the cove doing white wake acrobatics. They apparently were ignorant of or ignoring the new No Wake zone. There was no notice of the new no wake zone at the launch ramp. As I watched the Sheriff’s boat coming to pick me up, it stopped and confronted the subject boat. After a few minutes both boats moved to the shoreline. 

About fifteen minutes later the Sheriff’s boat finally came to pick me up. Sergeant Thompson explained that they had just made a DUI stop and that one of the passengers had injured his arm. We motored back to the subject boat, hooked it up to our boat, and towed it back to the Capell launch ramp (which only took a few minutes). In the interim the Capell Valley Volunteer Fire Department and local CalFire resources had been notified and were waiting for us at the ramp to attend to the injured person and pull the boat out of the water. We stayed around long enough to see that all was under control and left the scene.

At the same time the Sheriff received a call about a possible domestic violence incident at the Putah Canyon Recreation Area launch ramp which led to our high speed trip to the north end of the lake. When we arrived we found a young woman curled up at the end of one of the launch ramp loading docks. Sergeant Thompson attempted to revive her, but she was apparently too inebriated to respond. 

A few minutes later a Sheriff’s SUV and the same CalFire truck we had just left at the Capell launch arrived and the EMT personnel began checking the woman’s vital signs. Finally she was carried off the ramp up to the shade of the CalFire truck crying and screaming as if in pain. After several more minutes an ambulance arrived and she was transferred.

I had been asked to remain in the Sheriff’s boat, ostensibly to protect it from pirate attack, but the activity I witnessed was very impressive. About eight dedicated, trained professionals going about their duties in a calm efficient manner to assist a person in need. I didn't take any photos that day, although a picture of the Sheriffs, CalFire EMTs, ambulance personnel and their vehicles responding to a young lady in distress at the Putah Canyon launch ramp would have been a story in itself.

And remember, all this action took place within a three hour period (3PM - 6PM) on a Wednesday afternoon with almost no boats out on the lake. Imagine a busy Saturday. It was a privilege to ride with the Marine Patrol. More stories to come.

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New No Wake Zone - No Big Deal

Will this become the new wind protected area for families previously provided by the Big Island Lagoon or will it replace the Pope Cfreek Bridge party cove? Time will tell, 


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Additional travel times from old wake zone buoy lines to the new single buoy line.

Steele Canyon added distance to new buoy line = 3,000 feet

Spanish Flat added distance to new buoy line = 2,000 feet

Capell Launch to new buoy line = 5,000 feet

5MPH = 440 feet per minute

Additional time for the trip:

Spanish Flat = 2,000/440 = 4.5 minutes

Steele Canyon = 3,000/440 = 6.8 minutes

Capell Launch = 5,000/440 = 11.4 minutes

Aboe is a diagram of the new zones and an estimate as to how much additional time is needed to reach the open lake at 5MPH from the old zones. Some people go less than 5MPH. But none of the new travel times seem to be very onerous.

5MPH = No Wake. No Wake= 5MPH.

In doing my research on laws and ordinances applicable to Lake Berryessa I discovered something I had not known. Most of us thought there was some small difference between a "No Wake" zone and a "5MPH" zone. By law, there is not. See Napa County ordinance below.

"No Wake" wins. So don't try to go faster than 5MPH even if your sleek hull creates no wake. The speed limit wins. And watch out if your funky old boat is going less than 5MPH and creates a wake. You're guilty!

How slow can you go? How big a ripple behind you can be defined as a "wake"? How can anyone even define what "No Wake" legally means? Just be patient, relax, go slow. You'll get there eventually.

Napa County Code of Ordinances, Chapter 12.08 - Berryessa Lake And Park Area.

12.08.040 - Boats and other vessels—Operation restrictions.

C. No person shall operate a motorboat or other vessel at a speed in excess of five miles per hour in any area marked with a buoy bearing the words "5 miles per hour" OR bearing the words "No Wake."

"5 MILES AN HOUR" SHALL BE INTERPRETED TO MEAN CREATING "NO WAKE".

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pKilkus@gmail.com                       © Peter Kilkus 2021