ss cabrillo

Here's what is left of the SS Cabrillo outside Napa.

Commodore Jennifer Hite of Long Beach Women’s Sailing Association announced the group will be hosting their monthly Zoom meeting on Feb. 16. Their website states they were founded to foster the love and art of sailing and the group encourages women of all skill levels to join.

In addition to Hite, the LBWSA flag officers are: Vice Commodore — LaMisha Rochelle, Rear Commodore — Yvonne Summers, Fleet Captain — Angela Arvanitis, Treasurer — Jo Russell and Judge Advocate — Holly Scott.

For the Zoom presentation, she asked me to share some local sailing history. My thoughts went to the number of vessels that have ferried passengers to Catalina over the years.

Many of us remember the SS Catalina and when she sank in Ensenada harbor in 1997, and prior to that the SS Avalon that caught fire and burned in 1960.

There were two wooden steamers that started shuttling passengers in the “pre-Wrigley” days, when the Banning family-owned Catalina — the SS Hermosa II and SS Cabrillo.

Hermosa burned at sea in Costa Rica in 1935. That left the “Queen of the South Coast,” SS Cabrillo, a 194-foot steamship that carried passengers to Catalina Island beginning with its launching in 1904 until the early 1940s.

According to maritime historian Shawn Dake, the SS Cabrillo had a crew of 59, a Japanese teakwood deck and grand staircase, grained Honduras paneling, a tier-glassed mahogany bar, elegant restaurant and 10 private staterooms. She made the Catalina run in slightly less than two hours.

A Napa Register article in 1969 said the ship “had served as a neat dodge from nationwide prohibition laws,” and movie stars such as Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin “took their swill" aboard the Cabrillo. “One old wag,” added the newspaper, “recalled an evening’s frivolities, which were capped by a guest chasing a nude young lady across the weather decks with a squirting champagne bottle aimed at strategic portions of her anatomy.”

After her Catalina gig, she went into war service carrying troops to and from San Francisco, Oakland and Camp Stoneman on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta until war’s end.

At that point, the 44-year-old steamship was deemed too old and obsolete for further military and passenger use, was laid up in the Bay Area for several years, and in 1951 purchased to become a small motel, bar and restaurant.

She was towed to Cuttings Wharf from Oakland, and sat waiting for a never-granted liquor license. I checked the location on Google Earth and could clearly see the outline of a ship. As fast as you can say abandoned old ship, my road trip pal Beth Murray and I were heading to the wharf in Napa.

We found what remained of a triple-decked wooden ship, stretching more than half the length of a football field. She was sitting deep in mud with her hull full of tule reeds. Over the years, pieces have been sold off, stolen or disintegrated with age. All that was left of the grand lady was a fragment of her hull.

While we were in Napa, just a few miles down the road is the town of Calistoga, where fast food franchises are banned by municipal code. I knew then these citizens were serious when it came to the food they paired with their famous wines. In addition to wine, the area is a draw because of natural hot springs.

According to Eden Umble, hospitality and marketing director of the Brannan Cottage Inn. “In 1862, Calistoga’s founder Sam Brannan boasted, "I'll make this place the Saratoga of California," but it came out "the Calistoga of Sarifornia”.

These days, the town is buzzing with news that there will be a new high end Italian Restaurant opening called Michael’s. Long Beach restaurateur Carl Dene recently acquired Brannan Cottage Inn and the adjoining Sam’s General Store. To locals' delight, he has painstakingly restored the property.

Dene said he is planning to open a Michael’s in downtown Calistoga with a small hotel above the restaurant. That gives all of us a reason to visit wine country — other than searching for deserted old ships.

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