March 1, 2004
By Alton K. Marsh
San Francisco — you know the area well and have done it all, right? Have you taken a seaplane tour yet? Didn't think so. Seaplanes still fly over San Francisco just as they did 60 years ago, thanks to San Francisco Seaplane Tours. During a recent trip I toured the usual attractions but had seen them all before. I was looking for something new and happened on it by accident.
I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and toured the Muir Woods National Monument to see the giant redwood trees and other spectacular scenery that was spared when loggers found it too difficult to reach in the late 1800s. A congressman bought it in 1905 and gave the land to the federal government. President Theodore Roosevelt declared it the nation's seventh national monument in 1908. Twenty minutes before I reached the Golden Gate I had been on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and noticed the car rocking from the Paso Robles earthquake (on December 22, 2003).
After that it was a short drive down to Muir Beach, a circular cove with a beautiful view of the California coastline. Both the beach and the woods — packed full of visitors from the United States, Japan, and Germany on the day I was there — are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. That was my second visit and as beautiful as the area is, I had been there, done that, and was a little listless. I needed something to capture my imagination.
Pulling onto Highway 101 for the return to the Golden Gate Bridge I spotted a huge sign in the Sausalito area advertising seaplane tours, and pulled off 101 at the next exit: I had never done that before.
At San Francisco Seaplane Tours (it also operates tours from Pier 39 in the Fisherman's Wharf area) Group Sales Manager Jamie Williams gave me the overview of the 30-minute $129 tour: Muir Woods, the Golden Gate, downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Angel Island — an immigrant point of entry for 30 years starting in 1910 — and the fabulous homes overlooking the bay. (One reportedly is for sale by a well-known tennis star for $24 million.)
Sausalito is located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, on the southeastern tip of Marin County. Sausalito was incorporated in 1893 and named by eighteenth-century Spanish explorers for the "little willow" (Sausalito) trees found on the banks of its streams. Sausalito covers two and one-half miles and has 7,500 residents. San Francisco International Airport is 22 miles away.
But still...$129. I wasn't sure. Then I went out to the dock to look at the airplane, a single-engine de Havilland Beaver, and was sold. San Francisco Seaplane Tours owner Steve Price joined me on the dock to answer any questions I might have. He had learned the business was for sale during an AOPA Expo in Las Vegas many years ago and bought the company in 1993 from San Francisco Chronicle photographer and pilot Pete Breinig and TWA pilot Don Wallace. Price's wife, Muriel, a flight instructor at one time, manned the booth at Pier 39 in those early days. Tours now operate from Pier 39 from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. in the winter and until 3:30 p.m. in the summer. They operate from Sausalito when there is too much boat chop on the bay. A 40-minute evening Champagne Flight operates from Sausalito and costs $169.
To be honest it was the fact that the Beaver was sitting in the mud at low tide, firmly planted in two wet tracks that led hundreds of feet to navigable water, that finally cinched the deal — and Price still finds that a little odd. I had to see how a floatplane would get to the water through all that mud.
Quite well, it turns out. Pilot Charlie Clotere arrived in the Beaver in the afternoon and, along with two customers in the back, showed me how it was done. There was no particular strain either on the engine or the floats. He had to be careful to line up in the same tracks he used going out, and that is no easy task given that the tracks lie under water for the first part of the run to the dock. (At high tide there is no problem, of course, and the aircraft taxis to the dock normally.)
Clotere is a veteran seaplane tour pilot and has been with the present company through several name changes since 1971. Today the company also flies charter trips to Lake Tahoe and Clear Lake, a one-hour flight north of San Francisco near Lakeport. He estimates he has 6,000 hours of seaplane time and 10,000 hours total flying time. Clotere said the company started in 1947 using Piaggio Royal Gull aircraft, a twin-engine pusher-prop seaplane (see " Piaggio Royal Gull: Sky-Wide and Handsome," August 2000 Pilot). He was a Bay Area native and a sailor when he became hooked on seaplanes.
Ask for the front seat if you are in the company's Beaver (as opposed to its Cessna 180 on floats) because the window can be lowered for better photographs. The seaplane tour proved a welcome break and was all I talked about for weeks.
Like to try it yourself? You can earn a seaplane rating in the company's Cessna 180 in a very short time. Lessons cost $260 an hour, and ground instruction is $45 an hour. You'll need about eight hours of each for a seaplane rating.
Lunch had been at Horizons (415/331-3232), a great restaurant in downtown Sausalito, after I discovered that the famous Scoma's of Sausalito (415/332-9551), located on a dock overlooking the water like Horizons, was closed for the holidays. Those are great restaurants, favorites of tourists and locals alike.
As I departed the seaplane company's headquarters to return to my hotel in Oakland, I needed to join Highway 101. You can't do that without going past the Buckeye Roadhouse (415/331-2600), also located in Sausalito (actually, the proper mail address is Mill Valley, California). The feast was on: Somehow I can't remember the main course, but the dessert was ginger cake with a chocolate ganache (nothing but chocolate and cream) hidden inside. All that was covered by homebrew chocolate fudge syrup. It was a surprise — I was on the cell phone when the waiter asked what I wanted for dessert, and so I said, "You decide." About 10,000 calories later I was well pleased with the choice.
The Buckeye Roadhouse was cofounded by Cindy Pawlcyn who helped found Mustard's Grill near Napa, located less than two hours from Sausalito assuming it isn't rush hour in San Francisco. She has put all her secrets in-to the Mustard's Grill Cookbook: Truck Stop Deluxe in Napa Valley, available for $24 from Amazon.com.
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