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Winehaven

It was unusually nice outside this weekend, like in the low 70s, so I took the drone out yesterday in search of a new place to fly. I ended up in a weird little area called Winehaven.

Flying drones is tough out here. You have to find a wide open area (rare) that isn’t a state or federal park or protected area, a county park, a regional park, or a city park that’s particularly paranoid about drones. Then you need to be in uncontrolled airspace, not near an airport. And then you need to not be around people. There are message boards to scour through, but it’s mostly a lot of detective work.

Winehaven (here) is a weird little protuberance in Richmond, right before you hit the Richmond bridge on the way to Marin. All I really knew was there’s a small park named Point Molate right on the water, and it’s in redevelopment hell, so it’s not part of the regional park system. I read up more on this later — it used to be the world’s largest winery, from right after the big earthquake (1907) until prohibition. The main building at Winehaven is a giant castle, which is bizarre. Also lots of other small worker’s houses pepper the area, all boarded up and fenced off now.

Winehaven went bankrupt during prohibition and sat unused until the Navy scooped it up and turned it into the Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot. From the start of WWII up until the late 90s, they ran a big tank farm on the top of the hill. The castle building became either fuel barrel storage or a barracks (not sure which) and there was a small village of cottages for officers, which still stands but is a ghost town. (See this article for some great pictures.)

Like most BRACed military land around the bay, Winehaven and Point Molate has gone through the usual development rumors and attempts and failures. As expected, the Navy dumped anything and everything into the groundwater and kicked the can on later remediation. The Pomo Indians wanted to build a multi-billion dollar casino there, and spent a decade in the court system before it was stopped. (I’m simplifying this; the history is more involved. Don’t sue me, wikipedia is your friend, etc.) In 2019, stuff started moving again with SunCal to redevelop the area. The usual catch phrases were thrown around: adaptive reuse, live/work space, pedestrian-friendly, open space areas, mixed-use retail, blah blah blah. Not the best time to start work on this, but maybe they’ll do something in the next economic cycle.

Anyway. Drove out to the Point Molate beach park, and it was 200% full, some super-spreader event going on and no parking whatsoever. I decided to drive around just to see what else was up, and found the castle and the ghost village. About a mile past that, I found a bunch of dirt turn-offs where fishermen usually park to fish the shore there, but only one guy was out that day.

I made my first mistake by taking off from the dirt. Once I got over the water, I started getting gimbal errors and the drone was violently shaking, or looked like it was. I immediately returned, and after a very panicked landing, I took a look at the gimbal and camera. The gimbal is the motorized thing in the nose that holds the camera and can rotate, turn, and raise/lower in three dimensions. It’s a very touchy piece of precision mechanics, and it looked like when I took off on the dirt, some sand went into the gimbal. I blew it out and very carefully rotated it by hand, and that was definitely the problem.

Round two, and I mostly flew over the water. The former tank farm, now a fenced-off remediation dirt pile, was behind me. I wasn’t terribly interested in exploring that, because I wasn’t sure of the power line situation. (Those kind of construction sites are notorious for temporary power lines in odd locations that aren’t on Google Maps.) That little bay is framed by the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on the horizon, the castle further down the coast, and some bits of ruined pier. I wish I would have hiked further south, past the castle, because there are a few shipwrecks down there.

Aside from my nervousness about the gimbal and flying over water, this was the first time I’d flown with any amount of wind. It was mostly still, but I’d get occasional 5-10 mph gusts coming in toward the shore. The Mavic Air 2 is more powerful than some base-level drones, and it’s constantly auto-adjusting the four props to keep it steady, but there were times it got a bit wobbly, which scared me. It was also the afternoon, so I had the sun to the west and in my eyes, and bringing the drone above about 40 feet made it vanish into the sun, which wasn’t great.

I did some speed runs across the bay, which was fun. Got some nice camera footage zooming over the water towards the shore at an altitude of twenty or thirty feet for that Miami Vice intro look. The MA 2 has a top horizontal speed of about 42 MPH in sport mode, which is three or four times faster than the toy drones you get at the mall. I had it locked in normal mode, which is capped at 12 m/s, or about 26 MPH, which was still fun.

Here’s my shot of the castle. I didn’t get too close, so I’m going to have to go back soon, maybe either in the early morning when the sun’s behind it, or catch it during the golden hour, if I can ever time that.