Delta Dreaming

2 Aug

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I feel like the Schultes or Amy Schaefer, but I’ve got a kid, so now I’m writing about cruising with kids too:
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The first trick is you’ve got to bring one of these things, a Jumparoo:
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It guarantees at least two hours per day of uninterrupted relaxation time, while he just bounces away. We got some strange looks from other boats, and some have questioned the safety of such an apparatus aboard a boat. To them I say ha, you obviously didn’t see this:
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And of course there were the requisite baths in the galley sink, notable moments for me in the succession of sailing generations:
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For those unfamiliar with it, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is over a thousand miles of waterways, which are at least twenty degrees warmer, in both air and water temperature, than nearby San Francisco.

In the delta you run aground a lot.

Running aground in the delta is almost a sport, but some don’t have as much fun with it as I do. Some sailing friends made their first foray to the delta a few years ago, and motored back that night, declaring it was no place for sailors. In my estimation the worst thing that could happen to you out there is to end up against one of the rock levees in a good wind and chop. Even in this case you probably couldn’t ever lose your boat, although it would get all banged up. If you did lose your boat, you could just step onto the levee as it was going down. I just can’t envision too many life-threatening situations out there. In contrast, any grounding in say, the Tuamotus, is immediately life-threatening.

Most groundings in the delta are soft, although there are a few fallen trees (I hit one this time, twice, coming and going). Most of the time you can just reverse off, sometimes you’ll need to kedge, and sometimes you’ll be truly stuck until the turn of the tide. None of this scares me in the least, so I pilot my boat like a maniac out there, but my boat is full keel and balances herself nicely on the hard. I’d say we touched bottom 30-40 times, reversed out of being stuck another twenty times, had to rock the boat or redistribute weight to get the boat unstuck another couple of times, and got truly stuck, as in for hours, three times.

Here’s the best of them. This was after a lovely night at anchor, then noticing, “Hey, I think we’re aground. Yep, sure are. Oops, the tide is going out. We’re going to be here a few hours.”:
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By the way, that anchorage was in sight of Interstate 5:
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I think the next place to the south where you can reach I5 by water is Mission Bay in San Diego, and I think the next place to the north is the Columbia River, on the Oregon/Washington border. We couldn’t hear the traffic, but the flashing lights of a truck stop made for a curious riddle one night.

One night we swung into the trees just after dinner. I thought it would be romantic to spend the night in an arboreal ecosystem, but our weekend guests said the branches rubbing against the side of the hull all night sounded like a badly-tuned cello and kept them up:
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I’d heard The Meadows was one of the highlights of the delta, so we tried to explore it with some friends who’d driven out from San Francisco for the day with their baby boy, who is the same age as ours. We turned a corner into what looked like the heart of The Meadows to see houseboats lined up in either direction, a couple dozen, at least. Most looked like they’d staked their claim for the season, or at least the week, and had floating pontoons, ski boats, and all matter of water toys. We, not to be outdone, had four adults, two babies, and the aforementioned Jumparoo on the aft deck.

We idled along the row of houseboats, waving mutual understanding (it was about cocktail hour, or rather, it’s always cocktail hour in the delta) when I saw the depthsounder go from skinny water to no water. I threw it in reverse and gunned it, to be met with a horrible crash that rocked the boat. This was not a rock that I’d hit. This was the dinghy, which I’d forgotten we’d been towing, being pulled by its painter into Condesa’s propeller. Like, the dinghy was four feet under water. The engine died, of course, and we were adrift. I ran up and dropped the anchor, with an audience of about 100 scrutinizing my seamanship, or lack thereof.

To digress, I once wrote an article for SAIL called Inflatable Nirvana, in which I enumerated all my favorite dinghy tricks, one of which was to put a float in the middle of your painter, to prevent precisely this from happening. Here is the photo from that article:
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In the intervening years those floats became sunbaked and brittle and broke off. And that nice new painter has now been hacked off the prop shaft with a bread knife, by me, to the cheers of a hundred houseboaters when the dinghy leapt out of the water, bruised but not broken.

The houseboaters offered lots of help and encouragement, and instead of pretending like I knew where I was going I asked them about water depths and a possible anchorage. We tried, but soon touched bottom again, and we limped out the slough we came in on. Not my finest hour.

We ate, drank, explored, and ran aground for a full twelve days. Our dog Lola is in heaven out there:
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Alison likes it too:
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As is now our tradition, we stopped for the night in Benicia on the way back and ate oysters at Sailor Jack’s. Before, with the dog, they put us out on the patio. Now, with the dog and the baby, the tuck us away in this secret outdoor alcove we never knew they had, far from all other customers.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Clark Beek

    Thanks one an all! Mike, we’re going to be neighbors soon. Amy, we ran out of water on the last day, and my watermaker has been dead for four years. I’ve gone soft and didn’t scold everyone when the let the water run or washed babies.

  2. Behan

    The jumparoo is key! We used to hang a similar contraption (I think it was called the Johnny Jump Up?) over the boom. Bought precious time for the parents…

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