The Delta is a flat world where Mount Diablo, to the southwest, is the only consistent landmark. Its channels range from verdant jungle rivers to glorified irrigation ditches. The Sacramento River channel, where we began our first full day of Delta exploration, is a rock-lined cut where we exchanged waves with fertilizer-truck drivers as they blew by at 60mph. Later we anchored in Sycamore Slough in a keyhole of water surrounded by rock levees. It felt like a carnival boat ride where, yes, you were actually floating, but in an obviously artificial tank of water with the asphalt just a step away. The interiors of the islands have sunk over the years as the swamps have dried, so the fields surrounding the channels are often a full 30 feet below sea level. The tide was high, and we could see over the levees and down to vast cornfields. “I can’t believe we’re connected to the Pacific Ocean right now,” Alison said.
After another day of motoring through some of the bleaker ditches, I called my dad. “Hey Dad, when we cruised up here when we were kids, where did we go? All we see are rock levees and I remember lots of trees and greenery from back then.”
“You circumnavigated and you’re asking me how to find your way around the Delta?”
We bounced a few names around, and with a little poking about (and my dad poking fun at me for weeks afterward) we found more of what we were looking for. The verdant Georgiana Slough is so overgrown with valley oaks, cottonwoods, and blackberry vines that it felt like cruising upriver aboard the African Queen. Most of the San Joaquin River and its surrounds are also overgrown and natural.
The Delta is a playground for all sorts of people. Bass fishermen will kill their 200 hp outboards to skirt the reeds with electric trolling motors and cast dry flies. The PWC and wakeboarding crowd comes out in force on the weekends, but tends to stay out of the quiet anchorages and everyone seems to get along. Occasionally a giant ship will ghost through the middle of everything, since the Sacramento and San Joaquin deep-water channels go all the way to Sacramento and Stockton respectively.
There are thousands of anchorages and every cruiser has a favorite one. The well-heeled from San Francisco’s St. Francis Yacht Club have their satellite facility at Tinsley Island. Other yacht clubs, ranging from full-service to creaky waterfront bars, dot the shoreline, but for most sailors the Delta is a place to find a quiet place to drop the hook and warm your bones. And it seems to be the place where old boats go to die. Boats that wouldn’t be deemed seaworthy elsewhere seem to have long lives in the Delta, where the biggest wave they’ll ever encounter is a boat wake, and if they sink out from under their owners it will be in 15 feet of water and within spitting distance from the nearest levee.
Looking for Green
After a romantic five days, our friends Elias and Eddie drove out from San Francisco and we picked them up at the Tiki Lagun Marina. Occasionally levees break and the islands flood. In two cases the authorities just gave up and left them flooded, creating two vast “lakes,” Frank’s Track and Mildred Island. At Mildred Island we found Five Fingers, and a flood of childhood memories rushed over me just as we ran aground. Apparently it had silted up over the thirty years since my last visit.
We fired up the barbeque to begin the weekend’s festivities, and after that, each morning began with a leap over the side, my first in over a year without first donning a 5mm wetsuit. The banks were heavy with ripe blackberries, so on our last day together, we filled a bowl in minutes and made a blackberry pie. After a week in fresh water, all the growth on Condesa’s bottom died and fell off, an unanticipated boon since my bottom paint is a bit long in the tooth.
Elias and Alison drove back on Sunday night, leaving Eddie and me to make the long slog back to San Francisco. We spent another night anchored at Mildred Island, awoke to a cold morning that made mist rise off the water, and raised anchor. The free ride we had on the way out now had to be paid for with a long motor against the prevailing winds. We ended up on the wrong side of an incoming tide, waited it out a few hours at anchor, and got underway again at the slack tide. Layer upon layer went on over our bathing suits, until we found ourselves sailing across San Francisco Bay in 20 knots of wind, once again bundled in watch caps, boots and foul-weather gear. We tied Condesa up in her berth in downtown San Francisco and could barely see the end of the dock for the fog. Home again.