Our first winter aboard, adios Fatty Knees, and Delta cruise

We were a bit unsure how it would go but we got through our first winter aboard without any real hardship. We went through a couple different tarp variations trying to keep the cockpit dry and we tried a few different electric space heaters before we found one we liked but overall it wasn’t too difficult. The winters here are milder than in Oregon and there is less rain so that definitely made a difference. In the spring we began planning a short summer cruise. We considered going down the coast to Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz but the weather was iffy and we wanted to relax so we decided on a trip up the Delta. As a part of our trip preparation we went over to the Dark Side and bought an inflatable dinghy and an outboard.

The new dinghy and outboard

One thing we had learned over the previous summer was how limiting a rowing dinghy was and what a burden it was having a hard dinghy on deck. The idea of a rowing dinghy is very romantic and lots of people have them, but even in calm Neah Bay it didn’t take a lot of wind to make the trip back to the boat iffy and stressful. And going forward with the dinghy on deck meant either climbing over the tie-down straps (and risking falling overboard), or inching under them on your belly. Not to mention the risk of having the dinghy ripped off the deck if it caught a wave the right (wrong) way. We found a great deal on a practically brand new 11 foot Avon on craigslist (never used due to health problems of the owner) and bought a new 6hp Tohatsu. We were able to sell the Fatty Knees for a good price so it all worked out.

Heading up the Sacramento River

I was going to be starting a full time job at the beginning of June so we planned our Delta trip for May, a little earlier in the year than we would have otherwise chosen. We departed Alameda on May 20th, we motored down the estuary and then sailed into the lee of Angel Island. From there we motored to China Camp in San Pablo Bay and dropped anchor in 9 ft at low tide. It is more of a roadstead than an anchorage with no protection except from the west. We were only able to get to about 1/2 mile from shore and we felt very exposed. It was a beautiful sunny day and pretty calm but the forecast for the next day was for 30 knots. The night was pretty restless with the current switching directions and at times opposing the wind.

The following morning we raised the anchor at 6am and headed toward Carquinez Strait. By 12:30 we were anchored in Middle Slough (near Pittsburg). The winds were blowing 20 to 25 kt from the west with gusts to 30 kt, we had anchored to the east of Brown’s Island but it is mostly just swamp and reeds so not much protection from the wind. To keep from swinging into the reeds with the current we had a stern anchor out. There wasn’t much current but we figured that if the winds died it could push us into the weeds. As it happens we had anchored during the flood current, when it switched to the ebb it was much stronger (makes sense, ebb tide + river current = strong current). We had to get up several times in the night to adjust the stern anchor road to minimize chafe so we didn’t sleep very well. At about 4am we both heard a noise that we had never heard before but sounded suspiciously like an anchor dragging! We both shot out of bed and rushed up on deck, sure enough we had drug and now instead of being perpendicular to the shore we were parallel and about 10 feet from the edge of the reeds. It was barely getting light but we weren’t going to get any more rest so we prepared to raise the anchors. This is where it gets tricky, lots of books and guides will tell you how set two anchors (usually bow and stern but there are lots of variations), but rarely do they tell you much about retrieving them. Fortunately the winds had finally died off so that wasn’t an issue but the current was really ripping through the slough. We couldn’t figure any way of getting both the bow and stern anchors up without risking either being swung into shore or catching the stern anchor rode in the prop so we decided to tie a fender to the stern anchor rode and abandon it for the time being. Once that was done we attempted to retrieve the bow anchor by motoring up to it still parallel to the shore. I couldn’t get it to budge with the windlass and even when Devon tried it wouldn’t break free. Then Devon had the brilliant idea to drift back and drive around, dragging the chain along the bottom, and approach the anchor at an angle perpendicular to the shore. We must have snagged the chain on something and unsnagged it by dragging it because we were able to break the anchor free this time. Devon held us in place in the current while I got the chain and anchor back on deck. Then we turned our attention to the stern anchor. I got a boat hook and attempted to snag the fender and line while Devon let us drift past, keeping the transmission in neutral so the line wouldn’t foul the prop. It took two tries but I was able to catch the line and eventually managed to get the stern anchor up on deck.

At 6am we motored out of Middle Slough and turned up the San Joaquin headed for Potato Slough. The winds had died overnight but they picked up during the morning. It made the river pretty rough and choppy as the wind and current were opposing each other. It was early afternoon by the time we got to Potato Slough and we were so ready to drop anchor and relax!! Unfortunately it was not to be. The wind was really howling by the time we got there and there was very little protection. Potato Slough has a bunch of little islands but only one that we saw had any trees that were large enough to provide some protection from the wind but there were already lots of boats anchored in their lee. While we were considering our options a huge gust came up that we almost couldn’t fight as it was blowing us toward shore. It was pretty close quarters and we didn’t like the rock levees all around us so we decided to get the heck out of Dodge! The Delta is a huge confusing network of waterways that can be pretty overwelming. Much of it is too shallow for a keelboat and the whole area is very flat so the charts don’t give you any information about shelter from the wind, which is dependent almost entirely upon trees. Being extremely tired from two restless nights and long days we just wanted to relax. Looking at the charts and some limited internet access on my iPhone we decided the best idea was to go to the Rio Vista Marina (actually the Delta Marina but I always thing of it as the Rio Vista Marina) on the Sacramento River. It turns out there were two marinas literally around the corner, less than half a mile away, that would have been great but we didn’t realize it at the time and I think we were too sleep deprived to recognize it anyway. So we went back out to the main channel of the San Joaquin River. There is a slough called the 3 Mile Slough that connects the San Joaquin to the Sacramento, it empties into the Sacramento just downstream from Rio Vista. The charts, both paper and our garmin chartplotter, showed the 3 mile slough to be pretty shallow, down to 10 ft in places. But Navionics on the ipad showed the slough to be much deeper, mostly over 20 feet and rarely below 15. The thing with charts is that they don’t get updated that frequently and in river deltas it can silt in pretty quickly so chart depths aren’t very reliable. Even though we would be fine in 6 ft of water you just never know what the depths are really going to be so anything below 15 ft on a chart makes us nervous. As it turns out the ipad had the more current info, there must have been some dredging at some point because the slough was pretty deep all the way through. There is a bridge at the Sacramento River end of the slough that we had to request to be lifted, then we were in the Sacramento headed to Rio Vista. The Delta Marina in Rio Vista is very easy to get into, it has a good fuel dock and side tie guest dock, and the people in the office are very friendly and helpful. We were so happy to be tied up nice and secure and get some showers! After showering we walked into town, only a few bocks away, and had dinner. We spent 2 days in Rio Vista, did a lot of walking around town and got a few groceries.

Our frequent visitor at Franks Tract doing a little fishing

Then we headed to Franks Tract, which is off of the San Juaquin so we back tracked through 3 mile slough. We found a really nice spot to anchor at Franks Tract and stayed there for 3 nights. We anchored in about 15 feet with bow and stern anchors, we ended up also tying off to a tree ashore just to better position ourselves. We had some fun zooming around in the dinghy, the weather wasn’t super warm but it we had a nice time lounging on the pool toy drinking mai tais when it did warm up. There were three other boats nearby but it was surprisingly not crowded. The area is beautiful and was very peaceful. There was the occasional fishing boat that would speed by but mostly it was very serene.

Another view of Franks Tract

There was another front coming in with more winds and we needed to be heading back anyway so after a few days, on Memorial Day, we hoisted the dinghy onboard and packed it away and weighed anchor. We ended up motoring all the way back to Alameda that day, it was a very long day. We hit some really nasty chop near Pittsburg, we were making almost no headway and taking lots of spray in the cockpit. The vinyl in our dodger had failed so badly from the sun that you couldn’t see through it so we had to unzip the middle window, which meant no protection from the wind and spray. It warmed up and mellowed out near Carquinez Strait and in San Pablo Bay but it was pretty nasty and choppy and very cold when we got to the Bay. It was so bad that even though it was Memorial Day there were only a handful of sailboats out on the Bay. It was pretty rough and we were really cold, especially with all the spray we were taking. We still had little following seas all the way to Jack London Square, which is pretty unusual. It had been a nice trip but it was nice to be home too!

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