Delta Cruise 2014: getting there

We enjoyed our first trip to the Delta so we planned another trip for this past summer. Our previous trip had been in May and it wasn’t as warm as we would have liked, hoping for warmer weather this time we decided to go in August. We looked through various souces to help decide where to go but in the end we chose to go back to Franks Tract because it was so pretty and peaceful. Plus, it can take a long time to get from one place to the next and we wanted to minimize our travel time and maximize our lounging time. The plan was to again anchor the first night at China Camp but to skip Middle Slough and go straight to Decker Island (on the Sacramento just downstream from Rio Vista). When we selected the specific dates for the trip one consideration was the tide, if timed correctly it is possible to get a boost from the flood tide up the Delta adding 1 or 2 knots of speed, so we picked a day with a flood tide during the morning. We also picked dates around the full moon to provide light in case we had to travel at night.

Sailing north across the bay just after passing under the Bay Bridge

We departed Alameda on Sunday 8/10/14 at 1pm. After motoring down the estuary and under the Bay Bridge we hoisted the sails at 2:30 and had a nice sail to China Camp. By the time we arrived at the anchorage we had 20 knots of wind from the south and several knots of current from the north. We set the anchor but the wind kept pushing us forward of the anchor causing our anchor chain to rub on the hull. In our days on the Columbia River we had a few experiences with winds and reversing currents resulting in the anchor rode getting wrapped around the keel. It is something we definitely did want to ever experience again. This stopped happening when we started using an anchor kellet and after we switched to all chain rode we didn’t think it would be a problem but the forces acting on the boat at China camp were very strong and we did not want to risk it happening again. We considered putting a stern anchor out but due to past experiences we prefer not to use a stern anchor unless really necessary. Plus, setting and retrieving a stern anchor without the dinghy would be difficult and the dinghy was deflated and stowed on deck. Just like last year we felt very exposed at China Camp and with the opposing wind and current decided we didn’t feel comfortable staying the night. So at 6:30pm (about 30 minutes after dropping anchor) we decided to raise the anchor and find another place to stay the night. It was shortly before sunset so it would be dark soon. Our choices were to go back and maybe go to Richmond (there is a good marina in Richmond and it might have been possible to anchor in the harbor) or continue forward. Backtracking wasn’t appealing, especially against a 20 knot wind so after we had the anchor up we raised the sails and set off across San Pablo Bay toward Carquinez Strait.

A screen shot from Navionics showing where we anchored at China Camp (lower left, anchor symbol) and Vallejo Marina (upper right, push pin symbol). Deepest water is white, shallowest is dark blue.

We didn’t have a backup destination selected (something we should always have) so I got on my iphone and tried to find anchorages or marinas with guest docks that were deep enough for us. Unfortunately all the marina offices were already closed so I wasn’t able to speak to anyone but I was able to get a slow internet connection. I ended up stumbling across a Latitude 38 article that mentioned that part of Vallejo Marina had been dredged recently. Unfortunately it didn’t say which part. The chart showed the northern half of the marina to be deeper than the southern half. This seemed promising since the guest dock was in the northern half. However, if the chart data was from before the dredging then it seems likely they would have dredged the southern half since it was much shallower. I knew there were a few marinas closer but I couldn’t find much info on them, I was tired, and we hadn’t eaten anything all day, so we settled on Vallejo and enjoyed our moonlit sail across San Pablo Bay. It was chilly so we put up the enclosure panels (we had a full enclosure made a few months after purchasing Casita), and Devon made us some food. As we approached the entrance to the Napa river we started the motor and dropped the sails. The river has really good channel markers but it is still spooky navigating an unknown river in the dark, we were very happy for the light of the moon!

An overview of the area showing San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay, and the Sacramento River up to Decker Island (at far right marked by an anchor symbol).

The trip up the river was uneventful, a ferry had passed us just as we approached the river heading toward Vallejo so we kept an eye out for the outbound ferry but never saw it. By this time it was pretty late so it was probably the last ferry of the night. As we approached the marina we still didn’t know for certain which side was deeper but we decided to go to the guest dock. We had estimated we would arrive at the Vallejo marina shortly before high tide and we were on schedule. High tide was forecast to be +7 ft. The charted depth was 8 ft (at mean low water) so even if the marina had silted in to the point that the depth was 0 ft at low water (very unlikely) we only draw 6 ft so we shouldn’t run aground at high tide. And IF we did run aground it would just be silt and the tide was still rising so we should be able to get back to deeper water. It was all very sound logic but it was still quite unnerving entering a strange marina in the dark half expecting to run aground. Devon did an amazing job of maneuvering through the marina (he has much better night vision than me) and he did a very gracefull pirouette at the guest dock to get us pointed toward the exit for an easy departure in the morning. We were too busy getting to the dock to pay much more attention to the depth other than to make sure there was enough water to avoid running aground. It wasn’t until after we were all tied up that we checked the tide forecast for the next low tide and compared it to our current depth. Sitting at the guest dock we were in 9 feet of water which meant there were 3 feet of water between our keel and the bottom. The tide was still rising but by low tide the following morning it would be 5 feet less than the current level. 3 – 5 = -2, not good because that would mean we would have 2 feet less water than the amount required to keep us floating. We really did not want to move the boat, we were very tired (it was approaching midnight) and we just wanted to have a glass of wine and go to sleep. We tried to find fault in the numbers, we took our handheld depth sounder out and checked depths around us to see if our reading was a fluke, we discussed getting up really early before the tide dropped too low, we even tried to convince ourselves that 2 feet wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was all loose silt and we would just sink into the mud. Maybe the boat would stay balanced and remain upright sitting on the bottom. If we fell over would we fall toward the dock or away from it? Would either scenario hurt our boat or hurt the dock? In reality we probably could have stayed there, our keel is quite long and wide and we probably would have just sunk into the silt and stayed upright. But we also knew that we wouldn’t sleep very well and decided that that was an experiment for another day. Reluctantly we untied the docklines and navigated our way back out into the river and motored in through the southern entrance. The two sections of the marina are not connected and each has their own entrance from the river. We looked for sailboat masts to guide us toward the deeper areas of the marina, they were all clustered in one section so that’s where we went. We found an empty slip near other sailboats and pulled in, but when we check the dock box it had a lock so we knew that slip belonged to someone and didn’t want to risk them coming back with us in their spot so we moved to another slip. It wasn’t as deep but didn’t appear to be occupied. By our calculations there would be maybe an inch or two of water below us at low tide, but that’s all you need so we tied up and fell into bed.

Vallejo Marina – The guest dock is in the northern section and has no fingers. Where we ended up saying is marked by the red house symbol.

The following morning we walked into town for some breakfast and then checked in with the office and paid for our one night. We would have liked to get back on the road pretty early but we had to wait for the tide again. It was deep enough in our slip but on our way in we went over several areas that were much shallower, so it wasn’t until 11:30am that we were back underway. We motored back down the Napa River at higher rpm than usual hoping to get back to Carquinez Strait in time to catch at least part of the flood tide. Shortly after reaching the Strait and just as we were going under the Carquinez Strait bridge Devon discovered a lot of water coming in from our “dripless” shaft seal (the seal keeps water from coming into the boat where the shaft for the propeller goes through the hull). To be fair it’s called a dripless shaft seal, not a “leakless” shaft seal and at this point it wasn’t dripping, it was flooding. We were still at a pretty high rpm from our motor down the river, Devon immediately had me bring the rpm down and after a few minutes he determined that at our typical cruising rpm water was no longer coming in. We briefly considered turning back and returning to Alameda, but with no immediate threat we chose to continue on to the Delta. Fortunately the previous owners of our boat were really good about keeping documentation for the various equipment and systems on board so when we got back to Alameda after our trip Devon was able to figure out how to do some adjustments and the seal longer leaks, even at higher rpm.We were very happy to figure out that we hadn’t missed the floodtide but since we were quite a bit behind schedule we decided to motor sail rather than sail, with the jib and the motor running at moderate speeds were able to make 7-8 knots upstream, which was great.

Decker Island – The anchor symbol marks our location.

The wind picked up throughout the afternoon and it was mostly from behind and occasionally on the beam so we probably could’ve made great time under sail alone but we really didn’t want to enter a strange anchorage in the dark so we kept the motor on. We reached the upstream side of Decker Island at 4:30 and had the anchor down at about 5 PM. We found a nice spot in the lee of some trees, the wind was blowing about 20 knots at this point and the trees provided a lot of shelter. As evening fell the wind calmed, we made a nice dinner, had some wine, and relaxed into Delta mode.

Here are a few shots from our first evening at Decker Island. The quality is not great because these are stills pulled from a video shot in low light.



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