Delta Gunkhole 2002
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Delta Gunkhole 2002

By Andrew Church

June 17, 2002. 3:10 A.M.
The Sportsman Yacht Club, A.k.a. Ferry Boat Sausalito
Antioch, California.

I was a full day early for a sailing adventure in the Sacramento delta with over sixty of my new-to-be closest friends the morning after next, so I was lurking around, watching the water traffic go by and soaking up some of the local flavor on the San Joaquin riverside. Not much to see. It was late, nearing midnight. I wandered up the crooked stairs toward some rowdy voices to look for trouble and entertainment. What I found was a very serviceable drunken riot getting under way. A couple of guys had set up a giant twenty-four inch diameter World War II semaphore light on a cocktail table on the upper deck of the clubhouse-slash-derelict ferryboat patched to the wall socket in the bar via a series of short, lightly smoking extension cords thrown in through the window. They were spotlighting passing boats. Much to the surprise of the boaters hundreds of yards away across the river, and producing childish glee in the men on the deck of the ferryboat Sausalito. Hard aground and slowly sinking into the banks of the San Joaquin River at Antioch.

Although landlocked for the past seventy years the spotlight must have looked as though the ferry was about to get under way once again. The light was positioned forward, just below the pilot house, and with all the lights on in the bar inside the ferry she must have looked just like when Jack London fell off her nearly a century before in the first chapters of Sea Wolf.
The bar of the Sportsman Yacht Club is a big semi circle affair at the north end of the passenger deck. That night the ferry housed fifteen progressively drunk men playing liars dice as they slumped on the stools at the bar.

Chuck, the "Port Gaming Chairman" was behind the bar, running the game, serving drinks, and passing out jovial abuse evenly throughout the crowd.
I was not exactly loud enough when I ordered a shot of whiskey. I immediately took abuse for it from Chuck. He ran the show here. He couldn't be denied. He was Huge. He filled the whole distance from the deck to the joists of the deck above. He was red face drunk, sweating profusely, and wearing a pink dress shirt over a white v-neck t-shirt, unbuttoned and pulled out of his belt.

"What? Speak up! Who the 'ell are you? Are you one of those little boat people from San Francisco? Wha' the 'ell 'sa matter with American Whiskey!" He spit at me, with a grin.

I received a plastic beer mug full of ice and a half full bottle of Jamison's
whiskey slammed down on the bar. 

"Two bucks. Pour to taste." Chuck didn't take back the bottle 'till it was
empty, hours later along with the two bucks I'd set on the bar.

I soon found from loose talk that this whole evening started out at a National Rifle Association meeting where they heard their poster boy Charlton Heston speak. They were drinking to American Patriotism. And the right to bear arms. While drunk.

I anted in another buck to play whatever bar game was going on with 'the
boys', and thus began a two and a half hour lesson in liar's dice. I finally crapped out hours later with only five men left standing. Lying takes time and patience, or so I'm told.

The wives and bimbos had retreated into a posh women's bathroom across to the far side of the deck, completely outfitted -I later observed- with old west style swinging doors, a five seat vanity, color TV with remote, sofas with frilly fringe and matching window dressings. The stalls were wallpapered in floral patterns tastefully chosen to match the decor. The women were placing their drink orders by cell phone and had them delivered on a silver tray by big Chuck, who returned with lipstick on his cheeks each trip. The women were having a grand time, judging from the cackle and laughter echoing from across the hog backed center of what had once been the vast passenger deck of this turn of the twentieth century car ferry.

To get to the men's bathroom, one has to hike up, over and down an undulating rise of about three feet in the center of the vast passenger deck. Hard enough to do in daylight when one's sober, a damn sight nauseating after two fists of scotch in the dark. Nothing's level, plumb or true in the whole structure of the old ferry boat. Doors and windows are all akimbo, stairs slope sideways and everything else is funky bordering on Dr. Seuss wiggly. The pool and the shuffle board tables rest on special wedge shaped platforms to keep them level. Even so, there was a wooden doorstop jammed under one leg of the pool table.

 Upon later inspection I found there actually is nothing really left of this vessel below the waterline. The whole thing is rotted clean away. She's now supported by pilings and 'I' beams. And she's still melting. Has been for over sixty years.
I swear I could feel the water movement as I walked around the walls looking at "portraits" of all the member's giant power boats, each one up on a plane and kicking up proud wakes 2 and 3 feet tall. I was propping myself up against the wall inspecting the paint work closely, hoping to make my way around the room till I found the correct door for the men's head before I fell down.

As I circumnavigated the main hall in the dim light from the distant bar beyond the hump in the deck I realized the place was all fitted out in bunting and streamers, all ready for a party. Fresh paint on the walls, -which I studied closely with my forehead,- and a shine on the floor, -which I was seriously avoiding an in depth study of by working intently on the walls.- The band stand at the end opposite the bar had a big raffle wheel made from one of the ship's two original steering wheels, so said the plaque my head was resting against. Later some one else could've read it backwards from the impression on my forehead.

The old girl looked pretty good. At least in the dark. But then again, so do most gals still left in the bar at 2:30 in the morning. The men's head was nothing to write about, so I won't.

Back at the bar they were still at it. Down to two dice, and two men. Both trying to bluff the other. Not much to wonder over when the odds are down to fifty-fifty. Simply depends on who calls the other first. But at that hour that was pretty serious strategy. Even the women came out of their cloister to witness the end of the game, almost three hours after the first dice were slammed down on the bar in their plastic cups. I couldn't tell you about the nuances of the bluffing in my state of mind at the time, but the guy on my right won with a deuce. He won the pot, fifteen bucks, which he immediately used to buy a round for the house. Like we needed more to drink.

I crawled off to sleep in my van, amongst all the boat gear.


After shuttling all the trucks and trailers to the outhaul point and the Sunday evening dinner slash safety meeting with all seventy or so Gunkholers, I was called front and center to be made an example of. I was made to explain my valiant efforts hooking the reefing line on my mainsail with a dredging buoy in the estuary between Oakland and Alameda during a big north-westerly blow the month before. For my extreme embarrassment then, and again at the safety meeting, I was awarded the "Belle of Dixie", a buxom plastic blonde figurehead filled with expandable foam. She had a weird deer-in-the-headlights stare in her eyes. She was positive floatation bequested upon me 'for displays of  seamanship and other sundry offenses'. I was the warning shot for all the other small boat sailors gathered for this regatta. the message; Don't make a fool of yourself, people are watching.
The "Belle" rode with me down wind and up the San Joaquin river to Korth's Pirate Lair. She was my only crew that day, strapped to the bow between my oars with baling wire around her waist and a black blindfold to cover those freaky eyes. I couldn't pay someone to come sailing with me after getting roasted with the figurehead of shame.
To hell with them, I had a great sail. There was plenty of wind. I started with too much canvas, but once I swamped the boat up to the seats with river water, I ran for the safety of the tule reeds, reefed the mainsail, and swapped down the big jib for the little one. With that, everything balanced nicely. I surfed the wake of the scow schooner "Alma" for a while, wing on wing with a reef in place. I traveled some fifteen miles in two hours in a roaring wind from the west.

As other boats in the fleet headed for the shelter of the palm and eucalyptus oasis at Korth's Pirate Lair, I tacked back up wind with a couple of the larger boats in a perfect fifteen to twenty knot wind. Once I had  identified my home port for the night I felt like having some splashy fun and get 'Belle' a little wet. Cantilevered forward out between the oars she would stub her toe on every wave and pivot forward as if she were diving into the oncoming waves with gleeful abandon. It was a great day for a reef and the small jib. 

The wind continued to howl all evening through the eucalyptus trees surrounding this enclave of still air. the power lines, raised at least one  hundred feet, way overhead, moaned with a ghostly premonition. Later in the evening it grew so loud we needed to raise our voices to be heard. Sleep on the manicured lawns next to the yacht slips came only with the
help of earplugs.


The wind sustained throughout the night. The morning was spent running full speed, wing-on-wing down Potato and Little Potato Sloughs. The "Belle" had been passed along to some one else the night before so Kelly Donahoe felt safe to come along as very able crew.

We spent the day jibing down and across the wind through winding courses of channels around grass islands and rip-rap levees creating the sunken islands that are the delta. The fleet tied up for lunch on the Devil's Island docks, swimming and sunning. Then a wonderful group tacking battle upwind in a rather narrow channel near Westgate Landing. Very close quarter sailing, swapping tacks and shooting transoms... until we cracked the mast on my dory, the "Stolen Moment".

Kelly said "Will ya just look at that crack..." pointing at the base of the mast where two screws are aimed right at each other but three inches apart. Sure enough, the crack ran almost all the way through, one more tack would've done it. We dropped the sail rig and casually rowed the last few miles to that evenings mooring.

After a fabulous Italian dinner, I attempted to repair the mast with some donated tubular fiberglass, eight ounces of "borrowed" epoxy and a garbage bag. I'm absolutely sure I wouldn't have succeeded without the help of my twelve knowledgeable sunburned advisors, all with one hand in pocket and a beer in the other. Pushing items to within my reach with a toe. Just to help out, y'know.

I finally got to sleep after midnight under a waxing moon on a grassy meadow twenty-five feet below sea level.


June 20, I was up at dawn to finish mast repairs over coffee. More of the same silliness and adventure sailing on the way to Five finger Island. Towed Kera "Stays'l" Koss from the stern line while still under sail.
Trolling for sturgeon off the dory, if you will. No luck, but she got a good chill to counter the heat of the day. After dinner we raced two laps around Five Finger Island at dusk, but of course the much too abundant wind of the day reduced to a whisper during the racing which made for a comedy of fools.

I anchored quite a ways off from the fleet and slept in the dory. The best rest of the week for me, despite the watermelon sized splash some lunker bass tossed my way during the night. Shook the boat and scared the hell out of me.


It's an amazing place, this southern part of the delta. We arrived by water so we saw only the riparian culture, and very little else. Once in a while we'd come across a house boat or crumbling duck hunters shack. Some looked palatial in their days past. Occasionally we'd see the top third of a row of power poles rising on the other side of the dike, or a truck speeding along on top of a levee.

So once I'd landed at Tiki Lagoon for the evening and stepped up the few feet to the top of the levee, -up into the wind I might add!- I almost fell over
from vertigo. Turning my back on the water, the levee falls away some twenty or thirty feet, to seemingly miles of corn rows. And no water in sight. Broad expanses of dry ground covered with manicured crops of corn, artichokes, peppers, sunflowers. All the usual suspects at the market. A farm house or barn here or there, marked by a row of trees planted as a windbreak against the winds that were blowing through these giant pans of earth. All set 25 feet below the water's surface just behind me. They were very happy crops. Everything looked lush and in full health in the light of the sun beaming through the frame of eucalyptus.

June 21, 2002
 The ditch run from Tiki Lagoon to Discovery Bay.
(Or "I shoulda' just rowed")

We traveled from Tiki Lagoon, a collection of half sunk derelict boats in water that no one would swim in, illustrating the weirdest case funky-delta-levee trailer-park/boat-ramp backwater, through a hellacious travail of upwind torture under an unrelenting sun, to the richer-than-god-giant-conspicuous-big-boat-consumption Stepford-Wives-on-mescaline planned community delightfully named Discovery Bay. forcefully trenched out of the dirt in the middle of a nowhere agricultural wasteland. A posh Yacht Club with capital Y and C. Just not quite enough water to turn around in.

We sailed from fat delta bubbas to trim psycho Barbies. For days I have sailed raised canals looming over the cornucopia that is some of the richest cropland in the nation. positioned thirty feet below sea level. I sailed out of sight from the fields. Sneaking along in the ditches made of rip-rap, used cement and asphalt. City streets and building demolitions. Manholes still encased in their cement collar.  Sometimes we sailed around meandering tule islands, and some straight as an arrow down rubble strewn ditches one hundred feet wide, often choked down to sixty feet by the tules and swamp grasses in the shallow edges. But down wind for the most part. So eight miles from Tiki Lagoon to Discovery Bay didn't seem very far, had we been going east, with the wind.

But nooo,...for our last day on the water it was "Westward-ho!" We had wind straight down the pipe the whole day. Six full hours of short tacking up tall narrow rip-rap channels. What started out as a promising blow that had us talking about double reefed sails, quickly digressed to a light wind tacking battle among ten or so of the small and medium sized boats. The wind was up there at the top of the mast, but only the ragged tell tail burgee got any of it. The main body of the sails were down out of the wind and practically useless.

The first hour and a half was spent in fickle winds begging for a puff, squeaking every ounce of power from the zephyr to gain distance on other
boats to avoid conflict while swapping tacks. it was no Competition here.  It was more 'every man for themselves', struggling to reach clean air and set the boat in the groove before it came time to tack back over.

I spent an hour catching don rich in his crabbing skiff "Esco Brown", 
overtaking him by a half mile only to watch that distance erased in five minutes by an isolated fart in his favor. I outran Bill Stoye in "Anne" for a few minutes in light airs, but when the wind filled in for a few moments Bill put me away never to be seen again. Only just a little later I realized I'd loaded up the dagger board with weeds and let it slow me down significantly. Kelly raised and lowered the dagger board once quickly and a huge ball with streamers like a big jelly fish fell away behind us. We immediately surged forward, but had lost our opportunity to sail alongside Bill or Don.

My boat's forward progress was all about my crew Kelly Donahoe. She had to do all the foredeck work. Raising, dropping, unreefing, and raising sail again, shifting her weight and endlessly backing and trimming the jib.
Always in good spirit, eager to get the boat back in the groove each tack.

All the while I sat at the stern, cross-legged like a skinny sunburned Buddha, mainsheet cleated, set close hauled, loose end draped over my left knee and the bamboo push-pull tiller in my right hand. Studying the water, the sail and tell tales. Trying to find the groove in each tack before we hit the rocks on the other side of the channel. Then I would have to put both hands on the tiller and shove the stern around with the barn door sized drop rudder raised halfway up to reduce drag. Kelly backed the jib to pull us the rest of the way 'round, till the main sail filled and then snap the jib to leeward and trim tight for the next up wind stride in our long march upwind. This went on for hours, ... and hours... and hours.

We passed under a couple of bridges. One low swing bridge and later we squeaked under a draw bridge without it being opened by dropping the gunter spar and heeling the boat over. We barely cleared, and the bridge keeper never even came to the window to confer with us.

Finally out in the middle of nowhere, in scrub land as flat as it can be, we came within sight of the Discovery Bay boat ramp and more importantly, THE BAR at Discovery Bay. Another half mile straight up wind through heavy big delta motor cruiser traffic. A straight channel with barren rip-rap on one side, and suddenly, MegaBuck McMansions with three mega boats each, on the other side of the channel, blocking the wind and creating williwaws through the narrow passages between each estate.

Sailing would be no fun dodging all the obstacles. Jet skis, ski boats, seaplanes, launches and cruisers going every which way and they were giving no way to the sail boats.

Screw it. I'd had enough, and I was sure Kelly had also. We dropped the sail rig into the boat and I enthusiastically rowed the distance, straight to the foot of the gangway up to the restaurant / bar. And an ice cold beer.

We both were so determined to get a hold of that frosty mug of refreshment that we forgot to tie up the dory, but as any good dory can be trained, this one just sat there patiently until I went back down to rub it's tummy and secure it from the wakes washing through the marina.

A catered dinner at the Yacht club that evening, and then a sake party aboard "Sally" with Jake Roulstone hosting till after 11:00 p.m. when our mother ship the eighty-five foot scow schooner "Alma" somehow squeaked out of the marina, bound for a posh blue-blazer-and-white-shorts Master Mariners Regatta at the Corinthian Yacht Club the next morning.

I crawled off to sleep in my van amongst all the boat gear, with my trusty fifteen foot dory nestled safely on the trailer behind.

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