Sacramento Delta Gunkhole, 2000
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Sacramento Delta Gunkhole, 2000

From the journal of the 'Stolen Moment, a 15'6" gunter rigged Swampscott
dory.  Andrew Church, chief galley slave.

By Andrew Church

Sunday June 11, Napa Valley Marina. 


Once I finally found the place hidden out here in wine country, got the boat wet, shuttled the rig to the pullout, and suffered the orientation meeting after a delicious barbecue, I got to sit down and breath for the first time in weeks. Steady wind from the west.  Tonight I sleep among the wild flowers in pasture near the Napa river under a waxing moon.

Monday, left NVM 0900, rowed and sailed with my friend Abbey Sue Fisher through the narrow sloughs west of the Napa river.  (I would give you the names of these salt water creeks but they are just off the edge of the San francisco bay charts, and the road maps don't begin to acknowledge these watery bits.  If you find yourself in the mud with your car you got larger problems than putting a name to the site.) 1130 The fleet nosed into the reeds on a high tide  for a sandwich and a bottle of wine.  Good wind all morning, but it was in our face so we couldn't sail in these narrows till the down wind third leg of the passage. 

We sailed onto the Napa River and alongside Mare Island, dropped the main sail and then dead down wind on the approach to the Vallejo Yacht Club under jib alone, at the last possible moment sweeping upwind to sidle up to the dock sideways pretty as you please.  A good day. 1430, 13 miles?

Tuesday, June 13. Today could have read like a Wagnerian opera. Scene one; 0815 we leave VYC en masse like the Valkirie under sail, off to do battle on the Napa River against the incoming tide and fresh morning breeze wirling around Mare Island.  We valiantly struggle downstream against the incoming current from San Francisco Bay and a strong morning headwind to catch the favorable wind and tide funneling east through the Carquinez Straight.  Much tacking and posturing to round the mark, with the less weatherly rigs suffering the frustrations of the current.

The scene finale is a wonderful procession of the fleet, victorious after the tacking battle with the tide and wind,  streaming eastward through the straights wing on wing, in a good but lessening breeze from the west.

Scene two; The Death March.  Now miles away from our victory in Vallejo, Amy Hosa and I are forced to row under the Martinez bridge and off into the distant mirage of Suisun Bay and the relentless heat that brought on a sonorous doldrum.  The moans from the crews could be heard across the greasy waters as we rowed on a compass bearing for Chips Island and the buoy with our boat name tags on it, (part of an orienteering challenge, just to stir it up a little bit).

Eventually, after miles of agonizingly hot rowing through moody air tainted with smoke and burnt grass falling out of the atmosphere from a fire many miles to the north near Lake Berryessa, the scene slips into a puff of wind that encourages us to raise sail.  Within minutes this puff grows into a twenty-five knot squall from the north knocking down the smoke and pushing up the chop to as much as three feet with breaking crests less than a boat length apart.

The Fat Lady has stepped onto stage to sing her aria.  A big girl, complete with helmet and horns carried on stage by an incredibly hot wind.  All Amy and I could do was hike out and luff the sails just to stay up. 

We were taking on some solid water over the bow, but there was just
enough power by squeezing a little out the leach in the scandalized sails
that we were making way.  Once we filled up to near the seats the boat
settled down and started to behave.  Amy was sitting foreward as we
bashed through the chop, taking the lions share of the spray right in the
face, and grinning.  Upon the first real solid water over the bow she turns
and smiles.

"That feels real good!" she sez.

I respond, "Then we could be in real trouble."  Smiles all around.  It was a
good day to fall out of the boat.

The scene finishes twenty minutes later as we sail off the rough water into the lee of Chips Island and scooted into the tule reeds like a duck, 
with the reeds closing in behind us.  We were completely safe, like sliding into home plate on an infield home run.  The main sail and jib weren't even flogging in the the wind, but the burgee on the tip of the gunter spar was snapping it's frayed tips in a gale.  It seems like I spend a lot  of time scaping into the reeds with Amy.  (See last years escapade in Nurse Slough.)

We bailed the boat out, reefed the main, collected the flotsam and caught
our breath.  Once we felt ready, Amy and I backed the dory out of the reeds and set sail for the buoy.  Snagging our boat tag off it and then heading for Collinsville we eventually dropped the jib because the wind was just too rowdy for all that canvas.

I took a lesson from Caitlin Schwarzman as she sailed across my bow to weather in 'Jasper', another swampscott dory, under a full unreefed sprit
sail.  I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to follow her tacks.  "I'm just lucky Chris (Rucker) was tall enough to hike out and bail at the same time!"  said Caitlin later, on the deck of the scow schooner 'Alma' while nursing our beer rations over stories of the day . The finale of the day was a brisk suite of fifteen second tacks into the wind that was coming straight down the Collinsville Slough.  We coasted  under sail into the foreward tie-up along side our mother ship 'Alma'.  The 'Stolen Moment' was one of very few small boats to actually sail through the squall, two of which were swampscott dories.   The rest of the twenty-three boats either rowed in the lee of the islands or took a tow from one of the two Boston Whalers we had a chase boats.  A couple of the smallest boats were pulled aboard the 'Alma' during the worst of the blow,

because they were caught out in an exposed area and didn't have a chance the way things were roughing up so fast.  I cannot say enough
about the seaworthiness of these little Swampscott hulls, gunter or sprits'ls, they kick little boat butt.  1530, 28 miles.

That night I slept among the grave stones in the collinsville cemetery under the watchful eye of an owl perched in the only tree for miles. Wednesday, 0930 The mob had a ripping wind at our backs as the fleet squirted out of Collinsville slough onto the Sacramento river, so I sailed with a reefed main and my small jib, only to shake out the reef and swap to the larger jib later.  I gave the tiller to Abbey Sue for tacking lessons along Dutch Slough to the north of Big Break and into the San Juaquin Yacht Club on Bethel Island.  This was the hottest day yet.  I napped with my legs hanging in the water on the lee side of whatever tack we happened upon.  1415, 18 miles.

'Telco' tug, the 42' tow boat to back up the 'Alma', sucked an impeller, over heated and needed a push in by one of the whalers.  Jake Roulstone saved the day by crawling down into the heat of Telco's belly, on the hottest recorded day of the year, (109+) and fixed the problem in a masterful way with spare parts he found floating in the bilge, as we handed down gin tonics on ice through the hatch.

Thursday, 0815, After potent Bloody Mary's with fresh asparagus in the air conditioned yacht club, served by a smiling bartender named Alma (appropriately enough), Amy Hosa and I sailed with the fleet en mass on light winds up Mound Slough to Frank's Tract and across the shallows to the north with a good consistently growing northwesterly, through False River into the San Juaquin River and then southeast, wing on wing for miles, in the Stockton Deep Water Shipping Channel on the way to Stockton.  Many boats stopped in a cove along the north side of Mandeville Cut for lunch and a swim to break the heat. 

As I was lifting the anchor to move on Amy sheeted in the main sheet in such a way that we sailed up over the anchor, powered away upwind and
over the moored fleet.  Then as I was setting the tiny 'whisker dowel' in the jib to run wing on wing, Amy sent us down wind, letting out the main a little slow, effectively forcing acceleration like I've never seen in my dory accept when surfing the swells on the ocean in my home port of Santa Cruz on Monterey Bay.

At one point traveling up the San Joaquin river and down wind Jake Roulstone overtook us from behind in the 'Sally'.  He kindly let out his boom so that I could stand up and reach the tip of it and catch a boost of power from 'Sally's momentum.  He pulled the boom in far enough to casually hand me a cold soda and then let me back out again to a safe distance, where we chatted for quite some time with me and my little boat 'hanging' on the end of his boom. With Amy at the helm we were at or above hull speed for many more miles, wing on wing.  We made quick time to a beach marked with red "Jake for Mayor" signs stuck in the sand where we ran ashore catch some shade under the cottonwoods and allow the fleet to gather, offering our mother ship a chance to find a good spot to anchor for the night in a cove on the east side of the north half of Hog Island where it is cut in half by the Stockton Deep Water Channel. 

Some of us stopped by the Lost Island bar and grill, a glorified sandbar truly lost out in the maze of the delta, infamous for beers and bimbos, but since it was only thursday afternoon we found only a crusty one-armed bartender with attitude. 1600, 17 miles.

I slept on the vast flat deck of the 'Alma' under a full moon with sixty others like so many beached seals.

Friday, 0830.  The last leg of the trip reversed our course back out the deep water channel toward the Sacramento river about fourteen miles to Korth's Pirate Lair.  Directly into the wind, now blowing strong, steady and a bit cooler from the northwest.  Full sails and able Jill Foley aboard, we tacked up the wind with the ebb tide at our backs. 

We swapped tacks with the folk boat 'Stella' for a while.  (Actually, I was  simply under foot again.)  Caitlin  Schwarzman at the helm, perched high on the weather rail, powering to windward with the lee rail in the water.  I took another lesson as long as I could keep up. After beaching for a pee in the bushes and to swap jibs to the smaller one, we tore out the lower gudgeon when a mega displacement family yacht cruised by, creating a huge wake that slammed the dory into the shore, effectively shutting down our sailing for the day.  Miraculously we found the little metal bit (and the two screws!) in the water's edge and were able to repair it without serious to do with a Leatherman tool.

Much further tacking in the stiffening breeze brought us to Korth's Pirate Lair and the pull out after fish-n-chips and silly prizes on the lawn in the shade of palm trees. 

First and most notable prize was the dark blue float coat awarded to Pete Evans (A.K.A. King Mud, A.K.A. Magellan of the Delta) for his research and guidance throughout the organization and execution of this trip.  I covet the small -but very workable- spinnaker awarded to Dan Drath. I got a whoopee cushion.

Young Ian Hall and Andy Benoit were such nonchalant sailors in Titmouse -a (plastic) Capri 14.5 that kicks ass in a breeze- that they forgot to tell us they got knocked down in the squall on Honker Bay, cracking the base of their mast.  Also, notably, these two teenagers could sleep anywhere, anytime, and in any position.

Bruce Fowler wins mention again this year for the smallest boat in the fleet.  He stayed dry, sailed well, and rowed upwind alot.  He's planning a bigger small boat. Sam Johnson has built the prettiest boat once again, a brand new Whitehall named "Christie".  White with a blue stripe and a very classic sprit sail rig.  He even wove his own jute fenders.  (I think the guy needs a day job.)  But the boat ain't new any more.  This was a rough trip on a lot of boats.

Honorable mention to the various crews of the double gunter rigged cutter "J".  The boat has made quite a few indelible memories and blistered hands among the able bodied sailors pressed into her service. Some of the trips best entertainment was watching Joe the Scow Chow (dog) and Jasmine, the tiny mop of some sort, chase each other around the deck weaving in and out of peoples legs as we drank the morning coffee.  Often as not it was Big Joe evading Jazzy's attempts at his chew toy.  And best of all, since last year, "Big" Joe has learned not to pee on sleeping bags!
 

You may Contact the Author at:  acchurch@baymoon.com

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