Sacramento Mini Gunkhole trip, 2000
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Sacramento Mini Gunkhole trip, 2000

or, Beware What You Wish For!
From the transportable log of the 'Stolen Moment'

By Andrew Church

October 19, 2000.

I was seated on the lazarette of the goodly ship 'Anne', (pronounced "Annie") an 18.5' open McIntosh daysailer, the tiller hooked under my knee, and the din of a woefully undersized 1.2 horsepower Sears outboard motor rattling the bones loose in my spine.  Skipper Bill Stoye was napping forward near the taffrail after a lunch of salami sandwiches.
The sails were full of no more than our apparent wind.  And very little of that.  We were just a stones throw north of Ryers Island.  Yet another grassy sandbar with no more significance than navigational hazard on the eastern edge of Suisun Bay near the entrance to the Sacramento Delta. Just down range from the duck hunter's blinds in Grizzly Bay.  Under power and getting nowhere fast.

This was not what I signed on for.  Nothing a really good blow wouldn't fix.

We had left Benicia about 1100 that bright sunny October morning with 'Sally', a shallow draft 24' Albert Strange canoe yawl skippered by Jake Roulstone with Len Berkowitz as crew.  Our course carried us east toward Collinsville via Suisun Cutoff.  It was a good sail to start out, with fair but calming winds.  We were forced to row against the current of the Sacramento river between the piers of the Martinez bridge after sailing out of Benicia only a mile or two behind us. 

A first impression of four days Gunkhole in the Sacramento Delta.  An ominous start to a long day.  Ghosting through the Naval Reserve "Mothball" fleet of 40 or 50 World War Two battleships and their tenders, under sail and oar we eventually gave in for the motor after doing the math. 

We were running out of daylight and still had better then 12 miles to go for rendezvous with the Farallon Clipper 'Mistress II' and the Hooper Island launch 'Grunwald' in Collinsville. Finally, unprepared to rush into a lazy weekend, the crews of 'Anne' and 'Sally' opted for a moorage in an unnamed little cut that connects Suisun  Cutoff with the southern edge of Grizzly Bay, between Point Buckler Island and Simmons Island.  Offering a surprisingly deep 40' for the fixed 6 foot keel of the 38' 'Mistress', skippered by Bill Doll, with Pete Swentzel as crew. 

Hailing her on handheld radios they met us and we rafted up for the night beneath clear skies and a waning moon. Pete Evans, savior of the motor launch 'Grunwald', (he brought her back from a neglected watery grave last year,) dropped anchor straight down for what seemed miles before he hit the mud.  He crouched there on the bow letting the anchor line go out,... and out,... and out. 

A mirthful look of incredulity on his face.  But that's how he always looks.  We call him 'King Mud' for his wizened experience out here in the Tule reeds of the Sacramento Delta. 

By sunset we found that this is where the really big mosquitoes live.  The place should be named 'Mosquito Slough'.  Spaghetti seasoned with bug repellant for dinner.  Begging for a breeze to blow the bugs away we got our wish in the form of a cold blow from the north that continued to grow unceasingly till morning.  I suggested we sail for Collinsville in the dark, but only got bleary stares of amazement. Big fish were splashing about all evening, eating the 2 pound mosquitoes no doubt.  They never seemed to keep up with the new blood thirsty recruits coming in from all parts of the swamp to dine on us.  Is there a jungle drum or grape vine communications system among the swamp critters?

We dragged the anchor around in figure eights all night, swinging on the cope in the wind against the current rushing through our little cut, draining the waters from shallow Grizzly Bay into the deeper and more turgid Suisun Cutoff and out to the Sacramento River, still very much a tidal venue 20 plus miles from the Golden Gate and the Pacific Ocean. 'Round midnight our stern anchor failed.  I happened to lift my head to see what the new motion was all about and I saw the stern of the 23' "Grunwald", which had been moored 50 yards to the east, and windward, swing by our stern only inches away as the changing current put us in a swirling motion against the wind.  Talk about swinging on the anchor! 180 degrees every five minutes, the wind messing with the current till the current got itself under way after slack tide.  There were moments when our raft of three boats would sail up over the anchor, snap the line taught and then sail back down to our original position.  Everyone's nerves were rather frayed by daylight.  Not one of us trusted the hook enough to get any real sleep.  And the bank of the slough was only yards away on both sides.

By first light we had pretty much unscrewed ourselves from the bottom and had to break up the raft suddenly and get the boats under way to sort out the confusion before we dragged the 'Mistress' into the reeds.

Bill Stoye and I sailed 'Anne' out of Mosquito Slough under jib and jigger in our jammies, setting the main on a down wind run to the Sacramento River.  Peeling boiled eggs and power bars for breakfast.  The wind died just enough to make coffee on the floor boards with a camp stove before it picked up again with vigor to 15 or 20 knots to fill our full suit of canvas, putting us in Collinsville in less than an hour or so.  But not before a  ripping lap around Chain Island, including a brace of tacks up wind to get me accustomed to my new ride.

Just as we were settling in for a long day of power lounging on deck we were informed from two men hollering from shore that the sand barge would be coming up the slough later that night and we needed to be out of the way.  The channel is only so wide and the barge fills the whole thing even at high tide.  Many of us have seen this for a fact in the past so there was no argument.  Besides, it was only noon and we had come to sail, not loiter.  At least I had.

The weather report helped us make up our minds. That emotionally detached computer voice squawked out doom for an open boat.  Winds from the north, 35 to 45 knots Saturday, growing to 50 knots Sunday.  Small craft warning in effect. 

Bill Doll said, "I hate that little German guy."

I looked at 'Anne', my ride for the blow.  She  has some floatation bow and stern but only low coamings and no cuddy.  A giant water bucket of a cockpit.

Small craft warning.  Uh, that would be us, huh skipper?

So we broke up the raft after lunch and headed down wind to Antioch where I was told there are comely wenches and a hot shower.  And maybe a pint of grog or two.  Well, at least the beer and hot shower part was right. 
It was an easy down wind run till we got within the approach to the Antioch marina and we heard a call to the 'Grunwald' from the 'Mistress'. 

"Got a little situation here.  Hard aground at Chain Island."  Bill Doll's voice was more embarrassment and disgust than one driven by ruinous danger.  So we came about, just for the sport of it, and had a splashy beat back up the wind a few miles to watch Pete Evans and his very seaworthy 7/8 scale Chesapeake Bay work boat power up the channel  into the building waves.  With only 2 1/2 foot draft 'Grunwald'  could swing in right along side and take first mate Pete Swentzel aboard with a line from the  'Mistress'.  'Grunwald' swung 'Mistress' around like it was a square dance move, and pulled her off the mud.  Little toot saves the big sloop.

In the mean time the wind is ever increasing and dark storm clouds are building to the northwest, making for ominous skies and a ripping wind.  We ran back down wind to Antioch once again, this time surfing the whitecaps under a reefed main.  We were running fast before the storm, and I was having a great time at the helm just splashing about in someone else's boat. 

This would be the last down wind run for the remainder of the trip, I had
better enjoy it. Once in Antioch there was a sense of foreboding looming about the seven of us travelers.  

So, drinks in the bar, showers, and an overpriced, very disappointing meal at the marina restaurant.  (The name's omitted here but you'll figure it out when you get there.)  Then some sleep between howling trains every forty minutes all night, passing so close to the moorage that the water shook as they went by.

Come morning everyone is preparing for heavy weather.  Clear skies and  battened hatches.  Readying for a fun day on the water.  (Or in it.) It took us a little while to coax 'Anne' out of the marina Saturday because the wind was right on her nose going out the canyon of delta style mega yachts.  Christmas lights on the dodgers and little dogs everywhere, with "Welcome Aboard" door mats on the docks.  Everyone present in the marina was kind enough to offer us a tow out if we would just stop our futile attempts to sail out.  Skipper said something about how much he liked pinball as we bumped our way around the cramped channel.  Boink, boink, boink.

Once outside we took a handful of tacks against the incoming current and into winds 25 knots or better, without really getting anywhere. Tacking just for the practice I suppose.  We were still looking down the length of the channel we had come out of 30 minutes before.  Skipper was getting annoyed as we buried the leeward rail repeatedly and got nothing to show for our efforts.  Fortunately, being the slowest boat in the fleet means that the others were out there scouting for us, and we got a call from 'Sally' (once I changed the batteries in the radio amongst all the other goings on,) mentioning that the wind seemed a little off the nose in New York Slough, which had a more westerly tack.

Plan B, work our way below Winters Island west and see what the infamously unprotected Middle Ground of the Suisun Bay looked like from Pittsburgh. Should be slack tide soon before a strong ebb.  Just the right conditions to really pile up some good waves.  If it got real nasty (worse than this?) we could always turn tail for Antioch again and call a taxi.  Or catch one of those damn trains that ran through my dreams all night.

By now I'm begging the skipper for the order to go forward and swap out the 110% jib for the 40% storm jib.  It didn't take much to get me up there once he relented.  And I snuck in a second reef in the mainsail when he wasn't looking.  That bought us some time.  Eventually skipper tired of this tomfoolery and suggested I take the helm to give him a rest.  At about the same time our course fell off the wind a point or three and allowed us a little more room to point up into without stalling progress completely. For the next couple of hours we were zooming along on an ever increasing breeze, eventually running across the face of the foam streaked wind born chop just to the lee of the shallows in the middle of Suisun Bay, in what I was later told was 40 plus knots of wind.  'Anne' was up on a plane for the first time in her life.  We were going faster than skipper had ever seen his boat go before.  And maybe never again if he's lucky.

It was all I could do to keep the helm on course and pump the main sheet in and out with the gusts.  I was just trying not to let too much of the brackish brown-green bay water in over the lee rail.  And I was having the ride of my life.  My cheeks were sore from grinning so much.  My arms were aching and my hands were cooked on the salty ropes.  This was the E ticket ride I signed on for!  It was one of those rides that as the spray erupts from the forward quarter of the boat we would duck and let it dowse us, then quickly bring our chins up to see where we were. Pete Evans was motoring along nearby, comfortably seated in the cuddy of 'Grunwald' with a cup of coffee, watching over us like a mother goose. Just in case, bless his soul.

Zooming under the Martinez bridge, where we were forced to row only two days before, I experienced some major reverse helm as the ebb current overtook the boat speed in the wind shadow of the 150' tall supporting cement towers.  Then bam, back up to warp speed in the winds swirling over the landscape of Benicia and a huge car freighter moored to windward.

Tacking into the Benicia marina was a bit more pinball straight into the gusting blow.  Close quarter maneuvering practice, with all the motor  boats and sailors one could ask for.  Just to make it interesting.  The  locals were going out to get their butts kicked in the wind for a minute. And then come right back in. Once rafted up against 'Sally' and 'Mistress' spirits were high from the adrenaline rush of surviving what we thought may have been a doomed passage.

Bill Doll, unofficial and reluctant group leader, (he had the biggest boat) exclaimed that the simple fact we made it  back to Benicia at all, in these conditions under sail, without incident, was "quite an accomplishment."  Or it means we're all nucking futs. Celebratory after sail Hors D'Oeuvres consisted of anything that didn't get wet or smashed in the passage. They included some chocolate raisins that somehow got loose aboard 'Sally' and were subsequently found the next day smeared below decks.  Jake cursed the provider, considering them an unforgivable scourge, banning them (and me?) from the boat.

Sure hope not.

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