Sailing with Jake
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Sailing with Jake

By Andrew Church

Jake built a sailboat.  Or  as he humbly put it; "Caused it to be built". Sally is her name.  Sally is also his long suffering wife.  Sally the wife bought Jake the building plans as a present.  Sally knew the boat would be completed.  And sailed.  Jake is that kind of guy.

Sally the boat is a pretty twenty-six foot canoe yawl designed by Albert Strange more than a century ago, equipped with a modern roller furling jib,  an old timey loose footed main with a couple of reefs, and a healthy portion of mizzen sail.  Sally can be easily balanced for any condition.  I have been sailing in my own boat beside Jake in his Sally around the Sacramento Delta for a few years now, and I just love how well the boat maneuvers in the close quarters of the rivers and sloughs found there. Finally, this past October, I got my turn to go sailing with Jake on Sally for a weekend.  (Many thanks to Sally's -the wife- boss for scheduling her to work during the planned trip.  The second half of your bribe money's coming, unmarked small bills as requested.)

Sally can go anywhere Jake wants her to go.  -Except maybe dry land, and she even does that pretty well on the trailer.  You should see the road he has to traverse to get to his barn!-  No need for crew with all lines leading to the cockpit.  Knees or a hip on the heavy, stout tiller; halyards, vang, and furling lines on the cabin top, jib sheets along the sides of the cabin to the small bronze winches on the cockpit cowlings, four to one Main sheet attaching the tip of the boom to the base of the mizzen mast at the rear of the cockpit, with the mizzen vang and sheet aft of the mizzen mast.  All are within reach while seated comfortably in the waist deep cockpit. 

I wasn't actually needed aboard, but Jake seemed to tolerate the company.  He isn't jealous or selfish with the helm.  But he likes to keep the sail trim for himself.  He encourages letting the helm go free, so that "Sally can take care of things on her own."  I did, and she does... quite well.

On one Friday afternoon Jake and I set sail from Antioch for Collinsville to
meet a pal with a motor cruiser for a weekend of sailing, fishing and messing about.  Heading west on the San Joaquin River, down stream, against the current of the incoming tide from San Francisco Bay, we were beating into a light breeze from the west-north-west that was whispering little secrets off the grassy islands of the side channels and delta marshes. 

Jake and I sat on opposite sides of the cockpit, feet stretched comfortably forward against the cabin, tacking back and forth down the river and up the wind.  When it came time to tack over, whichever of us was sitting on the leeward side would reach out lazily and pull the helm all the way over for a moment and then let go of the tiller, meanwhile holding the jib to backwind the bow around in the gentle breeze.  Sally would take over and bring the helm amidship herself as the new leeward man snugged the jib around.  Just about then the mizzen filled and rounded us up gently until it balanced pressure with the jib.  And in the mean time the healthy loose footed main started powering up slowly but assuredly, with a laughing gurgle of bubbles running the laps of the hull.

The leeward man had the helm, but that only meant looking under the main to watch the tell tales on the jib for optimum air flow and occasionally touch the knob of the helm with a light fingertip or two.  Not actually moving the tiller, but rather putting a few grams of intent into it.  Sailing Sally in light air is the most Zen like sailing experience I've ever had in my life.

Later that afternoon with the wind finally building we were on a long reach going up Broad Slough, Jake decided it was time for hot sake.  He pushed the sliding hatch all the way forward and sat in the cabin on the centerboard trunk facing aft with his head just below the cabin top, attending the camp stove inside the low cabin to warm sake in a little red cast iron sauce pan with a pour spout.  Once in a while he would sit up and look around, keeping an eye on things, but never saying anything, just checking.  I sat in the cockpit watching the delta go by with an elegant celadon green cup steaming with rice wine in the now freshening breeze on a warm October's day.  The boat was trimmed and balanced to perfection.

Sailing therapy.  Better than any psychologist for hire. Jake kept handing me more hot sake while I was watching the grassy islands.  These glorified sand bars are littered with old shipwrecks and snags.  A snowy egret standing only ankle deep just out side the thirty-five foot deep shipping channel markers means a sudden shallow.  A simple color change from brackish green to mud brown could be trouble.  Even a stationary riffle on the water's surface must be read and correlated to the very precise charts.  We needed to know just where we were at all times so we could avoid the thousands of obstacles and lumpy bits strewn about in this jumble of rivers and drainage's.  Most all of which are hidden below the surface at high tide.

Sally takes almost two and one half feet draft with lots of wide dead wood keel protecting the rudder.  The ten inch wide flat bottom surface of the keel allows Sally to sit on the mud if forced by a falling tide.  She is equipped with a stout three inch wide swinging centerboard adding three more feet of, shall we say, casual depth.  The centerboard is weighted with lead on the leading edge to carry it down into position, as well as act as a nifty skid plate.  The lead is just perfect for those moments when we cut too close to a point or venture too far into a shallow basin and drag the board across the bottom.
These shallow forays do not necessarily spell disaster.  As alert as Jake is he sometimes uses a sail by Braille system of delta navigation.  On occasion the boat may seem a little sluggish, leaving a muddy hue to our wake as the board rises up and over a firm sandy bottom surface.  Other times the mud is so soft it may stop the boat all together as the board slices like a hot knife in the swamp gunk until the muck finally sucks the power out of our momentum.  Then he just raises the three hundred pound board with the twenty-to-one home built worm screw crank, handily located within reach right there in the cockpit, until it's off the bottom, and Sally  just tacks away from the obstacle.

If your lucky enough to hit it on a rising tide.  Jake spoke about having to sit it out until the next higher tide a couple of times.  I can just imagine him calmly resting there in shallow water on the mud, heating sake and reading a book.
Entering Marshall Cut at Collinsville is a leap of faith.  Approaching the seemingly unbroken bank of Tule reeds we needed to keep up as much momentum as possible to slide through a wind shadow created by a grove of cottonwood trees at the entrance, right where the reeds magically part to reveal a deep channel wide enough to enter, but no room to turn around until quite a ways in.  There was no turning back.

We left quite a wake in the calm channel as we powered past our pal Bill with his fifties era twin engine wooden Chris Craft delta cruiser.  It was recently christened Mim after someone's grandmother.  We rolled up the jib and dropped the main and tacked back down the cut to raft up alongside Mim under mizzen alone, making good way.  With Jake at the helm we sidled up and I handed off the bowline gentle as you please.  Jokes about "My, what big fenders you have!"  and the gamming began.

From the traveling log of the 'Stolen Moment'
Andrew Church, able bodied deckhand

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