Delta Doo Dah
Latitude 38

Lush Life in the Delta, June 2011

In last year's annual Delta article, we suggested veering off your normally beaten path to explore new sloughs and cuts during your own Delta cruise. We at Latitude 38 like to practice what we preach, so this writer and her husband did just that for a spring getaway last month aboard our Crealock 37 Silent Sun.

Spring (before Memorial Day) and fall (after Labor Day) are our favorite times to visit the Delta. The temperatures are significantly cooler than in summer, but still warm enough to warrant packing along a generous supply of sunscreen and hot weather clothes. We also prefer uncrowded anchorages — a fairy tale during the sweltering summer months. And while the wind might not be as consistent as in the summer, when searing heat in the San Joaquin Valley sucks cool ocean air inland — Mother Nature's very own air conditioner — you're still apt to be granted favorable winds up river.

Except when you aren't . . .

In this issue's Racing Sheet, you'll read about the very unusual and undramatic Great Vallejo Race, where racers were flummoxed by a practically windless day — the same day we left our Sausalito slip bound for Decker Island. The bad news for racers was that the wind never picked up for them, the good news for us was that it finally did once we were in Suisun Bay, giving us an extra couple knots of boat speed.

The key to a quick upriver ride is starting your trip as soon as the current switches to a flood. Any number of charting programs, websites and apps will help you determine the best time for you to head out, and leaving at slack water will get your vacation started in a hurry because you'll ride the flood all day.
We hooked a left out of Richardson Bay a little before 8 a.m. and made it to Decker Island by 5 p.m., leaving plenty of time to fire up the BBQ and enjoy dinner in the cockpit. Covering more than 50 miles in nine hours isn't too shabby considering we didn't see any wind until the final third of the trip.

Decker Island is a favorite destination of ours, and we considered alternate stopovers for the purposes of this article, but it's so conveniently located to everywhere we could possibly want to explore that it's almost a must. Besides, after a full day of sailing (or, in our case, motoring), by the time you hit Decker you're likely to want to settle in for the evening. Our — and seemingly everyone else's — preferred anchorage is near the northeast tip of the island behind a clump of trees that boasts a rope swing. Depending on the wind direction and speed, though, nearly anywhere on Horseshoe Bend — the waterway running behind Decker — could serve as a comfortable anchoring spot.

When we woke up the next morning, we were faced with a tough choice: Hang out and relax for the next week, or get moving. While the prospect of the former was exceedingly tempting, we of course chose to move on. Our destination: Prospect Slough.

Never having explored that area of the Delta, we were happily surprised to find that it was an ideal place to relax for a few days. Situated just off Cache Slough where it connects to the Sacramento Deep Water Channel, Prospect Slough's abundant trees provided scenery, shade and wind protection, as well as habitat for any number of bugs and the birds that eat them. We may not be avian enthusiasts, but even we were impressed by the diverse range of fowl we spotted during our stay — from gangly white pelicans to annoyingly aggressive swallows to surprisingly alert owls. The Delta is a birder's paradise.

If you decide to check out Prospect Slough, take care to note that the chart doesn't show Liberty Island as flooded, which it is. This, combined with an extra tule island or two and a stretch of water that was supposed to be marsh, caused some anxiety aboard Silent Sun, but we eventually found a deep channel — 50+ feet in some spots — that led to our temporary home. Our two strongest suggestions for traveling on Prospect Slough are to keep a sharp eye on your depthsounder and to stay right — the flooding of Liberty Island gives the illusion there's a channel to the left of the slough when it can actually get quite shallow.

Being in need of some serious relaxation, we decided to stay put for a few days, basking the the mild temps and light breeze. But on the second night an increase in wind speed and a shift in direction, combined with a flooding current, tripped not only out stern anchor but also our bow anchor! We reset the bow anchor for the night — there was plenty of room to swing — and took off the next morning, as the wind was still working up an uncomfortable fetch across Liberty Island.

We'd made arrangements with some of our Sacramento-based family to meet at Walnut Grove on Wednesday, so we figured we'd make the short 11-mile jaunt to Georgiana Slough a day early and have some time to chill. We knew we'd catch the last of the ebb, and weren't at all surprised to watch our speed drop to two knots once we made the turn onto the Old Sacramento River. Then the wind that had chased us out of Prospect died and on came the engine.

What did surprise us was that the ebb seemed never-ending. According to our current tables, we were supposed to start seeing relief by mid-afternoon, but we didn't make better than three knots the entire ride. Thanks to heavy spring runoff from the Sierra, what we thought was going to be a three-hour trip ended up taking nearly eight hours! Thankfully, the Old Sac offers charming scenery that made the journey tolerable.

Before we could pass through the Georgiana Slough bridge to find a spot to spend the night, we also had to pass through an obstacle course of buoys and bubbles. As we noted in May 6's 'Lectronic Latitude, the California Department of Water Resources had set up a temporary 'bubble barrier' to deter ocean-bound Chinook salmon from wandering off the beaten path, where 65% of them would likely die. The barrier does this by flashing strobes and emitting annoying noises inside a curtain of bubbles. The fish apparently don't want anything to do with the cacophony so they hightail it back to the Sacramento River.

Having been in contact with the project's engineer, we knew there was plenty of depth above the barrier for our six-foot draft — and even if we hadn't known, an inverted depth gauge confirmed it. But the buoys marking the location of the barrier were set about 20 feet apart. No big challenge for powerboats with plenty of maneuverability, but being on a keelboat battling a strong current, we had to gauge our assault carefully to avoid getting swept into a buoy.

 

Delta newbies might feel intimidated calling bridge tenders for an opening, but there's really no need. Every one we've ever spoken to has been friendly and attentive — one bridge even opened without our having to ask! Just call the tender on VHF 9 — be sure to specify which bridge — and ask for an opening. Simple as that.

The Georgiana Slough Bridge was no different, except the tender noted the presence of a monster snag to the right of the channel. He even came out of the tender house and exchanged pleasantries. "Fair winds," he called as he walked back to his post.

We poked our way down the slough about a mile and, due to the limited width of the channel, nestled in close to the verdant shore. Since the spring current was clearly going to keep us pointing upriver, we didn't bother with a stern anchor as we normally would any other time of year. After a long, hot day, an on-deck solar shower at dusk was just what the doctor ordered.

Though we count Georgiana Slough — which runs a meandering and winding 12 miles to the Mokelumne River — as one of our favorite Delta waterways, we don't get there as often as we'd like. In fact, it'd been several years since we'd enjoyed its bamboo-lined shores, but this short one-night stopover reminded us exactly why we love it — abundant wildlife, limited boat traffic, and luxurious solitude.
We were loath to leave our idyllic spot, but we were also eager to explore Walnut Grove and nearby Locke with our family. Two bridges and a bubble barrier later, and we were tied up to the dock at Walnut Grove. It's free for day use, but there's a fee for overnighting.

After a full day of playing tourist in the historic towns, our family drove off and we decided to use the relentless current to get a head start on the notoriously challenging trip home. We pulled away from the dock around 5 p.m. and dropped anchor behind Decker Island at 8 p.m. — a pleasant change from the previous day.

If anything is more important to a successful Delta cruise than planning the trip up, it's planning your trip back. The winds that shot you up the river like a rocket can make the trip home difficult, if not downright brutal. And even when conditions are ideal, if you start deep within the Delta, you'll find yourself pushing through at least a couple current cycles before reaching the Central Bay, making for one very long day, if not two.

The key to planning your ride home is to have an exit strategy and not be afraid to implement it. If strong winds meet a contrary current on San Pablo Bay, your trip is going to suck, no two ways about it. If you don't have a problem ending your vacation beating into 30 knots and short, steep seas, go for it. If you can't think of a worse conclusion to a relaxing week, tuck into Antioch, Pittsburg, Benicia, Glen Cove or Vallejo until the winds abate.

The good news is that, unless affected by a weather system, the wind up there tends to run on a three-day cycle — three days on, three days off — so you won't have long to wait; the bad news is that you might have to catch a train or ferry back home if you have time constraints.

We'd planned to make the trip home over the course of four days — short hops that took advantage of favorable currents. Since we'd made it to Decker a day ahead of 'schedule', we enjoyed one last blissful day of doing absolutely nothing, and headed down to Vallejo YC on Friday. We'd planned to leave Saturday for a stop at China Camp, but scrapped it for another night of fun at the club.
Unfortunately, after — ahem — three days of mild winds and warm temps, the wind piped up and blew a solid 25+ all night. We battened down the hatches the next morning and prepared for a spanking — and we got it. For 30 very long minutes, we slammed into choppy waters before conceding defeat and heading back to the club. Our return home would have to wait.

The end of our vacation may not have been as relaxing as the rest of it, but the beating we took just reinforces the old saying, "The sour always makes the sweet sweeter." And that's just what our Delta cruise was: sweeeeeeeeet!

- latitude/ladonna


This story was reprinted from the June, 2011, issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy with all the color photos, use the subscription order form, and specify the 6/10 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941. This issue is also available for free on eBook.


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