2009 Nov – Cruising the Sacramento Delta

Bridge in the Delta

Weighted bridge in the Delta

 

I decided to spend a few days in the Sacramento Delta and shanghai’ed a friend into coming along.   We didn’t deliberately choose this time of year, namely late Fall; it was more or less decided for us by circumstances. But the weather forecast was for calm days, highs in the mid 60’s, and most importantly, no mosquitoes because it is too late in the season for the little body snatchers.

DAY 1 We decided to travel from the marina in the south of the Bay to the Benicia Marina on the first day.  It looked do-able on the chart, but paper charts and reality are two vastly different things. We left the dock at 8:30am in incredibly calm conditions – zero wind, clear skies, flat waters.  It started out a beautiful morning.  However, it didn’t stay that way for long.   We exited the Slough and turned into the main channel of the Bay for San Francisco and pretty soon we ran into fog.  Initially we could see a few hundred yards ahead as I went downstairs to start up the radar.  But by 10:00am we were in dense fog and having to rely on the radar and horns, but it seemed we were the only ones out there!  Nevertheless we crept along because we had bridges to go under and buttresses to avoid.  We were also fighting the incoming tide and lost nearly 2 knots to the current.   With our reduced speed and the 2 knots against us, we were making poor time. As we neared San Francisco the tide turned and was going out.   Also the fog had lifted and it was now a beautiful day.  Also the tide was in our favor and we roared along as we gained +2 knots.  At noon we passed under the Oakland Bay Bridge and made our way to the San Pablo Bay – where the outgoing current was now against us again.  Our speed dropped from 9 knots to 3.8 as we clawed our way to Benicia. The Benicia Marina closed at 4:30pm and I called at 3:00pm to warn them that we would not reach them in time.  They said we should dock at their fuel dock and they would leave a key to the showers in a key slot in their office door.

Docked in Benicia Marina

Docked in Benicia Marina

We docked at Benicia Marina after 5:00pm, were showered by 6:00, and making dinner by 7:00pm.  Dinner was salmon and homemade tartar sauce, and couscous, with a mixed salad,.  It was delicious.  We decide to watch the movie Phenomenon with John Travolta, but 1/3 of the way thru the movie we switched it off and were asleep by 9:00pm. It was a long first day – I wouldn’t recommend it.  We should have broken our trip at Berkeley, or San Francisco, or Sausalito.  Anywhere would have been preferable to 9 hours slogging against the current.

DAY 2 We left the Benicia Marina dock at 10:30am.  A Delta regular walking along the docks recommended that our next stop be Rio Vista, then Walnut Grove, and then back via the Georgianna Slough. We thought we might sail calmly along the Delta in blissful silence, because we always seem to use the engine.  But the rivers in the Delta are too narrow for a 41ft boat to sail; we would be tacking every 100ft until the rig gave in or we gave in – whichever happened first.  So we motored yet again. The tide was in our favor (thank heavens) and we gained nearly 3 knots, so we were roaring along at over 9 kn.  As we neared Rio Vista we noticed tons of spiders around – flying spiders I guess because rows and rows of strands of spider web were streaming off our shrouds – actually the strands of webs were flying off anything that they connected with presumably as the spider whistled past.  And there were little spiders crawling around all over the deck – hopefully they are not poisonous or in any way unfriendly.  It feels strange, quite unnerving really, to walk around the deck and get spider webs all over your body.

Rio Vista bridge being raised 60ft to accommodate our 50ft mast

Rio Vista bridge being raised 60ft to accommodate our 50ft mast

The entrance to the marina in Rio Vista is very narrow and from what we could see as we did a drive-by, it looked very narrow inside too.  FastAlley is a wide batmobile so I was nervous that we wouldn’t be able to turn and/or rotate once we were inside.  However, after crawling carefully thru the narrow entrance, we found that the transient docking area was quite substantial.

Standing on the transient dock looking back at the narrow entrance to the marina

Standing next to FastAlley on the transient dock looking back at the narrow entrance to the marina

Once the boat was safely tied up, we walked the 10 minutes into downtown historic Rio Vista for dinner at Lucy’s.

Safely tied up in the transient slips of Rio Vista marina

Safely tied up in the transient slips of Rio Vista marina

As we strolled the area, we saw a young man from the marina restaurant setting a raccoon trap because he said a little tribe of raccoons were climbing in the restaurant garbage during the night and causing damage.  We examined his trap as he explained how he thought it would work.

Racoon cage

Racoon cage

The next morning while my friend was in the marina gift shop they were discussing the big raccoon they had caught.  The young man had threatened to kill it when he caught it, but now that he was eyeball to eyeball with the creature, he had lost his lust to kill.  My friend suggested relocating the raccoon to a competitor’s restaurant instead – which they thought was a pretty good idea. I met a small boy about 7 years old riding his bicycle in the marina and he gave me an angelic smile as he paused to say Hello.  He added shyly, “Its been years since I’ve been here (too cute!) so I’m taking a drive down memory lane”.  I kept a straight face with some difficulty.  No doubt he was quoting his grandmother’s parting words as he rode off on his bike earlier. The marina had a tiny area for walking the dog.  It had all a male dogs favorite pee-related things – a fire hydrant, a tree stump, and a sand layer.

Self explanatory

Self explanatory

Dog's fire hydrant

Dog's fire hydrant

dog's tree stump

dog's tree stump

Using state-of-the-art technology, the marina has created a cutting edge meteorological station for the use of boaters in the area.

Rio Vista's weather station
Rio Vista’s weather station

DAY 3 Left Rio Vista for Walnut Grove and again the tide is in our favor shoving us along.  We passed the town of Isleton and decided that we would visit it on our way back.  We called ahead to the Ryde Hotel for overnighting on their guest dock (with power) but we missed the hotel in our enthusiasm to reach Walnut Grove.  We went all the way to Walnut Grove and under the bridge, only to discover we had missed it 3 miles earlier.  We had to turn around, go back under the bridge, and 3 miles down the Sacramento River again.  It was a little embarrassing because the batmobile is a pretty obvious boat, and I called to the bridge asking them to open up for FastAlley.  The traffic was stopped, bells rang, the bridge lifted ponderously and we went thru.  Then we discovered we had missed the hotel and had to go back to the bridge, request they lift it, traffic was stopped, bells rang, the bridge lifted reluctantly, and we squirmed our way thru again.

1930's Ryde Hotel

1930's Ryde Hotel

It was worth it though because the Hotel is just gorgeous, and although it was closed for the winter they let us tie up to the dock for $31 and have hot showers. Because the hotel was closed, the receptionist handed us the key to the front door of the hotel and told us to make sure we locked up after we were finished showering.  Gotta love the Honor System!  The hotel has 42 rooms, a 9-hole golf course, and near enough to the historic city of Locke so that we can motor up first thing in the morning and grab a spot on the free public dock. Gorgeous gorgeous evening – warm enough for summer t-shirts, shorts.  No wind, ZERO mosquitoes, slack tide, and my friend making steak and baked potato on the BBQ.  My contribution is to hack up some tomatoes for salad.  I hate cooking.

DAY 4 Left the Ryde Hotel and made our way back upriver again to Walnut Grove and stopped at the free public dock.  Ww walked the 500-yards to the historic city of Locke which is an old city first occupied by the Chinese during the 1910’s.  The Chinese helped build the levees of the Sacramento Delta, and also farmed the land.

Building in historic Locke

Building in historic Locke

Now the city of one-block is very quaint but falling down.

The main street (and only block) of Locke

The main street (and only block) of Locke

I almost wish that the Locke Foundation was more active in repairing and rejuvenating Locke.  But the city may have been continuously occupied by the Chinese for the last 100 years but their wonderful architectural influence is utterly absent.  No swooping rooftops, no manicured gardens, no bright red paintwork.  Really, it just looks like any other old wooden city.  But quaint enough to be worth a visit.

ok, I know this is just too touristy for words!

ok, I know this is just too touristy for words!

We bought a delicious ice cream in the store opposite the public dock, then returned to the boat.  On the dock we passed a couple who were eating hamburgers that they said tasted fine but were overpriced – $6 for a burger and fries.   She said the hamburger hut had just opened and they were their very first customer!  They had mixed feelings about that, especially the $6.  They suggested that we should take the time to continue upriver to Sacramento old town, rather than turn around and visit Isleton.  Apparently the crime in Isleton is pretty high and its not even safe to leave the marina.

Homes lining the banks of the Sacramento River

Homes lining the banks of the Sacramento River

So we cast off and continued upriver to Sacramento – but with the tide against up AGAIN it took nearly 6 hours to reach our marina where we had booked an overnight stay.  The harbormaster sounded very young – my friend on the radio asked how much it would cost and the harbormaster responded, “$1 per foot, what is your length?”  My friend responded, “41 feet”.  After a long silence the harbormaster said, “Is $1/ft too expensive?”  (So cute).  I nodded vigorously but my friend just said into the radio, “No, that’s fine”.  Gotta teach that man the value of a $1.00!  Turns out the harbormaster is very young, perhaps not even 20 yet. I must say they had the BEST showers of all the marinas I have visited so far.  The only downside was that their fuel dock where we overnighted had evenly spaced cement poles along its length, which were a real problem for the 41ft trimaran.  It was obvious that the poles were going to wreak havoc on the paintwork as the trimaran bulged out just at the point of the pole placement, and the fenders just curled around the posts and exposed the boat topsides to the cement poles.  We spent about an hour tying our fenders to the poles instead of to the boat.  It was a long tiring day – it took over 6 hours up the Sacramento River which twists and turns over and over, and over and over.  You have to be very aware of logs in the water and various obstructions.  Toddling along at 5 knots because of the 2 knot current against us, was very tiring.  And boring.  There is just so much excitement you can generate from miles of homes on the river bank.  And miles of bushes.  And trees.  And boat wrecks.

Yet another wreck on the river bank....

Yet another wreck on the river bank....

We were hurrying – as much as the current would allow us – to get to Sacramento before 5:00pm because we knew we had to go under 2 low bridges to our marina, and the bridge operators all go home at 5:00pm.  We called ahead when the bridges were in sight and the (first) lift bridge lifted 60 feet and we went under then scooted along to the swing bridge.  The operator there kindly opened for us and as we exited the clock said 5:01pm – made it!  I thanked the operator for staying late for us and he waved.

Swing bridge starting to open....

Swing bridge starting to open....

..... and swing bridge open

..... and swing bridge open

DAY 5

We used that fabulous shower again this morning – I couldn’t resist.  Today we will tie up at the Sacramento old town public dock and explore the historic city. We are both exhausted so we will stay over another night at the dock and move on tomorrow – with the tide !! But then we revisited the boat logs and discovered that we didnt have time to spend a day in Sacramento if we wanted to get back home by Sunday night.  In fact, according to our calculations we would be travelling for most of the next 3 days. So we turned back for home – motoring steadily along – with the tide sometimes in our favor and sometimes shoving us backwards. Sacramento was too far to travel – it took all of the day to reach it from Walnut Grove, and then all of the next day to get back to WG.

DAY 6

We overnighted at the Ryde Hotel again, then headed downriver again, giving Rio Vista a miss and heading for Benicia.

DAY 7

 We overnighted at Benicia and then headed for San Francisco and the south of the Bay. We should have taken the advice of the local that we met on the Benicia docks that first day in the Delta – and turned at Walnut Grove and returned via the Georgina Slough – rather than taking the hamburger couple’s advice and wasting 2 days slogging to Sacramento.  If you have a limited timeframe for touring the Delta, you dont want to travel from Walnut Grove to Sacramento – it is just too time consuming.

SUMMARY

Travelling the Delta in late Fall/early Winter is the perfect time to visit.  It is not staggeringly hot, but mildly sunny.  There are no mosquitoes.  Fewer crowds in the towns.  Open and available docks for overnighting.  And very little traffic on the river.  If you can delay your trip till the latter part of the year, you will enjoy it more.  Well, we did. And the river is usually 12- to 15-feet deep so most sailboats can travel the rivers without too much fear of running aground.   Of course if you have a high speed power boat then you can travel the full length of the Sacramento River and many of the Sloughs and still have time for a detour to San Francisco.  However, for the owners of waddling sailboats, you dont want to travel more than 3 hours a day before stopping. This was definitely a fun one-week trip.  I highly recommend it.  

AN INTERESTING POINT OF VIEW…. We noticed that the marinas in the Sacramento Delta have floating docks with the poles standing about 30 feet high.  Says a lot about how high the Sacramento River gets when subjected to lots of rain and flooding.  Maybe that contributes to all those wrecks along the river?

Note the 30-ft floating docks - got to be quite unnerving to visit your boat and see it floating that high up the pole.

Note the 30-ft floating docks - got to be quite unnerving to visit your boat and see it floating that high up the pole.

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