Small Boat Odyssey

By Jason Rucker

Packing up the boat. The adventure begins.

NPS Photo

Packing up the boat. The adventure begins.


On this Sunday at Hyde Street Pier, all the travelers who have waited months for this year's gunkholing trip are gathered. Everyone is tired of the planning, and ready to go. Over the next five days, these boats complete a unique, 73-mile journey by oar and sail across the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, and up into the Sacramento River Delta.

Monday, Hyde Street Pier to China Camp, 14 mi

After a hurried, early breakfast at Franceschi's on Fisherman's Wharf, we clamber aboard our boats and excitedly row out of Aquatic Park and into the Bay. Todd and I shove off the floating dock in the Hefley, a Pete Culler­ designed "Good Little Skiff." It feels good to finally be rowing.

As we head out past the breakwater, I'm aware of each oar stroke and I feel the pull in my back and arms. As we start out towards Alcatraz, I relax into the open water rhythm of rowing, forgetting the individual strokes. We pull our way through the cool mist and light breeze, talking little and just enjoying the motion of the boat on the water.

In the lee of Alcatraz Todd unlashes the sail from around the mast and sets the small tanbark spritsail. I row another hundred yards out of the island's wind-shadow into the light breeze, Todd sheets in, and we sail. The wind comes and goes and we drift along with the breeze and current up past Angel Island towards the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

To the west of us, Dan Drath reclines in his little whitehall, Emily Joan, his floppy hat just visible over the weather gunwale, one bare foot out over the lee rail with a toe holding out the sheet. Emily Joan is a sleek boat and slips right along in this light air.

One by one, all the little boats pass Red Rock, then under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the Brothers off to starboard, San Quentin over to the West there in the distance, the concrete quarry, Point San Pedro, the Sisters, around the corner and into China Camp. It's almost too easy.

When the park closes, we pitch our tents and indulge in a classic barbecue. Later, we sit around a picnic table talking and enjoying the mild evening. Eventually, the sea chanteys begin. Everyone joins in on the choruses and wherever else they know the words.

A strong southeasterly breeze picked up when leaving China Camp.

NPS Photo

A strong southeasterly breeze picked up when leaving China Camp.


Tuesday, ChinaCamp to Benicia, 19 mi

Day two dawns bright, clear and mild. As we get underway, John Muir radios in from the Boston Whaler that a strong southeasterly wind has picked up and kicked up a chop. The boats in the distance go in and out of view behind swells and waves.

Onboard the William Garden-designed cutter Bullfrog, Jaime puts a reef in the main and we cruise along easily, an occasional spray of water coming up and over the windward quarter. On the radio we hear that Kelly and Julie on the Sierra took a wave and are swamped. John Conway, in the Buff Duck, and Al Lutz and the crew of the Alma, get Julie and Kelly onto the scow schooner and take the Sierra in tow.

The Canright brothers and Francisco in the felucca Nuovo Mondo have the long yard set on the windward side of the mast. They have to reef the sail to keep the pressure on the yard and the rig down. But the felucca is ballasted with almost 1,000lbs. in her bilge. She stands right up to the 35 knot winds and plows through the chop.

Later, after folks have wandered into the Benicia Yacht Club's restaurant by twos and threes (sun- and wind-burnt, with hair disheveled, looking either exhausted or relieved), the stories start.

John Delapp rowed the whole way, with Jim Lawson at the helm. John says, "Boy I knew that little peapod was a good boat, but I didn't realize how seaworthy it was. After all that wind and waves, there were only about three cups of water in the boat, and I think two of them came out of Jim."

Bill Stoye, our only solo rower, pulled the oars all day, glancing back over his shoulder. At times he had to pull twice or more with his leeward right arm for every one stroke with his left just to keep his bow from being blown off course.

Smooth sailing from Benicia to Collinsville.

NPS Photo

Smooth sailing from Benicia to Collinsville.


Wednesday, Benica to Collinsville, 18 mi

Sometimes Al says that the large, flat Alma sails like a big front porch -- which is perfect for this hot afternoon in the mouth of Montezuma Slough. Rafted up alongside, we all lounge about Alma's deck with the canvas canopy draped over the boom, warding off the blazing Delta sun.

The sail up here from Benicia was a nice broad reach all the way. Dan in his whitehall got a bit too relaxed at one point and a gust knocked him over. Fortunately, the water was calm and we recovered his gear easily.

After dinner, those new to the Delta and its ways are initiated into the fellowship of the mud in an official ceremony. While bound to silence, I can confirm that King Tule and Queen Mud preside, and chanting is involved.

Thursday, Collinsville to Nurse Slough, 11.5 mi

In Nurse Slough the wind picks up a bit as the sun sinks below the smooth brown hills and the boats rafted up alongside the Alma start to rock & roll and thump a bit. Jake takes Sally and their canoe yawl into a small side slough where two disheveled floating docks sit serenely alongside pilings. Craig, Pete and I follow, tie off to the docks and join Jake and Sally in the deep comfortable cockpit of their beautiful boat. In the cooling dusk, birds fly past a nearly full moon above the hills.

This is the end of the fourth and most serene day of the trip. We have become acclimated to the Delta now. Time slows to a crawl; the sun and breeze and tule reeds are constant. San Francisco seems extremely distant.

Sam Johnson lets me try his beautiful lapstrake, lug-rigged catboat. Sitting down in the bilge of the boat with the sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, all I can see is the water, the tules, the brown hills in the distance, and Sierra's sail up ahead. The water rippling against the laps of the bow makes a laughing sound.

A little too calm; breaking out the oars.

NPS Photo

A little too calm; breaking out the oars.


Friday, Nurse Slough to SuisunCity, 10.5 mi

Our final day: trial and error, heat and exhaustion, and finally triumph. It's a long haul up Montezuma Slough through either Cutoff Slough (if your mast can clear the bridge) or Hunter Cut. The folks in Cutoff Slough are faced with narrow shallow water and a headwind. John and Todd in the Hefley manage to short tack all the way through, with an oar to help them tack quickly and keep them off the mud. Daphne and Gary also sail all the way after a brief and futile attempt to row their broad-beamed Walker Sailing Dinghy into the wind. But they make only a boatlength or two of progress on each tack. It's a real battle.

We resolve to stand for the honor of our felucca and see if we can beat her to windward along the sloughs. After an embarrassing start, missing our first tack and ending up grounded on the muddy slough bank we try again (and again). Long periods of time pass without any of us speaking because we're too busy sailing the boat. On each tack I slide the oar out and take five to ten hard strokes, Steve puts the helm over, ducks under the main sheet, and reruns it through a notch in the sternpost, Francisco then sheets us in on the new tack. We're hardly set up and moving when it's tacking time again and we repeat the same dance.

When we round the corner at Hunter Cut and take the wind on our beam and then our stern quarter, we are able to slack the tack of the sail, letting the yard come up almost perpendicular to the mast like a square sail. The sail billows out in front of us drawing us on towards our final destination of Suisun City.

At the Solano Yacht Club they have two shower stalls, which we 50-odd boaters monopolize for the entire afternoon. While waiting in the bar for our showers, we sit heavily on our barstools with dazed, tired smiles, still talking about boats and boating, after five straight days of it. We try to define the trip, and this is what we come up with: camaraderie, boating, learning and of course, fun. Tired and sore, we all resolve to do it again next year.

Last updated: September 23, 2015

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