At the beginning of his book “The Long Way” Moitessier says that it’s bad luck for a sailor to get underway for an adventure on a Friday…
So in my own tradition of not heeding the words of insane, sea-shocked, salty old hippies on Friday the morning of July 14 at 0400h our little engine-free Folkboat regatta departed from the Jack London Aquatic Center in the Oakland Estuary on an adventure that none of the 5 men involved will ever forget.
Fête Nationale, Bastille Day!
Our supposed goal for this adventure was a little spot at the very end of NOAA Nautical Chart #18652 by the name of Decker Island. The Isle of Decker as it came to be called aboard Tulla was somewhat of a myth to the crew of the S.V. Dazzler. A myth because none of her crew had ever been up the Delta before in any kind of vessel much less a motor-free Folkboat. The sailing vessel Dazzler, is a beautiful Navy Blue fiberglass Folkboat built by volunteers in the Lake Merrit Classic Boat Club in the last decade of the 20th century, She is truly a sturdy vessel. At 25 feet Her crew is at maximum capacity with two adults, Co- Captains, Javier and Rodney and one newby Chris, (Javier’s son) the latter fellow being age 12 and never having been on an adventure of this sort. Chris is a skater and has a deep seated penchant for disaster that he’s smart enough to live through, though I’m sure he’ll have many scars to loudly show off in adventures to come.
The other vessel in our two ship regatta was the “Gem of the Estuary Fleet” the S.V. Tulla, a Norwegian Folkboat of the most classic of style. The S.V. Tulla was built by Brent Muller in 1962 and has a Brightwork hull and transom so no matter where she goes she’s a rock star. People just flock to her when she’s on a dock or change course and head straight for her when she’s out on the Bay almost like it’s some kind of natural reaction or reflex or something. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sailing this boat up the Oakland Inner harbor or in the S.F Bay and someone on another sailboat yells “Folkboats Forever!”, hell it happens every time I sail this beautiful little ship and Don and I do that allot. The crew on S.V. Tulla is trimmed back (because of last minute cancellations) to a mere two lowly sailors. Captain Don a 30 year veteran Bay sailor and myself the Director of the Estuary Fleet for the city of Oakland and “Coordinator” of this now (self proclaimed) historical regatta, James Lane.
Although the goal on our respective charts was only 44 miles away the challenge that lay before of us was to get up the Delta to our mark and back to our slips at the Jack London Aquatic Center in the Oakland Estuary by Monday morning without the aid of the evil, stinking, dreaded internal combustion engine. If we couldn’t make it by Monday then Tuesday would have to do. Oh yeah, like any good sailors we had small engines on board just in case but the goal, the real goal was to do the whole journey using only the wind the tide, the currents and our skills.
It’s Bastille Day, “Vive la Revolution!”
Our realtime departure was at 0420h (pretty good for a bunch of sleepy guys in no big hurry) on a westerly heading out to the San Francisco bay proper on 10 to 12 knots of early morning breeze riding a strong and steady ebb. We made fantastic time to the leeward doldrums of T.I. with the Yorba Buena anchorage to our beams by 0645h. That fresh breeze drove us up that ship infested Oakland inner harbor on an out going tide without the slightest bit of resistance. The sailing was spectacular and the adventure had just begun. By the time we hit The Slot the wind had reached a perfect 15 knots and our speed with the currant was 6.6 knots over the ground past the Berkeley Pier Ruins. Dazzler blew out in front and for some reason headed WNW for the western spans of the Richmond San Rafael bridge (a course I’d only heard was bad for calms and currant).
The consensus aboard the S.V. Tulla was to do the bridge on the easterly side of Red Rock Island (I hear that’s for sail) on a slow but picturesque wing-on-wing run. If it was just the doldrums in this channel it would be more tolerable but it’s not, we’ve got to find the spot with the least amount of backwards currant. It’s frustrating but it’s still early and we’re just stoked to be out still.
About 20 minutes before we made the bridge we saw Dazzler Pass in front of the Brothers on a beam reach heading straight for the Point San Pablo shallows! Because of our spectacular time coming out of the estuary and the Oakland Inner Harbor we missed our current window for making the tidal turn around under the Richmond Bridge. So because of making good we had to (got to) spend the next two hours trying not to go backwards, a battle we thoroughly lost for about 45 min of that two hours. Just like that, a valuable lesson already learned: don’t go too fast (something I never thought I’d really say when came to cruising in a sailboat). And the clouds hadn’t even broken yet.
We made it though and by 1030h we had rounded point San Pablo to the sad but somehow hilarious sight of our friends in the S.V. Dazzler getting towed out of the mud by a very Good Samaritan that was just happy to help out a “’Ol FolkeBad” in distress. By 1230h our regatta had Made point Pinole and were heading down the throat of the Carquinez Straight. The Sun was then as brutal as it ever got in that intense summer of broken thermometers but the wind was perfect all the way under that imposing giant of a bridge, The Carquinez.
Now, I’ve passed under pretty much all the bridges in the Bay Area quite a few times in the five years I’ve been sailing in this Bay but the Carquinez Bridge is the most like a monster then any of the rest of ‘em to me. I’ll tell yeah, that bridge just looks like it’s coming to get you. Just as we passed under that great beast the slack turned into currant and began pushing us up the straight like a great commode had suddenly flushed and it’s septic tank was east of us “up river” to Suisun Bay. The wind at that time had also freshened up quite a bit so our speed increased to 7.4 knots over the ground from Glen Cove to our first day goal Benicia, California, the home of the worst $10 breakfast I’ve ever had (I won’t bore you with the stupid details of that story but I just just to make my jab). The approach to Benicia with a screaming 3.2 knot flooding current and a 20 knot breeze was a literal blast but we sailed into the guest dock at the Benicia Marina with the style and grace of two engine-free Folkboats in there element.
Landfall, Benicia, Calif. 1525h
A party did ensue consisting of Burritos, Irish Stout, some bullshit sea stories and (oh my gawd!) is that Pussers Rum, yes please. Day one although not picture-perfect, a beautiful sail non-the-less and a great adventure begins to unfold.
A small craft advisory was in affect for San Pablo and Suisun Bays for Friday and Saturday and at 25 ft our boats defiantly fit into the category of Small Craft but Folkboats aren’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill small craft. The full keel sloop rigged Norwegian Folkboat weighs in at about 4200 US lbs. And has no reefing points in the sails, when the wind kicks up you ride the luff and that boat will perform like no other vessel you could ride, and I do mean ride!
On Saturday the 15th of July we had a waxing ebb at 1020h with a 25 knot wind to our beams as we exited the breakwater of the Benicia Marina with a heading straight across the Carquinez straight dew North between two huge anchored barges. With me at the helm and Don on the sheets we rode that boat like we were on a “Nantucket sleigh ride” with a Sperm Whale sheeted to our bows. In retrospect I don’t believe that the word “control” really describes the experience of trying to work that little ship through that roiling ebb and that howling wind “up-river” towards the Ships Graveyard at the mouth of Suisun Bay without even one wild jibe. Being as though I’m not a rilgious man I’ll just have to say it was skill that got us through with Tullas’ rig in tact. Once we got her on a broad reach the sailing vessel Tulla showed us how it was done. At first she would jump and lurch through the chop like a pissed off one-year-old mare but when we had finally finished our sail trim and she was on the reach she wanted she was as tame as a 15 hand Kentucky Filly trotting along at 6.6 knots sliding against the current. An awe-inspiring sail that only lasted two-and-a-half-hours of my life but two-and-a-half hours that I will never forget as long as I live. There is just no way that English words can describe the feeling I’m lamely trying to describe. The word Humbling comes close but doesn’t even come close, if you know what I mean.
We sailed to lee of the Ships Graveyard up current for about an hour or so to get the photos we needed of the old dead ships then got back on course to the confluence of the Sacromento and the San Joaquin rivers just as the tide turned to our backs and the wind eased to about 10 to 15 knots from astern. We took the northern rout around Browns Island to the Sacramento River and made Point San Joaquin on Winter Island by 1640h.
Still no engines, still no need.
It wasn’t until we made Point Sacramento on the North-Western tip of Sherman Island that I noticed the fact that all of our jibing points were almost on top of the deep channel markers like it was meant that way. Like it was made that way! It got me waxing a bit poetic on that Island point about all the great ships that have traversed these waters in the past without engines. I thought about Alma, the mighty flat bottomed scow that ran lumber up and down this river before mankind had the insane vision to tame it. She would jibe back-and-forth at the exact same place that I was jibing in my little wooden ship. For the first time in my life I could clearly see without an engine to distort my thoughts that as a species we discovered this entire planet without even a splash of Gasoline or Diesel fuel ever touching the ancient ebb and flow of this beautiful river. But in less then 100 years, a mere century, we have so thoroughly fouled this beautiful California Delta with the scum of our internal combustion power plants that we may never see clean water run into the Bay from here again! Us, our species, we did that.
At 1715h we spotted the lush green of Decker Island.
Now, let’s think about this for a moment, this internal combustion engine of ours. It fills our air with all kinds of toxins that we can’t quite remember the names of ‘cuz-a-the-fact we haven’t heard ‘em since the 80’s and all. It, the aforementioned I.C. engine, makes the self proclaimed planetary dominant species (that would be us lobbally hyper evolved primates with very handy thumbs) lazy, thus making us weak, thus making us apathetic, less dominant in other words, Dead.
Come on, that dog don’t hunt! That shit don’t make a lick of sense!
Wait a minute, didn’t ‘ol captian Long Beard Bernard (aforementioned) Moitessier say pretty much the same thing back in 1968 on his “Long Way” around this planet?
Didn’t I just call that dude Insane?
At 1800h we make eye contact with the broken down old ferry on up Horseshoe Bend at the South-West corner of the once mythical Decker Island. Don’s at the helm and tightens her up on a beams reach to bring us in a lee of the ferry as I drop the Danforth off the bow in about 8 feet of water. With Javier at the helm of Dazzler he luffs-up until we get the ground tackel and fenders set then comes in to windward as quite, smooth and gentle as if not making any sound at all was an important factor in his rafting of that vessel. The way we rafted up that night would’ve made a perfect training video!
At 1830h both our ships are hook down in the shelter of that weird old ferry, with the giant wind turbines beautifully spinning out free kilowatts and chopping up pidgins off in the distance, really a completely surreal place to want as a destination. All we really needed was a melting clock in the foreground, say like on the deck of that freaked out old car-carrier to inspire one of our numbers to spearhead the neo-surrealist movement. It might have been a totally weird place but we made it there and in doing so the way we did, for some reason made it profoundly beautiful. All five of us stood on the two bows of our perfectly rafted up, pretty little ships staring off into the pre sunset West North Western sky for some time in silence.
We rolled sails and made fast then decided to go looking for a camp-site up the bend to (what my chart said was a public landing). Javier, Chris and I pumped up the Zodiac and mounted the Merc-4-horse (Fuck yeah) and went very slowly roaring up the bend, burning up dinosaurs and making a wake for all of the quickly receding wildlife in every direction around us to enjoy. After about 15 loud minutes we made it to the once “public landing”, now a, “keep out or we’ll shoot”- “private property- no fishing, hunting or camping violators will be prosecuted by law”, landing.
“Looks like we’ll be spending the night on the hook gentlemen.” Was all that I could say to that.
We made it back to our ships just in time for Rodney to done his speedos and take a dip in the cool/somewhat fresh Delta waters. Chris and Javier posed for pictures in their underwear and quickly dove in. Don and I stayed dry and pulled them out as they pulled their way back to the boats against the 1.6 sunset current. We all laughed so hard that by the time the Dazzler crew was toweled and dry we were all long over dew for a serious feast. Rodney made the beef stew and Don brought the fine Sicilian canned fish all the way from Palermo, Sicily an adventure he’d had with his girlfriend Rosy earlier this year. That fish was truly a divine experience. We all ate and cussed and laughed then slept like sailors through a windy night at anchor in the lee of the old ferry on the totally forbidden, watch-meltingly surreal, formerly mythical Isle of Decker.
0600h “Why in the hell would you stop drinking coffee?” Rodney asked without a smidgion of a smerk on his face.
0601h “Cuz I don’t like to be a slave to anything. Substance, Job, government whatever, slavery is wrong.” Is my well thought out (from many hours of coffee jonesing) reply.
0601h “But this is special, this is the Isle of Decker.”
0604h “Your right, can I please have a-cup-a that there Joe”
“Here’s one right here.”
“Thank you sir.”
0640 Dazzler Sets sail to the orange of the freshly risen sun and Tulla waighs ankor and is quick to her windward sides. Today we find how she fares into the wind.
We’ve got a slowly flooding tide and a cool rising Northwesterly breeze that seems like a promise of some kind as we almost magically sail down the Sacramento River to the powerful two rivers confluence at the mouth of Suisun Bay. If our calculations are right on like they have been for the entirety of this adventure so far we should hit the Suisun Bay on a beams reach as the tide turns around, by the time we get to largest part of this Bay we should be making our best time of the journey so far. I’ll be dammed if we’re not right on the money by the time we he hit Green channel marker #7 we were doing 7.8 knots over the ground and heading for the Benicia, (Mess) Bridge like a Bayliner with a male/femal hungover crew on board. Once again, all I can do is ride this wonderful boat and trim this tight little rig all the way down this river, the boat seems to know how it wants to ride, it’s beautiful! Don can’t wait to get his hands on the tiller to experience this ride first hand so I reluctantly give in to his anxious hand wringing/lip smacking at our well established two hour watches. He takes the helm and feels out the fascinating down-river, beams-reach after we blew through the Benicia Bridge on a stiff 2.9 current and just enough wind to make us think we were sailing. From Green flasher 4s West to the Green channel marker #25 marking the entrance to Benicia Marina we’ve got a solid line of white caps and Don and I both get dressed to get wet. Now the wind is clearly communicating with us and drowning out all other forms of communication, waves, water each other, our bodies everything seems secondary to the growling wind barking out orders to the sailor at the helm. We’re tacking allot so I’m on the sheets with my eyes primarily on the jib when out of my peripheral vision I see a bone chilling sight. The ring shackle on the primary main sheet block has unscrewed it’s self and parted and is silently waiting to explode on our next tack. I look back at Don diligently watching the mainsail, and as calmly as I can tell him about our technical issues and ask him to carefully heave-to so’s I can deal with our little malfunction toot-sweat. He points up and manhandles the boom while I pull slack in the main sheet and bend the little stainless steal shackle back into place and screw her up real tight.
(Damn, the winds blowing like all hell’s broke lose and we’ve got a real emergency on our hands and your minds in the gutter, can’t you see I’m just trying to stick to my salty nomenclature, back to the story…)
I get the primary main sheet block put back together and Don once again pulls her in to as close a haul as we get without even a hint of a luff in the foresail. Our two beautiful little sailing vessels are flying into this body of water at 6.8 knots over the ground as we round Benicia’s city point ruins and head with a furry down the Carquinez Straight. For a time our tacks are so close to each other that we trough fruit and sodas to each other as we pass to stern a mere 6 to 8 feet away.
On one tack Chris vehemently demands that we toss him our last can of Sicilian canned fish. He gets an apple and we eat the fish and laugh at him as we fly by on our next passing. We get the back of his fist and an, “I’ll get youuuuuuuu!” as the S.V. Dazzler shrinks off our high windward stern.
At 1422h on Sunday the 16th of July as the tide turned against us the wind died as we just passed under the mammoth Carquinez Bridge.
1500h five knots of wind buys us 3.2 knots in San Pablo Bay on the Southern edge of the North Bay shallows. The resident Pelican fleet gracefully skims the water barley inches above, a few dive Close off Dazzler’s stern, they never miss. One or two of the giant birds feeds for a while then leaves the chum to the free loading sea-gulls and resumes their unified poetic flight to the next perfect fishing ground.
1600h Between Wilson Point and Point Pinole of off Pinole Shoal doing 2.1 knots and at least a knott and a half better then Dazzler.
Then there were four hours of sun blurred, frantic puff-chasing all over the central San Pablo Bay. I remember gliding uneventfully under the Richmond Bridge.
Dazzler once again pulled away and we were left to our wits and the whim of the wind, silently listening, feeling for any changes and reacting to our environment as the opportunities arose. Dazzlers pretty blue transom recedes farther and farther off our bows.
At 2030h the sun goes down on Mount Tamalpias and we drop the 12 volt, 35lbs, trust trolling motor I brought along for this very purpose. To get us some helm when our friends disapear! The tide is now going out and we are heading straight for Angle Island and the wind line remains 20 feet off our bows for a frustratingly long time. Long enough in fact to make me think for a time that we were going to get sucked through Raccoon Straight and out The Gate and off to Monterrey Bay for the next leg of our adventure or better yet, hit Angle Island. Don’s at the helm again and we chase that wind line down before we smacked into Point Blunt and then we hit The Slot! just as the sun gave us our last look at the faintest bit of a blazing pink slice in the sky through the Golden Gate the wind started to howl.
Wow, that wind has kicked up all of the sudden.
Wow, those waves!
“Don, you ok?”
It’s pitch black dark all around us and for the life of me I can’t find that 4 second red flasher off the North East corner of Treasure Island or the 2.5 second red flasher off the Berkeley Peer ruins.
The wind-o-matic reads 28 knots and we’re on a broad reach from hell. Don Stoically bares the burden of his watch with a kind of shit eating grin. All this freaked out reality doesn’t seem to phase him much and all I can say is…
Finally, I got it! The 4 second red flasher off TI was 20 degrees to port and 100 yards off the bow and we had to (Got to) make that 20 degrees +/- in the shit.
Over the screaming wind I yell, “Want to Jibe?”
“No, I think we can make it on this tack.”
‘Ok I got the sails,” I said with a quizical shake of my head then off the wind we went on as broad of a starboard reach as that little boat could make. I popped the jib over for a picture perfect wing on wing run all the way around that man-made concrete island called “Treasure”.
Don still has the same look on his face but for some reason won’t give up the helm, for a moment I think he might be stuck there.
At 2250 hours the wind dies as we pass under the Bay Bridge and the water turns to slick black oil quickly swirling in the opposite direction as we were heading. The sails are as slack as bed sheets but the evil internal combustion engines whining over the Bay Bridge are still screaming above our heads.
…Even louder! Back up on the poop deck I go with my sore ass knees to drop that sun powered (We got plenty of sun today, the two men in this incredibly wet and [auto bilge-pumping like mad] old wooden Folkebad are bright red evidence of that) and hopefully full batteried motor. I put it on the # 4 setting and prey to the lowly god of non-failing technologies for some helm!
At least we’re just not moving. I just said that…
I won’t drag you through the same 2 and a half hours of seeing the same point in the same place that Don and I had to go through before we found our little sweet spot. That little spot of calm water that along with the quite little motor carried us into the vastly familiar safty of our Estuay.
“I bet the crew of the Dazzler are sleeping in they’re warm beds right now.”
“Yep.” Don says. He’s still at the helm and the tide is now gently ebbing on slick glass blackness as the Moon rises in a perfect reflection of it’s self, a color orange that I’ve never seen before.
And so it went at 0130h on July 17th in the year of many sixes we make our mooings at the Jack London Aquatic centers sailboat dock where Dazzler is safe and sound and covered with dew from hours of not being touched.
For an entire week after our final land fall from that adventure I had plenty of opportunities to ruminate on the entire journey. I mean not just as a once in a lifetime fantastic, visceral adventure that five men that barely knew each other will now never forget, but rather I began to actually see it in my head as a great story for other people to enjoy as well.
On the following Monday my friend and Sailing instuctor for the Lake Merrit Boating Center in Oakland, Jim Kearney, told me, and I paraphase. What we did was truly incredible and the fact that we did it with so little dramatic hyjinx made what we did a profound adventure that we have to share with not only our fellow boaters in the Bay but all over the world. People need to go sailing!
I agreed with him…
So for all you Moitessier fans out there that I’m sure I insulted at the begining of this sea story I just have to say, if listening to the wind and sea and birds and the history of this wonderful place is being crazy, a freak, a hippy, a dissident, a pinko, commie, malcontent or whatever, I’m guilty.
Moitessier wasn’t insane. Sea Shocked? Without a doubt. Salty? More then anyone since Slocome. A hippy? Well, maybe leaving on a friday wasn’t such a bad idea either…
Wonderful adventure! I took my ASA classes at JL boating center. I am familar with seeing those folk boats. That made the adventure all the more interesting to read.