OK, the subject line is a bit broad, but the Delta is huge. There are over a thousand miles of waterways up there, and it would take multiple lifetimes (not to mention a shallower draft than Nanaimo’s five feet) to explore them all. But that’s kind of the point–the Delta is big enough that you’ll discover something new each time you go. Of course, once you’ve gone a few times you’ll find your own places. This post covers a trip to three of my favorites: Five Fingers, Hog Island and Potato Slough.
As with most things around here, the tides and currents make a huge difference; the trip from San Francisco Bay to Antioch can easily take three or four hours longer if you go on an ebb instead of a flood. Fortunately, it’s usually a run, so it’s easy sailing. When we’ve had to catch an early flood up through San Pablo Bay and Carquinez Straights, we’ve often left after work, spending the night at China Camp. Another option is to spend the night in Benicia, which is a full day’s trip from Alameda for most boats, but doable even with unfavorable currents.
The Delta really begins once you pass under the Benicia bridge, and from this point you’ve got many options. You can head up the Sacramento River to Decker Island, Rio Vista and Walnut Grove, or up the San Joaquin River to Pittsburg, Antioch, and all the way to Stockton. Most of our experience has been on the San Joaquin, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here.
First Stop: Five Fingers
Five Fingers is an island on the Middle River, at 38 deg 00.5N 121 deg 30.9W, between Mandeville and McDonald Islands. Years ago a dredger made five cuts into a small island, and they’re still there. While the cuts themselves are pretty shallow for a sailboat, you can anchor just south of them and explore the island in your dinghy or kayak. Like many good anchorages in the Delta, it’s a beautiful spot between two reed-covered islands in a wide spot in the river.
You can get to Five fingers either by following the San Joaquin to Middle River and heading South, or you can go through Fisherman’s Cut, around Frank’s Tract in either direction (clockwise is deeper), and through Connection Slough.
A Word About Depth
A lot of folks divide the world into two groups of people: those who have run aground in the Delta, and those who are about to run aground in the Delta. This might be true, but a dock neighbor of mine gave me the best tip ever for avoiding the bottom up there: stay close to the levees with rocks and stay away from the levees without them. We’ve followed his advice and while we’ve bumped the bottom a few times, we’ve never been truly stuck. To this I would add, wide spots in rivers are always shallow in the middle, so pick a side and stay on it.
The really shallow spots almost always have weeds that reach the surface, so keep an eye on the water as well.
Second Stop: Hog Island
Hog island is on the San Joaquin River, right across from Acker Island (which some of you may hazily remember as “Lost Isle” if you’ve ever been up in the Delta for a bachellor(ette) party). The anchorage is on the East side, entered from the main river at 38deg 0′N, 121deg 26.8′W.
The great thing about Hog Island is that if the wind is blowing hard, this is one of the calmest spots in the Delta. There are huge trees along the East side of the island which block the summer afternoon winds, as well as offering some shade in the late afternoon.
There’s an old barge about halfway up the island which makes a great stern anchor, and the island itself is easily explored via dinghy or kayak.
A Word About Weeds
While they vary from season to season, weeds are a fact of life in the Delta, and you’re going to have to know how to handle them. You’ll be dealing with two types of aquatic weeds: Water Hyacinth and and Brazilian Waterweed.
Water Hyacinth is a pretty flowering plant which floats in mats on the surface and generally isn’t much of a problem unless you’re anchored sideways to a gentle current, in which case copious amounts of it can pile up against the side of your hull and anchor rode. Keep a boathook handy and just pull it around your hull until it floats away downstream. In a few hours when the tide changes you’ll be doing the same thing on the other side. In some places it can get bad enough to drag your anchor, but mostly it’s harmless.
Brazilian Waterweed, which you’ve probably seen in aquariums, grows from the bottom in shallow water (10′ or less). The biggest problem with this non-native species is that it will wrap your prop and get sucked into your engine’s raw water intake, and you’ll have to dive down there to clear it. Fortunately the water is nice and warm during the summer and this generally just takes a minute or two (the stuff isn’t very strong). Keep an eye on your engine temps and RPMs while in the delta. If one is going up and the other is going down, find a safe place to drop your hook and check it out.
Third Stop: Potato Slough
Potato slough is my favorite anchorage in the Delta. It’s easy to get to, has lots of islands for anchoring and blocking the afternoon breeze, and if you run out of beer or ice or sunscreen, Tower Park marina is about 1/2 hour East.
The entrance to Potato Slough is on the San Joaquin River at 38.05N 121.34W, just past the Mokelumne River. As you pass up the slough, you’ll notice boats tied up on the East side of each island. Our favorite spot is on the second large island–locally known as “bedroom two”–but just about anywhere will work. Plenty of folks just anchor in the channel on the south side of the river.
The islands are beautiful, and exploring via dinghy or kayak is fun. Mostly I’ve just floated around in the river here, cocktail in hand.
Anchoring in the Delta
While we’ve swung off a bow anchor once or twice, for the most part in the Delta you’re anchored fore-and-aft. Once you’ve found a spot in the lee of some land (usually an island) you approach it slowly from downwind. Drop your stern anchor as far out as possible–75′ or so–and pay out the rode as you slowly nose up to the land until you bump the bottom. If you’re lucky there’ll be a tree you can tie your bow off to, but usually you’ll wind up chucking your bow anchor as far forward as you can manage. Ease the boat back until you’re not going to be on the bottom at low tide and tighten both rodes. Don’t worry if it takes you a couple of tries to get the anchors to set–the bottom is usually weedy. Once you’re in place, your buddy boats can come alongside and tie up the same way.
One thing we’ve found very helpful is an anchor float to mark the position of our stern anchor. It keeps other folks from anchoring over us, and it provides a handy reference to see if you’re moving.
While it can be a wonderful sail from Benicia to Antioch (and, indeed all the way to Stockton) once we get past Antioch and the Hwy 4 bridge we usually go into what we call “Delta Mode”. In our case, this means:
- The Danforth stern anchor goes on its mount on the pushpit, with its rode attached and ready to deploy.
- The bimini goes up to get the cockpit out of the sun.
- The sail cover goes on, since Nanaimo can’t sail with the bimini up.
- We start paying close attention to the depth sounder.
Your mileage may vary. For example if you can sail with your bimini up, more power to you.
What to Bring
Food: once you pass Benicia, you’re not going to find any supermarkets. Most marinas will have beer, sodas, snacks and ice, but you’re not going to find meat or vegetables. You’ll need to bring this stuff with you.
Shade and Sunscreen: during the summer, the sun in the Delta can be brutal. You’re going to want some way to get some shade over your cockpit. Dodgers, biminis and boom tents work fine, but even an umbrella is better than nothing. You’ll also be in and out of the water, so make sure to bring waterproof sunscreen.
Bug Screens: make sure you’ve got a way to keep mosquitos and no-see-ums out of your cabin, and if you can do it, out of your cockpit. You’ll usually be anchored next to a tule island which is home for about a billion bugs, and for a couple of hours around sunset–particularly if there’s not much wind–they’ll be looking for dinner. We’ve got screens on our hatches and ports, and hang a screen from our dodger/bimini, and this has greatly reduced our use of bug repellent.
A Dinghy or Kayak: in the best spots in the Delta you’ll be anchored out, and you’ll need a way to explore your surroundings and visit other boats. A swimstep really helps here as well, since you’ll be getting in and out of your dinghy and the water often.
Friends: going with friends is a great way to see the Delta. Raftups and potlucks are easier without all the motion which we get down in San Francisco Bay, and more boats means more room for toys. Also, several rafted boats can share a single dinghy.
How Long Does it Take?
From Alameda you can get to Potato Slough and back in a couple of days, but you’re not going to have any fun. If you can do it, giving yourself a week will give you the flexibility to travel on rising tides, explore multiple spots, and take your time getting up there and back with as much sailing as possible.
If you can’t take a week off you might consider taking your boat up one weekend, leaving it in a marina for the week, and bringing it back a subsequent weekend.
I’ve only covered a few places, concentrating on anchorages instead of marinas, but the Delta has plenty of both. You can move every day, but our best experiences have been where we’ve stayed put and used the time to relax and explore from the dinghy.
IYC has many Delta veterans, and I encourage you to weigh in to the comments section with tips, stories and questions.
Now… who wants to go?