Why is it that so many of our boating trips seem take a dark turn into epic saga territory? I’m thinking we might just need to change our names to Njorl and Sigrdrif. Maybe not. I might have to start writing my blogs in verse and I’m not sure I’m up for that. We’ll just leave the rhyming to Longfellow and get on with the story.
I’ll do the Hollywood recap for those not familiar with the story. We’re sailors. We got a boat and named it Nighthawk. Nighthawk is ballasted. We got a new (used) truck last year to haul Nighthawk because Nighthawk is ballasted. We’ve had quite a few fun adventures in the last year including losing a wheel off of the trailer, which wasn’t fun, but was an adventure. There, now everyone’s up to speed.
Compared to all of our former boats, Nighthawk is a very different animal. Not only is she ballasted, she has a little cabin and two people can actually sleep aboard her without having to go ashore and pitch a tent. This has opened up whole new worlds of possibility for our sailing trips. We have even slept aboard her in a campground, using her like Captain Ron’s Amazing Nautical RV. We may look a little silly climbing aboard our boat resting very unnautically on its trailer to go to bed, but we make up for all silliness when we back our “RV” down the boat ramp and sail gracefully off across the water.
So we’ve had a few trips where we’ve slept on the boat overnight. And last fall, we “conquered” sailing in San Fransisco Bay, something we had only done previously in “big” chartered boats. (Admittedly, we need a much heartier complement of sails to stand up to the kind of wind the bay delivers, but we did all right with what we had and didn’t get knocked down or hit any other boats or ships or islands or anything else important.) After we survived that day, it was a mere leap of logic for us to think we could possibly take our boat up to the San Juan and Gulf Islands, another place where we have chartered bigger boats in the past.
We’ve been scheming and planning for this for months now and poor David has run himself ragged installing bits and bobs on Nighthawk so that we can, hopefully, survive the San Juans. There are so many different parts to this plan and so many places where something can go wrong, that covering every single contingency would be completely impossible. So it was a relief to take a break from all of our preparations and head down to the “Delta Overnighter” with our sailing friends, the Potter Yachters. Besides, this would be a good dry run for the longer trip coming up just a month away.
By Thursday, it was clear that there would be at least 20 small boats attending the cruise. We would launch at B & W Marina, located right next to the Mokelumne River Bridge on Highway 12. David and I got a little worried about parking places at the marina and decided to drive down after work Friday instead of Saturday morning. After all, you can never tell what crazy delay might happen on the drive down… He called the marina and they said it would be no problem for us to launch at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, so David and I met up in Gardnerville after work for our trip.
And everything was going fine until the check engine light came on.
It waited (naturally) until we were headed down the west slope of the Sierra in an area where there was no cell service and pretty much nothing around. Why would the light just come on like that? The truck was running fine… And it kept running fine for maybe 10 minutes after the light came on, and then?… not so fine. I was driving at the time and I stated, “It feels just like the old truck did when the injectors were clogged.” (When will I learn not to say things like that!) We were able to limp along because the grade was mostly downhill, so we managed to make it to a gas station that, thankfully, had a pay phone because there still wasn’t any cell service.
We tried all of the usual tricks to fix it: Open the hood, stare at the engine, randomly wiggle hoses and tap on parts, and make faces at it, but nothing seemed to work. David even went so far as to remove the air cleaner and bang on that some, but everybody knows the air cleaner is really just a practical joke installed by automakers in Detroit to make people think they might actually be able to fix the truck and to create income for all of the quick change oil places. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hidden camera installed in there.
“Hey look, Bill, he’s taking off the air cleaner.”
“This ought to be good!”
The truck kept flashing signals at us that it was out of gas, but we knew it had three quarters of a tank. So David kept looking for useless parts to remove while I borrowed a phone book from the convenience store operator and looked for local mechanics. There were several who advertised “roadside assistance.” I called the first one and he said “well, I could maybe get to it in a week…” Oh, sure! Doesn’t “I need roadside assistance” sort of imply that I am—you know—at the side of the road? Right now? Needing assistance? I’ll just pull out my handy tent and sleep here for a week until you can come along and rescue me! The next two didn’t even bother to answer.
David and I were very upset we were going to miss our weekend of sailing, but we knew it was time to call for a tow. I got on the phone to a nice, perky operator at Boat USA. I have to say, she displayed far more intelligence than the average AAA operator I have dealt with. We worked out the details and she said she would call back. I gave her the number of the pay phone and told her I’d call back in twenty minutes if I hadn’t heard from her since we weren’t exactly certain the pay phone would actually ring if she called. And then I waited. Suddenly, as I was standing there waiting, David drove by in the truck and honked and waved at me—huh?
Turns out that he thought maybe the truck had some problem with the gas tank so he opened it up and shook the truck to try to hear if there really was gas in there. He could hear the gas, so he put the gas cap back on and restarted the truck. For whatever reason, that fixed the problem. So, off we drove (after thankfully cancelling the tow). Our check engine light was still on, but the truck was behaving fine. Once we had cell service, I checked out all of the possible GMC dealers in the area and we formed about 6 different contingency plans, but the bottom line was that we were going to launch the boat first if we could somehow make it as far as the marina, then deal with the truck.
We got to the marina and set up the boat in the dark. It was not nearly as bad as we thought because there was a street light near enough to sort-of see. We were a little stressed about raising the mast because you couldn’t see the top of it in the dark, so if the forestay got tangled up with one of the shrouds, we weren’t going to know about it until we were in trouble. But even that went fine, so I started the truck up to back down the boat ramp and noticed that now the check engine light wasn’t even on! Silly truck!
We were all set to motor around the spit from the boat ramp to the guest dock. All we had to do was park the truck and get the dog aboard. She had been waiting all this time in the truck, so I took her out for a walk while David was getting everything shipshape, then we headed down the dock. And that’s when we found out that we own Kaylee, the Incredible Non-Nautical Dog! She was terrified of the motion of the dock as we walked. The first time out, I had her off the leash and she made it about halfway to the boat before turning around and taking off. I had to chase her down and put the leash on. Even then, she made it clear that she didn’t want to be on that scary moving platform. It was hard not to laugh at her as she slithered along with her legs out at an almost 90 degree angle and her belly scraping the dock. I started calling her the lizard-dog. But we got her on the boat and as soon as we got to the guest dock, she shot up into the v-berth and curled up into a little ball for the night. David and I could sympathize—it was almost midnight!
The next morning, I spent a lot of time walking Kaylee up and down the docks trying to develop her sea legs (and to amuse myself, to be honest). I also called our mechanic back home and asked about the truck. Turns out that David reset something when he pulled the gas cap off and that is why the truck started running again. He said we should try and drive it home and we made an appointment for the following week. By then, we were pretty glad we had launched Friday night as the docks were getting busy. Not only was our group there, it was simply a very busy Saturday morning at B & W. The parking lot was filling up with small sailboats stepping masts, hanking on sails, and getting ready to launch. They were all competing for dock space with various fishermen, water skiers and other recreational boaters.
By 9:30, we were all on the water weaving an intricate dance above the bridge. Our leader, Jerry, finally decided we were all there and radioed the bridge tender to let us through. Soon we could hear the bells ringing for traffic to stop. The whole gaggle of boats made a dash towards the bridge as it began to turn and we were finally off. It was a beautiful day and the wind was blowing perfectly. We all hoisted sails and had a marvelous run down the Mokelumne River between the levees. Right before it spills into the San Joaquin, the river makes a sweeping turn to the right. With the change in direction, all of us began tacking back and forth in the narrow channel, trying to avoid collisions with each other, all of the motorboats, and the shore. We felt sorry for the few large motor boats we saw trying to thread their way through the fleet as we all dodged and wove across their paths. There’s a reason sailboats have the right of way, but normally, you try to be polite. Still, in a tight situation like this, you sometimes just have to tack and hope the guy in the motorboat gets out of your way.
We were also trying not to run aground. The eastern shore opens up into an area of shoals and tules and if you push a tack too far, you are likely to feel mud under your keel. Every once in a while, we could see one of our companions spinning in an odd way rather than moving forward, indicating they had misjudged a bit. The shoals get even worse as you reach the San Joaquin River. Last year, we ran aground there and we didn’t really want to do that again. The worst part is that when you head out into the San Joaquin, you can see the shipping channel markers and they look like they are right there, but first you have to make your way across the shoals. A depth sounder is on the list of “things to do before the trip.” Unfortunately, David hadn’t been able to do it yet. Instead we had to trust the chart plotter on David’s tablet to give us our correct position and accurate information about the bottom.
Meanwhile, the wind just kept building and building. We had a marvelous sail down the river until we reached our overnight destination—Spindrift Marina. We descended upon their docks like a flock of starlings, but they had been forewarned and were ready for our group with plenty of dock space and the all important card keys for the bathrooms. We had all made it except for the two members of the group who were sailing over from Rio Vista. They had been checking in on the VHF, so we knew they were sailing up the San Joaquin and would soon join us. The wife of one of our group members who doesn’t sail with him, thank you (because small boats are scary and unpredictable) had parked their motor home at the KOA campground across the road and this became the gathering point for the group. We took Kaylee for a walk along the levee, then decided to head back out for more sailing.
By then, the wind had built even stronger and we had a fantastic sail, tacking our way down river. Kaylee spent most of her time down below. She would lie on one of the berths until the boat heeled farther than she liked or we hit a wake and then she would pop up like a startled rabbit with a very worried expression. She only came on deck a few times. Each time, I would put her life jacket on which she took as some new barbaric form of punishment and would slink immediately down below again. Poor girl—I need to start having her wear it on walks at the house to get used to it.
After tacking almost all the way to Three Mile Slough, we turned around and headed back to the marina on a run. That’s the payoff for all that work tacking, but it’s sort of like spending all day climbing a mountain only to ski down it in half an hour. In no time, we were almost back, but as we headed for the channel through the tules, we saw our fearless leader, Jerry, headed out with some folks who had come by for an afternoon sail. We couldn’t resist heading back out with them, matching them tack for tack. The wind had gotten even stronger and as we hit 20 degrees of heel more often, Kaylee kept popping up and down like a hyperactive jack-in-the-box. We decided we’d better sail a little more conservatively if we ever want our dog to learn to enjoy sailing, so we reefed the main (which reduces sail area) to make her more comfortable. We finally headed back in after one of the best sails we’ve had in a long time.
When we got back in, it was almost dinner time. Spindrift is a great marina because they have a restaurant right there across the levee. I had just enough time to grab my card key and shower bag and get clean. I could tell there are quite a few live-aboards at the marina because the shower had an interesting assortment of shampoos, conditioners and soaps. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the light to the shower area, but decided this might be best as there were probably microorganisms the size of trolls lurking back there and I didn’t want to see any of them! And once again, I’d forgotten to pack a pair of shower shoes—ick! I made a mental note to be sure these were in the bag before the San Juan trip. Also the shower had only two temperature settings that I could discern: sort-of-warm and sort-of-not-so-warm. I was fine with that since I felt like my internal organs had been deep fat fried all day. That’s one of the unintended consequences of being religious with the sunscreen—it keeps your skin from burning, but provides you with a sealent layer that cooks you internally. Remind me to try it on the turkey next Thanksgiving.
One of our biggest fears never materialized. We were afraid to leave Kaylee behind on the boat when we went to dinner after her sprees of destruction in our house. But it turns out, Kaylee sees the boat as “the truck we drive on the water,” and had no problem being left behind. David checked on her half way through the meal and she was happily snoozing away.
The trip back on Sunday was almost anticlimactic. We all turned out at the restaurant for the $5.99 steak and eggs Sunday special, then afterwards held a skipper’s meeting at the marina. Rather than dying down overnight, the wind had simply shifted and built even higher. It was collectively decided that the smaller boats would motor and that we’d all meet up at a certain location before heading to the bridge to count heads and collect our wits. David and I might have tried sailing the whole way if we had had better sails, but we sailed the first part under jib alone, then motored once we hit the Mokelumne.
It took us the better part of an hour to get all of the boats back out of the water on to their respective trailers. If anything, the boat ramp was even crazier than it had been Saturday morning. It was 2 or 3 by the time we were finally ready to travel. Originally, we had planned to drive up to 50 or 80 in case the truck decided to act up again, but we were too tired and decided to chance it over 88. We needn’t have worried. The truck made it home fine. Unfortunately, my words came back to haunt us and we had to replace the fuel injectors the following week. So now it’s “The truck so nice, we bought it twice!” Ugh. We knew when we bought it that fuel injectors were going to be a possible weak point, but when I think of the things we could have done with that money, like buy Max, or replace my FourRunner (which is its own epic saga), or replace the windows in the house, or replace the horse trailer, or take a trip to Paris and Rome (okay, you know I’d replace the horse trailer before going to Paris) well it is kind of heartbreaking anyway.
Interestingly, I looked up Viking names for Kaylee on the internet and came up with Hollr, which means faithful. I couldn’t find an old norse word for “nautical,” I suspect because every Viking was expected to be nautical. There was probably some derogatory term for a landlubber that the Vikings yelled out right before they lopped off your head, but I couldn’t find one, so Kaylee is safe for now. By the time we got back to B & W, she was doing a lot better. Of course, we never heeled on the way back since we were mostly motoring, but she did a lot better on the dock at the boat ramp, which was probably the least stable dock all weekend—she looks less like a lizard anyway. I couldn’t find a Viking word for lizard either.
So “Skoal to the Northland!” and thus ends my tale.