As a boater, I cut my teeth on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. I was a college student who grew up on Los Angeles beaches and was familiar with California's iconic tourist sites: the San Francisco waterfront, coastal redwoods, and Big Sur. But I'd never seen anything like the intricate system of waterways that defined the Delta, which forms at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and winds its way into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The year was 1975, and my boyfriend, Frank, who's now my husband, introduced me to this watery region and the variety of boats that meandered through its channels. His family grew up there and devoted their summers to cruising the Delta in every imaginable type of watercraft — paddleboards, canoes, kayaks, speedboats, sailboats, and large powerboats. Soon I was right there with them, precariously attempting to water ski for the first time and poking around the tule-shrouded marshes in a kayak. Over time, Frank and I moved north to Seattle and shifted our interest to the Salish Sea, but we never forgot our boating roots. So when Frank's sister, Pat, and her husband, Steve, invited us to join them aboard Seven Bridges, their Nordic Tug 42, for a nostalgic trip exploring old haunts along the Delta, we jumped at the chance.
Return To Paradise
I learned my way around a boat from Frank, who'd learned the ropes from the Sea Scouts. When Frank joined the organization in Berkeley at the age of 14, he inspired many of his eight siblings — and his parents — to join as well. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Sea Scouts remained a focal point of family activities. "The Sea Scouts were my life," Pat recalls, and the highlight of every Sea Scout year was the summer cruise on the Delta, an event spanning several weeks of boat instruction, camaraderie, and hijinks.
For this return trip, we brought old photos and a vintage manual to jog memories of past trips along the way. "To cruise is the ambition and objective of every Sea Scout," the manual reminded us. We began our journey with Pat and Steve at a marina in Pittsburg, a suburb about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. As we left the dock and motored toward the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin — California's two largest rivers — we recalled why the Delta was ideal for Sea Scout trips. This tidal estuary offers plentiful anchorages and swimming holes tucked away among hidden inlets and sloughs. Here we encountered a different California from what we knew in the Bay Area, one that seems older somehow, less glitzy, more quirky than touristy.
Before us was an expanse of water and reedy green tules, with Mount Diablo looming in the distance. The earthy smell of agriculture still pervaded the air, reminding us that Delta boaters are never far from farmland along these waterways.
Gliding between the levees, we became aware of familiar colors — the varied greens of the oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods lining the channels, and the radiant yellow of the invasive starthistle mingling with the golds and browns of summer fields. The scene was almost tropical in places as we passed houseboats anchored under groves of palm trees.
Occasionally sailboats tacked back and forth in the warm breeze. One by one, the places of family lore appeared on the chartplotter: Potato Slough, Hogback Island, Hidden Harbor, Pirate's Lair, and Steamboat Slough.
While passing a group of partly submerged pilings, Frank recalled learning about navigation in these waters in the days before GPS. "Getting lost was my biggest fear," he explained, noting the spider web of inlets branching out in all directions. "I stuck with the main channels." When he piloted Sea Scout Ship Northland, he counted the bends in the river and checked the paper chart, anticipating the captain's quizzes about location, depth, and hazards. The Sea Scouts also taught him how to anchor and keep the engine running. And as a quartermaster, Frank was partly responsible for the safety and appropriate conduct of the crew.
Sea Scout units — called "ships" — are established all across the country on oceans, bays, rivers, and lakes. The program, which is part of Scouts BSA, provides limitless opportunities and exciting challenges that young men and women between the ages of 14 and 20 won't find anywhere else. Sea Scouts is a place to grow and learn, find adventure, and build long-lasting friendships. For more information go to SeaScout.org
The Ties That Bind
For all the practical instruction, our family also learned how to have fun on the water. "What I remember most," Frank said, "is the goofing off." The Sea Scout manual concurs, advising leaders to "make allowances" for the crew's "exuberance of spirits." There were ample opportunities for water skiing and canoeing, but the pranks were especially noteworthy. These included sneaking on the girl's ship to steal clothes and pelting them with water balloons and shaving foam. Pat's fondest memory was when her Sea Scout Ship Lorelei cruised alongside a Coast Guard vessel, she, "whipped out the semaphore flags and exchanged messages with them. I'll admit that I was flirting — and it was fun." Sea Scouts were also known to slip into nearby cornfields for romantic encounters. The cornfields are still there, but we don't venture in.
We rediscovered our "exuberance of spirits" after docking at Owl Harbor, where our first activity was paying homage to Neptune for a safe passage. The San Joaquin River is just as inviting as we remembered, and we devoted the long summer days to swimming and kayaking the surrounding channels and sloughs, gliding among the herons, egrets, cormorants, and other wildlife. We began to feel like kids again. A few slips down the squeal of children jumping in the water suggested that other families were now making their own memories.
Drifting Through History
The sense of continuity with the past is strong in the Delta, extending far beyond our family's history. California's story is evident around every river bend, from the Indigenous peoples who have occupied this region for centuries to the forty-niners who used the rivers as water highways to reach the gold fields, sending silt and debris from their mining operations back downstream. Nineteenth-century settlers farmed the area, providing produce to the mining camps in the Sierra Nevada. Massive reclamation projects followed, resulting in construction of a system of levees and floodgates that tamed and transformed the rivers. Diverse communities, lured by the Gold Rush and agriculture, established small towns along the riverbanks.
The natural and built environments clearly merged here, and remnants of early structures — piers, dwellings, and vintage vessels, for example — were visible everywhere, adding to the Delta's charm. Levees, ditches, and dredged channels reminded us that this remains a waterscape shaped by humans. Recognizing the natural and historic significance of the river system, Congress established the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area in 2019.
We realized that we, too, are part of this history — particularly with regard to recreational boating, which, along with sportfishing, has flourished in recent decades. Devery Stockon, Owl Harbor Marina's owner, explains the "surge of interest" in the Delta during the last several years. Boaters are "finding out how special this place is," she remarked. "It is so different from the Bay Area; there's a slower pace here." To us, it felt worlds away.
Our family now understands that summer cruises in these waters formed who we are as boaters. Extended time on the Delta, for example, taught Pat and the Lorelei crew to "be independent women who could fix and operate our own motorboat." Her participation in this year's Delta Doo Dah, an annual rally of boats (see "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Indeed" below), continues the tradition of joining river cruisers for exploration and camaraderie from the halcyon Sea Scout days. Who says you can't go home again?
The California Delta region has its own uniquely pleasant vibe, so it only seems natural the highlight of the boating season comes from a uniquely pleasant laid-back rally for boaters. The Delta Doo Dah (DDD) started a weeklong celebration, but just like the Delta's venous tributaries and inlets, it now stretches across the whole summer.
The beloved West Coast sailing publication Latitude 38 launched the first Doo Dah in 2009 for a one-week festival of loosely organized events for about 50 boats. There was an entry fee with free T-shirts, burgees, and lots of fun. Soon more boaters wanted in.
"After the fourth year, DDD went to a looser format. We made it all summer long, and sailors could go anywhere and anytime they liked," says Christine Weaver, an editor at Latitude 38 Media. "To keep some purpose and cohesion to the rally, we continued to offer events, but they're more spread out through the season, not all in one week. Everyone's not going to the same place at the same time, so we allow unlimited entries, which have ranged from around 60 to 100 over the past 9 years."
Since 2013, there has been no entry fee, no strict itinerary, and no limit on fleet size. Seems typically California chill. Details for the 2022 Doo Dah (the 14th annual) were still being ironed out over the winter, but you can visit Deltadoodah.com to stay in the loop.
— Rich Armstrong