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  Cruise of the Laundry Basket

In September, 1948, my wife and I and our three-month-old baby explored the Delta in our 18-ft sailboat. When the latest issue of Latitude 38 called for articles about the Delta, I dusted off a draft of this first experience. Its yellowed, silverfish-nibbled, ink-corrected pages brought back fond memories and half-forgotten details of our trip.

We offer it with the hope you may recapture the spirit of adventure and discovery of your own youth and also that you will enjoy a bit of the 'then vs. now' stuff about your - and our - beloved Delta cruising grounds.

The Cruise of the Laundry Basket started out with the declaration that it was being written "for the potential sailor who believes himself moored fast ashore by a diaper pin." In the ensuing 50+ years, Helen and I have seen whole books offering inspiration and encouragement about travel with young children, but at the time, we felt quite unique.

Our friends expressed surprise and dismay at the prospect of our undertaking a trip "all the way to Sacramento" with Robert in our little sailboat. However, the small cabin was tight and dry and we'd learned it could be heated in the coldest weather simply by lighting a barn lantern - which also served as our cabin light and sometime anchor light.

Looking back, I now know the nay-sayers are the people who predicted calamity when I started downhill skiing at the age of 55. Or wrung their hands about our travels to exotic places where untreated water is not safe and English is not spoken. Forget them! No mere diaper pin restrains them. Their keels are set in concrete!

Our craft, Jackpot, was an arc-bottom, fin-keeled 18-footer with a self-bailing cockpit and just room enough for two sleeping bags in the tiny cabin - with a laundry basket for young Robert between them. A large, long-handled enamel saucepan we had found in a dump served as the head. We fashioned a container for the stove out of an old kerosene tin. With a slot down the side, this held a frying pan or pressure cooker firmly in place. A hole near the bottom allowed us to work the controls of the little Swedish primus.

With its club jib, 3-horse outboard and kerosene running lights, Jackpot was a sturdy and simple boat with none of the 'amenities' to break (and keep yachtsmen broke), as all of us who have traded up have experienced.

Our first day took us past the still-active whaling station at San Pablo Straits. My yellowed journal reveals no thoughts or worries; apparently "sustainable yield" had not yet entered the collective consciousness. We arrived at Vallejo the same day as the fall Vallejo Race, encountering at most two or three dozen boats, which was par for the course in those days. We pulled up to the old Vallejo Yacht Club float. (The tide must have been in. Only two inches of water covered the mud at low tide, as we were to find out to our vast distress on a later trip.)

The wife of the boat's former owner was there to greet us as we tied up - and for years would retell the story of her surprise when she heard me say, "Helen, pass up the baby." Up came the gurgling, contented infant in a yellowed wooden laundry basket of the cheapest construction. (Today's plastic folding marvels costing half as much as our whole boat had yet to be invented.)

The next day was the start of the Labor Day weekend. We took the morning tide through Carquinez Strait, then passed row upon row of mothballed Liberty Ships stretching almost to the entrance of Suisun Slough to the north. I was intimately familiar with many of these sisterships of the recently-restored Jeremiah O'Brien, having helped fashion bow frames during my college summer vacations working graveyard shift in Kaiser's Richmond Number Two Shipyard. A 20-pound sledge hammer on red hot steel was wonderful, grimy work for a macho young college student. The pay? $10 a day, $15 for graveyard shift. Suffice it to say, I felt I owned those ships.

We had almost passed the mothball fleet when my rudder began to move with the randomness of a drunken goldfish. Dousing the main and steering with the outboard and jib, we headed for Suisun Slough. We were pretty glum about finding a place to make repairs, especially on a holiday weekend. Our 12-year-old chart certainly offered no enlightenment. The great, information-packed 'fisherman's charts' like we have today were still a decade or two away.

Approaching Suisun Slough, we were making little progress against the ebb. A couple of commercial fishermen took pity on us and took us under tow. They told us about a group of fishing shacks next to their base where an old man - a former shipwright - might be able to help.

We anchored off the shacks and rowed ashore in the military surplus liferaft we'd dubbed "the elephant." As we approached the rickety docks, we heard gunshots, then saw a man approaching. He tried to hide a brace of ducks behind his back as we tied up, then showed relief on seeing we were just a couple of kids. This was our introduction to John, who built rowboats and conversed in a thick Scottish brogue. Learning of our plight, he asked if we were in a hurry. Our hearts sank, and we mentioned our precious two weeks vacation.

"Well, you aren't going anywhere special tonight, are you?" he asked. "Let's see what we can do about it in the morning."

The next day we searched his scrap pile for a suitable piece of plywood - most of which looked like he'd salvaged from the Bay - and made a splint for our broken rudder with his borrowed tools. Not quite sure the plywood was waterproof, we painted the edges and connected the whole thing together with a dozen long copper rivets he provided. It worked so well we didn't replace it for nearly another year.

By the next morning, the paint had dried. We hung the rudder, retrieved our Jello from John's icebox, took our laundry out of the rigging and prepared to leave on the flood tide. John wouldn't take a cent, not even a "couple of bucks to buy a beer." He said only that he'd knocked about the river when he was a young fellow and had been helped lots of times. The other fishermen echoed his sentiments, saying they wanted to think someone would help them out if they were in trouble. They invited us to come back on our way home, adding that this was their last season of commercial salmon fishing, even though anything smaller than a 10-pound bass would go right through their nets. "But you can't tell a sports fisherman that," added one.

In those days, you could transit Montezuma Slough and we enjoyed a leisurely sail through the tules with the occasional farmhouse in the distance. We always kept an eye out for a place to replenish our water supply.

Another day's sail took us up the broad reaches of the Sacramento, dodging the salmon fishing nets, which were strung across the river. They were quite inconspicuous but we learned to be on the lookout for the small boats tending them, which would generally be moored up against the levee. Arriving at Steamboat Slough with its delightful overhanging shade trees (long since "improved" by Corps of Engineers chainsaws), we were able to replenish our supplies and fill our nearly-empty water cans at the small grocery store there.

Or at least the store that had been there. We were told it burned down earlier that summer, but business was still brisk in a little makeshift shack that catered to the dozen or so boats that typically lazed away the summer there. We learned that one such family had spent a month or more there with their little child playing on the banks in a lifevest made of kapok - in the days before the Coast Guard required kapok to have plastic covers. At the end of the season, they decided to give the putrid, smelly old jacket the heave-ho - and it promptly sank!

In those days, lifejackets for smaller children were non-existent. When Robert got a little older and learned to stand in his basket, hold onto the mast and look out the window, I made him his first lifejacket out of canvas stuffed with kapok and tied it to him and the boat via a large grommet sewn into a flap in the back. He learned to keep his balance by walking sideways before he could really toddle forward!

We had arrived at Steamboat Slough in the middle of a heat wave. We didn't argue the point. On those hot summer nights, the overnight riverboat to Sacramento would round the point and flash its searchlight on the boats anchored near the upper entrance to Steamboat Slough. The women, sleeping nude on the cabin tops, would play their part in this game by turning over on their tummies as the riverboat steamed past.

We spent the next breeze-less days loafing along on our way to Sacramento under power, anchoring during the hottest part of the day, with an awning over the boom to keep the cabin cool(er). Our baby was a totally contented little bundle of joy. He didn't even develop a heat rash! We kept him under the mosquito netting in the laundry basket. A turkey basting pan served as his bathtub. When the flies discovered our cabin was a refuge from the heat, we bought bug spray, gave them just enough to chase them out, then rigged more netting over the companionway and front porthole.

We washed diapers by tieing them on a rope and dragging them behind the boat. One day we fished and caught several crabs for dinner - and were only mildly dismayed, on motoring on, to see we had caught them only a few hundred yards below a major sewer outfall. In those days, viruses and toxics in sewage had not penetrated public consciousness and sewage was scarcely treated before being dumped in the nearest moving water.

One morning we donned bathing suits and swam to shore, where we discovered ripe blackberries on the levee. We quickly swam back to the boat, armed ourselves with pots and pans and returned to shore. The berries that didn't suffer a quick fate were collected, and as we motored upriver in the cool of evening, we rigged the cockpit table, got out the pressure cooker and primus, along with some Mason jars and sugar brought along for just such a purpose. Result: six quarts of blackberry jam.

We finally reached our goal, the Sacramento River Bridge, but as there was no convenient mooring (an omission the merchants of Old Town remedied only recently), we simply turned around and started back. The last few days had been a long grind with no breeze. The river current had only slowed with the diurnal variation of the tide in the lower reaches - and our 3-horse outboard was barely a match for the outgoing current.

Now, thankfully, the heat wave ended in grand style with a 'yachtsman's gale' as we started our return trip. We scooted along in the moonlight in the protection of the levee and only occasionally were forced to cross more exposed water. The next day we reached Steamboat, again replenished our supplies at the little store and decided to take the recommendation to go home via Georgianna Slough, which turned out to be a good choice.

After circling the entrance a few times while the bridgekeeper waited for a black woman to move a long bamboo fishing pole that was leaning against a chicken coop, the bridge finally swung open over the tops of the shacks and we passed into the (then) little-used waterway. The Slough was narrow, with wild grape-festooned trees on the banks, and more than enough fallen trees sticking up out of the water. At one turn, we saw a couple of big fat white ducks. Before we could think about duck dinner, we rounded the turn and came upon a tiny Chinese farmhouse - the only habitation, as I recall, along the entire length of Georgianna Slough.

After reaching the junction of the Mokelumne River, we had enough space for sailing and turned off the outboard. We were real sailors again, adventuring our way home through deserted waterways with names that have since become familiar to us - and are nowadays crowded with speedboats, houseboats, sailboats, water skiers, jet skis, marinas, retirement condos and 'facilities' of every description. A veritable "decompression chamber" for the threefold increase in our population.

On our way home we passed the graying hulks of the deserted sardine canneries lining the shores of Antioch and Pittsburg. Looking back I see we then gave it scarcely more thought than we'd given to the whaling station. In those days, with a world population of 'only' two billion, everyone ate everything we could get our hands on and then turned to the next available source.

The canneries and the fishing fleets hung on as long as they could. At that time, we considered the loss of the sardines as a mystery. Perhaps the anchovies would expand to fill the sardines' ecological niche? They didn't.

We now know that sardines, like so much of the animal kingdom, flourish on a boom and bust cycle. Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to sustain jobs and capital investment, they were hunted until we'd largely eliminated the breeding stock necessary to ensure the next expanding cycle. Ironically, I read recently that when the 'boom' eventually did return, we had no boats to harvest them and no factories to process them.

On a more personal note, when we looked above Pittsburg toward Camp Stoneman I would - on this and subsequent trips - marvel at my good fortune. During World War II, the Army had been putting me through medical school and I had not gone through the embarkation center there. How little we wish to look ahead, nor allow for the shifting prospects of fate! Even when, in 1948-1949, as our Bay races required us to dodge troop ships headed for Korea, I failed to see this as a portent of my future. Yet only one year later, my beloved Jackpot was sold and I found myself in a Captain's uniform of the Air Force Medical Corps at Camp Stoneman awaiting shipping overseas!

In any case, fate was kind. I had the wooden hull of a 24-footer built in Japan and shipped home at the end of my tour of duty. I finished it myself at Allemand Brothers Boat Yard in San Francisco. In completing this project, I learned the true meaning of the Japanese expression, "He who hasn't climbed Mt. Fuji hasn't lived. He who climbs it twice is a fool."

It took until 1955 to complete Randori, and now with four children, we resumed our love affair with San Francisco Bay and Delta sailing.

The Delta is still a wonderful, magical place we have returned to many times, in many boats, and with many friends, children and even grandchildren. As one of our guests once said, "With all that brown water it can't be all bad."

- malcolm sowers

Editor's Note - Malcolm, now 80, still sails (an Islander 30 out of the Island YC), he still skis, and he still makes cruises up to the Delta.

This story was reprinted from the August 2002 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 8/02 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: After a couple of years, the actual issue may no longer be available, but we will still be able to make photocopies of it. Especiallly since the Great New Year's Eve Flood of ought-five.

©2006 Latitude 38 Publishing Co., Inc.