Before this trip, my experience sailing in the Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta, the watershed that leads into the San Francisco Bay, was limited at best. The only previous experience I had was in a roughly 36 hour non stop race called the Stockton South Tower Race. While the race fun in a challenging way, it probably wasn’t the best introduction to the joys of sailing in the Delta. We ran aground many times, I badly overheated the second day, and it was a challenge to sail effectively in the narrow channel. Sailing in the Delta for fun was a whole different world. The leisurely pace and the ability to use the motor when the winds were not cooperative were a total game changer.
I would have never even thought of this trip had Owl Harbor Marina not had a booth at the Pacific Sail and Power boat show. My wife Treja and I had a great time chatting with them. Their facilities sounded nice, and it would be a new sailing experience, so we decided to make a trip up sometime this year.
Treja and I made a two day test run up to Owl Harbor Marina in August on Coho II. We had been planning to do a trip to Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay that day, but conditions offshore were very rough, and this was our alternate plan. I have never been happier about having to switch to plan B. While I prefer to make arrangements for a slip well ahead of time, we decided that there were enough options near the destination to anchor, so we set sail without any arrangements, and I made them by phone as we sailed up. I called after we were already underway and they were able to accommodate us. Since I had good cell phone reception, they emailed me all the information we needed, and then some; a little map showing navigation details and tips from the San Joaquin river to their docks, where our slip was located on their docks, and the key code for the bathrooms. We also arranged to stop into the office the next morning to pay for the slip, since we would most likely be getting there after the office was closed for the day.
Broad Strokes Navigation
Leaving from Modern Sailing in Sausalito:
Head down channel towards the main bay. At #4, you can turn towards #3 off Peninsula Point on Belvedere. Head up Raccoon Strait, and then turn North towards the San Pablo Strait. From there, head up channel in San Pablo Bay to the Carquinez Strait. Head through the strait, and keep heading up channel until you get to the “NY” buoy, which is the split between the Sacramento and San Joaquin River. Keep right at the split to head up the San Joaquin River. Keep to the main river channel until you get to “41”, and then turn left up Sevenmile Slough. Owl Harbor will be on your left about one mile up the slough. See “The Details” section below for a full navigational write up with chart screenshots.
Our experience on the trip
When I have a long distance I need to travel in a day, I have a 5 knot rule. If we’re not making better than 5 knots towards our destination, the motor comes on. That rule meant a lot of motor sailing on this trip, often with the jib furled. This is the first trip I’ve had to worry about that rule without being out the Golden Gate, but I’m glad I kept to it on this trip. If we had tried to do this purely under sail, it would have taken us roughly double the time to make it to our destination.
Almost our entire trip to Owl Harbor was beam reach or deeper, and while we motor sailed quite a bit of the trip in the morning, we had great sailing all afternoon once the winds came up. There were only a few stretches of water where we had more than 10-15 knots of wind, but as those areas were all beam to broad reach, and the channel is narrow enough and twisting enough to prevent the buildup of significant wind waves, it was wonderful sailing. We left Modern Sailing at 1000, and were on the dock at Owl harbor at 1925, making it a roughly 9 and a half hour day of sailing. It was a long day, but it was a relaxing one, so it didn’t feel like too much sailing for one day.
Owl Harbor is a different marina experience than I’ve ever had, and I liked it very much. The marina is on a levee, so you’re much higher than the surrounding land. The marina office is level with the top of the levee, but it has a full story below it. You’ve got agricultural fields on both sides of the slough, so there were many birds flying and feeding over the slough and in the reeds on the banks. It was warm without being too hot (we may have also gotten lucky), and was very peaceful. There aren’t any restaurants in easy range of the marina, so plan on bringing food for all your meals with you. We had an absolutely beautiful dinner eating in the cockpit and watching the birds flying in the setting sun, so the isolation was a benefit, not a negative. It’s very peaceful at night, so we slept well, and got up early in the morning to walk around the grounds of the marina. The marina property totals 20 acres, and they have spaces for camping with BBQs, multiple horseshoe pits, and a large garden with two chicken coops. All the facilities of the marina were top notch, and the bathrooms were the nicest I’ve seen in any marina. The office often has produce and eggs from the garden that they will give guests for free. The office staff was friendly and engaging, and were very fast to fix the one minor problem we had. They have loaner bikes for exploring on the land, and loaner kayaks and stand up paddle boards to explore the slough. My only regret on choosing this as a destination is that we didn’t have more time available to spend there.
The trip home was a bit rougher. We were having so much fun exploring the grounds, that we got a later start than we wanted. While the trip there was almost all downwind, it meant that the trip home would be almost entirely beating to weather. It was great sailing, but made for a very long day, with lots of tacking. We left the docks at 1100, and were back at Modern at 2045, covering 57.8 nautical miles, so the return trip took about the same amount of time, but definitely required a lot more effort. We hit the docks happy, but exhausted.
How I would do it differently next time
Next time I do this trip, it will be either 3 or 4 days. I will leave Modern earlier in the morning so I can get to Owl Harbor earlier. If it’s a 3 day trip, I will break up the return leg into two legs. If it’s a 4 day trip, I will still break up the return trip into 2 legs, but I will also add another day in the delta, crossing over to the Sacramento River, and sailing up to the town of Isleton. To break up the return leg, I would overnight in the Benicia Marina, and have a relaxing morning, but still try to get on the water by noon. The more I sail up into the San Pablo bay, the more I realize I do not like sailing there in heavy afternoon winds. It gets very windy and choppy in the afternoon, and you’re almost always beating directly into it to get home. Not that I mind sailing in heavy seas or big wind. I’ve sailed on San Francisco bay, Monterey Bay, and the Gulf of the Farallones most of my sailing life. I just do not enjoy it much on San Pablo bay in particular, or the South Bay for that matter. The combination of heavy wind, lots of current, and shallow water make for especially steep chop and messy sailing conditions.
Full Disclosure. I did not use Navionics to plan this trip when I ran it. I used a chartbook of the bay and delta. I also did not plot the course into the chartplotter. With the narrow channel, I did not want a big line showing my route obscuring the chart. I made paper notes for the trip in a small notebook and studied the route so it would be familiar when I got there. I prefer to do all my planning on paper charts, and use the chartplotter to confirm my position. When I’m out on the coast, I always enter my course and waypoints into the chartplotter, because there is so little visual reference, but in the bay, I have found it more of a distraction than a help. This also held true up in the delta. I did use Navionics to record a track of my return home (I forgot to turn it on for the trip there), but with all the tacking in the narrow channel, the recorded track was of little demonstration use for writing this guide. So, in short, I am using the Navionics automated route planning tool for the below screenshots for this guide, but it is not my navigational tool of choice for actually making the trip. That may change the day I get a ruggedized tablet to use it on, but on the phone, it is just too small.
Navionics also has problems with some of the route when you use the automatic route planning tool, especially if you have a boat with a deep draft. It is still useful, especially on a trip like this, with how many twists and turns there are. I can’t even imagine how many waypoints you would have to plot to keep the plotted course even roughly in the channel. It also skips some shortcuts that are available, and takes some shortcuts that would be great in a powerboat, but not so much if you’re trying to sail.
Clearing Sausalito for Raccoon Strait
Navionics has no idea how to deal with Marina Plaza Harbor. Clearing the harbor, just keep to the right side of the channel. It also likes to keep you in the Richardson Bay channel all the way to #2. you can cut across at #4 directly to #3 of the Raccoon Strait off Peninsula Point.
Raccoon Strait to Red Rock
Raccoon Strait has no real navigational issues. You just need to be aware that the currents are very strong in the Strait. One side may have an advantage over the other, and if you are fighting an adverse current, plan on motor sailing. Once clear of Raccoon Strait, you will be in an area with a lot of commercial traffic, so keep your eyes open. Also, Navionics seems to lose it’s mind a bit here, thinking there is “low water” in the main channel. There are two main shipping channels under the Richmond San Rafael Bridge, which is just past Red Rock. You can take the rock on either side, so go to the side with the favored current and wind conditions.
Red Rock to San Pablo Strait
Once again, a lot of traffic. You can choose either side of the channel, depending on which is favored by wind and current. The right/East side of the channel, between The Brothers and Point San Pablo will have a lot of current, so if you’re going with the current, go to that side. If you’re opposing the current, go to the West side. Just be careful of the large mooring buoys off Point San Pedro.
San Pablo Strait to Carquinez Strait
This is a good area to know your chart and/or keep and eye on the chart plotter and depth sounder. There is a lot of room off to the right of the main channel that has navigable depths. You can stay to the right to stay out of the channel, and edge into shallower water if you’re fighting against the current.
This is where things start getting narrow. There is plenty of room to maneuver, but you will need to keep a close eye on traffic, especially commercial traffic. You get away from the high speed ferry traffic, as their furthest destination is Vallejo, but ships and barge traffic are still active, and get condensed as the deep water channel narrows. You get some interesting views of the C&H Sugar plant just past the Carquinez Bridge and if you have a few hours to spare, you can stop at the Benicia Marina for a short walk to town for lunch (write-up on Benicia coming soon). You can cut across the shallows in front of Benicia when the shipping channel dips South. It’s a designated anchorage, but is deep enough to sail across for most sailboats. The Benicia Bridge is actually 3 bridges. The two automotive bridges are fine, but the train bridge between them has a clearance of 75 feet. That’s high enough for most sailboats, but it’s still low enough to get your attention while sailing under it.
The only cautions here are the same as most of the trip, know where you have deep enough water. Keep an eye on your depth sounder and the chart plotter. You’ve got a little bit of room outside the channel, especially to the south, but it varies by where you are. There is also a Naval Weapons Station on the South side that will be a little unhappy if you tack too close to their docks.
New York Slough and the start of the river
Sacramento Carquinez river junctionJust after #30, you will come to “NY”. A green over red buoy making the split between the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Keep right, and follow the New York Slough onto the San Joaquin river. The slough is narrow, but you have deep water almost all the way to the banks. Keep heading up river, and there isn’t much out of the ordinary for a while. All the bridges and power lines on this part of the river are high enough for large commercial traffic, so as long as you have a mast under 100 feet, and you stick to the channel, you will clear with no issues. With the automatic navigation, there is one weird spot. At channel marker #25, Navionics may want to take you out of the main channel and into False River, then up Fisherman’s Cut, and back into the main channel. While it is slightly shorter, it is extremely narrow, and quite shallow. My suggestion would be to stick to the main channel. It’s wider, simpler to navigate and much more fun to sail.
Leaving the river for Sevenmile Slough and Owl Harbor Marina
Channel marker #41 is the navigational waypoint for your turn into Sevenmile Slough. One other easy to distinguish landmark to help see the slough as you’re approaching is a barge crane that is aground and partially sunk at the beginning of the channel. You’ll be able to see it in the distance before you can spot the channel marker. The slough is narrow and shallow, but we were able to make it up without running aground near low tide in a sailboat with a 7 foot draft. I would just be wary of a very low or negative tide. Keep all the low bars of weeds to your left, and stay left when the channel forks. Owl Harbor will be on the left bank, and is the only marina on the left bank of the slough. The slip numbers were easy to see on the ends of the slips, and the all the slips we saw had shore power and water.