My Own Private Titanic

When you rent a houseboat, bring along a crew.

An African goose is cruising down the slip at Herman and Helen’s Marina, out on Venice Island in the Delta. It’s perfect: a farmyard fowl in one of the world’s most constructed — and constricted — environments. He honks hopefully but futilely at a teenage couple, but the two only have eyes for the sleek blue-and-yellow Yamaha Waverider hulking near the goose. It’s the boy’s birthday, and his eyes are fastened on the watergoing motorcycle as though his chance to ride it might evaporate if he looks away for a second. His girlfriend hugs his arm again and again: what a present, huh? Didn’t I get you the best present in the world?

It is my Honey’s birthday, too, but being a lot older, we haven’t blurted this out to the marina workers. And in keeping with our more mature years, we are renting not a Waverider but a houseboat, on which we plan to spend a lot of time practicing the three Rs: reading, relaxing, and romancing, along with swimming and bird-watching. We want to put civilization behind us, be wild and free as we explore hidden inlets and reedy marshes.

Be careful what you wish for.

This despite my past boating attempts–being rescued by a Texan in a yacht after sinking a rented sailboat in St. Thomas (“You ladies need some help?” he drawled as the four of us treaded water in a tangle of face masks and fins); a hair-raising rafting trip down the American River; a rowboat ride during a thunder-and-lightning storm in the Sierra. If the marina staff had known we were so nautically challenged, they might have given us a few more instructions. Or maybe not.

The man who had organized our houseboat trip had e-mailed me again and again to ask, “How many people? How many cars?” Over and over I answered, “Two people. One car.” Yet when we got to Herman and Helen’s, we found ready for us an Odyssey, a fifty-foot behemoth complete with dark cherry paneling, a fireplace, a home entertainment center, a hot tub on the roof, and a two-story vertical slide enticing only to the inebriated. Which we suspected was exactly the point.

We made it clear we were not party animals but wished to look at birds and fish and tules. They found us a 35-foot boat named Pelican which, we later discovered, had the day before been impaled on a tree. At least it had become familiar with vegetation.

A fresh-faced young man named Aidan is detailed to show us the ropes, which takes him all of ten minutes of rapid-fire rushing back and forth: here’s the horn, here are the running lights, push up this lever to go forward, down to go in reverse, put the bow of the boat into the wind when you anchor, toss the anchor over the side but tie the line off first, the generator goes on here, raise the engine with this switch–until our heads are swimming and our eyes blank as dinner plates. Seeing our panic, he throws in the clincher: “Just call on your cell if you get in trouble.”

We don’t have a cell phone. We never have. Aidan is not happy to hear this. “Oh,” he says. “Well….” He is about to bid us bon voyage.

“Wait!” I say. “How do you stop the boat?”

“Throw it in reverse.”

This makes sense after he says it, but it had not been intuitive. Both of us fear there are many such instances: quandaries that could be cleared up with a snippet of information but that will otherwise remain unfathomable once Aidan has departed. So we pelt him with questions: How do you tie the rope around the cleats? What’s our draft? What RPM should we maintain? Does it steer like a car? (“Yes and no” was the answer to that one.) How do you bring the anchor up? What are the rules of the road? What side do you pass on? (Aidan thinks I plan to be Mario Andretti but I just want to avoid a head-on collision.)

“I appreciate where you’re coming from,” Aidan says sympathetically. “I didn’t know any of this stuff before I started working here.” This isn’t comforting, since Aidan’s hard-won knowledge can’t be mainlined into our veins.And indeed, it all goes wrong so quickly. Honey, who insists on driving, tries to execute Aidan’s complicated marina-exiting instructions, which involve backing up really fast into a stand of tules, then swinging the boat around at the last minute. By the time she’s figured out the reverse mechanism and how fast is fast, the wind has swung 180 degrees, and we’re backing not into tules but into a lot of tied-up boats. I leap off and, with a stiff arm, stop the boat from crashing into someone else’s little cruiser. This is something Aidan told us never to do: “Let the dock take the shock, not your body.”As we start forward again, a horn begins to howl. A ferry is heading straight for us, and it’s on a cable, so it can’t alter its course. We can–if only we could figure out how. I end up anchoring us to a cleat while the ferry ambles past fifteen feet from our bow. The Herman-and-Helen boys observe our plight and get us out into the open channel, then hop into a little speedboat and wave bye-bye. Like it or not, we’re on our own.

We stagger up the river, yawing all over. Driving the houseboat is harder than it looks, and you can’t pull over and take a break. It’s as if you’re navigating hostile territory in a giant RV; the waterways themselves are the only public space. High levees blockade our view of fields on our left and right, and all we can see is the top of an occasional oak that towers above the eight-foot-high wall of rocks. “How many mountains did they decimate to make these levees?” Honey asks gloomily.

Up ahead, Birthday Boy and his Waverider are turning smaller and smaller circles in the middle of the channel. The inevitable happens–BB and his girl are pitched into the drink. Instead of continuing on to a kamikaze death on the far bank, the Waverider idles patiently next to the pair like a well-mannered horse. The teenagers flutter and flurry in the river until they manage to haul themselves back into the saddle.

Soon we’re passing berths with vegetable names: Squash, Tomato, Turnip, Radish. The names of the boats within are more fanciful: First and Goal is housed in Celery, while Delta Rose berths in Carrot. A man in a crimson T-shirt stands fishing in front of Asparagus, White Zin looming behind him.

A speedboat comes barreling toward us. Honey turns the wheel to the left. “Wait,” I say, “it’s like cars.”

“No,” she says. “Aidan said to pass on your port side.”

“Exactly,” I cry, resisting the urge to grab the wheel and turn it back.

“And starboard’s left and port’s right,” she proclaims triumphantly. Honey is left-handed.

We pass under Highway 12 as swallows dart all around, skimming across the water’s surface before they flash up to their mud nests plastered on the freeway’s steel-and-concrete underbelly. Honey is feeling a great deal more confident with her driving. I study the map and direct her around an island. It’s 7:00 p.m., and we’re getting hungry. Perhaps we could spend the night.

Who’d imagine that tossing a big hunka metal into the water could be so complicated? Aidan told us to face the bow into the wind when we anchored, but when we do, the stern seems determined to smash itself against the levee’s menacing rocks. We manage to avert that disaster only to begin drifting out into the channel; apparently the stern anchor didn’t catch. After a brief and heated discussion, we raise both to try again, and this time we succeed in setting them. With a sigh of relief, we climb a ladder to the top of the boat, where we can see over the tops of the levees. In fact, it’s downright pleasant up here.

By the time we’re back up top with plates of Magnani’s chicken and cucumber salad, the sky is streaked with peach, and huge fish are breaching the khaki-colored water, their flesh breaking the surface as they roll languidly in the fading light. Terns wheel briskly overhead, then plummet beak-down into the water, disappearing for an instant, only to reemerge with a silvery, wiggling treasure. A small covey of ringneck pheasants, escapees from a Delta hunt club, settle with loud clucking noises in the brushy verge at the edge of the field.

The contrasts are so vivid: the linear crops marching across flat fields, the tangled verge, the choppy rocks, the darkening expanse of water. Each zone has its own distinct inhabitants, and at dusk, each is very busy. Very far off in the distance lies a stranger margin of lights and fast-moving cars and enormous flashing signs. Mt. Diablo stands sentinel, the backdrop to this manufactured land. There is so much life in this universe that could not be more impacted by man yet is empty of him. Humans travel here only on narrow corridors, keeping to the river, the freeway, the tops of the levees, while all around, birds and fishes and animals and insects breathe and mate and eat or are eaten in a never-ceasing roil.

Soon the wind begins to pick up, and the surface of the water dissolves into discrete triangles. Little fish, which had been hiding from the circling terns, emerge to slide and skip across the angles as if they’re mercury skittering on glass. The red-winged blackbirds cease their hoarse cries, and the pheasants tuck in. All is quiet until a solitary great blue heron flaps calmly toward us and settles on a rock not ten feet from our stern. The sun finally sets in grays and apricots, lit with the luminescence of a black pearl.

Not wanting to use the generator, we light candles, and even then the mosquitoes, suspiciously absent, stay away. We can hear them humming just out of sight, but they don’t cross the plane of the stern. Right before full dark we remember to put on our anchor lights, and I press a button to lift the engine out of the water, just to be extra safe. I can’t believe they don’t give out instructions; I’m amazed we remember this much after our short indoctrination, and who knows what vital information we’re forgetting?We wake to a gorgeous, breezy day. Aidan had suggested we head up to the Meadows if we wanted to see nature–“trees overhang the river,” he said–but it’s several hours’ travel, and we’d need to get gas, which would mean risking our bad driving in and out of a marina. Safer to sightsee up a couple sloughs.First we need to lift the anchors. Aidan had told us to maneuver the boat straight over the anchor. This is more easily accomplished than I thought; I just grab the rope and pull our 35-foot length until the rope heads straight down into the water. Then I have to rock the anchor out of the mud, pull it up through the water, its little wings providing plenty of resistance, and finally drag the thing up onto the deck as its wings get stuck on the pontoons.

After an hour we’re in Beaver Slough, a quiet and narrow byway off the main channel. We try to drop anchor near some roses, but we can’t set either of them right. Finally we give up and head back up toward the mouth, farther from the hazardous rocks. We find the perfect place on the lee side of an island and even succeed in anchoring with cross ropes, so we’re truly tied in.

After lunch, we decide to swim and quickly discover the water’s only four feet deep. With a three-and-a-half-foot draft, we’re in danger of beaching, but we decide that’s okay–Aidan had told us that the bow could beach without danger. I raise the engine to keep the propeller safe, and we hop back into the water.

We scull toward a little beach. Nettles, sedge, wild mint, and verbena have formed cooperative communities that result in raised islands in the mud, proving again that strength lies in diversity. The mud is silky and warm, brown-black and delightfully squishy. We find otter tracks alongside our own.

By 4:30 we’re marooned, at a minus tide–it turns out it’s one of the lowest tides of the year. The houseboat is resting on its pontoons, tilted at a slight angle. Three beefy guys in a speedboat decide to have some fun flying around us in a tight circle, which makes us rock. Out in the channel another speedboat zooms past; its wake sends rocks tumbling against each other all along the bank, like castanets beating out a rhythm or an avalanche inexorably gathering speed. Such a to-do for one boat’s momentary passage.

As we sit, happily stuck, trucks speed by on the levee to our left. The wind starts picking up right after sunset, at 8:30. In the lessening light, we can see the trees blowing around, and the truck headlights pick out choppier water. A big bird is startled out of its nod, and it utters an enraged squawk as it powers up into the sky.We’re up early Saturday morning, to face a gray dawn and increasing winds. By the miracle of the tides, we’re also afloat, riding high in the water, with the beaches we walked on hours before only a memory. The farmer on the other side of the wall of rocks is back to work on his fields, and it’s hard not to wonder why he wants his topsoil to blow away in the gusts. We’re anchored tight, so we’re safe and sound, but the day is not promising. We decide to wander back toward Herman and Helen’s and head in if the weather doesn’t improve.Up anchor, easier this time. Still, my back is getting weary. As we take off, the wind howls and the waves buffet us. We pass a private island that is guarded by a sign reading, “Island on Security System. Stand Clear.” The owner lounges on a redwood deck, glaring at boats that come too close. Within a foot of shore, a person wearing a Chinese conical hat and a Halloween-style red face mask fishes from a tiny metal boat. The mask guards against the cold, I assume, as the wind picks up even more, and the fisherman’s little boat, hardly more than a toy, rolls in the swells.

We come upon another houseboat from Herman and Helen’s, one of the giant Odysseys, anchored in the middle of the main channel. Two people are zooming nearby on a Waverider, but surely there are others … then we see six heads poking out of the hot tub on the roof. Bikini-clad women rise up out of the tub to shout at their friends on the Waverider.

We turn up into Whites Slough and are sorry we hadn’t come here first. It’s the closest small channel to Herman and Helen’s, and it’s remarkably pretty, with yellow flag iris growing in sweeps at the edges of the stands of tules. The levee walls are lower, so we can see the fields, and the water has patches of floating plants on which land birds walk, grabbing at insects. A mother duck is a puddler on the rug of bright green, but her eight ducklings are small enough to imitate the blackbirds.

By 11:30, we’ve given up on the weather. The wind has increased, and Honey is having trouble steering against it. We chug back into the main channel, on our way to Herman and Helen’s, and pass the giant Odyssey. Everybody’s still in the hot tub. Well, it is cold; we’re wishing we’d brought sweaters.

Suddenly the steering problem turns into a steering emergency. Honey has the wheel turned clear to port and the boat continues plunging headlong toward the right bank. And continues. Kick in, we shout, but it doesn’t, and Honey realizes she can’t turn the wheel back–in fact, the wheel doesn’t do a damn thing. We manage to miss the right bank and are wallowing into the open channel again, where we decide in a flash we must drop anchor. People will just have to go around us; there’s miles of room. I splash the bow anchor, but it doesn’t catch, and the wind has gotten so strong that it’s blown us in literally a couple seconds across the entire stretch of open water, so that our stern is about to smash into the opposite levee. I bolt to the rear as Honey desperately tries to reactivate the steering; as the shore and its wall of rocks rush closer, I yank up the engine cover and raise the engine out of the water. Five feet from the levee, the bow anchor finally catches and yanks us to a halt.

Deep breath. Now what? Aidan had told us that no one would pay attention to our little distress bell–“not since everybody got cell phones.”

So we stand in the howling wind, ringing our little bell and jumping up and down and waving at passing boats. One speedboat slows, waves hi, and shoots on by. “Stop!” we cry. “Come back!” They must have thought we were just being really friendly.

Two men in a ski boat finally approach tentatively, as if we might mug them if they come too near. And glory be, they do have a cell phone. We shout Herman and Helen’s number through the gale, and within ten minutes, the marina’s mechanic zooms up beside us. He tells us that we need to run fast to counter a high wind, and that we can fix our stuck wheel by jerking it really hard to reset the hydraulics. Then he says another group has just called because they couldn’t figure out how to raise their anchor. He’s trying to make us feel better about our ignorance, and he succeeds.Would we go again? Only with more people to share the duties. Houseboating is perfect for groups or families, especially if you’ve got teenagers itching to master a big beast. You eliminate the cost of motels, restaurants, airfare, even gas if you don’t get too greedy, and you can swim and fish and lie around on top of the boat as your kids tool up and down the channel. No TV, no loud music–unless of course you rent the Odyssey and its entertainment center. Scratch the Waverider. Half the summer’s boating accidents involve these snowmobiles of the sloughs. A few specifics: bring more food than you think you’ll need. There isn’t a Peet’s around that far bend, and you might not catch a fish. Bring drugs–yes, perhaps that kind, but I’m talking about quick fixes for common ailments like diarrhea, migraines, even a urinary infection. Trucks might be zooming twenty feet away on the levee banks, but you’re lost to the world on your Kingdom of the Sea. Carry along queen-sized sheets–the pull-out beds are weirdly sized, and a full-fitted sheet bunches uncomfortably underneath. Bring a bird-identification book, binoculars, and fishing gear, a jacket and a sweatshirt or sweater. You’ll get dirtier than you expected–haulin’ anchor’s muddy work.

Bottom line? Don’t forget the cell phone.

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