Down By the River: My Unique Journey Through California During a Pandemic

Martin Machado, Juxtapoz Magazine, June 3, 2020

Last summer, Public Land Gallery in Sacramento spoke with me about possibly doing a show. I pitched them an idea of solo-sailing a twenty-six foot boat up through the delta from San Francisco to a downtown dock on the Sacramento River near their space. I wanted to sail under wind power as much as possible and make most of the paintings for the exhibition en route. After thinking about it for a few weeks, they enthusiastically agreed. I spent many months preparing the sailboat that I share with some close friends, but as the mid-March departure date approached, there were still several things left undone to make the boat single-hand-able. Our outboard motor was acting up, and I had not been able to find a sail to fit the roller-furler that I hoped to install. In addition, news about a global pandemic was starting to seriously simmer in the Bay Area. I got a call from the gallery asking if we should consider cancelling. We didn’t know if or when a stay-at-home order might happen, so, despite the challenges, we opted to stay the course. What follows is an excerpt from the journal I kept on the voyage. It is only the first 24 hours of my week-long voyage upriver as I, feeling a bit clueless and isolated, focused on the job at hand: to navigate a series of rivers, sloughs, and drawbridges to make it to my destination. Oh yeah, and to make a bunch of paintings, in oil, on a small boat, mostly in the rain. It would be two weeks before I got the boat home and saw my family: meanwhile, the severity of our collective current situation had manifested.


Today, on the morning of departure, it was announced that public schools would be closing in San Francisco. I witnessed the chaos within a grocery store, stocked up the boat, and set sail at 9:30 pm on the evening flood tide. I ran with good wind under a double reefed mainsail, passing Alcatraz to my starboard, then aiming for Point Blunt. The warm lights of the ranger’s house beckoned me closer as I, once again, like a fool, sailed to leeward of Angel Island. The wind died off, I shook out my reefs and floated in silence with the incoming tide. The sounds of porpoises breathing in the darkness, the near-full moon coming up over Oakland, the breathy midnight hoots of the trains lining up in Richmond. I raised my jib and searched for pockets of wind before Raccoon Straits offered me another breeze. Under the Richmond Bridge, wind easing then shifting from the north, close hauled past the churning waters near The Brothers. I tacked into the shallow mud of China Camp, dropping anchor at 2:30 am, frozen and exhausted.


I slept through the ebb, pulled anchor, and got underway an hour into the next incoming tide. I wanted to start my first painting, but the wind was howling and I was racing to get into the shelter of the delta before a massive storm would hit the following day. I flew across San Pablo Bay under a double reefed main, once again, with the wind behind me lifting up waves and offering no break from the helm. I slipped into Carquinez Strait, and a few of my extended family came down to the broken piers of Crockett to wave.  I wave back, from a distance, to a young distant relative I’ve never actually met, and wonder what he must think about me, a strange man with a giant orange kayak strapped to the bow of his small boat, sailing by. I sail close to a bulker being unloaded at the C&H factory, then run along the shoreline, more broken pilings loming low and menacing. I come around a bend and see two old men sitting at the water’s edge. They look surprised to see me sailing along and give me a cheer, raising their fists in support.


The hills soften the wind and I shake out my reefs. Passenger and freight trains skirt the long bend of the strait, whirling by, close to shore, horns reverberating off the land and then the water. I jibe across the strait, tucking behind Benicia, and pass several tankers at berth. I race through random spans of the three bridges marking the end of the strait, rising winds behind and water bulging between the bridge towers. Finally sailing at over 7 knots, still under the full mainsail, Suisun Bay stretches out before me. The mothball fleet lies off to the north, wind turbines pulsate across the horizon and Port Chicago sits silent to starboard. Track homes, tank farms, and industry roll in and out of the hills. The wind still feverish and strong. Fishermen in small boats dot the shoreline. I round Pittsburgh and enter the New York Slough, a place I had once worked as a deckhand for the pilot boats that bring the river pilots to the big ships moving upriver. Strange to now have a mental map of a place that I had always driven to on a network of freeways. The slough narrows, the wind continues, more industry along the shoreline, joining the San Joaquin, speed boats pass with long bows for sport fishermen to cast from, each with two or three men, hoods pulled tight in the cool evening, their boats slamming against the chop. I pass under a freeway bridge. Darkness begins to fall but the wind does not.


Approaching a potential anchoring spot on a narrow offshoot of the river, I turn up into the wind to put in my reefs. As I ease the main halyard, one of my battens snags the topping lift. It does not easily come unhooked, and a moment of panic sets in as the boat drifts toward the levy rocks with the slack sail and unresponsive tiller. I know that trying to start my temperamental motor would probably just waste time, so I tell myself to calm down, then go through the motions: raise sail, shake loose batten, ease halyard, secure reefing lines, snug up halyard and once again I’m sailing a responsive boat. But without a forward sail, I’m unable to tack back through the wind, and I’ve now drifted past the entrance to the anchorage. So I ease the main and continue racing downwind and up the San Joaquin. With darkness setting in, I search the chart for another possible anchorage before I plan to turn onto the Mokelumne River, where the narrow entrance seems too dangerous to do in the dark for the first time. The land, flat in all directions, gives little wind protection. I spot a grove of trees silhouetted by the dim sky and turn into the wind and toward them, letting the main halyard loose and grabbing the anchor. I watch the depth gauge waiting for the mud shelf on the chart, but it seems to stay deep even close to shore. 


I realized that shore was much closer than I thought, the rock levy quickly coming into view and the grove of trees revealing themselves to be sunken back in a field that is actually below water level. I fling the anchor and run to the bow, trying to gain purchase before we hit the rocks. Before I feel it bite, I spot a drain pipe emerging from the levy and running into the water, directly in front. I jump off the bow and onto the drain pipe, pushing back against the boat to keep it from hitting the rocks. The boat drifts back and I jump back on, fix my bow anchor and then drop a stern anchor to keep from swinging either toward the channel or back onto the levy. No sound of impact, but just in case, I checked the bilges, no leaks. I gulped some much needed water, inhaled some leftovers and half a beer before feeling the immediate need to sleep. It had been 24 hours since departure, and I had not used the motor once. But, technically, I was in the delta, beaten up and dead tired.