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Gunkhole: Traditional Boat Rally

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The Gunkhole traditional small boat rally has participating boats dating back to the early 1900's, sailing along the nooks and hooks of the bay and delta sloughs from Hyde Street Pier to Brannen island. Most of the boats are designed as shallow draft traditional boats, best for landing on the sandy coves.

The Gunkhole Rally is a trip organized by the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park led by Bill Doll. Participants come from all over to sail and row in the tradition of California boating in mostly wood boats, such as Todd Blach on John Muir's Swallow, a Drascombe Luger, three Cape Cod style Cats, Dennis Magri on Cat Nip, Del Pezzino on Del Gato and Christian Buhl and I sailed the 1917 Katreina. Four Pelicans made the trip, Low Tec was sailed by Doug and the Gieger family's Draco was sailed by Richard and Susan. The most recently built Pelican out of six built at the Maritime small boat shop was sailed by Jessie. Langdon Hughes was on Sparrow the beautiful double-ended lapstrake yawl, Sam Johnson on Agassiz, the small cat boat, there were even row boats and many other beautiful sailing craft, 27 boats in total. The formidable mothership from 1891, the Scow Schooner Alma was captained by Al Lutz and first mate Alice Alma with galley chief Jill Lutz for the entire Gunkhole. Alma's counterpart keeping security watch was the 1915 tugboat Telco driven by John Conway.

How I came about participating in the Gunkhole is a serendipitous story. I had been craving a true sailing journey and wanted to buy a wood boat. I spent 6 months looking in the classifieds for a boat worthy of my transgression from high-tec sailing. Through a friend, Christian Buhl, one day there she appeared, a 1917 Crosby Cape Cod Cat courtesy of a fellow named Vernon who just happened to offer her to a worthy crew. Phone calls were exchanged and Vernon had her sent up from Huntington Beach and dropped off at the public launch ramp next to San Francisco's Bay View Boat Club, just in time for us to prepare her for the Gunkhole trip. It was a complete surprise to see the boat appear and even more surprising to begin to work with her rigging and sail her throughout the Bay and Delta. The boat arrived and the next thing I knew I was trying to figure out how to tie the gaff rigged canvas sail to the wood boom and the bamboo rings around the mast? I googled gaff rigged cat to compare pictures of rigging options.

Day One Hyde Street Pier, SF to San Pablo YC. The entire fleet of some 27 boats departed simultaneously. The three Cape Cod Cat style boats put up sail at roughly 8:30am at Hyde Street Pier. Heading out into balmy San Francisco weather and light breeze, it was a rare occasion, not for the many one-of-a-kind historic craft underway, but for the absolutely warm, sunny and windy early morning Summer weather at Pier 39. Christian, my compatriot and I sailed in the new-to-us 20 ft gaff rigged Crosby Cat Katreina, with our new Gambell & Hunter canvas main. Del in the Del Gato, Dennis in Cat Nip sailed alongside and the fleet quickly spread, each on their own gunkhole adventure sometimes waiting for others to catch only to run away to visit nearby Angel Island's shore. The boats were well matched with similar comparative sail size and water line, for a 5 day rally to Brannen island.

We had a leisurely sail across the expanse of the Bay to Point Blunt, typically known for the windiest weather on on the bay, to instead find a beautiful place, not the previously known rocky, craggy wind swept point, but a warm beautiful place filled with breeze. Passing close by the shore, we saw what we think was a condor nest and immediately began to bear off the lee of the island where the Bay welcomes Summer in earnest.

A real unexpected treat, we enjoyed sailing en masse past Brooks Island, down the San Pablo channel among boat yards uncertain of our landing but certain as a group it would be hard to stop with the Scow Schooner bring up the rear. We arrived to a greeting from our host Rick Wood of the San Pablo Yacht Club, there were two mooring balls, one of which we used to raft up while most of the fleet took over the docks. The place's warmth and activity surprised me since in nearly 40 years of sailing the Bay I never made it all the way down this estuary before, as others were pleasantly surprised by the Guiness on draft. Seafood soup and salad began the tone for the regatta, flavorful, basic and healthy food. We slept soundly anchored out in the middle of the end of the cove.

Day Two San Pablo Yacht Club to Glen Cove Vallejo. Ol' Pete Evans speaking at the post dinner meeting, had us catching the flood at the channel at 9am, which required we depart at 8am and sail up the estuary against the current and wind. We quickly abandoned our plans to motor in tow when the morning breeze made it possible for a grand tacking duel along Brooks Island with a well lighted few of the City in the background.
Wanna Gunkhole

Bill Doll suggested that it would be preferred passing Carquinez Straits along the shore, since we had low draft, it was a shorter distance and the wind and waves can be strong in the channel. But with light to moderate wind Katreina and a few others couldn't resist the temptation to head out into flooding channel and receive all the benefit of the tide and in doing so were launched on one of those rides that makes the Bay famous. Reaching off to Red Rock island with the current and wind from behind we skyrocketed relaxing off the wind while achieving about 10 knots over ground. Waahoo. Past the island, Margaret Jane our visiting crew drove and the other cats sailed nearby, M.J. was thrilled to drive under the Richmond Carquinez bridge, not far along we found the Glen Cove Marina and were having so much fun we decided to pass a few more laps around entrance before joining our fleet for bbq and salad dinner on the grass of Glencove Marina.

Day Three Glencove to Suisun Slough's Joyce Island Duck Club. Departing Glencove, now passing the Moth Ball fleet we saw the Scow Alma ahead marking our entrance to the Delta at Suisun Slough toward Joyce Duck Club.

Maritime Curator John Muir and crew kept an eye out for the various vessels. Most of the participating boats are historical though in excellent shape but even the best could easily be swamped by the bay's awesome power so we mind each other, with an eye to the big boats and radios on, backed up by cell phone and the buddy system for emergencies. This is the gunk hole life. Honestly though the boats are chosen by their caretakers for their efficient designs, San Francisco Bay and the Delta are demanding, so our fleet plans well to go with tides and avoid high waves, this time the gunkhole schedule was planned by Pete, using the flood well to our extreme advantage throughout the trip.

We arrived suntanned and tired after the 20 mile sail. Relaxing in the club's old leather chairs in the main salon, we regaled our progress and traded barbs around a salmon pasta and chocolate cake dessert.

Day Four Joyce Duck Club to Montezuma Slough flotilla. We left at 10:00am as planned and sailed strong toward the main channel and made good speed until we ran aground, or I should stuck in the mud in the center of the channel. It wasn't until our crew Margaret Jane and cap'n Christian got into the mud and pushed and pulled us off with a light wind helping. Swimming alongside our boats in warm weather with a swim line in tow, we were dragging our daggerboards across the muddy bottom. Christian took over docking our Gaff rigged Cat. First he dragged the boom spar through the Tule weed and then after some rocking free he sailed toward the docked fleet, working together we scandalized the rig, dropping the upper spar then brought down whole sail as she slipped into our place alongside the wood boats, a finale so fine in its execution it was met by the cheers of the fleet and even a special congratulations from the Telco tug boat cap'n. So far so good.

The delta is narrow here, full of tule and cat's paw, it seems like a picture of the past, with no sounds except birds teasing us for a free meal. Montezuma slough is a nice place but we're not stopping long, on our way to our next stop, gunkholing the delta.

Day Five Montezuma Slough raft up to Brannen Island. We passed through the Three Mile Slough Draw Bridge to our final destination at Brannen Island. Being ninety years old, many mysteries exist wih her and many secrets untold. She performed perfectly in a variety of conditions with the quality one would expect from a boat ninety years young. To sail her thus far had been a dream. While others made haste packing up to trailor home, a smile crept up as I accepted our fate, to begin the sail back, only this time we would ride the ebb against 20-30 knot headwinds. We sailed together with Dennis and his son Dominic who had proved that a 16 year old can sail single handed the 100 mile distance on the tippiest boat in the fleet without capsizing. We sailed a few miles upwind to Sherman Island and stayed tucked in at the protected Access, where we enjoyed a hearty dinner together with guests in the cockpit. For a twenty foot boat she is huge, nine and a half wide she can handle ten people enjoying a meal or drinks. At 5:30am we awoke to howling wind and shortly there after headed out into the screaming ebb arriving in Benecia in under 3 hours later that afternoon we stopped at Sam's for late lunch before a spin back out the Golden Gate to make a glorious run down the City Front at sunset.

To have experienced something so enjoyable is a life experience I won't forget. I owe this to the Gunkhole, an event that could not have had better weather or been more well run. I learned not only about these fantstic boats' construction but also a keen respect for the boat builders.
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