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A WATERY GRAVE



The California Delta is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been fishing or boating, especially at night. It is so peaceful and quiet that you can hear only the sounds of crickets and various other bugs for miles.

However, it can be a very dangerous place and many lives have been lost. Anglers and boaters of the San Joaquin Delta have made serious mistakes that cost them dearly. I happen to be one of those who made a serious mistake, and it almost cost my young son and me our lives.

It was late one evening and I wanted to head out to the California Delta for a night of fishing. I do not think it was so much the fishing that I enjoyed as much the peace and quiet. It is just a great place to think and it is a good place to make important decisions about life, especially during troubling times.

Eight-year-old Roger Jr. and I headed out from Modesto and turned into the B&W Boat Dock located on highway 12 near Rio Vista about 60 miles away. We arrived about 5:00 p.m., unloaded the ten-foot boat, and headed down the Mokelumne River to the mouth of the San Joaquin River, where we intended to fish that night.

As darkness was coming upon us I found it very hard to relax. I had a strange feeling that something was just not right, but I could not put my finger on it. The water was calm and the wind was blowing Westerly at about five miles per hour. I decided to pull anchor and head back into the Mokelumne River near the B&W boat dock. Should something happened, we would be able to get the boat back to the dock rather quickly.

I guess it was about 10:00 p.m. when the wind started to blow at about twenty miles per hour, which was quite severe. I had checked the weather report before we left and nothing was said about windy conditions. Within another fifteen minutes the wind had kicked up to about thirty miles per hour. Water was now blowing into the boat because of the high waves hitting us from the side. I told Roger Jr. to go up front in the boat and cover up with several blankets; that I would start the motor and we would head home. For some reason the motor would not start. It was very frightening as water was now beginning to fill the bottom of the boat. I had not brought the ship-to --shore radio, which was a mistake on my part. That mistake nearly cost us our lives.

I debated about releasing the anchor line, which would allow the boat to drift free in the current. I hoped we would be able to land on one of the dirt levees along the riverbank. However, as I looked out into the darkness, all I could see was little green eyes staring back at me. I did not know what kind of creatures roamed the levees but I did not care to join them anytime soon.

The wind was whipping the boat around like a piece of paper, and I was starting to become somewhat afraid. I knew I would have to keep my wits about me for my son’s sake. Finally, I had no choice but to release the anchor rope and hope to hit one of the levees. As I turned around to look at the levy about fifty feet behind me, I saw five or six sets of little green eyes.

“What the hell could those damn things be?” I said to myself.

Once again, I changed my mind about releasing the anchor. I grabbed the flashlight out of the glove box and waited for automobiles to cross the bridge, which was about a quarter of a mile in front of us. When a car would pass, I would shake the flashlight in their direction hoping that they would see the light and then call for help. However, no one ever noticed the light.

The wind raged on for hours. All I could do was take the pee can and continually scoop water from the bottom of the boat and pour it overboard. Within an hour, I was exhausted. I sat down in the bottom of the boat and dealt with the water as best I could.

About 3:00 a.m. the wind started to die down and I was very happy and relieved. However, within 15 minutes a thick fog started rolling in which was common in the Delta. When it is foggy in the Delta, you cannot see three feet in front of you. There is no way you could tell if you were headed straight, right, left, or turning in a constant never-ending circle. Once again, I looked over at the dirt levy. Now I saw about ten sets of those green eyes. I had fished the Delta for more than ten years and never had I ever seen any green eyes before. Within minutes, the fog covered the entire area. Now I could not see anything at all, not even the green eyes.

Frustrated and scared, I sat down in the driver’s seat to rest and placed my head against the front window. I reached down to check the key to make sure it was in the off position, so not to run the battery down. When I turned the key, the motor turned over and started. God only knows how happy I was at that point. However, there was still one major problem. I could not get into the boat ramp because I could not tell what direction I would be traveling. The fog was so thick I did not even know if the tide had turned and changed our direction.

Then the wind started to kick up again; I knew I had no choice except to pull anchor and head for whatever land I could before we started taking on water again, even if it meant standing among all those green-eyed creatures on the levy.

I pulled the anchor and tried to hold the boat as straight as possible, hoping to hit some kind of land within a few minutes. The fog was so thick that it was impossible to see anything. I had to turn off my running lights as they blinded me when they glared off the fog. I had to travel forward at about ten miles per hour to keep from being swept backwards in the fast-moving current. Should that happen we could be carried into the Sacramento River and out toward the ocean, sixty to eighty miles down river.

I stared so hard without blinking and for so long, that I began seeing things in the fog that were not actually there. Things such as land, trees, cement pillars, and other vessels. At one point, I panicked because I thought I was running into the side of a large Navy ship. It turned out to be nothing more than a reflection in the fog. Besides, there are no Navy ships in the rivers, or are there?

I must have steered for over an hour and I was a nervous wreck. Every muscle in my body was tense and contracting. I knew if I hit land at ten or fifteen miles per hour I would wreck my boat on the rocks, and my son and I would be swept away in the strong current.

It was very quiet except for the wind, which was blowing at about ten miles per hour. All I could do was continue to steer in what I though was a straight line. All at once, I would jerk the boat to the right when I thought I saw something in the water. Then I would jerk it back to the left and then back to the right. My nerves were on their last lap.

“WHAT IS YOUR DESTINATION?” came a voice over a loudspeaker.

I grabbed my chest and my knees buckled beneath me. I was probably not far from having a heart attack. That is just how bad the sound scared me.

When I looked up, I could see a Coast Guard Cutter sliding up along side of me. I could see several men, one of them holding a large bullhorn and he once again repeated, “WHAT IS YOUR DESTINATION?”

Still holding my throat and chest, I yelled back, “THE DAMN GRAVE YARD IS MY DESTINATION IF YOU DO THAT AGAIN.”

The Coast Guard gave me a very stern warning about operating my boat without running lights while moving in the water. They threw me a line and towed us to the B&W boat ramp. I thanked the United States Coast Guard for saving my life, as well as almost ending it. I loaded the boat onto its trailer. My son and I headed down Highway 12, toward our home. Never again would I return to the Delta without a ship-to-shore radio, two life jackets for every person on board, a citizen’s ban radio, flotation devices, oars, blankets, extra clothing, shoes, socks, flood, flashlights, batteries, portable radio, cell phone, food and nitro heart tablets.



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