A small corner of paradise. A windy spot in the Delta. A heaven of summer kiteboarding.
Barely two hours away from San Francisco, the Delta could be on the other end of the world, so different these two places are. No high-rise, no car traffic, no Starbucks, no fog. Only warm weather, river levees, fields of corns & grazing cows, tall waving reeds & thorny blackberry bushes, white egrets & red-winged blackbirds. And the wind, blowing relentlessly.
Why the Delta?
In summer, the area is favored with constant wind, thanks to the deep temperature gap between cold San Francisco and hot Sacramento. Regularly basking in +100° F temperatures, Sacramento’s hot air makes way to the Pacific Ocean’s cool air, generating a major pressure flow coming from the Golden Gate Bridge and swarming over to the Delta. Located half-way through both cities, the Delta sits where California’s great rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, meet and is ideally located for the best wind conditions in California. Over the summer, the wind blows non-stop from morning to evening, creating perfect sunrise and sunset sailing conditions.
I hesitated to write about this little secret spot, because well, part of me would like to keep it like that, a secret. But the Delta has been gaining fame in recent years, so secret is out, more or less. We first discovered the Delta over 10 years ago, when windsurfing was still the main wind sport on the water. Thanks to so few urban development, with no running water or electricity, the spot was only known to San Francisco Bay Area locals, creating a small community of hardcore windsurfers living out their RVs.
What about the spot?
Tides, bushes, rocks and trees, combined with a small launch area, make the Delta a spot for experienced kitesurfers. You need to be able to ride up wind easily, and watch for the strong tides and currents. Many new comers are surprised by these and end up doing the “walk of shame”, walking back on the levees after being caught by flooding conditions and pushed into the Channel. On strong ebbs, coast guards are occasionally bringing back riders and surfers swept away from the island. This is not the place to learn, unless you can schedule a downwind with one of the local kiteschools.
The season starts officially on Memorial Day Weekend (May) and ends on Labor Day Weekend (September), though winds starts blowing as early as March and can extend until end of October. July and August are the peak months, when the wind is almost constant, though the windiest times are usually early morning, late afternoon (be ready for epic dawn or sunset sessions!), through the night, with mid-day usually on the lighter side. The wind is mostly side-onshore, though some days see the wind to shift South.
Riders usually have two kites to go out on: 7-9 m kite when windy, and 10-12m in lighter conditions.
Very often, you can see kiters on the water starting 7am, the sun barely rising over the horizon. With such constant winds, it’s hard to stay away from the water but you will rapidly realize you need to, under the risk of collapsing from wind-overexposure. Most riders go out two or three times during the day. Some start leisurely with the mid-day wind to ensure enough energy for a late session. And once you know the sunset on the Delta, this is not a vain reason. As far as sunset goes, this is the place for gorgeous colors, striking effects, where looking at kites flying against the red shades is just mind-blowing (beside wind-blowing!). Note that it is not legal to ride past sundown, unless you have a night-light – on busy weekends, coast guards have come to remind late riders to exit the water. In any case, pacing your sessions is key if you are planning on staying on for the weekend – you might collapse of overkiting otherwise!
Once on the water, you can head towards the Channel or towards the Sherman Island Waterfowl Area. The Channel is what the locals called the Sacramento River, California’s largest river with a channel about 30 feet (9 m) deep and 200 feet (61 m) wide; and still used today by large tankers transporting goods between Sacramento and Oakland. The Channel tends to be choppy, with strong current and tides, and is also the playground of the local windsurfers. On the other side you can reach Sherman Island Waterfowl Area’s numerous small islands on the edge of the San Joaquim River, where you may encounter red-winged blackbirds, the occasional sea otters and turtles, as well as weekend boaters and jetskis. This area has calmer water and is less impacted by the strong tides of the Sacramento River.
The rough setting of the area includes rocks and dead trees on the levees, strong tides with powerful ebbs and flooding creating choppy sailing conditions. On an ebb tide, you can see one to three-foot swell, and low ebb will reveal roots, dead trunks and reeds that will make riding tricky as you need to be able to navigate properly to avoid these extra objects.
Initially a windsurf spot, both communities coexist rather well these days. Invading kitesurfers initially got cold shoulders from the windsurfers, but the spot now has separate launch areas – one beach access for the kites, one for the windsurfers – that keeps everyone in happy mood. Some areas like the small islands are better suited for kiters given that the kites are not impacted by the high reeds like windsurfers would. The Channel and the Playpen (the small sandy beach area at the entrance of the park) are mostly used by the windsurfers. Both teams are required to follow safe sailing guidance, should avoid playing tricks, restrict from jumping within 200 feet (70 m) from the beach and swimmers, and follow sailing right of way.
Given its location close to the ocean, you are sailing in brackish fresh water, a little warmer than the Bay Area. Many ride with full 3 mn wetsuits, though in warmer days you can go with a shorty. Water is not appealing and far from being crystal clear due to moving silt and the agricultural fields around the area.
But the wind, well, the wind… will make you want to come over and over…
Check which kitesurfing site you can launch from, and if you plan on staying a few days, several overnight lodging options along the Sacramento River are available.