A small corner of paradise. A windy spot in the Delta. 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.

Windmills in the Delta

 

Why the California 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 the 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 developments, 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.

 

Bruno riding through the islands

What about the Sherman Island Kiteboarding spots?

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.

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 upwind easily and watch for the strong tides and currents. Many newcomers 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 kite schools.

The good news about the Sacramento River Delta is that you have several options where you can launch from. Some are trickier than others, some have safer launch and landing areas, some can be combined with lodging opportunities.

This is what makes also the Delta great, offering a bit of paradise for everyone.

Kite Beach launch

Sherman Island County Park

There are 3 beach entry points, but two of these are mostly restricted to windsurfers: the larger sandy Playpen, also used by swimmers and picnickers when the winds are light, and the Windsurfer launch. The one beach kiters can use is Team Rio Beach.

You can launch in two areas:

  • Either directly at the beach in a narrow flat area, about 30 ft (6 m) x 60 ft (20 m), nestled between bushes and reeds. The spot is small and only allow one kite landing/launching at a time, and tends to be busy as it is right by the entrance and exit points. This is, however, a safe strategy as it limits the time on land to the minimum.
  • Or you can launch from a wider grass area by the parking lot. Though bigger than the beach launch, this is still small and tend to be packed with stacked kites and people setting up their gear, kids playing and dogs running around. This location also has a metal picnic rooftop downwind to the edge of the launch area. There is a wind shadow that makes launching and landing somewhat tricky. Due to its downwind position, it is not uncommon to see an overpowered kite taking off at launch and hitting that structure abruptly, sometimes with dramatic results and hurt kiters (dents on the roof are the remaining proof). Many choose this site to launch though, walking back and forth to the beach on two distinct paths, one to enter and one to exit to avoid ensure one-way direction each way.

With the wind blowing onshore, and surrounding tule reeds, trees, and blackberry bushes, there is in both cases little room for mistake and extra attention is required. Once in the water, you need to be able to do up wind right away or risk hitting shallow roots and edging bushes with potential serious results. Some prefer to play safe and body-drag first to put enough distance from the beach before getting on the board.

Busy weekends can see up to 70-80 kites on the water, even up to 100 on a 4th of July weekend if there is no wind elsewhere in the Bay Area.

The Access

A popular launch area during a few years with wide grassy open area, this is no longer available for kiting after an accident a few years back. This led to an ordinance establishing that no one can cross the county road with a kite flying high. You can however park there, and might be a good option when Sherman Island Park parking is full on busy weekends.

Sunset wonder

Little Baja

On the levee road just before entering Sherman Island County Park, this spot has gained on popularity after the shutdown of The Access. Right by the water, which helps avoiding any dangerous road crossing, this gently rolling grassy area is however tricky because of the wind shifts and the high levee.

This is the only launch area outside the Park. It has no parking fees per se though porta-potty is available during the summer months. The spot is maintained by RVWA / SIKO, a merger between two local organizations – the Rio Vista Windsurfing Association (RVWA) and Sherman Island Kiteboarding Organization (SIKO), RVWA / SIKO helps secure land management access and organizes access to different spots along the levees. Their management can be supported by a very affordable membership. Make sure to close the gates, to prevent resident cows to get away.

The Powerlines

Primarily a windsurfing spot, this is the last exit point from downwind kitesurfers. This is however a tricky exit point, especially in high tide flooding condition.

Upper Sherman Island (Kitopia Island)

Located further down the river toward the Bay Area, the island can only be reached by boat or by kite. Wide and sandy, with the wind side-shore, Kitopia Island is named after the kiteschool that started using it for teaching lessons for beginner kiters, though the island is also used by other schools. Thanks to its remoteness, the area is not as crowded as the Park and is a good starting point for beginners and intermediate kiters to launch without the crowd and who want to do a downwind back to the park.

Updated information on current sites and conditions can be found directly on RVWA / SIKO website

Stacked for the night

Sherman Island Kiteboarding Lessons

Over the years and thanks to the increasing popularity of kiteboarding, different kiteschools have pop-up around the Delta, most of them created by local kitesurfers seeing the demand in lessons and eager to help fellow kitesurfers on the water.

Kitopia

Managed by Donny and Sandy Parker, Kitopia kiteschool was opened in 2002 and provides lessons on land and on water. They can also organize downwind session from Kitopia Island, allowing beginners and intermediate riders to practice safely.

Sheldon Kiteboarding

A former windsurfer and sail designer, Bruce Sheldon moved to the “dark side” as it is called by the windsurfers and became one of the first kitesurfer on Sherman Island. Bruce launched Sheldon Kiteboarding and provides lessons. He is also the representative for North and Ozone kites and offers repair services.

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!

Sunset Session

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.

Though easily reachable from the Bay Area, there are few accommodations available around the main launch sites. Many come for the day, but many more stay over for the weekend or even longer over the summer.

There is however a local community of hard-core kiters and windsurfers that stay overnight from just the weekends or for longer period.

The Delta is mostly rustic lodging, from tents to cabins, trailers and RVs (though some of these RVs are quite luxurious!).

Sherman Island County Park

Managed by the County of Sacramento, Sherman Island County Park let you park either for the day with a $5-day fee, or camp overnight for an additional $7.50-night fee, for a maximum of 14 consecutive nights. You can also purchase a day-use season pass, starting at $50 for a car and small trailers up to 20 ft, and over for bigger size vehicles (prices stated as of September 2015). Tents are not allowed.

The park has an on-site camp host in the care of Indian Bob and wife Mina. Bob is an avid windsurfer who regularly logs over 250 days on the water each year! Bob takes care of all the maintenance in the park, and Mina is ensuring the smooth operations and fees payments. Both are always eager to help out new comers with park regulations, wind advice and local tips.

Gates close at 9pm, and many go to sleep early for sunrise sessions. Fridays and Saturdays can be party-like due to the younger kiteboarding community, with late BBQs, occasional guitar and drum players, and birthday celebrations. Reopening at 6am, day users can come in and be on the water at sunrise.

Our RV at thre County Park

Rio Viento RV and Trailer Park

A relatively recent new addition, Rio Viento park provides full hookups, has internet access, and private windsurfing launches.

The Sign

Maintained by the RVWA/SIKO association, paying members have access to overnight camping, though non-members can also park for the day providing fees. The site is popular with windsurfers but is not great for kitesurfers due to existing power lines.

The Access & The Powerlines

Short trailers, small RVs as well as tents, can stay overnight on both sites, but there is neither running water nor electricity available. Both are rustic camping conditions. These are by the road so watch for traffic when crossing.

Brannan Island State Recreation Area

The one camping with some amenities – restrooms, showers and drinking water – Brannan Island State Recreation Area is open 7 days a week for camping and day use. Sites are available for tents, RV/Trailers, and two rustic cabins can be also rented.

Major hotel brands are available in nearby Rio Vista about 30 minutes further up the Sacramento River, and in Antioch about 15 min away coming from San Francisco.

You might to check the different kitesurfing launch sites before you decide where to stay – you might want and be able to be right by the launch area.

Rio Vista Weather

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.

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…

Interested in other kiteboarding trips? Check our kitesurfing adventures, including kiteboarding in Sri Lanka for several months, exploring the dunes of Jericoacoara in Brazil, spend the winter in La Ventana of Baja California, or riding the turquoise lagon of Paje Beach in Zanzibar.

Stay tuned for more adventures
from our travel around the world!

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