But as with the cobbler whose children’s shoes are worn out, it’s all too common for people to overlook what’s right under their noses when looking for leisure time pursuits. So it is with the California Delta.
More than 1,000 miles of waterway meander their way from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay, offering fishing, water skiing, sailing and a plethora of wildlife, but many who live within just a few minutes’ drive of the nearest boat ramp have never taken advantage of what the Delta has to offer.
Well, Steven and Heather Ingram are here to help. Several times a week, the operators of Delta Discovery Cruises set sail from the Pittsburg Marina aboard the 65-foot, custom-built Island Serenade, giving landlubbers from near and far a closeup look at the rich ecology and history of the Delta, all from the comfort of a deck chair or climate-controlled main salon.
Transplants from Utah, the Ingrams had the Island Serenade custom built to ply the waters of the Great Salt Lake. “We didn’t just want a houseboat with chairs,” said Steve as the Island Seranade thumped its way through the choppy waters of the San Joaquin River last weekend. “We only wanted to do it first-class.”
But when six years of drought lowered the water level in the Great Salt Lake nearly a dozen feet and left their mooring with nothing but mud, the Ingrams secured a loan from the City of Pittsburg, packed up the family and the Island Serenade and headed west.
Arriving in 2008, the Ingrams began offering a host of specialized tours, plying the waters from San Francisco Bay to Sacramento. Certified by the Coast Guard to carry up to 85 passengers and a crew of five, the Ingrams offer dinner tours, murder mystery tours and romantic sunset cruises. There are excursions for seniors, for wedding and for fans of jazz music, and every year hundreds of students enjoy cruises exploring the ecology, history and science of the Delta.
“We just got our 501(c)3 (not-for-profit) permit,” said Heather. “We’d really like to do the science cruises full time.”
Of all their offerings, perhaps the most popular is the Mothball Fleet Cruise, a four-hour voyage to Suisun Bay to visit the famed assemblage of cargo vessels, former Coast Guard cutters, warships and myriad other ships in various stages of decay or preservation. Officially part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, some of the 50 or so ships of the fleet are preserved for use should a crisis arise, such as when a number of cargo ships and tankers were called on for the Persian Gulf War. Most of the ships, however, are slowly being removed and scrapped, in part because of the toxic paint peeling off their hulls and polluting the waters of the bay.
The most famous of the fleet’s residents is the USS Iowa. Launched in 1942, the 45,000-ton, 887-foot dreadnaught bristles with armament, the biggest of which are the nine 16-inch guns capable of hurling a 2,700-pound high-explosive shell more than 23 miles. The only ship of her kind to deploy in both the Pacific Ocean (where she shelled Japanese island forces and moored in Tokyo Bay as the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri) and the Atlantic (where she served as a shuttle for President Franklin Roosevelt when he traveled to Europe during World War II).
As the Island Serenade slips past the behemoth – with armed Navy vessels keeping a watchful eye as she passes – Steve tells some of the ship’s remarkable history, including tidbits such as the Iowa’s distinction as the only capital ship in the U.S. Navy to ever have a bathtub installed (it was for Roosevelt). As the Island Serenade slowly works its way past the ships, stories are shared of the Coast Guard icebreakers, submarine tenders and others.
The tour isn’t just about the fleet, however. The cruise also passes the Port Chicago Memorial, marking the spot where, in 1944, 320 people died when the munitions ship E.A. Bryan exploded in a blast that broke windows 20 miles away and produced a fireball seen in San Francisco.
“I like the boat ride, but the history of this area is the most fascinating part,” said Kelly Powell, a resident of Granite Bay on last weekend’s cruise. “We’ve seen some wildlife, and the picnic lunch was nice, but I could drink up this history all day long.”
The Delta Discovery operation is a family affair, as the Ingrams’ son Tyler helps out on the crew. Heather’s mother, Vickie Hakanson, takes care of the paperwork and her father, Darrell, is the chef. A friendly crew of locals rounds out the crew.
Cruises on the Island Serenade range from $68 to $79 per person, and steep Groupon discounts are available for many. To check out what’s available or to make reservations, visit www.deltadiscoverycruises.com.
To view video highlights of the tour, click here.