The first day of Ephemerisle, inevitably, is a disaster. Upwards of 30 houseboats, mostly driven by untrained landlubbers like myself, trying to converge and dock in a windy section of the Sacramento River delta using inadequate anchors, lousy radio technique and the blithe confidence of the overeducated. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, I’m sure we’ve not quite exhausted the list, but not for want of trying. That being said, in the half dozen years of the festival, we have yet to actually sink a houseboat or have anyone die.
And to be fair, over the years, the more committed participants have developed a respectable enough range of watercraft skills that, once the islands have stabilized into an aspiring little Burning-Man-on-the-water, we’ve started to have actual boats, with actual sailor-folk, feel safe enough to raft up with us. It’s just that bit prior to “once the islands have stabilized” that’s worth giving a wide berth.
Once again, I got suckered into captaining a boat this year. Remember the colloquial definition of insanity? But this time it was going to be different. This time, we developed the fiendishly clever plan of simply showing up a day late. Islands come together on Monday? We’d show up Tuesday, once the inevitable, uh…Charlie Foxtrot had cleared itself up.
But in keeping with my well-documented lack of leadership management skills, I failed to actually inform the other seven people on my boat of plan. Really, I shouldn’t be in charge of this sort of thing.
So as we motored around the corner at Mandeville Point Monday afternoon, construction was frantically underway, and the islands were nowhere near ready to receive additional boats. A quick radio call to harbor master Sean urged us to steer clear, drop anchor somewhere and wait for a call that things had stabilized enough for us to come in and dock.
It’s now late Tuesday afternoon. In the intervening day, we’ve made kayak trips over what is shaping up and pitched in what little talent we have in terms of helping drill, assemble, fasten and launch stuff. It’s an ambitious enterprise: the core is technically an “archipelago” of half a dozen islands connected by a series of floating bridges and platforms designed by exhaustive trial and error to sway and adapt to the changing wind and tides out here.
For the most part though, we’ve hung out on the sidelines. Not that they’re bad sidelines: the “point” part of Mandeville Point is a low island on the inside bend of the river. The interior of the island is an impenetrable thicket of blackberry brambles, but close in on its lee side, away from the powertool cacophony of the assembling archipelago, there are pilings where one can easily tie a houseboat and while away an afternoon. And evening. And most of a following day without much effort. It’s not at all clear whether they’re going to be ready for us to dock before sundown today, but you know, no one seems to be fretting much. We’re here, on a boat, in good company, and the weather’s lovely. And we have plenty to keep us entertained: blackberries and board games, kayaks and…the HMS Infernal Racket.
Well, to be precise, I have the Infernal – I think I’m the only one on our boat who has been interested (or foolish) enough to try to get her to work. The Infernal is a bright red 9′ 6″ West Marine inflatable dinghy, ostensibly powered by an ostensible 3 hp outboard motor that I suspect is trying to kill me. After today, the feeling is approaching mutuality.
I don’t think it’s really fair for me to expect all that much from a 40-year old JC Penneys motor I bought on Craigslist for $100. I disassembled and cleaned the carburetor, flushed the tank, lines and fuel filter after I bought it, and got it to start up after only a few pulls when it was mounted on a bucket in my backyard. But out here in the field, it’s proving…cantankerous. Mighty cantankerous. It doesn’t much like to idle, so you’ve got to start her up in high. Then, she’ll sort of sputter and hesitate as you lower the prop into the water, like she needs attention. And it’s only then, only after you’ve got your weight full aft, leaning over the engine to fuss with choke and mixture – it’s only then that she’ll really catch and dig in. The nose of the boat will come clear out of the water and, if you didn’t learn your lesson the first time, you’ll go right over the stern into the water as the red rover and its accompanying infernal racket makes a high speed break for the cattails. Great fun, as you must well imagine.
But other than that, it’s mostly lazy days here in the reeds. The archipelago is coming together, albeit more slowly than anyone would like. We’ll go out and help some more tomorrow, and maybe they’ll be far enough along for us to raft up by tomorrow night. Maybe. And if not, we’re not fretting – there are plenty worse things for us to do than simply hang out right here and mess about in boats.