There are no hotels within about a 20 minute drive of the main launch sites, which means that there are basically two kinds of people that ride at Sherman: Those who come for the day and then leave, and those who bring supplies for a number of days and sleep in cars, tents, or trailers. I arrived at Sherman Island midweek with plans to stay through the weekend.
I pulled into Sherman Island County Park, paid the $5 day use fee, and noticed a lack of both people and wind. The park is operated by the County of Sacramento and offers both day use parking and overnight camping for up to 14 consecutive nights. The camping fee here is a completely reasonable $7.50 per night on top of the $5 day use fee.
The park is the main kiteboarding spot on Sherman Island and is one of only two launch sites here; the other one is Little Baja on the levee road. The camp hosts are the well-known and well-loved Indian Bob and his wife Mina, who will quickly find you and give you a friendly reminder to pay your fee in case you thought you could get away with staying below the radar.
While many people have heard of the incredible summertime winds here at Sherman Island, fewer people know that the main kite launching site is far from ideal for kiteboarding.
The main launch site is a relatively small grassy area within the park with a metal shade structure and parking area directly downwind of the launch. Midweek, there is plenty of room at this spot, but the weekend crowd can cause the launch to become overcrowded and hectic.
It’s no secret that there have been a number of kiteboarding accidents here that have led to riders being taken away in ambulances and helicopters and most have occurred when launching kites.
The metal shade pavilion has a permanent mark to remind riders what can happen when things go wrong as there is a dent on the inside of the roof from a rider’s helmet when that rider was launched into the structure. You can even still tell that his helmet was red by the scuff marks.
During busy days, inflated kites must be kept stacked and lines should only be laid out when you are ready to launch. Most people launch their kite in the grassy area and then walk down the designated entry path to the small beach.
On the beach there is room to launch and land one kite at a time, so some riders set up here to avoid walking down the path while flying a kite. The beach is small, full of sticks and logs, and the wind is straight onshore. There are tule reeds and blackberry bushes surrounding the launch, and there is little room for error.
While it is possible to walk into the water and ride away, the safest thing to do is to first body drag away from the beach before putting your board on. Sandy Parker, a very experienced rider and owner of the Kitopia kite school, gave up on riding away from the beach years ago after an incident put her in the middle of the bushes.
“I dove my kite and didn’t quite make it past a group of sticks that stuck out,” said Sandy. “I was launched into the middle of the blackberry bushes and had to fight my way out. I came out covered in red from both the blood and the berry juice and my wetsuit looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to it. After that, I gave up on trying to look cool and now body drag away from the beach before starting.”
When you come in off the water, there is a separate path to take you back to the grassy area and the small amount of space means you should quickly get your kite down, wrap up your lines, and stack your kite out of the way when you are done with your session. A busy day can see upwards of 70 kites on the water, so it’s really important that people follow these basic guidelines for launching and landing. Since the wind was light when I arrived, I decided to spend some time digging up the history of kiteboarding on Sherman Island.
Bruce Sheldon, owner of Sheldon Kiteboarding, is widely acknowledged as the first kiteboarder on Sherman Island. Located on the waterfront in Rio Vista, the Sheldon Kiteboarding shop is housed in a building more than a century old that was once a Chinese food restaurant.
The business is part kiteboarding shop, part repair shop, and part windsports museum. Among the treasures hiding here are a teak windsurfing boom, a windsurf hydrofoil, and a mint condition Kiteski ski and reel bar. Before kiteboarding took over as the main sport at Sherman, the shop was known as Sheldon Sails, and Bruce made custom windsurfing sails on site. At one point, one of his sails held the world windsurfing speed record.
Before heading to La Ventana for the winter, Sheldon ordered a box of gear from Wipika, the only manufacturer of inflatable kites at the time. “I was on my way out of town when the box showed up,” said Sheldon. “I didn’t even open the box. I just threw it in the van and headed south.” Bruce stumbled through the basics of learning to fly the 5m two-line kite on 40m lines south of the border and returned to Sherman Island ready to kiteboard in 1998.
Bruce originally started kiteboarding in the park, but many of his windsurfing friends quickly turned on him, didn’t want anything to do with him anymore, and didn’t want this wildly dangerous looking sport near them.
As a result, Bruce would launch his kite at the entrance to the park while standing in the road. “We would stop traffic and I would stand in the road that goes to the marina,” said Bruce. “These were two line kites with no depower, so it took one person to launch the kite and another to hold me down so I could walk across the road and down the rocks to get in the water. When I didn’t have two people around, I would park my truck in the bushes next to the road, pull the seatbelt out, and close the door. Then I would put the seatbelt around myself and launch the kite. I’d usually be picked up a little and get slammed into the side of the truck, but then the guy who launched the kite would run over, get me out of the seatbelt, and walk me to the water.”