Not wanting to be the only kiteboarder on the island, Bruce started slowly getting his remaining windsurfing friends into kiteboarding. Among the first to join Bruce on the water were Sherman Island regulars Carl Millman and Alex Hall.
It wasn’t long before more windsurfers became curious enough to try kiteboarding, so Sheldon began giving lessons. “The windsurfers called it ‘going over to the dark side,’” said Donny Parker, who had been windsurfing at Sherman since the mid 1990s. “It was not received well at all by most of the windsurfers and they didn’t want us around.”
The slowly-growing band of kiteboarders still launched at the gate of the park, a site known as the Access. After scrambling across the road and down the rocks that make up the levee, these early riders would often end up far downwind and have to self-rescue back to the rocks and either walk back or hitchhike along the levee road.
The number of kiteboarders was still very small, but stopping traffic and blocking the road every time a kite was launched turned out to not be the best way to make friends. Fences that were in the way at the launch site conveniently disappeared.
Later a confrontation between a kiteboarder and a car led to a rock thrown at the car and ended with a call to the sheriff. “After that incident an ordinance was passed that said you couldn’t cross the road with a kite,” said Donny. “That ended us being able to launch at the Access and made it so that the only spots we could launch were either in the park or at Little Baja.”
The launch known as Little Baja became a popular kiteboarding launch site after the ordinance was passed simply because of a quirk with the levee road. Little Baja is the only spot along the levee where the road drops off the levee and moves slightly inland for a short distance.
This makes it the only place where you can launch along the levee and get in the water without having to cross the road. Some of the early kiteboarders, including Shledon, made Little Baja their main launch while others moved into the park and began kiteboarding there.
As kiteboarding’s popularity grew on Sherman Island, both Sandy Parker and Nate Lincoln decided to start their own kiteboarding schools. Kitopia was founded in 2002 followed by Edge Kiteboarding in 2003. While they both operate out of the county park, they actually conduct their lessons a few miles upwind at Upper Sherman Island (also known as Kitopia Island), a spot only accessible by boat.
“We knew about Upper Sherman as windsurfers,” said Donny Parker, Sandy’s brother who teaches kiteboarding at Kitopia as well. “We would say we were riding up to the tree house, because there used to be a tree house there that eventually burned down.”
While the launches on Sherman Island can be crowded and full of obstacles, Upper Sherman is wide open and offers a sandy sideshore launch. Both schools offer lessons at Upper Sherman away from the crowds and also offer boat rides for downwinders to beginner and intermediate riders who might not feel confident about launching at either the park or Little Baja.
At the height of windsurfing, Sherman Island was an incredibly popular place to ride. “One fourth of July weekend, a friend and I counted over 500 windsurfers spread out on the river between the county park and Rio Vista,” said Sheldon. Early on, windsurfers would simply park along the levee road and carry their gear down the rocks to get in the water.
Over the years, things became more organized and the Rio Vista Windsurfing Association (RVWA) was formed. After crossing the road with a kite was banned, kiteboarders came together and created the Sherman Island Kiteboarding Organization (SIKO) and eventually the two organizations merged. RVWA/SIKO is responsible for maintaining the windsurfing and kiteboarding launches outside of the park, which includes Little Baja. They keep the spots clean and accessible, provide porta potties, and lease the land from the Department of Water Resources.
Any rider who launches at Little Baja should consider joining to help keep this spot open, and memberships are only $20 per year. The land surrounding the park and RVWA sites is private land that is mainly used for cattle ranching. Longtime rancher Richard Silva leases much of the island for his cattle and is often seen watching the kiteboarders and windsurfers. He introduces himself to a lot of people as cattle rustling is apparently still a problem and he likes more people around to help keep an eye on things.
After wrapping up my history lessons on Sherman Island, I picked up some groceries in Rio Vista and ended up back at the park shortly before sunset to find that the wind had picked up dramatically. From this point on, the wind would continue to blow until after I left.
Typically, the windiest times here are early morning and late evening. The middle of the day is usually a little lighter, but is often still ridable on a 12m or smaller kite. Really windy days can deliver solid 7-9m weather 24 hours a day with no mid-day lull. “We call it a working man’s wind,” said Nate Lincoln. “You can get in two great sessions a day here, one in the morning and one in the evening and still fit an eight hour work day in the middle.” After a sunset session, I cooked a quick dinner and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning shortly after sunrise, I looked out the window of the trailer and saw people already out riding.
One of the key elements of riding at Sherman Island is learning to pace yourself. It’s tempting to want to rush out on the water, but you’ll just wear yourself out in a hurry if you do that every time the wind is up. Once you’ve resigned yourself to staying on the island for more than a day, it’s important to slow down. You can easily ride four to five times a day here and still have plenty of time to hang out. Best Kiteboarding’s Joe Ruscito happened to be in San Francisco getting ready to ride a bike across the country, so he came out to Sherman for the first time to ride and get a few photos.
We took off from the beach lit on 9 and 10m kites and quickly worked our way upwind to Second Island, which is a small island covered with tall plants and surrounded by tules. As soon as Joe saw the glassy water behind the island, he went nuts and yelled, “This spot it sick!” Back on the beach, he said, “It was super windy and my smallest kite was a 10m. There are some nice rollers out there, but the flat water spot behind the island is pretty epic. You come into this slick about 300 feet long and there is some nice lift there. It’s really fun for kiteloops or anything you want to do. Everyone riding up there was stoked and cheering each other on, which is something you miss at some places now.”
Spending plenty of time on Sherman Island allowed me to really get to know the kiteboarding community here, which is one of the strongest kiteboarding communities I’ve ever experienced. For riders who only come to ride for the day, it can be hard to understand what really goes on here.
“People are more than happy to help you here,” said Slawek ‘Suave’ Krauze, who has spent the last four summers on Sherman Island and is currently running the Live2Kite Sherman Island trailer. “You can’t be all closed up and full of ego here. You’ll make more friends here being nice than you can imagine. Bring a brewski and just stay a little longer to experience the place because it’s worth it. The party doesn’t start until the gate closes, and people don’t know that.”
The gate Suave is referring to is the gate to the county park, which gets locked at 9 pm. “This place has turned into a community,” said Nate Lincoln. “It’s not just kiters coming here and being individuals, it’s kiters coming out here and being part of a sport and part of a community. That feeling is an amazing thing that makes the Delta unlike any place I’ve ever kited. It makes people who come here for the first time want to come back and join the community, and that is really what makes the Delta special.”