A river runs through him

Forging the Sacramento River with the last of the independent riverboat pilots

Wally Slough has spent half his life piloting 100-foot-wide ships down 200-foot channels. Mud, says Slough, is very forgiving.

Wally Slough has spent half his life piloting 100-foot-wide ships down 200-foot channels. Mud, says Slough, is very forgiving.

Photo By Don Lipper

Historically speaking, the Sacramento River is a ribbon of golden greed, collisions, cattle rustling, floods and explosions, and a place where it’s very dangerous to be a duck.

Since the early days, if you wanted to get cargo up the curvy river from San Francisco, you needed someone with local knowledge to steer you on the right course: a pilot. All big ships coming into a port are met out at sea by a local pilot who knows the currents of the coastlines, the hazards of local waterways and the idiosyncrasies of each dock.

Wally Slough is the last of the independent river pilots. This maverick doesn’t work for the San Francisco Bar Pilots (those who escort ships from the ocean to the Golden Gate) for one reason: He gets seasick.

“I was an inland pilot since 1974 and joined the Bar Pilot group in ’85, and I was seasick all the time,” said Slough, laughing. “I’d gone to sea all my life, but it is a different motion on a small boat than it is on a ship. It just ripped me up. So, I said, ‘Hey, life is too short.’ I went back to being an independent pilot, and I’m the last.”

Slough (whose name rhymes with “know”) is 57. “I’m kind of an anachronism. I’m the last of the Mohicans at the tail end of my career,” he said.

As he reminisced, Slough piloted the Star Drottanger from Pier 80 in San Francisco up to Sacramento to discharge fertilizer from Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

As an old-timer, his knowledge of the river is encyclopedic. Still, he acknowledged, “5 percent of piloting is shithouse luck.”

Slough has done this transit more times than he can count. He doesn’t even consult charts anymore. “Let’s just say I know the way,” said Slough, laughing.

Though old salts don’t look at charts, beginning pilots pore over every detail and memorize every current and hazard. In order to pass the piloting exam, they are given a blank sea chart and must draw in every detail from memory. They must be able to recite a table of the timing and degree of each course change. But piloting is more than sticking to a course-correction table.

“A lot of it is done by feel. It is technical; you have all these tools, the radar, etc. It is still a seat-of-the-pants business,” Slough said.

As if on cue, the ship shuddered as it went from deep water into shallow. “The ship’s talking to us, saying, ‘I’m not happy. I think you better slow me down,’” Slough said.

Slough has two separate radar systems at his disposal. But there was a time when pilots just used their ears. “The pilot would ring the bell and would listen in the fog or the dark for the echo,” explained Jim Henley, Sacramento’s city and county historian. “All along the river, from San Francisco to Sacramento, would be these wallboards that looked like signboards with no sign on it. A good pilot with no vision at all would listen. And from the echoes, he would say, ‘We’re up by Mrs. Smith’s barn now; we turn two degrees.’”

Back in the 1850s, as gold fever struck the nation, 200,000 people moved to Sacramento in two years, and the Sacramento River was the most exciting place to be. In the Sacramento Union, a journalist named Mark Twain chronicled the exploits of Captain Ned Wakeman. On April 2, 1851, Wakeman brought his ship the New World downriver from Sacramento to San Francisco in the record time of five hours and 30 minutes.

The need for speed wasn’t just about bragging rights. The economic competition on the river was fierce. Many boats raced until their boilers exploded or the boats collided. Some even would steal each other’s place on a dock in order to get their freight off first.

The second major water hazard was a product of the Gold Rush itself. Debris from hydraulic mining silted up the Sacramento to a depth of three-and-a-half feet. Eventually, hydraulic mining was outlawed.

Farther south, desperados used the Sacramento to sell their hot cattle. “There was once a place known as Tuolumne Cove or Tuolumne Pocket,” wrote Fred S. Cook in Steamboats in the Valley. “In 1890, this area was used by a band of rustlers who ferried cattle and horses (stolen from Stockton) to their hideout and then later sold them in Sacramento. [It was] one of the few instances of organized crime on the river.”

As we went through the San Francisco Bay, we passed by many long-forgotten landings that were vital to the economy from Redding down to San Joaquin. There once were more than 800 river landings along the Sacramento. Few remain today.

“When times were bad, a farmer still had to make payments on his property. How did he do it? By hunting ducks. They brought in boats that they would float into the duck ponds, and they’d set up these huge shotguns with four barrels. They’d take out 100, 200 ducks at a pop,” said Henley. “There was big money in that at the turn of the century. A guy could make $1 to $3 for birds. It used to be that the sky in California was black with ducks, but market hunters just wiped them out.”

From 1869 on, trains (and later trucks) carried freight, also. Super boats like the Delta King (now a hotel and restaurant permanently moored in Old Sacramento) and Delta Queen (still working as a tour boat on the Mississippi River), combated the trend by carrying passengers and some freight. But even when those ships were running nightly between Sacramento and San Francisco during the 1920s and early 1930s, they were glamorous anachronisms.

We turned near Angel Island and headed north past the San Rafael Bridge, San Pablo Bay, the Carquinez Straight and then Suisun Bay. At numerous locations, Slough pointed out the sites of groundings and collisions with bridges, other ships and docks: Over there—that’s where slaughterhouses used to pump their refuse right into the river. Look right there, he’d say. That’s where the Ozol refinery exploded. Slough grew quiet when he spoke about the river’s most famous explosion: Port Chicago Naval Magazine on July 17, 1944, where 320 men were killed and 390 were injured.

“I had a buddy who was five miles upstream from Port Chicago when the ship blew up, and he told me that it picked the whole boat out of the water,” Slough recalled. “Then, he was on his boat going through the area recovering bodies. He said it was just terrible. If you look over here on starboard, now all that is left of the dock are pilings. Terrible event—a lot of people killed, a lot of people injured. And then there was mutiny afterward, where the men would not go back to work. They used all black troops who were court-martialed. During the Clinton administration, some of them were finally pardoned. One of those terrible things in our history.”

He pointed to the Carquinez Bridge, where another pilot had rammed his ship. “I had to take it out once it was grounded,” said Slough. “It tore a hole in the starboard side 10 feet high, 10 feet deep and 125 feet long down the side of the ship. The steel plate was about an inch and an eighth thick. But it was just like it was made out of butter. Every pilot and captain should look at something like that because it teaches you what you can do with one of these ships. You’ve gotta be careful. They’re very dangerous.”

But Slough keeps his job in perspective. “I remember when I first started doing this. My old mentor said, ‘Now Wally, when you run the river, you’re going to go aground. Don’t feel bad. Everybody does it. You stick a 100-foot-wide ship down a 200-foot channel, you’re going to bounce off the sides a little.’”

When pressed to name the worst thing he ever faced, Slough talked about the quartermaster who literally didn’t know his left from his right. “The trip to Stockton is very winding up and down the river, like a snake. I came up on Three Mile and ordered, ‘right 10, right 20,’ and looked up, and the quartermaster was going the wrong way. He was going left 20. I said, ‘No, no. Hard right.’ And the quartermaster went hard left. I literally, physically threw him off the wheel, grabbed the wheel and cranked her hard right. The rudder is very slow on that ship, and it took forever. We were shearing off to the left, and I thought we’d T-bone on the bank. She clicked and started turning back to the right. We rolled on the bank as we went by, but we didn’t hit anything. Mud is very forgiving.”

How you handle a crisis is what determines whether you’re a good pilot. “You have to remain calm. If you start to get nervous, that will be transmitted to everyone in the wheelhouse, and everything starts to fall apart,” Slough said.

As we docked in the port of Sacramento nearly 14 hours after we had left, I asked Slough if he ever had piloting nightmares. “I don’t have nightmares. I know I’m good at what I’m doing. What, me worry?” He laughed.