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The marshes, the cornfields, the dead-end levee ro, the isolation. Chronicle staff writer Kurtis Alexander and staff photographers Santiago Mejia and Carlos Avila Gonzalez have spent months exploring the delta and uncovering its stories, speaking to hundreds of residents about what the future might hold.

Several Chronicle editors, graphic artists and website developers are also contributing to the series. Part one can be found at www. Yet life is known to take strange turns, especially in this watery frontier at the edge of the Bay Area. Here, the couple have exclusive run of the sun decks, stately reception galleries and Art Deco lounge.

When night falls, they have their pick of 85 boutique cabins. Their Mercedes and pickup are parked ashore if they want to lose their sea legs and head to town. For more than a decade, Willson has struggled to save the vessel, first from the scrapyard, then from prowlers and county regulators, and, almost always from its own slow decay.

The pandemic has only complicated matters, tightening the supply of materials and labor for the project. For him, like for many, however, it has afforded the space and freedom to do something very different. The pumps and pipes that send flows to distant cities and farms have diminished the water supply, its quality and the wildlife that live here.

California leaders are considering fixes including a massive water tunnel endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to stabilize exports.

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They feel under attack. The miles of waterways are the turf of reclusive fishermen. The late hotel magnate and duck hunter Barron Hilton built a vast wilderness playground here. His plan is not to turn his 2,ton boat into an operational cruise ship, but renovate its historic facade and interior in the hope of putting it to use as a specialty theater, hotel or event center — at least when the pandemic has passed. Many of the basics are taken care of, including electricity, fed by generators and solar panels, and water and waste, which can be trucked in and out as needed.

Many of the rooms and decks show their age, with wobbly floors, peeling paint, and creaking windows and doors. However, the enterprising boatman, with a slight mustache, purposeful brow and boyish grin, has hope. His infectious optimism has won him interest from a nearby delta town that has considered tapping the craft as a tourist attraction and from potential investors in Silicon Valley. But San Francisco craigslist sex swing was curious. Willson had always liked repairing things and had worked 12 years for a disaster recovery company, salvaging equipment after hurricanes and fires.

Even before Willson arrived at a small island 20 miles from where the boat sits today on the rural outskirts of Stockton, his enthusiasm for the cruiser was blossoming. The ship was built in Hamburg in For the Germans, the first-of-its-kind expedition vessel was part of a national rebirth after World War II. Its maiden run was a 1,person day cruise in the North Sea. There are very few ships like this still in existence. The ship, built inserved as a luxury cruise ship in Greece and along the West Coast of the United States since the '60s.

After less than a decade, the Wappen von Hamburg was retrofitted for its heyday as a luxury liner. With a swimming pool, spa, large terrace and air-conditioned suites, the boat went on to cruise the Greek Islands, Alaska and the South Pacific. It changed ownership at least 10 times and was renamed nearly as often, the Aurora just the latest. Peter Knego, a cruise journalist and historian in Oceanside San Diego Countydescribed the ship as uniquely elegant, from the graceful curves of the exterior bow to the dramatic elliptical stairwell in the main reception hall.

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The boat had been cast aside as new cruise ships, twice as big, emerged and wowed passengers with 3-D theaters and water slides. In the s, a fringe Christian group in Los Angeles acquired it and converts began living aboard. Later, the Coast Guard seized it before another owner towed it to Northern California. Derelict boats have long been a problem in the delta.

About the series: Delta on the edge

Leaking fuel, oil and metals pose a threat to rivers and sloughs that provide water to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and close to 30 million people from the Bay Area to Southern California. State regulators have worked to keep old, polluting boats from adding to the stress that water exports have put on the region.

Yet because of the high cost of removal, more than abandoned vessels remain, from deteriorating barges to tired fishing rigs. Over several visits to the Aurora, Willson determined that the cruise ship, much larger than other castaways, was, in fact, structurally sound. And nothing leaked. What followed for Willson was a new life on the water and an imperative to shore up the ship and find safe harbor. Spending the first of a few hundred thousand dollars he would invest in the effort, he towed the boat to nearby Rio Vista, where it anchored for a year.

Neither place worked out as a long-term berth. Many who live in the delta have an Aurora-like story about how they got here. Like Ron Biale, 50, who moved from the Sierra foothills when he stumbled upon the opportunity to buy an old schoolhouse in the onetime railroad town of Terminous, north of where the cruise ship moors.

She came from Korea inmarried a farmer from Portugal and, when he passed, fulfilled her dream of buying and running her own saloon. She lives in a mobile home out back.

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Most are just legends today — but Bill Conner, 89, is alive. Once an active-duty U. Marine, he has flown an American flag above his floating compound on a secluded arm of the San Joaquin River for four decades. Bill Conner has lived the Huck Finn life since he was. For nearly 40 years, Conner lived on a floating fortress on the San Joaquin River, recently moving to a Marina near Stockton.

He and his wife once owned what used to be a family resort, called Lost Isle. After years of entertaining summer boaters on a spit of palm trees and sandy riverbanks, they sold the property.

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It became a party destination for the muscle-boat set with thatched-roof bars and wet-T-shirt contests — until a fatal stabbing presaged its shutdown. He moved to a barge. Sincethat barge has morphed into a convoy of anchored boats and platforms outfitted with tiki decor that Conner has called home. The peculiar river fortress houses fern gardens, an exercise bike, a propane stove, musical instruments and a gallon plastic drum to collect drinking water. David Wheeler, 63, has similar wishes. The businessman in Texas, who grew up boating in the delta and later ran a string of Chuck E.

Cheese franchises in Northern California, has set his sights on resurrecting a piece of his youth at the now-shuttered Lost Isle. The closest thing to the Lost Isle free-for-alls today may be Ephemerisle, sometimes called the Burning Man of the water. The annual festival draws an eclectic mix of boaters, seasteaders and artists who gather in yachts and rafts to create an ad hoc river city, with gangplanks, ladders and swings.


Conner has a lifelong love affair with the delta, having grown up nearby. He once ran a family resort known as Lost Isle and eventually moved to a barge, where he lived for many years, until last year health issues forced him closer to land.

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When Willson returned to the delta ina turn toward law and order was just one of the challenges awaiting his revival effort. The owner expected the new jumbo tenant to lure visitors to his docks and waterside cafe about 15 miles northwest of Stockton.

The marina was in debt, and San Joaquin County began taking issue with alleged septic shortfalls and illegal boat moorings. San Francisco craigslist sex swing anything could get resolved, the owner skipped town and the county ordered the marina cleared. He and his girlfriend, Jin Li, 40, who until then had spent much of their time at her apartment in Union City or his house in Santa Cruz, learned that the newly emptied docks left no one around to keep watch over the Aurora.

Living on the Aurora took some adjustment. Li quit her job as an office manager at a real estate company in Oakland, instead selling odds and ends on eBay. The energetic co-captain of the ship, born in Jinzhou, China, compares her new home to an enormous house in the middle of nowhere.

The biggest issue, Li recalled as she stood on a deck on a warm, clear afternoon, was what others thought about her life in the delta. Last year, Willson spoke at a packed City Council meeting in Isleton Sacramento County to make a case for moving the Aurora to the waterfront town. There, he explained, it would finally have a chance to shine.

Residents of Isleton, a former steamboat stop on the Sacramento River, have been looking to jump-start an economy that has languished since the canneries closed decades ago.

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Some think a remodeled Aurora would attract tourists to the sleepy shops and restaurants. Isleton City Manager Chuck Bergson initially supported the idea but recently said the ship faced headwinds.

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Before the boat goes anywhere, Willson wants to finish the restoration. He said he can get it mostly done in two years, though there are skeptics. Two other large, disabled boats, a lighthouse tender and a minesweeper, now sit alongside the Aurora, fueling concern that the channel is becoming a graveyard for ghost ships.

Willson works with a volunteer crew of retired sailors, amateur historians and interested locals. They spent last fall and winter patching decks and rebuilding railings. Since the coronavirus shelter-in-place directives took hold in spring, though, his workforce has thinned, and problems getting materials have held up certain tasks. Money remains an issue. Willson draws an income from electrical work he does on other boats, and buys and sells things online after refurbishing them. He talks about attracting investment, but so far has collected only donated supplies.

He also acquired, on the cheap, rolls of Italian silk wallpaper and hundreds of square yards of Caesars Palace casino carpet tile. When the ship is ready to move, one big issue remains.

Little Potato Slough has gotten shallower since the Aurora arrived, apparently due to sediment washing into the waterway during recent wet winters. Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. : kalexander sfchronicle. Chris Willson is restoring the cruise ship he bought, the Aurora, now docked in the delta. The Aurora is moored in Little Potato Slough in the delta, where the water is getting shallower.

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