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Monthly Archives: September 2010

I’ve been sailing for a very long time…boating, in general, for even longer.  My entire childhood was spent on and around large bodies of water…first on a beautiful Mississippi River oxbow lake (Lake St. John in Louisiana) and then, when my father was transferred to Grande Isle, Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico.  For almost 30 years, while living in Lafayette, Louisiana, Vermillion Bay was my hang-out; I did my triathlon long distance swim training there.  I had two older brothers and simply can’t remember the first time I went into the water.  I can’t remember learning to swim at all, I just always could, from my earliest remembrances.  I learned to water ski the summer of my tenth birthday…learned to slalom the next summer and ski barefooted the one after that.  By the time I was 15 we were scuba diving in the cloudy water off the beach at Grande Isle.  No certification was required in the mid 60s.  Since then, I’ve acquired an advanced open water certification and have logged hundreds of deep dives (70-120 feet) in such places as the Northern Gulf, Jamaica, Cozumel (8 trips), Isla Mujeres, Belize, and Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras.


I started to seriously sail in the very early 1980s.  A very wealthy friend of mine from college bought a Chrysler 27 sloop that he kept in a slip at West End Marina on the New Orleans lake front.  We made countless day trips into Lake Pontchartrain and many excursions through the Rigolets while sailing in and outside of Mississippi Sound on multi-day coastal cruising trips.


In the summer of 1989, he and I traveled to the Canadian sub arctic to go sailing.  The name of the place was Yellowknife, NWT, Canada (think Ice Road Truckers…it is filmed there).  We rented a Abin Vega 28 and sailed for eleven straight days on Great Slave Lake.  Great Slave Lake is huge and very, very secluded.  GSL is the deepest lake in North Amereica, almost 70 miles wide in places and 300 miles long…forth largest lake in North America and the ninth largest lake on the planet.  This was adventure sailing at its finest.  After the boat was provisioned, it was motor sailed by the owner’s crew sixty miles or so down the lake.  The next day, we were flown out to the boat on a sea plane, handed a nautical chart of the entire lake (250,000:1), told “you are here” with a finger laid on the chart, and with another point from that same finger told “we will pick you up here sometime after noon eleven days from now.”  With that done, the crew hopped on the sea plane we flew out on, the plane took off and we were on our own.  We did not have Loran and GPS navigation was not even available at that time.  All navigation was through very diligent dead reckoning on the chart.  Very secluded, we saw only two other boats the entire trip..




The goal of the trip was two fold: 1) to sail from Utsingi Point through the Taltheilei Narrows and then into the upper reaches of unpredictable McCleod Bay and then on to Fort Reliance, NWT, Canada and then, while there, hike portions of the Hoarfrost River (the headwaters of Canada’s famous Mackenzie River) and, 2) to rock climb the 1500-2000 foot cliffs that surround much of the lake, smoke a joint, and drink champagne while gazing out over the incredible scenery.


We succeeded in accomplishing both goals.


The first straight run toward Reliance was just under thirty five hours and 152 nautical miles accented only by our keel slightly bumping bottom a couple of times on the extremely shallow, narrow, and very fast moving current of the Taltheilei Narrows and a summer cold front that blew in on my watch that plunged the temperature to just above freezing for much of the second day.  After hiking on the tundra and taking in the spectacular Hoarfrost River, we spent the night and then started back again arriving at Scott’s Arm and anchorage.


Scotts Arm is a half mile wide (or so) by three or four mile long inland bay just South of the Taltheilei Narrows.  It is one of the few places on the lake shallow enough that one can actually drop anchor.  We stayed there for several to explore and recuperate from the almost non stop activity of the previous three or four days on the water.  Sleep was at a premium for during the first week or July that we were there almost 24 hours of daylight prevailed…couple that with the constant energy burned when tending a sailboat 24/7 on very deep uncharted water that still had ice floating in places and we were drained.  The afternoon that we arrived the weather was delightful, but during the night the barometer crashed again, another cold front came in, and for the next 38 hours we huddled in sleeping bags reading until the weather cleared.


The afternoon of the third day the weather cleared up to pristine again.  I rowed our dinghy to the base of the cliffs that lines the eastern edge of the inlet to assess the feasibility of climbing them.  It looked doable and we planned to make the climb the following morning.


We prepared our packs on the boat before rowing over to the rock screed at the base of the cliffs we were to climb.  Fully prepared with as much supplies as our packs could hold in the event that worse came to worse, we climbed the cliffs; it took us four hours or so to do it.  Rock climbing as we did, where any fall whatsoever would have resulted in injury of some sort, more likely than not a very serious injury at that, is not for the faint of heart.  We were about as prepared as we could be having acquired antibiotics, suture kits, bandages, and injectable painkillers prior to our departure from the states.  We also had two VHF handsets, food and water for a couple of days, North Face sleeping bags, rope, etc.  Nonetheless, there was the very real possibility that should one of us become injured we quite conceivably could have been stranded where we were for at least a week or more.  This area was extremely remote and unless we managed to contact the once in a blue moon seaplane we saw every few days as it was flying over with our radio handsets or another boat happened to come along we would have been absolutely on our own.  There was no walking out; we were literally in the middle of nowhere.  Should emergency have happened, we would not have been missed, at the very earliest, for another five days when the seaplane that was to pick us up at the anchorage we agreed upon beforehand was due to come back out.  We figured, from the charts that we were thirty miles or so from where that seaplane would expect to find us and, upon us not being there, would search for us.  We hoped that anyhow.


Either way, as it turned out, nothing did happen and we spent a couple of hours taking in the simply breath taking view of the Canadian wilderness and this huge lake from the top of the cliffs.  We would have spent more time up on the cliffs but while taking photos we realized that the wind had changed down below on the water and our boat had slipped anchor…it was drifting towards us…and the rock screed at the shore’s edge.  Sailboats are inherently stable; it takes a fair size sea to sink even a smallest of well built cruisers.  Our Albin was a fairly old but extremely well built and maintained cruiser.  Albins are made in Sweden and are as tough as it gets.  Nonetheless, any sailboat that gets a hold in it will sink and sink fast…it has to do with that several tons of lead hanging from the bottom.  So, not wanting to see out Albin die from being holed on the rocks, we came off the cliff as fast as we could.  We managed to board her, start her dependable Volvo diesel and motor away in time…had we noticed she had slipped anchor thirty minutes or so later than we did, thing would have become way more than just a little interesting.


The Great Slave Lake trip was a blast and I still keep up with and see my friend Joe.  He still sails and has his boat at West End marina in New Orleans.  When I got married in New Orleans last Christmas Joe invited me and my husband to lunch a few days later…and then we all headed down to his boat for great conversation.


Very early on while we dating, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my guy was also into sailing and had owned three different boats, the last being a Columbia 42.  We live in the Kemah/League City area not more than three miles from Galveston Bay.  Almost everyone who sails in the Houston area keeps their sailboat in one of the marinas located around Clear Lake, Kemah, or Seabrook and there are a lot of marinas for them to choose from…a lot of boats to put there.

Since we first started dating we have gone down to Kemah and had dinner while watching the boats come and go from day trips out on the bay.  We’d swap sailing stories while critiquing each vessel that came by.  Both of us have known that sooner or later we’d get our own boat one day; it was a given.  So, a couple of months ago neither of us were surprised when we got serious in our search.


We found a good boat in a 1986 Hunter 31.  After a survey told us she was in great shape structurally, we closed on the boat a month ago.  She’s turned into a great buy.  Though this is not a new boat, the interior layout of the Hunter 31 has not changed since Hunter first started producing this model.  I don’t have any photos of her, but HERE is the layout of a new Hunter 31 from their website.


Our Hunter was built in 1986 and is approaching 25 years old.  Well maintained sailboats don’t go to hell in a hand basket with age like cars do.  If structurally the hull, deck, mast, rudder, deck are in good shape and the engine runs reliably, there is no reason a boat like this couldn’t last for decades to come, though we have no intention of keeping this boat that long.  As for all of the other systems, should they not work, they must be fixed.  Our boat is most seaworthy, sails wonderfully with a hull speed of just over 6.5 knots, and the engine, a 20 hp Yanmar diesel, runs like a clock.  Some of the other systems need to be checked out more thoroughly and repaired.


The boat has the following features: two berths that sleep two adults each (another person could sleep in the main cabin salon if pinched), settee table, pressurized potable water, shower, hot and cold running water, private head, refrigeration, galley w/sink/hot and cold potable water/counter, autopilot, Garmin marine GPS system, propane stove/oven, two marine radios, cockpit shower, and a cabin sea water foot pump…along with a nautical cockpit compass, and full engine and electrical system gauges.  We have an exterior barbeque pit off the stern rail.  She has two battery banks and two separate battery chargers…she’s wired for both engine 12v DC as well as shore power.  As noted above, she has a 20 hp, electrical start Yanmar diesel propulsion system.  We changed her name and hailing port…she’s a documented sailing vessel so giving out her name would allow one to obtain way more information about us than we prefer known.  We documented the boat in order to decrease the hassles associated with sailing her to the Bahamas or the Caribbean and clearing in and out of foreign countries should we take her there.  She displaces 9,700 pounds.


We do anticipate fixing her up a bit.  She is not air conditioned which is an absolute must on the Gulf Coast; we have already purchased the AC unit and installation is very high on our list of to do things; the AC will run both off of shore power or, if we are underway, off of the engine’s DC.  We also anticipate changing the settee table out for a smaller custom made one that is easily removable…we are doing this so that, when cruising, we can quickly convert much of the main salon into one big queen size bed.  A flat screen TV, small microwave, and stereo system is also in the works.  At one time a stereo system was installed on the boat by a previous owner; we know that because the cockpit has Sony marine speakers installed at this time, though we are not sure if they work or not.


The first week, I hired two girls and we spent all day long cleaning her.  After removing absolutely everything from inside, all of the cushions, oven/stove, electronics and anything else that wasn’t nailed down was literally hosed her down and from bow to stern cleaned her completely with soap, water, Windex, several bottles of 409 and a variety of industrial cleaners and deoderizers.  All of the hull carpet was shampooed, disinfected and deodorized.  At home, we deodorized the cushion foam and washed all of the removable upholstery.  In order to work in the oppressive heat, we purchased and installed in the passage way a very small air condition window unit.  After one final high pressure water hose down of the interior, we wet vacuumed all of the interior hull upholstery and every single drop of water in the bilge.  After that, we flushed the entire sub floor bilge with first chlorox and then deodorizing cleaner…finishing off with full strength vinegar.  The cleaning complete, we turned on two large fans and the temporary air conditioner until she was dry as a bone inside.  She smells brand new.


Anyway, though we still have a bit of work to do yet to get her where we want, we’ve enjoyed sailing her immensely.  She sails and handles splendidly.  Many do not realize that unlike power boats, the top speed of a single hull sailboat is almost entirely determined by the length of the boat at the water line.  This speed is called the theoretical hull speed and almost nothing one can do will make the boat go significantly faster than that speed…not bigger sails, not more wind, not less weight…nothing.  All 31 foot sailboats, for all practical purposes, will only go so fast, regardless of what manufacturer, what design, how big the sails are, or what the wind speed is…regardless what all of these variables are, the hull speed of a sail boats with a LWL of a certain length will all have a theoretical hull speed with a couple of tenths of a knot of each other.  And, remember, that is the theoretical hull speed…just getting it to go that fast is a big stretch for many sailors.  Once in a blue moon, when all of the stars and planets line up and conditions are just perfect, a sailor might be able to milk a little more speed out of his boat, but only a little more…and for very brief periods (it’s a physics and hydrodynamics thing).  Our Hunter 31 has an overall length of 31’-4” (LOA) and a length at water line (LWL) of 26’-3”.  For boats with those round about dimensions, the theoretical hull speed is going to be between 6.5 and 7.0 knots.  Specifically, the theoretical hull speed has been calculated by the powers to be at 6.87 knots.  Sailing over the past month, we have consistently sailed on extended tacts at 6.6-6.8 knots according to the GPS system.  She does well in both light and heavy wind.  It is a real thrill to be heeled over at thirty degrees or so barreling along with only the sound of the wind and water…with lots of sea around one.


We don’t anticipate keeping this boat forever, perhaps no more than the three or four years until we retire.  Though she is rated for open ocean sailing, we’d both prefer a bigger boat for any passages we might make; we both would like the room, speed, and stability of a bigger boat…we’re thinking in the 38-40 foot range.  Sailors in this area routinely sail across the Gulf to Mexico to the Central American Caribbean as well as to Florida and the Bahamas.  One must be prudent when sailing in the open ocean waters or even offshore coastal sailing.  The issue is weather.  And, waiting for favorable weather requires either a lot of time (to wait the weather out) or a lot of fuel (to motor sail around it).  Presently, neither me nor my guy has the time for such a cruise…and our boat simply does not have the fuel capacity to dodge weather on the open seas.  And, though both of us are adventure seekers, neither of us is stupid.  One day, hopefully, he and I will take four or five months one winter and sail the Caribbean; both of us have wanted to do that since long before we ever met.  In the meantime, we do have the Gulf of Mexico and the lower Texas coast…great sailing in itself.