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Some of you may remember that me and my husband were headed out sailing over the Labor Day holidays.  Well, we did.  It was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t pretty.  As if it needed substantiation, this past weekend was living proof that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Let me tell you about it.

Friday dawned beautiful, but quite windy.  By one thirty that afternoon, our boat was fully provisioned for the three day cruise down to Freeport, Texas.  We had plenty of comfort food, real food, beer, wine, pastry, water, ice, cokes, etc…we were equipped.  When over nighting on a sailboat, complete provisioning is a must.  Time, however, was slipping by and we didn’t push away from the slip until shortly after three o’clock for the twenty five mile cruise down to Galveston’s Yacht Basin, where we intended to berth the first night.  Then more time passed as we stopped to top off our tanks with diesel fuel for the engine.  One could call it three-thirty before we cleared the channel from Clear Lake into Galveston Bay.

Punching out of the Clear Creek Channel, we had a fifteen, gusting to twenty mile per hour wind just South of due East in our face.  Galveston Bay would be classified as choppy at this point…seas were running one to two feet.  We had a five and a half mile beat dead into the wind to catch the Houston Ship Channel on down to Galveston…on a bearing that is just East of due South.

At this point, it bears noting that Galveston Bay is not what many of you might think of in terms of a bay.  It is very, very shallow in many places.  Much of the bay in not sailable due to numerous shoals that can be as shallow as two feet or less.  Other parts of the bay can be sailed into, but the only way out is the way you got in…again limited by the depth.  And, on top of that, Galveston Bay at one time, in the very early stages of the oil boom was absolutely studded with oil well throughout it.  These oil wells were built up on wood pilings, and later, on steel platforms, some of which can still be seen today…but the vast majority of these wood and steel platforms lie below the water line.  There are noted on the navigational charts as some variation of a submerged hazard/obstacle.  Though the bay is huge, only perhaps fifteen percent is sailable with a boat such as ours that has a draft of roughly five and a half feet.

Also, to fully appreciate this story, one needs to know that the person who steers the boat, the helmsman, is rarely the captain of the boat, though the helmsman certainly can be the captain.  The captain of our boat is my husband…by my choice…he tends to be a little more conservative than me, not that one would call me irresponsible.  On the other hand, I am the helmsman.  Sailboats are not like power boats, and the ability to keep a sailboat on a given compass bearing is important…some are better than others at doing this…I am way better than my husband.  On any boat, there needs to be a captain that calls the shots.  It may sound hoagy, but it’s true.  There is no room for a democracy on a boat, particularly on a sailboat.

Once the captain determines the sail plan, the helmsman determines what bearing or bearings are necessary to be plotted in order to get the boat to where the captain has determined it must go.  The helmsman is also responsible for not running the boat into one of those nasty little pilings and keeping enough water under the boat so that it will float, i.e., not run aground.  This may sound like a bit of the fun is taken out of a sail and that things are run as a dictatorship on a sailboat.  The reality is that it is done by a consensus of opinions upon which the captain is the final say so.  If things go South on a sailboat, they go South very quickly…there’s seldom time to take a vote…as if that’d happen anyway.  Suffice to say there are a gillion very good reasons why the captain has the final say.

As we exited the channel, I set the Garmin 551 Marine GPS Chartplotter to a course that would take me 5.53 nautical miles to just a hundred yards or so North of Redfish Island.

This is a straight line bearing and would allow us to enter the Houston Ship Channel as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, that bearing was almost directly into the wind and seas and though it was not that big of a deal in this case, it did manage to be a bumpy ride that resulted in both of us getting wet from the bow spray over the rail.  For the next hour and a half, we motored toward Redfish Island and the Houston Ship Channel.

At around five o’clock or so, we entered the Houston Ship Channel, unfurled our head sail, a 115% genoa, established way points down the length of the channel, kicked back and enjoyed pleasant sail down toward Galveston.  The wind, is continuing to build, as is the seas.  Our wind gauge is consistently showing high teens to the low twenties (MPH).  We cut the engine and opted to keep the main sail down…we were close hauled.  Close hauled means that we were sailing as close to the wind as we could and still have forward motion…any closer and we would be dead into the wind. 

It was a nice sail.  The huge supermax tankers, upward of a thousand feet long, were breezing by us, coming and going, and occasionally we’d pass another recreational boater or two.  The skies started to cloud over just at sunset.  And, both me and my husband were more than a little cognizant that less than two hundred miles to our East, tropical storm Lee was kicking up to just below hurricane strength as it approached the Louisiana coast line.

Right around dark, the seas suddenly built to three feet and the wind was consistently indicating mid to high twenties, occasionally into the thirties.  The boat was taking a pretty good pounding; both of us were dripping wet as almost every wave sent spray over the rail into the cockpit.  The fun left, and the both of us had to put a more conscientious and serious demeanor forth.  We still had a good hour and a half of sailing to do.  Also, shortly, as the helmsman, I was going to have to negotiate extremely complicated, not to mention very angry, seas.  The electronic chart on my GPS was showing a slight Easterly change in my bearing.  As I was already sailing as close to the wind as I could, I had serious doubts that we could continue under sail at that point.  To boot, we were just entering into arguably one of the busiest sea lanes anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico coast.  The area we were in was a huge intersection of the Houston Ship Channel, the Texas City Ship Channel, the Galveston Channel, the Galveston Ferry routes, and the Intercoastal Waterway.  This area is filled with huge supertankers, strings of barges being pushed by huge ocean going tugs, as well as the Galveston ferries shuttling back and forth. 

Not to worry…at this point we are fine.

However, just as we passed South of the Intercoastal Waterway the slight bearing change came into play.  I struggled to keep forward speed as I had to increasingly sail closer and closer to the wind.  At about the place where it was time to drop the head sail and motor up, the wind decided to switch, and then pick up even more.  Almost instantaneously, the head sail is flapping as we are head on into the wind and come to a dead stop before starting to be pushed backward.  The boat was momentarily completely out of control.  My husband ran to the bow to collapse the headsail.  I immediately reached down and started the engine.  We are now making headway again.  I’m struggling to see the Chartplotter and determine my exactly location.  The wind is indicating low thirties…the seas are five feet or so.  Almost simultaneously to my husband securing the headsail, the engine high temperature alarm go off.  To continue running the engine would quickly result in a major engine overhaul…to shut the engine down would leave us completely adrift.  Swiftly the captain – my husband – makes the call…shut the engine down.  I do.  The boat is adrift.

I determine that we are now just South of the intersection of the Intercoastal Waterway and the Texas City Ship Channel.  The good news is that we are not actually in either of the two’s shipping lanes and no underwater hazards are showing on the charts…the bad news is that we are quickly being pushed by the wind into a shoal that is listed as three and four feet on my electronic charts.  We decide to deploy the head sail and sail with the wind to our stern and catch our breaths.  But as my husband attempts to redeploy our head sail, we realize that the huge gust of wind has damaged our autofurler.

The decision is swift for there is but one answer and both of us know it: drop our anchors and hope they hold.  My husband is in the cockpit with me at this point.  We are losing depth so quickly from 48 to 35…to 27…to 15…that we elect to set the small stern anchor first…and then set the larger bow anchor.  We do so…the depth gauge shows 11 feet.  My guy steps to the bow and starts to deploy the larger bow anchor as I watch the depth gauge continue to shallow up.  I let out more line (scope) and finally at 7.2 feet, the anchors bite and hold.  There is less than a couple of feet of water below us…when an exceptionally deep trough came by, we could feel our keel slightly bump.

By any definition, the less than five minutes that all of the above took was…intense.

Sure that our anchors are secure, we manage to get the bow turned into the wind (setting the stern anchor first equates to the stern being into the wind and waves…not good…not good at all).  For a full minute or two, we both just sat there…wringing wet…in the howling wind and angry seas (made angrier by surface water being pushed out of the bay by near gale force winds…meeting an incoming flood tide…also not good).  After just a minute or two, we called the Coast Guard on the radio to get the phone number of the local towing company to come tow us in.  Within fifteen minutes, we had settled in for the nearly two hours wait for them to get out of Galveston and get us towed.

When Sea Tow arrived, they quickly hitched us up…we slipped the bow anchor fairly easily, but the stern anchor was held fast…in the wind and seas, we had no choice but to cut the anchor rope and leave it.  An hour later, we entered the Galveston Yacht Basin…settled up with Sea Tow ($375)…and broke out the booze.  After a bottle of wine, we showered, and fell into a heavenly sleep.

After a great breakfast on board the next morning, we tried to put together just WTF went wrong.  I mean, how often is it a sailboat loses both wind and engine power?  Inspecting the autofurler first, we found that when the boat was remasted at the boatyard, a crucial pin had been left off by the people who unstepped the mast…it held up fine until the final hour or so when the wind and seas picked up and then it failed…my husband repaired it on the spot.  When he checked into why the engine overheated, he found a similar problem.  A coupling on the closed loop engine cooling water failed…so though sea water was going into and out of the closed loop engine cooling water heat exchanger, there was no water in the loop to be cooled.  He also repaired that.  This also probably was caused by the sheer pounding the boat was subjected to in the final hour.

By the time we made the repairs, the wind had switch around to the North.  The captain made the decision to try to motor back to Kemah…repeating the same track as we had made the afternoon before.  I didn’t like the idea, but wasn’t about to argue about it…as I said, he’s the captain.

Around noon, we eased out of the protected waters of the Galveston Yacht Basin and into Galveston Channel.  We had about a mile and a half, Northeast bearing, before we would pick up the Houston Ship Channel Lower Range Marker.  The wind was howling and indicating low thirties on the wind gauge.  The Galveston Channel intersects with the Houston Ship Channel at what is called the inner bar…essentially the inside boundary of the intersection of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  The currents and waves are beating us to pieces, and the ship traffic is congested.  We are motoring but barely have enough power to make headway.  And, then to both our amazement, one of the mast shrouds comes undone.

A sailboat mast is secured on four axis…front, back, and each side.  This bracing is what keeps the mast from falling over/down.  The front is called the headstay, the back is called the backstay, and the ones on the side are called the shrouds.  The headstay and backstay consist of only one stainless steel cable, but the shrouds consist of one, two, three, four or more stainless steel cables on each side of the mast…ours has three…and one of them is all of a sudden just dangling in the air.  More, much more…of not good.

On the fly, my guy made this repair as well.  We can also chalk this up to the guys who did the mast work…in this case, they put a cotter pin in but neglected to spread it…the pin wobbled out and one of the three shrouds went flying.  Another disaster barely averted.  Perhaps just a few hundred yards further, captain husband made the decision to call off our attempted exit of Galveston Channel.  Back to the Galveston Yacht Basin we went.  I couldn’t have been happier.  The pounding we were getting from the near gale force winds and steady 4’-6’ seas was nothing short of brutal.

Back at the berth, we plugged in the iPod, broke out the wine and beer, and settled in with the rest of the transients in waiting out the weather.  The constant and repetitive marine weather forecast called for a break in the weather after midnight…increasing again after noon the following day.  The decision was made to grill a couple of steaks, get a good nights sleep, awake at dawn the following day, check out the weather then, and return to Kemah if the wind and seas were not absolutely unbearable.

And, that is what we did.

The next day, last Sunday, at dawn the Galveston Channel looked doable.  We slipped out of the berth and headed out.  My words to Captain Husband were “The next seven hours are going to be a hell of a ride.”  He looked at me and nodded.

No sooner had we gotten out of the Galveston Channel when the wind and seas picked up larger than they had been on either the two previous days.  The seas were running a solid six feet with a period of maybe four or five seconds…the wind was in the high thirties and low forties…that is near gale force and gale force respectively.

Believe me when I tell you how small one feels when they are in weather such as this.  It is not fun, it is dangerous, and one, including both me and my husband, really wishes they are not where they find themselves.

Still, we plugged along.  The sails are down…the engine is at full power.  We are barely making headway.  We climb each wave, and then fall out of it…each time the entire boat shakes and rattles, from bow to stern when it crashes in the trough.  Suddenly, we hear a sail flapping, and before we can even react, the headsail has come unfurled and is flapping in the wind.  Both of us look in each other eyes with that look…just for a split second…before Captain Husband, crawls on his hands and knees to the bow of the boat and manually starts to wind the headsail back around the auto furler.  The headsail is flapping violently in the wind…threatening to set up a resonance in the mast that can and does routinely bring them crashing down.  After initially being blown around and rounding up in a viciously violent out of control maneuver, with great difficulty I manage to bring the bow back around into the wind.  After a miserable twenty minutes, my guy gets the head sail secured to the auto furler.  However, in the process, the head sail rips.  The cause:  the rope that secured the auto furler broke under the stress of wind and water.

When he gets back to the cockpit, I ask Captain Husband if he wants to head back or continue on…he responds “let’s head North.”  He wants to continue.  He’s the captain.  So, I check my Chartplotter GPS, punch in a bearing, and settle into the grind.  It’s not going to be a good day.

Not ten minutes later, we hear the head sail flapping again.  And, yet once again, before we can even move, the head sail flies off the auto furler and is flapping violently into the wind.  The cause this time:  the wind is shredding the sail even though it is wound around the auto furler.  Captain Husband once again, crawls to the bow on the wildly tossing boat…only to return a moment later…”We’re fucked, baby.”  The shredded, unraveling head sail is one huge and tangled mat on the auto furler and the entire standing rigging (mast) is in danger of total collapse.

I scream at him, “No, we’re not fucked…not yet.  But, you’ve got to…GOT TO…cut that sail off or we’re going to lose the mast.”  (Please note that the poor guy is beat up…his knees are bleeding, and he’s severely jammed his thumb…and he knew what had to be done without me telling him.)  He just nods in response, and goes below for a knife.  I turn the boat a hundred and eighty degrees so that we are motoring downwind, taking as much of the stress off of the rigging as possible.  Returning, he once again, crawls to the bow and starts dropping the headsail…and then once that is done, starts physically cutting it apart and stuffing it in through the bow hatch.  After an eternity, the sail is off.  We lost a good third of the distance we’d been fighting tooth and nail for all morning.  I turn the boat back into the wind and seas, plot another bearing North, and brace myself for more of the same insane pounding…

…and, so it went for the next five hours or so.  The wind and seas do not let up one iota.  Often, we are locked in boxy, six foot chop seas, unable to make headway…just being beaten mercilessly.  Every wave sends salt spray over the rail and into our eyes; they burn immensely.  But, slowly, way point after way point, we slug further North against the wind and seas until finally we are back at Redfish Island and can take the waves at a glance and not head on.  Our speed increases considerably, and after plotting a course that will take us right up the ass of Clear Lake, I turn the helm over to Captain Husband.  Less than an hour later, we are in our home berth at Seabrook/Kemah.

After unloading the perishables and wet clothes, we headed home…cold, wet, and exhausted.  After an exhaustingly hot shower, we sat out on the patio and talked about the previous three days, as we had a drink and grilled steaks.  We talked about what we had done right and what we had done wrong…there were many of both, rights and wrongs we had done.

The bottom line is that we had the wherewithal and seamanship to come through situations many would not have been able to.  It really was a good trip, including the more intense moments.  It was not, however, a walk in the park.  Not all sailing trips are the sun and moon in paradise.

We both went to sleep exhausted at 7:30 Sunday night…exhausted…it was till daylight. We slept dead to the world for the next twelve hours, barely moving.   

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