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Recently, I wrote about the rather harrowing experience of a Labor Day sailing trip on the outskirts of Tropical Storm Lee.  The trip was marred with one thing after the other.  As if the howling winds and very angry seas were not enough, in near gale and gale force winds we were plagued with problems with out rigging and engine that could very well have sunk our boat and left us swimming for our lives with supertankers.  Boliver Roads Channel, and its intersection with the Houston Ship Channel, Galveston Channel, Texas City Channel, and the Intercoastal Waterway is one of the busiest waterways in the world.  Houston, Texas is the largest inland port in the United States.  The Houston Ship Channel services 7,000 tankers, freighters, and container ships alone.  Couple that with countless tugs, barges, cruise ships, and pleasure boats and the area is a bee hive of marine traffic…and, for the most part, they are very, very large vessels.  The thought of bouncing around at the very edge of control in very high winds and seas with these behemoths gives me chills when I think back on it.  Things did, however, turn out for the best and instilled a tremendous amount of confidence in the both of us, not to mention added tremendously to our already fairly adept seamanship skills.  It was not something either one of us want to live through any time soon, though. 

Last weekend, we drove down to Galveston and spent a pristine late Summer day fishing.  We wanted some down time.  Calm and sunny seemed like the perfect recipe.  The Gulf of Mexico and the bays around Galveston were calm, almost lake like, with a slight southeasterly breeze and bright sunshine…the water was still quite pleasantly warm.  It was a great day and much of the time we spent together involved discussing the previous weekend’s near disaster.  First things first, paramount was getting our slightly bruised boat back shipshape.  Foremost, was procuring a new headsail, a 115% genoa.

The week after Labor Day, Captain Husband wrote a rather scathing letter to the marine service that unstepped our mast describing our perils and the very real and potential safety issues that resulted from their lack of properly restepping our it.  (For the record, unstepping a mast is nautical speak for releasing the front stay, back stay, and shrouds and then removing the mast from the boat; stepping or restepping the mast is the same nautical speak for putting it back.  For a boat our size, unstepping or restepping the mast requires a crane to do it safely.)  At the least, we required some action regarding our headsail, which was ripped, in part, due to their sub quality installation when restepping our mast.  We also solicited quotes from the major sail lofts to get a general idea how much it would take to replace our headsail.  The prices ran from $1,700 to $2,400 for a new one.  A sailboat without a head sail is almost useless.  It’s the headsail, not the mainsail, that furnishes the power and drive to a sailboat.

Sails are a pretty complicated piece of equipment.  One doesn’t just say, “Hey, I’ve got a thirty one foot sailboat, how much will a new headsail cost?”  It’s way, way more complicated than that.  A sail is an airfoil, very much like an airplane wing and there are numerous measurements that must be taken in order to have a correct sail made.  Often, the better sail lofts already have this information in their databases, particularly if one has a boat of known size and configuration.  But, one never knows.  So, though one can get an estimate of the cost of a new sail, before an order is actually placed it is only prudent to have the exact measurements. 

As we had the damaged sail that we wanted to replace, to check the sail loft’s numbers, we decided to lay the sail out in our yard and take our own measurements.  When we did this, we discovered that the damage we had could quite possibly be repaired.  The Clear Lake area that we live in has the third largest concentration of sailboats in the United States.  There are sail lofts everywhere.  We decided to take the sail down to one of the lofts that my guy had used once before and see what they had to say.  I did so.  The result was that, in fact, the sail could be repaired…and, two days later, at a cost of $375 I picked up our repaired headsail.  We were back in business.

And, so it was, that in the middle of last week we decided to make another trip down to GalvestonWeather permitting, our sail plan was to put the headsail back on the boat on Friday.  Then, Saturday morning fairly early, provision up and head back South down the ship channel.  We intended to stop along the way and do a bit of fishing before berthing again in the Galveston Yacht Basin and having dinner on the boat.  On Sunday, we anticipated heading offshore into the Gulf and doing a bit more fishing before heading back North to Kemah.

Several times during the day on Thursday and Friday I checked the marine forecast for the weather on Galveston Bay.  And, Saturday morning before we left I also check the marine weather forecast to make sure.  It never changed.  Every single time I check the weather it read:

Saturday

Southeast winds around 5 knots becoming more southerly in the afternoon. Bay waters smooth. A slight chance of showers and thunderstorms.

Sunday

Southeast winds around 5 to 10 knots becoming more southerly 10 to 15 knots in the afternoon. Bay waters smooth. A slight chance of showers and thunderstorms.

This was a perfect sailing forecast.  Enough wind for a lively sail, particularly on our way back North, when the afternoon seabreeze would pick up a bit.  And, with little chance of rain too.  Weather.com said that our rain chances would pick up just a bit on Sunday afternoon late, but only a bit.  The local television weather predicted slight chance of rain increasing on Monday (today).  Perfect!  Just what we needed and wanted.  By all accounts, it should have been a great weekend of sailing.

The best laid plan of mice and men comes to mind.

Friday afternoon we put up the repaired headsail before swinging by the grocery and stocking up on the overnight provisions.  We loaded the coolers down, before kicking back on the patio and enjoying the fairly cool afternoon.  The past week had seen the temperatures moderate from the high 90s and low 100s to the very low 90s, cool morning, and low humidity.  We were both excited to get back on the water and, by every indication the conditions should be great for a super weekend.  We thought…

Saturday morning again dawned cool and crisp.  The sky was barely overcast, just enough to kill the harsh glare and potentially brutal sun.  By 10:00 we were all stowed and underway.  We gave little to no thought to the wind being a bit stronger, at 10 knots, than predicted, nor that the direction was almost straight out of the South.  Galveston Bay, though not smooth as forecast, held a two feet or less gentle chop, hardly a ripple for our thirty one foot sloop. 

After I set our trip waypoints on the GPS Chartplotter, I turned the helm over to Captain Husband and settled in for the four hour passage to Galveston.  We were motoring; our sails were down.  Once in the ship channel and with the slight seas off our port bow, I broke out the cockpit pillows and the current book I’m reading, Dick Cheny’s memoirs, In My Time.  For the next three hours or so, with the gentle breeze in my face, I read, shot the breeze with my husband, and watched the supertankers and pleasure boats as they passed us by, both coming and going.  I’ve done a lot of sailing in my life and there’s few more enjoyable feelings than, once underway, having everything where it ought to be and having nothing more to do than just enjoy the trip.  This, I thought to myself, is what sailing is all about.  And, at least last Saturday, it was.

Just North of the Intercoastal Waterway, about an hour of boat time from the Galveston Yacht Basin, we exited the Houston Ship Channel and motored out into what is known as East Bay to do a bit of fishing.  I readily admit to having had dreams of blackened redfish for dinner last Saturday afternoon, but it was not to be.  So, though we were unsuccessful fishing, it was a fine afternoon.  We enjoyed the view of the busy seaways, had a few beers, and just hung out.  We purposely chose to ignore the increasingly overcast skies.

Around 4:30 or so, we decided to call it a day and head to our berth an hour of so away.  With an ebb tide behind us, we slipped anchor and motored South again, across the Intercoastal and into Bolivar Roads.  It was a beautiful afternoon.  Though overcast, the weather was clear and the seas quiet, in marked contrast to our last passage through the area over Labor Day.  There really was nothing to do but enjoy the scenery.  A bit early, we entered the Yacht Basin, secured the boat, and got out and stretched.  A little while latter, we found ourselves stretched out in the cockpit, me sipping wine while my guy gulped his beer.  A short time later, we broke out the steaks, the only hassle to an otherwise wonderful day being my iPod was locked and regardless of what I tried, I was unable to unlock it.  We were musicless in Galveston.

After dinner and clean up, we again retired to the cockpit and our drinks.  As the sun went down we talked in great anticipation of the next day.  The weather on a marine radio has the weather report on a constant loop and we listened to it in the background…it’s a great feature.  There’s no waiting.  When one turns on their marine radio to the weather channel there is instant weather.  And the weather was still as predicted.  We couldn’t wait until the next morning to go offshore and do a bit of trolling, before having the most favorable winds for our trip back to Kemah.

Anyone who has sailed, or even boated for that matter, will instantly tell you how fatiguing it can be.  So, calling it a night, we closed things up and headed below decks to the air conditioning.  I brought my lap top along, and after preparing our bed, we snuggled up to cookies, milk, and a movie…The Rig (not a very good movie).  As soon as it was over we doused the lights and fell instantly asleep.

We woke up Sunday morning around 8:30 to a very overcast sky.  We’d hoped for full sunshine for our day of cruising offshore around Galveston.  Deciding not to put much thought into the weather until after breakfast, I fixed ham steak and eggs.  As I was preparing breakfast, my guy says to me from the cockpit, “It’s raining.”  I looked up and could see the drizzling drops hitting on one of the ports.  I stood up in the passageway for a better look and could see a light rain coming down in the marina.  But, more importantly, there were angry skies on three sides of us.  The only place there were not dark clouds was to our North which at least was the direction we had to eventually go.  I finished breakfast.  Just as we were finishing eating, the rumble of thunder could be heard off in the distance.  I looked at my husband.  He looked back and burst out laughing.  “Great!” I said.  We both laughed.

Being in no hurry to get anywhere is a good thing.  We cleaned up, washed the dishes, put away all of the sleeping arrangements and waited on the weather.  The radio forecast was essentially unchanged and after a while, the thunder abated…though the rain did not.

I’ve said before that my husband is the Captain of our boat.  But, believe me when I tell you that him being the Captain does not mean that his First Mate doesn’t have input that carries weight.  I grew up on the Gulf Coast in a place in Louisiana much like Galveston by the name of Grand Isle.  I know first hand how quickly the weather is capable of deteriorating in this part of the world.  And, there was no way I wanted to once again fight foul weather after the Tropical Storm Lee nightmare of just two weekends before.  The sky by itself had ruled out any offshore venture and the steady but light rain was more than threatening a leisure day of any kind.  With the thunder once again starting to rumble way off in the distance but the rain now abating to just a drizzle I told Captain Husband, “Guy, I vote we leave.”  I told him we had a flood tide and a brisk and favorable wind.  I felt the best thing to do was head back out toward home.  He agreed.  Fifteen minutes later, with me at the helm, we pulled out of the Galveston Yacht Basin into Galveston Channel.

No sooner than we entered the channel than the thunder and sky signaled a closing thunderstorm, not good when one is riding on a floating lightning rod.  The rain began to pick up steadily.  With way points for the return trip already punched into our GPS Chartplotter, it was a relief to find that, with the exception of the ferries, Boliver Roads was empty of any immediate supertanker traffic.  We picked up the flood tide and headed North.  With a favorable 10 knot wind, we let out the headsail and found ourselves flying toward the Intercoastal Waterway which lay a couple of miles ahead, the seas were basically unchanged and, with just a slight heel, the sail was smooth.

And, then, just as we approached the Intercoastal Waterway, the boat instantly heeled to 25 degrees as we were hit with high winds that bounced off of 20 knots on our indicators.  And, predictably, a supertanker the size of Rhode Island loomed ahead of us.  Also, predictably, I inadvertently shut off my GPS just as a couple of minutes latter a rainstorm hit us and reduced visibility to forty or fifty yards…or, more to the point…reduced it to the point that I could no longer see the tanker that was approaching.  My eyes shot to the compass; it was imperative that I hold our current heading and not veer into the path of the tanker.  Now, I knew that the wind was the result of the outflow of the rainstorm we were now in and that it would not continue for very long.  What was of a greater concern was exactly where we were relative to the supertanker that was ahead of us.  A tanker the size of the one ahead could hit us, run right over the top of us, and not have the foggiest idea they had hit anything at all…they wouldn’t even feel a bump in their wheelhouse.  At this juncture, the Boliver Channel, Texas City Channel, the Intercoastal Waterway, and the Intercoastal Waterway Cut all run together.  There are channel markers all over the place.  Negotiating these channel markers in good visibility is a challenge; doing so in a blinding rainstorm is downright frightening.  Very frightening even…

I was at the helm.  And, in that position, I was the one charged with knowing where we are at all times…and, in this case, knowing which way to steer the boat to keep us from getting chewed up by a supertanker.  There has never been a more focused gaze on a compass than mine…ever.  The supertanker, the last I saw it, was perhaps a mile and a half ahead of us.  But, so as not to overstate the situation, we did have a bit of time…perhaps, I gauged, somewhere just under ten minutes, at the rate we were closing…just under ten minutes before things would really get more than a little bit serious.  But, there was no time to screw around.  I told my guy to furl and secure the headsail and then rebooted the GPS.  Within a minute or so both were done.  The GPS showed we were exactly where we should have been, to the extreme right side of the channel.  A few minutes later, almost as suddenly as it started, the rain slacked off and visibility returned.  To my relief, the tanker was also where it should have been, dead ahead a half mile or so.  The rainstorm over, the wind subsided back to a steady 10 knots off the starboard beam.  The entire event had taken about 20 minutes from start to finish.  It gave new meaning to the old saying, hours of boredom interspersed with minutes of sheer terror.

The tanker passed us, I told my guy to let out the headsail; he did.  We crossed the Intercoastal Waterway and aside from the continuing rain, were motor sailing nicely.  Both of us were ringing wet though and, with the wind and rain continuing, we were also cold.  And, then the wind switched to dead astern and dropped to almost nothing.  I requested the headsail be lowered; it was.  With six very straight miles of ship channel ahead of us, I turned the helm over to my guy before going below to dry off and warm up…I tossed dry towels to the Captain so he could do the same.  When I came back above decks it was clear that the worst of our weather was over.   With each passing mile the weather ahead of us slowly cleared while the weather behind us appeared angrier than ever.

When the wind lay down, the heat came out.  With everything above decks wet and the bimini top still dripping water, the next hour or so was hot and miserable.  After a while, I wiped down and dried the cockpit.  Still, it was a wet, muggy, no-fun kind of trip back.  By the time we reached Upper Galveston Bay the sun was out and the bay was full of sailboats taking advantage of the forecast five to ten knot southeast wind that suddenly reappeared.  Deciding to make the best of an otherwise busted trip, we let out our sails and joined them.  However, every tact, was designed to take us closer to our home berth.  We laughed at once again about having a crappy sailing trip…two in a row…and how inaccurate the weather forecasts had been.

This morning, with hindsight, it appears the decision to head out from Galveston when we did was a good one.  In spite of the sunshine that welcomed us back to Kemah, the weather deteriorated significantly later in the afternoon in Galveston.  Just as we arrived back at our house it started to drizzle and, overnight, the entire area was drenched with heavy rains and very bad weather prevailed.  There really wasn’t much fault we could find in our seamanship…we did what we had to do when we had to do it.  Just as most all of the issues we had over Labor Day lay at the feet of faulty equipment, it was that same equipment, operating correctly, that made our trip through a very heavy rain squall at the very most inopportune time more or less routine…though certainly exciting.

We really enjoy sailing.  It’s just that we can’t seem to be blessed with good weather on our overnighters.  I guess it wouldn’t be sailing if we were. 

As a side note…upon checking our mail, we got a response from the marine service responsible for the difficulties we had over Labor Day with our mast and roller furler.  They apologized and agreed to replace our sail.  We’ve not contacted them yet, but between us decided to simply let them pay for our sail repair.  Things work out.

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