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I love sailing.  I grew up on a large Mississippi River oxbow lake and at fifteen moved to the Louisiana gulf coast.  I now live just a mile or two from Galveston Bay.  Aside from going away temporarily for project assignments my entire life has, in one way or the other, revolved around water.  I can’t remember ever learning to swim, I just always could.  For thirty years or so I’ve held an Advanced Open Water Diver scuba certification and have logged hundreds of dives (including deep water decompression dives) in some of the most beautiful and exotic locations on the planet.  I am in my element on, around, or under the water…and I absolutely love sailing.  Not everyone does.  Sailboats, even fast ones, are very slow; most people can ride a bicycle faster than the average sailboat goes.  People either really like sailing or they don’t; I’m one who does…so does my husband.

One thing about sailing that always thrills me is how isolated one feels while out on the water.  If one came below decks on our thirty one foot sloop they would marvel at how much room there is.  There is a navigation table with radios, stereos, and below decks GPS, a galley with a propane stove, sink, hot and cold running water, ice box, cabinets and storage lockers…and a head, complete with a vanity and shower.  There’s room for our queen size bedding area…and two more small berths both in the bow and stern for guests.  One can stand up and still be more than a foot from the ceiling.  Yes, most would say there is a lot of room on our boat and, in some respects, there is…at thirty one feet our boast is considered a medium sized sailing yacht.  But, in other respects, it’s not as large as it seems sitting in the quiet and mirror smooth waters of a marina…compared to being out on open water miles from anywhere.  

This weekend, my husband and I made a hundred and fifty mile trip down to Freeport, Texas and back.  The weather was blue bird clear and the winds were almost perfect…at times.  We packed the boat last Friday afternoon.  Saturday morning we had breakfast at the local IHOP before slipping from the berth around 9:30.  A dry cold front had come through Friday night, the sky was clearing…and the winds were howling.  The marine weather called out small craft warnings for Galveston Bay and coastal water to Freeport.  There were thirty mph sustained winds twenty files miles away on the coast.  As we exited the Clear Lake channel into a very choppy Galveston Bay our wind gauges registered twenty mph +…Northeasterly.  The temperature was in the mid 60s.  The extended marine forecast was for the winds to remain at those levels and direction until early afternoon before subsiding to between five and ten mph.  Sunday’s forecast called for dead calm winds in the morning before steadily increasing to between fifteen and twenty mph from the West and then Southwest by early afternoon. 

Off we went.

The sail plan was pretty straight forward…for overnight trips is generally is. 

On Saturday, the first leg was an eight mile East/Northeast motor sail across Galveston Bay to the Houston Ship Channel.  At that point we then needed to head fifteen miles or so on a Southeasterly bearing down to Galveston.  Just North of Galveston, at the intersection of the Houston Ship Channel, Boliver Roads, the Texas City Ship Channel and the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW) we were to head West into the Intercoastal Waterway around the back side of Galveston Island.  From there we were to follow the ICW all the way to Freeport…forty or more miles away.  In Freeport we planned to overnight in one of the transient berths at Bridge Harbor Yacht Club.

On Sunday, anticipating the West and then Southwest Winds, we were to exit the ICW through the Freeport jetties into the Gulf of Mexico proper and then set a course to the Boliver jettie outer bar at Galveston.  Enter the Boliver Channel, pick up the Houston Ship Channel until barely North of Redfish Island and then take the same tack as we took out back to our Marina in Kemah.

Most of one’s time sailing is spent simply driving the boat and enjoying the scenery.  If one is only sailing in a bay (or lake) almost all of the time spent sailing is doing that…there’s seldom, if almost never, a need to avoid a collision, fret running aground or having to worry about water depth, or get bent over getting lost or disoriented.    But if one is sailing on large bodies of water some of the time – the most important time – is spent doing what me and my guy call smart people stuff.  “Smart people stuff” is not something that requires some extraordinary form of intelligence but it does, at times, require a considerable amount of focus.  On this trip, there were three areas where the two of us realized we’d have to pay very close attention.  The trip down the Houston Ship Channel and then entering the ICW, finding and negotiating the entrance and the transient berths in the dark at Bridge Harbor Yacht Club in Freeport, and entering Boliver Road’s outer bar from the Gulf of Mexico absolutely qualified as smart people stuff for us.

As mentioned, the intersection, at Galveston, of the Boliver Channel, Texas City Channel, Houston Ship Channel, and the ICW is a very, very busy intersection.  They are all ship channels and as such, one needs to stay between the red and green buoys that mark them…in this part of the world, in these channels, not to do so could very well cause one to run their boat aground…or worse, hit an underwater obstruction that could very well hole the boat and sink it completely.  The ICW is only chocked full of barges, both ocean going and inland.  But the other three channels are loaded with huge ocean going container ships and/or suexmax  tankers.  Roughly fifty tankers and three hundred barges use the Houston Ship Channel every single day.  It is an extremely busy waterway.   Considering our boat is barely the size of the lifeboats on these tankers and the fact that it takes these ships a mile or two (or more depending on the tides) to stop, one absolutely pays attention when approaching and passing them…both coming and going.  These vessels have much more speed than a sailboat.  Their displacement can go to well over 200,000 tons (ours is 10,000 pounds), their height can be as high as a twenty story building (our mast height is forty seven feet), they can be as much as 164 feet wide (our beam is ten and a half feet), and their length can be over 850 feet long (our boat has a LOA of 30’-10”)…if one of these ships would happen to run over a sailboat the size of ours they literally would probably not even feel it.  Even a small suezmax tanker is huge, huge, HUGE compared to a mid sized sailing sloop.  They do have the right-of-way and they can not stop nor turn quickly to avoid a smaller vessel.  So, when one approaches one of these behemoths one perks up.  Approaching the ICW from Upper Galveston Bay requires passing many of these ships.  Definitely smart people stuff there.

         

But, avoiding getting run over by the moving cities known as suezmax supertankers at the Boliver Roads intersection is not a real biggy…changing course from the Houston Ship Channel into the ICW if one has never done it is.  The issue is following the nautical charts and chart plotter to locate where the ICW actually is relative to the Houston Ship Channel and enter it without either running aground or hitting an underwater obstruction.  The intersection I describe is a huge body of water several miles across and of the four waterways mentioned, the ICW is way the smallest in terms of channel width (125 vs. 500 or so for the HSC) and depth (15 vs. 45 or more for the HSC).  All of the water looks the same and there are red and green channel markers all over the place.  Identifying which buoy is associated with which channel is daunting if one has never made the subject turn.  In three quadrants of the intersection water depth is not of particular concern, though it must be monitored.  In one quadrant, however, the water depth goes from sixteen feet to less than four in the course of fifteen feet or so…believe me when I tell you that if your boat needs four and a half feet of water to float that is a big deal.  One must definitely pay attention to their navigation.

The second concern was entering Freeport, Texas from the ICW after dark and finding the marina.

Now, the ICW is much smaller than the ship channels at Boliver Roads…again, only 125 feet wide and, generally, 15 feet deep.  When one passes a supertanker in the channels the distance between both vessels is a couple of hundred feet or so.  These supertankers do not use the ICW, but very large inland and ocean going barges do.  Though much, much smaller than the tankers, they still make a sailboat seem small.  Due to the narrow width of the ICW, the distance between two vessels when passing is much, much closer in the ICW than in the ship channels…more like 20-30 feet.  Again, one pays attention when being approached by them.  And, again, they do have the right-of-way and they could not stop in time to avoid a collision if you get in their way.  One pays attention when being approached by them.  Nonetheless, avoiding a collision with the barge traffic on the ICW is not a huge concern…as long as it’s daylight.  At night, the pucker factor goes up exponentially.

There are upsides in the conflict, however.  For one, the barges have radar…very good radar.  At night, they will see you way before you see them.  They also have very loud horns and do not hesitate using them should they determine you are in their path (even in the ship channels in the day time with good visibility the supertankers will occasionally blow their horns just for good measure).  And, lastly, they have spotlights that can light you up from miles away, blinding you in the process.  Still, the responsibility for avoiding a collision with them rests squarely on you for again, they have the right-of-way and can’t stop if you get in their path.  Like the ships, the barges would barely feel a shudder should they hit your boat.  We knew the last couple of hours, as we approached Freeport, would be in the dark…more smart people stuff.

The third concern would be entering the Boliver Roads outer bar.  We knew we would be entering the outer bar in the daylight on either an incoming or slack tide…the current would not be an issue.  The over two mile long limestone boulders that make up the Galveston North and South jetties needed to be considered, however.  Running one’s boat head on into the jetties in broad daylight on a pleasant and sunny Sunday afternoon would definitely be considered bad form.  And, lastly, on the way down when we entered the ICW we were approaching from the North of the Boliver Roads ship channel intersection…on the way back we would be approaching the same intersection from the South (Gulf of Mexico) so once again we would need to be alert to the supertankers.  Of the three dicey areas of concern, entering the ship channels from the Gulf was the least of our worries.  This approach is well marked and, essentially, a straight shot.

So, sail plan and areas of concern discussed, we found ourselves enjoying a pleasant trip down the Houston Ship Channel Saturday morning.  We motor sailed down with strong winds and following seas…our headsail was up, but reefed.  We were making 7.5 knots.  Ship after ship went buy us, as well as the occasional recreational power boats.  It was a great leg.

As we approached the ICW, me having never negotiated the entrance into it and my husband having last done so twenty five years ago…we muddled through it with little difficulty.  Like anything else, doing it the first time was filled with a little angst…next time will be a no brainer of sorts.  We dropped the genoa just before we got there as the wind/seas had picked up considerably; we all but rounded up a couple of times…decided less was more when it came to power

Once in the ICW, the charts then called for a several mile leg across West Bay before we had to approach the Interstate 45 railway bridge.  We hoisted the headsail again and took in the view of the backside of Galveston Island.  Making our approach, we saw that the bridge was closed.  Not a biggie, really, but it did require getting on the radio and requesting they open the bridge for us.  My husband, whose hearing is crappier than even mine is, had trouble understanding the bridge tender.  I got on the radio and ascertained from the bridge keep that the bridge was scheduled to open at 2:00…it was twenty five til.  We dropped the sail and motored on…and then slowly circled in the channel until the bridge opened…that turned out to be closer to 2:30 than 2:00

Past the bridge, we again set the headsail full and kicked back to a day that was now blue sky.  The wind, being sheltered by the salt marsh, was 6-10 and directly abeam.  The water had barely a ripple…the boat was flat as a board making six and half knots.  For the next three or four hours we just sailed along…passed a few barges and more recreational/fishing boaters.  It was just great….greatWe broke out the wine (me) and beer (him) and watched the sun go down.  Truly, it just doesn’t get any better…

By the time we were four or five miles out from Freeport it was dark.  The sky was clear and with the starlight one could see enough to stay in the channel.  I mentioned before that though my guy is the captain, I am the helmsman…I steer the boat.  And, just as it was back when we entered the ICW and like it would be the next day when we entered the channel outer bar, I was at the helm to take us into Freeport and the marina.  The ICW became very narrow just prior to entering Freeport…little wiggle room.  Strictly under power at this time, the wind having long gone dead calm, I slowed us down to a three knot crawl (note that even a 10,000 pound sailboat such as ours doesn’t stop on a dime either).  Between the charts and the Chartplotter finding the entrance to the marina was a breeze.  A few short minutes later we were in a slip…and barely minutes later we were met by the harbormaster, paid for the berth privileges, and hooked up to shore power.  The first day of the two day sail was complete.

Though it was a great sail, even the super easy trips will wear one completely out.  Both of us being pooped, we settled in, wordlessly, to doing what needed to be done…preparing dinner and the boat for the evening.  My guy lit the grill as I retrieved the T-Bone steaks from the fridge.  We settled into the cockpit on a cool but not cold evening under a beautiful starry night for another couple of glasses of wine and beer.  When the pit was ready, I did the steaks as the captain warmed up some scalloped potatoes I’d cooked the night before for the trip; he set the table.  It was around 8:30 or so by this time.  After eating, we made our bed and conked completely out…exhausted.  We both instantly fell asleep like newborns.

Sunday morning we awoke early…around dawn.  My guy made coffee for us as I disconnected the shore power and prepared to get under way…deciding we’d breakfast a bit later.  By 7:30 we were under the Freeport bridge approaching the main channel that would take us though the Freeport jetties and out into the open Gulf of Mexico.  The wind was absolutely dead calm…the water was like glass.  As we cleared the jetties and set the Chartplotter on a course that would take us to the tip of the Galveston South Jetty forty plus nautical miles away, there could not have been a more serene scene anywhere on earth.  The offshore water was mirror calm…not even a hint of wind.  The Chartplotter indicated we would arrive at the South jetty just before three that afternoon.  All that was left to do was to kick back for five or six hours and enjoy the day…and, what a beautiful day it was, short sleeve t-shirt warm and not a cloud in the sky.

By late morning, the wind behaved and slowly built to four knots…predictably out of the West/Southwest…directly on our stern.  We raised the headsail and our speed increased to another knot to seven or so.  Friday night I had prepared some puff pastry stuffed with a meat dish I do…perfect boat food.  My husband warmed up the meat pies…which we had with some boiled shrimp I’d also done Friday in anticipation of the trip.  It was a perfect brunch.

Very early Saturday, along the way, we realized that we might have somewhat of a fuel issue…issue being defined as running out of it.  We didn’t fill up with diesel prior to the trip.  We had three quarter of a tank, according to our fuel gauge, way more than enough to get to Freeport (and quite possibly all the way back home) so we decided we would top off our tank in Freeport.  Unfortunately, the fuel dock was closed at the marina we stayed at and we left before the only other fuel dock in Freeport on the ICW opened on Sunday morning.  Around 2:00, as we were several miles from the Galveston jetty, our fuel gauge was showing a quarter of a tank.  Decision time.  There were only two choices.  One was to sail into the Galveston Ship Channel and refuel…something that from start to finish would have added a couple of hours to our arrival time back home.  The other was to cut our engine completely and sail home under sail power alone…reserving what little fuel we had to enter our home marina in Kemah and dock.  We did what everyone does under such circumstances…we prolonged the crisis until the last moment.

The wind had steadily built from the West/Southwest during the afternoon.  As we were about to enter the Boliver channel our wind gauge registered an apparent wind speed of eight to ten knots or so…the wind was almost directly astern…our boat speed was seven knots.  What that meant was that as soon as we turned the roughly ninety degrees into the channel entrance, changing our heading from East to North, the boat would be hit with a wind speed of from 15-20 knot straight into our port side beam.  The result of all of this is that we would have absolutely perfect – perfect – wind to sail back to our home port of Kemah.  Decision made.  I killed the engine as my guy hoisted the main.  To further add icing to the cake, we had an incoming flood tide through the outer bar and into the channel of four knots or so.  By the time my guy hoisted our main and we’d made the turn into the channel we were flying along under full sail heeled over 25 degrees or so.  My GPS was measuring 9.4 to 9.8 knots…wind speed was bouncing off 20 knots.  We zoomed through Boliver straights and into the Houston Ship Channel.  It was absolutely thrilling…

Once in the Houston Ship Channel our Chartplotter estimated our arrival back home in almost half the time it would normally take…all thanks to catching the tide at it’s best.  My guy went below and warmed up the remainder of the puff pastry meat pies and shrimp.  Because of the fairly extreme heel, he ate first…after he finished, I turned over the helm to him and had a late lunch myself.  He kept the helm almost all the way back…we had a drink or two after lunch.  A mile or so from the Clear Lake channel entrance and our home berth, he turned over the helm back to me.  I broadened our tack as he dropped the two sails.  We started the engine, cranked the stereo up and slowly motored into Clear Lake channel.  We quickly docked.  A few minutes later, deciding to clean up the next day, and taking only the bare essentials from the boat, we were back home.

What a splendid trip.

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