Houston Ship Channel
Typical Gulf Oil Rig
Sunset in the Gulf
12 ft Seas
|After what seemed an endless list of last minute projects and delays (read, several bon voyage parties), at long last we departed Seabrook, Texas the morning of Friday May 18th.
The marina where we’d lived since moving aboard one month before was actually a 20 mile sail from the open Gulf. This meant we had a long trek under power down the Houston ship channel before heading out across the vast, watery divide. Typically, transiting this short bit of channel comes with a guaranteed dose of excitement; the channel is a 20 mile-long, 300 foot-wide "water highway." Tiny recreational crafts share this bayside turnpike with 1000 feet-long, mega-ton tankers loaded with oil, barges hauling all types of exotic imports, shrimpers, etc. And, it goes without saying that the right-of-way always defaults to the biggest boat out there. It can take the average tanker up to half a mile to come to a full stop. If you’re in the way, it’s best to make haste in the opposite direction. The intersection of the Houston ship channel and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is called Bolivar Roads and is the 2nd busiest shipping crossroads in the world. With these few facts in mind, coupled with several past experiences transiting the channel, we left our Seabrook slip with full expectation that the crew of the Lotus would be on high alert.
Strangely, and contrary to every scenario we’d imagined, on the day of our departure we experienced our least eventful trip down Bolivar Roads in memory. After a long day of motor sailing, we’d cruised without incident past the Galveston Jetties, battened the hatches, hoisted the sheets, and headed full sail into a perfect sunset. All hail Poseidon!
The very next morning I awoke to a sea-change of the individual variety. With little warning, I came up from the quarters below, through our companionway, and heaved the full contents of my stomach to port. Despite my best efforts, I managed to tag my guitar case, half of our linens, and my poor wife Christine. Let me explain the brief events that led to this.
Our first night out the winds began to build slowly. We were sailing close-hauled (this means into the wind, and consequently into the waves as well). The boat pounded into the oncoming seas all night, taking streams of water over the bow. The next morning, after a quick glance into the front v-berth of the boat, I spied a small puddle of seawater sagging in the center of our pillows. The pillowy puddle revealed that some of our forward deck hatches were not entirely water tight.
The worst of the three leaks we discovered was poised directly over the berth in which my guitar and most of our spare blankets were stored. The situation then quickly moved from annonying to gross. As we were on deck of the boat, attempting to hang and pin our drenched items,
I found the motion on deck overwhelming. I was instantly seasick. It was also of no small consequence that I happened to be upwind on this occasion.
Thankfully, Christine seems impervious to the most violent heaving of the seas. She’s never been seasick. She is apparently also impervious to my own violent heaving. She reacted to this turn of events by merely rewashing the linens, herself, and finishing what we’d started on deck. Luckily for me, my bouts with seasickness pass quickly, and by mid-afternoon the crew was shipshape again.
The next couple days were uneventful; we logged loads of sleep, were hypnotized for hours on end by the cresting and troughs of the ocean, and listened to hundreds of songs we'd stored on our MP3 player prior to leaving Houston.
It wasn’t until the 4th night out that we had our first strange gulf encounter. We were roughly 250 miles due south of the Mississippi Delta, it was 3:00 a.m. and we’d just changed watch. As I went below and Christine harnessed into her life vest for the next shift of sailing, I mentioned she should keep a keen eye on a set of lights about 5 miles northwest of our current position. Once a light has been spotted on the night horizon, it’s important to keep a close check on its progress. It takes less than 20 minutes for an oceangoing ship to run you down if you’re on a collision course and both parties are asleep at the helm.
I was down for about half an hour when Christine woke me in a panic. A set of lights were bearing down on us quickly. Neither of us could make out their starboard (green) or port (red) lights to ascertain their direction of sail. And, after twice altering our own course, the boat continued to bear down on us.
Within minutes we realized a large powerboat was attempting to intercept us. While our predicament was far better than the notion of colliding with a supertanker, the oncoming boat was approaching with absurd speed. They also appeared to be sporting a bazillion candle-powered, blinding spotlight. I found myself utterly without night vision as I turned on our radio and attempted to hail our bright visitor. The captain of the oncoming boat, with heavy Russian accent, responded, “This is the guard vessel Furor calling the sailboat at the following coordinates . . .” Seriously? For a brief moment I thought we’d somehow wandered into the reaches of the infamous Bermuda Triangle and had come out the other side, circa 1942. With VHF in hand, I politely responded that this was the S.V. Lotus, a small recreational craft with maximum speed of 8 knots, would the Furor please reply with some information about what the hell was going on.
Contrary to any reply I could have fathomed, the S.S. Furor (I swear I’m not making this stuff up)informed us that the set of lights visible to northwest were in fact lights from the middle vessel in a 15-mile long convoy of seismic surveying craft. The three ships were pulling imaging equipment between them (like a clothesline) that consisted of steel cables rigged with seismic measurement equipment. The convoy was moving southeast at 5mph. This meant the massive steel cables in tow were on course to slice the Lotus in half in about 45 minutes.
Neither Christine nor I could recall ever reading about rules of right-of-way with seismic convoys. This just wasn’t covered in Offshore Sailing 101. We braced ourselves in the cockpit, at a total loss as to how we would navigate around this uncharted, 15 mile-long behemoth. It felt like we were suddenly tussling with a modern-day, übersized version of the octopus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
At this point the Russian captain transferred all communications to the lead seismic survey vessel and quickly zoomed off to intercept some other schmuck about to be cleaved in two in the name of offshore drilling. The new captain on the radio was quick to the point. We were at their mercy. Obviously. We just don’t move through the water quickly enough to have many options. We were politely instructed to alter course, point our wee vessel back towards Texas, and proceed to sail in a circuitous loop for the next 6 hours. Sure, why not, we’d just love to prolong this little offshore jaunt for as long as possible. Who needs Key West sunsets and mojitos when we can sail in circles in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico?
Day 5 couldn’t come fast enough. So far, our gulf adventure reminded us just how serious offshore sailing can be. We’d cleared our little convoy interruption by mid-morning and nestled back into our regular watches when we both heard a call no one wants to make come over the radio. At 10:00am the Coast Guard was visibly flying overhead (unusual for the middle of the gulf) and were issuing a “Securite,Securite” warning. Pronounced ‘secure-i-tay’ it is a term that precedes a radio message that should be heeded by all vessels within listening range. This particular securite came from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter asking that all vessels within the area to keep a lookout for a man overboard. He’d been lost from a commercial vessel earlier that morning. Most small sailboat crews wear chest harnesses which are attached to lines that run fore to aft on a vessel. These “jack-lines” are designed to keep crew from being separated from their boat, even in the event of incapacitation. Our harnesses have integrated CO2 inflatable life
vests, strobe lights, and whistles built in. Most large, working vessels are far too active to require their crew to harness in during periods of calm weather.
For the rest of the morning, Day 5, the helicopter made a series of passes and repeated radio warnings. As far as we know the securite was never lifted and the lost crew member never found. Listening to this search on the radio and scouring the seas with our own eyes all morning was sobering indeed. It was a reminder about safety and diligence. With no land in sight, we would have to be constant about wearing our harnesses and clipping to the jack-lines in even the calmest of seas.
It was Day 6 when the newfangled sparkle of our recently adopted cruising lifestyle began to lose its luster. The gulf weather had finally turned against us. We’d been listening to the offshore forecasts on our SSB radio all week, so we knew this was inevitable. Winds blow, the seas change, nothing new here. All inevitabilities aside, we really couldn’t comprehend just how miserable a turn in weather could be until we were being tossed around in the belly of it. On the morning our sixth day the wind picked up to 25 knots (about 29 mph) from the southeast. Within 12 hours the seas had grown into steep and stalwart 12-foot squares of water. We were sailing close-hauled into this mess, and I really can't overstate how miserable it was. Imagine being lifted rapidly upwards, about 12 feet each time, and then dropped on your wet arse with a nice full smack! Count to 8 and then repeat. Oh, and don’t forget to douse yourself in the eyes with a healthy helping of saltwater, all the while fighting your tendency for turning green in the gills. Nothing about this situation is ameliorated by the fact that, at best, you’re making an average pace of 2 mph towards your end goal in the Florida Keys.
We endured for 36 hours. After 3 unrelenting days and with no immediate end promised by the weather forecast, we threw our sailplans overboard, cursed the fickle gulf and pointed our nose towards the panhandle of Florida.
With course altered, we were instantly broad-reaching(this means sailing about 45 degrees off of a downwind sail). In brisk weather a broad-reach is a comfortable ride. The former, furious smack of the crests and troughs were behind us. Our new course allowed us to settle into a gentle rise and fall, a seductive lull that quietly carried us towards an unplanned destination.
By Day 8, the skies finally revealed the dark underline of land. Pensacola was in our sights and firm footing awaited us. We hadn’t made it to Key West; the bottom of the peninsula would have to wait. But we’d survived our first major offshore crossing and were happy for it!