First published in Southwinds Magazine in the spring of 1997. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.

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Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com


Biloxi Bound
by Gene Gruender
Copyright 1997



After 4 months in the Rockport, Texas area we've finally gotten away. They say a patient sailor always has a favorable wind, but after waiting out 4 cold fronts over a month, we almost ran out of it - patience, that is. We'd originally planned to leave our slip at Key Allegro, (part of Rockport) Texas (29 02N, 97 01W) and head for Biloxi, Mississippi by way of the intracoastal waterway. We figured we could make a day or two in good weather, then wait out the next cold front until we could catch another little weather window. On Friday night we noticed that it looked good until Tuesday. Then Saturday it looked clear until Thursday. In that amount of time, we could shoot offshore and make it all the way to Biloxi. We could make it in 4, maybe 5 days, not the 3 weeks or so we were prepared for.

We'd known we were leaving, the question was the exact day. We kept meeting friends in the area who wanted to say good-bye and wish us well. This is a part we weren't really prepared for. You make so many good friends and then leave. What's worse, in this case we didn't know for a time when it would be, so was this the last good-bye, or would we do it again tomorrow? Saturday night we said good-bye to one group of friends, agreeing that they wouldn't come see us off. We would have a lot to do and didn't want to go through yet another round of good-bye. In the end, when we left, only Richard, the owner of the "Desert Mariner" (remember the catamaran that almost sank?) was there. He took some pictures for us and watched us go out of sight. He had such a look of awe as we left - I only hope he gets away on his own voyage like he hopes.

By the time we got away, we looked like the Beverly Hillbillies. There was junk everywhere. On top of the boat was a bicycle, life raft, about 8 jerry cans and a fishing dip net tied to the shrouds. There was the grill, lifesling and horseshoe shaped life ring around the edge. You can just imagine how full the inside was.


As we've sailed around on the Texas coast we've had a number of groundings, not an uncommon occurrence for here. The week before we were to leave I ran the engine in the slip to warm it up before changing the oil. While I had it running I just slipped it into gear to put a load on it. I expected the dock lines to tighten up, then I'd open it up some more. They didn't tighten. More throttle. We had lots of propwash, but we didn't move. We were stuck in our own slip! That was one thing it would be nice to put behind us. On the way out of the channel of Key Allegro I gave it some extra throttle, just in case. I'd bumped bottom there once before. Sure enough, about a third of the way out we were plowing a good furrow in the bottom. It slowed us a lot, but we made it through. I guess we should have just considered it a little kiss good-bye.

I had planned to go north in the intracoastal waterway from Rockport about 50 miles and go out into the Gulf of Mexico at Port O'Conner. Saturday night the forecast was for the wind to change around to the Southeast by Sunday afternoon, so we changed the plan a little. We shot the 2 1/2 hours out to the pass at Port Aransas, a little South of Rockport and headed out at about 120 degrees under sail power. About 3 in the afternoon, the wind started to come around past the East, on it's way to going around to the South. We tacked, and slowly turned a few more degrees South each hour until we were heading east, directly to where we wanted to go, making about 6 to 7 knots. I've never been able to sail directly to anything before, much less at 7 knots, so we were excited.

We spent the day and night in about 50 degree weather, light rain most of the time, and wearing everything we could find. We knew it would get better.

Zachary got a touch of seasickness the next morning, but it didn't last long. Ninja, our snowshoe Siamese boat cat, however, was having a rougher time of it. Ever see a cross-eyed cat? She was not feeling well and she was not happy. When we sailed down from Houston, she did OK, she was just mad as hell. In the middle of the night on that trip she walked over to where Nellie was laying down and climbed onto her stomach. After laying there a little while, she raised up, looked Nellie in the eye, and swatted her across the forehead with open claws. Then she went back to her spot to go to sleep. She'd made her point. This time she was too sick to get mad. She was just staggering around and obviously wanted the trip to be over.

Monday was pretty nice - partly cloudy, plenty of wind, and we made good time. We saw a few oil rig service boats and two big cargo ships, but not a lot else. Oh, I did see three birds sitting on the water in the afternoon. I don't know what kind of birds they were, but they were about the size of ducks, not little birds. They were about 100 yards off our port side. I told Nellie and she looked but couldn't see them. I pointed at them, they were just off the side of the boat, plain as day. She still didn't see them. Then they were off the stern about 45 degrees, she still couldn't pick out those three birds bobbing around on the waves right there near the boat. I asked her to get my safety harness next time she went below. I think I'd prefer to stay tied to the boat!

Late Monday night Nellie was on watch. After my nap I went up to the cockpit to see how she was doing. She was a little nervous. The problem? She'd been sailing along and seemed to see a shadow. It turned out to be a completely unlit oil rig. Sort of scary, out there all alone. She stayed wide awake after that.

By Tuesday afternoon we were off the coast of Louisiana, at about 28 45N, 91 46W. The wind came around a little to the east, so we motored for a few hours. The batteries needed charging after 2 1/2 days anyway, so it made sense to motor for a while. The only problem was, the swell was rocking us pretty badly and it was a little uncomfortable. We endured it for a couple hours and then went back to sailing. After about 3 more hours of sailing, the winds were pretty light and we just fired up the Yanmar again. With the main and staysail, along with the motor, we could make about 7 to 7 1/2 knots. We were scooting!

We kept motoring into the night as it became rainy again. Nellie was at the helm reading when a large rogue wave just appeared and nearly washed her out of the boat. She was slammed across the cockpit, onto the floor, up the other side, and out into the lifelines. She'd had the lazy jib sheet wrapped around her hand and with that and her harness, she stayed in the boat. She did cut her hand on something going across. It wasn't that bad, but as many times as she's wanted to sew some little scratch up on me, I should have gotten out the sewing kit and gone after it. Fair is fair.

Later I was getting ready to take over and was suiting up. It was still pretty cool, and a lot wet. After putting on a sweat shirt, insulated shirt, a down coat and my foul weather jacket, I was struggling to get into my safety harness. Nellie came up with this great insight, at least she thought so. She asked if I knew why I had so much trouble getting the harness on and she never did. Then she told me. It's because she has been putting on a bra for years and I haven't. Well, She better not get any ideas!

We continued to motor the rest of the night. Wednesday morning daylight found us about 30 miles from the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River. I'd been taking the 1am to 7 am watch each night and I was tired. I knew I'd have to get back up as soon as we hit the Mississippi, both because of the traffic and because we had to make some turns in our course. I hit the sack and tried to get some more sleep.

About 10 Nellie woke me up. We had ship traffic and soon saw one of the channel markers to the entrance. Over the next 3 hours we made our way around the end of the river, about 20 miles offshore. I noticed that the water was an ugly brown, not the blue water we'd been going through. I told them we were in the Mississippi River and they were puzzled. Zach kept telling me, no, we were in the Gulf. I pointed out the Gulf was salt water, the Mississippi was fresh water. Since we were in fresh water, it had to be the Mississippi. I don't think they believed me until we tried the water. It was fresh. Well, it was not salt. It certainly wasn't clean drinking water, but, it was the Mississippi, now, wasn't it?

This area also had some nasty wave action. It must be the river water hitting the rollers coming in from the Gulf, but it gets really stirred up. The chop was very short, about 6 ft. high and from all directions. Each time a couple of them would come together next to the boat, they would break over and dump a foot in the cockpit. Sometimes it would even go all the way on the cabin top. It was probably the roughest and wettest part of the trip, except when the one rogue wave got Nellie so bad.

As we turned north and passed the South Pass to the Mississippi (there are numerous outlets all around the delta) there was a large container ship stopped, but not anchored. I noticed a pilot boat had just left it, most likely taking the local pilot who had steered it out of the Mississippi back to his port. We were passing in front of it, but it was not yet moving. I was a little nervous about the whole deal so I called it on the radio. After a couple tries I got the Captain of the San Antonio, out of Oslo, Norway, and he told me to just hold my course. I asked if I could just pass in front of him. In his best, very Norwegian, accent he told me he wouldn't turn South until we passed, just keep going. Then he started moving! OK, would I make it? He kept speeding up and I called and told him I'd turn and go behind him, it looked like we'd collide. He didn't answer and kept speeding up and, it turns out, would have made it past in front of me no matter what I'd done. He just had a lot of acceleration and could get moving fast enough that he was gone before I could get there. But, as we started that dance, I didn't have any idea what he was doing. It was not my idea of fun

From here on out we were going North. It was about 60 miles to Biloxi with two passes to make. We continued to motor into the evening and night until we arrived near Dog Key Pass, which was misnamed, because it should have been Dog Leg Pass. Before we got there the fog started to set in. Even though we had a full moon and nearly clear skies, we couldn't see but about one half mile. We had a very bright Moon overhead, lots of light and a ring of white fog surrounding this almost daylight bright circle we were sitting in. Rather than attempt the pass at night in the fog, we elected to drop the anchor in about 30 feet of water and wait for morning. We dropped the CQR and backed up to set the hook. The motor died. Out of fuel.

I thought we'd had enough to make it in but hadn't checked the gauge lately. It is under Zach's bunk and a lot of trouble to get to. Instead of going to sleep, I found myself dumping fuel into the tank and bleeding the fuel system at 2 AM. I noticed, too, that the bowl of the Racor fuel filter was pretty dirty. I'd have to change that when we got into the dock. Finally, about 3 AM, the motor was running again and we all got to try to sleep.

This was still the Gulf of Mexico, and although it wasn't out in some surf, it still had rollers coming in and making it rough. This night it was just enough to rock the boat back and forth, keeping everyone rolling back and forth in their sleep. Everything in the boat that could move did. Cans rattled, jerry cans shifted, halyards clanged and it was just uncomfortable. But not as uncomfortable as dragging ourselves off a beach! Nellie and Zach drug a bunch of cushions into the floor and tried to wedge themselves in between them. Ninja got on top of the cushions. I got in the v-berth and wedged myself between the sailbag with all the other junk behind it on one side and the hull on the other. We settled in for some long awaited sleep.

The next morning we got up about 8 and got moving. The rollers were still making it uncomfortable, so we wanted out of there. The fog left about a half mile of visibility, still not a lot, but we could see a little better since it was daylight and not moonlight. We were rested and ready. Nellie got on the front of the boat with the binoculars and kept a lookout, while I tried to steer us to the first marker with the GPS. This pass requires you to make an entrance at 360 degrees north until you pass a green marker on your left. There is very shallow water on the other side of the marker. Then you go about 3/4 mile until there is a red marker on your right. The pass is narrow, but just to the right of the red is shoal water. After passing the red, it's about 60 degrees to the right for 1/2 mile, keeping to the right of the green maker. Once again, there was shallow water on the other side of the green. Past the green, it was another turn back to North, and we'd be in. The fog was thick enough that you couldn't see the next marker when you lost that last one, which was just a bit nerve wracking. We did make it, however, and were into a bay called the Mississippi Sound. 8 miles across that and we'd hit the entrance to Biloxi. A 2 mile run down a narrow channel and we'd be home free. Piece of cake.

I steered and Nellie cooked up breakfast. French toast going across the Sound was wonderful. We'd be in a slip in an hour and a half and get some rest. Wrong.

The closer we got, the foggier it got. By the time we should have been 1/2 mile from the entrance, we couldn't see 1/4 mile. We dropped the hook again. It was time for showers, tidying up the boat and some relaxing. We put on one our favorite CD's, James White "Living in the Laid Back Lane" (Thanks, James!) and sat back. The forecast was for the fog to lift in the afternoon, then we should have thunderstorms in the evening. We'd give it a few hours.

While waiting in the fog, you hear lots of stuff. Some were airplanes, some was traffic on shore - and some of the noise was definitely boats. Sitting there in the fog, I had a real tough time explaining to Nellie that the big barge she could hear nearby was really going down the intracoastal a mile away and really wasn't going to end up where we were. We waited some more.

By 2:30 it was plain the fog wasn't lifting, it was getting worse. We really didn't want to spend another night standing off, and the weather was supposed to get bad. We needed to get in. We were going to go for it. I started up the motor, raised the anchor and started off. The motor died. The filter couldn't wait.

Usually it would be a quick job of opening the Racor filter housing, remove the old filter, stick in a new on, pour in a little transmission fluid to fill it, clamp the top on, maybe bleed it if I was unlucky and be on the way in 10 minutes. Wrong again. I'd bleed the motor and it would soon die again. And again. And again. After an hour of messing with it, I discovered that the seal on the drain on the bottom of the filter was leaking in just a small amount of air. Finally, after finding that, it started and ran. We gave it half an hour just to be safe. We didn't want to be drifting powerless in a narrow fogged in channel with no visibility and no power.

I entered the waypoints of the buoys in the GPS knowing that they might be off a little. The first marker had deep enough water around that we could miss it a little and not run aground. Once I found it, I figured I could allow for whatever error I'd programmed in as I looked for the next marker. My GPS also keeps a plot of where you've been, so if we just couldn't make it, I could steer back out by that and at least get back to the open bay.

We got the anchor up again and slowly headed to the spot where the marker was supposed to be. When we found it we weren't more than 250 feet from it. I got lined up with the marker and the direction to the next on, put Nellie on the foredeck with the Fujinon's (and their compass!) and we took off - at about 1 knot! Very slowly, we moved at about due North with the first marker disappearing in the fog behind us. We could not see more than 1/8 mile at this point. With the engine turning so slow there was a lot of vibration and it would cause the compass to jump all over the place. I couldn't even steer by the compass! I was relying on Nellie to look through the binoculars, read the compass and point. And yell if I got off course. After a nerve wracking 3 or 4 minutes like this we sighted the next marker. We were only off a little and only had about 8 to go, only it got shallower and there was a right angle turn ahead.

This kept up, with everybody on edge, for about 10 or fifteen minutes - or was it an hour like it seemed? We got to the first marker where the turn started, I made my estimate of the amount of turn required to get to the next marker and held my breath. If I was off, we'd run aground in about 3 feet of water on either side.

Just about the time we could expect the next marker to show up, a power boat came up behind us at about 20 MPH. It was obvious they knew where they were going so I made a lot of gestures to get them to slow down and asked if we could follow them in. It turns out they were Federal Game wardens and they were glad to.

We fell in behind them and in another 100 feet, the fog nearly cleared! Not only could they find their way, they could make the fog go away. And, we were right in the harbor. It's hard to believe we were almost close enough to throw a rock and hit it, but couldn't see anything.

We made it on down the harbor, with good visibility, to the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor where we began to meet the natives. What a bunch of wonderful people! But that is another story to be told another day.

The next day it was clear and we were riding with some friends in a car along the beach highway. In passing the point where the channel comes in, the one we'd spent about 8 hours trying to get down, we could see every marker. On a clear day, it was hardly any distance at all. It was hard to believe we were right out there, in a distance I could recognize a particular boat, and we seemed miles and miles away.


Gene Gruender

aboard Rainbow Chaser




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