Date: 20 Nov 96 11:13:08 EST
From: Gene Gruender <104675.2134@CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Sailing to Port O'Connor (part 2)

We continued our trip aboard Rainbow Chaser and I'll finish it in a minute. However, among a number of emails thanking me for posting the first part, I got a letter from someone who suggested I should mention exactly where it is we are sailing. This is all on the Texas Coast of the USA.

Now, on to the rest of the trip:

The object of our voyage was to visit an excavation of the personal ship of LaSalle, the French explorer. It is located out in the bay about 12 miles north of Port O'Connor and about a mile off of the Intercoastal Waterway in 10 feet of water. We got away from Port O'Connor about 10 AM and headed up the waterway. The wind was too close to the nose to sail without tacking all the way so we went under motor power. About 12:30 we were about a mile or so from the site and the motor started overheating. I tried adding water but it still wanted to over heat. We did what any good sailor would do - we dropped the hook and made fajitas.

After lunch the motor was cooled down and I reconnected some hoses to take the water heater out of the cooling circuit as I suspected that was contributing to the problem. I checked each pump, refilled the motor and ran it for a bit. It seemed to be OK then, so we motored on to the site.

There was only room for one boat and there was a 40' motor yacht already tied up with a bunch of news crew people looking over the site. We idled in circles around it for about 45 minutes waiting for our turn. While we were doing this, we noticed that several of the camera men were recording us as much as they were recording the site. I expect we made the evening news in several local markets.

Eventually we got out turn and spent about half an hour there. The visit itself could take a few pages to cover and Nellie has sent a post covering a bunch of that part, so I won't dwell on it. I will say it was quite interesting.

After leaving we went back the way we came. The wind was just right at about 15 knots right on the starboard quarter. We got the yankee up along with the main and headed back down the intercoastal waterway. About 5 miles down from the excavation site the intercoastal waterway crosses the ship channel to Port Lavaca. We planned to go there to a marina named Nautical Landings. They offer a nights free dockage if you will go out of the way to check them out.

We'd been up to Port Lavaca by car a few weeks before and happened to drive by that same marina. From the highway we saw a big green steel motorsailer named "Ironsides". Since we'd been corresponding with a couple on a boat just like that it got our interest. We stopped but no one was at the boat. We asked a fellow standing by the dock about the boat and he confirmed it was the one we thought it was and also found that we had a lot of mutual acquaintances with him. The cruising world is really pretty small. At any rate, now we hoped to spend the night there and find these people again.

We sailed on down towards the intersection and the wind started dying a little. A mile or so before we were to turn down the ship channel I put it on autopilot and took down the smaller yankee and hoisted the large drifter. As I got back to the cockpit I noticed we were doing about 7 knots. Then I noticed we were reading 3 feet of depth. At 2 feet on the gauge we would be aground again. We'd gotten out of the channel again when I was changing the sail and it was shallow! For a minute I couldn't figure out just which side we were out with all the markers from both channels, and as I started to turn to Starboard towards the channel, we hit the bottom - hard.

Here we were again, stuck in the mud. I had lots of sail up and it was trying to drive us farther into the mud. I loosened the sheets, got the motor going and used it to get us turned around, sort of tacking with the keel buried in the mud. I had hopes that by using all the sail to heel us and the motor and rudder to veer back and forth we'd work ourselves back out through the muck.

I kept the motor fired up and ran the wheel back and forth. We'd turn a little one way, then a little the other way. We were spewing a lot of muddy water out the back. I wanted to believe we were moving, but if we were it wasn't a lot. Then the motor started overheating again.

After several rounds of cooling the motor, trying to move the boat and doing it all over again, it seemed like we were making just a bit of progress. Then a tug with a couple barges called us on the radio. He wanted to know what our intentions were. Our intentions? Hell, to get out of the mud, what else?? Of course, I didn't tell him that. I told him we were trying to get back to the channel. He said it looked like we were aground. He said he was making the turn right out in front of us and wanted to know where we planned to go so he wouldn't hit us. Then he said it looked like we were way out of the channel and if we stayed there it would be fine. Like we had a choice?

I told him I'd just turn off the motor until he was by - it needed cooling anyway. As he passed a few minutes later I fired up the motor and just then a good gust heeled us way over. We shot off the mud bank and nearly caught the tug! Once again, we were free!

About half mile farther we turned down the ship channel. Now we had a nice, wide, deep ditch to sail down. 40 feet deep, a hundred yards or so wide. Many markers. Lights on top. It was great, nearly down wind. It was a nice, smooth ride.

Our only problem was that with the over heating and grounding, we wouldn't get to Nautical Landings until long after dark. The ship channel goes about 12 miles, then splits off several directions. According to our chart, about two miles down the left most channel was our destination. It had markers fairly close together so we should be able to find our way.

It gets dark here now at 6PM and it was nearly 7:30 when we got to the junction. Outside of the channel are all sorts of obstructions. There are well pipes, old timbers, shallow spoil areas and other junk. We really didn't want to get out there. We looked around and knew where we were, but couldn't see the markers to the channel we needed. We circled and searched with our high powered light, but we still couldn't find it. Several times we drifted out into water that started to get shallow and got pretty nervous. Eventually, we had to admit we just weren't going to Nautical landings. Then we had to figure out where we were going to go.

It was about 20 miles back to Port O'Connor and the dock where we'd spent the last night . We really didn't want to do that. In checking the charts, two markers back down the channel we'd come in we saw a place where could get off the channel a couple hundred feet with no obstructions. We went back, turned and went very slowly out of the channel. We got the hook down, backed down on it real hard several times to make real sure we'd stay, and settled in.

We had about 10 hours sailing time to get back to our slip in Key Allegro. It was pretty important to get off early because sailing in the intercoastal at night is not a pleasant experience. It's narrow, a lot of the markers are floating and some have been knocked out of place by the barges. Long sections have no markers at all and are just cuts through land with jagged and uneven sides. For all these reasons, we wanted to be in our harbor before dark.

We hoisted the hook at 8 am, which should get us in about 6 PM, just as it got dark. The ship channel we'd coasted down wind on the night before was dead up wind now. We started motoring out. The motor overheated. I pulled over to the side of the channel and dropped the hook again. After a good check, I couldn't find any reason for it. I made sure it was full of water and we took off again. We made it about a quarter mile and noticed that we had a much worse than normal vibration. Nellie and I were talking about it, wondering where it was coming from when it quit vibrating and the motor raced up! Damn, I must have lost the prop! Kill the motor, hard over, coast out of the channel and drop the hook once more.

I got out my wet suit and went over, expecting to see a bare prop shaft. In the short 2 foot chop it wasn't a lot of fun, but I got under the boat to the prop shaft. Surprise, the prop was there. It was tight, and I could find no problem. This was a real puzzle. I got back in, dried off, and tried the motor again. Everything seemed to be fine. No vibration, the prop seemed to drive water, it all looked fine. The only thing we could figure was that we'd licked up a line or piece of junk with the prop, it had flung off, and it was now OK. The hook came up and off we went again.

About a hundred yards later it started shaking again. I raised and lowered the engine speed and I could get it to start and stop the vibration. I had replaced the prop shaft and cutlass bearing last summer and my guess is, even though I aligned it then, it is out of alignment now.

We just kept the engine speed constant once we would get the vibration to stop and started out the channel again. We'd probably made about a mile and a half or two miles by now and our before dark arrival was looking like history. Then the motor started boiling again. It was, once again, out of the channel and drop the hook.

I took apart each pump, raw and fresh water. They all looked good. I took the hose off the strainer and plenty of water would come through. I ran a hose from the output of the heat exchanger and laid it in the cockpit to watch to see the water flow was steady. It was, but soon the piece of hose I'd left on the exhaust elbow started smoking. Without the water flow, it got too hot and almost set the hose on fire!

The only thing left I could think of was the heat exchanger must have enough crud in it to keep the heat from passing like it should. I moved a couple hoses and went to raw water cooling. Not everybody has this option, but since my motor was originally a raw water cooled motor, the pump will draw water up to the motor. It was a simple job of moving the hoses and removing the pulley from the original raw water pump (it would ruin it with no water going through it if it still turned).

This finally solved the problem. No more overheating. We were, however, about 2 hours behind schedule. We'd either have to find a place to stay or do the intercoastal after dark. Neither option sounded real appealing.

We made it to the intersection of the intercoastal waterway with no more problems. As we approached the intersection I hanked on the yankee and hoisted the full batten main. We made the turn, killed the motor, hoisted the yankee and we were sailing again.

Ahead of us 2 miles was Port O'Connor, behind us one mile was a huge tug pushing two large barges lashed side by side. I was sure he would catch us soon so I called him on the radio to find out where he wanted me to be when he passed. He thanked me for asking and said he'd like to pass me on the "one whistle". Darn, I'd just got my brain used to "red and green" and now he wanted to talk "whistles". I had to think a minute to remember that one whistle meant he'd pass me with his port side to me. Once I confirmed that, I went over to the green side and kept going.

I was sure that he'd catch me before port O'Connor, where it got very narrow. Once we got there it was not only narrow, but there were docks and boats everywhere. But he slowed a little and we caught a little more wind. When we went into the congested area we were still about a quarter mile in front of him. I sure didn't want him to catch me now, so we hoisted the staysail and put on another knot. We tried to imagine what would happen if he met another barge coming the other way. I didn't see how they could pass. And I sure didn't want to be in the middle of it.

We made it completely out of Port O'O'Connor with the quarter mile still separating us. I figured he would catch us, it was just a matter of time. But, since we were racing the clock to somewhere - either our slip in Key Allegro or some place to drop an anchor before dark - we didn't want to just pull over and let him pass.

The next 10 miles or so were through a channel dug out of the sand. No bays and no anchorages. We started taking turns studying the charts to try to identify a spot where we might be able to get out of the channel and anchor. The more we looked, the less it looked like there was any possible anchorage.

As we sailed on down the channel we passed a large barge coming towards us. We wondered how the one following us would deal with that. Spending more time looking backwards than forwards, we watched that big thing just turn a little to the downwind bank and beach the whole darn thing! I spend all my time trying to stay off the mud banks and he just drives into one on purpose! The tug going the other way passed and the one following us just backed the rear out into the channel at about a 45 degree angle to the bank and opened the throttle. He pulled the barges off the mud, turned, and was following us again. It's amazing what you can do when you have about 10,000 horsepower. But all this put him way behind us and the wind had picked up a little. Maybe we wouldn't get passed after all.

About 4:30 we knew we had to make some decisions about the rest of the trip. I looked at the chart and tried to figure out just where we would be at dark. The Intercoastal Waterway leaves the narrow channel and goes into a bay about 12 miles from our destination. From that point on there are posts with markers and flashing lights about every 3/4 mile. Between them are two floating cans with no lights, but they are reflected. Our choice seemed to be to anchor along the narrow channel, which probably meant nosing the bow into the mud and dragging an anchor by hand up onto the bank to get out of the channel, or sailing the last 12 miles in the dark. Neither prospect seemed real appealing. We finally decided to look for a place to anchor and if we didn't find one, we'd go for it.

We looked very closely, but there just wasn't an anchorage to whole distance. As we hoped, the first flashing green came into view just before dark. As we got to it, we realized we had another thing to worry about. I could see the next flashing marker, but there were 2 cans between me and it. I could sail to the next flashing marker and just plow over a can that was big enough to sink us! Nellie had to get up on the front of the boat with the high powered light and search for the cans, not so much to stay in the channel as to keep from running over those cans.

This worked OK until a tug started coming towards us from several miles away. They were navigating the same way we were, except they had a light that could throw a good beam for miles. It just blinded us and now we could see almost nothing. I'd been using my binoculars to pick out the cans. Looking at that light through the binoculars was about like looking at the sun through a telescope. We had a real tough time for a couple of miles but eventually passed this monster.

We had about 4 more miles to go down the channel, which went relatively uneventfully. We reached the point where we could make a straight run to our channel into Key allegro. We made our turn to make the last mile across the open bay, got the motor going and dropped the sails. The entrance is narrow and not very long, but marked with reds and greens about every 2 hundred feet on each side, with a flashing lights on the first one. Farther down it goes through concrete bulkheads and makes a hard turn to port. As we entered the familiar channel between those posts and markers we breathed a sigh of relief. We were about 50 feet from the concrete bulkheads and whoomph, we ran dead aground! Damn, right in our own backyard. Nellie and I looked at each other and the channel . We were nearly dead center and still sitting on the mud. I'd heard there was a spot or two that had silted in and I guess we found one of them.

We'd played this game before, so we started using the motor and rudder to pivot around and slowly worked ourselves off. It took about 10 minutes and we got free. A slow motoring trip across the little harbor got us back to our slip at about 8:30 PM. We finally had time to think about some supper.

We talked to some local friends later and their comment about all our grounds was that if you haven't been aground, you haven't been sailing in Texas.

Gene Gruender
aboard Rainbow Chaser