Heading down the ICW? It could get more exciting than you expected!

First published in Telltales Magazine. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.


Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com


Just another day on the ICW - RIGHT!
by Gene Gruender

copyrignt 1999

We decided to take Rainbow Chaser down the ICW to Florida on our way to the Bahamas instead of going across the Gulf of Mexico like last time. I knew we might end up with our keel stuck in the mud a time or two. It should have come as no surprise, then, to be sitting at the entrance of Rollover Pass with our keel stuck in the side of the bank. The surprising thing is we actually did it on purpose.

We left Galveston, TX. early in the morning traveling with our friends Ron and Bobbie following us on their boat Anticipation. We were headed for an anchorage about 60 miles away. We normally wouldn't try to go that far, but Taylor’s Bayou was the first decent anchorage we could identify past Galveston. That’s a long way to travel in a day, so we got started before daylight, leaving the Yacht Basin in Galveston to go across Boliver Roads heading for the ICW. We made it to the ICW and had gone about 20 miles when fog started to be a problem. As we approached a place called Rollover Pass, the fog started getting real bad.

Rollover Pass is a narrow place 2 miles long that has tidal waters flowing over it and is quite often silted in. Even when not silted, it's just wide enough for one barge, and you darn sure don't want to meet a barge there when you're in a sailboat. As we approached the pass we couldn't even see the second set of buoys - once we passed the first pair, we'd be feeling our way through with our keels, and that just isn't a practical way to travel.

We did see a towboat come through every now and then, but they have some advantages over us. First, they have radar and can "see" the buoys when we can't. Second, they have many thousands of horsepower and can probably suck all the mud out of the whole pass if they rev their engines up enough. Third, it doesn't come out of their pockets if they get stuck bad enough they need commercial assistance to get going again. We decided to wait for the fog to lift. By the way, there were 8 towboats with their barges shoved into the mud waiting along with us.

We turned around, went back a quarter mile, turned our noses into the wind and drove under motor power right into the muddy banks. For 2 hours, we sat there with the diesel turning over at about 1/4 throttle, just trying to stay stuck. I could sometimes see the first buoy from there. We decided that if we saw the second, we would be gone. The real problem was, even if we left with no more waiting we couldn’t make it to the anchorage we planned to, and there is no other before that one. As a result, we expected we would find a place, maybe even right where we were, and spend the night with our nose stuck in the mud trying to stay out of the channel far enough that we wouldn’t be in the way of the towboats.

After we sat waiting a couple hours for the fog to lift I started doing chores on Rainbow Chaser. I told Ron on Anticipation that if we saw the second buoy, we were going. I spent an hour fixing some things on Rainbow Chaser, and spent some time trying to get the regulator working correctly. About the time I realized that one was a failure Ron called on the radio. He could see the second buoy. There was one barge heading into the pass. There was another back a half mile that tried earlier and got stuck. He made it back and waited like us, and was trying to get under way. We could beat him to the pass and I told Ron I was going right behind Tonkawa, the towboat that was just starting through the pass. Even if the fog got thicker, we'd just stay on his stern through the pass. Just like a bunch of mosquitoes in the faces of the towboats, we were out there. As we followed the towboat through I could see why the pass was so nasty - it was narrow and the current was going across it pretty bad. The wind was going the other way and I wasn’t sure which was more likely to put us on the bottom. The fog wasn't too bad, though. I could see about 2 buoys ahead most of the way. As we came to the other end and the 90 degree turn where the channel continues I saw at least 4 more towboats waiting to go the other way. What a traffic jam.

Tonkawa, the towboat we followed through the pass, started to speed up. I can usually go faster than most of them so I asked him about passing. He said, "Sure, just go around on the "2 whistle". (That is towboat talk for "Pass me on the left). I put the throttle down, got the jib up for a little extra speed and tried to get up enough speed to pass. It can take a mile or two, so passing can be nerve racking at times. I set the throttle most of the way open and was doing hull speed. The bow wave was coming up behind the boat, and the cockpit was filling with water from the rear being driven so low. I was passing him, but not by much. I considered dropping back, but when I told the captain of Tonkawa I may just drop back, he said "why? You're gaining on me. Go on around, sailboat."

Soon Ron on Anticipation was wanting to pass, but there was another towboat coming at us. I could just make it before the approaching boat met us, Ron didn’t stand a chance. I got in front of Tonkawa with a quarter mile to spare, Ron had to pass later. As we made our way down the ICW Ron eventually passed Tonkawa.

About 3:30 we started discussing where we could stop for the night. We knew it would be dark by 6 or so and we still needed to find a place to spend the night since it was 30 miles or so to Taylor’s Bayou. As we passed under a bridge at about the 320 mile marker Ron came on the radio. He told me that a little place cut out of the side of the channel we passed before the bridge was mentioned as a possible anchorage in his cruising guide. We figured we really should see if we could stay there.

We turned around and went back. I pulled in first to check the depth and to see how much room there was since Rainbow Chaser has a shallower draft. After nosing around and bumping the bottom a few times, I decided we could try it, although it really was not a very good place to anchor. It was small and the bottom was mud that wouldn’t hold an anchor well. About the only way I see that it could work was if I put my nose right up to the bank, then carried an anchor up on shore.

After talking it over with Ron, I put my nose right into the bank. Ron was getting set to do the same thing, but his deeper boat hit the bottom while he was still 15 feet from shore. He was going to have a real problem getting his anchor on the bank. As I left Nellie at the helm and got ready to jump off of the bowsprit of Rainbow Chaser onto the bank, a towboat went by and sucked the water out of the little basin. Nellie was having a real tough time keeping the boat in place, and Ron was washing out into the channel. The water stopped going out and started rushing back in, nearly washing Ron on top of me. The place just wouldn’t work. We had to get out of there. There was no way I’d spend the night in that mudpit.

As we pulled out we came up with a plan. It was a bad plan, but at least it was a plan. We'd get behind a towboat and just stick on his stern until we got to Taylor's Bayou. I didn’t like it but I couldn’t come up with a better plan. While we were wasting time in the little mudpit Tonkawa got in front of us again. He'd been going fairly slow, and there was a much bigger, faster boat in front of him. I wanted to pass again and follow the bigger boat. After calling Tonkawa on the radio, he said "What you sailboats want now?" "Well, sir, we're trying to find an anchorage and that one back there just won't work. I'd like to pass you again if I could." "Sure sailboat, just come on around."

Once again I fought my way around the Cajun Captain, with Anticipation not far behind. I finally got around and in another mile or so I got behind a big towboat which had two huge barges side by side. He was probably 200 feet wide, so I figured if I stayed behind him and he didn’t hit anything I wouldn’t either. It was getting pretty dark and I could only see the two amber lights on the back of the towboat, one over the other. If I used my good binoculars, I could see the outline of his barges, too, so I just gave it most of the throttle and tried to keep up. Anticipation was following not far behind.

The darker it got, the less I could see. I could barely make out the sides of the canal as I went by. I couldn’t see ahead at all except for the lights on the towboat ahead. What sides I could make out were not uniform. For a while it would be real wide and then there would be banks right beside us. Of course, except in the channel it was only a couple feet to maybe a few inches deep, so to end up there would be a disaster. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the lights from the boat ahead for even a few seconds or I might run aground. That didn’t even account for possible trash in the water, but with all the towboat traffic, there couldn’t be much, if any.

It was way past suppertime and I was getting pretty hungry. Nellie brought up a nice hot supper, but it’s hard to eat when it’s dark and you can’t look down at the plate, always staring at the lights from the towboat ahead. In fact, that boat was getting a bit farther away and I was having trouble keeping up. I got the supper down in a few bites, but it didn’t go down well and the tension was not helping my digestion. We had boats behind us, some more in front.

On of the ones coming our way started calling on the radio to whoever would listen and answer, saying he couldn’t figure out the lights ahead. “What are those white lights up high? Is there a boat with a tow on a cable behind or what the heck do those lights mean?” I guess there is some type of lighting to signify if a boat is pulling a barge behind on a cable, and he thought that may be what he was seeing. Another boat came on the radio and said “No, man. They’re a couple of sailboats.” “Out here, at night? Never saw that before.”

He was not the only one having trouble. I was having trouble with the whole ordeal, it was nerve wracking. I’d rather spend the night staying up all night keeping the boat stuck against the bank than keep this up. There was about 20 more miles to go, and I wasn’t up to it.

Soon the towboat we were following was going past something. I couldn’t tell if it was another barge coming toward us, or what the heck was going on. There seemed to be a boat on the right bank and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Nellie called Ron to tell him I’d about had it, I couldn’t keep it up. I pulled to the side and I started going real slow in about 10 feet of water, far enough out of the channel and in shallow enough water that I wouldn’t be in any towboat’s way. I had to have a break.

As Nellie was telling Ron of my frustration in trying to sort it out, one of the towboat captains came on the radio and said “Maam, I was listening to your conversation. Here’s what you’re seeing ahead. On the left is a pumping station, it has a lot of white lights and a flashing read light on top. Just go to the right of that. On the other side is a towboat that has parked on the mud bank. He has a flood light shining on the back of one of his barges, go to the left of him. Then just follow the channel”

As Nellie thanked him, Ron came on the radio and said he’d been talking with the towboat that was about to pass us. The captain on Uncle George told him it was an easy run to Taylor’s Bayou. If we would just fall in behind him he’d tell us when we got there. About then the towboat Uncle George passed me, having slowed down for the pumping station. As he passed I saw that he only had one empty barge in front, so he could be pretty fast. I quickly pulled out behind him. I would try following for a bit.

As he pulled away, I really had to get on the throttle- he was moving out quickly and leaving me behind. This seemed like our best shot at making it to a good anchorage, so I wanted to stay behind him. We were really moving. The ICW was narrow and we were going about hull speed, 7.3 knots, or a bit more. On either side the bank was real close. I could see houses on one side maybe 100 feet away, and a bare bank on the other. I could see Uncle George’s lights 200 feet ahead.

All of a sudden his lights got real close as he slowed down for an approaching towboat. After a quick cutting of the throttle and nearly running into him, he was off again. He was really going. I had the throttle on Rainbow Chaser nearly wide open, we were far exceeding hull speed. The rear of the boat was so low the cockpit was getting pretty wet from water coming in through the cockpit drains. My feet were wet, but we were heading for the anchorage at top speed .

Uncle George came on the radio to tell us he would flash his spotlight on the markers as we pass them so we can tell where we are. There is a marker each 5 miles, he flashed his powerful spotlight on the 305 mile marker. Taylor Bayou is at 291. 14 more miles of flying through the dark trying to keep a speeding towboat in sight.Anticipation was not far behind, trying to keep both of us in sight.

We were a mile or so behind Uncle George and he was just leaving us behind. With only one empty barge and thousands of horsepower, he could move that boat. On Rainbow Chaser, I had the throttle just about wide open. The little 3 cylinder diesel was just HUMMING. It is rated at about 2600 rpm, and says it can handle intermittent bursts to 2800. I hoped 3 hours comes in the “intermittent” category, because that was about how long it would take until we got there. I started to imagine noises and problems, although the noises were most likely always there.

Uncle George was about a mile and a half in front of me and still pulling away when he came up behind another towboat pushing a long string of barges over a quarter mile long. I heard him calling on the radio asking where to pass. He gave the other captain about 10 seconds with no answer and went to the old fashion method. These days they make most of the passing arrangements on the radio, saying “one whistle” or “two whistles” to indicate the side they’ll pass on. With no quick response, Uncle George gave two blasts on his horn and kept going. He then got on the radio, telling anyone who was listening that he was eastbound and he had two little sailboats following him, make sure to give them room. This was getting to be like something out of “Smoky and the Bandit” in the old CB days. Uncle George was Bandit and our front door, the marine radio become a CB.

After several miles I finally caught the towboat that didn’t respond to Uncle George. I didn’t even try to call him since he didn’t respond last time. It would take a long time to pass him since I was only doing maybe a quarter to a half mile an hour faster than him and he was over a thousand feet long. I could still see Uncle George’s lights ahead, the channel was straight and there were no other lights between is. I just gave it the last of the throttle that I had and added about the last 100 rpm’s that the little Yanmar had in it. There was no more.

We were going just a fast as was possible with the motor in Rainbow Chaser. The GPS was reading a speed of about 8.5 to 8.8 knots all the time, our bow wave was 2 feet behind the boat, nearly making a roostertail. The cockpit had so much water in it I was up past my ankles in water. And we were only half way around the set of barges. Anticipation was still behind, and looking back I could see he had rolled his jib out with his roller furler to get a bit more speed. I couldn’t raise mine as easy as he could since I didn’t have roller furling, and I couldn’t go any faster anyway.

As I flew beside the barges, watching them slowly pass behind me, I start thinking about what if’s. What if the steering went out? What if the motor quit? What if there’s some trash in the water? I kept feeling like the passing water between us would suck me over into the barges. It wouldn’t do any good to worry about it, so I just quit thinking about it.

I could still see Uncle George’s Lights ahead, but they were a long way off. I really didn’t want to lose sight of him. At least the moon was coming out, and although I couldn’t see real well, I could make out the banks and could tell this was a straight channel, the walls were the same distance apart and it seemed to be deep to the edge. I could see Uncle George’s spotlight come on. He was telling us on the radio that he was at the 300 mile marker. 10 more miles to go and we were screaming.

Ron was about a third of the way around the barge I just passed and was trying to raise the captain of that towboat on the radio. I thought he was getting nervous, because when he finally got the captain on the radio, he asked him if he could tell if there was any approaching traffic showing up on his radar? Before the captain could answer, Uncle George cut in and said “Don’t worry about it, little sailboats, just bring it on, I’ll tell you if you have anything coming!”.

Nellie was monitoring the radio and heard Uncle George telling anyone ahead that he was coming down the channel, he’d be on the “one whistle” and he had two little sailboats following him. Give them room and don’t get in their way.

About then the sky fell in and it was raining bucketsful. In a couple minutes, Uncle George came back on the radio again - he told us there was a towboat on the north bank, he had no windshield wipers and couldn’t see where he was going so he just ran it into the bank. He wanted us to make sure we didn’t hit the grounded boat. About another mile down the way, I was wondering how deep the water can get in the cockpit, when the banked towboat calls “the little sailboats” (by the way, these “little sailboats were 37 and 40 feet long!) and told us to pass him on the “one whistle” He then turned on his spotlight and shined it on the bank that he was up against. Uncle George had him afraid we wouldn’t know which side to go on. Since he was on the bank, it was pretty clear to me.

Uncle George got so far ahead that I could no longer tell where he was, but he passed another boat somewhere along the way and I could see that boat’s lights. Way ahead of us, he told us he’d shine his light on Taylor’s Bayou. Around the bend about 4 miles ahead we could see a light shine up in the sky and then off to the north. It must be Taylor’s Bayou.

So many other towboats along the way had heard us being lead on down the waterway that they all knew what was going on. A couple of them came on the radio and told us how to tell when we got there and where to anchor when we did. The boat in front of us, Brownwater 2, told us that he’d be passing Taylor’s Bayou about the time we caught him and he’d show us where to turn.

About the time we caught Brownwater 2, just as he said, he shined his big powerful spotlight up a big body of water off to the left - Taylor’s Bayou! There was one towboat anchored in there taking a break and we passed him. After 20 hard grueling miles, we dropped the anchor to pass out exhausted. We’d earned some rest.

Copyright 1999
All rights reserved

Rainbow Chaser's Home page