This story was first published in "Telltales" Magazine out
of Clear Lake, Texas in the Fall of `94.
Read, enjoy, share with your friends, but please don't publish it with out written permission from the author.
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com
We are screaming down the channel into Grand Isle, Louisiana, under the jib alone. The knot meter reads 12 knots. We have to keep the jib up, since the motor quit a while back. And staying centered in the channel is absolutely necessary, since the depth sounder also quit. But, I need to go back a little bit so you can understand how we got to this point.
Gary Gasser is a yacht broker friend of mine down in the Clear Lake, Texas, area, the sailboat capital of this end of the country. He sold a 1967 C & C 40, an old ocean racer, to a fellow in New Orleans. I was sitting at work in Austin one day a few weeks ago when he called to ask if I'd like to help him sail it over there. Sure . . . they furnish the boat, pay the expenses, I get to sail . . . what a deal. You read about people who deliver other people's boats and it always seems so exciting. It's like a free ride. How could you lose?
For a week or more, Gary spent his spare time working from a recent survey to get the boat in order. He replaced cracked fittings on some stays, rebuilt a spreader, and did some other things. Two Years ago the original 14hp diesel had been replaced with a new, larger motor; it ran fine and needed nothing. The fuel was checked for contamination and the boat was stocked with food The holding plate refrigeration only worked on shorepower since the compressor was never mounted on the new motor, but we planned to get it good and cold on shorepower and then add a lot of ice. We felt that should hold us to Grand Isle. We could restock there before going on to Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans. We'd leave with a full tank of diesel and four extra Jerry cans. We thought we'd be leaving with 80 gallons of water, 40 in each tank, but one of the tanks, which was fine during the survey, leaked out all of its contents when it was filled. We still had 40 gallons and several jugs of drinking water.
I packed a little reading material. I'd been studying for my Coast Guard license, so the manual and sample tests seemed appropriate. I also took the morning's edition of the Wall Street Journal and a stock guide, thinking I might have time to find a winner somewhere along the way. My girl friend gave me a novel she thought I'd like to read. That would be plenty for the trip.
I arrived after dark the night before we were to depart. In the moonlight it was a sleek looking boat, fast lines and a low deck. Below, I found a lot of teak showing some wear, but what looked to be a very serviceable interior. This boat had the typical Vberth, but all of the other bunks were narrow berths staggered up the side of the boat for a race crew to sleep in for short periods of time while being held in with a lee cloth. There were no partitions or bulkheads for privacy except the door on the head. Not your typical cruiser arrangement, which was what it was bought for. This retired racer, soon to be a cruiser, had recently been renamed Lulu after the new owner's wife.
However, the next morning's light showed a few more things that would need attention before Lulu became a nice cruiser. The decks had been roughly sanded and had a coat of white paint in most places. The topsides needed a lot of fairing out if they were ever to have a good finish again. There used to be a lot more gauges mounted on the front of the cockpit; the gauges were gone, but the poor patch job over the holes they had used needed some attention. The handrails were pretty well worn, having last seen varnish maybe 10 years ago. The running rigging lines all looked a little old but, thankfully, were not frayed or chafed. There was a large Bruce anchor with heavy chain on the bow -that was reassuring.
Gary arrived and we spent a little time setting the loran and clocks. We made another trip to the store for more ice and a few last minute items. Then it was a short motor trip to the marina to top off the tanks with diesel.
It was Wednesday morning about 10 a.m. when we got under way, heading across Galveston Bay under motor power, then on down the Houston Ship Channel toward the Galveston Jetties. Up came the full main and a 150 genny. It seems the wind is always wrong for a sail down the Ship Channel and it was no different that time, so we started tacking back and forth across the channel. During the first tack, I learned we had four huge winches in the cockpit but one of them needed an overhaul. Its internal workings would slip every once in a while when you least expected it. It would just let loose. We'd have to remember to avoid using that one.
It was pretty slow going with sail power alone, so we added back motor power. This helped, but soon the motor started running hot. With a little investigation we found it was low on water. After getting it cooled down, we added water and knew to check it often. It had been full the night before, so there must have been a problem in there somewhere. It also soon became apparent that when the new diesel was installed something was forgotten in the propeller department. We had 40 horsepower but were only getting about 10 of them to the water. The engine would race to full throttle with no apparent load on it, even though it was in gear and there was a lot of propwash. We were going to sail anyway, so it wasn't that big a deal. It would get us in and out of a slip and charge batteries just fine.
In observing our speed on the water we realized the knot meter was not calibrated. We couldn't be sure how much it was off but we guessed it read about 20 percent faster than our actual speed. So instead of calling it our "speed," for the rest of the trip it became our "apparent speed"
When we got down to Galveston and made the turn toward the jetties, the wind was a little better. We could tack almost straight across to the south jetty, then we'd make a long run nearly parallel to the north jetty and gain a lot of distance. About one tack from the end of the jetties and open Gulf, Gary remarked that he'd only sailed completely out of the jetties one other time in all the years he'd been around there. It would be nice to do it again. The wind was good, around 10 to 15 knots. On the next tack, the mainsheet broke. The boom went at a right angle over the port side, the main was flopping, ships and boats were all around. The motor was started again; Gary has yet to sail out of the jetties for that second time.
After a quick reversing, rethreading through the blocks and retying of the mainsheet, we started sailing again. We cleared the jetties and were out in the Gulf of Mexico. We were hoping to set a 100 degree course but it was either 80 or 160. We chose to hug the coast on a course of 80 degrees and hope for a wind shift along the way to allow us to cruise right into Grand Isle.
By now it was Wednesday evening and starting to get dark. Gary turned on the running lights. Well, the bow lights . . . the stern light didn't want to cooperate. Again, it had worked fine during the survey and sea trials. There seemed to be a recurring theme here. I hoped it wouldn't continue. We got out the Autohelm. It was a nice, new model that had worked fine during the sea trials, and it worked fine now. It was such a relaxing ride to lean back, letting the Autohelm steer while we watched the stars. And without the stern light, I saw something new. I'd seen the phosphorescent glow in the water on past trips, but I'd never seen the water coming from under the rear of the boat with such a sparkle. Without the stern light to blind us it looked as though we were riding on a trail of sparks. There was a total glow under the boat along with a large trail of sparkles. What a sight!
Gary went below and cooked a nice supper while I got out all the fishing gear I'd brought. We had supper and started trailing three lines with visions of fresh fish for supper the rest of the way.
Soon the wind was building up and that 150 was getting a little hard to control. After a little debate, we decided to go to the working jib.
Now, I have a boat of my own that I keep on Lake Travis, near Austin. On my Hunter 37, if I want less sail I pull on a line. Roller furling is great. Going forward in the night, wrestling down a large sail and replacing it is something I haven't practiced much. The seas were rough enough that every second or third wave would throw water across the deck. One hand for the boat, one hand and a safety harness for me was the rule. But I did get the job done, the first of many times.
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. We took turns with watches, around four hours each. I took over about 4 a.m. as the wind was getting a little quieter. I couldn't tell you how much wind we had, since none of the wind instruments worked. We did, however, know about that problem before we left.
I guessed the wind was 3 to 4 knots with the seas just about flat, drifting in and out of fog about sunrise. I decided the 150 was in order again. Gary was sleeping soundly below as I made another sail change. This time, in calmer seas with daylight and a little practice behind me, it seemed easy. Thursday morning found us with a little more wind on a heading of about 85 degrees with the autopilot steering through light fog with fairly flat seas and a temperature of about 75 degrees. Not bad, all In all.
I have sailed before with people who stay on the verge of seasickness the whole trip. They think a large meal is two crackers instead of one. I have been lucky so far and never have had a problem with that, and Gary and I agreed before we left that we were going to have real food on this trip. Having planned ahead, I cooked up some pretty decent omelets for breakfast. This was the way it should be . . . a light breeze, about 8 knots "apparent speed" on nearly calm seas, hot omelets, and some fishing lines trailing behind.
Later in the morning we were sailing along with the motor running to charge the batteries, and out of the clear blue the autopilot just quit. We tried everything we could but couldn't get it going again. This was really a low blow, because now someone had to be at the helm all the time. And that can get to be real work in rough seas.
As the day wore on it was pretty pleasant, other than the autopilot problem.Gary poked around and found the loose wire that caused the stern light failure. The wind picked up to the point that we went back to the working jib. Gary caught a Bonita and after taking pictures we threw it back. Bonita wasn't exactly what we had in mind for fish suppers.They are bloody and good shark food, but not for me. Later there was another Bonita that met the same fate. The wind held up and we made pretty good time. Our course was coming around to about 95, helping us to avoid tacking out into the Gulf of Mexico in a direction we didn't want to go.
In the middle of the afternoon, I did a little plotting and predicted that we should get into Grand Isle about noon on Saturday. The trip was going pretty well; there should be plenty of time to get to New Orleans and back to Houston, and then for me to go on to Austin for work Monday morning.
About four in the afternoon we were sailing along in about 15 knots of wind, still on a starboard tack. All of a sudden there was a loud bang! The rear inner shroud on the starboard side had broken, flinging the cable over the rigging. Closer inspection showed it was actually the chainplate that had broken. Gary had inspected them before we left, but it had corroded below the caulking. It had originally been about 1 1/2" by 1/4" thick. What was left when it broke was about 1/2" wide by 1/8" thick - about 80% was gone. And it was made of aluminum, not stainless. Lucky for us, the boat had toerails that started at about the rear inner shrouds and went back about 10 feet. These had holes punched In them for attaching things. I was able to open the turnbuckle enough to grab onto the toerail and re-install the pin. That would hold that one, but what did the other five look like? Did I really want to know? We decided to shorten sail to take some load off the rest of the rig.
This boat was an old ocean racer rigged to race with a large, healthy crew. All sorts of blocks, lines and gadgets were on it to make it go faster. Uphauls, outhauls, down hauls, all sorts of hauls. More junk on the boom alone than I have on my whole boat. Much more than the four hands available on the boat could use, even if I did know what it was all for. To make it worse, it hadn't been sailed much in the last 10 years and probably wasn't raced in the last 20. Most of those gadgets were in a poor state of repair, if they worked at all. For example, both reef points had their own outhaul along with the standard outhaul for the full main. The problem was, the original full main outhaul had quit long ago; the outhaul for first reef point had been changed a little to serve as the full main's outhaul. It was too far out on the boom to tighten the foot after reefing. The other outhaul was broken. The entire boom and mast were covered with junk and you couldn't tighten the foot of the sail with any of it. So we jury rigged until we could get the foot of the sail fairly tight. Still, working around the mast or boom was difficult. There were so many blocks and lines I vowed to look for a machete so I could just clean it all out. One thing was clear: Lulu had a lot of work to do on her new boat before she went cruising. About now, I was wondering just how many things were going to quit before we got to Grand Isle. Were we going to get there before the last line broke? How many chainplates is it from Clear Lake to Grand Isle? We started to double lines where we could, just for insurance. At least the motor was still sound, even if it didn't get much power to the water.
Since the time we left the dock, we'd noticed the wheel had a little play in it. Having a little time, we decided to see if it might be a potential problem. What we found was not play in the linkage, but rather that the wheel was loose on the shaft. What was worse, the nut that holds the wheel on was stripped and could be pulled off with your hand. I could just imagine getting into a tight situation and having a wheel in my hand that was not attached to the boat. Not a pretty sight. We looked through Gary's bags of fixit parts and tools. The best we could do was use a cordless drill he had, drill a hole through the nut and shaft and push a cotter pin into the hole. None of the cotter pins we had were long enough to go all the way through, so we put a bend on the end and hope the friction would keep it from falling out. Lulu's list of projects was growing.
I'd noticed something else Lulu wasn't going to like much. As I mentioned, the motor had been replaced with a larger one. It was physically a lot longer than the original one. To get it to fit, a new engine cover had been constructed that stuck out where the steps went down. Then the steps were sawed in half. Three went from the companionway to the top of the new, longer engine cover, then you had to step forward and go down the other four. By then you were farther forward than the front of the companionway hatch and unless you were less than 4 feet tall, you ducked or hit your head. Usually, I hit my head. It was very awkward. Lulu wasn't going to like her steps very much.
In the afternoon, one of the fishing reels started singing. We had a fish on. We had to slow the boat a little to get him in, but this time we had something a little better. We pulled in a nice sized Spanish Mackerel. This guy went into the pot for supper. Thursday night we had a supper a little more fitting for where we were: a very fresh fish, a pasta dish and some bread.
The rest of Thursday night and most of Friday were pretty uneventful. Uneventful is good. With the problems we'd had up to now, I was wishing for a lot more uneventful. But it wasn't to be.
Friday evening just after dark we could see lightning across the northern sky. There seemed to be a band of thunderstorms across a good deal of Louisiana.The VHF weather broadcasts said as much. We had a reef in the main and we're under the working jib with a good breeze out of the south as we were entering an area off Louisiana that has a shoal called "Ship's Shoal" about 20 miles out. Our course would take us through about 20 feet of water with Louisiana to port and Ship's Shoal, with its depth at a few feet, about five miles to starboard. About 11 p.m., in a very short time the wind dropped to nothing. We knew we had something coming our way and thought it would be a short thunderstorm, since there was no mention of a front. We doused the working jib and fired up the diesel, expecting to ride out a short blow. In a few more minutes, we had some strong winds, which I would guess where a steady 40 gusting past 50. With no wind instruments guessing is all we could do. It was too much for a single reefed main at any rate, so Gary went forward to get it down while I minded the helm and used the diesel to try to keep some steerage. I found out how little power we were getting to the water when I was unable to even head the boat into the wind. The best I could do was head up a little and try to keep us from getting any closer to Ship's Shoal. The water was getting a little rough, also. Every little bit the motor would race up; I assumed that the prop was cavitating from getting some air instead of water as we thrashed in the larger waves.
After Gary got the main down and tied off, we debated whether it was worth putting up the storm jib. We still thought we were just getting hit with a thunderstorm and it would pass. Expecting it to die down soon so we could raise the main and working lib again, we elected to take the easy route and wait it out under motor power.
I mentioned that it was reassuring we had the big Bruce on the bow. At least if the motor gave out we could drop it and stay off the shoal. That was when I learned the Bruce was hooked to a little chain and nothing else. The nylon rode was stored down below somewhere. We talked about this and came to the conclusion it wasn't worth bending it on now. If we had a problem serious enough to need the Bruce, we had enough searoom to get it before we'd hit the shoal. Neither of us were that anxious to get on the foredeck and fight putting it on. After another hour we still had winds about the same and we'd made about one mile of headway. We weren't any closer to the shoal but it had become obvious this was no thunderstorm, it was a pretty good front. Even if the weather service hadn't figured it out, we had. I went below to try to get a little sleep. I figured I better if I could. It as going to be a long night.
About two hours later, Gary called to wake me. The wind had died a little and he wanted to raise the main. We'd only made about two more miles while I slept and we needed to get on toward Grand Isle. This time, Gary took the helm while I went forward. But the halyards had gotten tangled in all the pitching and rolling; they were around the spreaders, the mast and each other. It was a real mess and it was impossible to raise anything without untangling them. I could shine a flashlight on them and see just a little of what was going on, but then I had no hand to work with. It took all I could do with the other hand lust to keep myself on the deck. If I didn't hold the light, I had no idea what I was doing. I probably looked pretty silly, but the only way I could figure out how to solve this was to lie on my back and wrap a leg around a shroud or whatever I could reach. Then I could shine a light up with one hand and move one halyard at a time with the other hand. It's hard to untangle three halyards when you can only move one at a time and I ended up in this position for quite some time. After something like an hour, we had them free where we could raise a reefed main again.
It was Gary's turn to get some well deserved sleep. We were making much better time with the main up, but it was Saturday morning and we were still a long way from Grand Isle. I had time to think about different things. It occurred to me that I'd brought all that reading material and hadn't even looked at it. What would someone back home think? How do you explaind that, with four, or more likely now, five days, just leisurely sailing across the Gulf of Mexico, you wouldn't have time to read? . . . anything . . . not even open a book.
Well, I thought, there are 48 hours available to the two of us each day. Twenty-four were used at the helm, another three or so were used eating or fixing food and cleaning up the galley, three more were used for sail changes or adjustments. Maybe one hour (one half hour each) was spent cleaning ourselves, at least one hour a day per person fixing something on the boat. That's two more hours. Add two more on navigation duties. That's four more, or a total of 37 accounted for. That left 11 hours, or five and a half hours for each of us, and we haven't even gotten any sleep yet. No wonder I was tired. And I was tired enough that I was sure I hadn't thought of everything. It was no wonder I didn't get to read anything.
In another hour or so the wind had died enough that we got the jib up again. And we were flying. We had an apparent speed of 10 to 11 knots. And the rig was still in one piece!
A little later I went below to try to get a little sleep. It was rough and slammed around a lot, but I was pretty tired. I must have been asleep an hour or two. Even in that deep sleep, something got to me. It must have been that we were heeling a little more than normal. Whatever the reason, I jumped up to see water splashing across the starboard ports. I stumbled up the companionway, trying not to hit my head again. Gary had the boat powered up, heeling hard and moving fast. Water was coming way over the rail. It was plain that Gary was having a ball. I asked if we weren't supposed to be taking it easy on the rig? All he said with a big grin, was "I thought I'd get your attention when you saw fish swimming past the ports!"
We spent the day in 4 to 6 foot seas. The wind started to slowly come around to the east, causing us to have to tack out into the Gulf. This slowed our progress toward Grande Isle a little but we were still afloat. Since it was now Saturday morning and we were about 100 miles out of Grande Isle, our Saturday noon arrival was not going to happen.
We also had a difficult time keeping the course we wanted. With no wind instruments, we had to sail with the "wind on your cheek" method. Trying to stay as close to the wind as you could was difficult. And without the autopilot, it was a very crooked course. On one of the two-hour-out, two-hour-back tacks, the loran said we were right back where we started.
During one of these tacks we decided we would do better to start the motor and go straight toward our destination. We needed to charge the batteries and we'd make more progress. We'd been motoring like this for an hour or so when the motor started revving up, just like in the storm; but this time we weren't in any seas rough enough to cause the prop to catch any air. Then it just stopped. Gary said the problem was probably dirty filters. I didn't know until then that a diesel would rev up if it was starving for fuel. And dirty filters made sense - Lulu had set at a dock for most of the last 10 years. There was no telling how much crud settled in the bottom of the fuel tank. Pounding through the seas for several days would stir up all of it. There was no telling how much had been caught by the filters.
I took the helm and Gary started working on the filters. There were new ones aboard, so it would be a simple problem of replacing them. The seas were a little rough but he was able to get the job done. Yet, when it became time to start it, it wouldn't fire up - it just cranked but wouldn't run. It seemed likely there was air in the lines, so I cranked and Gary bled injector lines, over and over. Still, it wouldn't hit a lick. After many minutes of this the battery started to get weak, and the motor hadn't fired even once.
At this point we had two choices. We could switch to the other battery and maybe get the motor running, and maybe have another dead battery, which meant we would also lose the lights, loran, and depth sounder. Or, we could run the rest of the day with no motor, but have some instrumentation, lights and radio. After just a little thought we figured that this was a sailboat and we could get just about anywhere without the motor. But all that other stuff?... that was scary. We saved the battery.
By Saturday evening, we were close to East Timbalier Island. I'd been curious about this place. My chart has some oil rigs marked, but in this area there is a place on my chart that is almost solid. It looks like someone shot it with a blast of shotgun pellets. As we got closer to it, I saw why. It was just solid rigs, poles, pipes and every sort of structure. If you flooded downtown Houston to about 10 feet deep, then tried to sail through it, it would be about the same. Just like a city. And now, here we were, cruising through it after dark without a motor.
This was three ports away from where we were headed and we were attempting to stay close in for several reasons. We wanted to get there and we were already running late; it was calmer close in and we wanted to save some strain on the rig; and the oil rigs seemed to be thicker as you got farther offshore. So we were sailing along where we would cross the marked channel leading Into Belle Pass. The channel seemed to parallel the shore and our course, then turn in toward the shore and cross our course. We were about a half mile toward shore from this channel and a half mile from crossing it. There was an oil rig service boat that had been overtaking us for an hour or so. He had changed his course to come down the channel on our starboard side and was nearly beside us.
About then we heard a strong Louisiana accent on the radio. They were calling another boat entering the channel to warn them about a sailboat without lights. I started looking around, wondering where these fools were. Didn't see them behind us, couldn't see them anywhere. I looked and our stern light was still working. It couldn't be us. He came on again and the location he gave was not far from us. He said they had a stern light but no bow lights. I looked some more and still couldn't find these fools. Suddenly it occurred to me . . . maybe they were us! I hollered to Gary that we may have another problem, I'd bet we had no bow lights. Sure enough, when he checked, the fools were us. Another wire had come loose. I wonder if the guys in the oilrig boat ever realized why our lights came back on? Boy, Lulu has a lot of work to do.
We continued on through this oil field city. Gary went to get some sleep while I manned the helm. As I negotiated my way through all this mess, the depth sounder went to zero. Just like the autopilot, no warning, no way to fix it now. We were beginning to run out of things that worked. We still had the loran. And the radio seemed to work. And running lights, sometimes. Other than that, it was getting pretty slim.
The wind was coming just about out of the east now, blowing a little harder. As my shift at the helm wore on, it picked up a little more. By the time Gary took over about daylight, it was blowing 20 knots or so. The last 50 knots to Grand Isle was a battle all the way.
I got to sleep about an hour. Gary woke me up about seven, when he thought he could see the markers to the channel for Bariteria Pass, which leads into Grand Isle. But it still took about four more tacks to get to the channel, with the high wind and rough seas.
We finally lined up with the channel with the wind right on our beam. With 20+ knots of wind, a working jib and a single reefed main, we were flat moving. I could just see us, after four days' trying to get to Grand Isle, coming down the channel, flat out, too much sail up, and driving Lulu right onto a beach. I fought the main down and got it tied to the boom. P>
And so now you know how we got ourselves into this situation. We still have to get into port with much of Lulu's equipment not working. The knot log is saying 12 knots apparent speed. We have a large fishing boat trying to overtake us in the narrow channel. He has no way of knowing why we don't dare get to the side. The charts show the channel is narrow and goes to just a few feet at the edges, so with no depth sounder we're taking the middle. He'll just have to wait. We've gone too far to do something like run aground half a mile from our destination.
We are planning to go to Pirate's Cove Marina, and it should be a turn to port just inside the pass. Go a little way, just past the Coast Guard station and we'll be there. We've passed the entrance and can see the marina about a quarter-mile to port.
We've made the turn and are going down a narrow channel with the wind ahead of our port beam. This course will put us down a channel just to the lee side of the marina. The slips are another turn to port, straight into the wind. We don't seem to be able to head up enough to get to the marina, and even if we did and got the main back up, we couldn't tack up the 50 foot wide channel leading to the slips. Doesn't this ever get easy? Is it going to be a battle right to the last foot?
We can go down the channel next to the marina, so we'll just get up a little speed, toss the jib sheet, and make a hard turn to port. Our momentum should get us close enough that I can jump off with a line and pull us back to the marina. We try this plan and it works! After four full days, I'm on land and close to where we planned to go. We take about half an hour to pull Lulu around to the marina, float a line across from the slips, and pull the boat across to what will be her home for a couple of days. We've used up too much time getting here and will have to make arrangements to get Lulu on to New Orleans. Right now I want three things: food, sleep and a shower. I'm not even sure in what order.
We're getting Lulu cleaned up and everything stowed to leave her. Gary is asking me if I'd be interested in helping on the next delivery. Sure, Gary, but not today. Ask me in a week or so. By then I'll forget some of the problems.
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