This was my first story in Southwinds, published in the March 1997 issue. Southwinds is a sailing magazine published in St. Petersburg, Florida. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.

Southwinds Magazine, P.O. Box 1190, St. Petersburg, Florida 33731 (813) 825-0433,
Free at marinas and boating stores through the Southeast, by subscription for $15 a year.

Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at

Finding Rainbow Chaser
by Gene Gruender
Copyright 1997

You might wonder how a country boy from Missouri could end up cruising on a sailboat. Even though I grew up around powerboats, I'd never set foot on a sailboat until 5 years ago when I bought Rainbow Chaser, the Hunter 37 I'm now cruising on. This turn of events began while I was fishing in the Sea of Cortez among the Midriff Islands. I was on a Mexican fishing boat with 17 other smelly fishermen and 11 Mexican crew, trying to figure out how to get back to that wonderful place. I didn't want to come back with all these people. The little powerboats I was used to couldn't carry enough fuel to make it down there.

We came around a point and there in a pretty lagoon were three anchored sailboats. I'd found the way! The only problem was, I didn't know squat about sailboats. I flew back to Texas to figure it out. Surely it couldn't be too tough.

I found Gary Gasser, a broker I felt comfortable working with, and he set to teaching me enough to have some idea of what to buy. He showed me cheap boats, expensive boats, big boats and junk boats. Somewhere in the search he showed me why sailboats had winches. Until then, I didn't know.

Eventually I settled on a Hunter 37. I tried to buy several on the Texas coast but the owners were all too proud of them and we couldn't agree on a price. My search went wider and I found Rainbow Chaser in Sarasota, Florida. During the time I was making plans to go over and buy it I had a lot of skeptics, including one friend who kept telling me how difficult the navigation would be. I explained that it didn't seem so tough to me. "You leave Florida, go West, and when you hit land it would be Texas. How tough could it be?"
He left my office muttering something.

I flew from Texas to Florida on a Sunday for a Monday survey, planning to do the deal on Tuesday and sail on Wednesday morning. I had three other fools, who knew about as much as me, on their way over to crew. I thought I'd wire the money over Wednesday morning and be gone. Silly me. After two days of waiting on wired money, we got a check by Fed Ex and left.
My crew was Lan Nguyan, Ron Perez and Phil Freeburg. Lan had been a boat person from Viet Nam. Lan and 17 others left Viet Nam in a 28 foot open fishing boat powered by a one cylinder diesel, using a barrel as a fuel tank. After a 600 mile crossing in storms, they hit the Philippines within a few miles of their goal. Lan was the navigator on that trip and their entire navigation supplies, including charts, consisted of a compass. We drafted Lan as navigator. Ron's wife had also been a boat person and Ron wanted to get some idea of what she'd gone through. Phil was there because he wanted a break.

While I was taking care of the boat purchase, Lan was studying the loran manual and watching a video tape on it's operation. Later he came to me and told me that the loran was great. It did everything. It told us where we were, where to steer, it did it all. We wouldn't have to do anything. I explained to him that we were going to keep a dead reckoning plot anyway. He countered by telling me that we didn't have to, the loran did it all. I asked "What if it quits, Lan?" He pondered that one for a minute, then told me "No, look, it works great, we don't have to do anything!" I informed him that we'd keep a continual dead reckoning plot regardless of how well the loran worked.

The crew went to the grocery store several times to make sure we had enough food. Each time they came back with more beer and chips than food. We finally all had to go back for a last trip to get enough real food.

We got the checks, got turned loose with the boat, made it to the fuel dock and couldn't find the fuel fill. The lady running the dock finally called a friend who used to own a Hunter 37 to find out where to put the fuel in. Raise one of the rear settees and there it was! I'd have to remember that. Once we got the tank full, we took off down the channel. A half mile later we ran aground on a sand bar. The tide was falling. In one of the books I'd read it mentioned that was a very bad combination! Fortunately, the panicking captain and the slightly calmer crew managed to get it out of the sand.

We finally motored out of the last bay and waited until we were about 5 miles offshore to raise any sails. I had no idea where the heck it was going to go when the sails went up. I wanted plenty of time to recover when it took off the wrong way. The sails went up and the boat took off. We were even sailing the way we wanted to go! Some of my book learning must have sunk in.

30 hours of sailing later I was exhausted. Being the captain, I had to worry about everything and hadn't gotten to sleep. But I finally had to. We'd been running the motor about 30 minutes out of every 2 hours to keep the batteries charged up. We didn't have that much battery capacity and if we didn't run the motor enough, they would go dead. We had been doing this now for a day and a half, so everybody knew the routine. I started the motor, left instructions of when to shut it off, and went to sleep. About 5 hours later I was woken with everyone in a panic. The lights had gone out. The motor wouldn't start. I didn't learn the whole story until we got back to land, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, Phil had shut off the motor. He didn't want to listen to it. That, by itself, wouldn't have been so bad, but no one changed the battery switch either. All the batteries were dead.

Now we had no instruments, no lights and - no loran. I kept asking Lan to see how the loran was doing. All I'd get was a growl - he just didn't see the humor in it. Of course the loran didn't work at all with dead batteries. Now everybody understood why we were keeping the dead reckoning plots.
Our original plan was to leave Tampa Bay on a heading for the tip of the Mississippi. I figured if we had a problem, we could make a landfall there and get help. We'd make a turn to Galveston at that point. We continued to sail on our heading - without the loran's help - and a day and a half later, we sailed within sight of the Mississippi. We made a slight turn towards Galveston and kept going. The loran still had no idea where we were. We sailed past many oil field structures. It was just cluttered out there. But we didn't see any people or help. After about 50 miles of this, we saw a rig with a service boat tied to it. Our problem was, none of us had sailed before, and none of us had ever brought a sailboat near anything under sail power. To get help, we'd have to sail up to this boat and rig, get stopped, and get tied off. What a challenge! The other choice would be to continue with no motor. Also a challenge We did get docked next to the oil field boat. We bashed the rig, bounced off the tires on the side of the boat, but got a line around a cleat. The next thing I knew Lan was running across the deck of that boat heading for the ladder into the interior! If the guys on that boat saw a little Vietnamese guy coming down their stairs out in the middle of the Gulf, they'd panic. They'd think "pirates" and start shooting. I screamed at him to stop, and finally, two steps down the entrance to that boat, he turned and came back. I don't think he understood that his life was in danger.

Eventually we did get the attention of the Cajun crew on the boat. They took one of our batteries below, charged it, and we were on our way once more. There was one change of plans, though. The motor didn't get shut off. It didn't matter whether we had wind or not, the motor was going to run. With the motor going, the loran figured out where we were again. We even had a depth sounder and lights. The rest of the trip was pretty calm except for the thunderstorm with the lightning all around us. There was also as little excitement when the two waterspouts were whirring around near us. We just kept on going, though, until we saw the buildings of the Galveston skyline appear on the horizon.

Before we left I'd asked around about how long it should take us. The general answer was, if we had good wind and knew what we were doing, it would be about 5 days. Since it took us within an hour of 5 days, can I assume we knew what we were doing? And all that beer? Most was still stored away. After stocking up on so much, nobody felt like drinking much at all.

After I got back to Austin I ran into the friend who had been so worried about our navigation. He asked how we'd managed to get across. Hadn't the navigation been difficult? I answered "We just went West and hit land. It was Texas. As a matter of fact, it just happened to be the middle of the Galveston jetties." He just walked away shaking his head.

Copyright 1997
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