Sunday, July 7, 2013

The voyage from hell

This voyage actually occurred Memorial Day weekend when we ventured to Job Beason Park in Double Bayou. However, it has taken me some time to reflect on the events which occurred and to pen this entry in a humorous manner that doesn't lay (too much) blame on anyone for some of the disasters that took place.

There were three boats making this trip, Tina Marie, Champagne and Gimme Shelter. Everything had been well planned. Slips had been reserved weeks in advance. Charts had been checked. Menus had been concocted and shopping had been done. However, when the morning to leave arrived, there was quite a delay getting started.

We had planned to cast off at 10 a.m. towing the Tina Marie's dinghy behind us. However, at 11:30 a.m. the crew of the Tina Marie was still making gasoline runs, and we didn't even have the dinghy tied up behind us until close to noon while the crew of the Champagne did their best to patiently wait on us.

The first irritation of the morning was that our Garmin GPS unit, which had worked fine the weekend before, failed to connect to any satellites. Despite several restarts, it just sat there worthless, draining battery. We were back to relying on the Navionics app on my iPhone for any indication of speed and location.

We finally pulled out around noon and briskly navigated through Clear Lake and the Kemah channel, excited to cross Trinity Bay for the first time. 

Champagne was motoring ahead of us and gaining distance as we discovered we couldn't get much over 4.5 knots towing the large dinghy with its 20 hp outboard. It was towing well, just not fast. However, with nice 15-20 knot winds, I was sure we'd make hull speed even with the dinghy once we had the sails up.

I had the autopilot running and offered to come forward to raise the main sail, but Mary insisted she was going to handle it. Instead of cranking it up from the cockpit winch, she decided to try going up to the mast and pulling it up from there hoping it would be easier. It was very difficult for me last time from the cockpit.

Mary is not very strong. The sail was going up very slowly and flapping around like crazy in the wind. This is also our first boat with lazy jacks. The sail was about three-quarters of the way up when one of the battens got wrapped in a lazy jack.

I yelled to Mary over the noise of the motor and the sail flapping in the wind, "The sail is tangled!" She cranked on the winch.  

I yelled again, "THE SAIL. IT'S TANGLED!" In the response she cranked the winch again with all her strength.

Despite all the noise, I could hear the sound of the sail ripping as I watched a swath of daylight appear at the trailing edge of the flapping white cloth.


There was more yelling involved and it resulted in Mary bringing the main back down.

I knew that raising the sail was going to be a little easier from the mast, but it was so difficult for me last time that I did not even think that it might be tangled.  When Fred yelled that it was tangled I couldn't see anything caught at all and I thought he might mean a slight tangle that could be undone by continuing to raise the sail.  This will not be a mistake that we make again. 

Meanwhile, Champagne had raised sails, veered off to the north, and was rapidly disappearing towards the horizon. 

We veered off to match their course and rolled out the jib. I killed the motor.

We were still making 4 knots. That wasn't really any worse than what we were doing motoring, but it was going to make our trip almost twice as long. 

We had no trouble getting to the north cut, but when we tacked to cross the ship channel, we realized we couldn't point in the direction we needed to really go. I had to kick the motor back on and roll in the jib while we crossed.  It's is just a little scary to slowly cut long ways across the ship channel while big ships are coming.  

Once we passed through the channel, the traffic quickly disappeared and we found ourselves alone with the wreckage of old oil platforms in Trinity Bay.

 We rolled the furler back out and set the autopilot. For a while things seemed good, maybe too good, as we started goofing off in the cock-pit.  However, that came to an abrupt stop when Mary tried to balance herself by grabbing the small gear basket on the helm, which was holding my iPhone -- our only navigational aid. As the screws holding the basket to the binnacle ripped out, my phone went crashing to the floor of the cockpit. That really killed the moment for me.  Fred is easy to make grouchy, especially when you're breaking things.

Hours passed and we slowly but surely made progress towards Double Bayou. However, we were coming in too far to the north, and I was taking a lot of flack for the amount of heeling the boat was doing. It is very difficult to sail with someone who is terrified when the boat tips.  I just don't understand why wherever we are sailing we are always close hauled.  

My plan was to sail past the channel to the south and then tack back into it. Unfortunately, with just the jib, the boat wouldn't point the way I had hoped. Our track ended up looking like this.

I think the backtracking cost us an extra hour -- not my finest navigation job, but it would only get worse before the trip was over. Finally you're taking some of the blame! 

We had been sailing for a good seven hours by the time we managed to get stuck the first time. We had been told to hug the red markers as we came in the channel, but a barge imposed his right of way forcing us out of the narrow channel while he went by. We revved up the diesel and rocked the boat and managed to break loose until we ran aground again about 100 yards further up the channel.

This time the boat wouldn't budge, so I left Mary at the helm and boarded the dinghy. Using the dinghy to push and pull we finally broke free again and made it maybe another 100 yards before getting stuck the third and final time.  This was awful because I couldn't see Fred in the dinghy at all from the helm, and I was constantly worried about running him over if we came loose. The depth finder, which is set to display the depth under the keel, was showing -2.5'. 

At this point, we had to call for help. Ray and Tony arrived on the Tina Marie and made a short attempt to pull us off, but as it made the Tina Marie swing into the shallow water, that method was quickly abandoned. Instead, we tied a long line to the halyard and Tony tied it to the dinghy. He then headed off perpendicular to our bearing, slowly tilting us over little by little until he had the outboard wide open with the dinghy bouncing in place on the water and Gimme Shelter listed over hard.

Things fell in the cabin, Mary screamed and clung to the deck in fear, the dogs had wild looks in their eyes as they slid across the cockpit, and Gimme Shelter started moving!  I got no say in this.  The boys totally took over with no question as to my opinion.  They get carried away when they're trying to solve boat/car issues.  

Tony threw the rope back to us, and we followed the Tina Marie up the channel to Job Beason park.

The trip had taken eight freaking hours, and Mary and I were very tired of being around one another.  That's putting it nicely.  

We walked the dogs and set up the air conditioner. Then our friends, who had been waiting HOURS for us to arrive, whisked us away to a house party on Oak Island where a few drinks and a big potluck dinner made things better.

After hearing the stories of Jimmy's five ex-wives to whom he had lost five houses and playing guitar with Ray, I was in much better spirits by the time we got back to the boat. We were laughing off the events of the day, walked the dogs again, and then went to bed.  It's crazy how fast the stress of the trip disappears in the enjoyment of the evening.  It reminds me how important the destination is though.  I will never do a hard sail to a destination that is not relaxing or fun.  I can see how mutinies might happen.   

The rest of our time at Job Beason park was great, and I can't say enough nice things about the people on Oak Island. We were really treated like family. Then it came time to go home.    

The crew of a large Beneteau at a bar called Marker 17 had assured us that upon leaving if we kept our nose lined up with a certain pole and our stern lined up with a boat rack on shore, we'd breeze right through the channel with no trouble.

We had trouble. Really no advice that we got about navigating that channel was clear.  

Mary went up to the bow of the boat to "watch for shallows," which was utterly pointless since there was no way to see a thing in the muddy water of the bay. I was watching the chart plotter and the depth sounder doing my best to stay afloat, but it was no use. We once again ran aground.  Besides the area that looked to be the shallowest turned out to be the deep water we were supposed to steer towards.  

This time all of our friends had gone ahead of us, so there was nobody around to help. A passing fishing boat threw us a line, but they only managed to spin us around the wrong direction and get us stuck deeper.  I think they were drunk -- and it was only 10 a.m..  

I called Sea Tow. We sat for twenty minutes watching little fishing boats go by while we waited for a Sea Tow captain to call us back. When he finally did, he said he was towing a boat in from Galveston and wouldn't get to us for another two hours. When some locals showed up in a flats boat with a HUGE outboard and offered to give us a pull, we took them up on it.

After several attempts and much calamity of ropes snapping across the back of their boat, trapping one of the guys helping us, then almost catching in their prop, we finally broke free. Then, after narrowly avoiding crashing into them, they finally threw off the line and led us up the channel. We were thankful to be on our way, but I think the guys who had helped us were wishing they had never stopped because one of them had definitely hurt his leg in the process. 

When we finally got out of the Double Bayou channel, we realized Trinity Bay was much rougher than it had been on Friday.  We rolled out the furler and set a course towards the north cut, but 
the boat was rocking and rolling and the autopilot was slipping as it tried to handle the wind and waves. We also weren't going any faster than we had been the day before even without the dinghy trailing behind us.

We ended up in the middle of a minefield of abandoned platforms. I set a high zoom rate on the chart plotter to help us avoid them. 

Mary was very unhappy. She sat frozen with fear. She wanted to know why we couldn't just sail downwind and be less tippy. 

Meanwhile sometime during all the calamity, Tex pooped in the cabin. I only mention it because it wasn't just any poop. It was a large, solid white poop. This solved the mystery of the tortillas that had disappeared Saturday. 

But white poops aside, we had a very long way to go, we were making very slow progress, and Mary was very unhappy with the way I was sailing.  It just made no sense to me that with the same wind direction we would be going close hauled both directions.  I was trying to tell Fred that I didn't think we were going the right direction but I was ignored.  

I was manually steering towards the cut ahead on the chart although it seemed as though I was having to adjust our heading more and more to the south. I thought maybe we were just drifting north due to the strong south wind, because of our short keeled boat, and because we were sailing with only a jib up.  I was focused on making sure we didn't hit any surprise underwater platforms or pipelines. I was also frying in the sun as we have no bimini on Gimme Shelter, only a dodger.

As Mary became more and more upset with the situation, I finally said, screw it, we'll motor the rest of the way. I kicked on the diesel and rolled in the jib to find that we could only make 2 knots into the wind and after a few minutes of pushing through the waves, the diesel was both smoking more than usual and on the edge of overheating.  

Things were very tense in the cockpit. I was starting to feel the effects of heat exhaustion from having stood in the sun the entire morning. Mary said that maybe she would be less scared if she was steering, so I gladly gave her the wheel.  I was really ready to do anything to make Fred less grouchy at that point.  

The dogs were sitting on the low side of the boat on a cushion in the shade against the hull. I'm a sucker for the dogs. I sleep around them in the bed, contorting myself, so they'll be comfortable. However, I was at the end of patience for all things boat related and I forcibly threw Dixie off the cushion to take the shady spot for myself. She stared at me with big disbelieving puppy dog eyes, and I felt a little bad about it, but not bad enough to sit in the sun any longer.

The hours slowly churned on and I anxiously checked the temperature gauge every few minutes. Mary kept steering. We didn't speak.

The ship channel came into view, and soon we saw the channel markers we needed for the crossing. But something was different. The place was familiar, but it wasn't the north cut.

I got up and zoomed out the chart. We were crossing the ship channel at Redfish Island.  

Somewhere in all the platforms with the zoome- in charts and adjustments for the wind playing havoc with our auto pilot, I had zoomed out just enough to see channel markers and had assumed it was the north cut. Instead we had ended up going miles south into the wind.  

Yes, we had gone hours windward, getting beat up and straining the diesel, for no reason. This time Mary was upset with me, and I was upset with myself.  I was nice. We were both just so exhausted and happy to be on a different course at this point there was no energy for "I told you so's".   

On the upside, we know the way home from Redfish Island very well, and we finally got to sail downwind for the last hour of the trip. It was also much calmer once we had crossed back into Galveston Bay. 

We were still really tired of being on a boat, and especially on a boat with each other, but things were looking up and the voyage was coming to an easy end -- or so we thought.

Once again we fired up the diesel, which was now behaving normally, and I steered us through Clear Lake back to Marina Del Sol. I was pulling into the slip when Mary yelled something I couldn't understand, so in fear of slamming into the dock, I put the engine in full reverse. We stopped a bit far from the dock and started drifting towards the boat downwind of us. Mary jumped off onto the dock and grabbed the lifelines, but she was already on her tiptoes and the expanse between boat and dock was growing.

I was running to the port side to push us off the neighbor's boat when I heard a splash. Mary was in the water between the boat and the dock. I didn't think about letting go until it was too late. I tried to pull myself onto the boat by the lifelines, but I couldn't hold on. I couldn't see anything, so I started yelling at her to get out from beside the boat, so she wouldn't get crushed. She couldn't pull herself out of the water onto the dock, and I couldn't just abandon the drifting boat to go help her. It was a nightmare.

The boat was still slowly moving forward, and I was working my way up the port side towards the bow, pushing us off the neighbors boat as hard as I could against the wind until finally the bow was over the dock.  As Fred is pushing our boat off of the other boat he is pushing the boat onto me, and I am a poor swimmer at best. I got over to the dock and quickly shuffled myself to the end of the pier to avoid being crushed. It took me a few seconds to decide if I could pull myself up or to swim over to the closest boat. It's very hard to pull yourself up over your head when you have nothing to put your feet on.  

I ran forward and hopped off the bowsprit onto the dock and stopped the boat's forward momentum. I then pulled the bow back to starboard and worked my way down the lifeline. 

Mary, now soaking wet, had finally managed to pull herself up on the end of the finger pier and helped me get lines on the boat. She was remarkably calm for having just taken a swim in our filthy marina water. 

So what did she yell that cause all the docking calamity?

"Doing great."

Yes, I aborted docking maneuvers and sent my girlfriend into the water because she said, "Doing great," as I was approaching the dock. Ummm ... sorry? Maybe just a thumbs up next time?

Mary hosed herself off while I walked the dogs. We had made it home in only 6.5 hours, which was a much better time than our trip there, but I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to go sailing again.  It can only get better. 

After a week of bickering over every little incident, we resolved to take more sailing lessons. It took us almost a month before we left the dock again, but when we did things went much better -- but that's another story.