Favorable weather reports indicated that the week before Thanksgiving provided the best opportunity to get underway. A strong storm along the Pacific Northwest coast had disrupted the usual weather patterns and no cold fronts were expected to be pushing through the mid-west to the Texas Gulf coast for at least the next seven days. Because of the favorable weather, the preferred course for this voyage lie offshore. With favorable winds the course lie east southeast to the Mississippi delta and then northeast across the Gulf to one of the protected harbors as weather permitted. Once we had rounded the Delta, the harbors of Mobile, Pensacola, Choctawhatchee Bay and/or St. Joseph Bay all provided protected weather ports and connection to the Intracoastal Waterway. An alternate route was available along the Intracoastal Waterway, which extended all the way from Galveston Bay to Carrabelle. But, this inland route also accommodated considerable commercial traffic and would require extensive motoring. So the course was laid in for offshore.
Saturday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday found Galveston Bay active with sailboats lazing along in the light afternoon breeze. Boats of all sizes graced the Bay. Some involved with racing while others were day sailing back towards one of the various marinas that lined the shoreline of the Bay. We cast off from the Kemah Marina around 2:00 PM on the 38 foot Catalina Aqua Vida with the intent of covering 700 miles between Galveston Bay and Apalachicola Bay in northwest Florida before having to return to work after thanksgiving. The original plan for this first afternoon sail was to cover the distance from Kemah to the mouth of the Bay and anchor for the night with the intent to depart at first light the next day. But, the evening was clear and calm and the commercial traffic appeared to be low, so it was the consensus of the captain and crew to head offshore and take advantage of the distance that would be covered on this first night of sailing. As the afternoon waned, the commercial nature of the Bay became increasingly evident. All the sailboats were now back in port. In their place were the ever present tugboat and barge traffic along the Texas City channel and several tankers and container ships heading down the main channel out to the Gulf. We passed the ferry route at sunset and skirted the east side of the anchorage where a half dozen brightly lite commercial ships lie in wait to enter the Bay.
Further out in the Gulf, the lights from the numerous offshore oil and gas rigs came into view as night fell. Texas sailors are undoubtedly use to the array of offshore lights from these rigs, but us Florida sailors eyed them with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. At the very least, these offshore lights marked obstructions that would have to be taken into consideration while navigating. Worst case fear was that some of these lights were ships traveling along the wide fairways to and from Galveston. This latter fear became a reality as the lights on the horizon began to elevate and two small steaming lights and a red port light rose out of the background lights and a ghostly silhouette of a large commercial vessel passed in the moonlight. After several of these encounters, the crew wondered aloud whether it was a smart decision to leave the Bay at night instead of waiting for daylight. Near morning, on this first night out, a new concern arose. Two of these brightly lighted apparitions were definitely moving in our direction. After some speculation and intense observation it was determined that these were cruise ships steaming into Galveston.
The winds increased during the night. By the early morning shift Aqua Vida was bounding happily over the first of the Gulf swells and making reasonable progress along the desired course. Three days sailing and 275 miles under the keel were to put us at a waypoint 30 miles off the Mississippi Delta and into the eastern Gulf. The six o’clock weather report was a little disappointing. The forecast called for easterly winds at 5 knots throughout the day. This meant that the light wind on our bow would slow progress and the starboard tack would shift our waypoint further south of the Delta. Still we were contented with the forward progress made on this first full night under sail. The hope was that the wind would clock to the north and allow us to compensate for the southerly push we were getting from the east wind. We were now sailing 75 miles off the coast among a seemingly endless variety of offshore rigs. The joke in the cockpit was that the Star Wars movies had used the configuration of these rigs for some of the bizarre structure in the films. Here were the long legged tanks of the battle scenes and tangles of industrial pipes and tanks that set the scene for the epic battle between Skywalker and Obe Wan Kanobe.
A navigational check before our second night out showed a course more suited for Tampa Bay rather than northwest Florida. So, the decision was made to tack northeast towards shore for much of the night to put us on a better course for the Delta waypoint. This course put us in closer to the off shore rigs and for the first time we heard the melodic horns that warned of their presence. The tone emitted from these horns was near musical “booopep.” Only far more “o’s” than are prudent to write. The tones were curious and somewhat hypnotic when you were alone in the cockpit in the middle of the night. Before sunrise we tacked again and sailed the light wind towards the Delta. Three knots of forward progress can be discouraging when you still have 150 miles to go. Ken played the sage Captain and shrugged his shoulders saying simply, “That’s cruising! You can’t be in a hurry.”
The Mississippi Delta was beginning to feel like Cape Horn. It was difficult to reach and pass under sail with the continuous light easterly wind. But, we remained focused, almost obsessed on reaching that waypoint. By now all three of the crew members were spending significant time in the cockpit at night. All of us had layered up with sweat shirts, sweaters and foul weather jackets to ward off the chill. Never the less, the low 50 degree temperature and wind tended to creep in around your neck and ankles and we worked to stay warm. Danielle brought her sleeping bag on deck, while I wrapped up in the sail cover and pulled my watch cap down over my ears when not at the wheel.
We never had a storm while we were offshore. The sky was so clear at night that the stars and Milky Way almost seemed to be in 3D. But, on the second night out the wind did increased to between 15 and 20 knots. Aqua Vida was surging through swells when I came on deck for the 2:00 AM shift. During the day a steady 20 knot wind would be exhilarating on a 38 foot sailboat. But, at 2:00 AM in the morning, 75 mile out in the Gulf on a cold night, it can be intimidating. The boat was surging over the 10 foot rollers sending sheets of spray along its wake and falling into the trough between the swells before climbing out again and starting the process over. Ken was busy fine tuning the sails to take advantage of the wind and maximize the speed, when what sounded like a pistol shot pierced the night air and the mainsail began flapping out of control. This was an “all hands on deck,” situation as we struggled to bring the mainsail under control. Danielle came on deck and took the wheel as Ken and I lowered the mainsail. We put the boat in irons (accidently) and it gave us enough control to drop the mainsail and secure it to the boom. Then Ken connected his harness to the jackline on the deck and worked his way forward. Using two of the mooring lines he secured one each from the boom to the deck cleats on both the port and starboard side. This gave moderate control of the flailing boom. The question now was, “what happened?” Ken dawned a head lamp and went back on deck to inspect the traveler and mainsheet rigging. It became apparent that the traveler was the culprit and any repairs would have to wait for first light in the morning. So, we put the boat back on course and continued motor sailing with just the reefed genoa. The immediate crisis was over. But the long-term impact on the voyage had to wait for the morning.
Later investigation revealed that the main stainless steel shackle on the traveler had broken and effectively disabled all control of the mainsail. Ken, the consommé engineer, was able to jury rig the mainsheet block back on to the traveler block and put the mainsail back into operation. Later he replaced the mooring line with multiple loops of high strength webbing. Both fixes worked well and kept us sailing. At 7:00 AM we were again powering through the offshore swells and 20 mile an hour easterly winds.
On the morning of our fourth day Ken checked the major systems and became concerned that the batteries were low, despite the long engine run we had during repair of the traveler. Further checks indicated less than 20 percent capacity remained in the batteries. To identify the problem Ken checked the connections on the battery and the fan belt and found them in good operating condition. The alternator surfaced as the most likely problem. This was a game changer. We could no longer push to reach the Mississippi Delta. We needed to repair the electrical problem and make sure we had the capability to recharge the batteries. After evaluating our position against the charts, Morgan City, LA was selected as the closest port for repairs. We set a compass course of 330 degrees and at a distance of 50 miles offshore Ken shut down the electrical system. This included power to our Lowrance navigation system and we were sailing blind.
Our backup navigation system was Danielle’s IPad. Prior to our departure from Kemah she downloaded the NOAA Raster Charts and GPS system. Luckily her IPad was fully charged and had been proven reliable by comparing it with the Lowrance over the past few days. We were 100 percent dependent on it now. Danielle plotted our course and calculated that five knot speed for 8 hours put us at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River at sunset with a 20 mile run up river at night to reach Morgan City by 10:30 PM. The low battery reserve also meant we may not have navigational lights for the passage up river. This was a hugh concern since we expected to share the river with crew boats and barges during the passage. Again, Ken’s engineering prowess provided alternative solutions. We would reserve our remaining power for the light and use a variety of hand held lights for the stern and mast steaming lights. A red filter on a head lamp provided the port navigation light. So, the only thing we were lacking was a green starboard navigation light. If we stayed to the starboard side of the channel, we should be okay.
Our hats off to the IPad Chart app, (an $8.95 purchase) not only did it prove accurate navigation, but it kept us in the right position in the channel to avoid shallow water and the passing crew boats. So after four hours navigating the river, right on schedule, we made the last turn into Morgan City. The cruising guide said the City Dock was located on the north bank between the railroad and the U.S. 90 bridges. As luck would have it, there was a train on the railroad bridge when we made the turn into the City. At that moment the bridge elevation was probably 4 feet off the water. When the train cleared the bridge, the entire center span began to rise. Slowly, ever so slowly it rose. According to the charts the railroad bridge would provide ample clearance for a sailboat with a 57 foot mast. But approaching a poorly lit span at night makes you question your perception. Danielle stated it most clearly, “we are not going to make it! There is not enough clearance! We are going to crash. The mast is going to fall! I can’t watch. I’m going down into the cabin.”
Ken trusted the NOAA Charts and remained stoic as we continued to motor slowly towards the bridge. Of course we made it and tied up in the last of the five slips at the Morgan City Public Dock. There was a feeling of relief when we plugged in the short power and shut off the engine.
Morgan City is an industrial town that provides an array of services to the offshore gas and oil rigs. Almost all of the shoreline on both sides of the river was dedicated to these industrial uses. A floodwall lined the waterfront and large two laned opening every quarter mile provided access to and from the waterfront. I was up at first light exploring the historical downtown area near the public dock, in the hopes of finding a café where we could have breakfast. I stopped the first person I met and asked where I could at least get a cup of coffee. He invited me into a downtown warehouse complex of the G&J Land and Marine Company, where he explained their role of supplying fresh food to the offshore rigs all along the Louisiana and Texas coast from this warehouse. Surprisingly, all the warehouse staff shouted a greeting as we walked in and I was treated to a short tour of the warehouse and two cups of free coffee. My host also took me to the hardware store whose staff very graciously provided the telephone numbers of three individuals who could help with repair of the Aqua Vida electrical system. The citizens of Morgan City were turning out to be very considerate and helpful. I returned to the boat with three names to call for repairs and a hot cup of coffee.
This early morning encounter was only a first introduction into the hospitality of Morgan City citizens. The CSC Company sent a technician to trouble shoot our problem. He confirmed that the alternator had failed and gave us the name of an individual who could rebuild it. He also refused to accept payment for his services. We were given a ride to the local Waffle House where we met a local mechanic who helped reinstall the alternator and got the engine running again on Thanksgiving Day. The clerk at the local electrical supply store stayed open later to help Ken with some wiring issues. During another stroll along the waterfront later on Thanksgiving Day, one of the homeless gentlemen sitting on a picnic table along the waterfront offered to share his Thanksgiving dinner with me. You just do not get any friendlier than that. All in all we were all very impressed with the friendliness of Morgan City residents.
I left the boat on Friday morning after Thanksgiving and started the long journey back to Florida, while Ken and Danielle continued on the Intracoastal Waterway towards Houma and New Orleans. They hoped to make it to Pass Christian so that they would be poised to re-enter the Gulf for the last leg of the passage to Apalachicola Bay and Carrabelle. Over all we had covered close to 400 miles during the week and although the waypoint off the Mississippi Delta eluded us, it was a memorable first voyage for Aqua Vida.
by Roger B. Anderson