Thursday, May 18, 2017

West of the Brazos

We are under way in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, westbound to Matagorda Bay. This morning found us in the sleepy town of Matagorda, at the Matagorda Harbor (map), operated by the port. Sadly, the lone restaurant in walking distance, right on site, is dark Wednesdays.

Vector at Matagorda Harbor.

Tuesday morning we decked the tender and weighed anchor in Offatts Bayou with a favorable tide to make our escape. Just as we approached the ICW a small towboat was turning in to the channel, light boat. We had a chat with him about depths; he had a 6' boat but allowed that they brought bigger ones through occasionally, which tended to keep the channel cleaned out.

We've had incredibly strong winds for the past few days, about 20 knots out of the south, consistently. The ICW channel runs along the north edge of west Galveston Bay, separated by spoil islands, shoals, and land cuts. Even the relatively narrow and shallow bay was stirred up into a frenzy, and we were glad to have the separation. In the handful of open sections we felt it, rolling and taking spray over the deck.

We are once again in a section of the ICW where there are quite literally no places for Vector to anchor, and so we set our sights on the Freeport area, where our guide shows four marinas. We ended up staying at the Surfside Marina on the barrier island side, in the community of Surfside Beach (map).

We had been warned several times that cruising boats are a rarity along the Texas coast, and this is now the second marina (after Galveston Yacht Basin) where the person answering the phone knew nothing at all about boating or even their own marina. She did not even understand my question when I asked if it would be a port-side or starboard-side tie. After going back and forth with, presumably, one of the dockhands who knew such things, we were finally able to get directions to a slip. The marina apparently has no radio.

We came in to their very small basin with the current running nearly two knots and the wind still blowing 20. No sooner had I turned into the basin and started getting lined up on a slip, than one of the dockhands started waving us off and gesturing to the entirely opposite side of the basin.

Maneuvering a single-screw boat in high winds and heavy current is, of course, exactly why you need to know pretty much where you are going before you get there. It took every bit of skill that I had to power back out of the marina into the current of the channel without hitting anything. Now, of course, all our fenders are on the wrong side of the boat.

Faced with the prospect of station-keeping in these conditions for several minutes while Louise scrambled to reset every line and fender on deck, we opted instead to ask if we could tie to the outside of the outermost finger pier. While that put us mostly in the canal and I had to drive the boat to the dock against the 20kt wind, it was a far safer approach. Once we were tied and secured neither the wind nor the current bothered us much.

We paid one of the dockhands to give the boat a good wash. Afterward the marina gave us a lift in a golf cart to the Dorado Dive Club restaurant a half mile away at a different marina (too shallow for us). The food was good and the place was typical beach-shack atmosphere, but they were out of literally half their menu items. Surfside Beach is a really small town.

Sunset across the ICW from our digs at Surfside Beach.

Yesterday morning we dropped lines early without a good understanding of where we would stop. The chart showed several options at varying distances. But first, we had to navigate through the Freeport ship channel and then the Brazos River Floodgates. The former was a non-issue; while some swell came right up the channel from the gulf, and we had a bit of a current eddy as we entered, it's nothing we haven't done dozens of times before.

The floodgates, on the other hand were a different matter. This was our first time running an active floodgate, and the setup and the experience are difficult to describe even to other mariners. Physically, the gates are a pair of Tainter gates, similar to many lock gates, with the convex end facing the river and the pivot end on the ICW canal. It looks like just one end of a lock chamber.

When the river level is significantly higher than the canal level, the gates are kept closed to keep the water running downriver rather than backing up into the ICW. When traffic needs to pass, the gates are opened, and he current through the gates depends on the delta. It can be wicked, with deltas in excess of a foot; we heard tow skippers chatting about not being able to make it through unless the towboat had a certain amount of horsepower and the front barge had a rake.

The gates are extremely narrow, just 75' wide. That means many towboats need to stop on one end of the system, break apart their tows, move them across one barge at a time, and reassemble them on the other side. This would prove to be a factor for us as well, as I will discuss shortly. We spent a good deal of time Tuesday afternoon researching the mechanics of navigating a pleasure boat through the floodgates.

As it turns out, contractors have been working on the west floodgate during daylight hours. Their work barge has been in the west chamber, blocking off fully half the width. That's meant the gates have been essentially closed to tow traffic during construction hours. We arrived at the top of the hour, the designated time to pass recreational traffic, to find the east gates fully open and nearly slack. The gate operator passed us right through, but warned we'd have current behind us in the west gate with a differential of a full foot. On top of that, we'd need to squeeze through the 30' opening between the chamber wall and the work barge.

As if that was not enough, they asked us for a slow bell (minimum speed) passing the barge in consideration of the workers. Now, 30' sounds plenty wide until you consider that leaves just seven feet on either side of Vector. It doesn't take much "wiggle" in the boat to eat that up in a hurry, and with that much current on the stern, the boat is easily pushed sideways. The normal response is to wick up the throttle and power through, but now I had to give a slow bell. I ended up steering the boat with the bow thruster as we eased past the barge, squirting through like a watermelon seed with two or three knots behind us.

I'm sorry we were not able to get a picture, or better yet, video. We were both way too busy for that. I never took my eyes off the channel or my hands off the controls; Louise had rigged fenders both sides just in case, and was standing on deck with a large ball fender in hand in case things went pear-shaped and we needed to fend off. In the end it was not nearly as bad as we had anticipated and Vector handled it with ease.

I had budgeted extra time for the flood gates, but we zipped right through, past a giant conga line of tows who had to wait until dusk, and through both gates which were wide open. So it was barely lunch time when we reached our first stopping option, a free dock in the small community of Caney Creek, just west of the Caney Creek pontoon bridge, which had to swing out of the way for us.

The dock is at a community park with restrooms and ramadas and a fishing pier out over the gulf, where the waves were running six to eight feet. We wanted to maybe walk the beach and admire the awesome power of the gulf, being thankful not to be out in it. The "dock" is really an old barge landing, with enormous, widely-spaced bollards.

Vector nicely fit between two bollards and we could have gotten secured there, and I was able to come alongside in spite of 20 knots trying to prevent it. But there was a horizontal timber just below the waterline -- I'm going to say 16"x16", secured to the rusty steel bulkhead by enormous steel clips that looked a lot like staples.

We could see no way to get enough fenders in between the bulkhead and Vector to guarantee those "staples" would not contact us under the waterline. The wind likely would have kept us well off the bulkhead for our entire stay, but one good towboat wake could have sent us slamming in. It was not worth the risk, and we reluctantly dropped the one line we had managed to get ashore and let the wind push us back to the channel. I'm sorry I did not get a photo of the dock, or of the dozen fishermen we had as an audience for the entire event.

Our next option, mid-afternoon, was an anchorage shown in our guide as being at least six feet deep, down a short creek from the ICW. We tried to nose in there and promptly ran into mud at a 5.5' depth, and powered back out into the channel. That left pressing on to Matagorda and the harbor where the 20 knots of wind brought us swiftly to the T-head. We had a pleasant night, but we're tired of paying for marinas we don't otherwise need.

This morning we dropped lines to make the top-of-the-hour recreational opening of the Colorado River locks. Still pinned to the dock by 20 knots, it was a mighty challenge coaxing Vector out into the harbor without damage, but we made it courtesy of all 370 horses in the engine room. I think I dredged the harbor by another six inches or so.

Approaching Colorado River Locks. You can see straight through both chambers, across the Colorado to the ICW channel on the other side. Army CoE work boat is to the right.

The Colorado River locks serve the same purpose as the Brazos River floodgates. Because the deltas can be higher here, full-on lock chambers are used with gates on both ends. On our transit, the river was not running high and the locks were open at both ends; we passed right on through. The Colorado River, incidentally, is not the more famous one that starts in the eponymous state and makes its way to the Gulf of California, but rather the one which drains a good deal of Texas, passing through the capital of Austin as well as near our friend in Bastrop. It is not navigable.

Sometimes barges just ... miss. This is the river-side entry guide wall for the west lock.

We had set our sights on an anchorage in Matagorda Bay for tonight, tucked up near the north shore of the Matagorda Peninsula to get some protection from the relentless south wind. After about three hours in the relative protection of "the ditch," we emerged into Matagorda Bay along the dredged ICW channel. There is three to four miles of fetch between the peninsula and the ICW dredge, and as soon as we cleared the last point of land, we were hammered.

With 20 knots on the beam, gusting to 25, the stabilizer fins were pegged, and the bay had square two-footers that made for a rough ride and lots of water over the deck. On the positive side, as soon as we were in the bay, we were surrounded by dolphins. Several came to play in our bow wave and I managed to get a short video.

Dolphins surfing our bow wave in Matagorda Bay. Much darker than the Atlantic Dolphins we're used to.

While I had planned a route that continued down the marked ICW channel well into the bay, turning off a little northeast of the anchorage, conditions were so bad on the bay that, instead, we turned Vector south, into the wind, just as soon as depths permitted. We ran head-on into the wind for a couple of miles until we were more in the lee of the peninsula and then continued west toward the anchorage.

Update: we are now safely anchored in Matagorda Bay tucked in as close as we can to a cove of the Matagorda Peninsula (map). While we are in a lee with so little fetch that the water is fairly calm, we still have 20-25 knots of wind over the deck. I have a steak for the grill and I'm hoping nothing goes overboard while I'm cooking.

My plan runs out here in Matagorda Bay. We are working our way west to Port Aransas and thence Corpus Christi, but I have not really looking into some of the other destinations here on Matagorda Bay or just west of here on Espiritu Santo Bay, such as Palacios, Port Lavaca, Port O'Connor, or Matagorda Island. For now, we're just happy to be stopped and not bashing into seas.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Houston, we've had a problem

I am typing under way in the Houston Ship Channel, en route from our last digs at the Kemah Boardwalk Marina in Kemah (map) back to the familiar comfort of Offatts Bayou where we were when last I posted here. It has been a very busy week, with much to report.

Kemah Boardwalk marina at dusk from our deck. Boardwalk rides in background.

Last Saturday we had a bit of a wait in Offatts Bayou for the water level to come up to where we were comfortable navigating the shallow channel back to the ICW. As long as we had to wait, we took the tender ashore at the boat ramp dock adjacent to 61st street and walked the few blocks to Target for some provisions. A Home Depot is next door, and although we had no need, the two stores make this anchorage very convenient.

We decked the tender and weighed anchor right around 1pm, making it out of the channel with just less than a foot under our keel. After passing back through the causeway railroad bridge, we veered off toward the Pelican Island Bridge and into the Galveston Ship Channel. This being the weekend, two small Carnival cruise liners were in town.

Eastbound in the Galveston ship channel. Two Carnivals are in port. Strand is dead ahead.

After passing the cruise docks, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Strand district we arrived at the Galveston Yacht Basin. Now you may recall that I had called this marina much earlier in the week to inquire about their pumpout, and at the time I asked if they could accommodate our six foot draft. They said no problem.

So imagine my surprise when we called the office to get directions to the pumpout from the ship channel, and the entrance channel shows on my chart as clearly less than six feet. The person who answered the phone, the fuel dock cashier, knew nothing about it and did not seem the least bit interested in finding out. After the second call, she reluctantly agreed to find someone who knew the water and could get back to us.

Eventually I got a call back from the dockmaster, who is not on site on a busy weekend, and he explained how to reach the pumpout dock through some very skinny water. With no other options for pumping out, we reluctantly edged along into the narrow fairway with the fuel dock close aboard, the depth sounder in alarm the whole way. Of course, someone had tied his fish boat up in the pumpout slip and I had to hover in some very skinny water while we got him to move. Eventually we inched in to the pumpout slip and tied ourselves up.

The pumpout is self-service and operated by a token, just like an arcade game. The tokens are $20 each, purchased at the fuel desk. The same cashier who couldn't tell me anything about navigating in the marina also did not know how long the machine would run on one $20 token, nor whether the machine had enough suction to evacuate a tank some four feet below the waterline. I bought the token and went outside to try it.

The hose just barely reached our fitting after I pulled it as tight as I could. But I was happy to find that it did have enough suction for the job. Also, the machine apparently runs as long as you need once started with the token, until you press the shutoff button. Thus emptied of our burden, we made our way back to the ship channel and out of the harbor.

Galveston-Bolivar Ferry just off the dock and headed our way. Odyssey has been on this ferry.

The junction of the Galveston and Houston ship channels is a busy intersection, made even more so by pleasure boats on a nice weekend. We played do-si-do with the Bolivar Ferry and made arrangements with a half dozen other vessels between here and the Port Bolivar alternate channel.

Between the late start out of Offatts Bayou and the extra time spent messing around with the idiots at Galveston Yacht Basin, we did not get very far Saturday afternoon, and we anchored in Galveston Bay about a mile east of the ship channel at R-42 (map). Once again we had to dog everything down, as a giant ship wake would roll us occasionally. We had cocktails and dinner on deck and enjoyed a nice sunset.

Sunset over Galveston Bay.

Sunday we got a fairly early start for Bayland Marina, our designated starting point for our Coast Guard transit permit, in order to arrive on a favorable tide and have plenty of time to make our way in to the marina. We arrived at the entrance a little before noon. As we were approaching the turnoff from the ship channel, we saw another motor yacht exiting the marina, and we held short for them to clear out of the narrow channel.

I called them on the radio to ask what they were seeing for depths. They said they were showing five feet even, and with their draft right around that they were stirring up the silt. They felt there might be more than a foot of silt but were not sure. A spirited discussion ensued about whether we should even attempt the channel under these conditions.

Approaching the Fred Hartman Bridge in the Houston Ship Channel. Turnoff for marina is to the right; we never made it past the bridge.

In the end, reason prevailed and we turned around and headed back for the northern tip of Galveston Bay to regroup. There would still be enough time to make it back to this point in the morning from there to begin our transit. We dropped the hook just south of Morgan's Point to consider our options.

After our narrow escape from Offatts Bayou, a miserable experience trying to get in and out of Galveston Yacht Basin, and having to turn around at Bayland Marina, we were getting quite nervous about just how skinny the water might get in Buffalo Bayou on our way to downtown Houston. All of the research I had done to that point suggested the lowest water we would see would be 7-8' as long as we used traditional river navigation -- stay to the center in the straights and on the outside of the bends. But the chart shows just six feet at low water in places, and we already know the water levels here vary considerably with wind.

I made several phone calls in an effort to gain some more confidence about the depths. There is no one official to talk to about this at all, but I knew there was a local cruising club that ran an annual trip to Allen's Landing, and a bit of hunting on the web led me to the names and phone numbers of a few skippers who had made the trip.

Passing four abreast in the Houston Ship Channel. The ship at left is overtaking us and just about to pass the ship at right, who is overtaking the barge in the center. We all fit easily in the wide channel, but it was a sight to behold.

I did eventually hear back from two of those, and both confirmed it would not have been a problem. Unfortunately, those calls came too late. By the late afternoon Sunday we had concluded that, absent more complete information, tackling Buffalo Bayou would be too risky, and we set our sights instead on the gaggle of marinas in the Clear Lake area, a bit south of where we were anchored. We weighed anchor and headed in that direction.

By this time it was late in an already stressful day, and we preferred to arrive at a dock in the morning instead. Plus, I wanted to give the folks I had called as much chance as I could to get back to me. So we dropped the hook in Galveston Bay, somewhat offshore of the Clear Lake entrance channel (map). On a beautiful weekend afternoon, this part of the bay was chock full of sailboats, and being the give-way vessel we did a lot of dodging and weaving before finally getting the hook down.

Sunset from our anchorage east of Kemah.

When no good news about Buffalo Bayou had arrived by 10am Monday, we finally conceded that we could not make our appointed transit window, and we weighed anchor and continued on to the Kemah Boardwalk Marina, one of the few places with enough depth for Vector, which happens to also have an attractive weekly rate.

The Kemah Boardwalk is a complex of amusement rides and Landry's-owned restaurants with an on-site hotel and a large marina. The marina is walking distance from not only the on-premise restaurants, but also perhaps a dozen other eating establishments. Several stores and more restaurants are a short ride away, including Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and West Marine. It's really a great stop, and a good deal on the weekly rate of $8 per foot, plus $40 for power.

Vector at the Kemah Boardwalk Marina.

After getting settled in, I notified the Coast Guard that we were canceling our transit. We also reached out to the several friends and family we had scheduled to visit us over the week and informed them of the change in venue. It meant about an additional half hour's drive for each of them.

We spent the rest of Monday and part of Tuesday just licking our wounds and recovering. But there was also the matter of getting Vector guest-ready. Cleaning up the boat and getting ready for day visitors normally takes just a couple of hours. But some of our guests would be staying overnight, and that requires converting the "quilt studio" back into a guest stateroom.

To get some sense of what that takes, you should read Louise's excellent write-up on what it took to go the other way on her blog, here. When we need to make room for overnight guests, the sewing machine, floor platform, table, stool, and a good deal of the fabric all need to move out and find other homes on the boat. Other items get condensed and stashed in various corners of the room. The whole process takes something more than a full day.

By mid-day Wednesday we were ready, and our friend Charles arrived in time for cocktails Wednesday afternoon from his home in Bastrop, near Austin. We have known Charles a long time, a motorcycling friend from the San Francisco bay area. It was great catching up over cocktails on deck and dinner in town. Charles stayed through breakfast and to about mid-day Thursday, leaving just enough time to clean up for our next guests.

Thursday evening we hosted fellow boaters and RVers Jeremy and Wanda and their daughter Oceana, who drove down from Dallas to see us. Again we enjoyed a nice dinner, this time at one of the on-site restaurants, and I took in the Rock the Dock live music on the boardwalk with them. They spent the night at the hotel on property and we enjoyed breakfast with them before they headed back north.

Again we had just enough time to clean up before Louise's brother and sister-in-law arrived Friday afternoon. We rode with them to a nice Mexican restaurant on the south end of town, where we were met by their daughter and her beau. The youngsters had to leave after a post-dinner tour of the boat and a short while on deck over cocktails, but my in-laws stayed with us overnight. They were kind enough to run us to Walmart in the morning so I could pick up nine gallons of oil for the main engine, a difficult haul on the scooter, and they left shortly after brunch at the Cadillac Bar.

We spent the rest of the weekend cleaning up and recovering from the series of visits, and getting a few things done around the boat. That included installing a long-needed accumulator on the anchor washdown pump. The pump is under the berth in the guest stateroom, and access is only practical when the sewing machine and table are out of the way, as they were for our guests.

Our week was up this morning, and around mid-day we dropped our lines and headed over to the marina's pumpout dock. By about 1:30 we were on our way out the Clear Lake channel. Unfortunately, we had the current against us the entire afternoon.

Vector anchored in Offat's Bayou, as seen from Moody Gardens.

Update: We are anchored in Offatts Bayou (map), just a short distance from the Moody Gardens docks where we spent several days two weeks ago. We dropped the hook around 5:45, splashed the tender, and went to the hotel's lobby bar for happy hour apps as dinner. Afterward we had a nice walk among the manicured grounds. Tomorrow we will weigh anchor and continue west on the ICW to Freeport.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Houston Bound

We are anchored in Offat's Bayou, basically a lake in the middle of Galveston Island (map). We've been in the Bayou and in Galveston since Monday morning. We had intended to leave today, but it turns out we are trapped here.

Vector anchored in Offat's Bayou. Her first photo at anchor in the new livery.

Sunday afternoon we arrived in Galveston Bay after transiting the busiest commercial terminal, bar none, that we have ever transited. That would be Port Bolivar, at the western end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Bolivar, by the way, rhymes with "Oliver" and is not pronounced like the eponymous Spanish explorer.

We arrived at the Bolivar terminal not long after I posted my last blog entry, and it was good thing I had already posted it because I was busy from the moment we first spotted the terminal until we dropped the hook around the corner in Galveston Bay. "Terminal" probably conjures the wrong image; in reality it is simply an endless line of barges and towboats lining both banks of the ICW canal for a span of several miles.

This picture entering the Bolivar terminal does not do it justice. Those "buildings" the the background are just an endless line of towboats.

Tows are made up and broken apart here (known as "fleeting") and smaller towboats move barges around as the larger boats face up to the long tows and move them in or out of the port. The fairway down the middle is narrow, and a single tow can easily block the whole channel while turning.

In fact we had to stop dead and even back water at one point. As the big tow "topped around" I saw a gap and basically took a hole shot, moving the throttle to ahead full and blasting around. That proved prescient, as that tow then became the front of a conga line, seven tows long, heading west out of the terminal. We're pretty sure the terminal was backed up significantly due to the same wind storm that had pinned us down in Port Arthur the previous day.

Vector docked at the otherwise empty Moody Gardens marina. Paddlewheeler in background.

We had to maintain a listening watch on two separate channels, the bridge-to-bridge channel (VHF 13) and Houston Vessel Traffic (VHF 12) which controls all movement through the ports of Houston, Galveston, Bolivar, and surrounding waters. The radios were literally non-stop from the moment we got in listening range of Bolivar (13 is a low-power channel and does not carry very far). Again due to the backup, there was a bit of colorful language as tow skippers negotiated space in the busy terminal.

The ICW channel empties into the mouth of Galveston Bay just a short distance from the busy Houston Ship Channel, and no sooner had we cleared Bolivar than we were hailed by a giant ship; his AIS showed we would collide in the channel in a short while. We immediately communicated our intentions to turn north into the bay before even reaching the ship channel.

These dolphins are some of the first we've seen since Mobile.

It was a great relief to finally turn out of the busy commercial traffic lanes into the open waters of the bay; we proceeded just a short way into the shallows north of the Bolivar Peninsula and dropped the hook a few hundred yards from some abandoned oil platforms (map). It was a little rolly in the early evening but calmed down overnight and we slept well. Leaving the confines of the ICW, we also encountered our first dolphins in ten months, since we left Mobile Bay. Dolphins followed us all the way to our anchorage and swam around Vector for a short time after we settled in.

The Bolivar Peninsula from our anchorage.

I spent Monday morning on the phone trying to figure out what happened with our request to the Coast Guard for permission to transit the port security zone. I also called a half dozen area marinas to figure out where to stay while we waited for our Houston window.

Sunset over Galveston Bay and the ship channel from our anchorage,as a ship crosses in front of the sun. Structure to the right is an abandoned oilfield facility.

Somewhere around mid-morning we made the decision to go to Galveston for a few days. The marina closest to the Strand, which would have been ideal, could not accommodate a boat of Vector's length. The other marina off the Galveston ship channel, the Galveston Yacht Basin, could get us in and had a pumpout, but the rate was high and the pumpout was not included. We decided it was worth the extra 15 miles, round trip, to the Moody Gardens Hotel here in Offats Bayou (map). The hotel offers dockage with an excellent mid-week rate that includes access to the resort's amenities.

Approaching Moody Gardens.

While the docks had power and water, there is no pumpout, and so we planned to stop off at the Yacht Basin en route, a three-mile detour, until I learned there is a pumpout boat in Offats Bayou. I left them a message and we proceeded directly to the docks at Moody Gardens. That proved to be a mistake; when they finally called back they quoted me $55 to pump out our tanks. The Yacht Basin wanted $20 and I felt that even that much was highway robbery.

We opted to postpone the pumpout until we leave the bayou, making use of the rest rooms in the hotel to stretch the last little bit of tank capacity. Hindsight is 20/20 and we should have made the detour on our way in instead. Speaking of the way in, our depth sounder registered just seven feet of water in one section of the Offats Bayou entrance channel. The water in the bayou itself is plenty deep, at about 18' through most of the bayou.

The Galveston Strand historic district.

After we were secured at the dock the hotel sent a van to collect me to check in. It's quite a long way from the dock to the hotel, but we found it to be a pleasant walk and that was the last use we made of the van. We did offload a scooter onto the dock so we could go into town.

Moody Gardens is an enormous complex. In addition to a four-diamond resort hotel, there is also a convention center, a water park and beach-themed amusement area, a paddlewheel tour boat, an aquarium, a rainforest enclosure, and various educational exhibits. Several of the attractions are housed in three giant pyramids on the property. Sadly, the water park area, immediately adjacent to the marina, has not yet opened for the season.

The hotel has two restaurants, a lobby bar which also serves food, a spa, and a nice pool area with a swim-up bar (the bar, unfortunately was not open during our stay). We had 24 hour access to the spa/fitness locker rooms with showers and towels, and we made good use of those. We also booked massages at the spa, despite it being just over a week since we did the exact same thing in Lake Charles.

Sunset over Texas from the ninth floor bar.

We had originally planned to stay just three nights, based on remaining tank capacity. We had a nice dinner on the strand and another nice dinner on the seawall, and one evening we made a meal of the happy hour apps in the lobby bar, where they also have several excellent brews on draft. We also met up with long-time Red Cross colleague Richard who lives here in Galveston, having a nice breakfast as well as sunset cocktails at the ninth-floor bar.

Richard posing with us in front of the last vestiges of sunset.

The weather forecast for Thursday gave us pause about leaving. It was going to be blowing stink out on the bay, with thunderstorms on and off. It also happened to be our 14th wedding anniversary. A quick check of the tank revealed that our strategy of using the hotel restrooms was working, and we decided to extend a night to a Friday checkout, and we had a nice anniversary dinner in the high-zoot ninth-floor restaurant, Shearn's.

The high winds in fact started Wednesday evening. Furniture started blowing over on deck around 9pm or so as the winds climbed into the 30s. By 1am we were being pinned against the dock so hard the fenders were popping out, and we had a mad scramble to try to get more fenders in place before damage was done to the brand new paint.

This continued unabated all Wednesday night and through most of yesterday; it wasn't until the middle of last night that things finally settled down. When we awoke this morning, we found the water level to be nearly two full feet lower than when we arrived, a consequence of two straight days of heavy north winds. We realized  we could not make it back over the hump we had encountered in the channel on the way in.

I took this photo this morning for comparison to the one above from when we arrived. Notice the port lights which were well above the dock are now below it.

We shoved off right at checkout time and motored the short distance here, dropping the hook in the lee of the north shore. We splashed the tender for the first time in several months, fired it up, and zipped the two miles out to the entrance channel to sound the depths; we might just have squeaked out with a couple of inches under the keel by the time we made our soundings.

Tomorrow the wind is supposed to clock back around to a more southerly direction and the water level should come back up. We'll stay put until we see enough water to make a safe exit. And exit we must, because by Sunday we need to be at Bayland Marina some 30 nautical miles from here.

After not hearing back from the Coast Guard for three more days, I emailed the Captain Of The Port Wednesday to say that the Waterway Management Chief had been sitting on my request for a full week. That got everyone's attention, and in short order we had the formal application in hand; this afternoon we received formal permission to transit the security zone through the Houston Ship Channel on Monday, starting from the aforementioned marina. We are going to Houston!

The hotel conference center had a tortoise exhibit.

Tomorrow we will get as far as we can depending on what time we can finally exit the bayou, and Sunday we will be at Bayland. Monday morning we need to file a sailing plan by radio with Vessel Traffic and by mid-day we will be in the security zone. We have to stay mid-channel, make no stops, and take no photographs until we clear through the zone about two hours later.

We are timing the tide to clear under the 25' railroad bridge at the end of the security zone, which will put us in Buffalo Bayou. That will carry us the rest of the way to downtown Houston. Once there, we'll have to make the best of whatever the docking situation is, because the permit for our return trip through the zone is not valid until Sunday. If silting or other conditions keep Vector from getting up against the quay, we will anchor in the bayou and tender ashore.

We're looking forward to spending a week exploring downtown Houston. In addition to all that downtown has to offer, we also have several visits with friends and family scheduled while we are in town, so it is shaping up to be a busy week. When next you hear from me, we should be in downtown Houston.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Gale force

I am typing under way on the ditch, the ICW westbound from Port Arthur. We ended up spending two nights at our last stop, the outfall canal at Taylor's Bayou in Port Arthur, Texas (map). And therein lies a story.

Our anchorage at Taylor's Bayou; basically a canal cut through a wetland.

We had short but busy cruise Friday. Knowing it was a short day, we lingered for the morning at our very pleasant anchorage off the Sabine River, getting under way around mid day. Just east of that anchorage is the start of the Port Arthur Vessel Traffic control system, and in short order we found ourselves in the thick of the busy port traffic.

Our VTS information said we needed to report in to traffic control at certain positions along the route, but that we were exempt if we had an AIS continuously transmitting our position. Our class-A transponder meets the requirements; we did hear traffic control telling other ships about us at various places. We monitored the VTS channels throughout our transit.

By the time we were crossing Sabine Lake (too shallow for Vector except in the dredged navigation channel), winds out of the south were whipping the lake into a frenzy. At the end of the fetch we had short-period two footers and the stabilizers were earning their keep.

Shortly after the lake we passed through a major barge fleeting area and the confluence of the Neches River. The river could carry us all the way to Beaumont, where there is a nice city riverfront, but several advance calls to the city revealed there is no overnight docking there, and no one could tell us the depth alongside. It's too far for a day trip, so as much as we wanted to visit, it was not in the cards. Just upriver of the confluence is the Rainbow Bridge; we wondered if we would see Opal and George there.

Neches River and the Rainbow and Veterans bridges.

We passed two large cargo ships as the river passed along downtown Port Arthur, along with myriad tugs of both the inland and seagoing variety. Vessel Traffic for the Port Arthur area is so busy that they use two channels, and we had to switch at the "Schoolhouse" landmark in downtown Port Arthur. Nearby are the remains of a dock that once provided shore access by way of a city park; the dock is perhaps still usable but no longer connected to shore, otherwise we might have stopped here.

The ICW westbound leaves the Sabine River at Taylor's Bayou, passing under the West Port Arthur bridge. The canal just west of the bridge is lined with towboat moorings, and when we passed mid-afternoon they were already filling up. We turned into the outfall canal, which, while not equipped with moorings, is also a regular stopping place for tows, and we passed several on our way to the section where we anchored.

The moorings and canal would fill up with towboats overnight, as the major windstorm that swept through the midsection of the country moved in. By the morning, very few tows were still moving in the port, and any skipper pushing empties was making frequent and urgent announcements.

We dropped the hook in 15' of water near the south shore of the diversion channel (map), paid out 100' of chain, and settled in for a pleasant afternoon. Cocktails and dinner on the aft deck and a quiet evening catching up on email. Winds had built to perhaps 15 knots by nightfall, but we looked to be well set in heavy mud and Vector was swinging calmly on the hook.

At 4am the anchor alarm woke us. Winds had built to 20 knots steady gusting to 30, and they were pushing Vector hard enough to plow the anchor through the mud. We were very fortunate -- just dumb luck, really -- the wind direction was almost exactly parallel to the direction of the canal. So we were just being pushed further up the canal and actually a little away from the shore. Reasoning we could do that for a long time without any issue, we reset the anchor circles and went back to bed.

The anchor alarm would wake us again about every 45 minutes and we would reset it before going back to bed. Later we would calculate that we were dragging about one foot per minute through the mud. If you look at the accompanying screenshot from the charplotter, position "1" is where we swung all afternoon and most of the night, and you can see at "2" where we slowly dragged up the canal through the early morning.

Our chart display after anchoring for the fourth time. Click to enlarge.

Once we had daylight and some coffee in us, we weighed anchor and moved the boat to a new position, hoping for better holding. By this time winds were pretty much 25 knots steady gusting to 35, and handling the boat and weighing the anchor were a real challenge. We dropped the hook a little closer to mid-channel and also closer to the mouth; upriver of our last position the south bank is lined with a rock breakwater, and we wanted no chance we could swing into it. We also put out 160' of chain, a 10:1 scope.

High hopes notwithstanding, the set here was not any better, and no sooner had we settled back in than we noticed we were dragging up the canal again (number 4 on the chart). We resigned ourselves to having to just move and re-anchor every three hours, possibly the rest of the day and well into the night. While we were still mid-channel, I went down to take a nap; between the interrupted sleep in the morning and the possibility of having to man the anchor watch into the night, I figured I needed it.

I only got about 40 minutes before Louise had to roust me. Winds had picked up to 30-35 knots -- gale force, or Force 8 on the Beaufort scale -- and we had dragged close enough to the lee bank that we needed to move right away. Stepping out on deck in 40-45mph winds is a feat in itself; in the heat of battle with the anchor Louise stepped out of the pilothouse when we had got beam-to the wind and immediately lost her favorite hat, prescription glasses, and sunglass clip-ons overboard.

Our new weather display, purchased while at the boatyard. You can see here wind is currently 28mph (24kt), average 25, and max of 39 (34kt; gale). I was too busy to snap a photo when the max read 44, the highest we saw.

Trying to turn what amounts to a 52'-long, 15'-tall sail in that kind of wind using one propeller and a rudder is also not for the faint of heart. I have never before this day had to use 100% throttle, ever. Getting the boat to turn head up into the wind and position it where I wanted it took all the skill and attention I had. It did not help that one of our headsets quit in the middle and the wind was so loud you could hardly hear anyway.

The anchor came up with the hammerlock jammed at an acute angle and with a bunch of debris it it. While I was on deck trying to clear it, Louise actually had to use the Kahlenberg horns to get my attention to come back to the helm. I'm sure the three towboats nearby wondered what the heck we were doing.

This time I drove up within a boatlength of the windward shore, and even closer to the mouth of the canal (map). We put out over 160' of chain and hoped we'd have a good three hours or more before we'd have to do it again. For whatever reason, even though this was the peak of the winds, the fourth time was the charm and we set in this spot and did not need to move again. Our swing is shown at number 5 on the chart, and you can also see where the anchor is set.

The winds continued unabated for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening; things did not really settle down until after midnight. But the angle of the canal meant there was no fetch, and while this much wind can roll Vector a bit, it was a gentle roll at her natural period and we were not at all uncomfortable. Louise reported that if she spent too long belowdecks in the quilt studio she would get a little queasy, a consequence of no visual horizon.

Before we turned in for the night we discussed moving the boat a final time. Winds were forecast to clock around to the northwest; if they continued clocking to north we were set way to close to the south shore and we'd swing into the bank. But winds were still about 20 when Louise retired and we decided is was not a good idea to mess with anything.

At 3am Louise woke me to tell me we had swung around to the southeast. We were much closer to the anchor than the amount of chain we had out, so we were either snagged on something or else the chain was buried so deep in the mud it could not pull straight. When we weighed anchor in the morning it became clear it was the latter, and the mud was contaminated with oil, unsurprising here in pipeline and refinery country. We decided the wind direction was not likely to swing us into shore and went back to sleep.

Today's cruise is something over nine hours, all the way to Galveston Bay. There are no docks or anchorages anywhere along the way. And so we got underway at 0800 and made our way out of the canal and onto the ICW. At MM295 we cleared out of Vessel Traffic for the port, and it's been a relatively quiet cruise ever since.

The chart plotter is predicting anchor down in Galveston Bay around cocktail hour at 5pm. When I picked that spot I was expecting south winds, however, and they are now forecast to be northwest. We may have to go around the corner to the ship anchorage near Bolivar, which might be another half hour or so.

From there our plans are somewhat unclear. We had hoped to cruise up Buffalo Bayou to downtown Houston this week, and spend this coming weekend there. After considerable effort we finally got in contact with the folks who run the downtown park with the boat landing that this weekend is the dragon boat race, and the park is unavailable.

Instead we've made arrangements to spend the following week in downtown Houston, arriving on the 8th. We're only waiting now on permission from the Coast Guard to transit the otherwise restricted security zone through the port; I'm hoping the responsible officer will be back in the office tomorrow and we can get that squared away.

Louise has family in the Houston area and we've tentatively made arrangements to connect the following weekend, in the hopes that we will be right downtown. And we have friends elsewhere in Texas who may come down for a visit perhaps mid-week. If we can't get to the downtown landing for whatever reason, all of that will have to happen a bit southeast of the city, somewhere along Galveston Bay, perhaps Kemah.

That's a full week from now, which leaves us with the question of what to do between now and then. Galveston is on our cruising agenda, and while I had anticipated that stop coming after Houston, perhaps now is a better time. The marinas off the ship channel on the eastern end of town are an easy detour along this route, if a bit pricey compared to those further west. Or we might explore Galveston Bay a bit and check out the small handful of spots which can accommodate our draft, including the aforementioned Kemah and its neighbors on Clear Lake.

Sunday afternoon is not a great time to be making calls, so we'll figure it all out in the morning. One way or another we'll need a marina in the next couple of days, because we need to pump out. It will also be good to get off the boat for a little bit.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


We are anchored in an oxbow of the Sabine River, just on the Texas side of the Texas/Louisiana line (map). We had a mostly pleasant five nights in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Actually, the last four nights were entirely pleasant; it was the first night that was... interesting.

Vector docked at L'Auberge du Lac resort and casino in Lake Charles.

Saturday we had a lovely cruise from our nice anchorage on the Mermantau to the Calcasieu River. The ICW arrives at the river by way of Black Bayou, and shortly before reaching the port of Lake Charles we passed through the Black Bayou pontoon bridge and the Calcasieu Lock.

Calcasieu Lock, another "float in the middle" exercise.

The former looks a lot like a barge with a roadway on it. To allow vessels to pass, small ramps at either end lift out of the way and the "barge" is swung out of the channel and parallel to it by cables. Sometimes the cables go right across the channel, and you need to hold short of the bridge until the tender has dropped the cables all the way to the bottom.

We had no wait at either the bridge or the lock, and in short order we were steaming thorough the port. Lake Charles is a big industrial port with a deepwater channel directly to the gulf. We plotted the big ships on our AIS display before turning into the river itself and heading upriver to the city.

When the cattle are strolling in the ICW you know the water is too shallow in that part.

Our chart showed two anchorages en route to the casino dock that was our ultimate destination. One in an oxbow of the river, cut off when the ship channel was cut through, and another up the old river channel that leads to Prien Lake, also now cut off by the ship channel. This latter anchorage is just past a deepwater turning basin and showed 12' depths, perfect for us. Also, we had a favorable tide and wanted to get as far upriver as possible.

We turned in at the turning basin and continued up the old channel. Our charts showed 12'-15', but the sounder kept dropping, and when it registered 8', we backed out to the 10' contour and dropped anchor (map). It was fine, well off the ship channel, and we had cocktails and dinner and later in the evening Louise went to bed.

We did have a few large wakes at the dock. Catered party at left was casino employee appreciation; Vector is in a lot of photos.

Sometime around 1:30am I was annoyed to find a spotlight shining in the salon window as I worked at my computer. Now, we get spotlights like this from time to time, particularly when  a towboat is trying to navigate past us, so I though nothing of it except it was not going away. I went to the pilothouse to see what was going on, and I turned the radio back on that we keep tuned to channel 13, the bridge-to-bridge communication channel. We always keep a radio on channel 16, the hailing and distress channel, even when anchored.

Sunset over the Calcasieu. Vector and Louise in silhouette.

As soon as I turned on 13 I could hear someone talking about us, and I hailed the towboat who had us lit up. He informed me that a ship was trying to reach us (but not, clearly, on 16... pilot training is not what it used to be). After a quick exchange I ended up speaking with Pilot 8, aboard the Cape Bonny, a 900'-long motor tanker. We had passed them in their berth earlier in the day.

The rabbits (lots of them) heard the casino had an all-you-can-eat buffet. They were working their way through the decorative plantings here at a prodigious rate.

She informed me that her intention was to bring the ship around the point and into the natural channel of the river, with it's bow just a few dozen yards from where we were anchored. I had to confirm this with her several times, because the Cape Bonny's forward draft was a full 18' and our sounder had registered just 12' where she intended to put the bow.

Reluctantly, I agreed to move upriver a short distance, and Louise got dressed and came up from belowdecks. We weighed anchor and moved to a spot some 500' further in to the river, clenching the whole time with the depth alarm sounding. We dropped the hook and waited for the Cape Bonny to arrive.

The 900' Cape Bonny (with bunker tug alongside) in the natural river,showing our three anchored spots.

After she rounded the point, assisted by a pair of tractor tugs, the pilot again called to say we were going to disappear from her sight line below her bow and we still looked too close. So we again weighed anchor -- by this time it is 2am -- and moved another 400' upriver (map). Our chart plot from the next morning tells the tale -- you can see the Cape Bonny, a tug pushing the bunkering barge next to her, our anchored position, and the two previous spots we had anchored.

The view we woke to. Cape Bonny just downriver with a bunker barge alongside.

In truth, and as I suspected, we never had to move at all. Although, honestly, our first spot would have been a nerve-wracking distance from the big tanker's bow. Our second spot was perfectly fine and we certainly did not need to move a second time. However we did not run aground and we did end up having a very comfortable night, once all the drama was over.

Steaming head-on towards an anchored Cape Bonny. We need to thread the narrow gap between the ship and the little point of land off her starboard bow.

In the morning we determined that the bow of the Cape Bonny was, indeed, resting in a place where our sounder had registered just 10'-12'. So in fact the bottom there is either mud so soft that a ship can simply push it aside, or else it's a "false bottom" reading, where a layer of silt-laded water of different density reads as solid to the sounder.

Passing the Cape Bonny close aboard -- she fills the pilothouse window.

We had been told the ship would like there for eight hours to bunker. But when we called them at 10am the watchstander told us their plan was to weigh anchor at 2200. We were not going to wait around that long to get under way, so that presented the problem of how to get around this behemoth without running aground.

Close, but we made it without trading paint or running aground.

We ended up squeaking by just 30' off her starboard bow (her starboard anchor was down) with the depth alarm squawking the whole time. It registered just under two feet under our keel. Once we were past the skinny bit we had an easy cruise all the way to L'Auberge du Lac casino (map), where we had reservations to dock for two nights.

Approaching our destination. L'Auberge on the left and Golden Nugget on the right.

I might mention here that we anchored Saturday night instead of proceeding the last half hour to the casino for two reasons. First among them is that the rate for Saturday night was $100 whereas Sunday through Thursday nights the rate is just $50. The second being that arriving in the morning rather than the evening means another half day's access to all the resort amenities.

I got to see Vector again every time I went into the building.

After we were tied up, in the only spot our draft would permit, I walked to the front desk to get registered. We also went to the casino promotions desk and signed up for club cards, which got us 5% at all the restaurants and two $20 coupons for massages in the spa, which we had already planned on booking.

The carrot cake at Saltgrass Steakhouse at the Nugget was enormous. We each ate a quarter of it, and had the other half a different night.

We very much enjoyed our stay at the resort. In addition to spa visits we enjoyed several of the on-property restaurants as well as one at the adjoining Golden Nugget resort, which is something of a carbon-copy of the one we've patronized in Atlantic City, complete with a plethora of Landrys-branded restaurants. We spent time at the pool, which also features a lazy river; sadly it was not nearly warm enough weather to really enjoy it.

The adult pool, complete with cocktail service.

We were having a good enough time that we extended our stay by one night, to yesterday morning. When I checked out the desk said we could spend more time during the day so long as we unplugged, and we could use the pool facilities if we got our wristbands before 11am. We ended up staying to mid-afternoon and I enjoyed some more time at the pools.

I-10 bridge over the Calcasieu in Lake Charles.

We knew that would mean not enough day to make it to the next reasonable anchorage along the ICW, so instead we just went a little downriver to anchor at the old oxbow (map). With an easy schedule we first took a little cruise upriver to the eponymous lake and the city of Lake Charles itself. A shallow bar between the ship channel and the rest of the lake precludes Vector from getting into the lake or close to downtown, but I snapped photos of the I-10 bridge we've traversed so many times, and the civic center where we spent so much time with the Red Cross after hurricane Rita.

City of Lake Charles. Civic Center is center frame. This is as close as Vector can get.

The oxbow proved a much better choice than our selection Saturday night, and we had a pleasant and undisturbed night. This in spite of having to anchor in winds of 20 knots gusting to 30 or so. That same wind made it a challenge to get off the dock and made for a bit of an interesting river cruise. Sometime overnight it died down considerably and clocked around to the other direction, and we woke up much closer to shore in only 8' of water.

Sunset at the oxbow. What a view!

Today's cruise brought us down the Calcasieu River and back to the ICW, where the first few miles west of the river are just an unending conga line of towboats and barges. In short order, though, it again became just "the ditch" and I was able to engage the autopilot and type some of this post.

Sunset over Shell Island in the Sabine River. Howdy from Texas.

We pulled off here in one of the easiest and most comfortable anchorages on this entire section of coastline. Deep, wide, and out of the barge traffic. Tomorrow we will continue a short distance to Port Arthur, where we will find the last decent anchorage until Galveston Bay. That will leave us with a rather long 60-mile day on Saturday to reach a safe stopping place.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Runnin' the ditch

We are anchored in the Mermentau River, in Cameron Parish, Louisiana (map), just a mile or so off the ICW channel. This morning found us docked at Shell Morgan's Landing in Intracoastal City, Lousiana (map), the center of Vermillion Parish's offshore industry.

Vector at Shell Morgan's Landing. Tan building to the left is the store. Shrimp fleet in background.

Long-time readers will know that we much prefer to anchor than dock on these kinds of travel days. But anchorages are few and far between on this stretch of waterway -- none of the side channels or canals has enough depth for Vector -- and so we spent the last two nights at commercial docks that were little more than a safe place to stop.

Yesterday morning we left the seafood dock without incident before the shrimping fleet returned, and motored out of the port. We had our sights set on the Vermillion River, which looked like it might present some anchoring opportunities, with the backup option of Shell Morgan's just a little bit further if it did not work out.

Our charts for the Vermillion proved incorrect, showing a nice 12'-deep oxbow that is now completely silted in. The main channel of the river is a poor choice, because the river is lined with commercial berths for the significant offshore oil industry here.

Angel was relaxed the whole day. Here she sleeps on Louise's hat, right next to her on the pilothouse settee.

After poking around the river for 20 minutes we gave up and proceeded to Shell Morgan's, where dockage is a flat $25 for the night and includes 50-amp power. And while there is absolutely nothing else in this town, there is a small grocery store within spitting distance of the dock, so we were able to walk over and pick up a couple of items.

This morning we walked back over to the store because they have a small counter serving breakfast and lunch. We got egg sandwiches on toast as our last meal out for a while. The water level had dropped more than a foot overnight, and we left the dock in less than seven feet out to the main channel.

Shortly after clearing out of town we came to the Bowman Lock. As with the last lock we transited, this one only operates when necessary, and today they had both ends open and were passing traffic straight through. We were behind a giant tow, who slowed for the lock, so we putt-putted through behind him. The lockmaster called on the radio as we passed through to express his appreciation of our motor scooters on deck.

Approaching Bowman Lock in the wake of the towboat Native Dancer.

The rest of the day was more or less an endless chug down a narrow, featureless canal. We do like this sort of remote coastal landscape, but you can look out the window once every half hour and not really miss anything. Our new AT&T mobile hotspot stayed connected the whole time, and we occupied ourselves with various online chores.

For me that included making calls to the city docks in Houston and Beaumont to try to arrange dockage, as well as a call to the L'Auberge Casino in Lake Charles. The cities have not returned my calls, but we are booked at the casino for Sunday and Monday nights. We'll be in the neighborhood tomorrow, but the rates double on the weekends, so we'll anchor for a night before tying up.

We're looking forward to a couple of nights at a resort, complete with pool, lazy river, restaurants, and entertainment. They even have a spa, and we might spring the princely sum for resort-spa massages, just because we are both overdue.

Our lovely anchorage on the Mermentau, looking south towards the gulf.

We are enjoying being anchored here, only our second night at anchor since leaving the yard. Further up this river is Lake Arthur and the eponymous town thereon. My charts don't show whether the lake carries enough draft for Vector, or we might have gone all the way and tendered ashore for dinner. Instead I have a nice pork tenderloin on the grill.

Tomorrow night we should be anchored off the Calcasieu River, not far from our casino destination.