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.

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