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.

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