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.

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