Tuesday, May 30, 2017

We're in the Gulf of Mexico!

I am typing under way in the Gulf of Mexico, scrambling to get this posted before we run out of cell coverage. This is our first time in the gulf since early June of last year, just a week shy of a year ago. We are pitching up and down over four foot rollers, the best it will get. In some 38 hours, if all goes well, we should reach Galveston Bay.

A lovely view of Vector at anchor in the calm water inside South Padre.

Early yesterday morning, just a few hours after my last post, an enormous thunderstorm blew through our anchorage at 45 mph. We knew it was coming and had dogged everything ahead of time, but we manned the anchor watch when it arrived at 3am. It was quite spectacular and gave the boat a good rinse. Ironically, the storm shifted the winds around to a lower fetch, and we had the calmest water all night for a few hours.

We awoke yesterday to mostly the same conditions in which we had anchored, with 25-knot winds and 2-3' whitecaps on the bay. We got under way early so we could get the stabilizers going. But in a couple of hours the winds had dropped to 15 or so and the waves laid down, and we had a comfortable ride the rest of the day.

Even with the holiday weekend, we did not see another boat all night, and that persisted right up until we crossed the Mansfield Channel, where we passed a couple of small boats heading from the harbor to the gulf.

We've not seen a towboat or any commercial traffic since turning into the ICW at North Padre Island. But about mid-day we passed the Arroyo Colorado, which serves the inland port of Harlingen and passes through Rio Hondo. This is dredged for tow traffic, and our display showed a few boats up the river. Not long after passing the turnoff, we encountered a towboat in the ICW, the Dixie Courage.

A big tow. You can see where I had to go off-channel to dodge him.

The ICW here is narrow, and shallow, and with two jumbo empties breasted, he was using the whole thing, angled to keep the wind from running him aground. We had to go off-channel into some very skinny water to make a safe pass. It took both of us, me hand-steering and Louise reading off depths, so we could not get a picture, but I saved the chart display, with his size shown to scale. It did not help that there were GLO cabins lining both sides of the channel in this spot.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Port Isabel and passed under the Queen Isabella Causeway Bridge, the official terminus of the ICW. From just south of the bridge we could look across the lagoon and see our anchorage and the skyline of South Padre Island, but our draft meant taking the barge channel and ship channel around Long Island, adding four miles to the trip over what it would be in a boat with a five foot draft.

The end of the ICW. That's a parasail tour visible under the bridge.

That route required us to pass another pontoon bridge, which typically opens only on the hour. Arriving on a federal holiday meant it was operating on demand, and we passed right through. There is a bit of oilfield infrastructure moored along here in Port Isabel.

Approaching Port Isabel. Yellow "barge" is the pontoon bridge, open for us.

As we were steaming down the ship channel towards the gulf, a dolphin tour boat came racing toward us, flipped around, and started pacing us off our port side, everyone aboard gesturing in our direction. I needed to turn to port for the anchorage, so I tried speeding up and slowing down to get around him, to no avail. When he finally answered the radio we learned we had a group of dolphins in our bow wave -- we had not even noticed them -- and he was trying to give his customers their money's worth. It cracked us up.

We turned north out of the ship channel just before the barrier island and headed for a spot we had selected as an anchorage. We quickly ran out of water and had to backtrack, anchoring just east of the range marker in 12' (map). Anchoring in South Padre is complicated by the fact that all the otherwise attractive spots are inside a marked cable area where anchoring is not permitted.

South Padre behind Vector.

Other than a flotilla of dolphin tours and a pack of jet-ski rentals zipping around, it was a great spot with a nice view of South Padre, including the county park where we'd stayed in Odyssey. We splashed the tender, enjoyed a beer on deck, and then headed to the Sea Ranch restaurant ashore for a nice seafood dinner.

After we came home we left the dinghy tied astern, figuring at least two nights here after a long trip down the ICW in rough conditions. The water was flat, and the clearest we've seen in a long time. With the temperature at 84 degrees I was even looking forward to swimming off the aft deck.

Alas, it was not to be. An evening check of the offshore forecast revealed the opening of a rare ~45-hour window of "tolerable" wave height on the gulf. A window which would slam shut tomorrow night and remain shut into the foreseeable future -- at least a week.

Looking across to where we will anchor... but need to go around the long way.

Two or three nights in South Padre would be great, but a week or more is too much, and we really did not relish going back the way we came, on the ICW -- another experience where, once you've done it, there's no need to do it again. Somewhat reluctantly, we decided to seize it while we could, and we made plans to leave this morning pre-dawn. We ended up decking the tender at 10pm last night.

We will have cell coverage for only a short while longer, and then we will be off line until a couple of hours out of Galveston tomorrow night. Between now and then I will send short status texts, which will post to Vector's Twitter account, here.

We do have three bail-out options, all ship channel inlets, in case things get just too uncomfortable out here. If we divert to one of those, I will try to post that update to Twitter as well. Last night I filed a float plan with our emergency contacts. Other than tweets, you'll next here from me sometime Thursday, after we've arrived and gotten some sleep.

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