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.

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