Saturday, August 21, 2010

Corpus Christi to Pensacola- My First Crossing Nov. 2007

Wave Dancer prepared to depart Corpus Christi bound for Pensacola, Fl.
The 1st Sunset with 2-3' seas and 10-15 knot winds.

Big Platforms everywhere

Time to Motor Sail, Cap'n Lynn had just successfully cut a line from his prop while fighting off Ramora's

Pensacola Yacht Club
The crew of Wave Dancer just prior to departing back to Corpus.

Corpus Christi to Pensacola- My First Crossing  Nov. 2007

This post took a while to write as I was relying on a diminishing memory, an incomplete personal log, a couple of emails I saved from Cap'n Bill. and a memory distorted by an intensive Gulf Passage complete with Euphoria, Sleep deprivation leading to hallucinations, a bit of sea sickness and complete terror. I would do it again in a minute:
I received an email from a couple who were about to embark on the first leg of the beginning of their dream cruise on their 1984 Passport Cutter Rig sailboat "Wave Dancer" out of Corpus Christi City Marina. We knew Bill and Pam at Commanders Point at Lake Travis. They had been preparing for about two years getting acquainted with the many systems of their new cruising boat, preparing the boat for their voyage and preparing themselves. Lynn and I had been their guest a few times including a fun weekend cruise over to Ingelside with the Bay Yacht Club. They invited me to crew for them and take the boat on the first leg from Corpus to Pensacola Florida. I was very excited to be invited since Lynn & I were near retirement and we planned to follow in their path. This would give me a new sailing experience, an actual offshore Gulf crossing which would greatly add to our knowledge base. I knew it would be a small miracle for all the planets to line up just right fro me to be able to leave my job, & family around the Thanksgiving week and take this opportunity.One week out I still thought I had a 50/50 chance to go but the planets quickly aligned as I was able to secure one of the last available satellite phones for rent in the whole country...the deal maker with Lynn.
I arrived at the marina just after dark from Austin about 18:00, the evening prior to the planned this point what we did that night is a blur, I just remember I slept great in their very comfortable V-berth stateroom. We awoke around 0730 and with coffee in hand Cap'n Bill began to do some preliminary orientation with me on the running rigging, chart plotter, emergency gear. About 0900, Chris, our 4th crewman arrived and after he stowed his gear we continued the orientation. Around 1000 the 1st mate AKA the Admiral Pam, their fearless boat dog Otis, Chris & I walked over to eat a casual breakfast at Whataburger then walked back to join Cap'n Bill who had continued preparations non-stop and could barely force himself to stop and inhale the sausage biscuit breakfast. On the way back to the boat I noticed the dingy hanging and lashed vertically across the stern of the boat from the dingy davits. Since everything I have read about cruising recommends stowing the dingy on deck or stowed in a locker I asked Cap'n Bill about this and he said that is how "They" suggested to carry the dingy.

We then walked over to D dock to meet with the Crew of "Susan II" a Catalina 400 that would be the lead boat I just learned. Wow, this would be great having the comfort and safety of a second boat on the trip, I even recognized an old friend Walt who I knew since our days at HCYC. The skipper of Susan II was Cap'n Lynn , his crew was Chip and Walt. Cap'n Lynn would be the chief navigator for the tiny fleet as he had previously moved his boat from Florida to Corpus. At first the combined experience of the Captains & crew seemed impressive, all had years of coastal cruising & charter boat experience, all owned boats 30' and above and all were either near retirement or retired from careers at the top of their respective career paths including two impressive military careers, homeland security, private business, Super Max Canadian prison warden, and me the educator.

It was 11:30 the plan was to top off the fuel tanks and meet in Port Aransas where we would determine if the weather was good to go or if we should wait till the following morning as we would be venturing out into the gulf following a Northern front that had passed almost two days earlier. all of a sudden the crews got into high gear and we were off to the fuel dock. While on the fuel dock I realized I was about to get on a boat and not one had ever made a Gulf crossing before. It was a bit of security though knowing we had over 125 gallons of fuel on board, a new chart plotter with Sirus weather, and a brand new Radar, so new Cap'n Bill was not familiar with all the functions yet. There are also power concerns when you are out sailing for long periods of time and all those electronics can eat away at your battery storage. We motored sailed across Corpus Christi Bay leading the way to Port Aransas and at 1615 by VHF radio it was decided the weather was a go, we had 10-15 mph winds and 2-3 foot seas, we were clear of the Port A jetties just after 1630 and I was in heaven again, I was not seasick and for the first time sailing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Day 1 As we cleared the Jetties the C400 led the way. Prior to departing Cap'n Bill explained that we would rotate on 4 hour watches, two on two off. Pam & I would rotate with Bill and Chris. We were all so excited that no one mentioned when we would start our rotation and who would go down and get rested so they could be alert during late night and early morning hours. Just at sunset I realized someone had to rest so I said I would go down and try to rest and then I would come back up to relieve Cap'n Bill & Chris. Well trying to go to sleep when the adrenaline is still pumping was just not going to happen, so I just laid and tried to rest as much as possible to prepare for my watch. I could tell the seas were starting to build as the motion down below also prevented the idea of sleep and promoted a bit of queasiness. I finally just gave up and after about 3 hours or so came back up to the cockpit. Wow...I was really queasy. In fact just then I leaned over the rail and everything that was in my body projectiled out in 1 second. Now I felt better. For the next 12 hours I could not eat anything without it shooting right back out. Cap'n Bill put some oily stuff just behind my ear and that was the end of my 1st experience with seasickness. No one was getting any real sleep, & I could feel that we were all beginning to experience some exhaustion.

Day 2 We had successfully navigated at night with full sail through the oil platforms and with the morning light the seas were 5-6 and we were making great time. By the late afternoon winds were building along with the seas. For the first time I was experiencing 10-12' waves, and we were still under full sail, rail in the water. The number of lights, platforms, and boats of all sorts were all around us and it took all eyes to sort out this incredible environment. Around 2000 We decide to reef the Genoa, something went wrong in the dark as we were trying to pull in on the roller furling line and ease the sheet. I heard Bill holler in pain and realized all or part of his hand was caught up in the sheet. I instinctively blew the sheet fearing he might have seriously injured his hand. Then without full attention on the helm, the bow went through the wind and the Genoa hour glassed around the head stay, and the port side sheet was violently whipping about. Cap'n Bill ordered me to take the helm while he and Chris went forward to sort out the mess. It was so dark I could not see the foredeck, Bill or Chris, I could barely hear them over the winds and roar of the sea, Pam was by my side providing extra ears and eyes. Bill was ordering a 360 degree turn to starboard to unwrap the head sail, there seemed to be lights and platforms all around us. I took precaution and turned the boat slowly through the waves fearing a violent jib. Bill and Chris were being punished by the waves on the foredeck and I was not even sure they were still there. Due to lack of sleep I began to hallucinate..I saw structures in the water that I tried with all my might to avoid but Pam said they were not there. Three old sailors appeared at the mast pulpit staring at me all in foul weather gear, one red, one yellow and one blue. After at least 1 1/2 hour hour we had the nightmare sorted out and Cap'n Bill and Chris were back in the cockpit. I was so thankful they had not been washed overboard, I had hit the Wall, and around 2200 I explained to all that I had to go to bed. I went below and laid down in the v-berth and in spite of the bow crashing through 12 foot seas I crashed harder than ever in my life.
Day 3 The mind is an amazing thing at exactly 0130 I awoke and navigated my way through the dimly lit cabin to the cockpit. Cap'n Bill and Chris were at the helm, Chris looked like a Zombie and I told them I was good to go and for them to get below and get some rest. Chris disconnected his tether and headed for the V-berth, Pam came up and joined me at the helm and Cap'n Bill laid against the bulkhead in the cockpit and slid off to sleep. We were between lines of Platforms, a row behind us and a long line in front of us several miles away. We had just navigated around a large fishing trawler and after a quite hour or so behind the helm with Pam, I asked her if it was ok for me to run down to the head quickly. There were no lights around us and I stood up on the comeing for about 5 minutes peering over the vertically hung dingy to check for lights from behind. You could only scan for lights when we were at the top of a swell since when the boat ran down into the trough all the lights were out of sight. I could only see the distant line of platforms and the fishing trawler that merged into the Platform lights. I told Pam it was all clear and I was just about to unclip my harness and go below. Cap'n Bill awoke at that moment and Screamed SHIPPPP! I then saw the bow of a huge ship about 30 yards away and closing fast, on a collision course of about 30 degrees, we both dove for the Auto helm, Cap'n Bill beat me and he turned it off giving me control of the helm, I turned the Helm hard to Starboard and just as the boat turned we felt the boat rise from the bow wave of the ship, The ship passed us less than 15 yards away and I glanced up and noticed the 55'+ tall mast was dead even with the deck of the ship. How could I miss seeing such a large ship? As Dr. Ken at Commanders Point would say, "cheated death one more time". Well that got the adrenaline pumping hard again. We sat in the dark cockpit somewhat silent trying to recover from a near catastrophic experience. The rest of my watch was a blur and non eventful. 3 hours later Chris came up to relieve me and I fell right to sleep. Admiral Pam came to wake me up 2 hours into my coma...she said they needed my help in the cockpit. I put on my foulies as quickly as possible and came up to find a picture that I can only describe as a scene out of Apocalypse Now. There were several service ships, a tow with a seismic cable, Platforms all around us, the eerie sound of all the fog horns coming from the platforms, very confused seas due to the number of vessels going in different direction and other than the mass of lights all around us it was dark as hell. Cap'n Bill was on the radio communicating with the devil, Chris was on the helm and I could not even begin to figure out how I was going to help in what seemed to be an impossible maze that I had just come into out of a coma. I just sat in the cockpit and watched for the nearest obstruction, listened and tried to get ready to respond to Cap'n Bills orders. Cap'n Bill navigated us through the maze and we were safe again for a while. We did begin to get into our duty rotation and all were beginning to benefit from the rest. Sun rise in the Gulf is incredible, as we were passing through Louisiana and the Mighty Mississippi we experienced the great Dead Zone and all the pollution that the river brings into the Gulf, lots of muddy water and junk floating about. We were close to our Buddy boat "s/v Susan II" now as we passed the Louisiana Loop. You are supposed to stay at least a mile from the area since it is a huge offshore oil tanker facility and guarded continuously by the coast guard. But Cap'n Lynn wanted to get close look at it so we ventured very near the one mile limit. First a Blackhawk helicopter flew over and stayed overhead to check us out, next a US Coast Guard Cutter came up with her 50 caliber machine guns to have a little chat on the VHF. fortunately they were satisfied with our southern accents and they bid us fair weather. It was just after 1200 and the fleet decided to start the engines and motor sail to keep up the pace since the winds were on the nose and to charge the batteries. Susan II could not get the engine started and after some discussion on the VHF it was determined there must be some line or something in the Prop. Cap'n Lynn jumped right in the Gulf Au' natural with his trusty blade, and just as fast as he jumped in he was back in the cockpit reporting a gang of Ramores were very interested in his manhood. No problem, just a bit of blood, swim shorts on and back in. Cap'n Lynn successfully cuts the offending heavy polypropylene line off the shaft , the engine starts and we are off again. The water begins to turn a beautiful tropical blue as we near Florida waters.

Day 4: The next day was just a beautiful sail across the Gulf as the crew was now well into the routine of the 4 hours on, 4 off watch schedule and we felt rested. All the crew was much more adept at identifying the lights even though there were fewer as we sailed further from Louisiana and closer to Florida. That night Pam & I were on the helm again when I spotted a ship that would pass right in front of us. I radioed crewman Walt on Susan II " Wave Dancer to Susan II" "Susan II Over" " Hey Walt, there is a Big Butt ship at 11:00 o'clock, that will pass in front of us, over" Walt replied "I do not see her" " Look again she is moving fast, from our Port side about to be right in front of us, we need to pass her stern" " OK I see her" " Roger that, Wave Dancer standing by on 16". Nearing Pensacola we knew we would be in a slip for a safe mooring by night time. We easily navigated the Pensacola channel and headed to the Navy Base where retired Navy Cap'n Lynn had two slips reserved for us that night.But alas, the channel to the Navy Marina was to shallow for the 6'+ draft of Wave Dancer and after briefly running aground, Admiral Pam searched the chart plotter and found the Pensacola Yacht Club, just around the corner. We were tied up just as the end of daylight slipped away. Where are the Showers? Thank God the PYC were great host and we had the combo to the Locker rooms pronto, we all enjoyed a great long hot shower. Lynn had packed me some baby wipes and they had come in handy as after each watch I would wipe down my whole body and slip on a fresh t-shirt, sleep, put on the same salty foulies and get back on deck.

Cap'n Lynn's wife Susan met us at the Marina and we loaded up in her Caddy and went to Sonny's BBQ for food, Beer and sailing stories. Some very generous person paid our entire bill, my hunch was a Pensacola YC sailor who appreciated our recent accomplishment. Back to the Boat and all four of us were asleep in 2 seconds.
Day 5 Up at 7am and the 4 crew loaded our gear in the caddy for a fast drive back to Corpus, I think we got in around 10pm. If you want to get across 5 states quickly just put a regional director of Homeland Security behind the wheel. Cap'n Lynn and his Admiral Susan on Susan II, and Cap'n Bill with his Admiral Pam continued on around Florida and then across the Gulf stream to cruise the Bahamas.

This experience set the tone for our preparation and plans for cruising. I considered myself lucky to experience the full nine yards on this trip. I had the full range from euphoric Ocean sailing to near death crises. Sleep deprivation and finally getting into the groove of four hours on four hours off. I lost 6 pounds in 4 1/2 days. We learned lights, satellite phones, electronic navigation and many details to numerous to mention. But for those considering such an ocean Passage a few reccomendations.
1. Stow your dingy on deck. You need to have a 360 degree field of vision all the time.
2. Be sure to all crew know how to operate all functions of your electronics (and everything else) before leaving port.

3. Have your crew arrive several days prior to departure. This will give them time to sail the vessel and learn about all the systems. They should know how to sail your boat almost as well as you do. I have read where a crew started their watch rotation the day before they left the dock to get into the groove before they departed.

4. If other boats are accompanying and they stray off course or go a different way do not feel it is your job to keep up with them. Sail your course and your preferred speed and comfort level.
5. Always reef prior to night, no matter what.

6. Bring baby wipes

7. Wear your harness and tether at all times in the cockpit and the deck. A wave came over the Starboard quarter and completely covered Cap'n Bill at the Helm...I could only laugh.

8. Do not sail close to anything just for a close look...use your binoculars.
9.) Use your radar at night and if energy consumption is a concern start the engine.
10.) Add a AIS transponder to your electronics and use it for communicating with other vessels.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, those were the days, what fun and adventure!
    Experience is the toughest teacher. She always gives the test then the lesson. It was great having you as crew. Couldn't have made it without you. Thanks.