Wednesday, December 1, 2010

8 Days on the GICW Galveston to Corpus Christi

Just Cruising down the ICW to Corpus
Passing a Tow on the Gulf  ICW. The link on the title is a chart of the ICW distances between points from clear Lake to Port Aransas

Doing the ditch!
Christmas Decorations at the bar of the Waterfront Resturant in Matagorda Harbor

This dolphin escorted us all the way across San Antonio Bay in the fog. I think he was keeping us safe.

Rockport Marina Christmas decorations.

Hanging out in the fog at Rockport for Christmas.

Jake and Jenny meet us and help us tie up at the Corpus marina.

This is the 2nd post I left out of the chronological order of the world.

Yes, I must admit I was a bit antsy to get the boat to Corpus. We had only been in Kemah about 5 months, survived IKE and unfortunately were not prepared to participate in the 2008 Harvest Moon Regatta. I convinced the Admiral to use her Christmas vacation time to move the boat to Corpus, she wanted to stay longer in Kemah and enjoy the area a bit longer but she agreed and we started making plans to move the boat. Plans include buying preparing the paper charts, and GPS programming, planning out the trip, talking to locals to gain as much info as possible about the Gulf Inter-Coastal Waterway (AKA the Ditch), research info on the net and printing pics from Google Earth, and deciding where to put in for each night along the way. We knew better than to be on the ICW at night with all it's commercial barge traffic. You can do the trip in three days in good weather and expect 4 days if the weather is not so good. We planned for the 4 day trip since it would be mid December and Texas gets a cold front every 5-7 days this time of year. Lynn was concerned with fog so I called our broker Kent Little and he reassured that fog would not be an issue since if there was any it would burn off in the morning hours. One of the more experienced power boaters on our dock warned that December is a bad time of year to do the trip since the North winds from the cold fronts blow water out of the ICW making the water shallow and you risk running aground. We have a 5 foot draft so I certainly paid attention to his experience but figured we could work around the North winds if it became a problem, it would mean a longer trip but we had two weeks to work with. We felt prepared and got to the boat on 12/18 to provision the boat and make final departure preparations. Our plan for the first night was to make it Freeport about 62 nautical miles away. The back up was Galveston, either Offats Bayou or Harbor Walk Marina about 34 nautical miles. Our Hull speed is 7.6 knots per hour so at max speed you could expect to make 76 nm. in 10 hours. This would require leaving in the predawn hours of the morning since it gets dark around 1730 hours. It is not fun to come into unfamiliar moorings in the dark. At least not at our current experience level. With a 66hp turbo charged Yanmar and a over sized prop it is no problem keeping the speed up on Wand'rin Star. We planned on departing 12/20 on the heels of a cold front, the problem being we would have North winds which very inconveniently blows the water out of Clear Lake and the entrance to South Shore Harbor is shallow. We would need to leave at high tide for sure just to get out of our Marina. We had a slip in Freeport and to prepare for the back up plan I called Moody Gardens in Offats Bayou to see if we could get a slip for the night, no way, all was destroyed in IKE and they had no clue when they would be back open for such business. We could anchor in Offats Bayou since it is a well known anchorage and we had actually stayed there and practiced anchoring during our ASA Coastal Cruising course a year or so earlier. With the weather being kinda dodgy we preferred a Marina for the first night so I called Harbor Walk Marina to get a slip just in case. WHAT, you do not take Transients?? (transients is the term for boats who are in transit to a destination) I could not believe it since they regularly take groups of transients in for the night like the people staging for the Harvest Moon Regatta or other yachting groups on special events. This meant we would need to make Freeport our first night.

Day 1 12/20 Saturday South Shore Harbor to Harbor Walk Marina SE 10-15 kt winds 51 degrees morning fog, overcast some rain, avg speed 5.9 kts., 34 nm 5:27 hrs underway
We woke at 0500 to get the coffee going and prepare to go. The wind was from the SE so I knew we had depth to get out of the marina, but we had a bit of morning fog and this would delay our start. I figured we could get out by 0800 or so counting on the visibility in the marina. Daylight started to peep in and the sky was completely overcast and we had some morning fog. I started to doubt if we would go this day. The weather did improve a bit and the wind was forecast 10-15 knots all day. We got into a holding pattern and realized we needed to try again to get into Harbor Walk Marina. After calling some area friends who we thought could get us in we realized we would have to work this out on our on. I called and talked to a young woman at Harbor Walk to plead our case, she said I would have to talk to Dodd who would be in around 10 am. I called back exactly at 1000 and she said he would call me back, so around 1030hrs he called and I explained that we were trying to get to Corpus for Christmas and could we please get a slip for the night, He asked what size boat and I am not sure if the size of the boat had anything to do with it but after he heard 42' he said to come on up and they would help us get into our assigned slip. We got into gear and departed SSH at 1128hrs. We had 6' of water under the boat at the marina entrance, just enough. It was 50 degrees, overcast, 20-25 knot winds and a few drops of rain now and then. Cruising speed for our engine is 2400 rpm's but with the short chop and 3-4' waves in the bay I pushed her to 2650 rpm's to maintain 6.0 knots of speed. We saw occasional debris from IKE floating about in the bay and hoped we would not run into one of those refrigerator-bergs floating about with just a corner sticking out of the water. They came from the hundreds of homes on Bolivar Island that were completely blown away including all their appliances that provided interesting hazards for the area boats. We approached the Galveston Causeway and the operator told us to wait outside until a eastbound barge passed. We only had to wait about ten minutes making circles to get clearance to go through. We communicated with a Tow for the first time as they advised us of their intentions to follow us through. We consulted our Campbell's Cruising guide which I was very lucky to find a used copy on It is a well known Texas ICW guide that is no longer in print. It warned about Red Can Bend which is a relatively tight bend in the ICW just before Harbor Walk Marina. The tows often take up most of or the entire channel due to the tighness of the bend and the tows having to" Crab" or move sidways down the channel. The tows have to move their barges sideways in the channel to counter the current and/or winds. Fourtunately for us there was not traffic here and we passed through easily. The Garmin chart plotter guided us easily to the entrance to Harbor walk Marina which is located at Marker 59 just North of Galveston right on the ICW. As we left the deep water of the channel I slowed the boat to just 2 knots as the entrance would be shallow. DID NOT want to run aground here. The depth sounder was showing just over 5 feet and we worked hard to stay in the center of the small entrance, We must have bounced off the bottom sand a few times on the way in, finally the 6-7 foot of water inside the marina and everything would be OK, just had to get into the slip. A quick call to Dodd and we saw them standing at our assigned slip, the Admiral tossed them the lines and we were in at 1520 hrs. You can call it Serendipity but this Marina has a 5 star restaurant and Dodd gave us a guest pass so we could get into the club for the night. It just happened to be our 38th wedding anniversary so even though we had not packed proper clothes for the dining room we did have enough black to wear to pass. A great dinner, wonderful bottle of wine and the Admiral was very happy...I scored some bank.

Day 2 12/21 Sunday Harbor Walk Marina to Freeport Bridge Haven Yacht Club, NE 20-25kt winds 50+ degrees some rain, avg speed 7.4 kt@ rpm 2650rpm, 28.5 km 3:52 hrs underway
We slept in a bit and woke at 0600 since we knew we would just be taking short hops till the weather improved. We called Erica at Freeports Bridge Haven Yacht Club to let them know we would be there, checked the engine, got out the charts, and plugged in the electronics. We departed the wonderful Harbor Walk Marina at 1128 hours, high tide and this time we did not seem to touch bottom on the way out. Our boat speed was better now since there were no waves or chop to fight and the wind and current was going the same direction. The evidence of IKE was very apparent along the way, we were not however experiencing much debris as I guess the constant barge traffic had pushed it all ashore. We arrived at 15:20 and even though we called ahead there was no one to meet us and we would just have to figure it out ourselves. The fairway into the marine narrows and I did not want to go into to far as turning our boat inside could be a problem in the 20 mph winds. I chose a slip that I thought would not be to hard to get out of and the admiral got a line around a piling quickly and soon we were safely tied up. Dang it was cold. Our full enclosure around the cockpit made the trip comfortable but as soon as you stepped out the wind quickly add a bit of chill to the experience. We went to the marina office paid our fee and got the code for the showers and bathrooms. We walked down about a block to where the showers were located and scouted them out and then back to the boat to get our gear and get the shower done while there was still some overcast daylight. Normally it is much better to use the marina showers as you can use all the hot water you want. This was one of those fast boat like showers though since there was no hot water. Should have just showered on the boat, we have a great water heater. I am sure we could have topped off our water tanks somewhere. After the showers we checked out the snack bar to see if dinner there was possible, nope we could do better on the boat so a quiet dinner aboard and plans for our next leg of the journey by previewing the charts and studying the Brazos and Colorado River locks that we would be soon passing through.

Day 3 12/22 Monday Freeport to Matagorda Harbor NE winds 20-25 kts. 40+ degrees, rain in evening avg speed 7.1kts @ 2600 rpm 41 km, underway 7:20 hrs.
The concern today would be navigating the Brazos River Locks. A quick check of the engine revealed a cloudy engine strainer so we took time to get it cleaned out before starting the engine. We departed Bridge Harbor a bit nervously (at least I was) since the NE winds were going to provide a challenge for us to get out of our slip. We used a spring line to assist keeping the boat pointed correctly as we backed out and it all went well. All the docking tips I learned from all the reading, the captain's course and from talking to boating friends is being put into practice on this trip. The sightseeing along this leg was great as you get to see all types of coastal Habitats both Human and natural. We had a favorable current and we hit top speeds of 9.6 kts. but this changed after reaching the Matagorda Bay with a opposing current of 1 kt. As we closed on the Brazos River we hailed the Flood Gate controller on VHF 13 and he told us to wait for a West bound Tow to clear the west gate. The Brazos was very shallow as the entered the river near 5' depth, but fortunately the depth on the west side of the river was 18' since we would have to hold here a few minutes for the Tow to clear the gates. I was a bit nervous hanging out in the river current and was glad to enter the open gates and pass through the lock. This is not a lock where you go in enter and either rise or fall to get to the other side, they are flood gates and are both sides are always open except in the cases of flooding on the river side. The sides are built of heavy timber and you can see where all the tows have made their mark as they pass through. You would not want your fiberglass hull to touch these jagged timbers. I called the tow in front of us to ask permission to pass him as tows normally run at 6 kts. He said come ahead so I took him on his starboard side and even though I stepped up the rpm's and cruised by at 7.6 knots, it took an incredibly long time to pass him. He was just a single barge Tow and I now knew that passing tows could not be taken lightly as many of them can have 2, 3 or even more barges and they are often carrying combustible liquids. We were following the Tow "Enterprise" as we neared our destination. The Tows often kick up a lot of mud around their very powerful props. This sediment I learned can make your depth sounder go nuts. Ours started showing depths of 3.9' to 6.0' and changing constantly. I was freaking thinking we would run aground any second, and then I realized the water was brown from the churning of his props and this was confusing the sounder. But that just means your sounder is not accurate and if it really did get shallow you would not know. The only thing to do is to just stay squarely behind them since often their drafts are 20-24 feet and if there was a shallow area they would just push it out of the way. As we neared Mile marker 440 at the entrance to the marina we called the Harbor Master and two nice fellas met us as the bulkhead where we would tie up for the night. I was glad to see them as this was an entirely new docking challenge and the winds were still up and pushing us onto the dock. A close call with a nearby boat and then safely up against the bulkhead. A restaurant in just a short distance and nice showers with plenty of Hot water! We arrived at 15:20 so we had some daylight and pleasant weather to walk around a bit and explore the area. We walked over a huge berm to check out a new development with condos and slips just off the ICW. We enjoyed the Hot showers and then to the neat "Waterfront Restaurant" for a great Flounder dinner. It was Huge...another score for the Admiral. We walked a bit after dinner enjoying the area Christmas lights and then retreated from the decreasing night temps to the Cockpit for a glass of wine while watching the night barge traffic on the ICW.

Day 4 12/23 Wednesday Matagorda Harbor to Port O'Connor SE wind 10-15 some rain 62 degrees, 29.8 nm, avg speed 6.8 kts @ 2700rpm, Underway 4:24 hrs.
We had a swing bridge and the Colorado River locks to look forward to this day. Before we left the Matagorda Harbor at 1132 hrs we called the swing bridge controller for permission to pass. We thought this was best since there was considerable barge traffic and you could actually see the swing bridge from Matagorda Harbor. A swing bridge is exactly that. It is a large 1 lane bridge that is built on pontoons and the controller Swings the bridge over against the bank to allow boat traffic through, then swings back to allow cars to pass. The bridge connected a small barrier island to the mainland. It appeared there were just homes on the island and the traffic was very light, there was just 2 cars waiting when we went through. The controller called us on VHF 13 and told us to come on through, we tossed off the lines and it took about 5 minutes for us to get out of the marina and pass through. The swing bridge is probably gone now though since they were building a regular bridge over the same area. Now extra tall mast would not be able to use this section of the ICW and would have to go into the gulf for this portion of the ICW. Our 62' mast passed easily through however and we were glad they thought of us when they designed this bridge. There are other areas on the ICW where we will have to go around on the outside when we travel those areas. Again the barges were stirring up the mud and we occasionally lost our depth soundings. I finally got used to it and just accepted that if a barge had passed in front of us we did not have to worry about depth. The Admiral got on the phone and called Felicia at The Inn at Clarks Docking to let them know we would be there in a few hours. Since it was so close to Christmas she said there would be very little staff there and explained that we would side tie to the west bulkhead in the channel that leads to there docks and if we came in after 5pm then we would have to leave the dock fee in the mail box. We kept the rpm up so we could make the short trip short. The weather was easing some but Rockport or Port A was to far to make it in daylight so we just enjoyed the trip to Port O'Connor. Another slow barg was ahead and I called to ask the "Susanna Griffith" permission to pass and he gave the go ahead, I stepped up the rpm to 3100 and as soon as we got around his stern we realized there were two barges. Man this would take a while to get past both but I did not want to travel between the two. I am not sure how long it took to get around the two tows but it seemed forever. I now appreciate the good visibility we had that day. Soon we were at the Colorado River and the controller did not make us wait we just motored straight through. It is always a good idea to thank those guys as you are passing through since they could make it very difficult for you. Matagorda Bay was next, here you are no longer surrounded by land on both sides as you enter the bay. There are two channels to choose from here, the shorter South channel or the longer North channel. We remembered a sailor exclaiming he had recently gone through the South channel and ran hard aground, they got off and had to back track to use the North passage. All the barge traffic was using the North channel so we made sure we found the North passage as well. It is not that clear out there as there are no street signs and often the channel markers are missing due to being hit by the crabbing barges and dragged to a new location. We double checked by using both the GPS and paper charts. In fact the Admiral was constantly updating the paper chart as we passed each marker. We arrived at Clarks at 1600 shortly after crossing the bay, it was a simple docking and Felicia was still there. She explained that the Inn would be closed so there would be no bathrooms or showers available. She gave us a couple of ideas for food though and since we had about an hour and half of daylight we went walking through the neighborhood for food. Most of the area was closed up, we found Captain G's though and we saw a car go through the drive through so we walked on down Adams street and ordered up some of there fine fried fish items. We saw a big service station/grocery store down the street and headed there to see if there might be anything else we might want before it got dark. The Admiral picked out a Christmas light set and it was a deal for just $5. We walked back to the boat and realized we were the only ones in the whole marina. We hung the lights around the saloon area and turned them on to give a bit of Christmas cheer to the evening. Those lights continue to hang in the saloon and we use them frequently at dinner for festive moments. The fried fish and shrimp tasted great and we recommend Captain G's to everyone.

Day 5 12/24 Thursday Port O'Connor to Rockport light fog then heavy, SE 10-15 kt winds, 60+ degrees, avg. speed 6.5 kt. @avg. rpm ? underway 6:55 hrs.
We were up by 0530 since this would be a long leg. The admiral got up and immediately turned on the VHF to hear the weather report as usual. The forecast was for morning fog with increasing visibility throughout the day but with patchy areas of fog. We peaked out and the fog was pretty heavy so we just knew our departure would be delayed but we needed at least 8+ hours of light to safely make the trip. We went over the charts and drank extra coffee and tea. We did not want to spend Christmas Eve here so as soon as I saw the fog beginning to lift we walked down to the ICW to check the visibiltiy. The sun light was just appearing and we could easily see 3/4 mile down the channel. We went back and double checked our preparations then departed at 0740 hrs. We had adequate visibiltiy for about the first 5 km. Then the fog seemed to be getting heavier, soon we could just see the banks of the channel about 50-60 feet. Even though we had our radar on throughout the trip we would now learn how to use it. It gets pretty freaky when you are unable to see the barges coming at you, and even though the radar was working well the images of the barges often blended in with the surronding land making them undistinguishable to us. The VHF stayed in my hand as we constantly reported our position to the tows at every mile marker. Our rpm varied from 1000 about 1 knt of boat speed to 2900 depending on our state of mind. I noticed a east bound tow up ahead and asked permission to take him on the 2 (his starboard side) since I could just see his bridge through the fog and it appeared he was crabbing to his port side and it appeared I had more room there. He quickly came back and said "negative, I am pushed up against the bank" I quickly decreased the rpm to 1000 and prepared to take him on the 1. We now had about 12 feet of visibility in front of us. We easily slid by with about 12 ' of space between us and his volatile cargo. The Admiral and I were on high alert from this point forward. There was nowhere we could stop as that would pose a greater danger than to just keep going. Soon a tow hailed us and explained that we would be passing soon and for me to take him on the 1. I moved as far to starboard as I could using the radar and GPS. the banks were no longer visible. This tow Captain made sure we knew he was ahead of us with about 1/2 km distance he blew his horn and it was so loud it absolutely scared me to death. I thought we were about to crash. Finally we could see the bow of the barge through the fog and I knew we were in good position. We were both going dead slow. Just as we came up to his bow we ran hard aground the stern of Wand'rin Star swung way to close to the barge "Captain I am hard Aground and can not move!" Fourtunately he was able to navigate around us but way to close for comfort. There was an empty tow right behind him, the "Enterprise" who hailed us and said he would help us get off. As he approached I thought he would come near and I would toss him a line to pull us off with, so we prepared, He did not stop however, he just came near us and pointed his giant propellers at us and provided us with enough water to float away. "Thank you Captian we are off! We appreciate your help!" We would run aground two more times crossing San Antonio Bay but we quickly got off just by using engine power and the rudder to wiggle through the mud. The radar was much more effective in the bay in open water. We could pick out every object and see all the mile markers before we could see them with our eyes. A dolphin began to follow us, almost escorting us all the way across the bay. I could not see any other traffic on the radar and I increased the rpm to get across as fast as possible. Fog is very disorienting, there is nothing to use as a reference other than the radar and GPS so my track across the Bay was a very wiggly line. Lynn focused on the portable GPS to constantly alert me if I was heading out of the channel. Nerve wracking. We neared the Aransas County Wildlife Refuge, this is supposed to be one of the most pleasent parts of the trip, the fog had cleared a bit and we could see the banks clearly now. A huge white shore bird appeared along the bank and we still wonder today if it was a Whooping Crane. I am sure it was but cannot confirm since we were not exactly experienced birders at the time. Our original destination was Port Aransas but the Admiral had had enough and even though as we neared Rockport the visibility improved to about 3/4 mile she did not want to risk crossing the Corpus Christi Shipping channel in any kind of fog. So we made plans to depart the ICW at Marker 49 for the Rockport Marina entrance. Several vessels of all types were now navigating the ICW, one barge that had to be over a half mile long with three to four smaller tows assisting the transit. The Whooping Crane tour boat from Rockport was out and we began to see/hear shrimp boats as well. We hailed the Harbor Master at Rockport on Channel 16 and secured a slip for the night. We arrived at 1445 hours, thanked and tipped the guys who came on Christmas Eve to help us tie up and then just walked about the marina trying to de-escalate our crazy long state of high alertness. Beer is always good for these moments, the Admiral prefers Chardonnay.

Day 6 12/25 Friday just a foggy Christmas Day in Rockport
We woke up to a socked in marina. No Problem we just planned on a short hop to Port Aransas so we could easily wait till the afternoon. We went on a morning walk around the marina and bought some shrimp from a shrimp store on the docks. These would make a great Christmas dinner. We returned to the boat and lazed about and around noon the fog just got worse, We thought we would take another walk but just 6 feet from the boat we could not see anything. We spent the day aboard and pulled out the provisions to prepare our Christmas shrimp feast.
Day 7 12/26 Saturday Rockport to Port Aransas 20-35 kt. SE winds, 85 degrees, light rain patchy fog 12.5 km, avg speed 7 kts @ 2900 rpm, underway 1:46 hours.
We spent the morning hoping for a bit of a window in the fog just to make a quick hop to Port A. After talking to the Harbor Master we felt we had a small window in the afternoon to make the trip, after all she said if the fog closed in again we could just come back to Rockport. It is funny how it can be blowing so hard and still have fog. We called Jeff the Harbor Master in Port A and reserved a spot. We ventured out into the channel at 1150 hours and by 1336 hrs. We arrived at Port Aransas. We tied up easily on the guest dock and it felt good to be close to our destination.
Day 8 12/27 Sunday Port Aransas to Corpus Christi 15-20 SE winds, overcast, light rain 70+ degrees, 18.9 nm, avg speed 6.4 kts @ 2600 rpm, underway time 2:55 hrs.
We departed Port a at 1030 hrs Corpus Christi Bay was choppy with 2-3 foot short chop, we would soon learn this is just a normal day on CC Bay. We soon cleared the Corpus marina breakwaters and called the marina office for a slip, they instructed us to tie up alongside of the bulkhead in front of the Marina Office. We had notified our friends Jake and Jenny Jackson that we would be coming in that day, They saw us come through the breakwater and Jenny with camera in hand started snapping arrival photos. We arrived at 1325hrs and they were there to help us tie up. After some brief hello talk Jake and Jenny accompanied us to the marina office to help us determine a good place to moor Wand'rin Star. After a brief tour of 2-3 docks to see what was available H23 became the new home and Corpus Christi the Home Port of Wand'rin Star.

Trip: 34:26 engine hours, underway time: 31:05, 59 Gallons of diesal used, Avg of 1.71 gallons per hour, 209.8 Nautical Miles.
I was a bit surprised at the diesel usage and learned that anytime I exceeded a cruising speed of 6 kts @2400 rpm and the 1 gallon per hour then the diesel usage for that extra 1.6kts of speed was expensive. The weather dictated this trip a bit and we wanted to shorten the amount of time on the water in the ICW in such conditions.
We learned tons on this trip including ICW navigation, the marinas along the way, where to eat, how to communicate with Tows and actually have them respond, how to deal with running aground, how to use radar, communicating with the controllers at locks and bridges. We will see plenty of the ICW in the not to distant future and this was a great education for the next trip.

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