Crossing The Gulf of Mexico
The words we heard from at least two gentlemen who had circumnavigated the globe rolled around in our brainpans as we prepared to sail SV Texas home to Kemah, Texas.
Most think crossing an ocean like the Atlantic or Pacific should be more perilous, but the Gulf’s reputation for intense thunderstorms, confused seas with short wave intervals, being home to almost 200 offshore oil rigs (the most in the world rivaling only the North Sea) and busy shipping lanes combine to make the Gulf of Mexico no ground for novice sailors.
We had purchased Miss Texas from her former owner in a slip at Regatta Point Marina in Palmetto, Florida in November of 2017. She stayed there for the next six months while we took advantage of the pretty water on the west coast of Florida; not to mention the quality sailboat craftsmen living in this pocket of the U.S. We replaced the standing rigging, all three sails, the prop, the engine alternator & regulator, the engine start battery, the lifelines as well as treated her to a new bottom job, and a major engine service including a valve job. We took her out locally a few times and for one “big” sail over Christmas to Key West, Florida… our longest sail yet in our sailing career at ~ 500 nautical miles round-trip.
Now, here we were in May of 2018, preparing to take her home. We made many preparations to de-risk the journey to our satisfaction. We hired a 3rd experienced crew member with over 100,000 nautical miles and a solo circumnavigation under his belt to accompany us. To our thinking, this would not only give us someone who could bail us out of any trouble we might not know how to handle, but it would also enable additional offshore training from a licensed ASA teacher as well as give us an extra body to split night watches with. This meant night watches could be 3 hours on and 6 off, giving us a bit more sleep time. We had provisioned well. The sail home would take only 5-7 days. I thought I had wisely and conservatively purchased enough food for ~ 2-3 weeks (including planning for if our refrigerator failed!). In retrospect, our appetites dropped so much on the crossing that we probably had a months’ worth of food. We had purchased all of the necessary safety gadgets… an EPIRB, back up handheld GPS, and a Garmin inReach which let us get weather forecasts on demand and unlimited satellite texting. It also enabled real time satellite tracking for our family and friends to see our current position, and path traveled, live on the web.
Most importantly, we had carefully weighed the pros and cons of the options for different routes home. The ICW? No, it would take too long, we would have to motor the entire way, and we wouldn’t get the offshore experience we needed. Hug the coast? No… again that would extend the time required to complete the trip and I only had a limited amount of time I could take off work.
Rhumb line from Tampa to Galveston? That would get us there the fastest, but it would take us right through the heart of the Gulf’s oil rigs in a period of a waning sliver of a moon that was setting by midnight. No, that wouldn’t do. I was going to be taking my limited vacation time off from life in corporate America... relaxation required!
So, we studied a detailed drilling map of the Gulf and picked a course that would keep us just south of the oil rigs in deeper water (100 nautical miles offshore) until we needed to turn north toward Galveston. From there, we would be close to the main shipping lane which acts a safe faraway for commercial shipping vessels headed to the Houston Ship Channel. We would hug the shipping lane… staying just outside its borders within a nautical mile. This option would let us avoid the vast majority of the oil rigs for most of the trip, making our night sails more relaxing.
So here we were, ready to depart. It was a big test for us. Would we get unrecoverable mal de mar (the fancy nautical term for seasickness)? Would we be bored out of our minds? Would it end up being too much to handle so that we regretted our decision to buy this boat for what (in our minds up until this point) was going to be our biggest, most exciting yet life adventure? All of these things and more weighed on our minds as we excitedly threw off the dock lines and put our stern to Regatta Point Marina at 9:30 am EST on Tuesday May 15, 2018.
Day One: The first 6-9 hours was great sailing in 15 knots of wind from the south. Perfect beam reach, all sails up – we were making great speed. Unfortunately, that would be pretty much the only great sail of the trip. (Neptune was determined to test our strength of will. The remaining 5 days we would spend motor sailing for various reasons in mostly uncomfortable conditions.) Evening came and we discussed our watch schedule. We decided our more experienced guest crew would take the first night shift starting at sunset (~ 8 pm EST). He would be on watch 3 hours, then wake my husband David up at ~11 pm. David would go for 3 and wake me up at ~2 am, then I would wake up our guest at 5 am. A perfect plan. And our first test in being ready and willing to throw plans out the window. The first two watches went mostly as planned but a few squalls had passed through and our guest woke David a couple of times to help with sail changes. David made his way through his watch, woke me up and gave me the reigns.
One and one half hours into my watch a long squall line generated by the low pressure system that threatened to be the first named tropical storm of the season… and that we were skirting the bottom of… appeared on our radar. Large and foreboding, I woke our experienced guest up to let him know what was coming. He arose and reefed our mainsail (we were already motor sailing from changes they had made earlier in the night and so the Genoa and the stay sail were furled up). Within minutes, a gust of wind hit us. Sheets of rain pelted me from the side. Despite getting absolutely soaked, (it was my watch!) I was determined to make it through and not be that stereotype of a wife that lets the men take it from here when the bad weather hits. So while our experienced crew stood in the companionway and went up and down checking on me now and again to make sure we were OK, I manned the helm not just for the next 1.5 hours left on my watch, but until the storm ended four hours after it had started and 2 ½ hours into HIS watch (the rain was absolutely pounding us, we had no rain shields, only a dodger and bimini that proved ineffective against sheets of rain pouring in side-ways!). Afterwards, he took the helm and generously offered that I go get some sleep. I put on dry clothes, fell into my bed shaking from my core temperature being colder than inside the boat, and feeling rather good about myself, drifted to sleep for a solid 5-6 hours.
Day Two: We couldn’t believe it. The Gulf of Mexico almost never sees winds from the West. Or contrary currents travelling west to east this far north. But here we were… with both. Unfortunately, our weather forecasting tools that predicted a high pressure system forming and staying trapped off the coast of Mexico on our latitude of sail materialized and gave us poor sailing conditions (thank you Neptune). This should have been a dream passage from Tampa to Houston with anywhere between South to East winds giving us between a beam reach to a deep broad reach the entire sail. We were denied. The high pressure system hovering east of Mexico and dead ahead of us disrupted that pattern and put us on a close reach. For the next two and a half days we would find ourselves motor sailing either slightly off or dead into the wind; having to veer slightly north off our desired coarse to enable us make way. Also in the afternoon, right after my sister texted David telling him she had the website plotting our journey up on her computer in her high school classroom, our Garmin inReach died. Oh well, we warned them it could happen and to please not worry (me: please don’t call the coastguard, please don’t call the coastguard!). That evening the seas were confused and sloppy. The Gulf is famous for these seas… short 3-4 second interval waves hitting you from opposite directions… making for a very bumpy ride. Despite this, I was determined to cook one of my very nice meals for which I had planned and provisioned. Down below while cooking, I watched through the port light as I cooked… sky and water… now only sky… now only water… sky and water, repeat, repeat. I was not phased for the first 15-20 minutes but after the 30-40 minutes it took to cook our chicken quesadillas was up… I was slightly nauseous. I went up top, ate ½ of my first of 2 slices I had served for myself and reluctantly concluded I couldn’t finish or I just might... “heave” to… but not as a sailing maneuver :). I gave what I had left to David and went below to sleep until my night watch was due at 2 am. Lucky for me, when I awoke Mr. Mal de Mar was gone and did not return.
Days Three and Four: Still unfavorable winds and current. Late into day 3 we discover how to re-set our Garmin inReach and afterwards, back up and running! At sunrise and sunset… dolphins come to visit us. Their playfulness never fails to amuse and inspire a fullness of the heart. We saw more birds than we expected to this far out (100 nautical miles south of land). We hypothesize that the birds are using the oil rigs as landing platforms to be able to make it this far. One afternoon the oceans calmed just enough to let us put a trolling line in behind our Lulu teaser set up. Within 20-30 minutes, BAM! We caught a nice sized Mahi-Mahi. David filleted and I cooked… fish tacos, YUM! We hadn’t seen more than probably 2 ships in total up until this point, but once we were due south of the coast of Louisiana, traffic started picking up. That evening when we were due south of New Orleans (and on my night watch no less) we hit what felt like an uncomfortable traffic jam for a girl with a sum total of ~ 4 nights of night sailing experience! 5-6 ships on my radar at once, some anchored / moored out and not moving, but at least 2 at a time crossing my path going into or coming out of New Orleans. Thank heaven for radar and AIS! No ships came closer than 1.5 nautical miles, but on a night with no moon and alone on watch that can seem too close for comfort for a rookie.
Day Five: The final stretch! The evening of day 4 going into day 5, we made the turn north toward Galveston. The wind really picked up, as did the seas; waves once again came from multiple directions. We made really good speed motor sailing through the night, but it was very, VERY bumpy. Most people recommend you sleep with a lee cloth in these conditions, but we had not had a chance to install them. It was this night that I learned that sleeping spread eagle in our double sized bed in the forward cabin worked effectively (in liu of a lee cloth) to prevent rolling off the bed. It did not however, prevent hanging midair after the bow went up and then quickly slammed down on some of our larger waves. Otherwise, day 5 was uneventful. We stayed within a nautical mile of the shipping lanes and out of the path of several oil rigs dotted along our coarse.
By the time we hit the Houston ship channel, we were back to seeing 40+ ships on radar. We entered the protected waters of the Houston ship channel by ~ 3 to 4pm CST on May 20th. We were parked in our new dock in Kemah, TX by 8pm. Boat plugged into shore power, air conditioning on, and a celebratory sun downer… we had finished the ~ 700 nautical mile journey in 5 days, 10.5 hours!
At the end of our adventure, we were undeterred. Not only that, our excitement had increased. If we had been able to enjoy ourselves (which we did – immensely) in the sailing conditions we were in the past 5-6 days then trade wind cruising was going to be the absolute bomb! We exited this trip more confident in our abilities and excited for the adventures to come. Not to say we don’t have a lot more to learn… we do! But we have time for that and will be able to spend a lot more time on the boat now that she is a only a one hour drive from us instead of a 2 hour flight or 16 hour drive. In fact, we have been home 3 ½ weeks now and have been on the boat every weekend since. The salty life; it is for us.
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