Fifteen minutes after fnally completing a laborious tack in water so shallow that the ultrashoal Dovekle sometimes scrapes across underwater oyster clumps, I see trouble ahead…There was only one thing left to do, jump overboard!
Reprinted from MAIB.
Day 1: “Tackless in Trouble”
Fifteen minutes after fnally completing a laborious tack in water so shallow that the ultrashoal Dovekle sometimes scrapes across underwater oyster clumps, I see trouble ahead. The water goes from shallow to downright Puddle Duck skinny 30′ directly ahead and there is no way to tack with the stuck centerboard and raised leeboards. There was only one thing left to do, jump overboard!
It is the frst day of the 2016 Texas 200, a 200-ish mile multi day sailing and camping trip starting from Port Isabel and sailing up the Texas coast to eventually end at Magnolia Beach. In between lie a couple of hundred miles of the Laguna Madre, bays, ports, bayous, passes, mud, sand and seashell beaches and, of course, the Intercoastal Waterway with its barges, fshing boats, huge container ships and ferries.
Over 50 boats and 100 sailors launched this hot Monday morning to embark upon six days of sailing, rowing and motoring from camp to camp through oftentimes untouched and uninhabited waterways. The ?eet includes a huge variety of boats from small homebuilt wooden boats to 25’+ production boats, from Hoble AI/TI trimarans to a 30′ wooden schooner and everything else in between. There are even two sailless rowboats this year! There were zero Puddle Duck Racers this year though. The diminutive 8’x4′ scow sailboats may be able to sail over 3″ of water, but sailing one 200+ miles requires a certain amount of insanity and apparently everyone passed the sanity check this year.
On the way back to MS from PA after picking up the boat 3 weeks before the Texas 200 trip. Photo Credit: Mike Mangus
I’m sailing Mulsae (Korean for water bird), a 21’5″ Dovekie ultrashoal unballasted boat by notable designer Phil Bolger and produced by Edey & Duff in the late ’70s and ’80s. Three weeks before I drove to Pennsylvania to pick up the boat in an 1,800 mile round trip. This is the frst day actually sailing the boat since purchasing it and it has been, umm, interesting in the 25+mph wind gusts. The morning starts out mild but the wind quickly builds.
Thirty minutes after leaving port saw Mulsae swinging wildly back and forth from her anchor just outside of the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW) while her captain (me) struggles to install the frst reef. The task was even more diffcult since said captain had never actually reefed the boat’s sail before now. The result was a somewhat sloppy reef, bruises and exhausted relief. In spite of zero reefng practice beforehand, it gets done and the boat is back underway.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, so does the wind. Typical for south Texas summer, it is not uncommon to start a day with a mild south to southeasterly breeze that ramps up to a windy 20+mph by the afternoon. As the boat heels a little more with each passing hour I watch the speed creep up on the GPS, 5mph, 6mph, touching 7mph, almost 8mph, the boat heeling is getting uncomfortable and the weather helm induced tiller pressure makes my arm ache.
Suddenly the boat is hit with a heavy gust, heels way over and rounds up into the wind! It takes a moment for the panic to wear off as the luffng sail ?utters loudly. OK, looks like another reef is in order. The reefng process is just as bad as the earlier attempt with the added excitement of dragging anchor and colliding with a fshing shack leaving me even more bruised. We really need a better way to reef!
Feeling more comfortable with the second reef in, miles slip under the boat’s bottom. It is around 42 miles between Port Isabel and the frst camp but there are challenges. The last fve to six miles are sailed eastward through the Mansfeld gulf channel close to the wind. This portion of the trip is new water for me, never having seen or sailed it. How shallow is the Laguna Madre close to the intercoastal island? Can the boat cut the corner and trim distance? Would be really nice to skim the island’s corner into the windward shore’s calmer waters.
Unfortunately I misjudge the course and get blown past the island, past the channel and into the very shallow waters beyond. Mulsae claws to windward against the southeast wind while barely maintaining course on too small leeboards. An hour later fnds us running out of sea room as we approach the intercoastal island’s shore. Time to tack!
Right. Tack. You know, turn the boat through the wind to the opposite close hauled course. I understood and practiced the concept many, many times over the years without fail. One would think that a 35-year-old boat knows how to tack. But for some reason Mulsae exhibits stubbornness and fails the tack, twice. What in the heck is going on with the boat?! Wait, didn’t the manual say something about raising the bow centerboard? Right! OK, bow centerboard up, up, come on, up! Gah! Damn thing is stuck down!
Lashing the tiller in place, I dash crawl to the bow and yank up the centerboard before dash crawling backwards to the tiller just in time to steer the boat before it decides downwind is a much better heading. This time the tack slowly goes off without a hitch which eventually leads to the frst paragraph of this account, heading towards an oyster encrusted barely underwater spoil island.
My feet splash into 12″ or so of water and just miss an oyster clump. Hauling and anchoring Mulsae in 8″ of water just short of the spoil island, I explore for a way over it. Deeper water on the other side is a mere 25′ away. Between the boat and deeper water are layers of oyster beds inches below the surface and marked by a light froth on the water. Walking over the oysters to check the depth leaves me windmilling my arms for balance. Walking on oysters is like walking across a feld of golf balls except these have razor sharp edges! Indeed, two boats and crews are forced to retire on the frst day for cuts and injuries requiring stitches after grounding on an oyster shoal.
Hmm, bare sandy spot to the right 30 yards away might work. Sure enough, its ankle deep water over oyster free hard pack sand, barely enough water to stoutly drag Mulvae over the spoil island into the channel. Success! Got to love having a boat that only needs 5″ of water to ?oat! Phil knew his stuff designing the Dovekle. The boat is perfectly suited for extreme shallow water sailing and camping.
An hour later I fnally motor into camp as the second to last boat to make the Mansfeld jetties. Even the rowboats beat me. It wasn’t for trying though, but fetching up on the channel’s lee shore after two more failed tacks and nearly losing the boat trying to relaunch it solo slowed the fnal leg down even further. All in all, the entire frst day was an exceptionally exhausting sail.
Setting the anchor to keep Mulsae’s bow grounded to shore, I wander through the 30+ boats beached and anchored at camp. The variety of boats is stunning with literally no two exactly alike. Even the handful of similar designs sport captain driven modifcations and preferences. I marvel at the two rowboats, a single and a double, and wonder if they will complete the entire 200 mile trip through very challenging winds and waves, 90º+ temperatures, sky high humidity and the sheer fact of pulling oars tens of thousands of times over the next fve days.
Then there are the absent boats failing to make the camp. Some divert to Port Mansfeld to avoid the long beat up the channel into the wind. Others fall victim to mechanical failures and/or injuries. Approximately 20% of the boats launched Monday morning withdraw on the frst day for one reason or another. Chances are good that there will be more. The tough day leaves me with a dehydration and stress induced migraine. After making the rounds for brief chats with skippers and crews, I return to the boat, skip eating (not hungry), and fortify with another bottled water. Setting up the cockpit’s canvas porch tent, I crash in the boat while the sun is still above the horizon and sleep through most of the night.
Just after 4am the camp and I are awakened by a wake wave from a passing big ship. The wave was big enough to throw Mulvae sideways against the shore and reportedly partially swamp another boat. Mulvae even takes a small splash over the rail! Still tired, I fall quickly asleep again to the sight of starry sky seen through open hatch. After all, we have more sailing to do on the ‘morrow.