Port Aransas, TX to Isla Mujeres, Mexico app:660 Nautical Miles
Day 1: The crew for the crossing comprises of the owner, Kirk, his twin brother Todd (both of which are newish to the experiences of sailing), a certified captain and airplane mechanic Brian, and myself a sailor/marine biologist. With the crew all gathered and rested we set about making final preparations to head out early this morning of Thursday the 25th of Feb., 2009.
Our first bump in the road so to speak comes as we head out of the Piper Channel and pass the dredgers who thankfully have been dredging the ridiculously shallow channel for the past week. Just in the nick of time I thought. Well as I started steering around them I anxiously watched as the depth finder started showing 2ft under the keel, to 1ft, and then *bump* we are scraping muddy bottom. 'What are these dredgers doing!Making the channel even shallower!?' I thought. Luckily it was soft mud so I powered her up and scraped once more before clearing into the big Corpus Christi Channel. So the trip had barely begun and my heart was already racing. But instead of being stuck in the channel for hours we were motoring out into the gulf. Phew.
Our first call of duty out in the gulf was to get enough sea room to calibrate our new autohelm. It works with a fluxgate compass and needs to be driven in circles and then in a wavy line in order to know how powerful it must be to turn the boat. And the more you use it the better it gets. Unfortunately there was a current so the driving in circles part would work great for about 2/3 of the spin and then the current would hit and turn us on a dime, which was too fast for the autohelm to function. Hopefully no one was watching too closely as I ended up doing about 15 circles before getting it slow enough. Finally we got it and we were ready we to set sails and get on our way to Isla Mujeres.
The first day saw southeast winds growing in strength as we got farther offshore. We were making pretty good eastwards progress with the wind sucking us forward. Pretty soon Brian and I reefed the mainsail. Soon after we had to double reef the main and reef in the jib as the winds became more ferocious. We were making good progress as the winds reached upwards of 25knts, waves growing to 6ft. This is not really the time you want to have to stop to reel in a fish, but Kirk swore there was a fish on the line and it was pulling hard. I told him it looks like seaweed to me (we had driven thru quite a bit), and at 7knts its going to feel pretty heavy. But I tacked up into the wind, he and Brian started trading off reeling the 'fish' in, and I ran forward to untangel the jib sheets which were flapping around each other making a huge rats nest.
Much to Kirk's dissapointment he hauls in a nice seaweed salad for dinner and we immidiately set off again under double reef power, still hitting almost 7knts.
This goes on for a while until we notice that the fishing line (remember, not really the time to be fishing when you are double reefed), had gotten wrapped up in our wind generater. With nightfall coming on soon, no way to untangle the wind generater to due hight and big weather, and the need to run our naviagtion lights all night I was a bit worried about power. But we settled on.
Our next calamity came at a changing the watches around 830pm. Kirk noticed the dingy davits had shifted and actually pulled out of the deck on the port side with the incredible torque and pressure the wavecs were causing on it. We lashed it down and decided to motor into the waves for the rest of the night to avoid the side to side torque that was causing it to fall to one side. So I turn on the engine only to be greeted with foul smelling white smoke and Brian yelling from down below, "turn it off, turn it off." Now we are bobbing again in big waves and wind and Brian and I are changing out the new alternator for the old one after figuring out the new one didnt quite fit, put pressure on the belt, and had sheered the belt in half, causing the smoke. The smell, the waves hitting us broadside, and being inside the cabin was enough to make us sick, especially me. So I would help Brian then puke in the head, come back and help, puke again, and this continued until we had it fixed, fired her up and headed off. Lowering the dinghy and lashing it up on deck was the mission for
Day 2: I awoke, still feeling sick but it felt good to steer with the outside breeze. The morning brought a relative calm with the southeast winds subsiding. This gave us time to have a little swim call, in which Todd needed a quick line thrown to him after immidiately yelling 'help' as he hit the water. Brian and I set up the dinghy and motor for retrieval on the lee side of the boat. We took off the little 8hp motor, mounted it on the transom, then used the spinnaker halyard to haul up the dinghy. Brian and I lashed it down upside down after deflating it infront of the mast. With that done and the davits pulled back into their proper position we once again set up sails and headed east. Around 3pm the winds shifted coming now out of the north. The north fronts are pretty infamous here in the gulf for ferocity but if caught right they can push you southeast directly towards the yucatan. We started setting a southeast course with crew morale high.
One thing I didnt know about the gulf is how fast the waves could build. We were 100miles off the coast at this point and suddenly the winds were kicked up to over 20knts and we started surfing down the faces of waves growing in size from 2-4 to 10ft breaking monsters. The hull speed on the 35.5 Hunter is 7.33knts and both Brian and I were seeing burst down the waves topping 13knts. Thats getting a bit dangerous. But if you stay perfectly straight and dont let the wave turn you it will work out. Plus we were making great time. That is until I come on to steer around 830pm. I'm getting the grove and handling the stressful conditions until all the sudden a loud crack like a shotgun blast comes from the main which suddenly gybes violently across the boat, throwing us off balance and into the face of the 10ft mountains that the waves had become.
This was bad. The preventers steel clip had sheered in half, the head (top) of the sail had ripped out of the mast and the halyard, and half the other cars attaching the sail to the mast were sheered in half as well. I call for Brian to get on deck, i'm still going 7knts, and now we have to get the main down and in the boat! I turn on the engine and try to get some steering power to turn into the wind and waves. Brian goes forward to try and detach the sail. I cant get enough power to turn against the wind, I hand over the wheel to Kirk because Brian cant get the sail by himself. We are broadside to the waves, at night, in 20+knt winds. Brian and I are sliding the sail out of the boom, the boat is rocking wildly, Kirk is yelling that the engine just shut off and wont't turn back on, and for some reason the head of the sail is stuck under the boat. It has been sucked into the prop! Now the sail is stuck, the motor wont turn, and then I turn just in time to see a monster wave about to break right on our strbd beam. *Wooosh* we are hit, and hit hard, the boat goes over, I would say 70degrees and stays there. The side rail completely in the water. I remember yelling 'NOOOO!', and somehow after a second holddown the boat swings back up to be hit again, but luckily by a wave not quite as steep. We redouble our efforst to lash down the stuck sail inside the cockpit. Brian takes the helm and steers by jib sail only, and I head down feeling lightheaded from being sea sick, not eating, and the ordeal we just went thru. And the weather showed no signs of letting up soon.
I can't sleep. I head back up on deck to talk over with Brian our options. He says he has already turned west, back towards Texas. I tell him that is what I was going to suggest. The condition still being so bad only he and I could safely steer so we traded off shifts all thru the night. That was a long night. Some of the breaking waves would fling us over 40degrees thru the night so you had to be spot on while steering. It was stamina to the extreme.
Day 3: Morning breaks. Everything is better when the sun shows up, right? Well I hand over steering to Todd, Both me and Brian need sleep. And then *pop*, "Dai Mar I need your help up on deck!". Agh. I run up and our jib, our last remaining means of propulsion, has slipped completely out, unfurling itself to its full 130% size. We analyze and the furling line has snapped in two! So there is no way to furl the sail. In order to save it we quickly strike the sail, get it down on deck, and lash it up near the bow. And now we bob...like a cork...with no sails and no engine. Well, at least we turned west and sailed thru the night, now we are only 100miles offshore instead off 250. Waves and wind are still charging out of the north. Our options...
Option 1: Send divers or snorkelers down to cut away the sail and lines wrapping the prop (not in this weather)
Option 2: Haul someone up the mast with a bosuns chair to untangle the main halyard which has fouled the jib halyard. (not in the weather, the mast was making a 60ft arc at this time)
Option 3: towboat...not sure if possible but that would be a bill to see wouldnt it
Option 4: Have patience and wait for the north front to pass (should be sometime today according to weather before we left)
Option 5: Attach dinghy to sailboat and use as a towboat (I didnt dignify this with a response)
So we waited for weather updates on the SSB (single sideband radio, great for long distance communication) but none came. 330pm rolls around and Todd (remember the same swimmer we had to throw a lifeline too in much calmer conditions) wants to jump in and just see the sail in the prop. I wont let him without me putting on my wetsuit and getting ready for a save. We float a line out back, he jumps in, immediately grabs the line, swims right back to the boat, hauling himself out like the water is some kind of boiling hot magma. But he got a look and said the actual sail is wrapped around. Just as we thought.
Diving under the boat is still out of the picture so Brian, Kirk, and Todd looking to keep moral high decide to watch a movie. Sitting inside the cabin, watching a tv screen bouncing all around is the last thing I feel like doing so I tell Brian I am jumping in the water and ask him to spot me.
I finally time it in between sets and swim under the boat and actually get a few wraps of the sail off the propeller. But I notice its not just sail, it is line as well jammed around the prop. So I call for the sharpest knife we have. In the back of my mind I keep hearing my mother and my girlfriend saying "be careful. use your best judgement out there." Well they were going to be pissed at me but I was getting us out of here. So with the knife, counting the swell, I swam back under. I did this numerous times cutting the sail away completely and then going back for more line wrapped around. I got most of it, then we tried the motor, put it in reverse and it threw off a little bit more...and worked! We were back in business.
Moral was high and I was cold. The guys put on some celebratory cups of hot cocoa to warm me up and we started motoring back to Port Isabelle, TX, about 100 miles south of Port Aransas where we started from. We take 1hour shifts on the helm, letting the autohelm do most of the work. And wouldnt you know, the autohelm breaks about 15hours into the 30hour motor back to safety so we hand steer for the rest of the way. Besides the autohelm breaking the shifts run smoothly thru the night. It is almost deceiving how violent the trip was up until this point.
Day 4: We point her steadily back and I take the helm as we near Port Isabelle. The winds are picking up, which makes not being able to sail a bummer, but also navigating a new port somewhat hazardous.The fun isnt over yet.
My bow watch spots the navigation bouys located at the entrace to the jetties. I make a line for it with only about 10% visibility thru the dodger, around the mast, over the dinghy lashed on deck, and under the bimini. Another sailboat sails in ahead of us so I tuck in behind him just as this huge dredging machine from NY, NY closes off the entrance. We don't know what marina we are heading too, and only symbols on a chart telling us where they are.
Todd spots a marina on the back end of South Padre Island so we turn to starboard and head up the channel towards this marina. The wind is pushing us pretty hard as I try to motor carefully. Venturing out of the channel will get you into 2ft of water real quick.
We head into a tiny marina with only 20 slips or so and at this point we see an open one and just go for it, hoping the harbor master will be accomodating. I take her into the slip and we get her all tied down. I've never seen someone as happy to get back on dry land as Todd was at this point.
It turns out that the harbormaster here at Sea Ranch Marina was happy to have us and this will be our home for the next couple of weeks as Kirk and I try to fix her back up to tackle the crossing again.
Notable quotes from the trip:
"We just got 4 months of experience in 4 days of sailing." -Brian
"Fuck!" -Dai Mar (when the main preventer broke and shredded the mainsail)
"Help!" -Todd (immidiately after jumping into the water during swim call)
"I feel like I'm still on the water" -Todd (while on the boat in the marina)
"I've already turned west" -Brian to Dai Mar, sailing with jib power only
"She's safe as long as you stay right on 120degrees" -Brian to Dai Mar at a shift change
"Its a big fish!" -Kirk (as he reels in his clump of seaweed)
"There's a marina!" -Todd (pointing to the first thing that resembled a marina)