I’d been sailing aboard Isla for weeks. She was my first boat, her captain my first sailing instructor. They were a good pair who fit together as naturally as port and starboard. Both were sturdy, dependable, unpretentious and made for cruising.
We didn’t just sit around,Tom, Isla and I. We cruised from the beginning, undocking and docking at Tom’s equally unpretentious home on Galveston’s Teichman Road. He was an old-fashioned sort who believed boats were meant to go places, and that anyone setting foot on a boat needed to know everything there was to know about getting a vessel from Point A to Point B without running aground, sinking, losing crew or disrespecting the sea and other sailors. Being able to communicate with Cajun Captains in the ICW and knowing how to tear down an engine were as important to him as being able to program a GPS although, in those days, there were no GPS sets to program. In fact, there were far fewer electronic gadgets of any sort on most pleasure craft and none at all on Isla, unless you counted the VHF radio.
With my old-fashioned captain, I learned old-fashioned sailing. In West Bay I used a hand-bearing compass to plot position and orange peelings to calculate speed. Wending my way around Teichman point and into the Intracoastal Waterway, I learned patience and control waiting for the tender to raise the Railroad Bridge. Once through Pelican Cut, I put Isla mid-channel by using the range markers or scooted to the edge, away from the steady procession of barges and ships. I was having fun.
Inbound, Bolivar Roads ~ Louis Vest
In Bolivar Roads, the intersection of the Intracoastal and the Houston Ship Channel, I put book learning to the test as I struggled to identify lights and sound signals. We picked our way through the spoil banks edging the channel and I learned the importance of local knowledge. From my vantage point in the nearby ship’s anchorage, I watched ferries, barges, pilot boats, freighters and fishermen flood across the water.
Eventually I looked less at ships headed north and more to those headed south, through the jetties, toward that blue water stretching away to the horizon. It wasn’t precisely blue, of course. This is the Texas coast, where near-shore waters are shallow, river-fed, easily churned up and muddy. Nevertheless, coastal waters are deeper than bays and vessels there are less constrained. You can set out to sail and not turn around. You can go places.
One day I asked Tom, “Can this boat go there?” “Where?” “There. Through the jetties. Offshore.” Only the faintest smile crept around his eyes. “You want to give it a try?” I did. Turning over the possibilities, he said, “We could make a run down to Port O’Connor. That’s long enough to give you a taste of night sailing, but not so long we’d need to commit a whole week.” Amazed by my own daring, I agreed on the spot. Finally laughing aloud as he walked forward to secure a line, Tom called back, “Just remember. They say anyone who goes to sea for pleasure will go to Hell for a pastime.”
S/V Isla ~ Pelican Island, Galveston
Despite his cautionary tone, Tom was willing and so was I, so off we went. Like the Owl and the Pussycat our provisions were minimal but sufficient. Basic navigation tools included charts, hand-bearing and ship’s compasses, binoculars and dividers. We had a copy of the Rules of the Road, a tub of homemade oatmeal cookies and two copies of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms ~ just in case one went overboard. To keep ourselves from going overboard we had jacklines, and we carried the usual complement of emergency flares and life jackets. We had sunglasses and foul weather gear, sunscreen and gloves. We had extra line and sail patches, a bag filled with tools, an assortment of shackles and a 55 gallon drum lashed to the mast. The barrel was filled with sealed and secured containers of extra fuel. Only later did we discover the barrel would be as useful as the gas.
Leaving Galveston astern, we worked our way south and west, down the Intracoastal to Freeport. We ate dinner in a local marina, talking over the weather and the evening’s plan. When we cast off our lines, making our way through the jetties and out to sea, it was an hour before sunset. The skies were clear, the winds moderate but steady and the seas running 2-3 feet. There’d been some talk of a possible frontal passage, but its arrival was projected to be farther down the road. By then we would have arrived at our destination and, since we planned to come back via the ICW, even rough weather wouldn’t be much of a concern.
Intracoastal Waterway, Freeport, Texas ~ George Hosek
Years later on other passages I’d have the chance to discover how cloudy nights in mid-ocean can be claustrophobically dark. Coastal cruising in Texas waters is quite different. Even without a moon or stars, the night is alive with lights. In season, the shrimp fleet plies its trade. In every season container ships and tankers blink and glow along the edges of the safety fairway, their patterns of red, green and white light reminding nervous sailors: “I’m here. I’m big. I might be headed your way.” Red lights on shore-bound radio towers make terrific landmarks for those closer to the coast, and always there are the rigs and platforms, handy if unintentional aids to navigation.
When their lights go out, smaller platforms can be dangerous. They crouch unnoticed in the dark until something – a low hum, the sound of slapping waves, the cry of a startled bird - alerts the sailor to their presence. But the big platforms, the ones that seem to wade in the water like bizarre, technological bathing beauties with skirts pulled up above their knees ~ those are the ones that offer comfort and guidance to sailors making their way across horizonless waters.
Offshore Oil Platforms at Sunset
Around midnight, before going below to sleep, Tom said, “Think of the rigs as substitute stars. Use them with the compass to help hold your course. In the grand scheme of things they may not be as dependable as stars, but they’re nearly so. They don’t just disappear. If you can’t see the stars you know they’re covered by clouds. If you can’t see a rig you’ve been watching, there’s a reason. Maybe you went off course, but maybe there’s a ship between you and the rig. You’d want to know about that.”
With that bit of cheerful advice he disappeared, and I was alone with the sea. A little taut, a little nervous, I watched the stars, the compass and my chosen platforms until my nervousness disappeared and so, one by one, did the platforms. Certain I was about to slam us into the side of something belonging to Maersk or Hapag-Lloyd, I nearly panicked until, one by one, the rigs reappeared.
For the next hour rigs twinkled like fireflies, disappearing and reappearing apparently at random. When an unbearably chipper Tom popped back on deck to see how things were going, all I could say was, “I’m not sure…” Listening to me babble, he said, “Well, let’s take a look.” A minute later he began to chuckle. “C’mere”, he said. “Let me take the helm and you turn around and look behind us.”
In my anxiety about the disappearing rigs and my eagerness to steer a perfect course, I’d missed something. Not only had the wind come up, it had come up substantially. We were running dead downwind ahead of a frontal passage that had decided to show up early. The seas had built and we were the ones who were disappearing and reappearing again: down into the troughs, then up to the crest of the continually building waves. The rigs hadn’t moved an inch. At the bottom of the troughs, the rigs were “gone”. At the top of the waves, they were visible. I’d never been surrounded by so much water, or been so relieved. I wasn’t going crazy or blind. I was sailing the ocean, and my substitute stars were aligned.
As the sun rose behind us, the effect of the frontal passage and the rising winds was clear. Waters that had been relatively smooth, with regular waves and easy swells, had grown lumpy and confused. We’d traveled faster than we’d anticipated, and Port O’Connor lay behind us. On the other hand, we’d held a good course and were perfectly situated to turn into Port Aransas. As we turned across the wind and waves toward land, the wet and wild ride was as exhilarating as anything I’d ever experienced.
Passing Cavallo – Offshore, Port O’Connor, Texas
Standing at the mast, I heard Tom shout, “Climb up on that barrel and see if you can see land.” Hoisting myself up by a mast step, I clambered onto the barrel and scanned the horizon. Shimmering and low, a collection of beige squares floated above the horizon. Squinting a little, I made out a thin, reddish line above them. “Roofs,” I thought. “Tile roofs. It’s Port Aransas!” Nearly beside myself with excitement, I shouted, “Condo, Ho!” Apparently puzzled, not certain what he’d heard, Tom yelled back, “WHAT?” “Condo, Ho!” “Well, good grief,” he said. “I’ve never heard that one before.”
In what seemed no more than an instant we were at the entrance buoy for Port Aransas. As we made our way through a new set of jetties, tired, slightly giddy and already talking about where we’d find showers and fresh seafood for dinner, we decided to circle around for a water-side look at the old Lydia Ann lighthouse.
“You know”, Tom said, “that light doesn’t mark the channel entrance any more, but it’s still working.” The lights of the towers, the stars and the steady, dependable platforms that had guided us through the night flashed across my mind. “That’s good,” I said. “We need all the light we can get.”
Port Aransas Lighthouse ~ Lydia Ann Channel