Adventures in Galveston Bay

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on July 31, 2019. In nauticalknowhow

My husband and I own a small trawler. It’s a 34 footer, with a single 135 hp Ford Lehman diesel and a 4.5 kW generator. We draw 4 feet, and carry radar, 2 Lorans, and 2 VHF radios, plus some other assorted equipment. My husband, Reggy, has been sailing for over 35 years. I am new to boating, and have only 8 months experience, all with this particular boat. Reggy has been teaching me navigation, and I have picked up some skills from reading on my own, and of course the Nautical Know How course.

It started out innocently enough. We set out Friday afternoon March 6 from Seabrook about 1600, to go fishing off the Galveston jetties. We were to leave Friday night since we are in the slower trawler than our friend Lloyd, who has a gas-powered Chris Craft. We planned to rendezvous with Lloyd, his son, and his friend the next morning. The jetties are an area at the entrance to the Bolivar Roads Channel, with an intersection of the Houston Ship Channel, and the Galveston Ship Channel all making a “Y.”

It’s a four to five hour trip down there, which would put us in the area at about 2000 hours. Reggy had wanted to anchor for the night over a hump between the jetties where the water is only 5 to 8 feet deep. The fishing would be good there. I argued for anchoring outside the Bob Smith Marina. My real preference was for Lakewood South at Offats Bayou where the showers are hot and you can tie the boat to the pilings at the pier, and plug into shore power. I’m a wus. Reggy said it was too far away from the fishing spot. As we left Seabrook, it was still undecided.

As darkness fell over the ship channel, dense fog started rolling in. Light precipitation further reduced visibility. Some of the markers in the channel are missing, having been taken out by stray barges. For 20 minutes, we were not sure where we were. We could “see” big ships on our radar, but it’s still unnerving when they loom up huge out of the fog. Finally, after hurried re-calculations of our position, and lots of worrying, we saw the Bolivar ferries crossing in the distance. Normally, the ferries are a hazard to be avoided. I have never loved the ferries so much! We traveled up to where we saw these boats, and followed them in. It was decided we would be safer in the area next to the Bob Smith Marina for the evening than out in the jetties.

We set the anchor about 150 feet out from the white painted section of the marina wall. Nearer shore there is an unpainted section of wall, where the charts show the bottom depth much shallower. We settled in for the night for a much needed rest.

I awoke around midnight because the boat was rolling from work-boat wakes, a whole lot more than it had been rolling earlier. Thump!!! went a noise out on the aft cabin deck. We looked outside to find we had drug anchor in the night and had drifted nearly into the Galveston channel. Those big wakes were from work-boats, traveling right next to us at high rates of speed! The thump was from losing our molded plastic lawn chairs overboard. (The next ones will be tied down.) We moved the boat back nearer shore, right next to the unpainted section of wall around the marina. My sleep was uneasy after that… I dreamed we were in Marrakech, buying hedge-hog chili from a street vendor who was trying to drug us and rob us.

By daylight the fog had not dissipated. If anything it was worse. We listened to NOAA weather radio, and heard that it was not predicted to abate until late afternoon. We thought we saw the sun several times trying to peek out. I tried in vain to reach our friend Lloyd on the VHF radio to see if he was still planning to make the trip, and got no response. At 1100 Lloyd called on the cell phone and said his crew had mutinied because of the weather. Smart…

Shortly after that we decided to up anchor and go around the corner to the bait shop for some bait, then return to where we had anchored overnight for some fishing. Traveling back from the shop, Reggy decided we should go ahead out to the jetties; he thought it would be good for my First Mate Training. We plotted our course, calculated our positions, and set out again in the fog. The tow boat captains we heard talking on the VHF were all saying it was so hazardous out that they were staying put.

We discovered our VHF on the flying bridge would not call out, which is why we couldn’t hail Lloyd on it. We still had one VHF working on the lower nav station. Once again big ships would loom suddenly out of the fog. Many were anchored. My husband, who is crazy, continued on.

We found that hump we were looking for. Went right to it. The current resisted our efforts to anchor on it, however, and carried us downcurrent as fast as we could get the anchor overboard. I could vaguely see the rock groins off in the fog, and could definitely hear the surf crashing into the rocks. Not a very comfortable feeling. Off the hump all we could catch were hardheads. At this point Reggy was more amenable to going to Offat’s Bayou to try the fishing there.

Arriving at Offat’s late in the afternoon, we discovered that our generator had gone down. As we did not bring the shore power cords, initially intending to swing on the hook overnight, this was indeed a problem. I told you I was a wus.

Luckily we carry spare parts for everything. After diagnosing a water pump problem (there was no water discharging from the exhaust, just smoke), we were able to fix the generator and get everything up and running again. At last, safe at Lakewood South, with refrigeration and all the comforts of a trawler.

During the night I again awoke from unusual noises. The boat’s lines needed adjusting due to the heavy winds and thunderstorms that were happening. Reggy got up and tended to that problem, while I returned to another uneasy sleep. We were anchored across from the Galveston airport, the same airport that had several hangars leveled from tornadoes a couple of weeks ago. I thought I could hear tornadoes most of the night.

Next morning the sky was a clear blue, with only a few clouds. I thought we were home free. After listening to NOAA weather radio, we found that small craft warnings were in effect. A Canadian cold front was descending upon us, with winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour. Seas were in the 6 – 8 foot range. There was supposed to be a lull midmorning, with conditions worsening as the day wore on.

I suggested we call someone to come get us, leave the boat tied with extra lines, then come back later in the week to bring it back to Seabrook. Reggy thought it best we make a run for it during the lull. We stowed everything (we thought) that would bounce around, both out on the weather decks, and down below decks. My frame of reference for stowing things was a previous trip in choppy water, where a few things bounced around, but nothing serious.

After leaving the Offat’s channel, conditions got really bad. We started out the trip steering from the flying bridge for best visibility. The boat was being rolled very far over on its side each time a big wave would hit, which was every four seconds. This being my first experience with rough weather on board a boat, I hung over the side and kept telling myself I would not get sick. I heard a ripping sound. It was the bimini top starting to tear away from the stainless tubing that holds it in place. The VHF radio at the upper nav station was out. At Pelican Island cut we decided it might be smarter to steer from the lower nav station. I only THOUGHT this was bad. Things got worse.

In short, it took six hours to get to Seabrook. Six hours of pounding into it. This was better than being shoved over sideways. Waves were six to eight feet. Winds were gusting at 40 m.p.h. The boat would lurch into the air, then crash back down with a vengeance, bow in the water, as water sprayed up over the windshield, completely obscuring vision. One second later the next wave would hit, water streaming everywhere. Four seconds later the whole process would start anew.

The tugboats we encountered did not have good maneuverability either, and one pushed us almost onto Redfish bar. Close to Marker 64, which is where we normally like to cut across the bay to the Clear Creek Channel, a ship was pushing us toward the dredge barge that is sitting there taking up half the channel. Between the dredge taking up half, and the ship taking up the other half, there was not much room for us, and we were having trouble controlling the boat in the waves. That provided more than a few tense moments.

The whole six hour trip water was coming in the windows where the slide part of the glass overlaps. These will be replaced forthwith. The oven door would open itself with a bang, and knock over the trash can. After a short bit I started throwing everything that was flying around in there down into the forward cabin where it could hit no one. Everything in the boat is in a different place than it started out. The TV crashed face down on the deck, VCR right behind it. Everything that was not lashed down or stowed, and many things that were lashed down, became projectiles. Halfway home I asked Reggy if he was doing all right, as he had been doing the bulk of the steering. He replied that he thought it was all kind of exhilarating. Now we know he is crazy. The bimini top is in shreds, with rags of sunbrella fabric hanging off the stainless tubing, which is bent at odd angles.

We were a pathetic sight, limping back up the Clear Creek Channel, rags from the bimini flapping in the breeze, stainless tubing sticking out every direction. Sackett Rescue met us mid-channel, in part, I think, to see what kind of idiots would be out on a day like this. He told us via the working VHF radio to stay to the green side of the channel, as the West winds had blown much of the water out of the bay, and it was shallowed up on the red side.

We were lucky.

Several lessons learned from this:

1. Carry lots of spares….parts, radio, shore power cord always, backup Loran or GPS (our preference is Loran).

2. ALWAYS check the weather radio before heading out. Check for several days, not just the day of departure, if planning an extended stay. Then keep checking.

3. Learn your navigation skills well before you ever venture out in iffy weather, if you venture out at all in it. You may be required to make split second decisions.

4. Tie everything down. Stow everything securely. If it can’t be stowed, it doesn’t need to be on the boat. Leave nothing on deck. Even the anchor chain pounded a raw spot in my re-finished teak deck.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn. I hope I’ll wait awhile before attempting to learn this way again.




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