I attempted to race the 2010 Harvest Moon Regatta, a 150 mile race from Galveston to Port Aransas Texas. I say attempted because we left the race after finishing about two thirds of it, looking at the weather forecast and weighing it with the condition of the crew. There are things to learn from every trip and this was no exception.
On Monday the 18th of October I sailed with my friend Andrea 150 miles from Corpus Christi to Galveston where the race was to begin that following Thursday. The trip to Galveston was a pleasant one. The winds were iffy at first and we sometimes motor sailed. When the winds did blow I took some time to play with my latest play toy, an Aries self-steering system. When it worked it was dead on but it would then start wandering. The vanes were warped and the turret would not lock into place so I left fixing it for when I got back to corpus.
During the evening we were accompanied by a bird that found refuge on the boat. He would land and rest then fly off then come right back. It was obvious he was exhausted and eventually found his way to the settee down below to sleep. Well, at least until things down below shifted. Our little stowaway was found dead the next morning.
During the night the winds picked up. We had dropped the staysail before night fall and rolled up some of the jib as the winds increased. The winds were off of the beam around 15 to 18 knots and the boat zipped along well above hull speed. Andrea and I took turns at the helm as we widdled the hour of darkness away. Dawn brought light winds to the point where we were motoring on a sea of glass. We fought to keep our eyes open as we made our way to the Galveston Ship Channel and then the Galveston Yacht Basin around 4pm.
My wife Kerry and our two sons Andrew and Robert joined us Wednesday evening. Andrew had only been on the boat a few times in the Corpus Christi Bay and had little sailing experience. I figured that I would have him on the helm for a crash course in steering once the race started. He got the feel of it right away. Robert is a student at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and has about a year of sea time on commercial ships. He brought with him a cockiness that would be expected from a student at a federal academy but soon learned that a pissy little ol sailboat will test ones endurance quicker than any super tanker.
5,4,3,2,1, the countdown to the start of the race was being called over the VHF and I was making my first mistake. I had been watching the orange tetrahedron that marked one end of the starting line but lost track of it amongst all of the sailboats. Not wanting to have to do two full circles for a penalty if I passed the line early I pinched the boat into the wind as I looked for the marker. Next thing I knew the boat tacked. The winds were only blowing 6 or 7 knots and this mistake was going to cost me some time as tacking my jib past my staysail stay in light winds usually takes some effort and then the time needed to get the heavy blue water boat moving fast enough to tack again had me disappointed. “Roll in the jib” I yelled and Andrea did so without question my motives. This eliminated the time needed to tack the sail and I let the self-tacking staysail bring us thru the wind and back again. None the less as close to the starting line as we were we still were five minutes late crossing the line in those light winds.
We were off. Since it was the Harvest Moon Regatta and we were in the cruising boat class we were still in the middle of the pack since many boats started late with us. We spent the rest of the afternoon looking for puffs of air on the water and trying to get to them. When night fell we were still in the pack and I was happy that we were able to keep up.
The weather forecast was for the winds to increase through the night and they had already started to do so. I decided to reduce sail before night fell so Robert and I reefed the main and at some point, he and his brother dropped the staysail.
My plan for watches was to have the four of them do 3 hour watches with 9 hour rest and I would always be the 2nd man on watch, adjusting sails and resting in the cockpit when not needed but always there to help out. After the start of the race my sons did the rest of what would be Andreas watch as he got use to the boat. Kerry started her watch on time at 6. I knew she was having a problem sailing by the compass but she is also the kind of a woman not to want someone to take over for her so I cut her deal by saying I would take her place while she made us something to eat. Unfortunately going down below got her sick and she became the first victim of sea sickness for the night. Robert and Andrew soon found themselves hanging over the rail.
Andrew had taken us past the first mark, the Freeport Buoy and it was becoming late evening. Andrea relieved Andrew and started her shift early by doing the last of his watch since he was feeling bad. As the night started to wear on I tried to rest in the cockpit but with no one being able to go down below from fear of becoming sicker I was unable to find room. Sometime after midnight I decided to lie down below. The starboard settee was the leeward settee and where I wanted to lie down. Unfortunately it had clutter on it so I tried to rest in the V berth going air born as the boat flew off of waves. That’s when I heard them.
Kerry once told me how she read that voices could be heard at sea when you are all alone and no one there with you. I experienced this once when sailing alone in the gulf. It is not a scary thing but a very cool experience. Unlike thinking you might have heard something, but maybe not, these voices go on as you sit and try to make out the words. Words that are not distinguishable. How cool it was to hear them again while I was laying in the V berth. Like a gentle conversation at a table behind me in a restaurant, I heard the conversation but not the words.
Soon I was done with the wild ride in the V berth and asked Andrea how she was doing. Ok, was her reply, except there were some lights ahead that had her nervous. It was a series of lights crossing our path. She wanted to go around them. Since we could stand to go off shore a little more and try to get to better point of sail we went ahead and tacked. As soon as she gave the word I let the working sheet go to only discover that when Andrew and Robert tied the staysail up earlier they had the lazy jib sheet tied in with it. The winds were now blowing around 18to 20 mph and we had the jib partially furled. The tied off sheet prevented us from finishing the tack. The jib was now flailing away in the wind making a terrible racket and the thought of the jib tearing filled my mind. I clipped on to the life line and hurried forward. Lying across the staysail boom I worked to remove the sail ties. Crap! I should have showed the boys how to put a tie on by just tucking it into itself. The elaborate knots they used were difficult to undo as the boat pitched up and over the now eight foot seas. Finally the sheet was loose and the crew had it winched back in. The boat healed as it took off on its new course. The jack line I had clipped onto was now on the low side of the boat and I had no interest in returning to the cockpit on that side. I hung onto the staysail boom and tried to convince myself that I could make it to the hand rail on the cabin top then back into the cockpit without falling overboard. Nope I was not convinced! To get back to the cockpit on the high side would require unclipping from the jack line entirely and I was not going to do that either. I needed the boat to level off so I told Andrea to put the boat into irons and when she did I made my way into the cockpit.
After getting into the cockpit I took the helm and sailed away from shore for a while. “Can we tack now Andrea would ask?” not yet, I wanted to go ahead and use this opportunity to get away from shore and a better angle to the wind. Once we did tacked back I asked if anyone wanted to steer and Andrea volunteered.
At some point in the early morning I went down below to use the head and grab a cracker. As I stood in the companionway I asked Andrea if she was ok. This is when she shared with us that earlier in the evening she had taken something to stay awake and said she was doing fine and wanted to keep steering until, as she put it, she would crash and then not be of any value for quite a while. As I looked at that cracker it hit me. My stomach turned, and then turned again. “Robert, get out of the way I am headed to the rail.” I proclaimed and with that I gave up what I ate that night to the sea. This was actually a turning point for Robert. I think he felt embarrassed being that he was a Merchant Marine Midshipman and was sea sick, but when dad got sick he laughed and told Andrea that she was taking the sick Kaldenbach’s on a boat ride. I was only sick for a few minutes and tried to explain to my sons how they should not dwell on being seasick. Soon I felt great!
As day came the winds were steady in the low 20’s and building. Seas were around 10 feet. Andrew and Robert took the helm from Andrea sometime in the morning but as noon came she was still up. Whatever she took that last evening was not giving up its hold on her. I have made several blue water crossings and have learned how to manage my rest time with sailing the boat. Long sailboat trips are endurance races and you don’t win one by sprinting from the starting line.
I was laying in the cockpit listening to the chit chat of the others when we slid down the side of a wave and picked up water over the lee side of the cockpit coming soaking me. I said, “Whatever you did don’t do it again.” Andrew was at the helm and at first thought I was referring to getting me wet. I explained that it was not wind that would roll a boat but rather the waves. Andrew then felt that he had exceeded his capability as a helmsman and I took over. We were near close hauled and would sometimes hit 6 knots but lose speed in the waves. The estimated time of arrival was slowly getting later on the chart plotter having gone from 11 pm that night to 3 am the next morning. I understand that this GPS calculation is very fluid and can change drastically with a few minutes of good speed in the right direction. But I had to wonder what lied ahead. Andrea was still up and I assumed she was headed for a crash and probably a long one. My family was tired from having been sick. None of my crew were use to the kind of condition we had and I wondered if we were to run into trouble that required level headed thinking by others on the boat could they do it? I did not plan on having to go forward to free the lazy sheet in the wee hours that morning but those things can pop up at any time.
Soon I noticed the Matagorda ship channel buoys on the chart plotter and asked the crew if they wanted to continue on or go in. I was happy to hear that no one was itching to quit but I pondered what lay ahead. I turned on the weather radio and got a forecast. The winds were now steady in the mid 20’s and were expected to build throughout the race. The seas were manageable but no fun. All things considered I decided to call it quits and head for the Matagorda ship channel. Robert took the helm and brought us in the channel. Kerry said she realized just how deep the waves were when she saw a pilot boat disappear in a trough.
We still had 50 miles to go. And I bet you thought this story was almost over.
Once we got into the Inter Costal Waterway I took the helm. The ICW is a barge canal cut through otherwise shallow water. Markers are sometime few and far between and it is best to keep the boat on the red line on the chart plotter that marks the channels deepest spot. Communication with the barge traffic is essential to see if they had any concerns about passing them especially on this night where they had to crab pointing there bows into the wind somewhat to keep from having the wind blow them off course. Robert would hail the approaching barges using proper radio etiquette he learned at the academy and it appeared that the professional use of the radio got positive responses from the barges. This is not always the case and they will sometimes ignore a pleasure boats call. This can be a problem when you are restricted to the same channel that they are.
Though the 10 foot seas were gone the wind was still howling. As we fell out of the protection of land and into, open, shallow, bays the water was choppy. With no shoreline and the buoys far and few between sailing by the chart plotter was critical. Even this was not a guarantee against grounding. As we left the San Antonio Bay and in the darkness of night I hit bottom while well within the channel on the plotter. We needed to make a sharp turn to get out of mud and just as we were about to unfurl the jib to let the wind push the bow around, we found deeper water. I was on pins and needles, not only was it getting late and I had been at the helm since entering the ICW earlier, a barge that we had past told us that he thought one behind him was towing as opposed to pushing and this had me concerned. How much of the channel would he need? Luckily we never found such a barge and when we entered Aransas Bay I was ready for a break. It was around 11pm and I had been waiting for the deeper waters of this bay to take a break. Andrea was soon back at the helm again, having been off of it for well over 12 hours. I said to keep the boat in between the lines on the chart plotter and to let me know when we approached the Rockport cut where I would take the helm and maneuver thru yet more shallow water.
I was laying in the cockpit half asleep and half listening to Andrea and Andrew talk when I was awoken by copious amounts of water soaking me. I fussed at Andrea in not the best choice of words explaining that all I wanted her to do was keep the boat in the channel, as opposed to getting it to go as fast as she could. The boat was healing and I was upset that they ignored my warning earlier that the engine was designed to be run at only so much heal and risked serious damage if left to run otherwise. I later tried to extend an olive branch to Andrea by rubbing her shoulder and saying I thought of her as a sister when she made it a point to let me know how she feels about cussing. I try not to cuss and when I do I usually apologize for it without out question. That is the best I can offer.
I took the helm and kept it until we were through the shallow waters of the Rockport Cut, dodged a barge sitting sideways in the channel and into the Corpus Christi Bay where Robert brought us to the marina and home.