A wet re-start
It took a while to get back to the regular rhythm of life at sea. The storm created a big, rolling swell that we admired for hours. Slowly we put more and more sails up as the wind decreased, not too quickly, as if we had no energy for more trips to the mast nor for operating halyard and winches. We sat there. Everybody onboard was exhausted so we bobbed a little more without pushing the boat and ourselves.
It felt like I was washed out, my belongings scattered and damaged. Like formatting the hard drive of a computer. My watch was also missing. It was a beautiful watch that my dad gave me as a present. Boats are very good in swallowing objects, so I thought I would see it again at the end of the trip when we would unpack and repack into our suitcases.
The worst part of the storm was the damp interior and the lack of dry clothing left behind. Before leaving Ft.Myers we meticulously washed all the beddings and clothes to have a comfortable passage to Houston. With no change of clothes and no dry bunks for sleeping we still had to sail for more than 450miles. There is nothing more miserable at sea than a damp boat. Patiently we arranged the cabin the best we could to have a little comfort, but our hearts were as heavy as a piece of waterlogged driftwood.
As night approached so did thunderstorms. I couldn’t watch any more lightning on the horizon without fear and stress. I stood by the Radar display on the alert. Luckily this time it was only rain, even though we would die for some dry weather to help containing the moisture level onboard. The winds decided to blow directly from Houston so we put the boat on a motor-sailing duty and we stuck on that, but our progress was slow. We played with the revs and the autopilot and the mainsail but nothing could un-stuck us from a wretched two knots of speed over ground.
Mississippi or Loop Current?
It was obvious that an adverse current had its hand in it, but without a knot-meter we couldn’t calculate how strong it was. Thw Gulf of Mexico proved to be a tough stretch of water, more than we expected. The adverse current did not ease for another day. All kind of hypothesis thronged our conversations: at first we believed it was the influence of the Mighty Mississippi mouth even if we were at least 100 miles south of it.
Then we considered the Loop Current influence. This warm water current could sometimes extend far north into the Gulf, before circle back and slip in between Florida and Cuba creating the Gulf Stream that heads north through the Atlantic. We couldn’t check our hypothesis and when we had a chance we called a distant ship on VHF to ask if they knew anything about it. The captain was annoyed by the current as well but he was apparently ignorant of the phenomenon or maybe he was just aware that he could not do much about it.
When passage planning for the Gulf of Mexico portion of this trip I considered and decided to sail south of the Oil Rig extension for as much as we could, before turning NNW and head for Galveston. The Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is disseminated with platforms of any size and shape, and any work conditions. Before the trip many people told me how some of them aren’t active and not even lit during the night. Obviously no one could prove this rumor personally without hitting one.
After being swept by a furious storm and barely progressing against the Mighty Mississippi current or whatever it was, the idea of shortening the trip by more than a 100 miles taking a direct cut through the jungle of platforms was a siren song we could not resist. We plotted a straight course to Texas that brought us in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico drilling operations. At the beginning it was heart bumping, but after a while we took confidence sailing through oil rigs and all the related marine traffic.
People are often concerned about traffic and maritime operations while offshore sailing. In theory this is a concern that only a singlehanded sailor should have, as there are going to be times when nobody is standing watch on deck and he or she should adopt strategies to minimize risk of collision. A well manned vessel with crew standing watch all the time should be able to avoid any collision. The truth is that the Ocean is not as populated as we think it is, and the congested areas are very few and it’s usually where sailors pay maximum attention and further aids are offered (like buoys, pilots, etc.).
Still, the Gulf can be pretty busy in terms of marine traffic. Facing an area with high density of marine traffic and miscellaneous obstacles can be a source of stress for the crew of a small sailboat with limited instrumentation. But after a little time to get used to the new horizon, sailing through the oil rigs was not bad at all, and we were lucky not to end up on one of the infamous unlit platform that allegedly populate the area.
What bothered us most was the not cooperation from the wind, very light and mainly adverse, and with a 13,000 lbs displacement boat our only option to get to the completion of the trip was to motor. Motoring through oil rigs was just a boring and repetitive task. The inboard diesel proved to be very frugal but we were growing anxious about the lack of wind and the possibility to run out of fuel. That’s why we started talking about an on-the-go refuel stop at one of the oil rigs!
First we picked that card as a last resort dictated by fear. Even when we put down the math and realized that the fuel onboard was just enough to get to destination, we still wanted to try the new experience of asking for fuel to an oil rig.
After we located our target, it took few attemps to get somebody answering our VHF call, and then few extra efforts to explain what our intentions were. We realized that passing fuel to cruisers was not an everyday task for the workers on the rig who were definetely surprised by our request as they kept looking for a supervisor who could authorize it. Finally somebody on the phone gave the consent and we started the operation: at first a line was sent down from a bridge to collect our empty jerry cans. At the end a piece of paper with two words: trade please. The lack of wind and waves made the operation easy even though the vicinity of the huge metal pilings was haunting my concentration during the manouvre. When the jerry cans came down filled with diesel we had nothing to trade but some cold cash and a thank you note. I believe booze was what they were looking for, but this is just speculation.
Refueled and happy for the help from our new friends we resumed our course to Houston and during my evening watch even the wind started to blow and turn South. I opened the jib and staysail, trimmed the main, adjust the windvane autopilot and started playing with the revs to see if we could finally turn off the engine. The wind was light tough probably too light for a boat like the Southern Cross, but I was ready to trade a lower speed for the quiet of sailing. The boat moved at 5+ knots, which was a surprise and made for a very smooth ride. This time the Loop Current was our loyal escort as we caught the Westward eddy pushing towards Houston. At dawn we entered Galveston Bay and reached Clear Lake City, where the owner proudly docked the boat in his slip.
We spent an extra day helping the owner and his wife to empty, re-organize and clean the boat, plus we made few repairs and improvement that we identified during the trip. Unfortuantely my watch never re-appeared, joining my phone and few other belongings in the casualty list. In 14 days trip we left Georgia, sailed south in the Atlantic, cut across the middle of Florida and spent some intense days in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the fatigue and the effort we were happy to succeed and glad the new owner could enjoy the boat close to home. He got himself a sturdy and safe boat that went through some serious tests keeping the crew safe during a very demanding trip.