To Part One
To Part Two
Now that would be a good thing for them to carve on my tombstone:
Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.
I’m up early, waiting for my turn at the clump of bushes
a ways down the beach that’s serving as the head for a bunch
of us this morning. Makes for a later launch than usual, and many
boats are already heading out by the time I manage to organize
my gear and slide Jagular into the water. Gotta wear
long pants today—yesterday afternoon’s sun gave me
a good start at a burn. I start rummaging through my gear for
my one pair of long pants. Which aren’t there, because they’re
still draped over a railing at the Padre Island Yacht Club.
This time I eat a couple of the Newtons before they even have
time to start snickering—call that breakfast. Then I decide
the missing pants don’t matter too much anyway; I’ll
just wrap my sleeping mat over my legs for some instant shade.
But I’m wondering how much of my gear will end up strewn
all along the Texas coast by the end of the week.
At least I’m having better luck than the multi-hull fleet.
Last night David discovered that his dolphin striker (as a monohull
guy I’m not even sure what that is, but apparently your
boat can just kind of fall apart without one) was badly frayed.
Dan St. Gean, between attempts to repair rudder pins or something
on his cat (and not for the first time, I think), loaned his spare
striker to David. And somewhere in there the mad Frenchman, Laurent—crewing
for Kevin on the green proa now, having left his damaged boat
at the Padre Island Yacht Club—pulled out some ultra-expensive
super-fiber Kevlar-like string no thicker than a pencil lead,
and I think that got used in some of the repairs, too—like
tying together a sailboat with dental floss. Meanwhile the main
hull on Kevin’s proa had been taking on water the past couple
of days, so Kevin and Laurent were trying to figure out a way
to really baby the boat so it would hold together until Magnolia
I’ve been luckier than Mike Monies, too. He came sailing
in at sunset with an improvised rig borrowed from the PDR fleet
after capsizing near Shamrock Island, which cost him his rig and
a bunch of gear. Mike was supposed to use the new jury rig to
get safely ashore where he could quit. Somehow I wasn’t
surprised to see him show up here at Paul’s Mott instead,
||Mike Monies and Noble Plan sail on
despite capsizing and losing the boat’s original rig.
All in all, a tough day for many of us. But there was good news,
too; Brian is safe—it was his new Michael Storer yawl I
saw get knocked down in Corpus Christi Bay, not Chuck and Sandra’s
much larger Caprice. Chuck and Sandra were able to pick Brian
up after his boat capsized and sailed off without him. For a while,
though, it was a reminder of what could go wrong; David had found
his empty boat on the bay and radioed the Coast Guard, fearing
the worst. We were all relieved to find out that no one was hurt,
despite the day’s problems.
But I didn’t actually pay too much attention to all that—even
before it was fully dark I collapsed on the oyster-shell reef
beside Jagular and fell asleep. No need to stay up all
night making repairs; I’ve had all my problems already.
At least I hope so. But by now I have some confidence in my ability
to muddle through despite making mistakes, anyway. I’m starting
to feel like I belong here.
I’ve made another discovery, too: I really enjoy spending
the long hours sailing solo. I suppose some might find it boring
to spend all day alone in a tiny boat; I feel sorry for them.
These long slow passages—more than thirty miles a day—offer
an antidote to the mad rushing here and there that marks so much
of our lives. When you’re alone for so long in a small boat
like Jagular, your mind’s clumsy and unceasing
clamoring is slowly worn down until nothing remains but a simple
awareness of the moment—a moment that stretches on for eight,
nine, ten hours of solitude. No need for thinking, only being.
The sound of the waves. The feel of the tiller. The motion of
the boat through the water. And always, the wind. Solo sailing
is life reduced to a perfectly elegant simplicity.
* * * * *
After launching Jagular, I follow a line of boats northwest
toward the day’s first challenge: a series of three passes
that will take us through the shallows of Carlos Bay and Mesquite
Bay. I’m looking forward to leaving the ICW behind and doing
some real sailing. I even manage to pass a few boats by cutting
close in across the west end of Jaybird Reef, and then we’re
at the entrance to the first pass, just off Dunham Island. For
once in this flat flat land it’s easy to recognize features
from the chart—Cape Carlos, then Cedar Point—and I’m
a little disappointed to have a line of boats in front of me to
follow. Takes some of the satisfaction out of finding my way through.
Again, though, I’m given a little boost of confidence in
my chart-and-compass navigating. A simpler, more elegant, more
skillful method than the now-ubiquitous GPS.
You’re an idiot, one of the Newtons says. Magellan,
Shackleton, Cook—they used the best navigation
technology they could get. They would have loved a GPS.
I ignore him.
It’s not long before we’re through Cedar Dugout,
the second pass, and then I’m following a long line of boats
strung out across Mesquite Bay, heading generally eastward toward
Ayres Dugout. With my jury rig I can barely hold this course,
because I can’t manage much more than a beam reach. I start
trying to angle to windward a little, putting something in the
bank in case I miss the cut, but I can see it’s going to
Then up ahead, between me and the island that must mark the entrance
to the cut, I see waves breaking in shallow water, always an unsettling
sight. The island turns out to be two or three separate islands
separated by marshy channels. There are a number of boats pulled
up on the beach of the westernmost island, but I’ll have
to get past the reef to get there. I tuck my chart away without
really looking at it, trying to make out what’s happening
up ahead. Again I try unsuccessfully to head more to windward,
guessing that the beached boats have missed the channel by being
caught too far downwind. They must’ve landed on the island
to regroup. Why else would they stop?
I aim for the passage between the islands, but I can already
tell I’m not going to make it. The wind is driving Jagular
toward the shallow reefs ahead, and I can’t point high enough
to sail around them. Soon the rudder is bumping the bottom, then
the leeboards. Then we’re stopped, aground on a mound of
oyster shells in ankle deep water two hundred and fifty yards
off the beach.
As Jagular grinds to a halt, the full force of the wind
hits me. Windy! Now that I’m stopped I can really feel it,
blowing hard. I pull on my borrowed flip-flops and quickly hop
out of the boat to pull down the sprit and furl the sail, then
unstep the mast and stow it aboard. The water is so shallow that
even without me aboard Jagular won’t float free;
the wind is pushing the boat onto the leeboard and rudder, driving
them hard into the oyster-shell bottom. I pull off the rudder,
then untie both leeboards and stow everything aboard before starting
to tug Jagular toward the island. The hull scrapes across
the surface of the reef, but pulls easily enough. Probably weighs
less than two hundred pounds, even fully loaded as it is.
I haven’t taken more than a few steps before the oyster
shells have cut my feet up pretty badly, though—the muddy
bottom keeps sucking the flip-flops off my feet, and the shells
are sharp-edged and cruel. Feels like walking through a huge tub
of knee-deep butter filled with thousands of pieces of broken
glass. Still, the flip-flops are far better than nothing. I manage
to make my way across the reef, stopping every few steps to pull
the flip-flops back unto my feet, and in a few minutes I reach
a narrow deep-water channel that separates the reefs from the
island. I don’t bother to get back in the boat, crowded
with oars, rudder, leeboards, and rig; I just start swimming,
pulling Jagular behind me like a dog on a leash. It only
takes a few minutes to reach the shore, where I pull the boat
up beside David’s Hobie and check my feet.
Not too bad after all—I’m bleeding from a number of
cuts and scrapes, but only one bad wound, a three-inch laceration
sliced deep into the meat of my right heel. I rinse it with fresh
water and carefully press the flap of skin back over the cut and
duct tape it shut. Seems to work. Then I head up the narrow beach
to where a number of people have gathered at a cabin on the island.
It’s a surreal transition, not at all what I expected to
find here in the middle of nowhere. Someone is cooking breakfast
in the cabin, offering food to all takers. Others are talking
on handheld VHF radios, trying to warn people about the reefs.
Still others are watching the approaching boats, a long line of
them strung out from Cedar Dugout to the island. I wander aimlessly,
not really sure why so many of us have gathered here. Lots of
the boats behind me seem to be having problems. A PDR runs aground
way out on the reef, and a couple of people go out to help the
skipper drag his boat to the island. Meanwhile the radio chatter
grows more animated as everyone tries to figure out what’s
happening. “Go more to windward than you are,” someone
says. Another radio voice disagrees. Someone else comes on to
ask what’s going on. Utter confusion. I limp around trying
to figure out what to do.
Finally I decide I might as well get moving. “Where’s
the cut?” I ask David. “Between the islands, right?
I think I’ll just drag my boat back there along the beach,
shouldn’t be too hard.”
David stares at me for a second. “Dude,” he says,
pointing at the deep channel running past the island just a few
feet offshore—the channel I swam across a few minutes before.
“The cut’s right there. That’s it.”
What the… I go back to my boat and pull out my compass.
The channel runs almost due north; I’m sure that on my chart,
Ayres Dugout runs east to west. David can’t be right. He
is, though. I understand as soon as I pull out my chart to check.
The channel angles northeast a short distance before curving eastward—I’ve
been fooled, not noticing how the island angles northeast instead
of straight north. There is no passage between the islands. I
have to sail around the west side of the whole group.
||The infamous Ayres Dugout. Again, much easier
to see on Google Earth than in person.
If I could have gained just a little more ground to windward,
I would’ve sailed right around the eastern edge of the reefs,
where a turn to the left would have put me safely in this channel
without running aground. Either way, though, I’ve made it
now. Home free. But I’m annoyed with myself for following
the boats ahead of me instead of my chart. It wouldn’t have
made much difference here—with Jagular unable to
work to windward, I would have ended up aground on the reef anyway—but
I decide it’s the last time I’ll let something like
that happen. No more mindless following! I re-rig the rudder and
leeboards, step the mast, and I’m off up the channel, just
behind Chuck and Sandra, who cruise smoothly by in their Caprice
as I’m launching.
||Jagular sets out from the island at
Ayres Dugout. (photo: Andrew Linn)
||One of the dramatic rescues Jagular
missed by leaving Ayres a few minutes too soon. Or just in
time, depending on how you look at it. (photo: Andrew Linn)
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind
After sailing past a few small islands, I round the corner into
San Antonio Bay. Chuck and Sandra are way up ahead, but I can
just see their sails over the horizon. I set my self-steering
gear and follow them directly across the bay, aiming for Panther
Point. This course takes me a little ways out from the lee of
Matagorda Island, but Jagular isn’t having any
problems. Either the wind has died down or I’m starting
to get used to it. Along the way I pass several oil platforms,
intricate masses of pipes and tubes that rise from the shallow
bay like sets of abandoned monkey bars. They’re much smaller
than I imagined.
Six miles later I reach Panther Point, where an exposed oyster
shell reef reaches from deep out in the bay toward shore like
a bony and beckoning finger. There are hundreds of hunched-over
birds lined up in the shallows all along the way, a curmudgeonly
bunch, surly and grumbling. Luckily there’s a narrow channel
of deeper water just off the point, so I’m able to sail
right past them between Panther Point and the reef just a few
yards offshore. Another six miles to go, then I’ll have
to find a pass through the First Chain of Islands.
About a mile and a half past Panther Point, I angle further
offshore, following a compass course toward South Pass. At least,
toward the place that South Pass is supposed to be, according
to my chart—as always around here, the islands are too low
to see. About four miles straight ahead if I’m doing this
You’re not, one of the Newtons says. Smart
sailors use a GPS. You again, I say. GPS, hell. I like relying
on skill, not buttons and batteries. Another Newton chimes in.
Your insistence on clinging to outdated technologies is not
evidence of moral superiority, but only a symptom of your psychotic
compulsion toward non-conformity.
When are you going to give up this constant negativity? I ask.
When are you going to learn to enjoy the wind, the waves, the
sun? When are you going to realize we’re having the time
of our lives right now and stop the constant complaining? When
are you going to stop eating us? the first Newton says. Circle
of life, I tell him. We’re all part of someone’s food
chain. There are only eight of us left, you know, it says.
Don’t be such a baby, I say. But I put the carton away without
eating any of them.
Soon the First Chain of Islands is visible ahead—low, featureless,
hard to identify anything clearly. But not impossible. I find
tiny South Pass Island, or at least I think I do, right where
I was expecting it to appear. Too much trouble to sail around
to the pass on the north side, though. Instead I just take Jagular
over the shallows south of the island. The rudder bumps once,
but we make it through with no problems; Jagular can
sail in six inches of water. But as I’m rounding the corner
into Espiritu Santo Bay, I see that a big boat, a fiberglass sloop,
has followed me through the non-pass where the chart shows a foot
of water. I cringe, waiting for them to run aground, start kedging
off or sending someone out onto the end of the boom to heel the
boat, but they make it through without getting hung up at all.
Before long they’re passing me, heading for the final camp
at Army Hole.
Following them through Espiritu Santo Bay, though, I run into
problems again. The wind has shifted to the northeast, directly
offshore. And it’s picking up. By the time I make out the
distant group of buildings that must be Army Hole I’m wondering
if I’ll make it. I’m sailing a beam reach parallel
to the shore, but I can’t point high enough to get any closer.
Shit. The waves are building, making it even harder to claw my
way to windward. Before long the chop is big enough to be exciting,
and I know that if I don’t figure something out I’ll
end up in the marshes two miles past Army Hole. Hmm. I thought
the Texas 200 was supposed to be a downwind run…
I decide that maybe I can tack my way in; thinking ahead for
once, I set up my backstay this morning with a double line, so
I can easily rig another backstay to the port side leeboard cleat.
I set the new backstay and try beating for a little while, but
the chop is stopping Jagular dead. Even with me rowing
it’s all I can do to bring the bow around onto the new tack.
And it takes so long that we’re actually losing ground each
time we come about, while still not making much more than a beam
reach. I keep trying for half an hour and am no closer to shore
than I was before. We might’ve pulled it off with a decent
sail, but with this mangled jury rig it’s just not going
Maybe I can motorsail in, though. I cleat the sheet, tie the
tiller amidships, and start rowing, trying to let the wind push
us along while I provide progress to windward. No good. I keep
trying for twenty minutes anyway, but achieve nothing. Maybe worse
than nothing. The wind is much stronger now, the waves tossing
Jagular sharply, sending plenty of spray aboard. And
it’s getting late, not much daylight left. Finally I give
up—I’ll sail the best course I can manage until I
hit the buoyed channel leading into Army Hole, figure out what
to do from there; I can always row in, or tie up to a buoy for
the night. Or keep going and camp in the marshes down the coast.
Something. Back to a beam reach on the starboard tack.
Once I give up my feeble attempts to fight the wind, we move
along smartly, paralleling the shoreline. It’s not long
before I hit the channel, right at marker 21, about a mile offshore.
Moving quickly, I pull down the rig and stow it for rowing. Should
have tied off to the buoy first, though; by the time I start to
row the wind has pushed us a hundred yards further offshore. No
matter. After all this hassle there’s no way in hell I’ll
quit before I get to Army Hole. I’m glad I don’t have
a radio, or I might be tempted to call for a tow. Instead I start
rowing toward shore, dead upwind.
It only takes a few strokes before I know how much of an ordeal
this is going to be. I can hardly move the boat at all, and on
each recovery it’s almost as hard to pry the oars through
the air as it is to pull the boat through the water. Jagular
has pinned oarlocks, the North River type, so I can’t feather
my oars—each oar blade becomes a sail as soon as I lift
it from the water. And it’s not easy timing the strokes
in this chop, either; a couple of times my oars bite nothing but
air, throwing me off balance. I’m making no progress at
all. And still no one’s coming out to offer me a tow. That’s
probably for the best, though; either I’d be dumb enough
to refuse, or I’d feel bad about accepting. But I suppose
it’s dark enough by now that no one could see me even if
they were looking this way.
An unreasonable stubbornness grabs me, defeats my natural inclinations
toward laziness. No. No way, not after trying this hard. I am
not giving up. Ain’t gonna happen. I swear a mighty oath
that I will sleep ashore at Army Hole tonight, even if I have
to swim there, towing the boat. I will get there. And I will do
it myself. No tows. No motors. Just me.
I start experimenting with different strokes. The conventional
wisdom on rowing into a stiff wind, I vaguely remember reading
somewhere, is to shorten your stroke. Sounds advantageous, like
downshifting a bike to ride up a steep hill. I try it for one
hundred strokes, take a ten-second rest, then give it another
hundred. No good—I can hold my place, but I’m not
getting anywhere. Still about a mile to go. Shit.
I try the opposite, taking as long and slow a stroke as I can
manage. It’s like doing a simultaneous leg press and lat
row, a slow exhausting muscle burn, but we’re moving. Barely.
I continue for fifty strokes, then pause. Definite progress.
Hell with it then, I say aloud. I start rowing in earnest, long
slow strokes that push the boat slowly through the wind and water.
Every so often a particularly large wave sends a shower of spray
over the bow onto my back. I count two hundred strokes, rest for
a few seconds, then two hundred more. Another two hundred. Turn
around to look—we’re closer now, but my look back
just cost us ten yards. I give it another two hundred. Getting
darker. Blisters forming. Another two hundred. I’m exhausted,
my whole body worked, muscles trembling. Another two hundred strokes.
I turn to look. Half a mile to go. Plus the ten yards I just lost.
I start another two hundred strokes. Somewhere in the cockpit
the surviving Newtons start jeering, but I’m too busy to
* * * * *
I row into Army Hole’s inner harbor in near darkness,
completely exhausted and almost asleep at the oars. Several people
help me tie up to a dock that’s way too high for Jagular.
Tired as I am, I can barely climb up onto the towering dock, dragging
a pile of food and gear with me. A fellow sailor—he introduces
himself as Noel, seems like a cheerful guy—asks me several
times if there’s anything he can do to help. I’m grateful,
but so tired all I can do is mumble an unintelligible reply and
stagger off barefoot through the sandburs scattered around the
lawn like land mines. I barely feel them.
I drop my sleeping mat on the ground in the middle of the lawn
and collapse on top of it for a while before I can find the energy
to grab something from my food bag. Sardines in mustard sauce,
the first thing I pull out. I pry open the can and start eating.
I’m asleep almost before I finish them.
||The inner harbor at Army Hole.
||Noel at Army Hole.
Every exit is an entrance somewhere else. —Tom Stoppard
I lie on the ground staring blankly at nothing for a few minutes
before I realize I’m awake. It’s as good as over,
I think. This should be an easy day. I slowly pull myself out
from under my thin blanket and stand up, stretching my back and
arms tentatively. I’ve slept in today, battered from last
night’s epic row. It looks like everyone else is already
up. Moving slowly, I limp across the grass to hang yesterday’s
damp shirt on a fence overlooking the harbor, give it a chance
to dry before I leave.
In honor of our last day I pull on my t-shirt from the 2006
Wisconsin Ironman, which has the word FINISHER written in large
bold letters across the back. Seems appropriate—I feel like
I’ve just completed an Ironman. Then, reluctant to let the
journey end, I take a long walk around Army Hole. No reason to
hurry now. Finally, though, I’m ready to get started, so
I stow my gear aboard Jagular and cast off, rowing out
to the harbor entrance. A fellow sailor on shore holds my bow
line while I step the mast and set the spritsail, then tosses
me the line when I’m ready. The offshore wind blows Jagular
off the dock and I sheet in on the starboard tack, gliding into
the open water of Espiritu Santo Bay for the last passage.
From Army Hole the buoyed channel takes a v-shaped track, angling
left and then back right to rejoin the ICW. I’ll ignore
the channel, sail straight past the tip of Grass Island instead,
on the edge of the maze of platforms clustered at the apex of
the v. The winds are light, the water calm, a perfect day. I take
a compass heading from the chart, aiming for channel marker 13,
out of sight way up ahead. A final exam in pilotage, see how close
I can get. I set the self-steering lines and lie back in the cockpit,
dozing. Still tired. Every once in a while I look around. An occasional
drilling platform to port. Grass Island to starboard. Most of
the other boats have stuck to the channel and are well left of
I sail across the bay for about an hour without ever touching
the tiller before I see the buoy. Dead ahead. Still not touching
the tiller, I watch it get closer and closer. A green channel
marker. Still dead ahead, right on my compass heading. I watch,
fascinated, as Jagular’s self-steering lines tug
the tiller back and forth, zeroing in on the buoy. Much closer
now, I can almost read the number. Unbelievable—it’s
We sail directly toward the buoy, a collision course. We’re
actually going to hit it unless I do something. As we come within
a boat length of the buoy I unhook the self-steering lines and
push the tiller to leeward. Jagular angles away, passing
by the buoy so close that I can reach out and touch it. The last
few Newtons remain conspicuously silent.
* * * * *
Later that evening, ashore at the finish line in Magnolia Beach,
I drink a cold Coke while I watch the Puddle Ducks arrive, sailing
in formation. They never made it in to Army Hole last night—they
waited too long at Ayres Dugout, pulling boats off the reef, had
to camp on their own. But now they’re here, the last of
the fleet, the end of the Texas 200, and every one of us is down
at the water’s edge watching them come in. One by one the
Ducks sail onto the beach before the admiring audience, which
steps forward to meet them. People are cheering, applauding, lending
a hand to help drag the boats ashore. The last Duck skipper steps
onto the sand. And then it’s over.
||The Puddle Duck Fleet makes landfall at Magnolia
||Jagular and the author at Magnolia
Beach—Texas 200 survivors.
(photo: Gerard Mittelstaedt)