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 Jagular Goes South - Part 3

By Tom Pamperin - Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin - USA

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. —Dorothy Parker

Thursday morning

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 Beach.

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, though.

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, Cookthey 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 be close.

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)

Thursday Afternoon

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
—Bob Dylan

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 right.

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 to work.

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 retaliate.

* * * * *

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.

Friday

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 my course.

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 a 13.

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 Beach.
Jagular and the author at Magnolia Beach—Texas 200 survivors.
(photo: Gerard Mittelstaedt)

The End

 

*****

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