I was just tidying up the sheet after putting another reef in the mainsail when the sea hit, sending a substantial quantity of green water cascading over the foredeck and down the side deck where I was sitting, feet braced against the low bulwark. The next thing I knew was that I was wedged against the cockpit coaming having had no control at all as I was swept along with the water.
Crossing the Gulf of Mexico is never easy but with a good forecast I had not anticipated the front which hit us suddenly on our second night out for no mention had been made of it in the forecast before we left or during the preceding day. And yet there we were with mainsail tied securely along the boom and with the storm jib set, running down wind at 7 knots, heading toward the Yucatan!
The second part of bringing Melos back to Clear Lake began with a crew change at La Belle, Florida, a rapidly growing town in the middle of the state that would be hardly noticed were it not for the Intracoastal Waterway or the Orange Juice processing plants served by a continuous stream of trucks rumbling over the bridge just above the town dock.
My friends Bill and Jeanette arrived late in the afternoon, just in time for us to provision at the local supermarket before going out to a small Jamaican restaurant for a meal that was both authentic and cheap. Next day we were away, motoring down the Okeechobee, passing through the lock and then down the winding Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers where we stopped briefly to re-fuel and re-ice.
Then onwards, motoring down the channel into a stiff sea breeze late on Sunday afternoon meeting all of the recreational boats heading home from a weekend on Sanibel and Captiva islands. By 6:00 pm we were passing under the bridge into San Carlos Bay and by dusk were in clear water heading home under full sail. It was idyllic; light winds, sailing, blue seas and a starlit night bright with an orange comet complete with tail heading north!
Next day we sailed continuously until the winds fell light around midday only to return from a different direction a couple of hours later. But after this shift we were sailing again in a light breeze and all was well until dark. It seemed so peaceful I actually undressed and prepared for a few hours sleep but I had barely laid down when the front hit. It took a few minutes to dress again complete with boots, foul weather gear and harness before I could get out on deck where I found the main back-winded, held only by the preventer and strong winds healing us over.
And that was how our passage began. I was up then for hours until we could start sailing again on our rhumb line at around dawn. By this time the increased weather had taken its toll on Bill who was succumbing to seasickness and I was already extremely tired.
We made good progress on Tuesday but it was no longer pleasant sailing with some stiff winds and building seas. Bill managed to help keep watch and the Aries wind-vane did the steering though it developed an annoying habit of kicking up the tiller every hour or so which caused us to round up into the wind if we didn't catch it in time. By Tuesday night we had made so much progress towards New Orleans that we found ourselves approaching an area covered by a severe weather warning when we listened in to the forecast. It is the only time I think I have heard a gale warning for the Gulf with predicted sustained winds of 40 knots to the northwest. So much for a pleasant crossing in balmy south-easterlies! I was tired, Bill's seasickness was becoming worse but so far Jeanette was taking it all in her stride. What to do? We wanted to get back as soon as we could yet the prospect of more heavy weather was not that great. In the end I decided to heave-to for the night which we did under reefed main and jib. Bill and Jeanette shared the night watch between them amid rain, thunder and lightening enabling me to get some good sleep so that by Wednesday morning I was chipper and ready to go. We released the tiller and headed toward Grand Isle, Louisiana where we knew we could put in if necessary. The rain, thunderstorms and 25-30 knot winds continued for most of the day though cleared a little towards evening. I took the main share of the watch while Jeanette managed to prepare some soup for lunch. Bill's seasickness had got the better of him and with no food staying down he was sick, tired and essentially unable to stand watch.
We then heard that another cold front was due to pass off the Texas / Louisiana coast on Saturday morning! Thus we would have to face more bad weather and with the real possibility of having only two effective crew. What to do? The answer was easily made that we should put in somewhere before Saturday, but where? We had some information about Grand Isle where we knew there to be a marina but we had no chart of the entrance. We did have a full entrance chart to Morgan City but this would involve a further 60 mile sail to the west and then a long passage up the Atchafalaya River against the current and heading northeast. Two other options were available; the entrance at Belle Pass into the Bayou Lafourche which was about 15 miles west of Grand Isle; and the Houma Navigation Canal a further 20 miles to the west.
Each of these entrances had its advantages and disadvantages which we had to consider though all would enable us to be in protected waters by the time of arrival of the next front. In the end I chose the Houma Navigation Canal which appeared clear and well marked from the description in the Coast pilot but to which I did not have a detailed chart.
Heading then to the position of the Seabuoy marked on our chart we still had some weather around us as it got dark on Wednesday evening and Jeanette and I took turns on watch as we sailed on, seeing more thunderstorms all around us but avoiding all of them. By dawn we were virtually becalmed and barely sailing as the morning sunlight pierced the clouds with shards of silver light, showing us the dark and ominous ring of clouds to the north. I tried to avoid the worst of them heading west then north but to no avail and within a short while we were in the midst of torrential rain with thunder and lightening seeming to strike only yards away. And then it was over. We were through that front too and with a clearing sky and light northerly winds we sailed in calm water until eventually we had to start the engine. And with the lighter conditions we regained our third crew member who arrived back on deck ready to eat! From then on it was relatively easy, calling only for some tricky navigation as we started along the Houma Canal entrance the next morning in poor visibility. From there we took the ICW all the way back to Galveston and then we had only a few familiar hours to home.
This passage was not what I had expected. The forecast we had obtained before we left gave no significant features for the next several days yet we found this clearly to be in error! We had little of the prevailing south-easterlies after the first day. We had a crew member seriously disabled with seasickness. And then we had the prospect of more bad weather. The decision to put in was not that hard to make though where to do so was. We had only one detailed chart of the entrance to Morgan City yet this was the furthest entrance from our position and would have entailed a long passage back in the wrong direction once we made the seabuoy. Because of this I took a chance and chose to try the Houma Navigation Canal for which we had no chart though we did have reference to it in several books including the Coast Pilot. Clearly I was taking a risk though I like to think it was a calculated one based on my experience navigating other similar canals. As it worked out we had no real difficulties though if we had reached this entrance in rough conditions we would have found it difficult and the risk involved would have been considerably greater, making the need for a detailed chart almost essential.
It's hard now, writing this some weeks after making this trip, to recall all of the decisions imposed upon me as skipper. There were the obvious ones of which sails to set and what course to steer. Then there were the less tangible ones of what watch system to use and what instructions to give my crew. There were decisions about what to do when the front hit unexpectedly, or amid the thunderstorms. Decisions about heaving-to, carrying on, getting enough rest and food, about dealing with ships and entrance fairways, navigating in fog to a mark we could not see. And countless others that I cannot recall.
Each decision made is dependent on an assessment of the situation, on ones experience of other similar situations and on the strength of the vessel and crew. And each decision takes its emotional toll upon the skipper in addition to the duties that are undertaken along with the crew such as keeping watch or preparing food. Being skipper is certainly demanding, certainly a challenge and responsibility, and in making a safe passage there is a considerable sense of achievement. Yet to begin such an undertaking, to face the unknown factors of weather, breakages, illness or fatigue requires a level of experience that is not easy to come by. But of course, anyone can do it if there are no problems and the hardest decision is whether to have steak or turkey for the evening meal!