Making a night landfall always causes more anxiety than one during the day but with the right preparation and a good dose of prudence it can be accomplished safely though rarely will I attempt a night entrance in a port that I am unfamiliar with.
Having arrived in Antigua after crossing the Atlantic we left early one afternoon for the Dutch/French island of St Maarten. The passage should have taken us around fifteen hours but with a number of squalls and an unusually contrary wind we found ourselves beating towards Great Bay at night. Of all entrances this one is easy: a wide open bay with no dangers. And I knew this to be so because as a charter skipper I had taken boats in and out of the bay numerous times. So why was I anxious as we approached? Well I was tired and the food poisoning I had not shaken off didn't help but the real reason was that it didn't look right. Nothing that I recalled seemed to appear and the whole bay seemed changed. We crept in past the anchored cruise liners and larger vessels, monitoring the depth as we passed over the sand bar to shallow water further in. Eventually we anchored in a relatively safe spot but it wasn't ideal and we had to move in the morning. It wasn't a particularly unsafe landfall but it was not an easy one either. Despite the traffic, entering Galveston can be much easier so long as the correct procedures are followed.
Safe landfalls require preparation. Having on board the correct charts, cruising guides and pilots is essential. Before it gets dark I usually decide where I will join the entrance channel, picking a buoy some distance from any dangers. Large ships use the fairway buoys which mark the beginning of the buoyed channel but in smaller vessels you can often safely join the channel nearer shore though you will need a current chart to be certain. Once you have decided on your buoy you will need to plan a course to get you there and in addition plan your entrance from the buoy.
Arriving at your chosen buoy can be accomplished by normal navigation techniques or the use of a waypoint in a Loran or GPS. Ideally you will perform both. Last year I had my chosen buoy picked out and its coordinates entered in the GPS so imagine my surprise when we arrived at the chosen position to find not a buoy but a large ship at anchor. It was my error in entering in to the GPS a wrong position. In our case we had been plotting our positions on a chart and so had not been too far from our chosen point but if we had blindly followed the GPS and I had made a larger error it could have been disastrous. I don't know what happened to the offshore crew boat I saw recently high up on the Galveston South Jetty but you can be sure it was a gross navigational error. But just in case your complacency is running high and you know you won't make a mistake, take note: many experienced sailors have chronicled errors right at the end of a passage. I am aware it can happen and occasionally it does so, if you can, get some help in your navigation at this critical stage.
Buoy # Characteristics TO Buoy # Characteristics Bearing(M)* Distance(nM) Notes
From offshore 4 Fl R 4s Chosen safe water mark
4 Fl R 4s 6 Fl R 2.5s 296 1.1
6 Fl R 2.5s 8 Qk Fl R Bell 296 1.2
8 Qk Fl R Bell 10 Q R Bell 277 1.5 Course change
10 Q R Bell 12 Fl R 2.5s Bell 261 1.7 Course change
12 Fl R 2.5s Bell 16 Q R Bell 261 1.2
16 Q R Bell 18 Qk Fl R Bell 295 0.8 Course change
18 Qk Fl R Bell 26 Fl R 313 1.4 Course change. TX City channel leaves to port. Cross I.C.W.
26 Fl R Up Houston Ship Channel 331
* Bearing are in degrees () Magnetic allowing for variation of 5East which is correct for 1994
Table I Deck log for entrance to Galveston jetties and to beyond the I.C.W.
Once you have arrived at a known position the remainder of your entrance should be easy so long as you have prepared properly. On each occasion that I enter the jetties at night I plan the entrance ahead of time making a deck log (see table 1) that can be taken in to the cockpit.
Starting at your known position you can point your vessel on a heading to the next mark and proceed cautiously looking for the light characteristics of the next buoy. Once you arrive at this buoy you can check it off on your deck log, turn on to the next heading and repeat the procedure. In this way you can progress through the jetties, past the Galveston Channel and on up towards Houston knowing where you are all the time. Because you know where you are you will also be better able to anticipate the courses taken by the large ships entering and leaving and those of the barges as they pass into or out of the I.C.W.
This method of planning and buoy hopping can be used safely wherever you are sailing but if you are planning to enter Galveston at night there are a couple of points worth noting. Firstly be aware that the lights on the ends of the jetties have an isophase characteristic (equal periods of light and dark: Iso 6s means lit for three seconds, dark for three seconds) while the channel markers are all flashing lights (lit period shorter than the dark period). Knowing this simple difference could have saved a number of skippers from mistaking the jetty lights for a channel marker. Secondly, when in a channel it is normally best to stay on the right hand side. In fact because there is plenty of water to the north and east of the channel I will normally make my entrance leaving the red markers close to port. This way I will follow the buoys while staying outside the actual channel. I won't interfere with the passage of the large ships or barges and, being on the right side going in, I will not have to contend with vessels entering or leaving the Texas City channel so, one less hazard to deal with.