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Navigation from Clear Lake to Galveston


Jeremy R. Hood

We recently sold a small cruising boat to an owner who planned to keep the vessel in Rockport. His plan was for his sons to pick up the boat here in Clear Lake immediately after closing the sale and for them to deliver the boat to Rockport. And as they had limited experience of navigation (though more sailing experience than many) I was asked to help with a short briefing before they left. Helping them plan the first part of their journey reminded me of the numerous aspects of navigation that have to be considered just on the passage from Clear Lake to Galveston. A safe route to the ship channel has to be calculated, other vessels have to be avoided on the way, the ship channel and the shipping have to be negotiated, and the Texas City channel and the I.C.W. have to be crossed. And that is not all!

What is routine for me now would have been a major expedition when I first started sailing and this is the situation that many new boat owners find themselves in. Tired of merely sailing around between Clear lake and the Houston Ship Channel they are ready to spread their wings and tackle something new. But it is at first intimidating. Maybe the following will help you plan your first trip to Galveston.

Clear Lake Entrance Channel to the Houston Ship Channel

Every passage should begin with passage-planning and the first part of your journey to Galveston requires you to calculate a course from the Clear Lake Entrance Channel to the Houston Ship Channel.

The Clear Lake Entrance Channel marker #2 has the following notation on the chart: Fl R 6s “2” Ra Ref . Understanding that this means that the #2 marker has a red flashing light with a period of 6 seconds, that it has the number 2 written on it and that it also has a radar reflector on the mark begins your navigation. All navigation marks will have some day and/or night time characteristics and these will be shown on the chart though the extent of the charts explanation will depend on the scale of the chart. Understanding the notations on a chart is clearly essential and to this end every skipper should have a copy of the N.O.A.A. Chart No.1 NAUTICAL CHART Symbols Abbreviations and Terms. This book will help you with the meanings of all chart symbols and it has an index of abbreviations (such as Ra Ref) although the competent navigator should know many of the more common symbols and abbreviations.

From the #2 marker you will need to calculate a safe course to the ship channel. The chart shows several dangers along the way including several obstructions, several wrecks and the now dangerous Red Fish shoal area to the west of the Ship Channel approximately between markers “57” and “53”. Though the obstructions and wrecks may not be there in reality (charts add all hazards as soon as they can but are reluctant to omit them later without absolute confirmation of their absence) you will have to decide for yourself whether to avoid them or not. If in doubt, be cautious.

In order to stay well away from the Red Fish Shoal area I usually plan a course from the Clear Lake entrance #2 to the Ship Channel marker #59 (Fl(2) 6s Ra Ref). In a prevailing southeast or southerly wind the vessel will usually end up to the north of marker “59” which is fine as there are no obstructions to the north for quite a distance, but beware of this course in a north wind when you will be set further to the south and closer to the shoal. Typically I will set out from marker #2 on a course of 100 (M) but this assumes that the compass has no deviation (another navigational consideration) and that the crew can steer a compass course!

If you plan to use a GPS then the position of marker “59” can be calculated from the chart and used as a GPS waypoint but if you do this be aware of two potential errors. Firstly the Coast Guard re-buoyed the ship channel last year and many of the markers were moved including “59”. If you take a position from an old chart it may no longer be correct. And secondly be aware that if you make an error in calculating the position, or in writing it down, or in entering it into your GPS then the GPS could be indicating a wrong (and potentially dangerous) course. If you are using a waypoint then plot your actual position on the chart occasionally as you cross the bay to be sure your actual course is taking you were you want to go!

Houston Ship Channel – marks “59” to “25”

Once you have reached the ship channel you have to decide how to head towards Galveston. Many choose to follow the Ship Channel itself (though it is possible to sail all the way if you do so to the east of the channel and you avoid the marked obstructions shown on the chart). Heading down the ship channel you need to be particularly aware of the Navigation Rules. It makes sense for all vessels to have aboard a copy of the U.S.C.G. NAVIGATION RULES which covers both International and Inland Rules.

When in the ship channel you need to pay particular attention to Rule 9(b) which states that:

A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.

Most of us have vessels of less than 20 meters (65.6 feet) and so this rule applies to us. All of the freighters and barges are able to navigate only within the channel and so we have to keep clear of them. If you plan to use the ship channel, the best way to comply with this rule is to stay to the right of the channel going from mark to mark. Watch for any wind setting you in towards the center of the channel or totally out of the channel. I usually watch the depth sounder and stay in a depth of 10-12 feet which keeps me just in the channel but right on the edge. When two freighters and a barge are all passing at once I will even go just outside the marks but if you do so beware of shoals and obstructions along most of the west side of the channel.

Crossing the Texas City Channel and the I.C.W.

Once you reach Green marker #25 you are approaching an area where there is a lot of traffic. It is the marine equivalent of negotiating downtown Houston on the Interstate with major channels joining and crossing the main channel.

The first to be reached when heading towards Galveston is the Intracoastal Waterway (I.C.W.). This crosses the ship channel at 90, the ICW traffic emerging from the Bolivar P

Peninsular to the East and from Pelican Cut (the North side of Pelican Island) to the West. But it is not just crossing traffic you will have to watch out for here. Tows (tug boats pushing barges are referred to as tows) can be leaving the I.C.W. to head north or south while tows in the Ship Channel can be turning to head East or West along the I.C.W. As a vessel of less than 20 meters (65.6 feet) you have to keep clear of all of these. On a typical crossing you may meet only one or two tows but the skill is in figuring out where they are headed. If in doubt call them on the radio (VHF CH.16) with a message such as:

You: This is the south bound sailboat ________ (your boat’s name) in the Ship Channel approaching the I.C.W. intersection, calling the West (or East) bound tow emerging from Bolivar Peninsular (or Pelican Cut). Which direction are you headed please Captain?

You may have to call a couple of times but you will normally get a helpful and professional response to your request. After all, what you are doing is complying with Inland Rule 34(h): you are communicating by radio with a vessel that you are meeting or crossing and is within ½ mile of you.

After successfully crossing the I.C.W. you need to be immediately aware of any traffic entering or leaving the Texas City Channel. This channel starts in Texas City and runs to the west of the Texas City Dyke for about 4 miles before emerging just north of Pelican Island and then merging with the Houston Ship Channel a little over 1 mile south of the I.C.W. intersection.

If there are no large vessels in the vicinity I usually take the first opportunity to head across to the west side of the Texas City channel so that I can again stay on the right (Green) side of the channel. However if there are inbound vessels heading towards you from the Galveston entrance, or you can see beyond the dyke the superstructure of an outbound vessel then you need to be wary. Of the two, the outbound vessel is easiest to avoid as it will almost certainly be continuing south out to sea. But the inbound vessel could be heading north up the ship channel or it could be turning to its port in front of you to head towards Texas City. If this is the case (and it is safe to do so) you can head East to get out of the Ship Channel altogether and continue heading South out of the channel, crossing it later when it is safe to do so.

And finally, one piece of advice in this area of heavy traffic. Almost in every potential collision situation you can alleviate the situation by turning round and heading back on your reciprocal course. Assuming there are inbound and outbound ships in both the Ship Channel and the Texas City Channel then this may be the prudent thing to do for a few minutes until the traffic has cleared the area!

From the Texas City Channel intersection to Galveston

Almost at the same time as crossing the intersection of the Texas City Channel and the Houston Ship Channel you have to begin watching for the ferries that cross between Galveston and Bolivar. In peak hours there can be four of these vessels operating and it is not uncommon to meet two or three as you negotiate the next couple of miles. These ferries will take different routes between Bolivar and Galveston depending upon wind, current and other traffic so don’t be surprised to see one to the north of their intended destination.

Though these vessels are not navigating within a narrow channel or fairway (the water is around 30 feet deep all over this area) you should exercise prudence in meeting these vessels. Though they will comply with the rules, they tend to be intolerant of recreational vessels and especially slow sailboats that appear to be in their way, and it is not uncommon to hear five short blasts from their whistle (Rule 34(d)) which indicates that they don’t understand what you are doing!

By staying to the West of the Texas City Channel and heading south towards Sea Wolf Park (which is on the eastern extremity of Pelican Island at the entrance to the Galveston Channel: it is not marked as a park on the chart but is shown as a “BLDG”) you will avoid the ferries.

You now have a choice of either heading out towards the Gulf via the Galveston Jetties or of heading in to the Galveston Channel.

When heading to the Galveston Marina’s (Harbor House or Galveston Yacht Basin) it is best to round Sea Wolf Park and remain on the right hand (north) side of the Galveston Channel as you head in. This way you will avoid any Coast Guard traffic as well as the Galveston ferry terminal and you will be on the correct side of the channel when you meet any other vessels.

If you are making for the Galveston Yacht Basin, you can cross the channel once you have passed the ferry terminal. Wait for a break in the traffic and then head across towards the range marker (Oc G 4s 100ft) which is located on the northwest corner of the marina right by the fuel dock.

If you are heading towards Harbor House Marina then remain on the right side of the channel until you have followed the turn in the channel to the right. The Harbor House is on the south side of the channel close to the Texas Seaport Museum (home of the Elissa) and the fairly new oil rig museum.

Heading out towards the Gulf

If your destination is the Gulf or beyond, you have one last channel to cross: the Galveston Channel. The entrance to this channel is between Sea Wolf Park and the Green channel marker (Fl G 4s Gong) on the northwest corner of Galveston Island. When crossing this channel watch for shipping, ferries, crew boats and shrimpers entering or leaving the channel. If necessary head down the channel yourself for a few minutes until you can safely cross and then head out of the channel towards the Gulf.

When following the channel out of the jetties I usually remain on the right (Green) side of the channel following the marks out to the end of the jetties. When doing this, watch for the bend in the channel at marker #9.

Hopefully this article will not be so intimidating that it puts you off making your trip. As in all aspects of seamanship, preparation will pay big dividends. Get the books and charts out several weeks before your trip. Look over the course you intend to take and make sure you know what potential obstructions there are. Plan your waypoints and look for options should your engine die or the weather change. That way you will be mentally prepared and are likely to have a successful trip.

And finally, please let me know if this article was helpful or not in making your passage to Galveston.

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