It keeps getting bigger, the Lakewood Yacht Club organized Harvest Moon Regatta. Three years ago I took part aboard a friends Dehler 34 and this year I helped increase the number of entries by being aboard two boats. Well physically aboard the Hunter Passage 42 Lady Godiva as skipper and emotionally aboard my own Rival 32 Melos which was being skippered and crewed by some good friends.
Every October on a weekend nearest to the full noon the race sets off from the Flagship Hotel at Galveston and ends the next day at Port Aransas. Its a race of 150 miles along the fairly featureless Texas coast with the boats on a reach in the prevailing southeasterly winds. A bit of a procession perhaps and not very exciting, following the faster boats ahead. And so why do the number of entries keep increasing? What is the draw that pulls bay sailors out of the jetties along with the hardened offshore racing crews. Maybe its the call of the sea, an opportunity to create a dream, to sail offshore. A chance to sample the cruising nirvana. To achieve an ambition. For its impossible to show me a sailor that hasn't dreamt of sailing the Caribbean, making landfall in Fiji or tackling the Tasman sea. Every Sunfish owner, windsurfer and lake sailor has such secret goals and the Harvest Moon Regatta is for many, the first of many passages to come.
We left on Thursday evening around 6pm, myself as skipper and my keen though novice crew of four. Once out of the Clear Lake Entrance channel we began sailing close on the port tack to make for the Ship Channel. Then approaching the channel I realized the difficulty of sailing downwind with my crew for the wind would be dead astern, darkness was closing in and the sails would make it hard to see both the channel buoys and any approaching traffic. I chose to motor, keeping to the right of the ship channel and teaching the crew about lights on buoys and lights on ships. It was late when we reached the Galveston Yacht Basin where we had decided to anchor. One of our crew had found difficulty with this task aboard his own similar boat and was somewhat disconcerted by the ease and nonchalance with which we dropped the anchor and cleated off.
But later it was my turn to be disconcerted when we realized our anchor was dragging. We hauled it up and repeated the procedure. Again it began dragging and I found myself doubting my anchoring technique despite considerable practice at this. We set it again and again it dragged. How come all the other boats were gently swaying at the end of their anchor lines and we were having so much trouble. I guess it could have been technique or perhaps the one area where we chose to anchor had poor holding but I really believe it was the anchor. A spade type device of no known brand name, its shank was slightly bent and its flukes appeared never to have begun burying themselves. Its a bit like cut-price auto parts: you get what you pay for, and in future I shall stick to the patent anchors that have held me before both at Galveston Yacht Basin and in a hurricane!
With the useless anchor we had little choice but to head for the marina in the somewhat unlikely event that with all the boats around they had a slip for us. But they did, and by 1.00am we were all secured and ready to turn in for some decent sleep before the start later that morning. Only later did I find out that Melos with her experienced crew had left several hours after us, had sailed the ship channel and had tied up in their reserved slip some hours ahead of us!
Next morning we were up early cooking breakfast, refilling the water tanks and discussing navigation. By 8.30 we were away from the slip and shortly afterwards we came alongside another boat tied to the fuel dock so we could pick up our remaining crew member. Melos and her crew waved as they passed us.
Heading out from the Yacht Basin was different from all other occasions. Sailboats were all around, motoring, sailing, tacking, and reaching as we headed out towards the ends of the jetties, following the channel markers with care until we were past marker 7A and clear of the shoal that it marked to our port. I suspect not all skippers had read their charts for several boats seemed to be cutting across this area apparently oblivious to the dangers.
We were early and used the time practicing our tacks and gibes in anticipation of a tense and action packed start. Then on towards the start line delineated by the dozens of yachts already in the area. The wind was around 10-15 knots out of the east and we reached out and back watching the boats readying for the gun. It was a heady experience just being there, one of nearly two hundred sailboats out in the gulf where I rarely see another one. It was impressive, exhilarating, an arousing display of race boats and cruising yachts, sails set, heading up and bearing off as they passed each other often within feet. A circling helicopter taking pictures of the fleet added to the occasion and with a little imagination I could see myself readying for the start of a round-the-world race. We looked for Melos among the boats but there were so many we couldn't spot her at all.
Then it was the countdown, the 10 minute gun and then the 5 minute gun for our start. We were ready, reaching down, sails set, crew alert watching for our competition. Out, away from the start, tack, reach back in. We were ready. The cannon fired, the flag went down and we were racing at last. Racing for the line which was still several minutes away due to a slight hiccup in our plans. Another yacht chose to take us away from the start thinking that we were in their class, not realizing that we were still behind the line from the previous one. But eventually we were able to bear away behind them, free our sails and cross the line. We were off. All the crew were on deck, excited and keen. We trimmed sails, held our course and even overtook a couple of boats. We were on our way.
The nearly two hundred yachts that had been so tightly packed at the start soon spread out until the remainder of the fleet appeared in a ring around us, the racing yachts with spinnakers set ahead and the slower cruising boats astern. We settled down, had sandwiches and began to relax. The afternoon was pleasant with a warm wind and our only complaint was the lack of a whisker pole which meant we were having to broad reach on a course somewhat to the south of our desired one. A couple of times we tried running wing and wing but the still inexperienced crew and the swells combined to ensure that this would not work. We tried the other gibe but eventually had to accept that we would have to settle for the course that we could make of around 220? magnetic.
As the afternoon faded into dusk the wind strengthened a little and by nightfall we could make a little more towards our destination. We had eaten a fantastic supper that only required heating in the oven (a great plan) and had begun our watch schedule. With a crew of six including me I had decided on a rotating 5-man watch rostra with myself not on the rostra but on call at all times. This meant each person was on watch for 2 hours and off for 3. Each hour one of the crew changed bringing another fresh person on deck.
As the hours passed the wind freshened and backed further so that by 9.00pm we had a steady 25 knots but still on port tack, were able to make our course to Port Aransas. Gradually the swells built and with the still increasing breeze I decided to put a reef in the main. It should have been a simple one person affair using the single line reefing system from the cockpit but it took two of us; myself at the mast to help the line as it was winched in by one of the crew from behind the dodger. Once set, our motion eased a little and we were able to steer a little more easily as the swells passed below us.
It was sometime later that we heard our first Mayday on the radio. A boat was somewhere in the surf off Matagorda Island. They were aground, clearly anxious and needing a
tow to pull them off. The coast guard responded quickly by radio and I was impressed by the calm and professional manner of their radio operator on this occasion and on the others that were to follow that evening. Despite the radio contact there were no Coast Guard vessels able to help for an hour or more and no other vessels responded to the request for assistance. I plotted their position on our chart and considered offering to help but realized that it would have been too much risk for our boat and crew.
That was the first of many Mayday distress calls that evening. The wind built to a sustained 25 to 27 knots which is the top end of Beaufort Force 6 and I estimate that the seas built to around 8 feet. Not really a storm, though a Force 6 is called a yachtsmans gale back in England and it certainly keeps you on your toes. Aboard Lady Godiva we had to furl in some of the headsail and later, for several hours we ran with two reefs in the main, but otherwise, with the wind on the quarter we were doing pretty well and the crew gaining some real experience of all aspects of coastal sailing including a little seasickness.
Though not on the watch rostra, I got little sleep during the night, remaining for the most part in the cockpit or awake below ready for action. The distress signals kept coming and it seemed that every Coast Guard station along the coast was fully occupied with assisting vessels in the fleet. We heard several more vessels report they were aground and one where the only competent crew member was sick with seasickness leaving a totally inexperienced crew member in charge of the boat.
By dawn the winds were abating a little and with the first light I took out the second reef and soon afterwards the first as well. We continued our passage, now chasing several other boats that we hoped to pass, and by 9.00am we were running down wind, wing and wing, ghosting almost to the finish line somewhat inside the jetties. We were there. With our motor running we were able to assist a sister vessel who had lost their engine before we finally tied up alongside one of the larger race boats who had finished in the early hours.
Looking around there were sailboats tied everywhere and already dozens of crew standing around talking, regaling the exploits of the night. Stories of torn spinnakers abounded and we saw the broken boom of one of the race boats. These were the boats that had pushed it; experienced racing crews who knew they were hanging on to sail for too long. Skippers trying to beat the others in their class. But as the morning progressed a stream of vessels continued to arrive and it became clear that most had made the passage safely even if not contentedly.
After the adrenalin had worn off I went below and slept for a couple of hours before attempting to find Melos. It seemed she had not arrived yet and I began to wonder where she was. Why had I not been able to raise her on the radio the night before. I had images of the boat aground or the crew hurt, of the mast gone or some other catastrophe. And it was then that I had to reassure myself of her seaworthiness and of the competence of the crew.
It was later in the afternoon before I heard them call in on the radio and it seemed ages before they eventually arrived at the slip where I was waiting. They too were tired yet their passage had been fine. That is apart from the torn spinnaker that they were reluctant to tell me about. A line had come uncleated and the spinnaker suddenly not in control. During the strongest winds they had shortened sail too much to stand a chance of winning but they had remained safe, with plenty of sea room and they had arrived tired but happy. A successful passage by any account.
That night it was the party with barbecue and beer and tall stories of storm force winds, huge seas and tales of heroism before the mast. It was cathartic for many in an attempt to dissipate the anxieties of the previous night.
But then there were those who had not made it to the finish. About 9 out of 190 failed to arrive at Port Aransas. Several had diverted to Port O'Connor because of problems but 5 boats had ended up on the beach and their crews had to abandon ship. Out of the many boats that started is it reasonable to expect some to founder? Perhaps it is inevitable though not reasonable. It seems from talking with many skippers and crew since the race, that many were not experienced in coastal sailing. Of these there were some whose boats were not ready or who lacked such basic equipment as safety harnesses or in one case life vests! Some crews didn't know how to reef or became disabled by seasickness.
If a real blow had occurred with gale force winds (steady winds of over 35 knot which means gusts of around 50 knots occasionally) then how many more boats would have had serious problems and how many crew perhaps hurt or worse. But in case you think I'm sitting on high, preaching about how it should be done, reflect a minute on my situation in this race. I was aboard a boat with minimal safety equipment, with an inexperienced crew and an anchor which I had found to be pretty useless. If the winds had got any higher we would not have had the appropriate sails. If we had needed to anchor to save ourselves from going aground we would probably have had difficulty. And if anything had happened to me there was no one else aboard with nearly enough experience to take over. Clearly we were not adequately prepared for coastal sailing any more than many boats.
I had a great time on the race. It was good sailing, good fun and a great sense of camaraderie at the end. I recommend everyone who has that dream, who thinks that one day they will sail off in to the sunset, to enter and take part in the next Harvest Moon Regatta. But if you do, be responsible about it.
* Make sure you have some offshore experience as crew before going as skipper.
* If you go as crew, make sure your skipper really has the necessary experience
* Make sure that the boat is fitted with sufficient safety equipment and that it really works.
See you at Port Aransas next year!