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February 19 - March 4, 2010

Big Fun in the Bayou

We awoke on Ash Wednesday and proclaimed with a sigh, "The party's over. Time to head back to Texas."

After returning to Slidell in early January, we had been swept up by the party atmosphere in New Orleans. As the coldest winter in 15 years brought an endless parade of cold fronts across the Gulf coast, Caribbean Soul remained securely docked at the Oak Harbor Marina in Slidell. The revelry of Carnival season reached a crescendo with the Saint's triumph in the Super Bowl. The community was giddy with excitement and enthusiasm. Gold and black Mardi Gras beads dangled from our rear view mirror--we had caught the fever. Triumphant and euphoric, the community declared, "Katrina is over!" After four years, a dark cloud had been swept away from the Gulf Coast, replaced with a renewed optimism. No one could foretell that BP would soon rain oil down on their newfound hope.

By mid-February, the cold fronts seemed to be easing off a little, and there was a hint of springtime on the way. Even so, there wasn't a long enough weather window for us to make an offshore run all the way around the Mississippi River delta to Galveston, so we grudgingly accepted another passage through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) in Louisiana. Our trip in 2006 had been memorable--like spending the night of Nick's birthday tied to a piling outside the Industrial lock--and we had sworn at the time "never again."

The GIWW in Louisiana is a busy commercial thoroughfare where tow boats push barges, sometimes stacked six deep. Pleasure boats are rare, and in 2006 the tow boat captains had showed us little tolerance or consideration. Furthermore, facilities for pleasure boats are primitive and few and far between. We dreaded the trip and braced ourselves for an ordeal.

On Friday February 19th, we backed out of our slip at Oak Harbor, feeling that sense of exhilaration and relief we always experienced when finally getting underway again. We motored back down the Rigolets and headed west toward the Mississippi River. This time, we passed Rabbit Island and headed for Chef Menteur Pass, where we'd heard anchoring was possible. Our Bruce anchor, demoted for dereliction of duty back in the Bahamas, was now in the primary spot, its rounded hook more suited to Louisiana mud than the pointy Delta. We set the anchor on the southwest shore of the pass just off the GIWW, and I busied myself in the galley making chicken enchiladas.

I was just pulling dinner out of the oven, when Nick heard a tow captain warning other tows about a sailboat anchored in a dangerous spot. Nick responded on the VHF and identified us as the sailboat in Chef Pass. The friendly captain warned that when the tide changed, and especially if the wind picked up, tows might be crabbing their barges against the shore where we were anchored. If we stayed in that spot, we risked being wiped out in the middle of the night. Gulp! The tow captain recommended relocating to another channel that intersected Chef Pass to the south. We could anchor or tie up to some pilings there. Nick thanked him and promised to take his advice.

After gobbling down our enchiladas, we upped anchor in the dark and crept down the pass with our spotlight illuminating the shore. As directed, we turned into a channel and tied to the pilings. There was no wind and none forecast for the night, but Nick tied a spider-web of lines hoping to keep Caribbean Soul from twisting around the piles and onto the shore when the tide changed. I set the alarm clock and we turned in early. Tomorrow we would cross the Mississippi River!

I awoke the next morning with an uneasy feeling. I checked the clock. "Awshit!" It hadn't gone off because I had set it for PM and not AM. It was 5:00 A.M. and we were an hour behind schedule for the longest day of the trip. We hurried Dakota on deck to take care of "business" and then started the engine. Our bow was pointed just a few feet off the shore but, with a little reverse, we were underway. Whew!.

Our chart showed that the channel we were in carried 12 feet back to the GIWW. Since we were late, we decided to follow it rather than backtrack to Chef Pass. As we crept down the channel in darkness, the depth maintained 11-15 feet. Soon we would be back on schedule. Just as we passed a basin to our port side, Caribbean Soul abruptly slammed to a stop. We were aground! With a burst of reverse, Nick wiggled us off the sandbar. Tentatively we motored ahead at a different angle, but stopped again with a sudden lurch. "Awshit!" Now what do we do? We were stuck pretty hard this time, but those 90 horses under the hood once again saved the day.

We decided to turn around and go back out the way we came since this channel obviously wasn't being maintained to its charted depth. But as we retraced our path, we stopped short again. The tide was slowly coming in, but it seemed we were trapped between two shallow spots. About this time, the rising sun cast a pale light over the water, and we could see ripples on a sandbar extending from the basin entrance. Nick steered our bow around the rippling water and, finally, we were free.

We had purposefully planned our crossing of Ole Man River on the weekend to avoid the bridge curfews that had trapped us four years earlier. We didn't even slow down as we motored through the Florida Bridge and the Claiborne Bridge. What a relief! Then we waited just 15 minutes outside the Industrial Canal lock (now called the Inner Harbor lock) tied to those same pilings where we had spent an uneasy night four years earlier. By 9:30 we were through the lock, back on schedule, and flying down the flooded Mississippi River at 9.1 knots. Hull speed be damned!

We turned out of the river at the Algiers Lock, starting the turn early because if we missed it we'd never get back up current. Here we waited outside the lock for two hours before being given the green light to enter. The friendly lock tenders chatted with us as we eased our lines to lower Caribbean Soul nine feet. That means the Mississippi was nine feet above the surrounding neighborhood, demonstrating why the city flooded when the levees failed during Katrina. By 12:30 we were back in the GIWW and motored without a wait through the last opening bridge in Belle Chase. Our dreaded passage across the Mississippi couldn't have gone better, and we had plenty of daylight to reach our planned destination in Lake Salvador.

We were already finding the GIWW less intimidating thanks to our Automated Information System (AIS). It identified the tow traffic ahead of and behind us. Unlike four years ago, we no longer rounded a bend only to discover two tows passing each other and no place for us to go. Now, since we hailed them by name, the tow captains answered us with thick, friendly Cajun accents. As the afternoon sun made its descent, we hailed a tow and asked him if Lake Salvador would be a good spot for us to spend the night. He said there was some tow traffic there and suggested that we anchor behind the little island at Jones Point at the mouth of the Barataria waterway. We took his advice and, after nudging a few shallow spots, found 10 feet and solid holding. At sunset, we enjoyed our beverages and watched the air boats return to what used to be the Fleming Canal Store. Four years ago, against the captain's better judgment, we had barbecued steaks while tied to their fuel dock.

We were underway by 6:00 A.M. Sunday morning and arrived at the Houma Town Dock by lunchtime, ahead of a cold front arriving that afternoon. Four years ago, Houma had been our most "civilized" and pleasant stop on the Louisiana GIWW. Now the place was silted in. We slid into the last spot and stuck our bow in the mud just behind a catamaran. Ahead of the catamaran, the canal was too silted for even shallow-draft vessels. What a shame. For $25, we had water, electricity, and a snug place to ride out the evening storm.

The sun burned off the remnants of the front by early Monday morning and, although we hadn't planned to leave for another day, we paid the bill and were underway by 9:30. Next stop: Morgan City where the traffic is so heavy that all commercial and recreational boats have to check in by VHF with the Berwick traffic control. As we had four years earlier, we spotted numerous bald eagles in the barren tree tops along the waterway. After an hour and a half wait to pass through the Bayou Boef lock, we slid alongside the Morgan City Town Dock on the east side of the Atchafalaya River. Like the Mississippi, the river was raging from the winter's heavy rains, and the water was lapping the edge of the fixed dock. Meeting us at the dock was Joe, the same friendly fellow who had grabbed our lines four years earlier.

"Wow. You guys get along pretty good," he observed as we tied off our lines.

"Really?" I replied with surprise. Wasn't it obvious how often I'd wanted to strangle the captain in the past four years, and vice versa?

"Yeah. Couples come in here all the time, and the man goes in one direction and the woman in another. They've just started out and they're already done with the boat and each other."

We smiled, feeling proud that four years later our boat and our marriage were still intact.

As long as we were passing down Memory Lane, we decided to walk to Rita Mae's Kitchen for a Cajun meal. This time we were the only customers and the service was quick and the food delicious.

The next morning, we dropped $20 in the payment box and let the Atchafalaya River spit us out of Morgan City. At one point we saw 10 knots of speed over ground. At Wax Lake, where strong crosscurrents cause barges to crab across the channel, tows were parked on either side to coordinate one-at-a-time crossings. Again, the AIS gave us all their names and allowed us to talk to the captains and arrange our turn. When our turn came, those 90 horses overcame the current with minimal crabbing, and we continued on our way.

As we motored down the GIWW, we enjoyed the unique beauty of the Louisiana swampland. In between the busy spots where barge traffic converged, there were long stretches of undeveloped wilderness. Stately cypress trees draped in Spanish moss hugged the shoreline where egrets pecked in the mud for a meal. Having experienced so closely the enchanting beauty of Louisiana's wetlands, we were especially disgusted when BP's oil invaded these pristine areas several months later. We enjoyed the peaceful scenery from the refuge of our cockpit, zipped up inside our enclosure with warm air from the engine room to keep us comfortable. We chatted with the tow captains as they passed, and we heard one of them warn another coming our way to watch out for us.

"Those guys are really nice," we admitted. Everything we'd disliked about our trip through Louisiana in 2006--everything that we'd dreaded while preparing for this trip--had turned out just the opposite of our expectations. What had changed in four years? Maybe it was us.

As we approached the side-tie dock at the Shell Morgan fuel station in Intracoastal City, we did what we had done every day since leaving Slidell. We ran aground. But it was a soft grounding, and with a little reverse we freed ourselves and made a wider approach to the dock. Another strong cold front was due that night, so Nick took extra time adjusting the lines and fenders while I walked to a well-stocked grocery store to buy milk and bread.

So far, each cold front had conveniently blown through at night and left our days free for travel. The next day, under clearing skies, we left Shell Morgan bound for the oxbow anchorage on the Mermentau River. Back in May 2006, we'd had more daylight than we did now in February, so we had passed by Mermentau. This secluded spot was hands-down the prettiest anchorage on the route, even cloaked in winter's drab shades of brown. We circled around the north side of the little island that formed the oxbow until we found shelter from the howling wind. The anchor held tight and we figured we could ride out bad weather here without much distress. Fortunately, there was none in the forecast. With our enclosure zipped up, the afternoon sun heated the cockpit nicely and it occurred to me that this might be my last opportunity to "let it all hang out" in a beautiful, secluded anchorage. So I did.

On Thursday morning Nick retrieved our anchor, which grudgingly let loose its muddy grip, and we motored around the south side of the oxbow where the water depth was charted over 10 feet. By now you know the drill. A sudden and unexpected lurch. Some swear words. A good burst of throttle in reverse. Mud churning in the water. Finally, freedom. So, we turned around and exited the way we had entered, on the north side. Why hadn't we learned this lesson by now?

All week long I'd been fretting over our passage through the Calcasieu Lock. Before leaving Slidell, I'd called each lock and inquired about any possible issues. The Calcasieu Lock was currently closed for repairs Monday through Thursday during the daytime. Unlike the tows (and because of them), we couldn't safely travel at night. Another strong cold front was on the way, and we really needed to get through the lock on Thursday and secured at our next stop. I had been talking to the lock tender all week, and he thought that maybe, but he couldn't promise, we might be able to squeeze past the repair rig and get through the lock. And sure enough, that's exactly how it worked out.

After exiting the lock, we made a sharp right turn and headed up the Calcasieu River toward Lake Charles. Much to our surprise, we were making 7.9 knots going upriver. We passed the glitzy new casino with its floating docks (not yet open) and turned into Contraband Bayou. Winding our way down a narrow channel marked by cypress stumps on either side, we found the Bowtie Marina. We tied up alongside a newly rebuilt dock (courtesy of Hurricane Rita) and said "hello and thanks for your good work" to our neighbors: the US Coast Guard.

After two nights the weather calmed down, and we departed on Saturday. Having given our requisite four-hour notice, we were granted passage under the Ellender Lift Bridge. An adverse current in this area was causing the tows a lot of grief, and we weren't moving too fast either. Just past the bridge, we saw a tow with a string of barges beached on the shore just below some clapboard houses. A bubbling prop wash boiled the water behind his boat. He was stuck. On the radio we heard him lamenting his dilemma.

Another captain chirped back, "Galee! Mon, if you put dat thang any closer you be on de back porch of dose hawses." More pitiful whining came back in reply, and we just chuckled.

By mid-afternoon, we were securely anchored behind Shell Island at the Texas/Louisiana border. By measure of perhaps a hundred yards we were still officially in Louisiana, but in our hearts we were back in Texas.

Sunday morning brought a thick soup of fog that had all the tows parked along the waterway awaiting better visibility. If it wasn't safe for them to travel, then neither was it for us. So we sat drumming fingers and sipping another cup of coffee until the fog burned off. As we got underway, we crossed the north side of Sabine Lake where the GIWW intersects the Sabine River, marking the border between "Who Dat?" and "How 'bout them Boys?" We turned south into the ship channel, our bow pointed seaward toward Sabine Pass. Sensing blue water ahead, Caribbean Soul surged forward, longing to taste the salty breeze and feel the caress of a fresh trade wind in her hair. Oh...I guess that was me.

Our day stopped about six miles short of blue water. On the Texas side of the channel, we spotted the narrow entrance to the Sabine Pass Port Authority marina. As we approached our designated slip, several folks walked over to assist. About that time we ran aground in the middle of the narrow channel behind the slip. Aaargh! How many times now had we run aground in a channel? With a crosswind howling and our keel stuck in the mud, Nick was having no luck getting our bow turned into the slip. Meanwhile, the folks on shore shouted out suggestions. Among them was a power boater who seemed perturbed by our inability to do something as simple as pulling into a slip.

One thing that really gets a blowboater's dander up is being told how to drive by a stinkpotter. Those guys--with their shallow drafts, twin screws, and bow thrusters--have no idea how difficult it is to maneuver a sailboat under power at idle speed. We finally gave up on entering that slip and slid into another one, which was open and sufficiently deep. As we tied our lines to the pilings, we noticed a ripping current sweeping around the posts. It was obvious that we would need calm wind, a high tide, and slack current if we ever intended to leave this place. We just hoped we could get that combination at the right time of day to make the next leg of our trip, an offshore run to Galveston, in daylight.

Three days later, the weather finally abated. At 5:40 AM on Wednesday morning we had the perfect combination of wind, tide, and current to escape the marina and head out to sea. We enjoyed a relaxing motorsail under sunny skies with light wind and a benign sea. A brisk sail for the last leg of our cruise would've been nice, but we couldn't complain. We savored a final taste of freedom and sailing offshore. A course of 242 degrees threaded us through the offshore rigs and brought us to the jetties at Galveston. We wound through the anchored ships in the crowded mooring field, nosed up to the edge of the ship channel and-- like an armadillo daring to cross a busy highway--waited for a break in the traffic and scurried across to Galveston. We anchored for the night just outside the yacht basin where passing ships rolled us in our fretful sleep.

Thursday March 4, 2010. This was it: the final day of our cruise. The weather was gorgeous as we pulled back into the ship channel. With jib, engine, and a favorable tide we exceeded 8 knots racing to our journey's end. As we entered the small boat channel leading to Clear Lake, Nick recalled his first experience in these waters. He had purchased his first sailboat, a Catalina 25, in Kemah. One day he decided to take it out by himself, but as he headed out the channel three shrimp boats with nets down were coming inbound. The three shrimpers straddled the entire channel and Nick, being an inexperienced sailor and unfamiliar with the area, didn't know what to do. So he doused his sail, turned tail, and ran back to the safety of the marina, where the little boat sat until he moved it to Lake Lewisville. But on this sunny day so many years later, we both laughed at how far he had come. Nearly 9,000 nautical miles in the past four years, to be exact.

A few minutes later, Caribbean Soul was secure in her new home at Portofino Harbour marina. Suddenly and with no fanfare, our dream was over.

Bald eagles perch along the shores of the GIWW between Houma and
Morgan City.

The Louisiana GIWW is a busy commercial waterway that can be
treacherous for small recreational boats.

Tugboats move a rig into place just off the GIWW. Oil: a blessing and
a curse for Louisiana.

Caribbean Soul docked at the Shell Morgan marina in Intracoastal
City, Louisiana. Facilities for recreational boats are primitive and
scarce along the GIWW.

We enjoyed the long stretches of remote wetlands.

The gates swing open for us to pass through a lock. Only the locks
on either side of the Mississippi raise and lower the water level.
The other locks prevent salt water incursion.

The Mermentau oxbow anchorage at sunset.

Leaving two tows in our wake. Earlier in the year, a tow and its barge
hit a ship in Sabine Pass. The collision ripped a three-foot hole in the
ship's hull causing a large oil spill. If a tow can do that much damage
to a ship, then imagine what it could do to a small boat like ours.

Anchored in Louisiana and looking at Texas.

Heading out the Sabine Pass jetties at sunrise.

This actually is a ship underway, offshore from Galveston.

Approaching Kemah and remembering just how far we'd come.

 

Our GPS logged 8,909 nautical miles (10,245 statute miles) since departing Port Aransas in May 2006.

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