Boating Adventures | "Laughing Our Way Down the Texas Coast" | Story and Pictures by Vicki Totten

When the idea was first suggested that we skipper our “new” 1980 thirty three foot sailboat from the port where we purchased it two months before to where we wanted its home port to be, my first reaction was “no way.”  I mean, Stan and I had owned sailboats in the past – as in 15 or 20 years ago and as in boats that were less than 20’ in length and trailerable. But in addition to the minor detail regarding the size of the boat, there was also the detail regarding the size of the water. All of our previous sailing had taken place on lakes. None of it had taken place on salt water – whether it was the bay, intracoastal, or any water that was capable of producing waves as tall as our boat. So, my first response to the suggestion that we sail the five days it would take to get from Clear Lake to Rockport Texas, was that such a journey would require someone who actually knew what they were doing. Even if we never put the sail up and just motored the entire way and stayed on the intracoastal waterway, I was still skeptical.

But like a water drip that eventually wears down the surface where it is dripping, my skepticism began to wear down when a few events occurred. The first was that Stan and I began taking both on-line and on the water sailing lessons in Clear Lake. The lessons introduced me to terms like “one whistle” and “two whistle” when requesting permission to pass another boat (one whistle means passing on the right and two whistle means passing on the left). I learned how to read the channel buoys scattered everywhere along a waterway. I now know that “red right returning” is my reminder that the red buoy should remain on my right when I am returning to port, and the green on my left. And I learned that if you hear a boat blow its horn five times, this means that unless you take immediate action to alter your course, you are about to no longer be the owner of a boat, since you and it are about to end up at the bottom of the sea. So, as I was learning things like who has the right of way and how to identify the seemingly foreign systems on my boat, along with getting lots of practice using this newfound information, I was also beginning to notice that my initial skepticism was being worn down. Not yet to the point that I actually could seriously entertain the idea of Stan and I on a boat in the middle of the sea, trying to get from point A to point B safely, but enough that I could entertain it as an eventual possibility.

It took a second event for me to begin to imagine that we might actually be able to pull it off. That event was the idea that we ask a third person, someone who was a much more experienced sailor than us, to accompany us on our five day journey. And, before I had time to rethink it long enough to back out, we had enlisted the help of the 79 year old former boat owner for the first leg of the journey and a 53 year old former student of Stan’s to accompany us for the remaining four days.

And that’s how it happened that I found myself making lists and gathering page after page of helpful information for the journey – until finally resorting to putting together a three ring binder complete with tabs labeled “preparation,” “routes,” and “marinas and bridges. ” And then, before I knew it, we were saying goodbye to Clear Lake and making our way toward the second busiest ship channel in the world - the Galveston Ship Channel.

I admit that prior to making the trip, I had only thought about it in practical terms. We needed to get the boat from point A to point B and this was what we needed to do to get it there – unless we wanted to spend a large sum of money to hire someone else to do it. And since the fear of spending money has a way of trumping any other fear I might have, us moving the boat won. But, still, whenever I thought about the trip, I thought it was just going to be a test of endurance. We had decided to travel the intracoastal waterway, which we had heard was like a major freeway along the coast, where you could still see land, although mostly uninhabited, and where you would be sharing the water with barges the size of football fields. I was wrong about everything except the barges the size of football fields.

I also am someone who gets bored easily and I am not known for having a great deal of patience. I can easily become distracted when aiming for one goal by another one that captures my attention, leaving the first goal totally forgotten. So, for me to be able to look back at the five days we spent on our boat heading down the Texas coast, I am astounded that boredom never entered the picture. Instead, in every picture and in every video taken along the way, what you see are three laughing and grinning people having the time of their lives. Now that’s not to say that distraction wasn’t still a problem, but thankfully the person who traveled with us most of the way, John Cowan, had the same problem, and so we came up with two words to remind us whenever we needed one another to focus on something. John’s declaration that he also had trouble focusing was interrupted in the middle by his pointing to the water and exclaiming “shiny thing.” So any time one of us uttered “shiny thing” that became our reminder that we needed to focus on something. Whether or not it was really something we needed to focus on, or whether it was just another opportunity for us to laugh – both were accomplished. But as I think back on all of my careful planning for this maiden voyage, what I didn’t plan on was what a joyful adventure it would be. Admittedly, it was a joyful adventure sprinkled with moments of sheer terror. But what all of those moments had in common was how totally present I felt for every single one of them. The trip was really nothing like I expected.

First of all, I thought it would be ugly and boring. It turned out to be far from it. There were stretches where it looked more like we were boating in the middle of a very large ditch (which is the nickname for the intracoastal), but most of the time the expanse of water surrounding us was met by serene grassy coastlines dotted with great blue herons, pelicans, ducks, egrets and other birds I couldn’t identify but loved spotting with my new binoculars. We even saw a huge wild boar one day – and every day we were accompanied by dolphins, often swimming in pairs beside us. I often found myself making my trips down to the galley quickly so that I wouldn’t miss anything on the deck. Even passing the huge football size barges, most of them with warning signs that read “benzene” was something I didn’t like missing. And, apparently, we use a lot of benzene in this country, since every other barge was carrying huge amounts of it.

I also learned how to cook on the stove aboard the boat – while we were moving. Our meals included pancakes, migas, burgers on the grill (this one while we were docked), and some dynamite guacamole (our daily staple). Beyond these daily pleasures were the moments figuring out how best to maneuver the boat between barges without getting hit, engine trouble that set off a series of alarms and caused us to have to return to port one day and having three false starts before finally solving the problem by duct taping a broken gasket. Then there was the storm on the last day that delayed our 7:00 a.m. start, then cleared long enough for us to get too far to turn around and not close enough to dock anywhere else. So we were forced instead to dig out our rain gear as it dumped rain on us for several hours.

When it finally cleared, however, we were able to put the jib up for the last 3 or 4 hours of our trip, arriving in Rockport shortly after lunch, as we listened to reggae and danced on the deck in delight and relief. And as for my expectation that it was going to be an endurance test, well, it was really more of a joyful laugh fest. And, even though I was wrong about what to expect, it turns out I was right about the new name we gave our boat before the trip began. We named her Alegria – which means “a state of joy.” And just as soon as we find a third crew member, I can’t wait to do it again.

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat and are still working up the nerve to venture further out into the Gulf.

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