Magic amidst the chaos — sometimes you just have to ignore the weather report

Thunderstorms were looming, and the radar looked terrible, but it had been a hell of a week, and I was dying to get Gimme Shelter out on the water. She hadn’t moved from her slip in more than a month, and I’m positive she was feeling as restless as me.

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We had arrived to the marina in the middle of a downpour, so we just grabbed the dogs out of the backseat and made a run for the boat. Once the rain cleared, we cast off and headed for the bay. It wasn’t until we had passed the Kemah Boardwalk that I realized we’d left the bag full of our clothes as well as my camera in the car.

First lesson of the weekend: Always check that you actually put your bags on the boat before leaving the dock.

However, we were in a race against sunset, and our friends TJ and Kayla on Folie a Deux were motoring along right behind us. Well, they were right behind us until one of their jib sheets fell overboard and fouled their prop.

Second lesson of the weekend: Keep all lines secured on deck.

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But that was only a small delay. As you might remember, Folie’s entire rudder fell off during her last voyage, so a fouled prop was just a small speed bump in comparison.

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We were soon underway and dropped the hook at Redfish Island just as the sun was setting. Well, at least we dropped our hook. As TJ debated whether or not to drop his own anchor or tie off to our stern, he realized his anchor was no longer hanging on his bow. Perhaps it was sitting in the bottom of his slip at Watergate. Perhaps it was on the bottom of the bay somewhere between Galveston and Kemah. Perhaps someone walked off with it. There was no way to know.

Third lesson of the weekend: Make sure you have an anchor on the boat and make sure your anchor rode is tied to something on the boat.

The lack of anchor was still not a problem. We just threw TJ and Kayla a line and tied them off to our stern cleat.

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For the first time ever, we had Redfish Island completely to ourselves. Mary prepped a salad while I grilled steaks, and we sat down to a nice dinner.

While we were in the cabin eating, it got dark — and I mean REALLY dark. Thick clouds had blotted out any sign of stars, and the quarter moon was barely a glow in the corner of the sky. I was about to pull the kayak off the deck to take the dogs to shore when we saw it.

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It looked like fireflies moving underwater. Dozens of small bioluminescient jellyfish were glowing all around us. They would glow especially bright if they bumped against the anchor rode or the hull of the boats. I cursed myself for forgetting the camera, and we attempted to at least somewhat capture the moment with our phones. My video ended up being worthless, but TJ did manage to capture the long exposure above.

I dropped the kayak in the water and took the dogs to shore mesmerized at the way the jellies glowed around my paddle each time it touched the water. It was a truly magical moment.

After the dogs finished their business on the island, we paddled back to the boat and watched the glowing for another hour or so before bed. We went to sleep with all the hatches and windows open, just waiting for the rain to finally hit us — but it never did.

I woke up at sunrise to find storm cells passing on either side of us.

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It looked like Kemah was also getting hammered, so we just stayed put and made some breakfast. Slowly things cleared, and a fantastic rainbow appeared overhead.

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I hadn’t been on Redfish Island all sumer, so I took a minute to explore. After a year of heavy rain, it seems there are actually some plants growing. Along with the usual scrub brush there was a yucca plant.

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And even a baby palm tree.

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Despite predictions of terrible thunderstorms all day Sunday, the weather actually cleared and the sun made an appearance just as we headed back towards Kemah. My crew didn’t sleep well at anchor due to the high humidity, so they spent most of the trip home snoozing.

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The bay was empty and smooth as glass. We were already counting the trip a success when this happened.

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Fourth lesson of the weekend: If you have an outboard, keep a very short, heavy duty strap on it, so if your outboard bracket shears into pieces, the motor won’t fall underwater.

This was a disheartening moment. TJ and Kayla had paid a local machine shop to design and build that stainless steel bracket specifically for their O’day 25 and the new Honda they put on it. Then, after spending money for the “professional” work, it literally sheared into pieces in less than a year. Now they’re out the cost of the bracket and the impending cost of repairs to their outboard.

We stopped to help, and as a team we were able to winch the outboard up out of the water and out of the way of the tiller, but Folie a Deux’s trip ended with a tow home from Sea Tow.

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We hung out until the tow boat arrived and then headed for the marina ourselves.

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As a slight consolation for the outboard disaster, TJ and Kayla were visited by a dolphin who swam alongside them all the way to the Kemah Boardwalk.

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Yes, the entire weekend was a comedy of errors, but it was also filled with unforgettable moments experiencing things you don’t usually see in the bay. I’m glad we didn’t just look at the radar and decide to stay home.

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SVI Journal: Day 3, Punta Arenas, Vieques

I did manage to sleep past sunrise Monday morning, but the sun wasn’t very high before everyone on the boat started moving around looking for breakfast. I took a quick snorkel and found that a school of jacks was under the boat. Cade threw his line in the water and within minutes had reeled one in on his makeshift fishing pole, crafted from an old boat pole, two discarded battens, several hose clamps, and a lot of tape.

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The Sail Caribe captain on duty called us back about the dinghy and suggested we empty the water trap on the fuel filter. We did, and it started right up, so we told them all was good. Big mistake. Although it started after dumping the filter, it wouldn’t hold idle, and it made getting from the boat to shore for the rest of the week a giant headache. We’d have to rev it up to start it, then throttle down, pop it into gear, and then immediately rev it back up again. It was a process that required perfect timing or the engine would die and take ten minutes to start again. In retrospect, we really wish we’d insisted they fix or replace it that morning before we left the area.

The rest of the morning was pretty relaxing.

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Just after the first ferry showed up with El Conquistador visitors we realized we were on a mooring ball that said DIVE USE ONLY instead of DAY USE ONLY, which explained why there was a cattleboat full of people waiting to snorkel sitting and staring at us. We quickly moved balls and finalized our plans with Batubara and Chateau du Mer to head south to Vieques.

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We had a nice day of sailing between islands, and Mary while still anxious, seemed to be getting more used to the swells. She had no trouble prepping lunch while we were underway.

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Although we all left at different times, at one point we all ended up sailing together.

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Not that the teens remembered any of it. Once we hit the open water, they were passed out.

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We dropped anchor at Punta Arenas, and I put on a snorkel to “dive my anchor” for the first time. It’s a pointless activity in Galveston Bay since there’s zero visibility in our water.

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When I made it to the anchor, I found a small fish had already decided the dugout area under the plow would make a great new home. I hope he enjoyed it for the one night we were there.

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Mary and I kayaked to the beach, and while pretty, the sand was grainy and hard to walk on. There were also lots of spiny anemones along the water line, so we had to be very careful where we stepped.

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We ended up being the only three boats anchored in the area.

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When we got back we cleaned up and set out snack trays for the pirate party as our guests came dinking over with their eyepatches on.

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Andy and Jayne graciously donated a bottle of Ron Zacapa XO Solera Gran Reserva Especial for the party. I’m not much of a liquor drinker, but I don’t think I’ve ever had rum quite so good.

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It was a bit crowded to have 17 people aboard Caicu, but everyone had a great time. Then, as the sun went down the crews of Batubara and Chateau du Mer departed, so that we could cook dinner.

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The teens whipped up some spaghetti, and we all laid on the tramps looking up at the milky way. We saw two shooting stars that night before heading in to bed.

That’s when we discovered the air-conditioner had quit. The generator was running fine, but the air-conditioner was completely dead. We opened the salon settee to find that AC unit was half submerged in water.

Thankfully it was a cool, breezy night, so we opened the hatches and went to bed.

A night on the hook at Redfish Island

It was one of those weeks when everyone needed something. Long hours at the office were followed by evenings of errands and projects. Then there was a dentist appointment and an auto inspection. Even when we reached the marina Friday night, the work didn’t end.

I had pulled up the cabin sole the previous weekend, so I was immediately tasked with the job of running a NMEA cable through the bilge, so that we could have a floor again. Saturday morning I spent an hour up the mast cleaning contact points on a steaming light that, despite having voltage and a good bulb, just wouldn’t turn on.

I was tired of working. It was time to escape.

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We left in the heat of the day and motored through the burgeoning traffic of summer boaters, their vessels just freed from winter storage. We passed the boardwalk as the smell of fried food wafted across the channel and tourists waved to us, hoping we’d wave back. To them we weren’t just another person gawking at the bay, we were a part of it.

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We fought our way through the wakes at the mouth of the channel where every passing motorboat captain immediately throttled up to display his power to anyone he hoped might be watching. And then, we finally raised sails and cut the motor.

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A six knot breeze out of the south was carrying us along, close hauled, at almost four knots.

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We slowly wandered back and forth across the bay, making a bit more forward progress with each tack, heading for Redfish Island.

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We crossed the course of a late afternoon rum race with dozens of sailboats of all shapes and sizes pushing for every ounce of speed in the light wind, beating a path in front of us. Then as they rounded a marker and headed north, we watched them deploy spinnakers, creating rainbows of billowing fabric as they pressed on downwind until they disappeared along the horizon.

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After three hours of sailing, we furled the jib and dropped the main, motoring into the crowded harbor. Weaving our way in between fishing boats, ski boats, trawlers, and every other sort of craft you can imagine, we inched our way towards the south end of the island and dropped anchor.

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Families swam, jumping off the gunwales of their vessels and bouncing around in inflatable tubes beside swim platforms. People cast fishing lines from the stern of their small boats, hoping to catch … something. Classic rock competed with rap music at deafening volumes from boats full of women in bikinis, dancing and posing for pictures on the bows.

We paddled the dogs ashore for a walk on the rocky island as we bided our time. Like clockwork, as the sun set, the anchors were raised and one by one the families, the fishermen, and the partiers all fired up their motors and headed for home.

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We weren’t left completely alone in the anchorage, but our few remaining neighbors were cut from a different cloth. The sounds of nature replaced the thumping radios as darkness shrouded the island. We ate dinner in the cockpit and sipped on rum and coke as we watched the waning strawberry moon rise in the east and climb across the sky.

Only the occasional whir of a wind generator or speckle of laughter from another sailboat would rise to compliment the sound of waves lapping against our hull and washing up on the island.

When you unplug yourself from the grid, and you remove the artificial lights that fill our cities and line our streets, it’s hard to ignore your natural circadian rhythm. It had been a long day, and an even longer week. The darkness of the night told my body it was time for sleep.

The wind had picked up to ten knots, and the open hatch of the V-berth was funneling a cool breeze into the boat as I stared up at the stars. It was a moment impossible to photograph. Even barring the technical difficulty of capturing stars from a floating platform, a perfect photo of the view couldn’t have preserved the feeling of independence created by swinging on the hook or the warmth of my wife lying next to me.

Just as I began to drift to sleep, the wake of a passing container shipped rolled me awake. I got up one last time to make sure we weren’t dragging, and more importantly, that none of our neighbors were dragging into us. As I stood on the cabin top a shooting star crossed the sky, and as I returned to bed I knew, this was the life man was meant to live. For centuries, this was the feeling that had drawn so many men to sea.

The charts claimed sunrise would take place at 6:20 a.m., but light filled the cabin long before the sun made an actual appearance. Neither of the dogs could be convinced that it wasn’t really morning yet, and they wanted to walk.

I put a life vest on one dog and promised the other I’d be back for him soon. Then I pulled on my own PFD before descending the swim ladder into our old kayak and for a paddle to shore. The heat of the day hadn’t yet set in, and the air was so clear that you could distinctly see the Kemah Causeway seven miles to the west as well as the entire Galveston skyline ten miles to the south.

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We walked slowly down the island as unburdened tugboats headed north in the Houston Ship Channel to pick up new barges and shrimp boats crisscrossed the bay. There was a dead calm.

Gimme Shelter’s anchor rode hung limp in the water as she bobbed in place.

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With Redfish Island being a barren pile of rock and oyster shells, both the dog and I were taken by surprise when we suddenly came upon a life and death struggle. A Graham’s crayfish snake was stretched out across our path, unsuccessfully attempting to swallow a very large mullet.

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With the fish still twitching, desperately trying to escape, the snake slithered down behind a pile of rocks to continue his breakfast with a little more privacy.

I took one last moment to marvel at the beauty of the morning before I paddled back to our sturdy little boat. Upon my return I found Mary had brewed a pot of coffee, so she made the second trip to the island on the kayak with Big Tex while I lit the stove and began flipping pancakes.

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After my warning of snakes eating fish the size of her dog, her walk was rather brief. When she paddled back, we sat down to not just a breakfast on the hook, but what happened to be our one-year anniversary breakfast.

As the sun continued to climb in the sky, we took refuge in the V-berth for a short nap before the heat of the day became oppressive and the motor boaters returned to the anchorage.

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The refrigerator had run our house batteries flat over night, but it didn’t matter. Replacing them would just be another project added to the list when we returned to the real world. The starter battery was still fully charged, and the motor cranked right up for a windless journey home.

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As we approached the boardwalk, we took a selfie and toasted our anniversary with sodas to commemorate the occasion – holding on to that moment of freedom before we began fighting traffic in the channel, before we began washing and repairing the boat, before we returned to work.

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