Sailing with Dolphins

Labor day weekend was a long awaited chance for us to take Gimme Shelter to new destinations and have a bit of real adventure. Dixie had been having stomach issues all week, so Friday morning we had her checked by the veterinarian to make sure she was ok to travel. She got some antibiotics and some anti-nausea medicine then we were on our way to Kemah.

I got to work unloading all of our food and supplies onto the boat and carefully stowing them away while Fred made runs back and forth to the gas station for diesel. Our fuel gauge was only showing slightly above 3/4 when our filter funnel backed up and stopped filling the boat. That spot just above 3/4 was where the gauge was stuck when we bought Gimme Shelter. Apparently 3/4 was as high as the gauge was going to show.

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Around 1:15 we cast off from our marina and started our slow motor into the wind towards our first stop for the weekend, Laguna Harbor on the Bolivar Peninsula.

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We watched patched of rain pass beside and behind us, but thankfully they all missed us.

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Our slow motoring turned into quite the adventure after passing Redfish Island. The dolphins were out in full swing surfing the bow wakes of big cargo ships.

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We were making better time than expected, and despite our late start we were nearing Bolivar around sunset. Something about sunsets really makes dolphins jump out of the water, and as we crossed the ship channel we saw several small families of dolphins doing all sorts of weird things in the water. I’ve seen them swimming around pretending to do what I can only imagine is “playing shark”.  I’ve also seen them sort of “wrestling” around in the water.  Every once in awhile we get a chance to see them doing some jumps just for fun.

We entered Laguna Harbor and rendezvoused with our friends Andy and Jayne aboard their Pearson 422, Hippokampos, who were also making the Labor Day trip but had managed to leave Kemah a little earlier.

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The dogs are always glad when it’s time to start grilling.

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As we sipped a few beers we saw dozens of jellyfish swimming around the marina. They seemed to be popping up everywhere. We decided we wouldn’t be swimming anywhere in the bay that weekend.

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We shared a nice meal of chicken fajitas with Hippokampos before taking the dogs for one last walk before bed. That’s when Dixie walked up in the grass to drop a load — except as she was squatting I noticed she was pooping on a huge black snake. The snake had its head up looking at us inquisitively. Dixie finished her business and trotted on ahead. She never even knew it was there.

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SVI Journal: Day 6, Tortuga Bay, Culebrita and Ensenada Honda, Culebra

One of my goals this trip was to catch the perfect tropical sunrise — except I snored right through it Friday morning in Bahia de Almodovar. However, when I finally got up and made some coffee, the view still wasn’t bad.

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My first task of the morning was to shake out my camera bag to see if I had any other spare SD cards on hand. I lucked out and found an old 4GB card in one of the pockets, so I had both cameras back in use for at least a day.

The next task on my list was to pull up the cabin sole in the starboard ama to find the air-conditioner raw water strainer. After a few minutes of searching I located it under the floor of the front cabin and opened it up. I’d never seen a basket that full of seaweed.

I dumped it all overboard and gave the basket a rinse, then put it back together. The HI PS code cleared, and we had air-conditioning on the starboard side again.

We’d been getting low on fresh water and had considered buying some in Esperanza, but it was decided to just conserve until we stopped in Dewey. That meant no more showers, so Mary set the standard for cleanliness with her patented floating noodle hair washing method.

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I noticed while snorkeling that morning that the starfish, which had been scattered all over the sandy bottom of the bay the night before, had disappeared. No idea where they went. I had no idea starfish moved around that much. Someone suggested that maybe they buried themselves in the sand, but I didn’t know they did that either.

Mid-morning we finally fired up the diesels and made the short motor across to Culebrita. Both catamarans had no trouble negotiating the mouth of Tortuga Bay, but the crew on the Jenneau didn’t like the way the cross current was pushing them around, so they turned back and picked up a mooring ball on the west side of the island.

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Tortuga Bay was beautiful. The turquoise water lapped up against a white sand beach while a mix of charter vessels, cruising sailboats, and local motorboats bobbed around on moorings or at anchor beneath the ancient lighthouse up on the hill.

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It was only a matter of minutes before the first green sea turtle was spotted swimming past Caicu, so we all hopped in the water to say, hello.

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We encountered at least four different green sea turtles (it’s kind of hard to tell them apart) while in Tortuga Bay, as well as two different sting rays shuffling about on the sandy bottom.

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I probably snorkeled with the sting rays a bit too long because when I got back to the boat I saw that everyone had already gone to shore to make the hike up to the lighthouse. At first I thought, no big deal, I was planning to swim in anyway. Then I realized that they had also taken my dry bag to get their shoes ashore for the hike. And yes, I offered the use of my dry bag — but my shoes, my camera, my shirt, and my water bottle that I had been planning to take in the dry bag were all still sitting in my cabin.

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I sucked it up and swam to shore doing the sidestroke with my dive camera dangling from my wrist while holding my shoes up out of the water. That was a much longer swim than I had expected, but I did make it to shore with dry shoes. Plus, I got to guilt trip Mary about taking my bag and leaving me stranded for the rest of the trip, so it was worth it.

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Culebrita has several trails and beaches to explore, but you definitely need shoes to hike them. The brush is prickly and there’s no shortage of cacti.

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Small lizards were running everywhere through the brush and we stumbled across a family of goats on our way to the lighthouse. We also saw what looked like deer droppings, but we never saw any actual deer.

The path up to the Culebrita lighthouse presents a couple nice views of the harbors on the north and west sides of the island. We could see where Chateau du Mer finally picked up a mooring ball as well as our own boats back in Tortuga Bay.

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Construction of the lighthouse began in 1882 and it was first lit in 1886. It was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the US until it was closed in 1975. Currently, the lighthouse is in need of some serious restoration.

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Many of the walls have collapsed, as have the spiral stairs leading up the tower. The area around the lighthouse is also littered with junk. It was definitely worth the hike up the hill to see it, but don’t get your hopes up for some sort of restored historic building that you can tour. However, the view from the ridge is amazing. (My apologies for looking so haggard, shirtless and squinty. Someone took my dry bag without packing my shirt or sunglasses or sunscreen or water!)

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We heard more goats along the trail while we hiked back down to Tortuga Bay, and some members of our group who had lingered back a bit by themselves actually ran across a free goat sex show. Can’t say I was sorry to have missed that because after the hike, stepping back into the cool water felt amazing.

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Mary and I put both our shoes back in the dry bag and left it with crewmates to come back on the dinghy, then we swam back to Caicu.

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After the snorkeling, the swims, and the hike, we were all starving, so Mary cooked up some tacos for lunch, which were immediately devoured.

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Then we did some more snorkeling around the boat with turtles. I also came across a little trunkfish.

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We’d heard one of the best places to find spiny lobster was the reef just around the corner from Tortuga Bay, so several of us loaded up in a dink to head there while another group decided to go hike a few more trails and to check out The Baths.

The reef on the northwest corner of Culebrita was truly fantastic.

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Up to that point it was the best one I’d ever seen. There was also some old ship wreckage mixed in that had become part of the reef.

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I was very curious as to whether or not there was still wine in that bottle.

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As we were oooohhing and awwwing at all the fish, a huge, gray C-130 flew low over Culebrita and circled three times before heading out into the Atlantic. We later learned that the Puerto Rican Air National Guard maintains an entire fleet of C-130s to patrol the area and rescue sinking ships.

After a bit more snorkeling, I finally stumbled across a spiny lobster.

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It doesn’t really translate in the photo, but this lobster was huge. I would estimate the antennae to be three feet long (each, not combined), and it would have taken both of my hands to go around the lobster’s body.

Not a single one of us had ever actually grabbed a lobster before, so there was a lot of floating and staring at it before someone actually gave it a try. Nobody actually managed to grab it, which was probably good since it was as tall or taller than the bucket we had brought to put it in.

Defeated by the monster lobster and still needing to head back to Culebra before sunset, we decided to call it a day.

Meanwhile, Mary and Jayne were soaking in The Baths, which turned out to be pristine tidal pools on the other side of the island.

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We all rendezvoused at the catamarans and headed out to find a mooring in Ensenada Honda, Culebra — billed as the best hurricane hole in the Caribbean.

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As we neared the town of Dewey and civilization, we found the type of boats changed. We actually came across these two flamboyant houseboats in one mooring field.

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We also saw a homebuilt Piver trimaran, a small Gemini cat, and one 25′ sailboat that didn’t even have a mast moored right along all the hard core cruiser sailboats. It seemed living on the water was the cheap alternative in Culebra.

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The mooring fields were full in Ensenada Honda, so motored inward towards the municipal building.

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I’d like to say we were pros at anchoring by now, but as I was lowering the anchor using the remote control, it stuck. It just kept letting out chain. I vigorously tapped the remote with no result and finally pressed the “up” button, which promptly popped the breaker of the windlass.

Now we were stuck with the anchor half out and possibly dragging. I grabbed a winch handle and started trying to psych myself up for the job of having to crank in all that chain by hand while Andy went searching for the breaker box.

Thankfully Andy was able to reset the breaker, I let out some more chain, and we stopped dragging. Andy tried to dive the anchor to make sure it was ok, but the water was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

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Meanwhile Batubara and Chateau du Mer had arrived and dropped anchor as well. The first wave of crew headed to town to buy more booze and to scout the restaurants. The wind had picked up and our crappy dinghy motor made getting out of the shallows and away from the dinghy dock a real fiasco, so there was quite a delay working that situation out and getting the stupid outboard running again before we could go pick up the rest of the crew. (When chartering, never settle for a crappy outboard.)

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Once we were finally all ashore we took a nice walk through the streets of Dewey. While Esperanza had island dogs wandering the streets, Dewey had friendly cats that followed us for a bit before going back to lounging.

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The outstanding night spot seemed to be the Dinghy Dock Restaurant.

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They had tables dockside with lights under the water, illuminating the huge tarpon circling the area, waiting for someone to throw dinner scraps into the water. There was also a fishing bat that would occasionally swoop through and grab things out of the water. The food was great, and it was a really cool atmosphere.

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By the time we finished dinner, I could barely hold my head up. It had been an incredibly fun, but an incredibly long day. We walked back to the dinghy, climbed aboard Caicu, and went straight to bed.

But here’s one more sea turtle picture from our afternoon at Culebrita just because sea turtles are awesome.

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Easter weekend at Laguna Harbor

Redfish Island, Double Bayou, Offats Bayou, Moody Gardens, Harborwalk … there’s only so many places to overnight on a sailboat that are just a day trip from our home port in Kemah, Texas. So when we heard about Laguna Harbor Marina in Port Bolivar last month, Mary was on the phone making reservations.

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It was much to our surprise that the developer of Laguna Harbor invited us to stay for free and help ourselves to any of the electric and water hookups available. Of course, what we didn’t realize at the time is that Laguna Harbor Marina isn’t finished yet.

“If you build it, they will come.” I’m sure that is what the original developers were thinking when they dug Laguna Harbor, installed the bulkheads, and built the first model home — just before Hurricane Ike wiped out the Bolivar Peninsula in 2008. However, Port Bolivar has now recovered and development of the area has once again commenced.

We left Watergate Yachting Center at 9:30 a.m. the morning of Good Friday, very excited to be making our first overnight trip of 2015 and even more excited to spend some time at a new destination. Prevailing southeast winds let us sail across upper Galveston Bay to the Houston Ship Channel, but then we ended up with wind right on the nose and motored the rest of the way. During the sail, gusty winds had us periodically surging up to 8 knots, which had Mary and Dixie both rather nervous.

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However, the motoring portion of the trip was a different story.

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It was a very quiet ride, but at least I had a little company from the passing ships.

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We passed the Texas City Dike right at 1:30 p.m. and for the first time turned east into the Intracoastal Waterway.

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We passed some interesting scenery and several fleets of shrimp boats.

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And then two miles in on the south side of the ICW, there it was, a small sign that said Laguna Harbor.

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We almost missed it on the first pass as it wasn’t on the Garmin charts. Our track showed us cruising right up onto the shore.

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The entire trip took 4.5 hours. It was very easy to find the heavy duty cleats and power stations in the southwest corner of the marina.

We got tied up and accepted a tour of the sales office from Casey, the realtor with Newcoast Properties who was on duty all weekend. It wasn’t long before the crew of a Catalina 30 named Quest had joined us, and we were all checking out the view of Port Bolivar from the very top of the sales office.

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To say Port Bolivar is still a bit rural would be an understatement. In fact, there were horses grazing less than 100 yards from where we were docked.

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The entire place is a strange mix of pre-hurricane structures and new development.

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There’s still a few “fixer-uppers” available if you want a good deal …

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We had hoped to visit the beach and the bird sanctuary, but it was a three-mile walk. Considering average walking pace is 4 mph, that was close to an hour of walking just to get to the beach, where we planned to take a walk on the beach, before we walked an hour back. We decided that maybe we should invest in folding bikes and take in the beach on a future trip.

Instead, Mary put on her cruising hat, and we headed over to La Playita, the only restaurant in the area, looking for some margaritas.

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We found some pretty good Mexican food with great service, but they only serve beer. (Hey, at least it wasn’t a dry town, and it’s not like I was going to pass up their fajita chicken burrito smothered in queso.)

After dinner we walked back to the marina where our neighbors kindly shared their homemade cheesecake with us as we watched the sun set.

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Saturday night the winds began gusting from the north at 35 – 40 mph. I didn’t sleep much as I kept getting up to check our fenders and lines. I was wishing we had some old car tires to hang along the side of Gimme Shelter. The wind was blowing so hard I’m not sure I could have slept even if we’d been tied up at our slip in Watergate.

I had planned to set up my tripod and shoot the lunar eclipse Saturday morning, but I poked my head out at 6:30 to find complete cloud cover, so I crashed back into bed and didn’t wake up until the dogs insisted they go for a walk about 10 a.m. We finally got out of bed and made some breakfast.

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Saturday was still too windy for kayaking, but we made the best of it by taking a walk around the area. While there is a large bird sanctuary in Port Bolivar, it doesn’t necessarily mean the birds stay inside of it.

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Grackles were everywhere doing their humpty dance, trying to get the attention of the ladies. We also ran across a bird we’d never seen before called the Long Billed Curlew. He seemed to be checking out some daisies.

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Of course, all the usual suspects were around. There was no shortage of seagulls, cormorants and sandpipers.

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I was also surprised to see quite a bit of prickly pear cactus in the area mixed in with the Texas wildflowers. It was covered in purple buds that were just about bloom.

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There was a little bit of beach along the ICW, and the water was clear enough to see the hermit crabs wandering around.

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We also stumbled across an egg just sitting on the beach. It almost seemed like a magic Easter egg put there just for us to find.

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But then we realized there was a chicken farm just the other side of the shrimp boats and seafood shack to the north of Laguna Harbor. Deductive reasoning led us to believe the gusting 40 mph north winds probably helped the egg migrate south to the beach that night.

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Walking around, you still found evidence of the destruction caused by Hurricane Ike, like this children’s wagon that had been completely covered over during the storm and is now eroding back out of the soil.

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By dinner time Saturday evening the winds had finally switched back around to the south and settled to a calm 5 – 10 mph. It made the perfect weather for trying out our new Magma grill.

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Yes, I was paranoid about dropping food in the water, so yes, I did accidentally drop a chicken breast overboard as I was taking them off the grill. I hope Neptune enjoys teriyaki. I poured out a little bit of beer for him to go with the chicken in hopes he’d give us good weather on the way home Sunday, which was probably sacrilege since Sunday was Easter, but let’s face it, it was a pagan holiday before it got converted to Easter, so it probably doesn’t matter.

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We had a very nice dinner in the cockpit, but I think I’m going to build us a new table that will actually fit two plates at the same time.

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I think I can safely speak for our two furry crew members when I say, they had a great time as well.

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There was plenty of space to explore on our walks, and they got to see horses and cows. Tex wasn’t thrilled with the cockle-burs in his fur, but Dixie had a good romp in her Easter sweater.

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We had the entire harbor to ourselves as the sun went down Saturday night. LH11

Rain was in the forecast Sunday, so we put on our foulies and got an early start back to Kemah at 8:30 a.m. We cautiously motored back to the Houston Ship Channel with only one barge and a shrimp boat in sight. It was an easy downwind sail all the way back, but due to the heavy mist and some occasional rain, we left the camera and our phones in the cabin. Unfortunately that means we have no evidence of the pod of dolphins doing crazy jumps out of the water on the bow wake of a passing cargo ship or the two dolphins that popped up and spouted right beside our cockpit, not once, but twice. They were so close we could have reached out and touched them.

By the time we turned west at the south cut the dogs were very unhappy with being wet and the rolling motion of the boat that came with the following seas. They were very ready to get off the boat when we finally pulled into our slip at 12:30 p.m.

All in all, it was a good trip despite the scary winds Friday night. We had no major boat issues, and the new winches worked great.

As it stands, Laguna Harbor is a great overnight spot if you’re planning to head offshore, and you can’t beat free. I’m sure we’ll be back. As they develop the marina I hope they’ll add things like bike or golf cart rentals, so that visiting boaters can explore more of the area.

At the boat show

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It was that time of year again. A time filled with magic and mysterious polishes that will supposedly make old aluminum look like new stainless. A time when “For Sale” signs appear on vessels in local marinas like buds on the trees. A time to re-stock your supply of free key floaters and drink coozies.

It’s time for the Southwest International Boat Show!

South Shore Harbor hosts the annual Southwest Boat Show in Kemah, Texas. I have to admit, having now been on many different types of vessels, the show isn’t as exciting as it was a few years ago. However, there were two big reasons to stop by this year.

The first reason was the Lagoon 450.

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Our upcoming summer charter will be on a Lagoon, but we’d never actually been on a large cat, so we were very excited to get a tour and see what they were really like.

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The 450 would definitely be a comfortable live-aboard with plenty of amenities and space for guests.

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There was no shortage of cabinets, closets, drawers, and other storage throughout the vessel.

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Call me selfish, but I much prefer the “owner’s” version over the “charter” version of these boats with a big cabin and head on one side — not that we’ll ever be able to afford ownership of either version. But maybe someday we’ll at least have a vessel with a stand-alone shower.

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Unlike some of the older, smaller cats we’ve toured like the Prouts and the PDQs, Mary had no trouble seeing over the helm of the Lagoon 450.

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Once we were finished there, we headed over to the next pier to check out the pre-owned Fountaine Pajot Lipari 41.

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The FP was also a cool boat with a very similar layout. Though smaller, it still had plenty of storage and space to entertain.

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Mary’s only complaint was that she did not like the design of the shower stall in the owner’s head. She prefers clear glass walls. I don’t know if that’s a deal breaker.

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However, she had no problem with the kitchen.

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The FP also had an elevated “flybridge” helm.

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Although on both boats, once the sails are set, it’s easy to keep watch and adjust the autopilot from inside at the nav station.

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However, the very visible escape hatches in the FP remind you of the one underlying danger of cat sailing — ending up upside down.

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Once we’d had our fill of touring boats we can’t afford, we walked through the vendor area and spent almost $40 on two burgers, fries and drinks while taking in some live music.

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And while nobody escapes the boat show for free, at least we didn’t end up with a radio-controlled boat.

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Or one of these three-wheeled slingshot cars.

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Or $99 for 20 minutes of being tethered to a jetski on a hydro-rocket.

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But there’s always next year …