About a year ago (2015), my daughter Kristen asked if we could do the Texas200 again. I thought about it and told her that if we did, it wouldn't be in a production boat, with a cabin, that we bought. It would be in an open boat that I built myself. I also told her that this time we would have to camp in tents every night, she said "that sounds great!" Thus, began the search for a design. The first thought in my head was a multi-hull, to go fast and shallow. I wanted to skirt the windward shorelines in relatively flat water and see a little more scenery. But.....I couldn't find a multi-hull that I wanted to do the trip in or that I could build in time. Eventually, I saw some drawings of the Saturday Night Special, a design by John Welsford, I have had a great amount of respect for his designs for years. I loved the lines on this boat, it had some beam, it was fairly wide and flat in the back, plus she had a really sweet sheer. All that with closed front, rear and side decks for buoyancy and storage. It looked like a poor man's AWOL.......a boat I have lusted over since the first time I saw it..... it seemed to be the perfect boat. The clincher was in the design brief - it was capable of planing, running in shallow water, and stable. It met all of my criteria, and it was a quick build. So I got the plans from Chuck Leinweber at the Port Aransas Plywooden Boat Festival, took them home and began studying them. It seemed pretty straight forward, and I agreed it looked like a quick build.
Construction started in early November. I hoped to be finished by the first of March to start sea trials and to refresh my sailing skills (I hadn't sailed much in five years). March first came and went, and I was still working. There had been some detours to take care of other things and I had to face the fact that I just couldn't do a rough finish job on a design by John, this boat looked pretty even when it was just a bunch of frames and stringers. I wanted to finish her out as nicely as I could, but quickly, which is to say that if you stand at twenty feet away, she looks pretty good.
By the first of April, I was starting to get a little panicky. We still hadn't gotten our first sail in even though I had been out in the shop almost every single day since February. Of course, sometimes it was just to set something up with epoxy and then walk away until the next day. We were also getting whacked with rains quite frequently which prevented me from getting the boat outside and getting the mast and rigging on and tuned. But.....finally.... by late April we were ready for the first test sail.
We took the boat to Lake Somerville, due to the heavy rains we had been having, all of the lakes in our area were inundated with water and their boat ramps were closed, except for Somerville, which only had one ramp open. To make matters worse, when we arrived on that Saturday morning, we found that they were hosting a Bass Fishing Tournament......@#$%&#@$%#! We rigged the boat while we waited in line to launch.
Once we had the boat in the water we had to walk it way down along shore and around some trees (that were now out in the water due to the raised lake level), and find a place that we could raise sail and sail off from. While raising the sail in a breeze on a lee shore, the yard tried to kick me in the head. Then once the sail was up and I was trying to get a reef in, the boom swings back and forth as the winds were shifting quite a bit. By the time I got it ready to sail, I have named the boat. She reminded me of trying to saddle up a wild horse that is kicking at you and chomping at the bit to go. I christened her Mustang after the wild ponies that used to wander the barrier island along the Texas Gulf.
We pushed the boat off of the shore and tried to sail out, only to get caught by a wind shift that pushed us right back onto shore. I think we ended pushing off about thirty-eight times and came close to tangling the rig in trees twice, before we made it out into the lake. To say we were worn out would be an understatement (I later realized we should have just rowed the boat out into the lake and then started sailing......duh!). We took off on a beat out of the cove, because the first thing I want to know is if I go downwind, can I get back. The boat went to weather just fine; we were a little sloppy, but that is totally due to our rusty sailing skills. Once I was convinced, we could get back, we headed the boat down the channel which leads to the main basin. We relaxed for a bit while we were running and got our strength back. One thing I noticed while we were running was how the boat was rocking side to side more than would be warranted by the wave action. I realized that it was due to the boom rising and falling as the wind fluctuated, I decided to look into adding a boom vang. We spent two hours putting the boat through its paces, beating, reaching, running and were quite pleased with the performance. On our way back to the cove as we were beating up the channel, we performed a tack and as the boat came around and we were not in position yet, we got hit with a wind shift and a gust that filled the sails on the new tack and heeled her WAY over! I released the main sheet, but it didn't go out due to my foot that I was standing on, sideways in relation to the boat, with all of my weight, was on the sheet! As I watched, the boat heel all the way over and put the rail in the water I am trying my best to figure out how to get my foot off the sheet. We stayed like this for a LONG time! I finally got the sheet out from under my foot and the boat stood up. It was then that I realized she had heeled way over ........and then just stayed there, not going any further even though the wind was blowing hard. I am actually glad that this act of very poor seamanship happened, it demonstrated to me the amount of ultimate stability that this boat has.
Two weeks later we took the boat down to Magnolia Beach to get in some cockpit time. We sailed for about seven hours over two days and became quite comfortable in the boat. We practiced raising and lowering sail while out in the water, sailing on all points, and she was becoming a tamer little Mustang. The only problem is that she is not sailing to weather as good as she had the first time, we took her out. We had made several changes to the rig (including adding a boom vang which did calm the rocking). I tried changing things back and just couldn't figure out what had changed. Every time I tried to work to weather, my triangles were flat, and it took a lot more tacks than it should have to get where we were going. We left for home perplexed over this new problem. I talked to John Goodman and got some advice, we laid the rigged boat over on its side and took some measurements to compare to the dimensions in Johns drawing and adjusted accordingly. I then spent some time tweaking and completing other things to get the boat ready for the Texas200. Unfortunately, weather didn't permit us to sail her again before the Texas200 and we had to leave for Port Isabel unsure how well she would go to weather. The boat was declared ready one week before we had to take off for the long drive south.
We arrived in Port Isabel Saturday afternoon and drove across the bridge to South Padre Island. The bay was a beautiful, tropical shade of green - a perfect day for sailing with winds just right, and the surface sporting only minimal waves. We turned around on the island and went back to check in at our hotel, get the boat launched and have dinner.
The next day I spent doing the long.......boring.......day.......of.... shuffling.....tow........vehicles back north and a.........long.....bus......ride........back to Port Isabel. It truly wears you out more than any of the days of sailing! Kristen, on the other hand, spent the day in our hotel room curled up with a good book, (enjoying air conditioning), and ordering take out!
Monday we got up early and hiked the two blocks to Tarpon Marina, stowed our gear and pushed off. We motored through the maze of canal homes and entered the Lower Laguna Madre. We had the full sail up due to the wind forecast being 10 – 15 knots. I had debated and in fact my original intent was to cross the bay and sail in the lee of the shoreline in flat water, but from what I could gather from the charts, it seemed like there was an awful lot of very shallow water over there. But…..I didn’t have the confidence in the boats abilities run shallow yet. I also liked that for most of the way up the channel, the charts show there to be spoil islands just west of the intercoastal which provide a nice safety net. I think that I should explain here that I am always considering what could go wrong, and what will I do if it does, I seem to do this doubly when I sail with my daughter. I don’t typically like sailing in big waves, especially after the experience I had in my Bobcat on San Antonio Bay nine years earlier, but if something goes wrong here we can swim to an island, so we turned north at the channel and hung with the crowd.
Sailing along in the clear green waters of the lower Laguna Madre, it is easy to forget your concerns. I love the feeling of gliding across the water and the sound of nothing but the wind and waves. As the day progressed it seemed that the winds had increased beyond the original forecast and some waves began to build, but nothing too bad. The boat was doing well and handling the conditions just fine. I suggested just for safety's sake that we should reduce sail, but Kristen was opposed, she was enjoying the speed we were going. I decided to let it go for the time being. We were sitting pretty much in the rear of the boat to keep the bow high and out of the waves. As the waves increased with the boat overpowered, eventually we came off of one wave, drove the bow of the boat through a wave and water washed over the deck depositing about 2 gallons of water into the cockpit. I laughed and told Kristen that I think we should re-consider putting a reef in - her eyes were pretty wide as she agreed.
We pulled the boat off to the side of the channel and behind a small island to block the waves, pulled in a reef, and bailed out the boat. As we got back underway, we were coming closer to the Port Mansfield channel and the islands that had been our safety net came to an end. I was also concerned about the sail out the east bound channel to the jetties since I had no idea how well the boat was going to go to weather. The chart indicated that there should be enough depth to exit the north bound channel early, then take a shortcut to come out between two of the islands that border the Port Mansfield Channel heading east out to the Jetties. This would reduce the distance we had to sail on a beat by a few miles. I was concerned about a possible oyster reef or two, but I decided that since it would be up wind we could always head back downwind if necessary and be in deeper water. This was one of the things the boat was designed for, with the rudder design that John had come up with, so I decided to try it. We headed North East and it was exhilarating to feel the boat pick up speed as we came onto a reach. I released the rope that was locking the rudder in the down position and lowered the centerboard just a smidgen, which had been mostly up all day. The water got deeper at first and we absolutely flew along on the reach. After a while the color of the water became a much lighter shade of green and I could see the bottom, even as the boat continued to skim along. I took a paddle to check the depth – it was only about a foot - and we were flying across it! The boat really was meeting the "shallow water capable" promise. As we came upon the pass between two islands that we were going to sail between, we did come aground and had to get out to walk the boat across an oyster reef....a few scratches to the boats hull....ouch....but we had wading boots on so it wasn't a problem for our feet. After about twenty yards the water was deep enough to float the boat with us in it, so we climbed back in. We rounded the corner of the island and turned hard up wind into the channel. WOW there were some big waves in that channel! The boat was doing pretty good going upwind, but we were taking a beating from the waves and Kristen was getting soaked (I use her as a dodger at times like this, sitting behind her!). After another mile or so, we took a break along an island, and decided to motor the rest of the way. The boat could have sailed it, no problem, but we were tired and just took the easy way. We arrived at camp, and Day One was complete!
The next morning, we pushed off early again. We learned that the winds the day before had been in the twenties, and the forecast for today was to be about the same. I wasn't too concerned because the boat had performed quite well in those conditions, but as I recall, the waves tend to stack up quite a bit in the northern section of the Lower Laguna Madre - if we could beat some of that it would be great. We sailed west in the Port Mansfield channel and as we came closer to the intersection with the Intercoastal, I took a shortcut again across the shallows and got ahead of some boats that had left before us as we entered the northbound channel. As the morning wore on the waves began to increase as expected. Eventually they were pretty good sized, and we were soon surfing down the backsides of the waves. Working the tiller back and forth to keep the boat headed north can really become a chore in these conditions. As the waves overtake you, the stern loses speed through the water, the rudder becomes less effective, the sail is powered up and wanting to turn into the wind and you are working hard to keep the boat pointed downwind. After awhile I asked Kristen if she wanted to take the helm. She asked, "What do I do?". "Just keep the boat pointed that way", was my reply and pointed North. She quickly had the hang of it and I let her drive for the next hour or two until we entered the land cut. As I rested sitting in the bottom of the boat, watching Kristen handle the boat, it occurred to me just how well the boat was handling the conditions. I mean these were pretty big seas and she was just flying through them like it was no big deal.
Once we entered the land cut Kristen gave me the helm. Pretty quickly it seemed that the wind was laying down and we were losing boat speed. A couple of boats that we had caught up with in the bay were now able to stay with us. A bigger boat passed us so we quit debating and pulled over to shake out the reef in the sail. As I was untying one of the knots it dawned on me, that there was a pretty good wind blowing. I stopped and considered things for a moment........it didn't make sense. I finally decided that five knots would be fast enough and that it would be better to keep the boat under control and left the reef in.
Now here is the really weird part, as soon as we pushed back out, the boat took off and we were flying! As we were going along the land cut, I would occasionally tighten up to keep us to the windward side of the channel, there is nothing I hate more than running aground on a lee shore. Once, as I did this a gust caught the boat and as I turned it back downwind, she took off like a banshee!! She hopped on top of the water and we were flying! As the gust died, I turned up again, increasing apparent wind and then when the gust hit, turned it back downwind. At times the front half of the boat must have been completely out of the water because as we were flying along, spray was shooting out both sides of the boat from about halfway back. I have to say that I have never gone this fast in a monohull sailboat in my life – we were having a blast. (looking at the GPS later our top speed that day was 14 knots!) I really didn't expect the boat to plane in Texas200 trim, what with two people, a bunch of gear, gallons of water and a full ice chest! But....plane she did. As we went along, we caught several boats that had left us behind during our aborted reefing attempt, we even easily passed a Core Sound 17 which had out run us earlier in the morning as we had left the Port Mansfield Jetties. This is probably the most fun I have had sailing in a long time. I had missed my days of sailing a catamaran, but not anymore!
We arrived at the infamous "Mud Hole" (also known as "Haps Cut"), and Day Two was over.
We were in the last stages of the moon turning to a full moon and it was dominant in the sky as the sun set and we went to bed. Around 2 am I woke up and looked up through the netting in the roof of my tent. The stars that were visible after the moon had set were amazing. Getting away from the light pollution of the cities, stars that you normally can't see were visible along with a very distinct and strong display of the Milky Way. Truly a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight, worth the trip itself.
Day Three was a short day, and mostly uneventful other than sailing through the Baffin Bay area was a little uncomfortable. There was still a pretty good wind blowing and it was more from the east putting the waves on our quarter. It was a pretty good workout at the helm, and as I mentioned earlier, I really don't like big waves. But my confidence in the boat at this point was pretty strong. We arrived at camp, Bird Island, around 1 pm and found that some boats had missed the camp. We looked around and admittedly were a little disappointed. The bottom out in the water was a nice, packed sand, but there just wasn't much of a beach here to set up a tent, due to the tides being higher than when they had scouted this area previously. I have seen way too many rattlesnakes at the coast, so we didn't dare set up our tents out in the weeds. We thought about moving on down and trying to find a better camp site, but eventually we decided to stay put and sleep in the boat. We re-arranged our gear, got all the water out, wiped down the floor and let it dry in the sun. We put up an umbrella over the cockpit and enjoyed the remainder of the day. Later as the sun was setting and we were finished with dinner, we laid out our sleeping pads on either side of the centerboard along with our sleeping bags, pillow and a sheet for each of us. I also used a throw cushion for extra head support. We laid down and had our feet to the stern, with the bulkhead passing under our knees, and were surprisingly quite comfortable. I awoke in the middle of the night again and covered up with the sheet because it was getting a little chilly. Later a mosquito buzzed my head, so I just pulled the sheet over my head and went back to sleep. Overall, it was actually a very comfortable sleeping spot and I will sleep there again.
Day Four we left and headed North again. Kristen and I met up with several boats at "Snoopy's" which is a popular restaurant located at the intersection of the intercoastal and the bridge leading into Corpus Christi. After a delicious lunch and restocking of ice and water at the bait camp next door, we headed out again, eventually turning more east as we entered Corpus Christi bay. We brought the boat onto a close reach and headed for the east shore and calmer water avoiding the more boisterous middle of the bay. All in all, the bay probably wasn't that bad that day, since the winds were around 15 knots. We reached the other side pretty quickly, which actually surprised Kristen and me. My battery had gone dead on my phone exceptionally early this day, and I wasn't exactly sure what direction to head to get to "Stingray Hole" which is the cut that leads into the Port Aransas Ship channel. So, I decided to follow Tom Pamperin. The plan was to go around Shamrock Island, hug the shore and then through "Stingray Hole" and up the Port Aransas Ship Channel. The problem was, we got confused.....I mean he must have gotten confused, I am only following. We entered what I think we both thought was the pass between Shamrock Island and the shore, but it turned out to be a small cove instead. Tom continued on looking for a way out, while we turned around and sailed back out. When we came out, we ran into John and Rosa Goodman as they came along. We sailed along for a while and John got some good video footage of our boat, which we greatly appreciated. Chuck Pierce joined us as well, and Tom found another way out of the cove and back to the main bay. The four of us sailed toward what I hoped was Stingray Hole, but as we approached the islands that separate us from that Channel, Chuck, who was in the lead, turned back to the West, (I began to wonder if anyone had a working GPS!) I would have sworn that the pass was more to the east of where we were. Eventually we came to the pass and entered the Ship Channel. Chuck pulled ashore at this point for a break, Tom continued west, and I followed John.
Link to YouTube video by John Goodman:
Here was a test I had been concerned about for a while. This is going to be a beat to weather, there is a lot of barge traffic and ships using this channel. I really don't want to have to occupy the middle of the channel anymore than I have to. I am still not sure how well the boat is going to go to weather and am wondering how many tacks it will take. We tighten up as we turn into the channel and hope for the best. The boat heels over some in the breeze and we begin our beat. After a few minutes I am pleased, we are doing pretty good and even getting some favorable wind shifts. I have learned by this time that I can trust this boat, she will heel a certain amount and then get pretty stiff. As we get hit with gusts and shifts, I just ease the tiller over and make a little more distance to weather. We sail up the channel with the sail cleated off the whole time. This boat really is quite stable and predictable going to weather. But eventually Chuck catches up with me. Now this really bothers me.....my boat should be faster! Chuck sails a Mayfly 14, and don't get me wrong he is REALLY good at it. This is when I fully realize that although I have gotten the boat to go to weather, I still have sail shape issues that are costing me boat speed. Which is something I knew, but this is a serious reminder of that (more on this later.)
We sail up the channel, and I make a tack when we enter the marked area of the channel. I am thinking that we can make the whole way with one tack, which will please me greatly. As I am thinking this I am admiring the Port Aransas skyline, the boats, the dark green water of the channel and just thoroughly enjoying the moment. I love this area, Port Aransas is my favorite place in Texas, a funky little beach town that has unfortunately become too popular. I notice as we sail along what looks like a giant crane moving through town, this baffles me for a second and then I realize what it is - a ship coming around the corner from the channel that goes out to the Gulf. As it approaches, I tack and head back to the channel's edge to give the boat all the room I can. The winds are getting fluky and I certainly don't want to get caught near it with no wind. It passes without incident and we continue on to play chicken with the ferry boats that are hauling cars across the channel from the mainland to Mustang Island and Port Aransas. We near the Lydia Ann Channel and are thinking we are home free when I see what looks like a miniaturized version of a cruise ship which is actually an offshore gambling boat coming down the channel from the Gulf. We are on a collision course and I eventually have to tack to give it room since he was not yielding.
The voyage down the Lydia Ann Channel and the remainder of our journey to camp 4 was thankfully uneventful. Chuck Pierce is just ahead of us the remainder of the way and I observe his sailing technique as best as I can. At one point he heads up into the wind and fiddles with his sail for about 15 seconds, then turns back on the wind, in that time he has shaken out a reef! He really is good.
That evening as Kristen and I are sitting in the opening to our tents and relaxing before turning in, I am thinking about the weather forecast for the next day - winds are predicted to be 5-10 knots. I continue thinking about various other issues concerning the trip when Kristen says, "What a beautiful view we have from our rooms". I am shaken from my thoughts and look around. She continues, "I really love all of the beautiful places we have camped this week; it is like having the best hotel rooms in the world". I am brought completely back into the moment by her words. You can get so caught up in all of the logistics, navigation, boat issues and everything else, that you miss out on the real beauty of the trip. I looked around and she was right, we truly had a million-dollar room.