burn the charts

burn the charts

Chris Green and I had been talking about doing this big boat overnight race for the past few years on my NACRA 20 – 20 feet long, 8.5 feet wide, 390 pounds with no cabin, just a trampoline between the hulls. Usually something came up and we scrapped the idea, but this year, I was hell bent on doing it. Unfortunately Chris has a job and couldn’t get out of some previously scheduled commitments.

I contacted Wendy Simkins of Spanish Fork, Utah, who’d expressed great interest in doing more of this type of racing at Ruff Riders in South Padre. What the hell, right? 

So this brave sailor chick bought a ticket and headed down Wednesday evening before the race. I stopped by the Green’s for a few last minute items and picked up Wendy at the airport, then headed to Galveston. The forecast wasn’t looking too favorable for a beach cat doing this in the dark and I was contemplating my escape routes should it get too rough. Initially it was looking like the weather wouldn’t get rough till mid day Friday, so we should be ok, but still…

We rigged the 20 on the beach near the Flagship Hotel, and quickly noticed a broken strand on one of my 2-year old shrouds.   Luckily I had a replacement, and we went over the rigging with extra care just as I’d done for the past few years before a Tybee or GT300 leg. When we were about finished rigging and suited up, Jose Cerdas met us at the beach to take the truck and trailer to his house for our ground crew, Kurt Peters to pick up later and drive to Port Aransas.

We shoved off in light winds and nice sunshine. Initially deciding to forego dry suits in favor of spray tops in the hot Texas sun. We went out, milling around the start line and chatting with others as we waited our turn to start.  At this time, we saw Corey Harding and he informed us it was already blowing 18 knots in Corpus…not good.  We chose to start with the other multi hulls as we watched most of the other big boats start as much as an hour ahead.

Here’s a list of safety items we carried on ourselves and the boat;

  • EPirbs on each of us along with personal strobe lights and VHF radios.
  • PFD’s (ofcourse) with safety lanyard and quick disconnect attachment.
  • GPS, Coastal Charts (which came in really handy for building a fire), cell phones.
  • Dry suits (since we would be sailing through the night).
  • Survival items in case of being marooned on one of the outer islands.

We did get a pretty good start without trying to foul anyone since we weren’t “officially” allowed to be in the race in the first place. We jib reached for a while with the wind direction initially preventing us from using the spinnaker. After about an hour, we threw up the chute and really took off, double trapped, and passing everything in sight. We got a few “thumbs up” and some pictures of us taken as we flew past the slower boats. One monohull in particular must not have liked us overtaking him so fast, turning abruptly to weather when we were beside him, almost making us take the chute down to avoid a collision. I still don’t know what was going through his head. Maybe it was his first time sailing, who knows?It was one of the dumbest moves I’ve seen in sailing so far. We strapped the chute, dropped the traveler and heaved ourselves out on the wire as far as possible to get over him and finally did.

Once past, it was game on again. We were running about 16 to 17 knots of boat speed with the chute up until about San Luis Pass. The sun was getting lower and we decided to drop the chute and let Wendy get her drysuit on. This isn’t an easy task to do on a beach cat out on the water, so we heaved to a little to slow down the boat and smooth the ride so she didn’t get any water in the suit before she got it on. We then opted to keep the chute down and jib reach down the coast more and try to get farther out so we had plenty of room to clear the Freeport Jetties. By the time we passed the jetties, it was dark and we had the moon at our backs. It was still a little low and wasn’t much help in lighting things up much, and with the wind at 17 knots or so now and the waves getting chopped up, things got a bit more difficult, especially navigation.

Any beach cat sailor can tell you that you gotta pick your course through some of the waves when they get to a certain size, so you can maintain good boat speed. When its dark, its pretty hard to see which waves you want to take head on and which ones you want to steer around. Pretty much, it was no choice but to take them head on since we couldn’t see them anyway. I have to point out that by the time the sun set, we attached ourselves to the boat with safety lines and carabiners.  I was trying to navigate by keeping what little I could see of the shoreline to my right and watch the lighted rigs. It was almost impossible to watch the handheld GPS and drive at the same time. The waves were getting too big. We kept this pace for a short time more when I noticed the waves going in a different direction, then WAM! We hit the shoals off Brian Point with both dagger boards down. I was trying to unhook my lanyard and Wendy was trying to get the boards up. The wind rotated the boat more down and was pushing the boards harder into the sand while Wendy was fighting to get them up.

Finally she got the leeward one up as I looked over my shoulder and saw a big snake like head lift up out of the surf about 6 feet. I couldn’t believe what I just saw. I was trying to see if I could see it again and wasn’t disappointed when it rose up again. Then Wendy saw it too and said the same thing I did….WTF?! What looked like the head and neck of the Loch Ness Monster ended up being a log getting washed up in the surf. But late at night, all I could think of was "glad we didn’t hit that guy!"  We managed to get off the shoal and got back under way only to hit another one, only this time we still had the boards up and were able to jump off the boat and run it across with the help of the sails.

We got back under way as the conditions worsened even more. The waves were getting bigger and the wind was building. It was not possible to be on the wire since I couldn’t see the waves and we’d be getting knocked around too much. We both rode on the trampoline and I tried to pick a point of navigation to drive to. I could make out a brown strip that I knew was the beach and a radio tower ahead that I was used to seeing in the GT300. It was still extremely difficult to see anything and drive at the same time. I started contemplating our options. If we went much farther down, we’d be committed to sailing at least to Matagorda. If conditions got much worse, we might have to beach it in a spot only accessible by boat and unfamiliar in the dark, meaning any drama on beaching could be really dangerous. 

We turned into what I knew to be the beach, and the waves built.  I stayed as conservative as possible, and we beached without incident, dragging the boat up the sand as far as possible – this is when just 390 pounds is a great asset.   We dropped the sails and rolled them up on the trampoline.  This was going to be our sleeping spot for the night. I figured since the weather wasn’t expected to get better, we’d be sailing back to Surfside in the morning – the closest place Kurt could come get us.  I phoned Jose Cerdas and Kurt to let them know our status and sent a few texts to others who knew our plans. When doing an adventure like this, it’s good to do a “float plan” where you have a few reliable contacts on land who know your course and ETA.

 Now I could go about making things more comfortable. Wendy and I started to gather drift wood to make a fire. I used our folding paddle to dig a fire pit then used my knife to slice of thin pieces of wood for kindling. The wind was pretty strong and gusting over 20 and really making the fire not cooperate. Wendy found a napkin and that still didn’t do the trick. I had some JB Quick Epoxy in the pelican case and wondered if the hardener had enough catalyst in it to be flammable, so I tried that to no avail. Back to the Pelican case; the only thing left in there was the foam liner or my coastal navigation charts. No brainer there, burn the charts! It worked, we got the fire lit. I did show Wendy where we were on the last chart I lit, so she had a better idea. The warm fire was nice. I’ve read many times that a fire can be a real moral booster in stranded situations, and this one didn’t disappoint. I just wish we had a few chairs. Wendy asked how far I thought we had made it and I guessed 50 miles. I turned the GPS on and made the start line our “go to” point and…. 49.8 miles! Man, I’m good!

I had packed a few small blankets just in case this situation happened, and we broke them out so we could get some sleep in hopes of sailing back to Surfside in the morning. The blankets looked a lot bigger in the store for sure. We decided to put the drysuits back on for more warmth. My tee shirt was still a little damp but I slept pretty good, all things considered. I pulled the mainsail over the boom and bungied it down to make a primitive tent/shelter. It helped to keep the sanity if nothing more. The wind built through the night, shaking the boat at times. I knew this meant the surf would be getting bigger.

Morning came and as expected, the surf was freekin’ big. To make matters worse, the wind was blowing straight on shore. For those of  you who don’t sail, a sail boat like this has to go no higher than 45 degrees to the wind or it will stall. This meant we would have to take the big surf at a 45 degree angle at best and try not to get rolled. I’ve considered myself as being extremely skilled in navigating the surf with a sailboat but we all know each of us has that magic bullet with our name on it. I was praying I didn’t find mine that day because I wasn’t the only one who would be paying for it. I didn’t doubt Wendy’s tenacity for adventure but I surely didn’t want to get her hurt.  

I called Kurt Peters and let him know our ETA into Surfside would be about 10 am. I gave Wendy a little briefing as what to expect and we shoved off. It was a little worse than I thought when we got past the second sandbar. There was no way to take some of the waves head on due to the size. We actually had to run from a few by turning the boat towards the beach a little and let the wave break, then turn back into it. It seemed like this pace would keep us in the surf forever. We did get hit by one that almost did us in. It picked us up as it was breaking over and carried us a good 30 feet back and slowly trying to turn us on our side. I worked the mainsheet out to depower the sail and tried to steer into it without losing too much speed and somehow we made it over the top without going over. I have no doubt God was with us all the way out  that day because it took more than just the two of us to get through the impact zone of the surf. Once we made it past the breakers, we weren’t out of the woods. We had good wind, about 17 to 20 knots but the waves were so big, we had to watch constantly for the big ones coming over your shoulder. They were still breaking on occasion even farther out. I wanted to play it a little conservative and had Wendy stay in off the wire for the trip into Surfside since we weren’t racing anyone at this time. We were doing well over 20 knots of boat speed probably closer to 25 plus. We really had to pick our course through the waves and managed to catch some air which made the run back more fun.

As we came to the Freeport Jetties, we were intersecting with a shrimp trawler (Bubba Gump boat) and had to let him pass in front of us as we slowed down briefly. Then we came closer to Surfside and I reminded Wendy why they call it that. It’s a great place to surf. It also meant we had some big waves to contend with on the way into the beach. We picked our way through the surf for a smooth and safe landing on the beach and were greeted by a vacationing couple from Colorado who were glad to see more action on the beach than just the seashell hunters. Wendy and I congratulated each other for surviving the ordeal but were both a bit heavy hearted about not completing what we had set out to do. We later got word from some of the other racers that got to Port Aransas first that they came into the Jetties at the finish in 25 knot winds and big waves. They hadn’t heard what we had done at that time and were a bit worried about us. I don’t regret pulling out of the race when we did but I’m still disappointed a little. We’ll definitely have a go at for next year again.

Lee Wicklund, Team CHUMS