We awoke on Ash Wednesday and proclaimed with a sigh, "The
party's over. Time to head back to Texas."
After returning to Slidell in early January, we had been
swept up by the party atmosphere in New Orleans. As the coldest
winter in 15 years brought an endless parade of cold fronts
across the Gulf coast, Caribbean Soul remained securely
docked at the Oak Harbor Marina in Slidell. The revelry of
Carnival season reached a crescendo with the Saint's triumph
in the Super Bowl. The community was giddy with excitement
and enthusiasm. Gold and black Mardi Gras beads dangled from
our rear view mirror--we had caught the fever. Triumphant
and euphoric, the community declared, "Katrina is over!"
After four years, a dark cloud had been swept away from the
Gulf Coast, replaced with a renewed optimism. No one could
foretell that BP would soon rain oil down on their newfound
By mid-February, the cold fronts seemed to be easing off
a little, and there was a hint of springtime on the way. Even
so, there wasn't a long enough weather window for us to make
an offshore run all the way around the Mississippi River delta
to Galveston, so we grudgingly accepted another passage through
the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) in Louisiana. Our trip
in 2006 had been memorable--like spending the night of Nick's
birthday tied to a piling outside the Industrial lock--and
we had sworn at the time "never again."
The GIWW in Louisiana is a busy commercial thoroughfare where
tow boats push barges, sometimes stacked six deep. Pleasure
boats are rare, and in 2006 the tow boat captains had showed
us little tolerance or consideration. Furthermore, facilities
for pleasure boats are primitive and few and far between.
We dreaded the trip and braced ourselves for an ordeal.
On Friday February 19th, we backed out of our slip at Oak
Harbor, feeling that sense of exhilaration and relief we always
experienced when finally getting underway again. We motored
back down the Rigolets and headed west toward the Mississippi
River. This time, we passed Rabbit Island and headed for Chef
Menteur Pass, where we'd heard anchoring was possible. Our
Bruce anchor, demoted for dereliction of duty back in the
Bahamas, was now in the primary spot, its rounded hook more
suited to Louisiana mud than the pointy Delta. We set the
anchor on the southwest shore of the pass just off the GIWW,
and I busied myself in the galley making chicken enchiladas.
I was just pulling dinner out of the oven, when Nick heard
a tow captain warning other tows about a sailboat anchored
in a dangerous spot. Nick responded on the VHF and identified
us as the sailboat in Chef Pass. The friendly captain warned
that when the tide changed, and especially if the wind picked
up, tows might be crabbing their barges against the shore
where we were anchored. If we stayed in that spot, we risked
being wiped out in the middle of the night. Gulp! The tow
captain recommended relocating to another channel that intersected
Chef Pass to the south. We could anchor or tie up to some
pilings there. Nick thanked him and promised to take his advice.
After gobbling down our enchiladas, we upped anchor in the
dark and crept down the pass with our spotlight illuminating
the shore. As directed, we turned into a channel and tied
to the pilings. There was no wind and none forecast for the
night, but Nick tied a spider-web of lines hoping to keep
Caribbean Soul from twisting around the piles and onto
the shore when the tide changed. I set the alarm clock and
we turned in early. Tomorrow we would cross the Mississippi
I awoke the next morning with an uneasy feeling. I checked
the clock. "Awshit!" It hadn't gone off because
I had set it for PM and not AM. It was 5:00 A.M. and we were
an hour behind schedule for the longest day of the trip. We
hurried Dakota on deck to take care of "business"
and then started the engine. Our bow was pointed just a few
feet off the shore but, with a little reverse, we were underway.
Our chart showed that the channel we were in carried 12 feet
back to the GIWW. Since we were late, we decided to follow
it rather than backtrack to Chef Pass. As we crept down the
channel in darkness, the depth maintained 11-15 feet. Soon
we would be back on schedule. Just as we passed a basin to
our port side, Caribbean Soul abruptly slammed to a
stop. We were aground! With a burst of reverse, Nick wiggled
us off the sandbar. Tentatively we motored ahead at a different
angle, but stopped again with a sudden lurch. "Awshit!"
Now what do we do? We were stuck pretty hard this time, but
those 90 horses under the hood once again saved the day.
We decided to turn around and go back out the way we came
since this channel obviously wasn't being maintained to its
charted depth. But as we retraced our path, we stopped short
again. The tide was slowly coming in, but it seemed we were
trapped between two shallow spots. About this time, the rising
sun cast a pale light over the water, and we could see ripples
on a sandbar extending from the basin entrance. Nick steered
our bow around the rippling water and, finally, we were free.
We had purposefully planned our crossing of Ole Man River
on the weekend to avoid the bridge curfews that had trapped
us four years earlier. We didn't even slow down as we motored
through the Florida Bridge and the Claiborne Bridge. What
a relief! Then we waited just 15 minutes outside the Industrial
Canal lock (now called the Inner Harbor lock) tied to those
same pilings where we had spent an uneasy night four years
earlier. By 9:30 we were through the lock, back on schedule,
and flying down the flooded Mississippi River at 9.1 knots.
Hull speed be damned!
We turned out of the river at the Algiers Lock, starting
the turn early because if we missed it we'd never get back
up current. Here we waited outside the lock for two hours
before being given the green light to enter. The friendly
lock tenders chatted with us as we eased our lines to lower
Caribbean Soul nine feet. That means the Mississippi
was nine feet above the surrounding neighborhood, demonstrating
why the city flooded when the levees failed during Katrina.
By 12:30 we were back in the GIWW and motored without a wait
through the last opening bridge in Belle Chase. Our dreaded
passage across the Mississippi couldn't have gone better,
and we had plenty of daylight to reach our planned destination
in Lake Salvador.
We were already finding the GIWW less intimidating thanks
to our Automated Information System (AIS). It identified the
tow traffic ahead of and behind us. Unlike four years ago,
we no longer rounded a bend only to discover two tows passing
each other and no place for us to go. Now, since we hailed
them by name, the tow captains answered us with thick, friendly
Cajun accents. As the afternoon sun made its descent, we hailed
a tow and asked him if Lake Salvador would be a good spot
for us to spend the night. He said there was some tow traffic
there and suggested that we anchor behind the little island
at Jones Point at the mouth of the Barataria waterway. We
took his advice and, after nudging a few shallow spots, found
10 feet and solid holding. At sunset, we enjoyed our beverages
and watched the air boats return to what used to be the Fleming
Canal Store. Four years ago, against the captain's better
judgment, we had barbecued steaks while tied to their fuel
We were underway by 6:00 A.M. Sunday morning and arrived
at the Houma Town Dock by lunchtime, ahead of a cold front
arriving that afternoon. Four years ago, Houma had been our
most "civilized" and pleasant stop on the Louisiana
GIWW. Now the place was silted in. We slid into the last spot
and stuck our bow in the mud just behind a catamaran. Ahead
of the catamaran, the canal was too silted for even shallow-draft
vessels. What a shame. For $25, we had water, electricity,
and a snug place to ride out the evening storm.
The sun burned off the remnants of the front by early Monday
morning and, although we hadn't planned to leave for another
day, we paid the bill and were underway by 9:30. Next stop:
Morgan City where the traffic is so heavy that all commercial
and recreational boats have to check in by VHF with the Berwick
traffic control. As we had four years earlier, we spotted
numerous bald eagles in the barren tree tops along the waterway.
After an hour and a half wait to pass through the Bayou Boef
lock, we slid alongside the Morgan City Town Dock on the east
side of the Atchafalaya River. Like the Mississippi, the river
was raging from the winter's heavy rains, and the water was
lapping the edge of the fixed dock. Meeting us at the dock
was Joe, the same friendly fellow who had grabbed our lines
four years earlier.
"Wow. You guys get along pretty good," he observed
as we tied off our lines.
"Really?" I replied with surprise. Wasn't it obvious
how often I'd wanted to strangle the captain in the past four
years, and vice versa?
"Yeah. Couples come in here all the time, and the man
goes in one direction and the woman in another. They've just
started out and they're already done with the boat and each
We smiled, feeling proud that four years later our boat and
our marriage were still intact.
As long as we were passing down Memory Lane, we decided to
walk to Rita Mae's Kitchen for a Cajun meal. This time we
were the only customers and the service was quick and the
The next morning, we dropped $20 in the payment box and let
the Atchafalaya River spit us out of Morgan City. At one point
we saw 10 knots of speed over ground. At Wax Lake, where strong
crosscurrents cause barges to crab across the channel, tows
were parked on either side to coordinate one-at-a-time crossings.
Again, the AIS gave us all their names and allowed us to talk
to the captains and arrange our turn. When our turn came,
those 90 horses overcame the current with minimal crabbing,
and we continued on our way.
As we motored down the GIWW, we enjoyed the unique beauty
of the Louisiana swampland. In between the busy spots where
barge traffic converged, there were long stretches of undeveloped
wilderness. Stately cypress trees draped in Spanish moss hugged
the shoreline where egrets pecked in the mud for a meal. Having
experienced so closely the enchanting beauty of Louisiana's
wetlands, we were especially disgusted when BP's oil invaded
these pristine areas several months later. We enjoyed the
peaceful scenery from the refuge of our cockpit, zipped up
inside our enclosure with warm air from the engine room to
keep us comfortable. We chatted with the tow captains as they
passed, and we heard one of them warn another coming our way
to watch out for us.
"Those guys are really nice," we admitted. Everything
we'd disliked about our trip through Louisiana in 2006--everything
that we'd dreaded while preparing for this trip--had turned
out just the opposite of our expectations. What had changed
in four years? Maybe it was us.
As we approached the side-tie dock at the Shell Morgan fuel
station in Intracoastal City, we did what we had done every
day since leaving Slidell. We ran aground. But it was a soft
grounding, and with a little reverse we freed ourselves and
made a wider approach to the dock. Another strong cold front
was due that night, so Nick took extra time adjusting the
lines and fenders while I walked to a well-stocked grocery
store to buy milk and bread.
So far, each cold front had conveniently blown through at
night and left our days free for travel. The next day, under
clearing skies, we left Shell Morgan bound for the oxbow anchorage
on the Mermentau River. Back in May 2006, we'd had more daylight
than we did now in February, so we had passed by Mermentau.
This secluded spot was hands-down the prettiest anchorage
on the route, even cloaked in winter's drab shades of brown.
We circled around the north side of the little island that
formed the oxbow until we found shelter from the howling wind.
The anchor held tight and we figured we could ride out bad
weather here without much distress. Fortunately, there was
none in the forecast. With our enclosure zipped up, the afternoon
sun heated the cockpit nicely and it occurred to me that this
might be my last opportunity to "let it all hang out"
in a beautiful, secluded anchorage. So I did.
On Thursday morning Nick retrieved our anchor, which grudgingly
let loose its muddy grip, and we motored around the south
side of the oxbow where the water depth was charted over 10
feet. By now you know the drill. A sudden and unexpected lurch.
Some swear words. A good burst of throttle in reverse. Mud
churning in the water. Finally, freedom. So, we turned around
and exited the way we had entered, on the north side. Why
hadn't we learned this lesson by now?
All week long I'd been fretting over our passage through
the Calcasieu Lock. Before leaving Slidell, I'd called each
lock and inquired about any possible issues. The Calcasieu
Lock was currently closed for repairs Monday through Thursday
during the daytime. Unlike the tows (and because of them),
we couldn't safely travel at night. Another strong cold front
was on the way, and we really needed to get through the lock
on Thursday and secured at our next stop. I had been talking
to the lock tender all week, and he thought that maybe, but
he couldn't promise, we might be able to squeeze past the
repair rig and get through the lock. And sure enough, that's
exactly how it worked out.
After exiting the lock, we made a sharp right turn and headed
up the Calcasieu River toward Lake Charles. Much to our surprise,
we were making 7.9 knots going upriver. We passed the glitzy
new casino with its floating docks (not yet open) and turned
into Contraband Bayou. Winding our way down a narrow channel
marked by cypress stumps on either side, we found the Bowtie
Marina. We tied up alongside a newly rebuilt dock (courtesy
of Hurricane Rita) and said "hello and thanks for your
good work" to our neighbors: the US Coast Guard.
After two nights the weather calmed down, and we departed
on Saturday. Having given our requisite four-hour notice,
we were granted passage under the Ellender Lift Bridge. An
adverse current in this area was causing the tows a lot of
grief, and we weren't moving too fast either. Just past the
bridge, we saw a tow with a string of barges beached on the
shore just below some clapboard houses. A bubbling prop wash
boiled the water behind his boat. He was stuck. On the radio
we heard him lamenting his dilemma.
Another captain chirped back, "Galee! Mon, if you put
dat thang any closer you be on de back porch of dose hawses."
More pitiful whining came back in reply, and we just chuckled.
By mid-afternoon, we were securely anchored behind Shell
Island at the Texas/Louisiana border. By measure of perhaps
a hundred yards we were still officially in Louisiana, but
in our hearts we were back in Texas.
Sunday morning brought a thick soup of fog that had all the
tows parked along the waterway awaiting better visibility.
If it wasn't safe for them to travel, then neither was it
for us. So we sat drumming fingers and sipping another cup
of coffee until the fog burned off. As we got underway, we
crossed the north side of Sabine Lake where the GIWW intersects
the Sabine River, marking the border between "Who Dat?"
and "How 'bout them Boys?" We turned south into
the ship channel, our bow pointed seaward toward Sabine Pass.
Sensing blue water ahead, Caribbean Soul surged forward,
longing to taste the salty breeze and feel the caress of a
fresh trade wind in her hair. Oh...I guess that was me.
Our day stopped about six miles short of blue water. On the
Texas side of the channel, we spotted the narrow entrance
to the Sabine Pass Port Authority marina. As we approached
our designated slip, several folks walked over to assist.
About that time we ran aground in the middle of the narrow
channel behind the slip. Aaargh! How many times now had we
run aground in a channel? With a crosswind howling and our
keel stuck in the mud, Nick was having no luck getting our
bow turned into the slip. Meanwhile, the folks on shore shouted
out suggestions. Among them was a power boater who seemed
perturbed by our inability to do something as simple as pulling
into a slip.
One thing that really gets a blowboater's dander up is being
told how to drive by a stinkpotter. Those guys--with their
shallow drafts, twin screws, and bow thrusters--have no idea
how difficult it is to maneuver a sailboat under power at
idle speed. We finally gave up on entering that slip and slid
into another one, which was open and sufficiently deep. As
we tied our lines to the pilings, we noticed a ripping current
sweeping around the posts. It was obvious that we would need
calm wind, a high tide, and slack current if we ever intended
to leave this place. We just hoped we could get that combination
at the right time of day to make the next leg of our trip,
an offshore run to Galveston, in daylight.
Three days later, the weather finally abated. At 5:40 AM
on Wednesday morning we had the perfect combination of wind,
tide, and current to escape the marina and head out to sea.
We enjoyed a relaxing motorsail under sunny skies with light
wind and a benign sea. A brisk sail for the last leg of our
cruise would've been nice, but we couldn't complain. We savored
a final taste of freedom and sailing offshore. A course of
242 degrees threaded us through the offshore rigs and brought
us to the jetties at Galveston. We wound through the anchored
ships in the crowded mooring field, nosed up to the edge of
the ship channel and-- like an armadillo daring to cross a
busy highway--waited for a break in the traffic and scurried
across to Galveston. We anchored for the night just outside
the yacht basin where passing ships rolled us in our fretful
Thursday March 4, 2010. This was it: the final day of our
cruise. The weather was gorgeous as we pulled back into the
ship channel. With jib, engine, and a favorable tide we exceeded
8 knots racing to our journey's end. As we entered the small
boat channel leading to Clear Lake, Nick recalled his first
experience in these waters. He had purchased his first sailboat,
a Catalina 25, in Kemah. One day he decided to take it out
by himself, but as he headed out the channel three shrimp
boats with nets down were coming inbound. The three shrimpers
straddled the entire channel and Nick, being an inexperienced
sailor and unfamiliar with the area, didn't know what to do.
So he doused his sail, turned tail, and ran back to the safety
of the marina, where the little boat sat until he moved it
to Lake Lewisville. But on this sunny day so many years later,
we both laughed at how far he had come. Nearly 9,000 nautical
miles in the past four years, to be exact.
A few minutes later, Caribbean Soul was secure in
her new home at Portofino Harbour marina. Suddenly and with
no fanfare, our dream was over.
Bald eagles perch along the shores of the
GIWW between Houma and
The Louisiana GIWW is a busy commercial waterway
that can be
treacherous for small recreational boats.
Tugboats move a rig into place just off the
GIWW. Oil: a blessing and
a curse for Louisiana.
Caribbean Soul docked at the Shell
Morgan marina in Intracoastal
City, Louisiana. Facilities for recreational boats are primitive
scarce along the GIWW.
We enjoyed the long stretches of remote wetlands.
The gates swing open for us to pass through
a lock. Only the locks
on either side of the Mississippi raise and lower the water
The other locks prevent salt water incursion.
The Mermentau oxbow anchorage at sunset.
Leaving two tows in our wake. Earlier in
the year, a tow and its barge
hit a ship in Sabine Pass. The collision ripped a three-foot
hole in the
ship's hull causing a large oil spill. If a tow can do that
to a ship, then imagine what it could do to a small boat like
Anchored in Louisiana and looking at Texas.
Heading out the Sabine Pass jetties at sunrise.
This actually is a ship underway, offshore
Approaching Kemah and remembering just how
far we'd come.