47′ Catalina (current Ruthless)
Crossing Your Fingers
Crossing the Gulf of Mexico
I have read stories and logs of blue water passages in the popular sailing magazines for several years now.The stories report adventures crossing the Atlantic, making a trip down the West coast of Mexico into Central America, reports on the annual flotilla across the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean.I have not read a story or log reporting experiences crossing the Gulf of Mexico.The Gulf, as we call it in my home state of Texas, is an oval shaped body of water approximately 800 nautical miles from East to West and 400 miles from North to South.The Gulf Stream winds its way through the gap between the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Western tip of Cuba into the Gulf.At different times of the year the Gulf Stream circulates through different areas of the Gulf, eventually rounding the Florida Keys and up the Eastern Coast of the United States.Weather conditions and water conditions can change rapidly with weather fronts moving into the Gulf area from the North, West or South.A calm sea can change to resemble a washing machine in only a few hours. This is one story and log about a sailor’s dream of making a blue water crossing.
Some Background Information
I had grown up on the Texas coast and almost from the diaper age had been on coastal waters growing up around powerboats.As a young boy, I was nurtured by a retired mechanic, George, who loved boats and the water.George taught me the basics of sailboat hulls by teaching me to carve hulls out of 2” X 4” cypress boards.Once the hull was carved, we would drill a hole and mount a mast and boom and glue the hand-carved keel to the bottom.Some scrapped dishcloths formed the mainsheet and the Laviason was launched on the small pond in the pasture of George’s ranch.For fifty-five years I have dreamed of learning to sail.
In December, 2000, I made a New Year’s resolution to either learn to sail or learn to fly an airplane and get my private pilot’s license.Considering my age and concern for my family, I decided to stay as close to Mother Earth as possible and opted to fulfill my lifelong dream of learning to sail.In January 2001, I attended the Houston Boat Show and began gathering information about sailboats.It was there I met Ira, a boat broker from Seabrook, Texas, just south of Houston.On my second visit to consult with Ira about buying a sailboat so I could learn to sail, Ira told me to go learn to sail with a professional sailing school. After I learned to sail to come back and he would help me find a sailboat that would best fit my need.
So, trusting Ira’s guidance, I searched the internet and found the Corpus Christi Sailing
Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.After making several telephone calls and then visiting with Karen, who managed the Sailing Center, I enrolled in my first American Sailing Association sailing course.The course was scheduled for Father’s Day weekend.The second ASA course scheduled for July 4th weekend had an opening and I enrolled and completed it
with flying colors.I then enrolled in the Advanced Coastal Navigation Class in early September 2001, and received my ASA Bareboat Certification.This training gave me eight days of experience on a sailboat.
Acquiring the Dream
I decided to renew my search for the sailboat of my dream and returned to visit my friend, Ira.By now I knew that I wanted a boat at least thirty feet in length to handle the choppy Texas bay waters.I knew I wanted a sloop rig with sufficient salon amenities to accommodate times of planned anchorages in the bays along the Texas
coast.My wife, Ruth, was not a water or boat person, but I wanted her to feel comfortable on the boat at the dock and in light winds on the water.After several trips to see Ira, I decided that a 38’, center console rig with two staterooms and heads was probably the best arrangement for my current lifestyle.The yacht market on the Texas coast at this time was bringing more than the Florida or Southern California markets for comparable rigs.I made several trips in late September and early October to Florida to view Endeauvor and Irwins and other makes that the brokers thought I might like.In December 2001, an offer was made on a 40’ Endeavour held by a broker in Palmetto, Florida.The boat was berthed in the Regatta Point Marina on the Palmetto River.This was the beginning of my dream.
I had more than a basic knowledge of boats and boat maintenance.I knew what parts could be fixed and what parts couldn’t without a complete rebuild. So, I started the search and evaluation of financing sources, insurance, and finding a marine surveyor I felt I could trust.I interviewed several over the telephone and finally engaged the services of Bud, a retired US Air Force B-52 pilot who had been in the marine surveying business since his retirement approximately 15 years earlier.He and his wife lived in his family’s family home on Longboat Key, south of Palmetto.The date of the survey and sea trial was set.I flew to Tampa, Florida, and drove down to Palmetto.I met Bud and we began the inspection process.The sails were not new, but in good condition. The halyards, sheets, and rigging looked to be in good shape.The two anchors were deemed safe along with the chain and rodes.I could smell oil or diesel fumes when I entered the salon and I requested Bud engage the services of a diesel mechanic to survey the engine and try to determine the source of the petroleum fumes. Those that know the Endeavour design already sense the source of the problem.About six inches of diesel fuel was found in the bilge leading to the conclusion that a fuel tank was leaking.The engine survey revealed the engine had extensive hours on it instead of the 1,800 hours as reported in the brokerage listing.The original offer was rejected with the stipulation of complete engine overhaul and replacement of the fuel tanks as an alternate for the seller.After several negotiating sessions over the telephone, a deal was struck, the engine overhaul and fuel tank replacement agreed to and the BOHICA was soon to be Donald’s.At closing, I asked the seller what the boat name meant. Was it Spanish, or Portuguese?Or Greek, or Hebrew?The seller apologized and told me that it was not a foreign name or word, but stood for:Bend Over Here It Comes Again.
The Big Day
The closing day came and went.I renamed my new dream, Ruthless.All my boats had been named, Ruthless.I began to acquire the equipment and materials needed for a Gulf crossing. The boat had recent upgrades with a new VHF radio and Raymarine Chartplotter and Autohelm ST6000 autopilot. I wanted as much safety as possible while underway and had a Raymarine color radar added.The EPRIB, Zodiac inflatable life raft, extensive medical kit, strobe lights, inflatable life jackets with lanyards, flashlights, and all the hand tools I could imagine that might be needed in case of an emergency were purchased.Since the crossing was scheduled for February, I sensed protection from the elements for the cockpit was necessary.I commissioned another new friend, Becky, in Palmetto to construct and install a complete cockpit enclosure for the center cockpit using the existing bimini frame.This addition turned out to be a lifesaver.
Many of my friends ask if they could make the trip.Some had sailing experience and others did
not.I wanted a crew with blue water experience.I contacted John, an instructor with the Corpus Christi Sailing School, who had said he would help anytime I wanted to bring the Ruthless to Texas.John quickly reported that he had a crew and they were ready to go anytime.The other crew members were Richard, another instructor at the school, and Don, a friend
of John’s who was a mechanic.John had been sailing all of his life and Donald was confident he would make the right decisions if the time came.Richard, retired from a technology company, had been sailing for several years.He had made several trips in the South Pacific and Caribbean Sea.Don had moved to the Corpus Christi area several years earlier and had been a student of John’s.Over time they had become friends and Don helped crew charters out of the Sailing Center. He owns and operates a business that fabricates heat exchangers for the mining and chemical industries.His experience with machinery and mechanical equipment would be invaluable on the
The Time Had Come
I flew to Florida on February 13, 2002, a Wednesday, to complete the rigging of the Ruthless.I had ordered equipment from West Marine and Sailnet and had it delivered to the diesel mechanic’s place of business.He was kind enough to deliver it and stow it
on board.The cockpit enclosure was completed and installed on Friday.The last check out of the radar was complete. The detailers washed and cleaned the decks.I hired a rigger to make one last check of the last lights and rigging.On Saturday, I topped off the fuel and water tanks and pumped the heads.Sunday, I made my grocery list and went shopping at the local Wal-Mart.It took
three baskets to load up with bottled water, canned goods, staple food, juices, soft drinks, and last the meats.I requested that the meat department hold my meat choices for me in their freezer.I picked the meat up on Monday morning and made one last trip to West Marine.
On Monday, February 18, 2002, the crew arrived at Tampa International Airport at 1:30.They were eager to get to the boat and check her out.My plan called for us to cast
off at 5:00 P.M. , but Captain John wanted to survey the boat himself and Don was hungry.So, I said we would spend the night and leave at dawn on Tuesday, February 19th.This would mean a 14 hour delay, but it was worth having another set of eyes check things and run through the provisioning list.I had cooked my spinach and Italian sausage soup for us to eat for supper after we had gotten underway.We would have it for lunch on
Luckily, I had thought of everything.However, about 8:00 P.M. Captain John asked, “Where’s the hammer?” I responded, “A hammer? Do we need a hammer?”He said he wasn’t leaving to cross the Gulf of Mexico until we had a hammer.Where was I going to get a hammer at 8:00 P.M. on a Monday night?I had turned in my rental car and there was no taxi stand in front of the marina.I remembered there was a Walgreen’s drug store about a ½ mile down the main drag of Palmetto.So, I took off walking.Sure enough they had a hammer, a nice heavy hammer.At about 9:30 P.M. I was back
at the boat with my hammer.I asked, “What else?”While I was gone, the crew
had found their bunks and stowed their gear.
It is 765 nautical miles from the fairway buoy at the entrance of Tampa Bay
and the fairway buoy at Port Aransas, Texas.Considering the time to exit the Palmetto
River and then enter the Port Aransas Ship Channel, my sail plan called for us
to be underway approximately 134 hours, or 5 ½ days.The entrance to Tampa Bay
at Egmott Key is at 27.35 degrees North and the Port Aransas City Marina is at 27.50 degrees North.A DR course would required a heading of 270 degrees, or due West.
Our trusty Garmin GPS and Raymarine Chartplotter indicated a gradual drift in course to the North to 28.10 degrees North would provide us a shorter route because of the curvature of the Earth. This route would take us within 52 nautical miles of the coast of the United States south of Isles Dernieres, Louisiana.I logged into the chartplotter waypoints for each 24 hour time period along the route. We would set the “GoTo” feature of the chartplotter and radar display for the next 24 hour waypoint and set the autopilot for the designated heading.
Crossing Our Fingers
We set the alarms for 5:00 A.M. on Tuesday morning,
February 19, 2002.After breakfast of hot cereal, coffee, muffins and juice, we picked up our supply of block ice from the marina freezer, started the newly rebuilt Perkins 4107, retrieved the dock lines and slowly made our way around the end of the Regetta
Point Marina docks and into the Palmetto River channel at approximately 7:20 A.M.Our hearts were beating and everyone had a big smile on their faces.Richard was anxious to get the sails up, but
with little wind in the early morning we decided to wait until we turned out to sea.By 9:30 A.M. we had passed through the Southmost Channel and were beyond eyesight of land.All systems were working fine.
We were still under mechanical power.Winds were coming on us at 90o and our heading was 275o .We
hoisted the main sail and let out the genoa. Due to the aft wind, we took in the genoa and continued to motor.That motor was to become a familiar sound for
the next 5 days.It was 10:30 A.M. and John was asleep.The wind continued to build and shifted to the SE at 12-16 knots. We were able to let out the genoa and shutdown the engine.We were averaging 6 knots and it was quiet.We reached our first waypoint,
the fairway bouy marking the shipping lanes into Tampa Bay approximately 25 miles West of Egmotte Key at 5:00 P.M.The sun was setting and we were entering our first night at sea.Winds continued to build to 15-18 knots.The sky was clear, and the water began to turn the deep Gulf blue.
We agreed we would alternate watches in four hour shifts scheduled at 11:00, 3:00
and 7:00.This would give each of us twelve hours off and four on and the opportunity to sit watch at different times of the day and night.Our rotating schedule order was Richard, myself, John, and then Don.Richard took the first watch at 7:00 P.M. on Tuesday evening.John was asleep again, Don was seasick, and I was fighting sinus drainage, fatigue, and some motion sickness.Due to my excitement, I slept very little the night before.I had worked on the boat for four days, approximately 14 hours each day, getting it
ready for the trip.The excitement of my first blue water experience had caught up with me by the first night.
At 7:00 P.M. when Richard took over the watch, the winds were steady at 18-19 knots gusting 22 knots.
We were averaging 7 knots of speed. I took over the watch at 11:00 P.M. with the wind and seas building.By 12:30 A.M. on Wednesday, February 20, 2002, the winds were 20-21 knots gusting to 25 knots.John came up from below, and we decided we
needed to furl in both the genoa and the main.
Seas were building to 6-8 feet and the wind was steady at 22 knots.At approximately 2:00 A.M. we spotted our first passing vessel.It was an ocean tug headed east.We raised her on the
radio to confirm her heading even though we were getting clear radar readings.The radioman reported they were headed west too.We couldn’t convince them we were headed in opposite directions, and we were sure we were the ones headed west.We gave up and watched their lights fade into the darkness. It was overcast and really dark.
We recorded our location, engine temps, oil pressure, battery voltage charge, and
fuel levels at each watch change.At the 3:00 A.M. shift change, all systems were working fine.However, we noticed the auto bilge pump was coming on every once in awhile.We
couldn’t find a source other than it was not saltwater.Later, I determined there was a small leak in one of the two 75 gallon fresh water tanks.
The seas continued to build and the wind reminded steady at 25 knots pushing us
along at 7.5 knots.We started the engine at 7:00 A.M. at the shift change to charge the batteries and run the Adler-Barbour Refrigeration unit storing our frozen meats and food requiring refrigeration.Winds were holding at 25 knots and seas were 7-9 feet.We had all
gotten our sea legs by then and after coffee, hot cereal, breakfast muffins, and juice,were settled in for our second day.We were still under a grey cloud cover with no sun rays to give warmth. The sea water temps were around 70O, and so were the air temps.However, with the high humidity and 25 knot winds, the wind chill was estimated at around 600.We kept our jackets and caps on and used the cockpit enclosure sides to shield us from the direct wind.
By noon on Wednesday the wind was out of the SE at 26-27 knots gusting to 32
knots.Seas were 8-10 feet with some swells estimated at 12-14 feet.The crew decided we needed to furl the genoa in completely.When John and Don started furling, the jib furling line broke at the furling unit rendering the jib furling system useless.We sheeted the genoa back to its original position and discovered how to get it down. With the winds
and seas building, it had to come down.John, Richard, and Don put on their harnesses and life jackets and slowly made their way out of the cockpit and forward to the bow to scope the damage to the furling line.By now it had started to rain hard.There was intermittent lightning and gusty winds to 35 knots.We determined which halyard was the jig halyard and John, Richard and Don manually lowered the jib and flaked it onto the port gunnell deck.
By 3:30 P.M. we had the jib secured and all the crew safely back in the cockpit.It was coffee and tea time to warm everyone up.Thank goodness for the cockpit enclosure.It was our shelter from the pounding rain, 30 knot winds and breaking seas.The Ruthless was holding her own and throwing back what the sea had to offer.We were all thankful that we were able to get the jib down without any trouble.After I moved her to her berth in the Corpus Christi Marina, I had a local rigger come and replace the jib halyard and the main halyard.While he was doing this work, he found that someone when mounting the mastlight at the top of the mast had used 2 to 2 ½ inch metal screws to attach the light.The screw ends were sticking through the opening in the mast where the halyards traveled.The screws could have easily snagged the jib halyard and kept it from releasing the foresail.
Everyone agreed we could replaced the jib furling line
with another line and re-commission the foresail.John and Don stripped back outer webbing on a length of 3/8” line to expose the inter core. John and Don ventured back out of the cockpit and re-tied the furling
line.Richard assisted in hauling the jib halyard and soon the foresail was flying . We were able to shutdown the engine and enjoyed some peace and quiet.
John and I cooked a pot roast with potatoes, carrots, and celery for supper.Everyone was glad to get a hot meal.It was still raining and the winds were howling at 25-28 knots.We passed our second waypoint about 4:00 P.M. on Wednesday. This meant we were approximately 150 miles out of Tampa Bay and we had made up approximately 5 hours on our original sail plan schedule.Remember, we left at 7:00 A.M. on Tuesday instead of 5:00 P. M. on Monday.
During Richard’s watch, he had to change course to starboard to avoid collision with a ship apparently inbound to Mobile, Alabama. The wind began to lay about 9:00 P.M., we decided to start the engine to
maintain our 6 knot average SOG.About 4:00 A.M. on Thursday, February 21, 2002, the oil pressure warning buzzer sounded indicating low oil pressure.Don and John shutdown the engine and checked the oil level.It was 3 quarts low.We all looked at each other when I realized I had stowed 4 quarts of spare oil for the trip.
We were about 1/3 of the way across the Gulf with less than a quart of oil left.It was obvious we needed more oil.On a positive note, the clouds moved off to the east.The wind shifted from the SE to the W and NW.By daybreak the winds had fallen off to below 10 knots from the NE.
By 8:00 A.M. we all had climbed into the cockpit and were surveying the events of the last 24 hours.We also discussed options for dealing with the engine oil issue as we drank morning coffee, hot cereal, sugar cookies, and a diet coke. The seas were calming and we had to continue to run our engine.I remembered seeing several cans of oil in a compartment across from the engine room. This gave us an additional three quarts, but not enough to safely make it to Port Aransas, some 550 miles away. The crew decided our option was to pray for wind.If we could get 30 hours of wind over the remaining trip we could make Port Aransas. So we decided to hold our course. We passed our third waypoint at 10:00 A.M. on Thursday, February 21, 2002, approximately 4 hours now behind our original sail plan schedule.We were approximately 152 nautical miles south of Pascogolua, Mississippi. The seas were nearly calm by Noon and the sun was shining.It was hard to believe that twelve hours earlier we were fighting the elements.
At 1:00 P.M. on Thursday, we sighted a long-line fishing vessel.John called for a radio check and the helmsman of the fishing vessel answered with “How can I help?”John asked him if he could spare a few quarts of oil and the captain agreed to our request.
The radioman told us they would drop the oil in a container overboard and attached a milk bottle to mark it. We headed over toward the what appeared to be a 80 to 100 feet
vessel.Richard spotted the bottle and John piloted us toward it.As we approached it, I took the helm and Don and John got the boat hook and started retrieving the line attached to the bottle. He kept hauling in line and Don and Richard kept watching for the oil can.Every 15 feet or so of line, John would pull up a baited fishhook.I noticed the crew of the fishing vessel waving frantically.I realized that the oil should be floating and not sunk below the water attached to the milk bottle.As it turns out we had hold of their fishing line.The radioman sounded Arabic and I could not understand his instructions.I finally asked him to find someone who could speak English clearly.He did and we were told our oil was approximately ¼ mile East of our location. We returned the fishing line to the water and motored over to the oil.We found a full 5 gallon can of Texaco 10W-40 diesel oil.We thanked the captain of the fishing vessel and turned back to our original course, confident
we were on our way home.We prayed again for wind knowing we now had enough motor oil for two Gulf crossings.
It was 2:30 P.M., Thursday afternoon, and all was well.The crew seemed happy.I cooked hamburger patties in the skillet on the galley stove.Richard said he would eat a cheeseburger, only if it had bacon on it. So, I pulled out the bacon and we all enjoyed a good hot bacon cheeseburger with potato chips, Fritos, pickles and our favorite drink.John made a pot of iced tea, Richard indulged in a rum and coke, Don had a Budweiser, and I drank my usual diet Coke.
The remaining part of Thursday afternoon was uneventful.Don was on the 3:00 P.M. shift.When Richard relieved him at 7:00 P.M. the seas were 2-3 feet, wind was 8-10 knots.
Don went straight to bed.I stayed up, but eventfully went down below and went to sleep.About 11:30 P.M., Richard came down and woke me for my shift.I was out like a
light.Richard climbed in his bunk in the front v-berth in between the three extra sails that had come on the Ruthless.Richard previously told us he felt like he was sleeping with three really fat women. Richard called my attention to the fact that several ships were visible within eyesight and also on the radar. We were passing south of the Mississippi River and the ship traffic required constant watch. The Gulf was lit by huge oil service platforms all around us.We were passing within 5 miles of one, so I decided to try to use my cell phone.It was about 1:30 A.M.I had been told that most of the operating platforms used cellular telephones to communicate data back to locations on shore and installed cellular towers on each platform.To my surprise I got “ROAM” service when I turned on my phone.We were approximately 85 nautical miles south of the tip of the Mississippi River delta in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.I dialed my home number in Victoria, Texas,
and the phone began to ring.Ruth answered and it was wonderful to hear her voice.We visited a minute and I let her know we were all fine and Ruthless was doing great.I got bold and called my office in Victoria and checked my voicemails.Most everyone knew I was on
vacation and said they would talk to me when I got back to the office.I also left a message on the office voice mail to let them know we were all doing good and where we were.
The calm we had enjoyed was literally before the
storm.About 6:00 A.M. John came up to check on me.The wind had been building for the past hour and I guess it had awakened him.I told him I thought we should furl the jib
in some.He agreed and got Don up.When they started furling in the jib, the furling line broke again.We opened the front hatch over the v-berth and lowered the jib into the cabin and then into the front head.The wind came up quickly and was now blowing above 25 knots.We woke Richard and all went to work lowering the foresail.It started to rain and the seas were like a washing machine, hitting us from both sides.
Seas were now 6-8 feet.Within an hour,the wind coming from the North had increased to 30 knots and the seas were building to 8-10 feet.It continued to rain so hard we could hardly see the bow.This condition continued for the next 4-5 hours.Since, John was busy with the sails and securing the lines and halyards, I continued on watch.
I put the autopilot on “standby” so I could control the helm trying to keep the Ruthless quartering the seas.We were passing another oil service platform and I noticed we were only making 1.5 to 2 knots SOG with the engine running at 2,200 RPM’s.This condition did not make sense to me.Something had to be wrong.I watched the oil pressure and it was fine.The seas were 12-15 feet now and still hitting us from one side and then the other.The frequency of the waves was less than 5 seconds resulting in 12-15 foot walls of water. At one point, I made a 900 turn to starboard.Our SOG immediately increased to the 6 knots we were accustomed too.I realized we had been heading into a 2-4 knot current, which slowed our average SOG to the 2-3 knots.The Ruthless would climb the front side of a wave and then literally fall off the other side slamming down to the bottom of the trough and then up again.I knew that if we ever got abeam of these waves we would certainly capsize.I did the best I could to head into low areas of the crests and anticipate where the waves were breaking with whitecaps.When we would top a wave, I could hear the prop come out of the water and then cavitate when we re-entered the water. This lasted about 4 hours with seas now to 15-18 feet.The wind reach 36-39 knots with gust over 40 MPH.
We were moving slowly to the north of another oil service platform which was about ½ mile south of us at a SOG of 1.5-2.0 knots. Apparently, with the boat bouncing and slamming down from the waves, we sucked air into the fuel injectors and the engine died.At that time, I noticed the engine ignition switch on the port side of the cockpit was off and the engine gauges were no longer showing any readings.We first thought that someone somehow had been thrown into the recessed control panel.Our able seamen, John, Don and Richard, sprang into action and put out about ¼ of our mainsail. This helped stabilize the Ruthless and give us limited steerage.We slowly moved away from the oil platform and radioed a “vessel in distress” call to the U.S. Coast Guard and any other vessel.No one answered.We were 70 miles off the coast of Louisiana and our VHF radio would not reach a coastal U.S. Coast Guard station.Our only hope was that there was a vessel near enough to receive our transmission.
We still had no answer.
I remembered the experience with the cell phone and suggested we call Karen at the Sailing Center in Corpus Christi. To our amazement, Karen answered the phone.The reception was weak and broken.She was excited to hear from us and it took several calls to get the message to her that we were in distress having lost our engine and our foresail furling system out.We gave her our coordinates and requested she call the U.S. Coast Guard and register our “vessel in distress” call.
Our trip had been filled with many surprises, but when the cell phone rang and the U.S. Coast Guard identified themselves as the Coast Guard Station, New Orleans, we all laughed with joy.The officer took our vessel information, crew names, confirmed our location, confirmed our operational condition and asked what assistance he could provide.We told him if we could not get our engine started in these weather conditions we would need a tow to port.He responded by saying he would dispatch the 185 ft.Coast Guard Cutter Johnston to provide assistance.He also reported he would contact any oilfield crew boats that might be in the area and request that they provide assistance.He told us that it would take the Johnston approximately 10-12 hours to reach us, since it was stationed in New Orleans and would have to traverse the mouth of the Mississippi River and then come West to our location.He reported that another weather system was moving across the Gulf and would most likely hit us in 6-8 hours.
A few minutes after hanging up with the Coast Guard, we heard M/V Milton McCall calling us on the VHF radio. The Milton McCall was approximately 15 miles west of us and was headed our way.It arrived in about 45 minutes and was a welcomed sight.What a beautiful sight. We didn’t think anyone was that close and also because she was a 165 feet vessel powered by four huge jet engines.She was sleek and fast.The Captain asked how he could help and we told him our condition.He suggested we try to reprime the fuel system. He offered to transfer some diesel fuel to us, if he could get permission from his company to do so.The environmental restraints on the offshore oil operators must be really tough. After about thirty minutes, he confirmed that he got permission and we tied our four jury cans together and threw them into the choppy water.The seas had subsided some to 4-6 feet.We all kept ourselves attached to lanyards and our body harnesses.Another thirty minutes passed before the Milton McCall lowered the yellow plastics cans full of diesel back into the water.We had to sail to the fuel cans using just the mainsail.My crew was awesome the way they maneuvered the Ruthless into position to pick up the fuel.
We had previously dumped the fuel in the cans into our fuel tanks.We lashed our new fuel cache to the stern railing.Don kept trying to re-prime the fuel system, and he finally decided to use WD-40 sprayed into the manifold intake to try to start the engine.We knew the batteries had a full charge. The engine turned over, and over, and over, and finally coughed once.The can of WD-40 was empty.We called the Milton McCall on the radio and asked them if they could spare a can of WD-40.The radio was silent for a minute and the captain responded by saying “sure, but how can we get it to you.”The seas would not permit us to come along side, our inability to maneuver on our own, and the thrust of the jets off the stern made it impossible.We asked if they had a good football quarterback on board that could throw the can to us.He confirmed that he had the number one Louisiana state high school quarterback onboard and they would try to maneuver the Milton McCall as close as possible, if we would stand ready to catch the can.This was leading up to as much excitement as the last play of the Super Bowl with the winning touchdown resting on the last play of the game.The time came for the infamous throw.The four of us lined up on the starboard aft side of the deck and yelled we were ready.The throw was made.It looked like it was coming straight for us.A perfect throw.Then the Ruthless rode up the side of a wave just as the can reached our side. Don dove through the lifelines and made a one-handed catch up against the side of the Ruthless.We were all stunned.The crew of the Milton McCall lining the deck cheered as if LSU had just beaten Louisville.
Don returned to the engine room and Richard to the starter button.After about 2-3 minutes of spraying the WP-40 into the intake manifold and turning the engine, she coughed again and started.We checked our fuel status and felt we were ready to get underway.We had previously asked the captain of the Milton McCall if he could give us a weather report.
He told us there was a stronger front moving into the area this evening than the one earlier in the day.He put a faxed weather report in a milk jug and attached it to jury cans.The forecast was for winds 35-40 knots with seas from 12-18 feet.I knew we could run north to the Louisiana coast
which would take us 9-10 hours.The storm would surely catch us before we reached the coast.We could turn and run East toward the Mississippi River, but we were 60-70 miles from that shelter and the Coast Guard MV Johnston that was steaming down the Mississippi River. The third choice was to head into the storm and break through it.The forecast behind the front was for clear skies and 5-10 knot winds.The captain of Milton McCall asked what guidance he could give the Coast Guard.He had been in radio contact with them over his SSB.I told him we were going to return to our westerly heading, because it seemed it was the quickest way for us to get out of our trap.I thanked him for all he had done.
It was now about 4:00 P.M. and the Milton McCall had been standing by us for over 5 hours.I called the Coast Guard on the cell phone and reported that we had our engine running and resuming our westerly course.There was silence at the other end, and finally the Coast Guard officer asked if we knew of the weather conditions West of our location. I confirmed we did and had made the decision it was the best course of us to take to get us out of our trap.He wished us luck and said if we needed any further help to call.I gave him our intended DR just for his record.
The Milton McCall showered down on her huge engines and the jets threw up rooster tails 15-20 feet in the air and 75-100 feet long.She was beautiful sight as she moved quickly away from us and back to her station, prepared to provide assistance again to someone later that night.
By 6:00 P.M., as the sunset in the West, the wind increased again to over 30 knots and the seas increased quickly to 12-14 feet.We knew we were in for a long night.We prepared the overboard bag with water, canned food, the medical bag, strobe lights, and EPIRB.We secured the Zodiac inflatable life raft on one side of the cockpit and located places in the cockpit where each of us were tied in with our lanyards and body harnesses. We knew it was going to be a rough ride, and it was important for us to keep our hands on the lanyard releases just in case we capsized and were not able to right ourselves.About 10:00 P.M.I realized that I had been awake and up for over 36 hours.Except for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, none of us had eaten all day.I felt I was about to go into mild shock and told the crew I had to go below and lay down or I was going to pass out.I climbed down into the salon and slowly made my way back to the aft cabin and into the bed. Within seconds I was asleep.
Ruthless was pitching wildly up and down and from side to side.I envisioned the waves and water conditions to be worse than they were the previous morning.About 2:00 A.M., I woke when I was picked up and found myself standing on the wall of the aft cabin.As quickly as the Ruthless had turned on her side, she righted herself.We had been hit by a rouge wave.From my experience fishing the Texas surf , I knew that waves always come in threes. Sure enough, a few seconds later we were hit again and again I found myself standing on the wall of the cabin. However, this time the mattress was trying to come over on top of me.This sensation told me we were completely over on our port side.I could hear the wind howling.I heard an awful crash up towards the bow of the boat and laid waiting for more sounds.Then, a third wave hit us, sending us over on our side again.My stress and fatigue sent me immediately back to sleep.I woke up when Don and John shut the engine off during the 7:00 A.M. shift change.I felt a calmer ride and no howling wind. They told me the wind began to lay about an hour earlier and the seas were calming.
It was Saturday morning, February 23, 2002.The crash I heard during the height of the storm was the 5 gallon can of Texaco oil the fishing vessel had given us three days earlier. It had been in the front head along with the foresail.The pitching of the boat caused the oil can to crash against the door of head, which opened, and then into the front stateroom door breaking the louvers at the bottom of the door.The door louver could be repaired.I thanked God in my morning prayers that my friends and I were unharmed and apparently safe.
The crew had slept, when they could, in the cockpit. John had tried to make coffee several times during the night, but each time the pitch of the boat would send the coffee pot off the stove and all over the galley.We are still finding coffee grounds each time we clean the galley and stove.They reported that when the three rouge waves hit us, the shrouds were in the top of the waves and the lifelines under the water.Several waves actually broke down on top of the bimini frame and crashed down on the deck.They said it was an unbelievable experience.All the systems onboard were still functioning.
We apparently spent most of the night heading into another West to East current.Measurement of our distance made during the night showed we had averaged only about 3
knots per hour or about 35 nautical miles.We were still east of the Sabine River shipping lanes and east of Lake Charles, Louisiana.After we got breakfast of hot cereal, four day old muffins, oatmeal cookies, milk and coffee, we set about reorganizing the provisions.
The salon was a mess.The table had come loose and was on its side.All the items we had stowed in the cupboards above the salon couches had been dumped onto the floor.The canned goods and boxes of stables from the galley were strewn all over the salon. It took several hours working with John to rearrange things and clean up the best we could.
A 11/16th wrench remains lost somewhere below.The winds laid and the seas subsided.By 10:00 AM the sun was out, the winds were 8-10 knots, and the seas were 2-3 feet.Another beautiful day in the Gulf of Mexico.
Don went below and wanted to reassess our fuel inventory. The fuel gauges had been installed and supposedly calibrated the Friday before we left Palmetto, Florida.However, none of us had any confidence in the readings.Don unscrewed one of the openings put in the top of the fuel tanks for the future installation of a generator.Using a clothes hanger he took manual measurement of the tanks and determined we had approximately 35 to 38 gallons of fuel left, or about 30-32 hours of running time.The seas were calming and the wind down to 5 knots from the West.So, we were destined to hear the good ole Perkins for most of the day.
By then, we were 165 miles South ofLake Charles, Louisiana,265 miles Southeast of Galveston, Texas, and 245 miles Southeast of Freeport, Texas.Based on our fuel supply, we could not reach Port Aransas, Texas.We elected to change course and head for Freeport, Texas.We knew we would be low on fuel in both tanks and would have to continue to manually check our fuel supply.I had not considered the presence of the Gulf current and how it would affect the efficiency and performance of our little ship.
At the 3:00 P.M. watch change, we rechecked the fuel supply and recalculated our range and position.It appeared that we would barely have enough fuel to make Freeport and we would arrive at the entrance of the Brazos River around 2:00 A.M. Sunday morning.Trying to make Galveston only made the conditions worse.
About that time, I saw another oilfield service boat on the horizon.I got on the radio and called her.Her captain responded and I ask him if he could spare some diesel fuel.He responded by saying he didn’t have a choice, but would be happy to help.We headed toward the service boat and pulled along side her.As we passed our yellow jury cans back and forth, I visited with the captain.He wanted to know where we were headed and where we had come from.When I told him we had originated in Tampa Bay, Florida and had been out for 4 and ½ days, he ask if we had been in the storm the night before.I confirmed that we had been.He said he was out here also and that the winds at the rig he was stationed at were 40-45 knots, gusting to 50 knots and the seas were measured at 20-22 feet.He admired the Ruthless saying she was a beautiful boat and he would much rather been on her than on the tub he had to ride on.He agreed to fill our tanks.
His response when we told him we thought 30 gallons would be enough, was “we have to be out here anyway, the company pays us regardless of what we do, but if his log showed he stopped to give a vessel in distress only 30 gallons, his supervisors would question his motives.”We thanked him as we had the Milton McCall.Sailors helping sailors, the wonderful law of the sea.
With our full fuel tanks, the crew had renewed interest to change course again for Port Aransas, which we did.Don got the idea that we could re-rig the jib halyard and re-attach it to staysail deck u-bolt and then raise the storm sail and convert our little ship to a cutter rig.We still had leftover pot roast and trimmings.How it made it through the storm without spilling in to the refrigerator, I don’t know.I cut the roast into chunks and heated the pot up to boiling for a version of beef stew at sea.It was a welcomed treat for the crew since we had not had a hot meal for over two days. Don ate two big bowls and said he wanted to learn how to make a pot roast.
The remainder of Saturday was calm.The wind shifted from the northwest to the south and southeast at 8-10 knots.We were again averaging 6 knots SOG.It was my watch from 11:00 P.M. on Saturday night.The crew was asleep.We had passed the fairways leading to Sabine Pass earlier in the afternoon and ship traffic heading in and out of Galveston and the Port of Houston was showing on the radar and visual sightings. We had to stay alert during these times as we passed through the shipping lanes.It is amazing how fast the ships move and how quickly they come and go.The sky was high overcast and even though we were approximately 80 miles South of Galveston, I could see the lights of Houston reflecting off the cloud ceiling on the horizon.A really neat sight.
Everyone got a good night’s sleep and woke at the 7:00 A.M. watch change.John brewed a pot of coffee and I broke out the pan sausage and cooked eggs for those that wanted them.Our supply of oatmeal cookies, juices, and milk were holding out.
Sunday, February 24, 2002, was to be a gorgeous day.The winds were out of the southeast varying between 8-12 knots.The crew was happy that we finally set the “GoTo” on the chartplotter, radar and autopilot to the waypoint marking the Port Aransas ship channel.We estimated our ETA at between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M. Sunday night.The day was spent laying on deck, listening to Willie Nelson CD’s on John’s boom box.
About 4:30 P.M.,John and I decided to check out the stainless steel barbeque pit that was attached to port aft railing.Somehow, the pit, including the lid, had made it through the storm.We tested the propane bottle operation and lit it.I went down and pulled four, 1 ½” ribeye steaks out that were still frozen in the bottom of the refrigerator.The steaks thawed, were seasoned, and John put them on the grill while I fixed a lettuce and tomato salad,canned green beans, and buttered new potatoes.We laughed and enjoyed our last dinner together. Boy was it good.
We arrived at the Port Aransas fairway buoy around 8:00 P.M.We watched a beautiful sunset and the lights of Texas coast started to glow in the western sky.We turned the bow of the Ruthless toward to end of the ship channel jetties. There was some ship traffic in the area. A gambling ship, The Texas Treasure, also left Port Aransas at 7:00 P.M. each evening and passed us to the South to her post beyond the 12 mile limit.Several oil tankers were at anchor waiting for clearance to enter the Corpus Christi refinery terminals.
We were making a usual approach to a harbor entrance at night looking straight into the white lights on shore trying to spot channel markers. We spotted the greens and reds marking the channels and started looking for the end of the jetties.I brought the radar down to ½ mile and realized that we were already inside the jettiesand nearing their junction with land.Several vessels were calling on the radio giving there approximate location. The Intercoastal Waterway intersects the ship channel at the entrance to the Port Aranasas City Marina.The commercial channel to Aransas Pass also converges at the same location.
At night things can get confusing particularly when the crew is tired and has been at sea for 5 ½ days.Richard had been listening to the radio traffic and had a handheld VHF radio at his side.Using standard radio protocol , he announced our arrived and location.A large oil tanker, steaming in behind us, responded by thanking us for being on the radio and being aware of his location.We moved to the starboard side of the channel, slowed down and let it pass before trying to lower the storm sail and furl the main.A tug and barge was waiting in the Intercoastal for the tanker to pass through the intersection.Two oil field work boats came out of the Aransas Pass channel heading out to sea.We maneuvered the Ruthless into the wind and took in our sails and slipped into the City Marina ahead of the tug and barge.
Ruth had called ahead and reserved a berth on the main dock by the marina office.We slowly made our way into the marina and found our reserved spot.John brought her along side the dock and we quickly tied the lines to the dock.We were home. Richard jumped onto the dock, fell to his knees, kissed dry land, and prayed to God that if he ever got on another sailboat to strike him with lightning.We were four happy and tired sailors.
Richard, John, and Don, I cannot thank you enough for contributing to fulfilling my dream of a lifetime.Your experience, knowledge and comraderyovercame conditions that would have doomed many crews.I questioned several times whether I was physically going to see Port Aransas.I knew that the Ruthless was never going to give up.She was a worthy vessel to make the voyage.We just kept crossing our fingers and everything worked out for the good. We had crossed the Gulf of Mexico.
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
All I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the seagulls crying.
I must go down to the sea agin, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trip’s over.