by Howell Cooper, s/v Why Knot
Howell & Jo Cooper sail aboard a 44' Beneteau. Their home port is Port Aransas, Texas. We hope to see them down here in the Western Caribbean soon.
Log date June 22, 2006: Bear and I have been sailing for over 25 years in lake waters and in the Gulf of Mexico. We have several friends who have been after us to join them in the Caribbean waters and to simply “get out there”. We purchased a boat that survived Katrina when it was docked in New Orleans and have been trying to build some serious offshore time ever since. I am convinced that sailing vessels, at least, have a soul and that they want to be at sea. Very few ever feel the ocean swell. We vowed that Why Knot would have an active life. So it began about a year ago at a party with some of those who have been “out there” that we made the commitment to do the Regatta de Amigos to Veracruz. At first it was just talk but then things started to take shape.
Why Knot is a seaworthy boat built to be a fast cruiser. That means there are compromises in both the cruising and racing facets of the design. She holds 125 gallons of water and only 45 gallons of fuel. That meant that we had to make provisions for extra water and fuel. Then there was the requirement to conform to ORC offshore Category 1 rules. That meant adding a number of safety items to the boat; i.e., drilling holes and mounting things. We needed a ditch bag, life raft and a pile of things just in case we had to abandon ship for some reason. We needed additional crew, or so we thought. What sails do we take? How much fuel and food? We had to procure the paper and electronic charts for the entire western Gulf Coast. The checklist continued to grow even as we checked stuff off. The final two months before the race were spent just working on the boat. By the time of the start, I was tired both physically and mentally. It was time to get under way.
Most of the fleet left from Galveston. We had several boats that left from Port Aransas, some 91 miles closer to Veracruz. On the hour we had to leave, I discovered a salt-water presence in our otherwise dry bilge. I isolated the source to the air conditioner condenser hose and repaired it at the last minute. We were at the starting line but due to a bad decision on my part we were 20 minutes late in starting. There was a thunderstorm in the area and the winds were about 25 knots at the start. That was the last of the good winds for the entire trip to Veracruz. Just after starting, the winds dropped to 5 knots and stayed in the 5 to 10 knot range for the next four days.
The start was at 1400 and it gave us time to go over the safety rules again, set watches and settle in for the 519 nautical mile voyage. As is usually the case, the entire crew found their places in the cockpit and started to get used to the sea. Everyone had either scopolamine patches or some sort of seasickness medicine working. Off we went at a whopping 4 knots of boat speed. No one ate anything that first evening. In fact, most ate very little for the first two days. That is normal. The crew consisted of Carolyn, a former Marine and experienced offshore sailor, her son, TJ who had actually done the race when he was 15. TJ was missing his first week of a summer session for his postgraduate program in forensic computer science (whatever that is). Bear and I made up the rest of the crew. We had sailed only once with Carolyn and TJ. It was simply not possible to get any more time than that. So, we had to learn each other’s habits and skills. TJ is a vegetarian and he planned to catch fish during the trip to supplement his diet of twigs and leaves and whatever vegetarians eat. That idea proved to be a poor decision.
The first afternoon was uneventful. The green water on shore started to turn darker green and much clearer. The first night at sea, out of sight of land, is a bit of a challenge in western Gulf. There are oil platforms everywhere. Most are lighted but one still has to be vigilant on the radar in case one is not. Anyone who has ever been at sea on a clear night will tell you that the experience is awesome. The heavens are an unbelievable display. Looking down is a treat too since there are critters that glow when disturbed by the boat wake. Either way, one feels insignificant and lucky to be there. By morning, the fleet had dispersed and we could see only one other boat. By afternoon, that boat was hull down and almost out of sight. The water had turned to a very vivid dark blue. It was easy to see about 20 feet into it. It struck me that we had never really sailed in blue water, the world of true offshore sailors. One is also struck by the absence of life on the surface. Except for the occasional seaweed patch, there was absolutely nothing visible on the water.
Since there were four in the crew, each took two watches, three hours each per day. I prefer to stand watch without entertainment other than the boat and the sea. Others listen to music or books on tape. I also prefer the 0300 am to 0600 am watch. Once alone at the wheel, one finds the right combination of cushions, beanbags, and location to settle in. I turn the instrument lights down and rotate the radar so that I can see it from my nest. It is a hard rule aboard Why Knot that anyone alone in the cockpit at night must wear a life vest, with safety harness and be attached to the boat by a safety line. We have three hard points in the cockpit to which one may choose to “clip on”. Under certain circumstances, everyone must “clip on” such as high seas or bad weather. Under no circumstances may any crew leave the cockpit without having another crew present. Safety lines run from the bow to the stern on both sides of the boat to allow one to go forward while “clipped on”.
The boat has a rhythm, which is most noticeable at night. The surge into the wave then the plunge on the backside of it causes a white sound like the ebb and flow of surf. At each surge, the bioluminescence in the wake increases. So you get a light show to boot. Looking up gives one that sense of insignificance. Every watch has rewards such as meteors and satellites. Occasionally, one can see a plane crossing the sky and you wonder where it is heading. I noticed a star rising in the east just before the twilight. I first thought it was another boats masthead light. The sunrises during our voyage were spectacular. I attempted to photograph a few but due to the long exposure and the boat motion, I did not get a really crisp photo of any. Bear was my relief and she always came on deck a few minutes before her watch just before I became catatonic.
One does not readily take to the routine. Usually it takes about three days before the body becomes fatigued enough to sleep instantly and at the unusual hours the watch schedule dictates. It also takes a couple of days before the crew starts to eat much. Add a bit of heat to the equation and it is the perfect formula for weight loss. In my case it amounted to about 25 pounds in 17 days. At that rate a trip to Fiji might get me back to a decent weight.
The first night was the last of the uneventful nights. The day watches went well. At 0230 on the second night, Carolyn woke me up. While attempting to avoid a thunderstorm, she had sailed into calm and in an attempt to steer away, ending up losing all headway and ability to maintain course. It did not help the situation when the depth meter read 27 feet. I later determined that beyond a certain depth, the meter will give the last reading which most likely was some big fish. We were in 1,800 feet of water. Given the situation, I relieved Carolyn a bit early and decided to turn on the motor and go east and away from the storm, hoping to find some wind.
During the day, TJ would put out fishing lures and attempt to drag in something good. It never worked. We did manage to catch some seaweed. At one time, we had three lines out and had no success. We received a call from Gypsy Star saying that they had just seen some humpback whales. They were ahead of us about 6 nautical miles and although we kept a lookout, we never saw them. I later decided to stop fishing as the lures, as small as they were, reduced our boat speed by almost half a knot. Over a four-day voyage, that is a lot. After all, we were racing.
Because we were racing, we kept an eye on sail trim. We were still only managing to average about 3.5 knots and that was too slow to get to the parties in time. We decided to motor some just to get our numbers up. As it turned out, most of the fleet had already been motoring, some full time. At about the same time on the morning of the third day, Carolyn woke me as thunderstorms were again in the area. It was extraordinary that at about the same time both evenings, thunderstorms blocked our course.
An offshore voyage has a way of bringing out personalities and testing the group. A 42-foot fiberglass room is small, incredibly small when it comes to housing four people. Luckily, there were no serious arguments or disagreements. We are all politically very conservative and political discussions might have dominated the venue but fortunately, we found other stuff to discuss.
The morning of day four found the crew starting to anticipate arrival in Veracruz. The navigational computer had our ETA just after midnight. We spent the day talking to other boats and attempting to keep our boat speed up. By now the fleet was starting to converge on Veracruz. We never did see or talk to any of the Galveston fleet since they were behind us and on a different approach bearing. One exception was the boat Blue that literally kicked everyone.
Come nightfall of the fourth day, we could see the lights of Veracruz some 45 nautical miles distant. The winds were practically non-existent but the Bay of Campeche swells were large. I estimated that they were 8 to 10 feet but smooth and regular. It provided the kind of boat motion that would put one to sleep. We anticipated a touchy approach to the port through the barrier reefs surrounding Veracruz. There was a lighthouse on one of the islands that we would use to make the approach. It had a set of lights below the main white light. From the east to the west there were red, then white, then green, followed by white and red. Each of these lights gave the navigator a zone. One could approach the inner harbor safely if you sailed where you could see white lights. If you saw either red or green lights on your course, you were in danger of hitting a reef. The problem was that before you saw the lights, you had to be within 12 nautical miles of the reefs. Of course the charts clearly indicated bearings and distances, but the light system did not relieve the tension.
With all hands on deck, we safely navigated the reefs and approached the finish line. The race committee was ensconced in a room in the Emporio Hotel where they looked directly down the finish line. Since each boat carried an Iboattrack transponder, they knew when a boat was close to the finish. They called our finish at exactly 0200 on the fifth day. We completed the race in four days, 12 hours. We proceeded to the Malecon to Med Moor. The Malecon is a concrete wall in the inner commercial harbor. It is very unfriendly to yachts and we had never tried the Med Moor. That is a method by which a boat ties up stern to the dock. It requires the anchorperson to drop the anchor on command and pay out chain while the helmsperson motors like a bat out of hell toward the wall. At just the right moment, the anchorperson stops the payout of the chain and hopes to get the anchor to set before the boat crashes into the wall. At that point one tosses a line to someone on the wall and they secure the boat. As tired as we were and as hyper as I was about the Kamikaze docking, it worked perfectly. Wow, God does watch out for fools, incompetents and crews like us.
Once secured, the crew immediately poof and disappeared. Sort of like a magic act. It was 0300. I stayed up until 0500 just setting things right. We stood up a ladder on the swim deck and secured it so that it stuck out at an angle so we could get ashore. It was flimsy but it worked. I crashed and slept until about 0900. Bear and I found Carolyn and TJ had gone sightseeing when we awoke. We decided to walk to the hotel. We tossed our gear up on the Malecon and got ashore. We were surrounded by Mexican kids who offered to help take our gear to the hotel. We could hardly stand up. The world was moving. In fact, we had a balance problem for the next day just getting used to terra firma. Everyone has that problem after being at sea a few days. It was as though the hotel was made of Jello.
The Malecon would prove to be the challenge. The commercial traffic and three foot tides made constant vigilance a requirement. We had some damage, as did all boats, during our stay. It was hard to keep from worrying about the boat. The Mexican Naval Academy cadets provided armed guards for the boats during the night hours. During the day, the locals were visiting the area in great numbers, as the presence of 34 sailboats on the Malecon was quite a novelty.
There were three functions planned for the regatta at Veracruz. The first was a special city council meeting honoring the regatta. Each captain signed the city register as a distinguished visitor and they had a very nice reception with music and outstanding food. It is quite a treat to be recognized by a city that has been in existence since 1519 and to have been visited by such sailors as Cortez.
The Club de Yates, the yacht club of Veracruz, hosted the next function. They held a very nice party with music and plenty of local cuisine. Since Why Knot had been damaged slightly that day, we were in no mood to party. We retired early. During the day, we took a tour that took us to Catemaco, a very beautiful town in the mountains. We also went to Los Tuxtlas where we visited the ecological reserve of Nanciyaga and the Eypantla waterfall. I cannot pronounce any of these places but they were beautiful.
The final official event was the awards banquet hosted and attended by the Governor of the state of Veracruz. We learned that we had taken first in our fleet. Now that was a surprise. As soon as it is engraved, we will have a nice trophy to show for it.
We decided to skip any tours Saturday and get the boat ready for the return trip. Carolyn & TJ planned to fly home. That would give us a chance to test ourselves and see if we liked cruising alone. We had to lay on fuel and do some repairs. We did walk around Veracruz and visited the Naval Museum where we got the other perspective of US/Mexican wars as well as a true sense of the city. There is a very old Spanish fortress across the harbor that was part of the old city defenses. There is only one remaining portion of the original walled city but one can get glimpse of early life. Veracruz is a jewel of a city. It has the feeling of a colonial city of pride and honor. The Mexican Naval Academy and Merchant Marine Academy are there. The town square gives one a feeling of old Mexico where the locals stay indoors until about dusk then come out to party. The people celebrate music in every way. We saw a couple practicing for the evening dancing on the square. They had no music, only that in their minds and were doing an impressive tango behind a wall. So it went.
The Port Aransas fleet decided to take our time leaving on Sunday for Tuxpan. We untangled all the anchor lines and cleared the jetties about 1100. We were a 6 boat fleet. There were others from Galveston that also headed to Tuxpan. It was an overnight sail. We arrived at the sea buoy at sunrise. Tuxpan is a commercial port up river about 5 miles. Our destination was a hotel on the water about 3 miles up river. We arrived about 0930 where we dropped anchor just a few yards from the hotel dock. Due to tide and river current, we had to set a second anchor astern so that the flood tide would not swing us around. It was in Tuxpan that we decided to take a tour of Tajin, the oldest ruins in Mexico and Ceremonial Center for Totonaca culture. This is the place where the guys climb a pole and swing by their feet a hundred feet in the air while unwinding from the pole. The ruins were impressive in scale and complexity. It was way too darn hot to linger there long, but we did enjoy it. Somebody get me back to the air conditioning. No wonder the culture died…way too much rock work and not enough cold refreshments. Who is a soft Gringo?
Back in Tuxpan, we witnessed a miracle. We had to clear Mexican immigration. It took Bear and I a bit to find the office of Immigration but we did it. The agent asked when we planned to leave to which we said 0700 the next morning. They said they would come to the boat to stamp or passports at 0600. Everyone started to bet when they would show. Some doubted they would do so at all. To everyone’s amazement, at 0615 they showed up. Now that is a first.
We weighed anchor at around 0900 and set sail for Isla del Lobos, a coral island just 35 nautical miles northeast of Tuxpan. It was to be our last stop before returning to the US. Seven hours later, we anchored in 20 feet of water just off the island. The water was so clear, it looked like it was only a few inches deep. You could see the coral on the bottom. The island, once owned by Pemex, is now a marine sanctuary. It has a picturesque lighthouse and a very nice house, now empty. There was a caretaker who later provided us with unbelievable hospitality. Turning Point and Why Knot were the only boats there except for a few fishermen.
We originally planned only a day at the island. We spent three days there. Whimsy, a Galveston based boat came in on the third day and we had a party on the beach. That is when the caretaker took pity on us and offered the shade of his coconut grove for our party. He kept bringing out chairs and even made some picante sauce for us. He even had some guys cut fresh coconuts and showed us how to get into them for the milk. There was insufficient rum for that event. The crew of Turning Point purchased some fish from the guys on shore and we had a wonderful meal under the coconut trees. Heck, for a moment we thought about staying another day or ten.
On Friday, we did our last snorkeling and got ready to set sail for home. We weighed anchor at 0930 on Saturday and headed for sea. For the first time, we had wind, lots of wind. The departure was lively to say the least. We had to exit the island reef to the south, which gave us a great parting view of Lobos. What a place. Our course was 000 degrees for a distance of 385 nautical miles. We planned to skirt South Padre Island by only six miles. That area juts into the Gulf just enough that one has to be aware of how close one comes on the run from Lobos to Port Aransas. Once around Lobos, we headed due north. The rollers were huge and we had 15 knots on our stern and 1.5 knots of current in our favor. We were hitting 9 to 10 knots SOG (speed over ground). What a ride. We could see Turning Point for about eight hours after which we were beyond visual range. While we did not see such high speeds the whole northbound voyage, we did keep some impressive speeds given the winds.
We were able to do the 3-hour watch schedule just fine. Bear and I settled into the routine quite well. With two fewer crew, we were able to enjoy the added cockpit space and work on our tans. We were mindful of the two suns, the one from above and the reflected one off the water and kept a covering of lotion. The trip back offered many rewards such as abundant flying fish shows. Those critters are amazing. They can actually stay in the air for 40 yards or more. Once we were even visited by a single butterfly about 90 miles offshore. Although astern, we could not contact Turning Point so we were alone. There was no radio traffic. We crossed back into US waters at about 2000 on the second day. We had only 113 nautical miles left to Port Aransas.
We started to see offshore platform lights once in US waters. The radar was invaluable in staying clear at night. Before dark we noticed the water started to turn green again. I guess we were leaving our blue water world. At sunrise, we were within 30 miles of the jetties. That is the longest 30 miles we have ever sailed. We were looking forward to getting her tied in the slip, attaching the shore power cord and getting some rest. We crossed the jetty entrance at 1445, just 17 days and 45 minutes after we started the adventure. We sailed 1087 nautical miles. It appears we were able consistently to do about half the wind speed. More than that, it was our shakedown cruise to get absolutely familiar with the Why Knot and our tolerance for sea. Although we were not weather challenged, as we know we will be sometime, we now know that we, Bear and I can and will do this again. We learned what works and what does not. We took way too much food, clothes and water. There really is no such thing as too much water in the event of an emergency. We know that we really did not need 45 pounds of snacks, that 5 or so would do for a trip of this length. We took way too little beer. Although I do not really like beer, a cold can of beer is a real treat on a hot afternoon.
Night watches gave us perspective on what it might have been like before the glow of electronics lit the cockpit. One feels pretty small at the wheel at 0300 hours. We met some new friends and visited a wonderful country. We sailed into a harbor that was a port of call for almost 500 years. For a moment we were pirates. The Mexican people are gentle, friendly and honest. I guess we knew that all along. Although we do not speak the language, they gave us the benefit of the doubt. We look forward to the next time we take Why Knot to sea. The sea was kind to us this time and we will visit her again.