Voice of Experience: Scary Sunset on Galveston Bay
An afternoon sail to a remote island turns perilous
It was a hot July day on Galveston Bay with partly cloudy skies and a southeasterly wind: ideal for a sail, a picnic and a swim. My friend Penn and our dates, Kathi and Donna, all set off onto the bay for an afternoon sail aboard my MacGregor Venture 21, Mariah. We’d decided to sail upwind to Redfish Island and then the Houston Ship Channel, so that we’d have an easy sail back in the early evening. We thought it would be fun to explore the island, even though it was only sand, shell and low scrub vegetation.
After a few pleasant hours, we dropped our sails and anchored about 100 yards west of the island, making sure to put out plenty of scope. As we were doing so, we noticed thunderstorm clouds to the east, but because these are common in the summer, we didn’t think much of it.
We swam to shore, explored the island and then had a fried chicken picnic. After a while, we decided we’d had enough of the flies and mosquitoes and started heading back to the boat. At the same time, we noticed the thunderstorm was now getting much closer. Soon the wind shifted from southeast to east, blowing the anchored boat farther away from the island.
At first we all started wading out toward it, but then Penn and I decided we’d go alone and bring it closer to shore for the girls to get aboard. Unfortunately, when we were halfway out, the storm hit in earnest—thunder, lightning and terrific winds—as the girls struggled to wade back to the island into the strengthening breeze. (We were told later that the thunderstorm produced winds in excess of 80 knots.)
After we climbed aboard and put on our lifejackets, Penn and I split up our tasks, and Penn started taking up the anchor while I got the outboard started—which is where our problems really started, as my friend was very efficient at getting the anchor up, while I was much less proficient at getting the motor running. Next thing we knew, we were without the anchor and lying abeam to the wind as I pulled over and over again on the starter rope without success.
Suddenly, a major gust hit the boat and knocked us down. As Penn and I held on as best we could, the wind blowing on the bottom of the hull forced us further over and the swing keel fell against the trunk with a loud bang. We came upright a few seconds later, but the boat was now full of water, and the mast was broken and tangled in what was left of the rigging. We were fortunate that the boat had positive foam flotation, or we might very well have gone to the bottom then and there.
Although we had no lights or anchor—it had been lost in the capsize—we were in no immediate danger. Nor were Kathi and Donna, despite the fact they were now stuck on the darkening island dressed only in bathing suits, with the wind and rain sandblasting them with shell fragments. The problem was neither group knew the other was safe.
By the time the rain finally let up, the sun had set, and in the remaining twilight, we saw we had drifted well away from the island and had no choice but to stay with the now helpless boat. As the night wore on, we found ourselves swept down the bay parallel to the ship channel, at the mercy of wind and current. The situation was all the more dangerous because we had no working lights aboard, which made us nearly invisible to the ships, barges and other commercial traffic in the area.
It was an uncomfortable night, with waves sloshing about the broken cabinetry and other bits of our gear in the cockpit. Eventually, though, the sun rose in a clear sky, and the combination of several inches of rain over the bay and the ebbing tide produced a strong current that carried us about 6 miles south. A few hours later, a shrimp boat picked us up. The captain called the Coast Guard, which immediately reported: “Your girls are safe.”
As we later learned, Kathi and Donna, though cold, lonely and frightened, had been fortunate in that there was another group of people on the island who got them around their campfire as night was falling. When the winds calmed down, they all went out in their new friends’ 29-foot sailboat to look for us. At about midnight, after no luck, they approached an oil rig and asked the crew there to call the Coast Guard. A few hours later, the Coast Guard picked the girls up from the island, and then searched the area until 0300.
At this point, the Coast Guard took the girls to the Kemah police station and called my parents, who came and took them to their apartment on the west side of Houston. After finding clothes and extra car keys, the girls then headed back to Kemah in Kathi’s car, frantically checking again and again with the Coast Guard and at the marina.
Eventually, they realized they were starving and drove into town, where a nice man bought them breakfast after he saw that they were crying. He also showed them some navigation charts and suggested that the boat might have drifted toward Texas City. So when the girls were finished eating they drove to the Texas City Dike, stopping along the way to call the CG for the umpteenth time. This time, the report was: “Both are safe.”
A few days later, Kathi wrote to her mother: “We have never seen such a welcome sight! Both with bathing suits—Paul in MY long-sleeved blouse—both bruised, exhausted, but alive and well!”
As sailing misadventures go, this ended reasonably well for us. Some 60 boats got into trouble during that thunderstorm, and we heard that at least two people drowned.
After they found us, the Coast Guard was able to pump out the boat and tow it to the Texas City Dike, where Kathi and I picked it up with the trailer the next day. The rigging and interior were a mess, but we cleaned it out while searching for lost billfolds and keys. With a new mast extrusion and a little rigging work, she was sailing in a few weeks.
Kathi and Donna eventually recovered from seeing the news footage of them the next night on television—two shivering girls with matted hair and swollen eyes getting out of the boat, wrapping themselves in blankets and huddling in the back of the car and then walking down the pier in Kemah. Better still, both Donna and Penn and Kathi and I were married soon after.
This was back in the early 1970s. Kathi and I have kept on sailing ever since.
WHAT I DID WRONG
I didn’t understand how large and serious this thunderstorm was, and I underestimated the speed of its approach.
When we boarded the boat, I should have gotten the motor running before doing anything with the anchor. Had the anchor been down when the storm hit, we probably would have been fine.
I did not have waterproof flashlights and signaling flares that could be found in a swamped boat.
WHAT I DID RIGHT
We had a boat with positive flotation.
Penn and I put lifejackets on as soon as we got on board.
When the squall hit, we stayed with the boat and didn’t try to swim back to the island.
Donna and Kathi dealt with an uncomfortable evening and kept all informed of the situation.
Paul, an environmental engineer, and Kathi Jensen sail a Catalina 22
on Lake Travis, near Austin, Texas, when they’re not out knocking
about on the family Sunfish
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