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Dodging ships in a foggy Houston Ship Channel

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #111 January/February 2001

From Ocean Navigator #111 January/February 2001

It began so pleasantly as a sunny afternoon sail in Galveston Bay. But eight hours later we found ourselves in the Gulf of Mexico in solid fog near the sea buoy that marks the entrance to one of the busiest shipping channels in America. We had no radar, no GPS, no integrated chart plotters, and no wind. And it happened to be my first sailing trip aboard our boat Indigo.

Jens and I had bought Indigo, our 42-foot-ketch, six months earlier. As typical new owners of a used boat, we had immediately dismantled it and proceeded to rewire, re-route, and rebuild every piece of equipment, hose, and cable we could get our hands on. After months of chaos, we realized one Sunday afternoon that all the floorboards were back in place. Quick, we thought, let's go sailing.

We headed out into Galveston Bay from our marina in Kemah, Texas, about halfway between Houston and Galveston. Jens had done some exploring in the area, but it was all new to me, so we spent a while sailing figure eights between Redfish Bar and Morgan's Point before we got restless and decided to venture out to the Houston Ship Channel and sail the 18 miles south to Galveston.

Most of Galveston Bay is seven to 10 feet deep with a flat mud bottom. Carved down its middle is a 40-foot-deep channel that runs 50 miles from Houston to the Gulf of Mexico. And it is always busy, with more than 7,000 ships steaming up and down the channel in a year. With a little more local knowledge than we had, it is possible to sail from Kemah to Galveston without using the ship channel, but shifting shoal banks, rigs, and wrecks make it a tricky passage.

We blasted along on a beam reach, hugging the edge of the channel and staying well clear of the freighters and barges and tankers and tugs that steadily marched up to Houston and back.

It was evening by the time we got to Galveston, but we were having too much fun to go home yet. Another 12 miles and we could dip our toes in Gulf waters under the clear, starry night. And then we really had to head back to Kemah because I had a business meeting in Houston the next morning at nine.

We were approaching the sea buoy, our turn-around point, when the flashing white light that had been our objective suddenly vanished. We could still hear its bell, but the lights were gone. We stared hard into the darkness, willing it to reappear, when instead the horizon started creeping toward us in a swirling wall of fog.

Unfortunately, one of the many projects we hadn't gotten around to yet was buying new electronics. We had the basics: a compass, depthsounder, wind instrument, and speed log. We had recently added a large Blipper radar reflector high up the mainmast. And the previous owners had wisely left behind an ancient loran. It always displayed a latitude and longitude, but the numbers were usually wrong. We were going to have to get home the old fashioned way - with a dead-reckoning plot. Jens quickly marked our position on the chart and worked out the course, time, and speed for the first leg of our return. Then we took one last look around as the fog closed in, and there they were - our worst nightmare - two outbound freighters at the mouth of the shipping channel dropping off their pilots.

Quiet curtains of haze shut out the world around us and the wind died away. We started the engine to motor out of the shipping lanes as fast as we could. Five minutes later Jens said, "let's stop and listen."

The deep reverberations of a large ship's engines rumbled back at us from all directions. It was nearby, but where? We desperately searched the opaque mist while the mainsail flogged and our hearts raced. Finally, out of the murk it materialized - a red light off our port bow.

But then another light appeared off the starboard bow. And it was green. This was impossible. If the ship was coming at us head-on, the red light should be to our right, the green light to our left. But these were reversed.

And then we realized that we weren't looking at one ship. Both of the freighters we had seen dropping off their pilots were coming at us. They were steaming side-by-side, and, unbelievably, we were sandwiched between the two. As their monstrous hulls took shape out of the gloom it looked like we were going to slam into the stern quarter of the ship on our port side. "Start the engine," Jens yelled. In a panic, I fumbled around the unfamiliar console, trying to remember where the key was, and the ignition button, and how to get the throttle to neutral. I'd only started it twice before.

Fortunately Jens remembered, and he quickly fired up the engine, grabbed the wheel and spun the boat hard to starboard as we turned around to motor full throttle in the same direction as the ships. I didn't dare look over my shoulder, expecting a wall of steel to crush us at any moment. But after an eternity the two ships were past and we were rolling wildly in their wakes.

When we could breathe again, we got Indigo turned around and headed back toward the ship channel. We wondered whether either ship had seen our new Blipper radar reflector - did they know we were there? Somehow we doubted it, and we couldn't quite believe that we were still afloat. It was going to be a long night.

For the next hour and a half, we motored for a little while, then stopped the engine and listened, clanged our ship's bell and then motored on. Our DR plot on the chart slowly marked our progress as we tracked our compass course, the speed, and the time we had traveled. Fortunately, we didn't hear any more ships. And at just the right moment, the weak flashing lights leading toward Galveston came into view.

It was nearly midnight and we had 25 miles to go. But now that we were in the shipping channel, our navigation should be easier because there were frequent markers leading the way. The fog floated in and out in slow motion waves as we passed the Port of Galveston and Pelican Island, but then it settled into solid pea soup that would stay with us all night.

We were approaching Bolivar roads, where the channel splits, with the left fork heading to a petrochemical complex at Texas City and the right fork aiming north to Houston. The currents can race through this area at three knots as the water gets squeez|d between Pelican Island, Bolivar Island, and a sandbar/jetty that edges the Texas City channel, and we got swept away.

We thought that we were on the right of the channel to Houston at the split, and so we steered to port, expecting our 30-foot depths to increase to 40. Instead they got shallower.

The loran unit was no help, positioning us in the fertilizer factory at the petrochemical plant. And the bottom kept getting closer. We concluded that if we didn't see a drop-off immediately we were about to run aground on the unlit point of the sandbar along the Texas City channel, well to the left of our course. A sharp right turn seemed appropriate, so we headed due east. Several minutes passed before the numbers started to climb. When they held steady at 40 feet, we knew we had found the channel again.

Quickly motoring over to the right side, we settled in for a slow slog along the spoil bank. From here on, the channel is a 40-foot-deep canal through a wide area of shallow water ranging from three to 10 feet in depth. The spoil bank gradually slopes up from the main channel, and our strategy was to stay in depths of about 15 feet to keep us clear of passing ships but not at risk of running aground on a shallow patch or a lump of mud.

The blast of a ship's horn directly astern got our adrenaline pumping nicely again, and we quickly slid over to shallower water. Traffic had been light since we had passed the Port of Galveston, and this was the first ship to alert us to its presence before we heard the heavy rumble of its engines. The ship slowly passed, and we turned into its wake to keep from rolling ear to ear.

We motored in eerie isolation, sometimes not able to see the bow and stern of our boat and relying on the compass and speed log for some sense that we were moving toward our objective. Occasional loran readings helped confirm that we were on track. But we had not seen a channel marker in more than an hour. We were starting to think that our route was in such shallow water that we were outside the buoys when a reverberating crash shook the bow, followed by a series of whacking sounds along the side of the hull. Stunned, it took us several seconds to realize that we had found a buoy and it was smashing its way alongside our boat. I tossed Jens a flashlight. "Check the number!"

As it bounced along the hull he could only confirm that it was red, but as it cleared the stern, he said, "48! It says 48." I was able to mark our position on the chart with absolute confidence now. But we both agreed this would not be a recommended navigation tactic. It's hard on the hull and the nerves, and we're quite sure that the Coast Guard would disapprove of us bouncing our way from buoy to buoy.

We had 16 buoys to go to our exit point at number 64. The countdown progressed as we managed to identify but not collide with any more buoys. We also noticed that shipping traffic had stopped and soon found out why. The loom of white lights ahead grew brighter and brighter until we could finally identify the blazing deck lights of a dredger, oddly parked along the edge of the channel. We cautiously motored around its stern and out into the channel where we were amazed to see another ship with its deck lights shining, firmly stuck in the mud on the opposite bank with its stern blocking half the channel. We apparently weren't the only ones having misadventures in the fog.

We weren't able to learn what happened, and there was no report of a collision in the news the next day, so we assume the ship got free without any major damage. We slowly maneuvered through the surreal still-life of the two vessels under their diffused deck lights and plodded on. Now we were fairly sure that we had the channel to ourselves. Nevertheless, we stuck with our strategy of hugging the spoil bank just in case.

Finally, we reached buoy number 64 and made our escape from the Houston Ship Channel. We set our course for the last four miles to the buoyed entrance to Kemah and Clear Lake, and then we remembered the beginning of our Sunday afternoon outing - a century earlier. While we were exploring the bay, we had sailed past a number of unlit and uncharted oil and gas rigs. It would be too infuriating to smash into one of those when we were so close to home.

It was 0500, still socked in, and we'd had it. We dropped the anchor on the flat 10-foot-deep mud bottom, turned on our deck lights and anchor light and went below.

Two hours later, pale beams of sun had seeped through the fog to reveal our anchorage. We had stopped smack in the center of three rigs. At least now there was enough visibility to see our way home, and the buoys at Kemah have never looked more welcoming.

Allyson Madsen is currently voyaging in the South Pacific.