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Voyages - Gulf Coast cruising: Jack be nimble

Scars of the 2005 hurricane season remain, but peaceful anchorages can still be found

Scars of the 2005 hurricane season remain, but peaceful anchorages can still be found

Chuck Baier and Susan Landry are a cruising couple from Marathon, Fla. They sailed out of U.S. waters aboard their 40-foot ketch, Sea Trek, bound for ports in Guatemala, the Caribbean, Mexico, Belize and the Gulf of Mexico. Their dispatches from Internet cafes along the way appear in Soundings. This is their 14th dispatch.

Finally leaving New Orleans, we continued on our way west. This would turn out to be one of the most challenging sections of our voyage. The entire waterway for the next 20 miles was heavily industrial, and there were no facilities and few safe spots for small vessels to stop. Great care and caution must be exercised along this section to co-exist with the large commercial traffic encountered going in either direction, which means VHF Channel 13 should be monitored at all times.

One problem sailboats encounter here is that several bridges must be opened. We found on several occasions the phones don’t work and the bridge tenders do not monitor VHF radios. The commercial traffic communicates with them by cellphone, but we found the Coast Guard does not have the cellphone numbers for the bridge tenders. We are not sure where the commercial vessels get the numbers, but we were able to get a tug to relay to a bridge that we needed them to open. We found this happened several times in New Orleans, but was not a problem anywhere else.

Cruisers must transit several bridges as well as a lock just prior to entering the Mississippi River. Then a decision must be made to continue north on the Mississippi to Harvey Locks in order to continue on or go south to Algiers Lock, both about five miles on the river. Be advised that the currents on the river can be 3 knots or more and this is a major shipping port. Expect to encounter tugs with tows, ferries, ships and all manner of vessels.

We chose the Algiers Lock just south of us instead of fighting the strong currents by going north to Harvey Lock. We were one of 15 vessels, all commercial except us, that transited that lock. We had to hold position outside the lock and just off the Mississippi River proper so any “red flag” vessels could lock through first. These are vessels carrying hazardous cargo such as gasoline, fuels, natural gas or many other products. Our wait time was almost one hour.

As we finally locked through and exited the other side we found dozens of tugs and barges on the side of the waterway waiting for their turn through. It was an impressive experience and we realized our place in this pecking order. We also understood why the lockkeepers would not allow us to lock through with these giants.

Quiet anchorages

Our first stop beyond New Orleans was Lafitte. There is a small convenience store with marine supplies and a fuel dock just off the waterway at the Barataria Waterway. If you arrive when they are closing for the day, about 4 p.m., you can tie up for the night for a small fee, but you must be off the dock early the next morning when boats begin to come in for fuel.

There are also two other small marinas a few miles farther south on the Barataria, but no haul-out facilities. This river is also used by tugs and barges. The encounters with these tows were getting heavier and we were counting 15 to 20 a day — and on one day stopped counting after 30.

After spending the night at Lafitte we traveled another 38 nautical miles to Houma and the pleasant, friendly municipal marina between the twin bridges. There is no marina office so you have to call a number posted on the bulletin board and the friendly dockmaster comes to your boat and collects the dockage charge. No fuel or services are available here, but it is a nice place to stop and there is one charge no matter what size your boat. Water and electricity are available on the dock for no extra charge. Shops and restaurants are within walking distance. The marina is also next to the local hospital and many shops are within walking distance.

The town was untouched by the 2005 hurricanes.

The next stretch of the waterway is beautiful and quite undeveloped except for the occasional small shipyard, but (again) no services for small craft. Our next anchorage would be Bayou Black, only 25 nautical miles from Houma. Bayou Black is another waterway frequently traveled by tugs and barges. Any stops along the way must be given that consideration.

We dropped anchor along the side of the bayou and ran a line to a tree ashore to keep us from swinging into the channel. Although we only planned to spend a day, this turned out to be such a peaceful spot we decided to just hang out for a few more days. The skippers of the tugs and barges that passed our way were friendly and we always received a wave or a whistle. They seemed to appreciate our efforts to anchor bow and stern along the shoreline well out of the channel.

Our second day we explored the bayou in the dinghy, encountering many bird species and more than a few crocs. Often we turned off the waterway and dinghied in to a break in the vegetation and found ourselves in a beautiful world of peace and quiet that probably has not changed in a thousand years. Cypress stumps, Spanish moss hanging from the trees, lily pads floating on the water and the wildlife almost ignoring us made feel guilty even starting the dinghy outboard to head back to the boat.

Not since our time on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala had we felt so attuned to nature and out of the civilized world even though it was only a short distance back to reality. All too soon it was time to continue on our westward trek.

Locks and current

The next place we found fuel available was at Intracoastal City located at Mile 160. All mileage is calculated as west of Harvey Lock for this portion of the GIWW. The fuel dock handles pleasure boats and commercial fishing vessels. There is a strong current running here so care in docking for fuel is needed. We found the approach simple since the current put us right alongside the dock. This was the cheapest fuel we had purchased so far since leaving Mexico.

This business suffered damage from Hurricane Rita when the storm surge reached about 9 feet. As a result, there is no longer a grocery store in town and many homes were destroyed.

Leaving was a more interesting experience since that same current was determined to keep us pinned to the dock. We decided to back the boat by hand back to the outside corner then try a full power reverse to get us back in the channel. This worked, but barely, since as soon as we began moving in reverse the current wanted to push the bow back to the dock.

We cleared the corner of the dock with our bowsprit, but only by inches. All along the waterway for hundreds of miles we saw many homes that had been torn apart and deserted. We were surprised to see hundreds and hundreds of appliances lining the banks of the waterway everywhere beyond this point. There were mostly refrigerators and freezers but also stoves and a few things we could not identify and we even saw some appliances up in the trees.

We also wondered what might be in the water, but figured if the tugs and barges could make it, so could we. We wondered what our anchor might bring up.

Stark reminders

Soon after entering Texas we anchored in Adams Bayou. There is a marina of sorts here that is sometimes open. We had called ahead on the phone and were told that the marina was open, and that they even had a café. When we arrived we found the marina in poor condition and the docks filled with boats that had obvious storm damage. Some had sunk and been re-floated, and others had a tattered roller furling waving in the wind.

We chose to anchor in the canal instead and dinghied ashore the next day. We never did find anyone at the marina and we were there for a couple of days. Many of the local businesses are closed and buildings are damaged, but a small grocery store is within walking distance.

No fuel or repair services were there that we could find. This is just a good protected anchorage to wait out weather. A small boat ramp nearby makes this a busy place on weekends.

Farther along the waterway there are several great anchorages, but no fuel or facilities for boats. We spent some peaceful nights in places like Avery Canal, Adams Bayou and on the Mermentau and Calcasieu Rivers along the way. There are other great stops and anchorages depending upon your draft and ability to cover distances during daylight hours.

Approaching Galveston Bay you’ll find some places to tie up at small marinas or restaurants, but no services for boaters. Fuel was a concern for us, but we were able to find it at reasonable intervals. Had we had a major breakdown, a more serious problem may have presented itself. We recommend subscribing to a commercial towing service for those unexpected events.

We made a special note of New Orleans because of the overall devastation, but many towns and areas along the waterway have also been devastated or destroyed, especially in Mississippi. Entire communities are now gone and that includes the people and businesses that cater to smaller boats such as ours. Be prepared to be self-sufficient.

Boats washed up on land and damaged boats in various conditions and states of repair can be found everywhere along this coast. Experiencing this first-hand has given us a renewed sympathy and empathy for the people and the communities, some of which may never recover. But, through it all, the people we met were extremely friendly and would do whatever they could to help us.

Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the individuals and communities along this coast, and our thanks to those that were so kind and helpful even when they themselves were in need of help.