Young skipper showed ‘true grit’

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Talk about a father-daughter bonding experience. As Hurricane Ike set its sights on Galveston, Johnny Williams, captain of the party fishing boat Capt. John, kicked his hurricane plan into gear.

He and a second captain would move his two fishing boats — the 75-foot Capt. John, an offshore multihull, and the 70-foot Texsun II, an inshore monohull — off Galveston Island and out of harm’s way. They would cast off together from the boats’ berths at Galveston’s Pier 19 and cruise all night down the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to Port Aransas, 175 miles west. But Texsun II’s captain never showed up.

It was Thursday night, Sept. 11. Ike wasn’t expected to make landfall until early Saturday, but if Williams, 58, was going to move the boats, he had to leave now. Jillian Williams, his 19-year-old daughter and fishing companion from the time she was 2, had come along as first mate.

Jillian, a community college student in her hometown of Alvin, crews for her dad during the summer. They go out on 36-hour tuna expeditions that sometimes take them 200 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, but also on shorter red snapper, angelfish and bait trips.

Williams called his insurance agent and laid out his dilemma. His captain was a no-show. He was short on staff because it was the end of the season. He had no one else to move Texsun II, and there was no room left on the hard, so he couldn’t haul it. The insurance agent wanted him to get the vessel off the island, even if it meant putting an unlicensed captain at the helm. Williams looked over at Jillian.

Maybe she could deliver Texsun II to Port Aransas. She knew the boat pretty well. Her dad had let her steer it when she was little, and he would ask her to take the wheel of Capt. John from time to time so he could use the head. “[But] that was the closest I’d ever come to driving the boat myself,” she says.

To reduce the risks, Williams planned to motor all the way from Galveston to Aransas Pass at slow speed on the Gulf ICW. He could lead the way and walk her through step by step, mile by mile. If the boat went aground or took some dings, so be it. They’d done their best.

Jillian was nervous — but game. She wouldn’t be on the boat alone. Her boyfriend, Steven Patton, would be her first mate, but he knew even less about running the boat than she did. “I kind of got him into this,” she says. “He thought he was just going along for the ride. It was a little bit crazy.”

Plan B became Plan C when Williams learned a railroad bridge at Galveston was locked down. Instead of going the whole distance on the ICW, they would have to motor outside into the Gulf and slog 40 miles through a building 12-foot swell so they could go inside at the Freeport inlet. Williams asked if Jillian was still in.

“She said, ‘Whatever you think, Dad,’ which I thought was pretty courageous for a 19-year-old girl who had never run a boat,” Williams says. “She trusted me. She knew I wouldn’t put her in any great peril. I trusted her.”

He gave her a quick rundown on the controls, pulled out ahead, and guided her step-by-step over the VHF. “She did just what I told her to do,” he says. “I talked her through it.”

Capt. John led through the Gulf about a quarter-mile ahead of Texsun II. Conditions were “rough” but manageable, with 12-foot swells and an occasional breaker. “I was pretty scared going into Freeport,” Jillian recalls. She rode in past the jetty on big, following seas. “The boat was going back and forth, and everything was falling and breaking.” She finally reached the relative safety of the Gulf ICW, though that presented its own challenges, primarily debris.

Running slow, Jillian followed closely behind her dad. They used their searchlights to try to avoid half-submerged trees. “She just stayed right close behind me,” Williams says.

She wrestled with a stiff current at the Brazos River flood gates without incident. “She followed me right through,” the senior Williams says. Twelve hours after casting off the lines at Galveston, they reached Port O’Connor, where they put in for a rest before going on to Aransas Pass.

Texsun II, Williams’ inshore boat, doesn’t usually do long passages. “I was worried it would break down,” Jillian says. “It hadn’t gone that far in a long time.”

If he had to do it again, Williams doesn’t think he would ask Jillian to do what she did. The pounding on the Gulf could have stirred up sediment in the fuel tanks, clogged filters, stalled the engines, shut down the generators. What if Texsun II had lost her hydraulics coming into the jetty at Freeport?”

Even though the plan worked, Williams says, “If I had to go it again, I’d leave [Texsun II] in Galveston.”

In retrospect, he thinks putting Jillian at the helm was too risky. Yet a proud Williams says his daughter showed true grit. “I’m just as proud and pleased with her as I could be,” he says. For Jillian, the experience has confirmed something she has known for a long time: She wants to get her captain’s license and join the family business, which Williams says is OK if that’s what she wants to do. However, he wants her to get a college degree first.

“He’s never said he didn’t want me to be a captain or take over the business,” Jillian says. “But with all the regulations, he thinks fishing is a dying business.”

Williams has an MBA from Southern Methodist University. He went out on his own for a while before joining the family business, Williams’ Boat Service LLC, a third-generation company that is in its 62nd year. His father and grandfather both ran party fishing boats. His great-grandfather was a ship’s captain. Coming from a background like that, it isn’t surprising Jillian has the touch for skippering, too.

“I guess she has it in her genes,” her father says.