The Voyage of Pearl and Old Timer
by Sandra Leinweber


click to enlarge

This summer, Sandra and I went on a cruise from the south end of Padre Island to Corpus Christi - about 120 miles to the north. We went with our friends Jim and Jim Haynie who took their 14 ft. gaff sloop "Old Timer". We took our Jim Michalak designed Caprice which we named 'Pearl'. Our route was the Intracoastal Waterway which cuts through the Laguna Madre, a long bay separating Padre Island (a barrier island off the south Texas coast) from the mainland. The prevailing wind at this time of year is South to South-East, and it did not disappoint.  We had gusts to 40 or 50 mph and never once did it blow less than 10. A great sleigh ride!

One way sailing trips on trailer boats can be logistical nightmares.  This one, however was easy: Young Jim was vacationing traditionally in a condo with his wife and two adult step daughters the week before the cruise.  Sandra and I drove to South Padre Island on Saturday near the end of their stay, and left Pearl in a slip at a marina.  The next day, we drove back up to Corpus with the empty trailer and met Jim Sr. at the take out marina.  He had driven down from his home in central Texas that morning, and then took us all on down to South Padre.  Jim Jr's daughters drove his trailer back up to Corpus to the take out, and from there home with Jim's wife. Ok well, it didn't seem too complicated at the time.

Here is Sandra's account of the trip:

"This is Pearl calling Old Timer, can you read me, over?"
The VHF blasted back: "¿Hey, cómo es la pesca?"
This close to Mexico, you get a lot of that.
The Jims were pretty far ahead of us.  They had a lot of sail up on another windy day in South Texas, while we were using only our mizzen.  I felt responsible, as it had been so much trouble to get the main down, reefed and back up that I had pleaded with Chuck to proceed with only the after most sail.
"This is Pearl calling Old Timer, can you read me, over?"
"Teníamos buena suerte esta mañana, pero esta tarde, nada." was the loud response.  We knew that if we could hear the Jims, they would be faint, as we had not seen or heard from them for a couple of hours.
"Old Timer, go to channel 18"
Chuck switched the radio up a channel and repeated:
"This is Pearl calling Old Timer, can you read me, over?"
This time there was the faintest of signals over the crackle and static:
"...erl....Timer. Ov..."
This is Pearl calling Old Timer - we can barely hear you, over." Chuck called his voice suddenly hopeful.  Then nothing......

Our trip had started with a minor disappointment. We left Harper on Saturday, July 13 at  9 a.m. An hour later, a trailer tire exploded just outside San Antonio in front of a motel. We pulled into the parking lot and Chuck changed the tire. I refused to drive all the way to Port Isabel with no spare. I did not want to have another flat somewhere on the long empty drive through South Texas. We went to Walmart which had no trailer tires in stock. It seems that some Walmarts do and some don’t, depends on where they are located. They then refused to put a car tire on our rim. They sent us to NTB who also had no trailer tires. NTB sent us to a small tire shop called Lynda’s, all the way across town. Got there at 12:15, and their warehouse had closed at noon. They sold us a used passenger tire for $15 and threw in a 45 minute friendly diatribe from the owner (Ron) about insurance.

Pearl in her slip (click to enlarge)

We did not have any more problems driving down to South Padre Island, except a head wind that caused us to burn much more gas than we should have. We discovered a wonderful rest area on the stretch that parallels the infamous King ranch. The ladies side had a full wall tile mural of a cowgirl amidst the cacti. The men’s side was much the same but with a cowboy (according to Chuck). Met Jimmy Haynie at Capt. Jim’s (no relation) Marina in the city of South Padre Island.  We launched Pearl for $2 and got a slip for 2 nights. Once the boat was tied up, we went looking for seafood. There was a fancy place nearby, and the special was red snapper and vegetables, $20. That seemed a bit extreme, so we tried a smaller Mexican restaurant with a much more comfortable atmosphere, and had killer grilled red snapper fillet with rice, beans and guacamole for $10. From there, we hiked across the island to the Gulf side and walked in the surf until we felt like we could sleep. This we did in spite of the loud live music at the joint down the water.

Sunday morning we rose early, and drove back to Corpus. We stopped for breakfast in Los Fresnos, a sleepy little South Texas town. We both ordered huevos rancheros, what could be better.

the Jims (click to enlarge)

We met Jim Haynie, Sr. in Corpus, and left our truck at the marina we planned to take out at. Riding back to Port Isabel with him, we learned a bit about him. He flew B-17's in WW2, then took a job with an oil company working in his hometown of Corpus Christi. After he and his wife started their family, he went back to school and finished his college degree. For the next 20 years, he taught high school shop. After retiring, he moved to Mountain Home, Texas (near us) to start a windmill service business. Some years later, his son Jimmy gave up an engineering career to join him, and they are both still at it. Jim Sr. is in the neighborhood of 80, but looks and acts more like 65.

Back in Port Isabel, we were invited to dinner by Jim Jr. and his family. They also graciously offered to let us use the shower in their condo (the marina had none), so that we could begin the cruise clean. We spent an enjoyable evening visiting with Jimmy's wife and daughters and the Jims. It was there that we learned that Jim Sr's wife had been against this trip, until she learned that we were going with our bigger boat, and experience. (We had made the trip 5 years before in another boat.)

Back on the boat, we hoped that the live music would end early, since it was Sunday night. No such luck. The band, which was not quite ready for prime time, played until 2 am. Just one of the little perks included in docking in a party town.

Monday morning we filled our heavy duty ice chest with 6 bags of ice. We keep it in the forward storage area and get out a new bag for the food ice chest as needed. It is not a perfect system, but we had cold food until Thursday morning.

The Jims launch Old Timer

The Jims launched their little 14ft gaff sloop without much trouble, and sent Jim Jr's daughter back to Corpus with the trailer.  Jim Sr had built the boat about 40 years ago from a set of plans in a magazine.  It had hardly been used for some time, but when Jimmy found it in a shed, he suggested that they fix it up and make some trips. They raised their jib just before noon, and left the main in the crutch. The wind was blowing 15-25 from the southeast and they did not want take any chances by overpowering the boat. The little sloop was barely big enough for the Jims and their gear.  In fact we carried some of their extra water.  There was little freeboard.

 After that first faint patchy response from the Jims, it was silent despite repeated calls.  The radio net had been successful for the first part of the trip.  We set times to call in, and we had always made contact, but now we had failed to raise Old Timer on the last scheduled time: 3:00 PM.......
"Old Timer, this is Pearl. Do you copy? Over."
4:00PM and we still can't raise the Jims. Are they Ok?

We passed the Jims

We sailed Pearl downwind with reefed main only–no mizzen. Did not fill the ballast tank or drop the leeboard. Our GPS showed 6.5-7 mph all day, and once 7.4. We soon left the Jim’s behind. After a couple of hours, we stopped on a small spoil island and twenty minutes later here they came. After they passed, we poked around a bit more. I found a largely decomposed sea turtle flipper and pulled all the small bones out to take home. On one of the cut away banks, we found large deposits of pure clay and wished we could take some to test in the pottery studio. Way too much weight, though.

Got back in the boat and soon caught up with and passed the Jims, even though we tried various means of slowing ourselves down like letting the sail luff and letting the outboard drag in the water. I guess we should have dropped the main.

Sandra on the island

We spent our first night anchored next to another spoil island. We had a heck of a time getting through the shallow water, and finally jumped out and pulled Pearl up close to shore. When the Jim’s arrived, they asked if we would heat water for coffee as they thought it was too windy for their stove. Once caffeinated, we all set out to explore the island. It was small, but we found the tracks of what appeared to be raccoons, rabbits, maybe fox, and of course, birds. The usual seagulls, herons, and various smaller birds ringed the shore, oblivious to the bird hunting blinds sprinkled around the shoreline. Pelicans on mysterious patrol flew past without acknowledging us. And at last, after not seeing any on our last few trips to the coast, Black Skimmers appeared at dusk.

Dusk at Camp 1

As it got dark, we drifted off to sleep. The wind had died down, but there were distant flashes of lightning and the occasional rumble of thunder. I woke with water in my face and Chuck struggling to shut the open hatch above our heads. The wind was blowing like crazy. Once all the openings were closed, I lay there thinking about Jim and Jim and their homemade boom tent. It was a clever homemade affair designed to be set up from inside the boat in case we anchored out. The next day, NOAA reported gusts up to 50mph.

Running under Mizzen

Tuesday dawned gloomy and overcast, and the wind was still 15-20mph. Jim and Jim headed out under jib alone, so in an attempt to keep our speed down, we tried sailing with just the mizzen. Chuck was amazed by how well it worked. The wind was perfect–right behind us, and with the offset mast and the sail sheeted at 90 degrees, the center of effort was in the middle of the boat. We made 4-5mph with a perfectly balanced helm, and still left them behind.

Baby Seagull

It was smooth easy sailing until we neared the turnoff to the Port Mansfield jetties. Turning to go out the cut meant a broad reach in considerable chop of the bay until we reached the lee of the spoils island, about two miles to the East. To make things worse, a black storm cloud was coming up behind us. We were in VHF contact with the Jim’s and agreed to head for the backside of a small island up ahead. Once we were tied up on the quiet side of the island (which turned out to be a bird nesting spot) we discovered that a small bird had fallen off the small bluff, and could not get back up.  We helped it back up despite being scolded by the mama birds. We had lunch and naps,  The storm fizzled out before it reached us.

Motoring out the Cut

Chuck and I wanted to spend the night at the mouth of the cut, near the Gulf, but the wind was not cooperating, so Chuck had the idea that we could take Jim Sr. in the Caprice (to lighten the smaller boat), start the motor and tow Jimmy in the sloop down the cut. I wish someone had taken a picture. We had a little trouble getting across the spoil deposits--involving me falling in the water when I tried to climb back in the boat and miscalculated, but once in the channel we were fine. The tide was going out, so the current was helping our 5 hp Honda outboard (not that it needed help). We watched roseate spoonbills feeding near the spoils and porpoises playing the water. Up ahead we saw a dark something moving through the water–going across the channel. When it got to the south shore of what at that point was a 200ft wide channel, the fox crawled up on shore, shook himself partly dry, and disappeared behind the dunes, pausing once to look back at us.

The Jims had disappeared too.  We called again at 5:00:
"Old Timer, this is Pearl.  Do you copy? Over"
Again no answer  We both had hand held marine radios, but the Jims had no way to recharge theirs, thus the schedule of calls.  But we had not discussed what to do if an appointment came and went without us making contact.  Would they assume that we would try again in an hour?  Then after another hour? Had they really made it to channel 18?  Would they stay there?

Anchored at the jetties

Tuesday night we stayed at the mouth of the Port Mansfield cut. It was much as we remembered, sandy coves on either side, and long jetties of granite poking out into the Gulf. We could feel the effects of the rollers coming in before we anchored. We all walked out and watched the breakers. Sea turtles were feeding next to rocks of the jetty. I said I had seen the head of a turtle, and Chuck scoffed, but soon he saw one too. Back at the boats, we got together for a potluck dinner of jalapeno sausage, steamed zucchini and potatoes, green beans and fruit cocktail. And coffee. The Jim’s and I take our coffee seriously. All went to bed early and full.

The Jims' boom tent

Wednesday dawned clear with winds once again 10-15SSE which meant an easy broad reach back to the ICW. Jimmy noted that a bunch of coyotes had visited the shore during the night, not 50 feet from our boats. The Jim’s headed out. We stayed behind for a quick shower. Our shower outfit–a 2 gallon garden sprayer outfitted with a sink type sprayer head–has made extended cruising almost luxurious. We add a little hot water to the air temp water in the sprayer. It's perfect.  Fortunately, it is not too hard to find a private spot on the Laguna Madre.

Port Mansfield coming into view

We set out with a reef still in the sail, and did not catch up with Jim and Jim (who had their jib and main up full) until just before we turned. As Port Mansfield came into view, our little fleet turned south into the Intracoastal Waterway. From there we ran before the wind to the south end of the land cut. (This is a dredged canal that joins the South Laguna Madre with the northern part.)  We passed one barge loaded with gravel and a Coast Guard buoy tender. We arrived at 1:30 pm, and pulled up onto the Padre Island side of the bay near several fishing shacks. None of us wanted to spend the night in the 20 mile cut, in case another tug and barge came through during the night.  They have big wakes.

Tug and Barge

While the Jim’s worked on their rig, Chuck did some fishing. He is not a real fisherman. Oh, he has a pole and a license, but mostly he goes with other people who know how to fish, like his friend Jim Ward. Jim has helped Chuck catch a lot of fish–from little crappie in Texas to 30 inch Lake Trout in British Colombia. Left to his own devices, he sinks to the lowest common denominator: 'hard heads'.

The Texas Gulf Coast is filthy with these little catfish. They do not fight, and they are no good to eat, so nobody but Chuck tries to catch them. He only really likes to fish when the fish are biting, and hardheads bite at any hour of the day or night, in almost any salt water you can find. The secret is to fish the bottom with a weight and a treble hook loaded with anything dead. He used a little raw bacon and caught 7 of the little guys in an hour or so.

Larry's grave

This was also the site of the Larry mystery. I was walking around Thursday morning, waiting for the guys to be ready, and I saw a cross sticking out of the sand way back behind one of the fishing shacks down a ways from the boat. I wondered if there was a name on it and walked around to see. It said “Larry”. We speculated about that one all morning. Was Larry someone’s pet or was this something more–maybe two fishing buddies who quarreled with deadly results. Seemed like a good seed for a short story or maybe a Laguna Madre mystery novel.

Look Ma, no hands

The Jims left first as usual, and we followed in about 20 minutes.  There was a good breeze, but no waves, as the cut is only about 200 feet wide, and the wind was somewhat across the channel.  We were broad reaching with the main and no mizzen, doing about 6 in 12mph of wind. Chuck tried lashing the tiller to see how long Pearl would go in a straight line.  We were surprised at how long she could hold her course.  We even got the Jims to take our picture while we were both on the foredeck - with Pearl happily sailing down the channel.

Big Waves

By 12:30 Thursday afternoon, we had conquered the land cut. We stopped briefly for lunch, and headed out. We wanted to make some miles that afternoon, so that it would be easy to make Corpus, take out, and drive five hours home before it was too late on Friday. The Jim’s were sailing on a broad reach with full sail. We started with full main, but as the wind picked up, we dropped it to put a reef in. I wanted to know why we couldn't just sail with the mizzen. Chuck did not think the boat would broad reach on the mizzen alone, but he agreed to try. To his surprise, the boat sailed with very little pressure on the helm. We were making 4.5 knots in 15-20 mph winds, but the Jims were going still faster. As we saw them sail away we wondered if they would have any trouble with the waves which were building in the afternoon wind.

At 6:00 we tried again:
"Old Timer, this is Pearl.  Do you copy? Over"
Then to our unbelievable relief:
"Pearl, this is Old Timer, we can barely read you. Over."
Chuck almost shouted back:
"Old Timer, this is Pearl.  Where are you guys anyway? Over"
We held our breath hoping with all we had that they would come back:
"We are at green can marker # 141. Over"
We looked on our map.
"That is about an hour from here, Old Timer. Over"
"We'll wait for you, then. Over."

The last leg

It was late afternoon when we caught up with Jim and Jim. They had found a good spot about a half mile off the ICW with a sandy bottom and knee deep water. We had come 44 miles today. We had dinner and retreated into the cabin with the screens up just as the mosquitoes arrived. I presume the Jim’s got their repellant out. Friday morning we stayed behind and showered. We raised the sail and let the gentle SE breeze turn the boat and take us back to the channel. It was a perfect last day. We soon passed Bird Island, a spot where we had been taking our kids for over 20 years–before and after boats came into our lives. The run to the JFK causeway was smooth, and we took turns taking pictures–us of the Jim’s and the Jim’s of us. We made smooth landings at the marina, and helped each other take out. We celebrated our week in the water with lunch at Snoopy’s. The timing had worked perfectly–purely by chance, but we'll call it planned-and we would all make it home to our own beds by dark.