The 2014 Texas 200 in a Tiny Boat
"Lay her for the harbour, Mr Dillon, if you please. Boom mainsail and everything she can carry. There is not a minute to lose." (Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brien)
"Good morning!" he said at last. "We don't want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water." By this he meant that the conversation was at an end. (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)
It is my vacation and I arise to the alarm clock in my tent. Can't get worse? Well, I've been up a while since sleep never came for the long stay. Five o'clock in the morning. Must move deliberately because soon Chuck Pierce will be calling, "Mount up!" and we will be pushing our 8-foot sailing scows (a boat called a Puddle Duck) out into the Laguna Madre - there is not a moment to be wasted.
The great haste is driven by the physics of tiny sail boats. Our hull speed - the approximate speed at which a boat pushes up a wave it cannot climb from without a lot of power - is about 3.2 Knots. Curiously, this speed does not always feel terribly slow in a small boat, everything being paradoxically magnified when crouching in small spaces. However, as admirable as we will come to find these tiny craft, they will not warp space. At 3 or 4 knots the camp sites will be the same 30 or more miles away as they will be for longer, faster boats. By the time we are beached, fed, and socialized, I am ready for bed, for too soon Andy Linn will be heard at dawn, "Come on! Does 6 o'clock mean anything anymore?" as a few of us fail the first light test by some minutes.
This is the tenor of each morning, and the evening collapses into - one would have hoped-the sleep of the blessed. I am still trying to work out the math of the misery vs. glory quotient, or in more technical terms, suck vs. happy. Why so binary? Please consult Claude Levi-Strauss.
Vacation as Epic
"Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick." (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)
I like life better when imagining it in terms of epic unrealities. I am a little person, analogous to a hobbit in a world where great deeds are possible - usually for other people - but given opportunity will accept an adventure, even if it must be tweaked in a narrative to see it so. This is the story of a week-long recreation, which in my little life I choose to name an adventure. I apologize to the true adventurers of the world (my personal idol is seaman and hands-on scholar, Tim Severin) and to the people whose daily lives are so hard my adventure glides under their radar. But this is about me, and in many ways perhaps about you too. Confessions duly done, let's enter our local reality where exists local glories and miseries. At the end I will unlock the door and let global reality back in to keep me honest.
By now most of you know how the wizard Gandalf the Gray coaxed Bilbo Baggins (representative of the sedated middle-class) into his big adventure with dwarves and dragons. Everyone should have a Gandalf; I suspect John Wright was mine. Like Gandalf he read between the lines, he heard my half-hearted pissing and moaning in a cyber-world discussion forum and enabled my two Texas 200s. In 2012, he took me with him aboard his 23 foot sharpie. For 2014 I was subtly tricked into something more challenging. I was whining that I wanted to go on the Texas 200 again, but I didn't feel like hauling my outrigger canoe from Connecticut. "Contact me next year," he e-mailed, "and I might have a boat for you." A few months later I drop a hint - is this deal still good? Yes, there is a boat if I want to sail a Puddle Duck, in fact, his own, which entered Texas 200 fame a few years back. Terror salt and peppered with self-destructive fascination grips the guts, but deep winter in Connecticut works its sailing season hallucinations on New Englanders; our judgement can't be trusted. I said I would be delighted. And so I went a'sailing in a small wooden box.
||Our little boats, ever the center of attention (camp #1 and some survivors of early disasters spinning their yarns; Chuck Pierce and others).
||The beauty; sailing with good companions.
The Calm but not Calming
'All I want is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,' but a small ship will do, beached under a sea-deep sky, and awakening to sea-bird cry and coffee brew, under a rising sun and a birthing dome of blue. In summary: a small boat and a hill to steer her by. (WT)
Sleep will not come in San Antonio and my presentiment is that I will sleep no more. The air conditioner drones its false lullaby. Too soon I enter the Texas blast furnace outside the airport where I am meeting Paul Moffitt, my co-rider. John arrives as planned, and adventure starts with a five hour drive to Port Mansfield.
I know John from years of internet sail boat group discussions and my first Texas 200 in 2012 aboard the Laguna Tres. He is driving a family van stuffed with masts, sails, tools, and other gear. We passengers ram our duffels into the remaining gaps. Paul Moffit is a new acquaintance - an interesting young man with a lot of small boat experience. We cross the great boiling flatness that is this part of Texas as John tells us stories about the history of these regions and the characters he has known.
Herds of deer grazing the scrubby desert meet us as we enter Port Mansfield and find Chuck Pierce's condo. It is easy to find with its trailer load of stacked Puddle Duck sail boats - four by eight foot scows, rectangular in plan form, painted yellow. What makes them more than a box is the curving slope of the bottom, called "rocker" by boat-people, which lets the bottom of the craft accommodate efficient water flow and distribute buoyancy at the right spot on the hull. Sure, rocker is more complicated than that, but there it is essentially - box versus boat. The boats also have side air-tanks that double and triple as side-seats and storage, and a mast step right at the bow, and the boat is done. Most of the boats carried 65 square-foot balanced lug sails, some more, one less (mine).
Now will begin the long hot times of unloading and setting up, or said another way, the dues small-boat sailors must pay. The team with whom I sailed were helping out the Live Strong cancer fund raiser. Several Ducks were built by John Wright and Bill Moffitt, transported by Chuck Leinweber, with sails by Andy Linn, just for the fund raiser; a few sailors had previously built their own, personalized in various ways. Mine was made by John for his own Texas 200 duck adventure in 2008, the first time these craft were tried on the cruise. Most are painted yellow, and one is designed to look like a 57 Chevy complete with working lights and blinkers, just for the fun of it. John Goodman, artist and builder, showed off all of its luxury features to Coast Guard guys we met a few days later; they were geared-up like a SWAT team and were not amused, having eschewed that elective class at the Academy, 'CG101: Humor on the Job'.
Since their conception these boats have become a maritime cultural phenomenon that would take too long to explain here, and I am not sure anyone has quite explained the Duck Effect yet. Anyway, John built his, "Tricia,'' out of rugged materials and is so heavy that nobody really wants to carry it down the steep side path to the docks behind the condo. In a couple of days we will gather volunteers to truck and lower it down a dock nearby; for now I'm isolated at the front of the condo. Isolation is relative; mine is not exile, but the inescapable fact is, I am here and they are there, and we all have a lot work. On my side of the house, the sun is doing what it does best in South Texas. My hat is on, my shirt sleeves are rolled down; slowly with each movement calculated as to its probability of using up precious water, I run lines, attach hardware, lace sail to the spars John has so kindly made, and fantasize I'm a "fremen" on the desert planet Arrakis and am building a sand ship. Must. Conserve. Water. (Apologies for the occasional obscure allusion, but I have kept them under Government safety limits). The only other person to share the sunny side (= bad in this world) is John, who is assembling his proa (unfortunately he has put so much time into the Ducks that he will decide his boat is not ready for this cruise; we'll see him at the finish beach).
Scott Widmier will frequently drop by to chat. He and John belong in the same tribe because they have both started their own Puddle Duck legends - in 2008 John abandoned his comfortable route to help other Duckers find their way, and they all ended up camped in some godawful spot (something to do with wakes from barges and sexually aroused crabs), and Scott because he got a good ways along an Everglades Challenge (300 mile, multi-day small-boat race) in his Puddle Duck before suffering pitchpole and equipment loss (a lot of boats dropped out during that year's stormy event, 'a lot' meaning more than the usual 40%). His unique and fast-sailing 12 foot cabin-scow needs no work, and he has time to chat and loan me a mast (thanks again!), because in the rush and complications, my mast has been left in Bastrop County. You can leave the dock without a lot of things, but a mast is part of the "minimum required equipment list." However, Scott also has a large vehicle carrying, evidently, a small chandlery, and he has a fine carbon mast-half from his windsurfer perfect for my boat. John has a sheet-steel drainpipe that slips inside the carbon tube (note to self: ask him why someday), so I sailed with a steel-carbon hybrid rig previously unknown in the sailing world.
Sleeping arrangements for the land-side of this event have always been rather fuzzy - John likes a little bit of adventure in everything he does, and so he has left his sleeping arrangements to chance. I have felt bound by loyalty to stay by him despite some offers of hotel rooms and such (thank you, Chuck L.). Lucky for us, Chuck Pierce offers the furnished basement of his condo rental to homeless duckers. I grab the couch, Michael Jackson and Kellen Hatch take the bunks, and John works on his boat past midnight and sleeps in the front seat of his van. He reports having slept well. I do not sleep past the rattling of the air conditioner and a late arriver inadvertently putting his duffle bag on me in the dark. Repeat, the next day minus the mugging by the duffel bag, varied by getting to know Michael and Kellen as we wander the hot windy avenues of Port Mansfield in search of food and wondrous sights.