The Texas 200 in an 8-Foot Boat
||If something breaks, fix it. If it gets dark and you're alone, find a beach and make camp. If it's too shallow, get out and walk.
I look around the moonlit camp to take the emotional temperature of my fellow sailors who are variously wringing out their clothes, effecting boat repairs, or trying to get some badly needed sleep in their cockpits. The mood is somber and I don't get the sense anybody is particularly enjoying themselves, but these rugged bastards don't appear ready to quit yet either. As honcho Chuck Pierce said to our group of 13 in the meeting before the start, "I don't think any of you guys will quit; I know each of you by reputation." Well, maybe my reputation is about to change.
It's 10 p. m. on the second night of my first Texas 200 when I think about dropping out. Maybe I don't really consider dropping - after all, where would I go from here-the geographical center of nowhere - but I do think about how nice it would be to put an end to this nightmare.
The days have been physically demanding - as long as 14 hours at the helm-but my biggest problems are mostly between my ears. Two days of trying to keep an 8-foot sailboat upright-dodging tugboats and barges-fighting to stay off shallow, razor-sharp lee shores, and racing to keep up with other boats whose sailors seem to have some clue where they're going, have pushed me to my limits.
The unknowns about what the next day will bring add tension, but even worse are the knowns. Every day down here on the South Texas coast seems to include a small craft advisory and heat index warning. I preach prudence and seamanship, so how can I ever justify what I'm about to do: set off again in a tiny open boat in rough weather into a place with which I'm not at all familiar?
And my boat is very literally coming apart - the aft deck is breaking away from the hull and constant oil-canning is opening up cracks. I fantasize briefly about kicking my foot through the bottom. That would put an end to my problems, wouldn't it? I can't sail if I don't have a boat. I'd be forced to drop out or at least to hitch a ride on something bigger than a child's pool toy.
Once a day, don't you wanna throw the towel in?
The first thing one notices is the heat-or rather it demands your attention. Down here in the fishing village of Port Mansfield, where the Texas 200 starts, a hostile, oppressive, thirdworld sun lords over everything. God help you if you leave any part of your skin uncovered long. The barren landscape offers little relief. They say you can always spot the Texan; he's the one standing in the shade of a telephone pole.
||The Mother Lagoon come to life. Get your weight aft to avoid pig-rooting.
I'm rigging my boat for the first time, down at the docks the day before the event, and I'm wearing my new hat-the one I bought special for the 200. It has an extra-long bill to better shield my face, vents to release heat, and an alligator clip to stay attached. I'm discussing how to avoid heat stroke with veteran participant Stan Roberts when he asks me if I've brought gloves to protect my hands from sunburn. I smile until I see his face and realize he's serious. When I say I haven't, he looks right at me, right past the bill of my fancy new cap, and asks, "Did you at least bring a hat?"
The South Texas coast is inhospitable in June. Temperatures run to near 100 degrees and the relentless, sweltering, southsoutheast winds blow 15-25 knots for as much as 20 hours each day. The many turbines dotting the coastline provide Texas with more wind power than any other state in the union.
That a major sailing event would take place here - for the seventh consecutive year no less-is remarkable. Despite the remote location and convection-oven conditions, the 200 draws adventurous small-boat sailors from all over the world.
Neither a race nor a raid, the 200 is more like a waterborne obstacle course. As veteran TX-200 sailor Matt Schiemer says when asked about the biggest challenges: "Sun, heat, and way too much f-ing shallow water. Otherwise you're just going sailing." Small, often engineless sailboats cover 200 miles over 5 days stopping nightly at designated primitive camps. The goal isn't to get anywhere first-it's just to get there at all. Taking advantage of the consistent weather patterns, the course is mostly downwind - at least that's the hope - from Port Mansfield to Magnolia Beach.
Of the 53 boats that start this year, most have adjustable draft, with centerboards or leeboards. Production boats like West Wight Potters, O'Days and MacGregors are popular entries. The event has also created its own boat culture, and one designer's boats, Jim Michalak's, predominate. The Michalak boats here feature kick-up leeboards, good downwind rigs, and the ability to carry a load-things that work in these waters.
One unusual sideshow at this year's 200 is the inclusion of a special "Duck Fleet," a group of 8-foot boats based (at least loosely) on the Puddle Duck Racer. The Duck is a crude, easily built, rectangle of a boat, with a single sail and leeboard-simplicity epitomized. Participating in a Duck is apparently audacious enough that the storyline of the "fleet" helped generate extra attention for a fundraising effort designed to raise money for the Livestrong Foundation and cancer survivors. Texas 200 board member and cancer survivor, Chuck Pierce, spearheaded the effort, which raised more than $13,000.
Despite the cartoonish appearance of our vessels, the sailors in the Duck fleet are a tough and serious bunch. Experienced mariners all, nearly everyone in our group has completed a previous Texas 200 or Everglades Challenge, and several have established their own well-known small-boat events.
I was offered one of six "loaner" Ducks - all I had to do was fly in and the boat would be waiting for me. I had some reservations about attempting the 200 in so small a boat, but figured if I was going to experience the event I might as well experience it all the way.
Don't it feel like the wind is always howl'n?
I'm only 45 minutes into my first Texas 200 when my yellow plywood box begins to fall apart. There is a hissing sound behind me, and I make the mistake of turning around to see from whence it comes. The Laguna Madre is alive - alarmingly so - as the long miles of fetch and a 20 knot sou'easter has whipped up a nasty following sea. Forced beyond its hull speed, my boat is trying to bury its bow into the backs of waves - pig rooting they call it. Each time it tries I scramble frantically to get my weight further out onto the tiny aft deck, which flexes and creaks under the strain. Like a runaway shopping cart rolling down a hill, my boat is facing conditions that exceed its design specification and I'm pretty sure we're going to tip over or the wheels are going to come off.
||Just like in prison, lots of stuff gets smuggled into the Texas 200 - watermelon, licorice ropes - even moonshine. Bill Moffitt takes a well-deserved hit.
But with each passing minute I learn more about this boat I've never sailed. And although I'm never exactly comfortable, I do seem to find a tentative equilibrium - some semblance of balance. OK I think to myself. You can do this. Just stay in control. And that's when a wave slews us sideways and my rudder is ripped from the transom.
I drop sail and bring my paddle out for steerage. Even now I'm surging along at several knots. I grab the VHF and hail fellow Ducker and Texas 200 founder Chuck Leinweber for some advice. He offers to wait up for me so we can discuss my options. But then I see Ducker Andy Linn rolling over swells behind me and, in silhouette, I can see he's holding up a complete rudder assembly. An extra rudder? Right on! These guys really are prepared for anything.
It's not until Andy has drifted down to me and Chuck that I realize the rudder he was holding up was his own-ripped from his transom. In fact within 10 minutes, five of the six loaner ducks would go on to suffer catastrophic rudder failure as a result of inadequate pintle attachment. As fellow ducker and Texas 200 veteran Jason Nabors was fond of saying, "Sh*# was getting real."
Chuck suggests we attempt to raft our three ducks together, and it actually works pretty well, with Chuck's lone functioning rudder handling steering and Andy and I holding our boats to Chuck's with painters around his mast. It works so well that before too long Andy suggests we put some sail up. We slide my yard and boom over across the three masts and set what is effectively a square rig-now we steerage and better speed.
Upwind of us, Chuck Pierce's Duck has capsized and suffered a broken mast after an accidental jibe while he is preparing to tow one of the rudderless Ducks. Undeterred, he and crew from another boat right the Duck, retrofit the shortened mast, and he continues on all the while suffering from the effects of a concussion sustained during the melee.
There had been discussion last night about a scheduled flyover this morning, as a friend of the TX- 200 had planned to get some aerial photos of the boats on our grand opening day sail. Someone had suggested maybe we should try to bunch up or possibly even fall into a sort of V formation for the photo. It's just after we raft our boats together like so many refugees that I hear the sound of an aircraft approaching. I smile as I imagine what the photographer must think as he surveys the carnage - our three Ducks limping along together, two more under tow, and one upside down. How's this for a V formation?
When we reach the Land Cut we find a place to beach our ad-hoc trimaran of Ducks and immediately Chuck Leinweber goes to work gathering replacement parts and tools from the impressive cache he's carrying on his tiny boat. Within moments other heroes like Noel Nicholls and Sean Mulligan arrive on scene and both men produce additional tools, hardware and hands. By now the other broken Ducks are arriving at the beach and in what amounts to little longer than a bathroom break, all of the rudders are properly through-bolted, back on the boats, and we're setting off. It's an example of an unsaid rule of the Texas 200: You help someone else if you can. It's the right thing to do, and it just might be your turn next.
'Steada treated we get tricked
It's day number four and our leaders keep falling away. Chuck Leinweber took a turn somewhere and disappeared, and veterans Paul Moffitt and Andy Linn are behind me searching for a phantom passage. I'm following a new chief now, but just after we round a PVC channel marker, his boat slams up on an oyster bed and he's reaching for his oars.
By default I'm suddenly in the vanguard, beating back up to the weather side of the channel, sneaking glances at my GPS and trying desperately to find a way out of an area called South Pass Lake. We weather a point and I'm thinking maybe I've led the troops to the promised land as not one, but two, passages appear. Then I see the birds-a family of storks standing across the entire upwind channel, and a flock of pelicans sitting in the shallow muddy water of the other passage downwind.
||Iron Men in Wooden Boats (clockwise from far left): Scott Widmier, Jason Nabors, Paul Moffitt, Sean Mulligan, Wade Tarzia, Rick Landreville, Bill Moffitt, Chuck Pierce, Michael Jackson, Kellen Hatch, Josh Colvin, Chuck Leinweber, Andrew Linn and John Goodman.
"Sorry guys," I say over the VHF. "Looks like storks." Everyone knows what I mean, as with regard to water depth, TX-200 sailors like to say, "Wading birds don't lie." I luff up and soon the other Ducks begin to fill in around me. That's when Andrew Linn yells over, "Should we run it?" Jason Nabors doesn't hesitate, "Let's blast that S. O. B.." Then I hear Paul Moffitt's voice over the radio.
"Harden sheets and assume ramming speed!"
In all of my years I've never seen sailors make a premeditated assault on the shallows. Where I'm from you turn around and look for deeper water, but now here I was, sheeting in and racing at the storks - Texas 200 style; Duck style. We roar up onto the muddy bar. The leeboards kick-up, and then the rudders. Still we use the wind for everything its worth as we dredge our way across the shoal. Eventually we come to a stop and I see Andrew, Paul and Jason jump out and begin pulling their boats toward the channel. Within 10 yards or so we've found deeper water and are re-boarding to set sail again. First-timer Rick Landreville is incredulous. "Why didn't we go toward the pelicans?" he asks.
Andy Linn pushes his rudder back down and looks over to Rick: "Because storks have longer legs."
Váyase Por La Sombrita (Seek the shade as you go home.) - South Texas saying.
If you'd asked me in my normal life, my sane life, my life before consecutive bottomless days days in extremis have broken me down and distorted reality - whether I'd be willing to sail a leaky, deteriorating, 8-foot plywood boat for 22 miles up a stretch of Texas Coast in high winds, I'd say "No chance." But now, four days into the trip, preparing for the home stretch, that's exactly what I'm about to do and it doesn't faze me. Only eight hours tomorrow? Milk run.
Never mind that it'll end up taking us eleven hours; Never mind that we'll have to walk, dragging our boats for a mile precariously a long slippery stone jetties, or that one boat will sail away without its owner-every single one of us Duckers makes it to the end.
For me, finishing is less about determination and more about acceptance. It happens somewhere in the middle of the event, in the middle of one or another of the vast, shallow, brown, bathwater bays, hobby-horsing over a stiff chop for hour after hour; I stop worrying. I am totally in the moment. I laugh out loud-punch drunk. The Texas 200 is, I think, the most horrible thing I'll probably do again.
ABOUT THE BOAT: For all of my criticizing it, the Duck actually performed well and was far more capable than I could have imagined. The Ducks weren't the fastest boats at the 200, but they held their own-especially when the winds were up-and there aren't many larger small-boats I'd have been able to keep sailing, over-canvassed, in 30 knots of wind.
While she lacked every amenity, the beamy Duck did somehow swallow all of the food, gear and supplies necessary for the five-day expedition, except for some resupplied water graciously carried by larger boats.
Special thanks to John Wright, Chuck Leinweber, and Bill Moffitt for whipping up six loaner Ducks for us on short notice.