Texas 200: Embrace the Suck by Andrew Linn
What the Texas 200 is:
• A “rolling messabout” where people bring boats of all shapes and sizes and sail them on the south Texas coast.
• A moving, exhausting, endurance test of boat, captain, and crew.
• A chance to see areas of America rarely visited by man.
• An exercise in planning, preparation, and problem solving.
• A chance to make new friends and legends of the small boat world
What the Texas 200 is not:
Pleasant or enjoyable in any way.
Every second week of June, a gaggle of home builders and production boat owners gather on the very southernmost tip of the coast of Texas, launch their boats, and test their mettle against the harsh conditions of the unrelenting environment. It ain’t just heat, either, it’s a dirty, sticky, heat drenched with humidity and the stench of putrescence and rot. And the wind – Oh! The wind. It usually trots about in the high teens or gallops along in the mid-twenties, but it can just as often crank it into the thirties. It’s like trying to sail in the fetid exhaust of an industrial clothes dryer that’s used exclusively by swamp workers. And grit—no description of the Texas 200 is complete without mention of finely ground particles of dried mud that sticks and stays on any fabric, skin, or surface.
As bad as that description sounds, and as accurate as that description is, people are still surprised by just how much those five days sailing the barrier islands suck. One seasoned small boat adventurer, retired Army colonel, Gene Berry—a man who’d spent the greater portion of his life in deprivation and training for combat—said “It sucked so hard, all I could do is “Embrace the Suck,” and I embraced the suck so much I have bruises on the insides of my arms.”
And even as bad as that sounds, there is another breed of adventurer who makes the event even harder for themselves—the ‘Duckers. A collection of addle-pated knight-errants who do the event in ‘Duck boats—tiny 8-feet long by four-feet wide box boats—expedition versions of the Puddle Duck Racer design. While it is true these little plywood torture crates can hit speeds of 6, 7, and even touch 9 miles an hour, (mph, not knots) their moving average is less than 4 mph. And ‘Ducks are a little like Vietnam era Tiger Cages, where there is simply no sitting position that is comfortable for any length of time. As noted magazine editor and sailor, Josh Colvin, was heard to say, “I ran out of ass. I tried sitting with my whole ass, then a half an ass, then the other half, tried all the quarter asses, and eventually, I just ran out of ass and just . . . endured.”
By now the gentle reader is saying “Surely this article is satire—a farce written for amusement and folly.” Sadly, every word written is God’s own truth and the Devil’s own reality. This is no tale for idle dinner conversations—this is campfire fodder, legend to be told when man is most in touch with the very elements of existence—stories so unbelievably ridiculous they can only be true.
OK, OK, so here is heat, stench, unbelievable winds, humidity, grit, as-yet-unmentioned muck, and the very real possibility of death. What’s the payoff? Why? Why do adults, seemingly intelligent, usually cogent, and often educated, people do this? What part of the human genome survived Darwinism through all the aeons of the evolutionary process? These men, these 21st century adventurers, these ‘Duckers, are not romantic dreamers—they are not invulnerable fools who thinking they will always triumph or superheroes who can survive any challenge or adversity. They are humans, doing what humans do: Pitting themselves against nature—and winning.
This whole ‘Ducking the 2014 Texas 200 event was dreamed up by Chuck Pierce, a small-boat sailor, Texas 200 veteran, all-around great guy, and cancer survivor. He wanted to do a demonstrable, concrete, definitive event that proved that puny, hairless, toothless, clawless, humans can grab nature by the neck and bend it to our will. Right now, cancer is a scourge that kills children, people in their prime, and the aged with equal indifference. Defeating cancer was once an impossible dream, but, like finding the longitude and curing scurvy, humans are slowly kicking cancer’s ass and will one day make it the Boogyman of yesteryear, just like polio and the Black Plague. Cancer is Nature, asserting her dominance, and just like when we drove Small Pox into the darkness of history, we will one day beat cancer into submission.
Chuck wanted a show, a spectacle that grabbed the imagination, to help highlight the cause. He wanted something that would make people sit up and take notice—something that would give heart and set fire to the human spirit. He went out and recruited people, specific people, people who had proven they could succeed and people who were known to the small boat world: Chuck Leinweber (owner of Duckworks,) Josh Colvin (editor of Small Craft Advisor) Kellen Hatch (Texas 200 finisher in an inflatable trimaran) John Goodman (artist and extraordinarily creative boat builder,) Jason Nabors (one of the first people to do the Texas 200 in a ‘Duck,) Bill Moffitt (Texas 200 veteran and adventurer extraordinaire) Bill’s son, Paul (builder, sailor, and hoster of the OBX 130,) Rick Landreville (2x PDR World champion racer and a Canadian,) and others like Michael Jackson (Utah), Wade Tarzia (Connecticut) and Andrew Linn (Oregon). Scott Widmier (PDR World Champion and hoster of the Florida 120,) Pehr Jansson (small boat builder and adventurer,) and Sean Mulligan (hoster of the Havasu Pocket Cruiser Convention) were given Honorary ‘Ducker status even though Scott was sailing a boat of his own design, Pehr was in a Piccup Pram, and Sean was sailing a Matt Layden-designed, Leslie Henderson-built Paradox.
The idea was to use the Texas 200 as a backdrop to raise money for the LiveStrong Foundation and show people that the impossible happens, every day. And it worked. Together, the Texas 200 Ducks raised over $13,000 for LiveStrong, and that is amazing all in and of itself.
By now, the reader is asking himself “So what exactly was so amazing about ‘Ducking the 2014 Texas 200 when ‘Ducks have been running the course since the Texas 200 was dreamed up in 2008?” Well sit right my friend, get a glass of libation, scooch down in a comfy chair, put on your reading glasses, and get ready for a tale of adventure, endurance, and determination.
Fourteen ‘Duckers came to the 2014 event, three had non-PDR boats (Scott, Pehr and Sean) five had their own boats (event organizer, Chuck Pierce, Kellen Hatch, Michael Jackson, Jason Nabors, and John Goodman,) Wade Tarzia had borrowed a ‘Duck, and six people (Chuck Leinweber, Josh Colvin, Bill and Paul Moffitt, Rick Landreville, and Andrew Linn,) had ‘loaner ‘Ducks’ that had been built by St John Wright of Bastrop—a legend in the small boat world all on his own. Everyone met at the starting point in Port Mansfield, Texas, and on Sunday—the day before the event, the loaner boats—having just been finished and painted the week before—had their masts stepped and sails rigged for the first time.
On Monday, the start of the event, the ‘Duckers hit the water at precisely 6:45 a.m., almost exactly on the previously agreed-upon time of 6 a.m. The little boats made their way from the harbor at Port Mansfield into Redfish Bay under double-reefed sails as the wind was already up and feisty. It didn’t take long for the fleet to start wishing for another reef as the swell and wind worked together to drive the nose into the waves (known as “Pig Rooting” in the world of Puddle Duck Racers.)
The winds came directly from the south and were quickly building to the high teens. Before they got scattered, one of the ‘Duckers was heard to say “I’m glad these Loaner Boats were all built at the same time, as they will all fail in the same way—then we’ll know how to fix them.” These words proved to be prophetic as, one right after another, 5 of the 6 Loaner Boats had their rudders tear off because in their haste to be completed, the pintles had been attached to the rudderhead with screws instead of through bolts.
Rick Landreville’s boat was the first to become crippled. Chuck Pierce was nearby in his ‘Duck and rushed to Rick’s assistance. When Chuck saw that Rick’s boat was helpless, he quickly rigged a towline and tried pulling Rick’s boat to safety. The boats were too evenly matched in size and weight and, while desperately trying to re-rig the towing setup in the rough and wild seas, Chuck capsized, turned turtle, and snapped off his mast at the base. Just like that, one disabled ‘Duck became two. Rick was taken in tow by Sean Mulligan in his Paradox—which was a sight to see in itself—and the motion of the short seas and inconsistent jerks from towing had Rick violently ill for the duration of his rescue. Travis Votaw, sailing his magnificent B&B Yacht Design Princess 22, Pilgrim, came to the rescue of Chuck and the stub of the mast—with the sail and burgee still attached was recovered.
Things weren’t any better on the horizon, either—both Bill and Paul Moffitt became rudderless almost simultaneously. They were taken in tow by Gene Graham in a Mayfly 16 and his son, Brian, in a Mayfly 14. While Paul was more than happy to join Brian in the relative comfort of the Mayfly 14, Bill steadfastly refused to leave his ‘Duck “I’m doing this in a ‘Duck and that’s all there is to it.”
Further to the head of the pack were Chuck Leinweber, Josh Colvin, and Andrew Linn. They were sailing their ‘Ducks for all they were worth, wringing every inch of speed they could get in the worsening conditions. Josh rounded up and Andrew, thinking Josh had decided to wait for the rest of the ‘Duck fleet to catch up, sailed over to keep him company. As he got closer, Andrew saw Josh was rudderless and started bearing down on him when Crack! Andrew was holding his tiller in his hand with the rudder torn completely free of the gudgeons. Andrew tried to radio Josh to tell him what was happening, but his handheld VHF wasn’t working. Across 200 yards of water, Andrew tried to shout “My rudder failed!” while holding the broken foil over his head. Unable to hear at that distance, all Josh could see was that Andrew apparently had a spare rudder and thought “Heck yeah! I’m saved barely before I was even broken!” (‘Duckers have a reputation for on-the-fly repairs) and then Andrew broke out a paddle and Josh’s hopes of a speedy fix were crushed.
Chuck Leinweber still had an intact rudder and was about 50 yards downwind of Josh, so he let his sheet fly and waited. Within moments, they were rafted up with both sails down, running before the wind under bare poles alone. Andrew had been further upwind and having also dropped sail, used his paddle and leeboard to maneuver his boat until he made a somewhat controlled crash into Chuck’s starboard side and rafted up as well. Each of the outer boats passed a line from the base of their masts around the base of Chuck’s mast and pulled tight, lashing all the boats together. It didn’t take long before running under bare poles got boring—the wind was pushing them perfectly on course, so why not increase speed? Josh’s sail was spread across Chuck’s boat and lashed to Andrew’s mast, creating the first ever ‘Duck trimaran, set up as a square-rigger. Since Chuck still had a functioning rudder, he had a modicum of directional control and the goofy craft was able to continue on course.
The winds climbed through the teens and started hitting the twenties. It didn’t take long for the hermaphrodite trimaran to leave the wild waters of Redfish Bay and enter into the more protected area of the Land Cut—the Intracoastal Waterway, shielded from the fetch by the Barrier Islands. There was a favorable current in the Land Cut, so the raft was making good time—up to 5 miles per hour—and the three adventurers passed the hours pleasantly, swapping stories and giving the Thumbs Up when other members of the Texas 200 sailed by. Josh commented it all had a very “Huck Finn” feel to it.
After a few miles, a suitable beach was found and the jury-rigged monstrosity was more or less allowed to crash into the mud – a tricky affair requiring unlashing the sail and releasing the boats so the grounding could be controlled. Chuck had brought a variety of tools and parts and the trio set to work on repairs. Within minutes, the rest of the ‘Duck fleet showed up, along with other sailors of the Texas 200. Drills, wrenches, screwdrivers, hacksaws, bolts, washers, and nuts popped into existence and repairs were effected with shocking speed—it was almost a party atmosphere.
With nary a cursed word or bloodied hand, the boats were reassembled and everyone got underway again—only now the winds were hitting into the low 30s. While the islands protected the mariners from the fetch, they did nothing to block the howling winds. Paul recorded a speed of over 7mph while others were sustaining speed over 5. It didn’t take long for the camp to appear (relatively speaking—sailing distance in a ‘Duck always takes an eternity) and the ‘Duckers could see the “beach” was a fairly narrow band of muck with dry-ish muck a few feet up on shore. Rick Landreville took advantage of the high winds and drove his ‘Duck onto shore with all possible speed, completely clearing the wet muck and coming to rest up on the dry-ish bit.
Camp 1 (26°55’46.53″N, 97°27’21.96″W) was as miserable a place to stop as possible: Flat, dry, desolate, windswept, with blowing grit and desiccated fish carcasses strewn about. From launch to camp had been a relatively short run of 26 miles, so even the ‘Ducks had landed in the mid-afternoon, smack dab in the heat of the day. The site was completely primitive, not only without bathroom facilities, but to reach any semblance of privacy, one had to march out over the scrub grass, cactus, and pokey (probably poisonous) plants to just reach the dunes, cross them, and march through more of the same just to find a bush suitable for concealment. On the plus side, there was a dilapidated fish shack down the beach a ways that was slowly rotting back into it’s elemental form. It had a covered deck area that provided a tiny bit of shade from the sun’s blistering rays, but the deck itself was sketchy and would visibly sink with every person on it. Still, people needed to hide from the sun—like vampires—so the fishing shack was a popular spot. Night—blessed darkness and relief from the blasting, spite-filled photons of Sol—could not come soon enough.
Camps were spaced various distances apart, based on availability of landing sites capable of handling the nearly 70 boats in the event. Camp 2 was a straight line down the Intracoastal Waterway about 36 miles away while Camp 3 was not only 50 miles from Camp 2, it also required some potentially tricky navigation and there was a very real possibility of the ‘Ducks having to sail at night. Charts were consulted and veterans interviewed, and it was decided the ‘Ducks might overshoot Camp 2 by a fairly substantial amount—like 15 miles (3-4 hours) shortening up the distance to Camp 3. The ‘Duckers retired to their sleeping spots as the winds howled in the rigging, and sometimes, between the slapping of halyards and snapping of burgees, the wind almost sounded like grown men weeping as they tried to get some sleep.
Day 2 didn’t have any equipment failures, but it did have its share of drama. The winds had dropped overnight—gone were the 30+ screaming of the night before, replaced with much more mundane 5 -8 breezes. Even then, the ‘Ducks started with a reef in, thinking it is easier to shake ’em out than put ’em in.
The first part of the day went great—the bright yellow sails of the ‘Ducks were perfectly balanced on the boats and they rolled along just like they were daysailing on a pond. The winds were closer to 5 than 8, so the ‘Ducks were holding their own against the bigger boats—the early start time giving them an advantage.
The ‘Ducks trundled right along until they got about halfway across the expanse of Baffin Bay (the Baffin Bay in Texas, not the one in the Arctic,) then something never seen before in the history of the Texas 200 happened—the wind stopped. The entire fleet was trapped in a Bob-n-Bake.
There was some wind—about a mile an hour—and some current—also about a mile an hour—so the boats did move north, it just took forever. The ‘Ducks actually began to catch up to larger boats and, in agonizing slowness, pass them. A stern chase is always a long chase, and passing a boat at 1/2 a mile an hour is torture to both the passer and the passee, and what would normally be good-natured teasing ends up being sullen scowling on the part of all participants.
Finally, just as the ‘Duckers were closing in on Chris Breaux and his 31’ Folding Schooner (video of a ‘Duck passing that beauty would have made history), the weather broke and there was a bit of breeze—nothing to write home about, but at least there was movement. Chris smiled his smile, set his sails, and pulled away from the ‘Ducks, and as disappointed as they were to lose the prize of passing a Folding Schooner, at least they were moving again! The hours spent slowly creeping across the bay were forgotten as wakes were kicked up and mainsheets hardened.
The planned stop for Camp 2 ( 27°26’13.06″N, 97°19’54.82″W) had been a wide spot of mud and dirt about 36 miles from Camp 1. The beach was about a mile away from the Intracoastal Waterway and because of the shallow waters inside the barrier islands, the camp was approached by making a hard turn to starboard after a specific marker. Rick Landreville, down from Canada, was having a difficult time understanding the shallowness of the water and figured the hypotenuse would be a quicker path. The hull of a fully laden ‘Duck draws about 3 inches, but the boards down draws 3 feet, even so, with an aft wind, the water would have to be darn skinny to stop a ‘Duck.
There were dozens of big boats already at Camp 2—spread out like Sea People from the days of yore. Most had been forced to anchor in a foot or so of water, putting them 10-20 yards from ‘dry’ land—the good news was the bottom was mostly hard sand instead of putrid mud, so getting to shore was no big deal.
As the ‘Ducks arrived, they had one of their unique democratic discussions where one or two people had strong opinions and the rest were up for “whatever you the group is going to do.” Many of the ‘Duckers wanted to get more water under their keel before nightfall, but others were not so sure. Options were to stay where they were for the night or try to run down to the end of South Padre Island (27°37’36.86″N, 97°14’0.61″W) about 15 miles away, where the Padre Island Yacht Club was. The PIYC had been used before and everyone knew there was a nice beach right across the channel from the club—it’d be a fine place to park the entire ‘Duck flock for the night.
15 miles was still nearly 5 hours for a ‘Duck, so they had to get underway if they were going to avoid sailing at night. The flock said their goodbyes and took to the water again, sailing with all possible speed to the yacht club. Even though many of the ‘Duckers had sailed this route several times, there was still a substantial number of groundings and even a capsize. Three of the flock could not negotiate the channel and chose to camp at its mouth.
As the sun was sinking—with alarming rapidity, really—the little flock made it to the cut, turned east, and sailed up the channel. Someone got the bright idea to not camp on the beach across the channel from the club, but to camp at the club’s docks just as if they were members. There was a Coast Guard Auxiliary party going on inside the club and the senior officer came out to see why all these yellow boats were tying up on club property. It took some fast talking and sad eyes to convince him ‘Duckers were pure-of-heart adventurers who just needed a spot to crash for the night and would be gone by daybreak. The ‘Ducks were allowed to rest in relative splendor: docks instead of mud and access to an outdoor shower to sluice off some of the grease, crud and slime.
As days always do, Day 3 crept up on the ragged travelers without regard to weariness, health, or enthusiasm. As the sky turned pink, the flock set off, gathering its members as they sailed. Pehr Jansson, sailing a Piccup Pram, had spent the night a little farther down the way, at the docks outside of Snoopy’s, a popular restaurant. He said the staff had been reluctant to allow him to stay, but as it was dark and there were no other options, concessions were made (small boat sailors are both persuasive talkers and sad characters—it is pretty easy to get pity from landsmen.) Winds were light but steady and even out in Corpus Christi Bay the fetch was moderate. It was, of course, bakingly hot, so any benefit from the showers the ‘Duckers had taken the night before was lost before landsmen even had their morning coffee.
The big goal of Day 3 was to reach Paul’s Mott ( 28° 3’11.71″N, 96°56’46.35″W) , a finger of land about 40 miles from the Padre Island Yacht Club. This spot, Paul’s Mott, has become a highpoint of the Texas 200, second only to Army Hole, the stopover for the forth night. Paul’s Mott can be difficult to reach if the winds shift easterly, so there is always a party atmosphere at the camp, and a real sense of accomplishment for those who make it there—but first, the ‘Duckers had to get there.
There is a navigation pinch-point on Day 3: Aransas Pass, as Corpus Christi Bay transitions into Aransas Bay—and there are three ways to negotiate the pass, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
The Intracoastal Waterway is the easiest way to negotiate Aransas Pass, especially if there is any easterly component to the wind. Traditionally, this is the path least taken as, once through the pass and into Aransas Bay, it requires the most easterly course it to gain Paul’s Mott. The exits from the waterway can be tricky and there is a possibility a sailor can get trapped and forced to spend the night inside the Ditch.
The Middle Passage takes a sailor through Corpus Christi Bayou. This is not a bad option as the exit is not too far to the west of where one comes out from the Ship Channel. There is no commercial traffic in the Middle Passage because to enter the bayou, a boat has to pass under a causeway that has no more than 8 feet of clearance—even boats as small as a ‘Duck needs to drop it’s mast. Once past the causeway, sailors must navigate the poorly marked channels of the bayou until they exit a little to the west of Mud Island. If the winds are strong and they have an easterly component, it can be a wild ride to reach the lee of Mud Island and enter into calmer waters.
The shortest path (the path preferred by most of the people on the Texas 200,) is also the most difficult and the one fraught with the most danger: The Lydia Ann Ship Channel. This one has the most easterly course and so is the most subject to contrary winds (winds are usually SSE or ESE during the Texas 200) and the Ship Channel is exactly what it sounds like: A commercial shipping channel. Boats sail directly through the city of Port Aransas where up to five ferries transport cars across the channel, making the passage a life-sized game of Frogger. As the Ship Channel provides an exit to the Gulf, there can be a significant current either with or against the sailor, depending on the state of the tide. On the plus side, arm of the Lydia Ann Ship Channel that exits into Aransas Bay is very pretty and has a picturesque lighthouse that helps the small boat captain appreciate life once again after the terrors of running the ferries of Port Aransas.
There’s a perfect spot at the very tip of Mustang Island for an adventurer to decide which way he wants to go: ICW, Middle Passage, or Lydia Ann. Mustang point is right at the entrance of the Lydia Ann and a person can get a good feel for the possibilities. For the 2014 Texas 200, with the wind right at our backs, the choice was obvious: Run the Lydia Ann.
The ‘Ducks took off in a big blob of boats. They tried to sail together to present the smallest possible target for the ferry operators, but sailing together requires the faster sailors to slow down and the slower sailors to speed up—something that runs against the grain of both. How marching bands with hundreds of people can make complex, moving shapes on a football field but a dozen small boat sailors can’t stay within any kind of formation it is one of the mysteries of life.
The ferry operators must have shook their heads with wonder and their fists with fury when they saw the gaggle descend upon the port: tiny little boats, each with a lone passenger, piddling along down a major ship channel—it had to look like a gang of skateboarders trying to cross a freeway at rush hour. On top of it all, a powerboat launched from Port Aransas with 3 people on it, one of whom was playing bagpipes – as a welcoming committee for the Texas 200.It couldn’t have looked sillier if it had been scripted for a movie.
The Lydia Ann is shaped like a big V, with one arm leading ENE from Corpus Christi Bay and the other going NNW to Aransas Bay, and Port Aransas (and the ferries) are at the bottom of the V. Once the lead ‘Ducks had negotiated the ferry landing, they pulled over to the side of the channel and waited for the other ‘Ducks to show up.
Pulling over to wait for the others sounds like a reasonable thing to do, but for some reason, there was a lot of resistance to this practice. A few of the guys really wanted to keep going and “let those slow bastard catch up on their own.” This is a common—and dangerous—mindset in expedition sailing (and life) where, “If I can do it, they can do it” is the norm. In expedition sailing (and life) each boat and captain can suffer from different concerns, even though they pass over the same patch of water. The trouble is, it is a very pervasive and attractive concept: Each sailor is captain of his own destiny, I’m doing fine, they should be doing fine.”
The passage up the Lydia Ann is one of the most picturesque on the trip—there is a lighthouse and usually a lot of powerboat traffic—even parasails. It can be a rough passage, too, as even though the tides are measured in inches, they move a lot of water and the barrier islands are just that: Barriers. Port Aransas is one of the few passages to the sea and the tides can cause a 2 or 3 knot current either with or against a sailor. When it is with you, the world is a beautiful place. When it runs against you, the passage through the Lydia Ann is a miserable slog. ‘Ducks, with their 3.8mph average speed, are more time and tide dependent than most boats, but luck, time, and tide was with the ‘Duckers and they slipped through the Lydia Ann in near record speed, gratefully tapping the red nun buoys as they passed.
The Lydia Ann dumps into Aransas Bay and at the mouth is a place lovingly (and accurately) named Mud Island. It is just a lens of sand and mud that barely rises above the surface—a person’s first indication they are getting close is when they see birds standing on water. It usually takes a few minutes of sailing to remember birds can’t stand on water and make a course correction to either enter the bay proper or to take the more scenic—and tricky—route behind the island. The area is flat flat flat, and what looks like separate islands from a distance resolves into a continuous band of land upon approach. Mud Island has a bit of a crescent shape to it, and an inattentive sailor can sail inside and get trapped in the horror that is Allyn’s Bight. The bight is huge, so the helmsman won’t notice he is entering a bottle—he just cruises along with the strong wind blowing from behind. Eventually, he runs out of water, even though land can be hundreds of yards away. Small boat sailors are usually stubborn bastards, so when they ground, they usually harden sheets and plow on until they are well and truly stuck. At this point, they break out the charts and realize just how screwed they really are. With no water under them and strong winds behind, there is no way to sail out of the bight and the only solution is to drop sail, get out, and drag the boat back out to where it can be sailed again.
One way to avoid the terrors of Allen’s Bight is to sail out into the bay and run down the front of Mud Island. The other way is to hug the barrier islands and slip through the narrow—and also appropriately named—Blind Pass. The water is very skinny all around, just slightly less skinny in the area of Blind Pass, but skinny water does not scare ‘Duckers, so Blind Pass it was.
As might be expected with any group of Type As, there wasn’t a lot of communication between the boats. There was a resistance to sailing within shouting distance and some of the boats didn’t have radios while others had a policy of not turning the radio on unless they had something they wanted to say. Without instruction, the little ‘Duckers came out of the mouth of the Lydia Ann like roaches when the lights turn on—some pinched to windward, some sailed to leeward, and some sort of stayed in the middle. As a result, they all happened to avoid Allyn’s Bight, but still grounded hard in the mud as they missed the pass. The good news was the bottom was more sand than mud, so almost everyone was able to drag their boats to the channel, but Kellen hatch had been in the lead and asked a local fisherman where the deep water was. Miscommunication? Deception? Either way, Kellen ended up grounded in mud a couple hundred yards away from the channel. Luck was with him as he had been in the lead—he was spotted and everyone pulled over. It took a half dozen men pushing and pulling his boat like a sleigh through snow to get him back to the deeper water.
Once free of Blind Pass, Allyn’s Bight, and Mud Island, it was a straight shot to the camp for the night: Paul’s Mott. This mott is a narrow finger of land that extends out into the bay and signifies a milestone in the Texas 200. To make it to Paul’s Mott is to “make it”—to achieve something special. Even though it is just another windswept, desolate, waterless, shell beach, there is always a party atmosphere there: Steaks are cooked, beer is drunk, and even weddings have been held there. To win Paul’s Mott is to become a member of the fellowship of the Texas 200.
The mott is not without it’s perils, though, and it has seen it’s share of disasters. As mentioned, the mott is a finger of land extending into the bay. It is actually a little ridge the slowly drops off from dry land into the water, and from where the land ends the ridge runs about 200 yards until it is deep enough for ‘normal’ boats to pass. The winds are always directly from behind, so boats that have to go out around the underwater ridge have to beat back to camp—and this can take a long time and require a lot of seamanship (or an outboard).
‘Ducks are not “normal’ boats” so their approach to Paul’s Mott is simpler: they ram the beach. It is much easier to drag the boat over the narrow ridge than it is to beat back against the strong winds, so one after another, the ‘Ducks sheeted in, made best possible speed, and intentionally grounded, then hopped out and pulled their boats over to camp. As always, not everyone got the memo and Wade Tarzia tried to sail around the mott, requiring one of the boats with a motor to go out and fetch him. Wade wasn’t the only boat to need a tow, so he can’t feel too bad about that.
The passage from the Padre Island Yacht Club to Paul’s Mott was just under 41 miles at an average speed of 3.8 miles per hour. It was the first time the sailors of the Texas 200 had any choice in their navigation. The next day—Paul’s Mott to Army Hole—had a lot more flexibility, and a lot more possibilities for failure. Though well fed and mostly clutching beers, the ‘Duckers spent a good portion of the evening consulting charts, rehashing stories, and worrying about the day to come.
Day 4 was to be another 40 miles, and the ‘Ducks needed to get on the water as soon as possible to make sure they weren’t going to be sailing after dark. Promptly at 6 a.m. they were on the water at 7 a.m. There were essentially two navigation choices for the day: Run up the Intracoastal Waterway for as long as dared, then pinch in to Army Hole, or slip through dugouts in the vast expanse of skinny water of Aransas Bay—while most of the bay was deep enough to sail, it was crossed by oyster reefs which were interconnected by dredged channels. This is one place where fishing maps have much more value than navigation charts, as there were not going to be any barges or container ships in Aransas Bay.
Maps and GPS are one thing, local knowledge is another. The ‘Duckers had something the rest of the Texas 200 participants didn’t: Chuck Leinweber, owner of Duckworks Magazine and Duckworks Boat Builder Supplies, as well as the organizer of the first Texas 200. Chuck was the logical choice as Chief Navigator and was elected to the post, whether he wanted it or not. Chuck set and trimmed his sail, and the ‘Duckers fell in line behind him—like ducks.
The first Dugout—Carlos Pass— sets the course for the day. If a sailor can hit Carlos Pass, he’s decided to skip the ICW. Chuck lead the way in the early morning light, the wind blowing from the south, right over the stern, at about 10 mph. Everyone was running full sails—being becalmed had taught it is easier to reef than bob-n-bake.
The dugouts are marked with poles, like telephone poles standing out in the water. Navigation marks look different in different areas—even in the same state. Back at the Corpus Bayou, the channel is marked with PVC poles driven into the muck— here, they were marked with telephone poles. The point is: Keep a fishing map and a GPS in hand at all times.
Chuck ran everyone through Carlos Pass and into Carlos Bay. It wasn’t more than a mile or two to the next dugout, one with a wee bit of a dogleg to it as it passes from Carlos Bay into Mesquite Bay. The shell banks were up and visible, so navigation was easy and the entire flock sailed through it like they were in a parade.
Then, for no reason anyone could figure out, Chuck pinched as hard as he could into the wind and lead everyone on a wild run across Mesquite Bay down to the islands that make up Ayers Reef. Other people in the Texas 200, people not sailing ‘Ducks, were heading straight across the bay to the Ayers Dugout, but the ‘Ducks were pinching hard and beating through the waves, bearing off 40 degrees to windward. “Chuck! Why are we going this way?” “Because it is funner!” Apparently, Chuck thought there was a oyster reef that extended over the entrance to Ayers Dugout and it needed a more easterly approach.
A couple notes are needed here:
1: Oyster Reefs. Texans believe Oyster Reefs to be the most dangerous thing about sailing. They tell stories of razor sharp shells slicing through hulls like light sabers cutting through cheese. To hear them tell it, steel Navy ships have been ripped to shreds by Oyster Reefs. If a northerner were to sit at a seaside bar with a tally board, listening to the sailors of the Laguna Madre, he’d soon learn Oyster Reefs were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year, possibly millions.
2: Ayers Dugout lives in infamy in the legends of the Texas 200. In 2009, there were some “issues” navigating the dugout, a boat was lost, a boat was recovered, some people received citations for heroism, stuff like that. It’s all documented but as truth is often stranger than fiction, so the tale has passed from a simple story into a legend that is used to scare children and new sailors. To miss Ayers Dugout is to die—horribly, painfully, and over an extended period of time.
As it was, the ‘Duck flock did a great, looping route to windward, passed along the islands of Ayers Reef, and hit the dugout as if they were guided in by lasers. Of course, the beach was already full of “big boats” who had not gone a-sailing the length and breath of Mesquite Bay, and the ‘Ducks had to wait for the rest of their people—long, looping, courses make the flock spread out.
The three passes had been hit, the little ‘Duck flock was about a third of the way on their passage to Army Hole and the really gnarly navigation was done—except if someone wanted to see some more of the scenic Texas coast.
The barrier islands of the Texas Gulf Coast are huge—Padre Island is over 100 miles long—and the ‘Ducks were sailing along in the lee of Matagorda Island. For some reason, Chuck had gotten it into his head that the “right” way to get to Army Hole (near the end of Matagorda Island) is to go through an area called South Pass Lake. In the rest of the world—places where elevation is measured feet instead of inches—the word “lake” means an enclosed body of water, usually with an inlet and most times with an outlet. In Texas, “lake” apparently means a really wide spot, mostly bounded by muddy humps of muck and debris.
No one in our group had ever been through South Pass Lake, and only a few of us had it on the GPS. We sailed along until we saw we could go no farther in one direction, then turned 90 degrees and sailed along that way for a bit, until we came to a couple islands with buildings on them, and even though we could see the sails of the Mayflys between the two islands, It was decided South Pass Lake lay to the right of the rightmost island, We sailing into a gap—“land” to the right, and island with a building on it to the left, then more land to the left. Someone suggested maybe the pass out of South Pass Lake was there to the left, just past the island. The rest of us snorted in derision and sailed on, deeper into the arms bounding us on left and right. The farther we sailed, the skinnier the water got. Eventually we saw scrub up in front of us, too, which made it look like we well and truly did sail into a lake—a lake with no exit and the wind coming directly from behind.
We looked around for guidance, but our primary navigator, Chuck Leinweber, was no where to be seen. Josh Colvin (who had never set foot in south Texas before) consulted his fishing map and figured we’d just need to keep going a bit and we’d see not one, but two exits. Skeptical, but with no other real choice, we pressed on. Sure enough, the horizon resolved itself into two gaps that would take us from our lake. Onward, ever onward, until we got close enough to see there were birds standing in both the exits. True to their preferences, pelicans had gathered in the left exit, and storks were standing around in the right. The ‘Ducks were fairly spread out and communicated via VHF: “Storks is taller than pelicans. I say we run over that stork.” “Eff that stork.” “Full speed ahead!” and “Ramming speed!” all were heard, as well as Josh Colvin’s laughter, never having sailed with those who were so ready to ground their boats.
As it was, the stork was able to fly away before being rammed and most of the ‘Ducks had to get out and drag their boats over the shallows (again, thankfully more sand than mud.) The flock got spread out again as some people got to deeper water more quickly than others. Two boats, Rick Landreville in a Loaner Boat and John Goodman in Chevy Duck, decided to run the route guarded by pelicans and spent significantly more time aground because of it. Rather than wait and assess damages right there, the faster members of the group decided they should run on ahead to a predetermined rally point about 5 miles downwind and let the slow people sort themselves out. The rally point had been picked from Google Earth and was poorly suited, to say the least. The ‘Ducks grounded 400 yards off shore and had to wade the rest of the way in, then back out again when it was time to go. It was too late to pick another rally point as the buildings of Army Hole were visible on the horizon. After the stragglers showed up (Rick and John after running the pelican route, and then Chuck Leinweber who had avoided the entire lake without telling us) the flock took off and sailed the last few miles with relative ease.
Army Hole, like Paul’s Mott, is a party atmosphere with people knowing—knowing the next day is a short, 22 mile run: Up to the Intracoastal Waterway, down the ditch though Port O’Connor, hang a left at the end of the jetty, and straight on to flush toilets and showers. Everyone went to sleep with a smile on their faces, certain the next day was going to be easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.
In the wee hours of the morning, a massive thunderstorm passed directly over Army Hole, complete with crashing lighting and smashing thunder—without any delay between the flash and the bang. There was a smattering of rain and the winds kicked around a bit, but beyond the shocking amount of light and noise, the storm was a minor footnote to the event.
Up in the morning and on the water at precisely . . . oh, who gave a crap anymore? Let’s just say it wasn’t at 6 a.m. Winds were perfect, a little less than 10, no fetch so no waves to speak of, and everyone staying more or less together. We rounded the corner of the cut into the Intracoastal Waterway and found Dirk Uys waiting for us with his green Windrider 17, Shrek. Dirk was having a very different Texas 200 from the ‘Duckers—he had been forced to spend most of his time in the ICW, even scrounging a night on the concrete floor of a bait shop—an experience that cost him $5 and really gave him an appreciation for the difficulties the homeless go through every day.
Dirk joined our merry group as we made our way down the ditch, sailing along, amusing the natives as they came out of their condos to watch the silly little boats with their yellow sails. Everything was going fine—then the wind died. Then it started blowing again, but right down the narrow confines of the Intracoastal Waterway. The ‘Ducks, with Sean Mulligan in his Paradox, Scout, made a rum go of it, trying to tack against the wind and the slight current that flowed in the ditch, but it seemed the power-boaters were watching from the pilings and as soon as a ‘Duck tried to tack across the channel, the water would suddenly fill with fishing boats careening down the channel, each one with his own, unique interpretation of the Rules of the Road.
Eventually, the ‘Duckers gave up, pulled over to the seaward side of the channel, and started walking. They weren’t alone, either, even the big boys were having trouble. Dirk and his Shrek accepted a tow from Peter Green’s New Caledonian Yawl, Travis Votaw tried to give ‘Ducker Bill Moffitt a ride in Princess, but Bill was having none of it “My boat ain’t broke, I ain’t broke, I started in a ‘Duck, and I’ll end this in a ‘Duck,” Once again, the rest of the flock was doomed by Bill’s stubbornness.
They dragged those ‘Ducks over two miles, first in the mud and reeds of the ICW, then on the great granite blocks that made up the jetty—each block at least a cubic yard of rough-hewn stone and placed just close enough together/ far enough apart to be perfectly place to injure anyone foolish enough to try to walk on them. Covered with slick, stinking slime, trying to drag a boat along these blocks was even more stupid and more dangerous than trying to sail 200 miles in an eight-foot box boat. There was nothing to do but carry on.
A few hundred yards of the end of the seaward jetty, they thought they might be able to sail again, and maybe tack out. The tide had lessened and the area between the jetties was wider than back in town, so they risked it—hopping into our little boats, sheeting in, and going for it. They failed miserably—in the blink of an eye, the channel filled with racing fishing boats and barges and The ‘Duckers ended up losing a hundred yards of hard won jetty in the process. Now tired and depressed as well, there was still nothing to do but press on.
Chuck Leinweber and Andrew Linn were in the lead, Jason Nabors, Josh Colvin, John Goodman, Rick Landreville, and the major and minor Moffitts, were all strung out behind us. Wade Tarzia. Kellen Hatch, Michael Jackson, and Chuck Pierce weren’t visible, nor were Scott Windmier in Blue Dog, Sean Mulligan in Scout, or Perh Jansson in his Piccup Pram. They were all either back in the ICW or maybe ahead, the main part of the flock didn’t know, and didn’t really care.
As the front runners got to about 100 yards from the end of the jetty, they stopped to rest, and looked back over the sad little flock. They were greeted with a sight they didn’t expect: A ‘Duck was sailing across the channel, unmanned. Rick Landreville was jumping up and down, trying to flag down a fisherman. He caught a ride and was reunited with his wayward boat shortly after it crashed into the rocks on the opposite side. Again, with nothing to do but carry on, the flock continued trudging while Rick apparently decided he’d rather try to sail out than walk any more. Later, he claimed the boat had gotten away when his painter had snapped after being dragged across the jagged rocks of the jetty. “I stood there, exhausted, thinking ‘OK, what now?'”
The end of the jetty brought it’s own set of problems – waves battered the jetty and the rocks fell away to the depths right at the end. Bill Moffitt tried dragging his boat around while the rest figured the tide was slack enough to tack against the wind. Off they shoved, most clearing the seaward end of the jetty with yards to spare, allowing them to tack back towards the open sea. Bill was still getting pounded at the jetty, and Rick was slowly, ever so slowly, tacking out of the channel. Once Bill was under way, the question was asked “Should we wait for Rick?” “No.” was the immediate reply. “He’s the fastest sailor of all of us, he’ll catch up.” So they left him and headed out on the last eight mile leg of the trip.
Michael and Kellen were out in Matagorda Bay, as well as Scott Windmier in Blue Dog, but Chuck Pierce was no where to be seen. Someone reported he had been seen tacking way back in the channel at Port O’Connor and that he was trying to sail the whole way. Sean Mulligan in Scout joined the flock, and like horses sensing water, they made best possible speed to the end point at Magnolia Beach.
There was a pre-arranged rally point three miles before the beach, where the flock was supposed to gather back together so they could sail in a formation—really impressing the locals. The way the wind had shifted, the rally point was no longer viable—it was just a lee shore pounded by waves created by the long fetch across Matagorda Bay. The ‘Duck captains were getting rebellious—even though they were spread out over three or four miles, the ones in the front wanted to run on to the beach and get into the ice cold beer they knew was waiting. The ones in the back? Who knows what they were thinking—they were always in the back. Rick had finally won free of the jetties, but there was still no sign of Chuck Pierce. Should everyone wait? Angry words were shouted between the boats and it was finally decided to let tacks and sheets fly and wait for the flock to gather up again.
Fine words, uttered with the best of intention, but lacking in action—no sooner had the last little ‘Duckers joined the first, as well as Rick, sputtering “You left me! You left me back there!” then sheets were hardened and the flock surged on again. “Wait! What about Pierce? We are supposed to land all together!” “We’ll all land, then give Chuck a standing ovation when he comes in.” This is what happens with a gaggle of Type A’s in command of their own little boats.
And land they did—in grand style, all the ‘Ducks (minus Chuck Pierce, of course) hitting the beach at roughly the same time to the enthusiastic embrace of the cheering crowd. Beer was handed out, sodas and water to the non-drinkers, and there was a great sense of relief at finally—finally—being done. Not too much later, Chuck sailed in and everyone did, indeed, give him a standing ovation, a standing O he richly deserved.
This was a remarkable achievement. In this event, 11 “true” ‘Ducks and 3 honorary ‘Ducks had completed 174 miles of sailing at an average speed of just under 4mph. Not a single ‘Ducker dropped out—in fact, of the entire history of the Texas 200, there have been only two drops by ‘Duckers, one in 2009 and another in 2011.
(For more on the Texas 200 by Duck, see the September/ October issue #89 of Small Craft Advisor).