Eastbound & Down
Power & Motoryacht’s leg of the Aspen 10,000 Mile Tour? A 300-mile, hell-bent-for-leather delivery from Galveston to the Big Easy.
We’d figured it out by now. Navigating the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GICW) through Texas at night in our Aspen C120 power cat—a speedy, fuel-efficient, 40-foot phenome of asymmetry—was a two-man job. At the helm, Larry Graf, Aspen’s founder and CEO, did the steering while simultaneously keeping tabs on our Garmin plotter, where AIS signatures materialized like measles as the miles moseyed along. In the copilot’s seat, I handled the VHF while simultaneously trying to interpret exactly what was coming at us; or, more to the point, how the phantasmagoria of running lights, masthead lights, special flashing lights, deck lights, spotlights and lights ashore would impact the next couple minutes of running time.
“Man,” muttered Larry, a long-time denizen of the Pacific Northwest, “we never see traffic like this out on the West Coast. Most of this stuff is huge. Some of these tows are 1,000-footers at least. Some gotta be 1,200-footers! And they just keep on comin’.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, squinting through a set of Steiner binoculars. “Navigation down here is a realm unto itself. Skinny, narrow water, too—real skinny, real narrow.”
It was half past midnight. We were many hours into a hell-bent-for-leather delivery of the C120 from Galveston to New Orleans, a distance of roughly 300 miles on the Intracoastal. As rain hammered the windshield and giant bolts of lightning blazed, our big, pantograph-type wipers slapped rhythmically and the Steiners revealed an immense tow in the distance, stacking up for a head-on meeting. The thing appeared to be stalled in a tight horseshoe bend, the shape of which glowed faintly on the Garmin’s screen.
“Here comes another one, Larry,” I noted with resignation. “Let’s hope it’s not an instant replay of the last fracas.”
Earlier in the evening, during my own stint at the wheel, a meeting in a similar bend with an equally immense, spotlight-blasting tow had caused me to squish our starboard bow into the mud. Maybe I’m rationalizing here, but it’s my opinion that the tug’s giant LED/Xenon spotlights had contributed to the event—their bluish glare through the 120’s windshield had just about deep-sixed my night vision.
I studied the oncoming tow. For the moment, the tug at the rear was occupying one side of the channel in the bend, and the head of the tow—illuminated with the same LED/Xenon radiance we’d got nailed with earlier—occupied the other side. I checked the vessel’s AIS signature and keyed the mic.
Gallery: Aspen C120 Power Cat
“This is the Knot Wafflen’, the Knot Wafflen’, to the Mary Boudreaux, the Mary Boudreaux. Please come in, cap.”
“This is the Mary, come back,” a voice drawled with such languid ease and confidence it sounded like the guy was easing down a country road in an old pickup truck in broad daylight.
“Cap,” I continued, “we’re the little pleasure boat coming at you, oh about a mile off. Are you gonna be around that corner next couple of minutes, so we can get past you on the one whistle?”
“Mary back to ya, pleasure boat,” the drawl continued. “No big deal, man. But gimme a little more time if you would, so I can get straightened around. Then sure, I’ll see ya on the one.”
Larry pulled the throttle back, just as a lightning flash illuminated a pushtug working off to starboard, apparently in the midst of marshalling a hodgepodge of barges into a unified tow. The pushtug’s engines roared, churning purple, lightning-lit water. “What a night,” said Larry, while compensating for the tug’s wheel wash with a little starboard helm. We both squinted into the gloom. Given the significant distance between the red and green running lights at the head of the Mary Boudreaux’s tow, the monster coming our way had to be a “double-wide” at least. What a night indeed.
Ham, Potato Salad and Pickles? Oh My!
Like a lot of boat deliveries, ours had begun after dark in a semi-frenzy. When Larry and I had finally arrived at the Pier 77 Marine Service facility in Galveston, where the C120 was almost—but not quite—ready to boogie, it was after 10 o’clock at night. This gave us less than eight hours to grab a meal, fill the boat’s water tanks, organize the odds and sods on board, finish off a wash down, get the boat safely freed from the Travelift, go shopping for groceries and squeeze in a little shut-eye before our departure early the next morning.
The intensity wasn’t premeditated. Due to routing problems that had cropped up during a dusty, trailer-truck portage from southern Mexico, the 120 had rolled into Galveston two days late. So instead of a leisurely five-day snooze cruise to New Orleans, we had to do the trip in just three days. This, the scheduling gods assured us, would guarantee that the boat’s owners—Golden Malted waffle magnate David Jenkins and his wife, Sue Ellen—could get back aboard in accordance with “the plan” and keep on keepin’ on with the Aspen 10,000 Mile Tour, an extravaganza that, when concluded in Annapolis, Maryland, would entail a semi-circumnavigation of North America starting with some Alaskan shakedown adventures, followed up by passages down the Pacific coast (to Cabo San Lucas), up through Mexico via truck, across the Gulf Coast to Florida and then finally up the East Coast to the Chesapeake Bay.
“Hey Bill,” Larry yelled from the flybridge at about 11 o’clock—he was stowing PFDs. “I forgot something.”
“What?” I yelled back from the cockpit, where I was filling a water tank with as much efficiency as time and talent would allow.
“Kroger closes at midnight,” continued Larry. “We gotta get a move on. We gotta buy food.”
A stint of kinetics then ensued that would have done justice to a pair of Olympic athletes. After pulling into the Kroger parking lot with our rental car, Larry and I literally sprinted for a shopping cart. Then we barrelled through Kroger like wolves on the trail.
“How about this for protein,” I yelled from the meat and seafood section. I lifted a whopping plastic-wrapped package of sliced ham into the air. Three days? Huh! It looked like the thing would last three months. Thunk. Into the cart.
“Cool,” Larry sang out from the deli counter, checking his watch. “And how about this big tub of potato salad. You like pickles?”
Trouble on the High Seas
The morning was young and misty when we hit the trail. Larry initially took the helm while I perused a copy of Waterway Guide Southern 2018 in an attempt to determine the fastest, most comfortable route across the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi, given that we’d be taking the seas on the starboard beam if we made straight for Southwest Pass. What we intended at this point was to forego the Intracoastal in favor of the open Gulf and Old Man River in order to cut both time and distance off the trip. Once we got well south of the Galveston jetties, Larry hung a hard left and eased the C120 out of the channel, so we could consider our options.
I soon picked up on some weirdness, though. As we studied the plotter, zooming in and out, I’d occasionally look up to scan the horizon and be amazed every time. During the long-gone ’80s, when I ran oilfield supply vessels for a living, the Gulf was a veritable hotbed of “oilfield yachting,” as I used to call it. When leaving Galveston in, say, 1983, you’d see inbound and outbound tankers everywhere, slews of them, as well as tugboats, crewboats, survey boats, supply boats, utility boats, motorized jackup rigs and semi-submersibles under tow, all going every whichaway. But now? Nothing.
“Fracking,” I eventually opined. “The stories in the newspapers these days must be true. Fracking has just about decimated the oilfield.”
Of course, you gotta be careful about making glum observations like this—they’ll ocassionally come back to bite you in the transom. And hey, just minutes after I’d made my fracking comment, the pitch of our single 435-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesel took a nose dive. Then the trusty little engine began to surge alarmingly, a development that caused Larry to pull the throttles back with a will.
“Plugged fuel filters,” I suggested, as we bobbed in 6-foot seas. But here was the rub. Although we immediately began rifling through all the lockers, drawers and cabinets on board, there were no spare filter elements to be found. The larder was bare.
“Maybe we can dig up something in Texas,” I proposed, as Larry dialed in a northerly course towards Sabine Pass and the refinery town of Port Arthur beyond it. We then chugged north for a couple of hours on a slow bell. At length, as we bypassed stacks of sidelined oilfield vessels, rigs, cranes and barges in Sabine, we dove into our first lunch—a few slabs of sliced ham apiece, alongside a healthy dollop of potato salad with a pickle on the side. Yum!
No Country for Old Yachtsmen
Larry and I made a few solid discoveries over the remaining 60-plus hours of our jaunt. And certainly, the most useful one, in terms of the edification of the typical Power & Motoryacht reader, is that services for recreational vessels—as well as the vessels themselves—are few and far between along the Gulf Coast between Texas and Louisiana. Indeed, we couldn’t find a single filter element for our common-as-an-old-shoe Racor 500 MAs, either at the Sabine Pass Port Authority Marina in Sabine Pass (although both dock assistant Phyllis Almond and liveaboard Art Fahrenholz did their best to track a few down) or farther north in the oil-refinery town of Port Arthur.
Parenthetically, we were surprised to discover that Garmin’s standard cartography for the Texas and Louisiana sections of the GICW—which we decided to take to Lake Charles, Louisiana, so we could continue our hunt for filter elements—is uncharacteristically sparse on detail in spots, perhaps due to the scarcity of yachts and yacht services in the area. Moreover, we were also quite surprised to discover that the Waterway Guide Southern 2018 is also uncharacteristically sparse on detail for the GICW between Galveston and New Orleans.
“Might just as well toss the Waterway Guide overboard for all the good it does us around here,” I told Larry during dinner one evening. Was the hyperbolic nature of this remark in any way connected to the fact that at the time, we were tucking into the fourth (or was it the fifth?) ham-potato-salad-pickle mélange of the trip? Perhaps.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
I was lying flat on my back on the flybridge lounge, with a PFD stuffed under my head for a pillow. It was 1 o’clock in the morning in New Orleans, and we were tied alongside a concrete wharf, hard by the southern approach to the city’s Industrial Lock: a long, spookily lit thing at night, which would eventually let us pass through the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into Lake Pontchartrain and, from thence, to our destination—a slip at the New Orleans City Marina.
I was half asleep, half awake, with a handheld VHF’s speaker lying next to my ear, waiting for the voice of the lockmaster to give us the green light. Larry was snoozing at the helm, with one eye open. We were both beat—it had been a long, 18-hour day … and night. We’d started at O-Dark-Thirty from Intracoastal City, Louisiana, where we’d caught a few winks while hauled up against a ratty old commercial dock. Then we’d beelined east on the GICW at roughly 17.5 knots, thanks to the nice folks at West Marine in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who, incidentally, stock cannister wrenches and oodles of Racor fuel filter elements.
I examined the stars overhead. In spite of the C120’s Bimini and the glare of the lock’s lights, I could see them pretty well. They helped me remember some of the great stuff about the day and, indeed, about the whole whirlwind trip.
Like, for instance, the two sales ladies at West Marine in Lake Charles, Vanessa Strickland and Devin Moses. They’d been at least as excited about stocking filter elements as Larry and I’d been.
Or the guy at Rio Fuel & Supply in Morgan City, Tommy Duval. For old time’s sake, I’d asked him if the Wheelhouse Lounge was still going strong. The Wheelhouse, back in the day, was an oilfield hangout made alluringly infamous by all the bullet holes that graced its interior. “Nope—gone” Tommy replied, with a rueful, knowing smile.
Or the pure excitement of doing a 20-knot-plus top end, zooming along the gorgeous green emptiness of the cypress-sided Bayou Chene, a narrow little waterway that interconnects the Atchafalaya River and the GICW. We’d had to detour through it to circumvent Bayou Boeuf Lock, which was closed for repairs.
And what a ride! Although the C120 is an innovatively configured proa-type power cat, with one engine, two different sized hulls and an assortment of unique hydrodynamic features that engender arrow-straight tracking, she drives like a racy sportboat. And she consumes modest amounts of fuel while doing so, making her ideal for travels where services are scarce. More to the point, according to our test of the model shortly after her launch a year or so ago, fuel burn at a trawlerish 7 knots is just 2.7 gph and at a fast cruise of 14.2 knots just a tad over 9 gph.
“Knot Wafflen’, Knot Wafflen’,” came a voice from the handheld’s speaker. “This is the lockmaster, Industrial Lock. You next, cap.”
“Well,” said Larry, yawning, “I guess they’re ready for us, Bill. Looks like we’re gonna make the city marina on time after all.”
“Yup,” I replied, with a yawn, strapping on the PFD so I could safely go below and do deckhand duty, “And Larry—we still got a little ham and potato salad left in the fridge, man. And pickles, too.” ρ