If you buy the trawler of your dreams in another location far away, how do you get the boat back to your own cruising grounds?
Although we have always been diehard sailors, my wife Kathy and I finally decided to sell our Irwin 31 and purchase a trawler after a friend told us "there's a trawler in all our futures." I never forgot that forecast.
In August 2005, I traveled from our home in San Antonio, TX to attend Trawler Fest in Manitowoc, WI. That's where I met Randy and Michele Bergstrom after they had given a great talk on cruising Lake Superior. In 2004, Randy and Michele purchased a 38' Ocean Alexander in Fort Lauderdale, and brought the boat via the eastern half of the Great Circle Tour to their home port of Ashland, WI on Lake Superior. (PassageMaker Magazine printed their story, "Slow Boat to Wisconsin," in the October-November 2005 issue.) During the next three days, I spent time with Randy talking trawlers and getting ideas. He was enjoying growing in experience as a trawler owner and was very willing to share these new boating skills.
After Trawler Fest we continued to stay in touch via phone and email. As I found various trawlers I liked, I'd run their details past Randy and listen to his comments. During the following months, we developed a long distance friendship with boating as the common thread. Throw in the facts that we each owned our businesses, liked football (Cowboys versus Packers) and enjoyed each other's humor.
In September, I attended another Trawler Fest in Solomons, MD. During the Fest, I'd call Randy and spend considerable time talking about the trawlers I had seen and toured. He was a big help in getting our choices narrowed down, as in what to look for or what to stay away from.
Finally, after determining Florida was the best source for quantity of trawlers, Kathy and I made a trip there in June 2007. We looked hard at three top choices within our budget. All were used: a Monk 36, Grand Banks 36 Classic and Heritage East 36 Sundeck. When we climbed aboard the Heritage East, we knew we had finally found the ideal trawler for our needs. Back in San Antonio, we submitted an offer. Unbelievably, on the same day, an offer came in for our sailboat.
During the negotiations, survey and test trial, I know I talked with Randy more than Kathy, and he became as excited about the boat as I was. He was my sounding board: Did he think the single engine was big enough? What should we expect in fuel consumption? Was docking with a sundeck more difficult than one with a trunk design? And on and on and on. Finally we were the proud owners of the trawler of our dreams, now floating in Clearwater, FL. We decided to name the boat Queen Kathleen after my wife, who wasn't crazy about the name but lost her vote against me and our two daughters.
The big challenge came next. How were we to bring the boat to our port of Rockport, TX, some 800 miles away? Because of mostly height and possibly beam, transport over the road was not an option. Taking time away from my commercial real estate business was not a big problem, but who could help me motor the boat home? Kathy was still employed by Continental Airlines so I would have to work around her time off schedule. Perhaps the best way would be to break up the delivery trip into two or three legs. After many hours of planning, Queen Kathleen's journey jelled.
First leg-Tarpon Springs to Pensacola, FL
The prior owners, Bob and Lorraine Francis, introduced me to a friend of theirs who was not only familiar with the boat but also a licensed captain. Captain Gary Gray, owner of Grayarea Seatime, was the perfect choice for the first three days. We met the day before in Clearwater and went over the proposed route, discussing at length the weather we would face crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
The following afternoon, we met at Tarpon Springs, where our new boat had just received a bottom paint job, new auto pilot and a few minor repairs. After completing an underway check list, we departed at 6:10 PM on a beautiful evening with little wind. I was really excited starting a journey so new to me, moving a 26,000 pound trawler from Florida to Texas.
Crossing the Gulf in almost total darkness with winds now up to ten to fifteen knots with a constant rolling motion made things a little unpleasant. My new boat handled quite well, however, with a great electronics system complete with radar. Although Gary and I set up four-hour watches, sleep was almost impossible so we passed time talking about boating and life in general. Daylight came right on time at 7:00 AM, and the wind died along with the rolling. Gary took the wheel on a "lively approach" through Government Pass to Apalachacola until we two tired cruisers arrived at Scorpio Creek Marina at 1:45 PM.
After a great dinner of oysters at Papa Joe's and a long night's sleep, we departed the next day at 9:00 AM for our seven-hour cruise to Panama City. The scenery along this part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) towards Panama City is really beautiful. The weather was nice yet warm. I did most of the wheel time and navigating, getting lots of pointers from Gary. He suggested I act as captain the entire trip to learn my boat's systems and handling. Any problems or questions, Gary was there to assist. I had never used a GPS before, and the Northstar 961XD plotter and GPS with digital charts was impressive to me. The single Cummins 220 hp engine kept humming smoothly at 1850 rpms with the speed averaging 7.5 knots.
We arrived in Panama City at 3:45 PM. I did my very first docking. After securing the boat, we decided to take the dinghy out to tour the area. Later we walked to Bayou Joe's and enjoyed some great seafood.
Up early on Friday, August 24, we left the marina at 6:45 AM for the expected twelve-hour run to Pensacola. Initially, we maintained a slower speed until full daylight, then began averaging almost eight knots with a following current. We continued to see beautiful scenery through the aptly named Emerald Coast of Florida. A few more pleasure boats and some barges flowed along with us, but still very few trawlers.
The boat was handling wonderfully with no problems whatsoever. I had debated on getting an auto pilot. After using it for the majority of the last two days, I was very happy I had installed one. There are so many long distances between points on the GIWW that hand steering would have been very tiring. Reflecting later, crossing the Gulf would have been even more so.
We arrived at Palafox Pier and Yacht Harbor in downtown Pensacola that evening. In the morning I said goodbye to Captain Gary. He had been the ideal person to hire for the first three days-a licensed captain who taught me so much and gave me the confidence to handle the second leg.
Second Leg-Pensacola to Lake Charles, LA
I had all of Saturday, August 25, to do laundry, shop for provisions, get Queen Kathleen shipshape and prepare for the second leg. Enter the next crew member. Remember my friend from Trawler Fest, Randy Bergstrom (aka Captain Eight Knots)? During one of our many phone conversations, I had asked Randy if he wanted to help me in the delivery of the boat. It didn't take him a half-second to say yes.
On Saturday afternoon, after three plane changes, Randy arrived from Wisconsin ready for our trip together to Lake Charles. That evening, we went over our planned course for each day, where we would anchor and what to do in the event of bad weather.
Early Sunday morning, we left Pensacola Harbor and motored past the Naval Air Center where the Blue Angels train. From Pensacola to Mobile Bay, where there are a few no-wake areas, we saw six marinas up and running, all in good shape. This was important to us, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had roared through the Gulf in August of 2005, causing horrific destruction to anything in their paths.
Crossing Mobile Bay was uneventful but interesting with its many oil platforms and towers and a few large barges towing loads. When contacted by VHF radio, operators on the tugs were very helpful with local information. After all those technicalities, we greatly enjoyed the antics of dolphins and even saw some beautiful pink jellyfish.
Thirteen hours and 115 nautical miles later, we dropped anchor off Cat Island, just south of Gulfport, MS, in a good sand-silt bottom. We both were so beat that we elected to skip dinner and get some sleep.
We pushed off early the next morning and began the cruise to New Orleans. Because of time constraints and too many hurricane-damaged marinas, we decided to bypass Lake Pontchartrain. Commercial traffic picked up with tugboats pushing huge loads and crabbers working their pots. Many bird species and dolphins entertained us, too, as we entered The Rigolets-New Orleans Cut area. This waterway had lots of room for two large tugs and their loads to meet each other going in opposite directions.
At 1:30 PM, we arrived at the Inner Harbor Locks, the busiest locks in New Orleans area, where we waited 45 minutes before the lockmaster let us go through with a very large tug. (This lock is 74' x 626.') This was my first lock and Randy's 74th, so he literally showed me the ropes. Next, we headed down the Mississippi River to the Algiers Lock, our first choice, but had to turn around because it was closed for repairs. Back up the Mississippi against a 2.5 knot current for a few miles, past New Orleans and through the Harvey Canal lock, we came into a big commercial boat repair area that made for very slow-going with a five-mile, no-wake section. We lost time there, and arrived in Lafitte, LA at sunset.
Pickings were slim as everything was closed. We wound up tying to the Crain Brothers Oil Company dock for the night, beat after another long day. My lesson for the day? Don't push it and stop well before dark. We had motored 200 miles in two days in 95-98° heat!
The next day, after buying groceries and fueling at Fleming Fuel in Lafitte, we headed for Morgan City. Rain storms forced us to steer from the lower helm, but they didn't cool down the heat much. After New Orleans, barge traffic picked up. During our entire trip, we probably overtook six barges heading west, while the nearly one hundred other barges passed us going east. Larose, LA is the site of another big boat repair center. The canal there is quite open with good depths, and is very attractive with lots of vegetation like knobby cypress trees. We even spotted a few alligators.
Entering Morgan City, LA, that afternoon we learned there is a traffic control check-in requirement on Channel 16 to advise traffic control of boater travel plans. We tied up right past the railroad bridge along the seawall (free) and headed out for dinner. We found Edda Mae's Restaurant, a locally renowned eatery featuring amazing fresh seafood and good old country cooking.
We slept in a bit and left at 10:15 AM on Wednesday, August 29th. Our cruise was uneventful that day. We arrived at Shell Morgan Marina in Intercoastal City, LA at 5:15 PM. This city had been hit very hard by Hurricane Rita one month after Katrina, and even two years later there was still much evidence of damage. (When Rita blew through, the surge was fifteen feet above normal water level.) There were no grocery stores or restaurants nearby, so the marina manager obligingly gave us a ride to get supplies. In return, we bought fuel from him.
In this area of the GIWW, we saw helicopters flying low as security patrol because of the commercial traffic headed in and out of the Gulf of Mexico with supplies for the many oil rigs.
We left Intercoastal City early Thursday morning heading for Lake Charles, LA. We locked through the open Leland Bowman Lock, which is 110'x 1140.' Before this, we have seen very few pleasure boats but this day we saw four. In a welcome change of scenery as we motored through farming area, we saw lots of cattle. Near Lake Charles, we went through our first pontoon bridge, located at mile marker 233, which pivots to let boat traffic through. When we requested an opening, the bridge tender referred to Queen Kathleen as "the little yacht." That made us chuckle.
Having made prior contact with the Lake Charles Power Squadron, we were invited to tie up at their docks and given permission to leave the boat there until the third leg began in a few weeks. We arrived at 5:30 PM, tied up and headed for L'Auberge du Lac Hotel and Casino and its Jack Daniel's Bar and Grill. We enjoyed a good dinner and had a great time rehashing all the challenges and fun over the past week. Randy was to fly the next morning to Wisconsin and I was hopping a flight to San Antonio. The second leg was complete.
It was fun with Randy aboard. We got along well, enjoyed some good humor, plus I learned a lot from him. Boating in this part of the United States was new to him, but being from Wisconsin, the heat was a bit much. He had decided to join me on this leg of the trip to gain more cruising experience and see a different part of the country. His own delivery time of his boat, Ka-Ching, was a lot further than mine-3,000 miles from Florida to Wisconsin-yet we both learned much from each other.
Third and last leg-Lake Charles, LA to Rockport, TX
One month later, the last leg of delivering Queen Kathleen back to Texas began as a family affair with my wife Kathy, and Marshall, our 18-year-old grandson, flying back with me to Lake Charles. Kathy (the original Queen Kathleen) had only seen the boat once and had been surprised how big it was outside and inside for a 36' boat. Our grandson had his own private double berth and head up front while we had our own privacy in the roomy quarters in the aft cabin. The salon was large and comfy, too. We spent our days up on the spacious fly bridge enjoying excellent visibility.
I made sure our first day was an easy one. We left at 10:25 AM and cruised only until 4:30 PM. We pulled into Bay City, TX and had a great meal at Esther's Restaurant. Our cheerful waitress gave us some extra bread to feed the alligators.
We left earlier the next day and had a longer run. There were no problems except the Captain forgot to turn on the bow thruster, which made leaving the dock a bit challenging. The third day, we had a short three-hour run in 20-25 knot winds, and docked around noon at the marina at Moody Gardens. We had a great time there-enjoyed IMAX, the aquarium, exhibits and many other interesting activities.
Leaving the next morning at 7:40 AM, we made a long run to Matagorda Harbor, arriving at 5:30 PM, everyone tired from the heat. Nobody liked the mid-90s with high humidity and some thunderstorms.
The only real problem was on the next (and last) day when we headed to our final destination of Rockport, TX. Only twenty miles from Rockport, our single engine stopped in the middle of a channel. Things were a little dicey for awhile with all the regular barge traffic going past. We managed to restart the engine and motored about one mile before it stopped again. We were unable to restart it. A call to Boat US brought us a tow, and at midnight, we finally made it to Rockport. Later, a mechanic, after changing filters a third time, was finally able to start the engine.
What a great way to bring back a trawler! A knowledgeable captain for the first leg, a great friend who shared his boating experiences for the second leg, and my wife, the original Queen Kathleen, and grandson for the final leg.
What was the best and most fun leg? My buddy from Trawler Fest, Randy Bergstrom, made the second leg really outstanding. We continue to stay in close contact and are already planning our next get-together... maybe at another Trawler Fest or some future raft-up along the waterway.
In the meantime, the real cruising has begun.