Things look grim.
I’ve just spent the night in a tent on Matagorda Island, next to a field overflowing with jackrabbits the size of German shepherds and enough turkey vultures to pick a herd of dead elephants clean. Now I’m churning across Matagorda Bay on a sailboat named the Odyssey while the crew talks about a prisoner swap.
Me being the prisoner.
The boat lurches and everybody ducks as the boom comes round. “We want all your rum,” a voice crackles over the two-way radio.
We’re gusting with the breeze on the last day of the Texas 200, a five-day, 200-mile sailing “raid” up the coast of the Lone Star State. This isn’t a race, organizers assure me, although you’d be hard-pressed to believe that based on the chatter aboard the sailboats scudding across the bay this morning.
“We call it a cruise in company,” says Matt Schiemer of Austin, president of the Texas 200 Sailing Club, which has organized the event each of the last 10 years.
It’s my self-proclaimed Year of Adventure, so I’ve hitched a ride on Schiemer’s 19-foot O’Day Mariner sailboat, along with crew mates Chris Maynard and Stan Roberts.
In all, 63 boats registered for this year’s Texas 200, which started at Port Mansfield and will finish at Magnolia Beach near Port Lavaca. (Some did a harder version, starting at the end, sailing to the midpoint and folding back on the route.) About a dozen have dropped out so far — not bad considering less than half of those who started last year’s brutally windy cruise, dubbed Carnage on the Coast, made it all the way.
Sailors camp on islands as they go and celebrate with a shrimp boil and beer at the end. The experience blends adventure, nature, discomfort and near disaster, creating a floating convoy of giddiness.
“A million things can go wrong,” Schiemer says. Sailboats dodge oil rigs and oyster reefs, deal with high winds or no wind, equipment failures, sunburns and capsizing. Masts break, booms snap and boats run aground.
All that beats racing circles around buoys, he says.
Today we’re mostly running with the wind, so we’re clipping right along. We spot a few dolphins, and others report alligator and bright-pink roseate spoonbill sightings. Schiemer lets me take the helm for a few minutes (he and the crew hurriedly snap on life jackets for that), and then we pull into shallow waters. It’s time for the prisoner exchange.
I heave myself overboard and wade, a bag of gear held high overhead, to the craziest and most beautiful boat in the fleet, a 32-foot schooner named the Elsie B.
Almost half of the boats in the Texas 200, including this one, are handmade. Elsie B looks like a mashup of a canoe, a pirate ship and a sailboat. Chris Breaux, an accountant from Missouri City, Texas, built her himself, using plywood and a set of plans. She stretches 31 feet long and 5 feet at her widest, and with a nice wind, she can clip along at 11 knots. But her real claim to fame shows at the belly — a row of hinges so Breaux can fold her in half for transport and storage. She’s started every Texas 200 and finished all but one, when several crew members slashed their hands and feet on oyster reefs.
“Once a year for the Texas 200 we dig it out, repair it and sail it,” Breaux says, adding that he loves to sleep on the boat at night, the slap of waves on the hull to lull him to sleep.
I settle in on a cushion nice and low and sip water while the crew tells me more. Three big white sails puff up like egos as the wind fills them. While other crews eat wieners and MREs during the Texas 200, this crew dines on filet mignon and Greek lamb skewers. They joke around a lot, too, and that’s part of the fun of the Texas 200.
This year’s motley flotilla also includes two sailors who purchased a boat for $200, sight unseen, and are trying to keep it afloat for all 200 miles. Another couple met and married at the Texas 200.
“It takes a certain kind of person,” says Chuck Leinweber, who created the Texas 200 after sailing in a similar event in Florida. “It’s exciting, unpredictable and you have to get down to using basic skills. It’s really kind of like a school of hard knocks for sailors. What you don’t know you’re going to learn pretty quickly.”
One year a dozen Puddle Duck racers, tiny 4-by-8-foot sailboats, participated. Another time, when the wind refused to blow, sailors hiked through mud for several hours to reach the jetties.
“It’s a challenge as much as anything,” Leinweber says. “You don’t know if you’re going to make it to the next camp. When something breaks, you find a way to fix it, you overcome it. Sometimes you have to stop and help someone else.”
Or, as Breaux, captain of the Elsie B, puts it, you get by with a little help from your friends.
Today’s 22-mile jaunt is the shortest of the week. Mileage varies, and sailors cover up to 50 miles in a single day.
“This is supposed to be an adventure, right?” says Kevin Harris, pointing to a flag that says “You may die” flapping against the mast.
The event draws sailors from as far away as Canada, Boston and Seattle, and boats from 13 states. Most of the sailors are men, but one all-female team is making the journey on a boat named Miss Kitty. Several father-son teams are in the mix, too, as well as a father sailing with two teenage girls.
“I wanted them to experience the same things I get to experience — all the beauty that is out here,” says John Hippe, 53, of Milwaukee, who is sailing with his daughters, Hannah, 14, and Kaitlyn, 15. “And they are intrepid sailors. As enjoyable as it is, it’s also hot and miserable.”
The girls don’t seem to mind. At camp this morning, they took down the tent, packed it neatly away and carried the gear to the family’s 16-foot Wayfarer, where Hippe stowed it below deck.
“There are a lot of things most people would be dissuaded by — bugs, heat, cold, water, more bugs,” Hannah says. “But I like the community of it. Usually the three of us sail together. It’s nice to have a lot of other people with us.”
Kaitlyn, who is blind, says sailing gives her a sense of freedom she can’t find on land. “It’s really hard to describe. Some things I can’t do, just because I can’t see,” she says. “But I’ve always loved sailing and being on the water for long periods of time. I love the movement of the boat, the breeze, and I can tell where the sail is by the tack.”
I glance out toward the horizon from my perch on the Elsie B, nothing but greenish-gray water in sight. We sway, and the sails whip and chatter. Things out here in Matagorda Bay blow along at their own pace, and that’s bliss.