In the spring and early summer of 1999, Sally and Vaughan Mitchell made the round trip from their homeport of Aransas Pass, Texas, to Destin, Florida, and back on Kate, their 42′ LRC. This is the first installment in the series of this account of their cruise.
In 2002 Cindy and Mike Neumann purchased “Kate” from the Vaughans and she is now cruising the east coast as “Double Adventure”.
People have boats for all sorts of reasons. Sally and I have one because we like to be on the water, we like to travel, and, well duh, why not travel on the water! Going east is the easiest way to scratch that itch if you are a South Texas boater, so sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1998 the accumulated cruising guides came out and dreams became plans.
Our homeport, Aransas Pass, Texas, is located on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (G. I. W. W.) at Mile 533 West of Harvey Locks (M533WHL), Harvey Locks being our gateway to the Mississippi River at New Orleans. Destin, Florida, which ultimately became the easternmost point of our cruise, is at about Mile 228 East of Harvey Locks (M228EHL). We left Aransas Pass in early March, 1999, and returned a little over four months later.
We stopped at Clear Lake, a tributary of Galveston Bay just south of Houston, an area best known now as home to NASA and the space program. It’s also a popular boating area with several good boat yards, and since our daughter, son-in-law and grandkids live there we had planned to stop for a bottom job before continuing our cruise. We needed a grandkid fix anyhow, and with the boat out of the water for a few days it was a convenient layover. Mid-April found us in Morgan City, only 435 miles from home, a pace that tells you a lot about our style of travel. We really put the emphasis on “pleasure”, as in the term “pleasure boating”.
We took a lay day in Morgan City to catch up on afternoon naps, engine room chores, and Rita Mae’s, a small cafe that specializes in what I grew up thinking was home cooking (my mother was born in nearby Jeanerette, a small town on the banks of the Bayou Teche) and the First Mate thinks is ugh. I’m not sure what ugh is, but that’s what Sally calls it. It was pleasant to walk around this small town, especially on such a cool clear day, and see the pretty yards and houses, and also the Methodist Church where my grandfater preached many decades ago. We were docked on the East bank of the Atchafalaya River, which is about the size of every river in Texas combined, and could entertain ourselves endlessly gazing across its strong current. A tow passed by pushing barges with 25 RV’s on deck, their owners on board looking back at us. Later, the Sunset Limited crossed the railroad bridge a few hundred yards away, a really interesting piece of work itself, and we recalled our train trip to New Orleans several years before when we would have crossed this same bridge.
We’re really enchanted with South Louisiana. On the waterway we were seldom out of sight of something blooming. Honeysuckle grows wild, the Dogwood is spectacular, and there is a great variety of other white, yellow, orange, pink, and various shades of blue vines, shrubs and trees. It’s lovely. And it smells good. The water may vary in color from mud to unthinkably strong ice tea, but the landscape was often breathtaking.
The people we encounter epitomize southern hospitality. Our newest best friends include a psychiatrist, a young Cajun boy named Jacque, a marina owner, a lawyer, a boy scout director, and a retired shrimper. Not to mention a passel of cousins in Lake Charles, one of the prettiest small cities we’ve seen anywhere. If we ever needed a helping hand there was almost always one available. My affinity with this region grows.
The 114 miles from Morgan City to the marinas on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans were covered at our usual blistering pace — three days — and we arrived on a Sunday. This segment of the G. I. W. W. is so hugely varied that trying to describe it brings to mind the old saw about the blind men describing an elephant. There are shipyards where the entire Gulf’s fleet of rig boats seems to have congregated, home bases for several towboat operations, floating docks for the repair of even the largest offshore supply boats, shrimper fleets, and what looked like but no doubt wasn’t the whole Costa Rican navy. In Houma, seaplanes landed and took off within (even my) casting range with a spinning rod from where we docked for the night.
These facilities were concentrated around Morgan City, Houma, Larose and, of course, as we approached New Orleans. In between were a few areas of residential development, and a good portion of the South Louisiana bayou country that I find so captivating and that has the extraordinary quality of seeming remote beyond words only moments after a huge tow has disappeared around the bend. We found ourselves alone much of the time in spite of all the commercial activity. Seeing another pleasure boat was a rare event: we saw none until we reached New Orleans. We’re sure that it’s the rest of the world that’s nuts.
Harvey Locks, our entrance into the Mississippi River, held an aura of mystique if not apprehension because it was our first passage. The 15 mile approach from Lafitte, where we docked the night before, is well staged to create a dramatic effect. A lovely, tranquil, gently curving section of Bayou Barataria, put there as if to calm you, leads to the five mile long industrialized straight-away preceding the lock. When finally reached, it is smaller than expected — about half the length of the three previous locks through which we’ve passed.
Nevertheless, its setting conspires to further reduce its apparent size, at least when traveling east. A very slight turn to port just as the lock is reached causes it to be revealed to you progressively rather than all at once. This effect, combined with its passage through a high levee on which are located a few structures and many mature trees, seems to diminish its scale. It brings to mind how effectively good stage design can create illusion. Or how architects add drama to interior spaces by leading you from constrained to expansive areas. When the gates closed behind us we were lifted about eight feet, and when the gates on the river side opened revealing the Mississippi the visual impact was stunning. Surprisingly, we were the only boat in the lock, making the experience more intimate and adding to the weird notion that this was all some grand theme park which only we were allowed to enjoy this particular day. As if to emphasize how casual what sometimes might be a tense passage, the friendly lockmaster handed us his copy of the Times Picayune as the chamber filled.
The five and one half mile trip downstream to our exit on the opposite bank was, well, like awesome, man. We sped along at better than 12 mph, a 30 percent boost over our normal speed, past downtown New Orleans, cruise ships docked at the quay, and the Vieux Carre. It all flashed by so fast (12 mph??) that we almost went past the Industrial Canal, our route to Lake
Pontchartrain where New Orleans’ marinas are located. Often a tedious passage because of the locks and many low bridges which must be opened, we covered the five plus miles in just an hour and forty-five minutes. We’re told it often takes many hours. The only real excitement occurred after entering the lock when an attendant dropped our stern line in the water near our turning propellers, though nothing came of it.
We stayed at the New Orleans Municipal Yacht Harbor two days, but then moved to the Orleans Marina because of inadequate electric service and to shorten the long walk to the grocery store. Since leaving Morgan City the weather had been exquisite — crystal clear slightly cold windless mornings, with warmer breezier afternoons — typical late April stuff — and we wondered how long it could last!