The Nautical World...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Travis McGee on Cars

People hate their cars. Daddy doesn't come proudly home with the new one anymore, and the family doesn't come running out, yelling WOW, and the neighbors don't come over to admire it. They all look alike, for one thing. So you have to wedge a piece of bright trash atop the aerial to find your own. They may be named after predators, or primitive emotions, or astronomical objects, but in essence they are a big shiny sink down which the money swirls--in insurance, car payments, tags, tolls, tires, repairs. They give you a chance to sit in helpless rage, beating on the steering wheel in a blare of horns while, a mile away, your flight leaves the airport. They give you a good chance of dying quick, and a better chance of months of agony of torn flesh, smashed guts and splintered bones. Take it to your kindly dealer, and the service people look right through you until you grab one by the arm, and then he says: Come back a week from Tuesday. Make an appointment. Their billions of tons of excreted pollutants wither the leaves on the trees and sicken the livestock. We hate our cars, Detroit. Those of us who can possibly get along without them do so very happily. For those who can't, if there were an alternate choice, they'd grab it in a minute. We buy them reluctantly and try to make them last, and they are not friendly machines anymore. They are expensive, murderous junk, and they manage to look contemptuous of the people who own them.
-Travis McGee 

An extremely appropriate excerpt for our modern mess from Pale Gray for Guilt written by John D. McDonald in 1968.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Surf's up? Maybe?

I spent my whole life seeing people surf. On vacations when I was little I would rent giant foamy boards and paddle around in the soupy parts and then brag about my monster waves. I was stationed along the coast for 5 years in the Marines and now have been living near one since 2002. But in that entire time, even though I dabbled in it, I never really learned how to actually surf. I mean I did, but not on the level where I could consistently predict and catch waves. Well, that all changed once I moved to Galveston. After many near death experiences I would say that on a mediocre level, I can now do a pretty decent job.

A few weeks ago, Galveston had a perfect day. I stayed out for hours and even went once in the morning, and once in the evening. It was exhilarating! A 4 foot wave felt like 40, and I haven't stopped thinking about it yet. But now I'm faced with a dilemma. Like a cracked-out bum looking for a rock, I too crave another good Galveston surf day. Will it ever come? 

A friend of mine said that best surf in Galveston is during the winter. Why? Well, in Galveston we have a pretty consistent south wind. This drives the water up on land but then when a front hits (a north wind) it slaps that wave in the face and makes it stand up. Pretty simple, eh? Well with the exiting of winter (or whatever we have down here) that means less north winds, Pretty depressing really. So that I am on my toes for next time, I wanted to learn the basics of how waves work.

The faster it blows (velocity) coupled with how long (duration) and along with how much area is affected (fetch) determines waves. If this is created by a local onshore wind (Galveston) it tends to be messy. If produced by a storm system offshore then it is better, bigger, cleaner. The only remedy for the Galveston situation, like I said earlier, is a north wind after a big south wind build up. The only problem is is that the north wind responsible for the pretty waves is also the thing that flattens it out :(.

They are formed when the wind blows over the water and makes chop. As smaller chop combines with other chop, it gets bigger and bigger, making patterns of waves. A wave has several parts. The crest (top) the trough (bottom) and the wavelength (distance from crest to crest) and the height (crest to trough). The waves are also measured by frequency and period.  Period is the time between crests, frequency is the amount of waves over a fixed point in a given time. Longer period waves tend to be stronger, shorter ones disperse a little easier. By using frequency and period based off an offshore buoy, you can determine (kinda) what is to be expected once it hits shore.

Wave speed is related to its period. The smaller a period, the smaller the wave, the slower it goes. Think about mass and momentum. The longer period waves are bigger and contain more mass and therefore can move at and maintain those faster speeds. 

Bathymetry, beach shape
Bathymetry is the study of the sea bed. When these swells move into areas that are shallow they lose energy quickly. If it were to go from deep ocean right onto the beach then massive waves are created (Hawaii). This is why Galveston is not like the North Shore. But Galveston does have a series of 3 sand bars. When a swell hits an obstacle (sandbar) it will create a bigger wave than a swell moving up a sloping beach. This is why Galveston really has some good days. Also, with all the jetties and groins along the seawall, it creates some "artificial" sandbars that make the waves break almost right at the jetty line. Without these, Galveston may be smooth a flat.

Other factors
Tide, swell direction, refraction, and local winds are other contributing factors. Local winds are a big factor here in G-town. Another one specific to here would be reflection. Anyone who has surfed near the groins can see waves reflected off of them. Sometimes they help, sometimes they just mess it all up. When the wind is coming straight in it is no problem, but if its off to the side it creates a little too much chop.
That was a cold January

In a nut shell, there it is. I wish there was surf everyday, no lie, but I think studying it and waiting for it makes it that much better. In my constant quest to reach true waterman enlightenment, I feel it is these things that help me better understand our relationship with the sea.

What is your relationship with the sea, and how do you interact? Post your responses in the comment section below. 

Drop me a sonar ping at for a suggestion of what you would like to see on here in the future.

Water is Life



Monday, March 21, 2011

The Scow Schooner

We all know about tall ships like the Elissa or Star of India, and we are all very familiar with small boats like sharpies or the Banks dory (if not read all my previous posts, ha!) but they all earned their reputations from places other than Texas. So what is a boat that can claim some heritage, or impact rather, on the Gulf coast of Texas?

There were a few I found but one that really caught my eye was the Scow Schooner.

Scow Schooner off of Galveston

The Scow Schooner was a vee-bottomed, two-masted (fore-and-aft rigged), ship that was used mainly to lighter larger ships so that they could pass over the bar without running aground. 

Ok, let me explain a few things first. What is passing over the bar? It has nothing to do with becoming a lawyer, but instead it refers to the sand bars that run along the Texas coast. Along the Texas coast there are a series of three, constantly shifting sand bars that are a ship's worst enemy. As time passed, and ships grew larger and they drew more water, making the shallow sandbars even more treacherous. This was a drawback to ports such as Galveston. In order to mitigate or eliminate this threat, "lightering" boats would meet the ships before they approached the bar and take some of their cargo in order to make the ship "lighter" (hence the name, lightering.) Now, the boats could safely pass over the bar without running aground. Today, the north and south jetties are in place. This moves the sediment and the sandbars to deeper water and eliminates the threat, all due to something called the Venturi effect, but that topic is for another day. However, lightering is a process still used today, especially for oil tankers.
This is my office. Pictures, Images and Photos
Present-day lightering operations

So, along the Texas coast, lightering operations were extremely important, and the boat of choice? The Scow Schooner. Because of the flatter bottom, the Scow Schooner drew very little water. Also, because of the flared sides, as the weight from cargo increased the draft  of the vessel, the waterline increased, thus giving it added stability needed for hauling heavy cargoes. The Schooner rig could be easily managed by a small crew and the use of a centerboard instead of a fixed keel allowed her to go in extremely shallow waters. They were log planked (thick, side to side planking) which made her very rugged and lasting. All of these characteristics were perfect for carrying out such a rough task. 

So what do we have left to work with today? Well, for starters, Howard Chappelle, in his book American Small Sailing Craft, Their Design, Development, and Construction, has recorded several of them. This is a real treasure as he personally pulled the lines off these Scows himself. This defies the trend in maritime history that tends to ignore the Gulf Coast and be very "Northeast-centric." He also includes the Scow Sloop (just one mast), which brings us to our next one.

In a small publication called Ships, Seafaring, and Society: Essays in Maritime History by Timothy J. Runyan of the Great Lakes Historical Society (follow the link, read it for free), there is an article called The Laguna Madre Scow Sloop by Edwin Doran Jr.. He paints an awesome picture of the use of these boats all the way into the 1970's! The men who used them for fishing did not rely on engines at all, in fact most of the sloops didn't even have them. At the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, they have one on display. It was made by an old fisherman who just used offsets that he had memorized--pretty impressive.

Well are there any originals left? There are a few, but the most historic, most well-preserved would be the Alma. She was used on coastal voyages up and down California. Although not necessarily used for lightering, she was used for hauling large bulk cargoes like hay or bricks. If you look at the picture below, notice the height of the hay. The booms and even the wheel were moved up in order to facilitate this. Also, there are several preserved in New Zealand. Apparently, in the 1870's a former captain from the great lakes moved to New Zealand and recognized that the Scow Schooner would be well-suited for trade. The rest is history.

 Alma of San Francisco. Notice how the booms and tiller have been adjusted to the height of this cargo. 
So for those of you who have always wondered what boats are native to Texas, the Scow Schooners (and sloops) were exactly that. Their rugged design and flexibility in use is a testament to the unique situations of the Texas Gulf Coast. 

A while back, there was an attempt in Anahuac to rebuild one. I think this may have died on the vine after Hurricane Ike because their website and phone are AWOL. But could it be done down here? I know it can, and if you know a way to help me make it happen, hit me up at

Water is Life


Monday, March 14, 2011

Oars, row hard, row fast! How to make 'em!

A beautiful week here on Galveston Island and the 175th anniversary of Texas Independence and we are well into Texas History Month! If I get some time later I'll post up some Texas history.

So, I have been rowing the channel lately, but on borrowed oars. My friend Seth of JPL Marine Labs made them. They were stout and beautiful. He used an epoxy lamination process and came up with something nice. He was commissioned to build them for a fellow boatbuilder and now his boat is launched and he needs them. Long story short--I lost my loaner oars :(

But with every hatch closed another one down the p-way flies open (and needs securing) so I set about building my own.

In these plans they leave them square near the handle

That picture right above is the plans/template I'm using. I got it off A.B.B. or Amateur Boat Building website (click to follow). The plans are a pretty inventive and cheap way to make your own. Just grab a 1"x6"x7' (I enlarged mine to 8') plank of oar-worthy wood (southern pine, ash, etc.) draw and cut out the pattern. Then take the excess scrap and glue it back onto the main part. Make sure you don't skimp on the glue, plenty of clamps, and let it cure for at least a day (I have found that when using Titebond III if you let it weather a few days, it is indestructible).

Untapped beauty

You will end up with something like the picture above. A gnarly, ugly, hunk of wood that you would never in a sober mind imagine would turn out that resembles anything close to a caveman's club, let alone an oar. But alas, your patience shall be rewarded, grasshoppy!

You take this blank and put a centerline on all four sides. From there you make another mark between the outside edge and the centerline. There will be two marks, one on each of the centerline. Do this on both the top most and bottom most portion of the oar, connect the lines, and repeat this on all four sides.

This is my back porch workshop!

Now the fun. Grab your planer and shape it down to an octagon... eight-sided polygon... a stop sign... get it? Then repeat the same process with all the new faces, or do what I did and eyeball it and make the eight sider a sixteen sider. By that I mean plane all eight edges down to create a shape with sixteen. At this point you can sand it and plane it down until a perfect circular oar.

before and after of the handle

On the face of the oar, plane down the outside edges to about a quarter of an inch.

Before shaping and after initial
cut. Once you sand them, they
get purty real fast!

Now sand everything down (inclunding the handle) and you're done. Lot of work, but a very good product. I will put some finished pictures of mine once I finish shaping, sanding and varnishing them. If you are interested in purchasing any, shoot me an email at, and I'll quote you a very reasonable price. I'm not trying to make money here, I just love to do this stuff!

Questions, comments, concerns? Write me, Brett

Water is Life!


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Elissa 1877 Barque, It's a Sailor's life for me!

Just wanted to shoot a quick post out there to reflect on that sweet girl ELISSA of Galveston, Texas and how she is still plowin' through those waves over a hundred years after her keel was laid.

Unfortunately this year while dry-docked they discovered some seriously corroded iron plates that need to be replaced in order for the Coast Guard to give her the "hominus dominus" to go out on daysails. The problem? The iron plates are the historic part of her (as opposed to the new steel ones.) Though this may seem like a "who cares? replace them" situation, to really respect the archaeological, preservation aspect, the iron part is the legacy.
Salty Sea Aggie Crew
But alas, I am confident she will be restored to a sailing condition because I doubt you can keep her off the seas, she has been in way worse spots before.

There are a couple of views from the Royal and the cross trees, it gets pretty high up there, just look:

Seth of JPL Marine Labs

On the Royal

There she is. She is beautiful, she is unique, she is one of a only a few left in the world. There is nothing that can explain the feeling of her rolling on the waves while you sit atop the yard looking at the ocean with the harbor sprawling beneath your feet. It's hard to imagine that just one hundred years ago our ports were filled with stretched canvas and rigging.

If you want to find out more about the Elissa check out more here.                  
Water is Life.


Check out the new JPL Marine Blog!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who is Tom Toby? Thank you Blogs of Note!

Thank you all for visiting, and thank you Blogs of Note for naming me, eh, Blog of Note!
Tank yoo Blogs uf Note!

With all this new visiting, I have had a few people ask me the story behind the name "Tom Toby." Well, what a story it is, sit back my friends...

The Tom Toby was named after one of two privateers in the Texas Navy of the Revolutionary time (1836-1837). The Texas Navy at this time consisted of 4 schooners bought by the government, the Invincible, Independence, Brutus, and Liberty. This force was augmented by privateers Terrible and Thomas Toby.

So who was the Thomas Toby?

Well long before she was named Thomas Toby, her planking bore the name Swift. What a befitting name it was, she was a Baltimore Clipper notorious for her harassment of Spanish shipping in the Gulf. In 1836, she was purchased by New Orleans businessmen and fitted with brass cannon. The cannon were taken off of a Spanish vessel, their names were El Canal and El Fuerre. She was outfitted with more gear and Captain Nathaniel Hoyt (formerly of the Brutus) was placed in command. Her name Thomas Toby was to honor Tom and Samuel Toby, Texas purchasing agents based in New Orleans.

Thomas Toby roared around the Gulf for about a year, wreaking havoc on Mexican shipping. She proved to be an extremely valuable asset but was lost in a strong storm that hit Galveston. This was the same storm which also sunk the Brutus. There was scuttlebutt about her being purchased by the Republic of Texas but if anyone is familiar with Texas history, they know that Sam Houston was not necessarily a man of his word when it came the the Navy.

The writing is a little wobbly, but perfectly straight when drunk

So there it is, make sure and check out the Texas Navy and Texas Handbook online, that is where I got most of my facts.

Once again, thank you for all my new views and followers, keep checking back, many exciting things are about to happen!

Water is Life.

Brett Lindell

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