Except for the Intracoastal Waterway and the Brownsville Ship Channel which run through it, the south end of Laguna Madre in Texas is quite shallow, making for some interesting sailing. My friend, Don, says: “There’s an expression around here that goes ‘when you’re sailing here you’re either on a sand bar, about to be on a sand bar, or you just got off a sand bar’.” He ought to know; he says he’s been on most of them at one time or another in his Catalina 22.
In fact, it’s very common to sail within a few yards of fishermen who have waded out from shore to cast their lines into the surf. And, just when you think you’re surrounded by deep water, you’ll spot a dozen or more birds just off your beam standing, not floating, in the water.
That said, the Laguna Madre is a great place to sail, especially in a boat with a shallow draw. And, if you keep a close watch for visible signs of changes in the color of the water, you’ll have no trouble. Of course, being aware of tide changes is essential. Living on the coast, one checks tide charts every day like reading the funnies.
On any day, it’s not uncommon to come across dolphins feeding or just at play. Keep your eye on the surface of the water surrounding, as they may appear at a moment’s notice – and not far away either. With all the local dolphin watchers, dolphins aren’t shy about approaching your boat and maybe even giving you a splash.
On a recent outing, we were greeted by a sweeping, grey dorsal fin, mere inches from the transom, and a giant splash that sent a spray of salt water into the cockpit and over the crew. The rascals were playing with us! For several minutes they would appear, first starboard, and “smile”, then port, and “smile” again. Then, all too soon they were gone. In spite of some quick tacking and jibing, we lost them. They were off to feed – or play – in another cove.
The Swing Bridge
South of the Queen Isabella Causeway, is a fascinating little swing bridge which allows access from the mainland to Long Island and a residential/recreation area known as Long Island Village. The bridge, a two-lane-wide floating barge with a pilot house at the side, opens hourly on the hour weekdays and as necessary on weekends to allow boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway to pass.
The bridge is quite an attraction which draws curious onlookers and provides some interesting photo opportunities. Because the bridge floats, it rises and falls with the tide and sideslips with the current, making for some strange sensations for the unwary. When in the vicinity of the swing bridge, you’ll want to motor your way through.
For a venture into deeper waters, access to the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre is through the jetties which protect access to the Brownsville Ship Channel. With a prevailing southeast breeze, you must hug the jetties to the starboard going out, or risk being edged against the rocks forming the south end of South Padre Island. Then, assuming the wind hasn’t changed significantly, you must do the opposite on returning.
Now that you know the ropes (or “lines” as we say in sailing), I hope you’ll give it a try. Happy sailing!