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Texas

The Gulf Coast has a long history of artisanal boatbuilding that stretches back to when it was first settled. Marrying Native American designs with European influences and tools birthed entire classes of boats uniquely suited to regional waterways all along the coast. With the arrival of fiberglass and the consolidation of boatbuilding into large corporate enterprises, many traditions and generational knowledge were on the verge of being lost. However, there is a recent resurgence of artisanal builders with legacies and techniques being rediscovered that result in gorgeous, fully functional nearshore and inshore boats ideal for these coastlines.

In southern Louisiana, French colonists quickly learned that their deep-hulled European vessels were not navigable in the naturally shallow bayous, so they adopted the designs of the Indians’ flat-bottomed, 16-foot boats that were carved and burned out of single cypress logs. As these pirogue (pee-rouge) developed and became the standard for trappers and fishermen, eventually cypress planks were used to significantly drop weight and further the boats’ maneuverability in shallow marshes.

Today, Cajun craftsmen like Tony Latiolais of Henderson, Louisiana, in the Atchafalaya Basin utilize “sinker” cypress logs reclaimed from the bottom of bayous and logged swamps. Other builders like Keith Felder of Denham Springs, Louisiana, are constructing them out of marine-grade plywood and finishing with cypress. Stacked on board powerboats, these boats are prized possessions that allow duck hunting enthusiasts to enter shallow ponds and sloughs off the deeper bayous. They are now being revisited by anglers who tackle the incredibly productive fishing grounds of the Louisiana marsh and are ideal for cruisers looking to explore shallower, protected bayous.

Boatbuilding is an evolutionary process and Texan craftsmen are joining traditional wooden boats with modern styles to create hybrid designs that serve the creeks and near-shore waters of their state. Craftsman David Escobedo of Escobedo Boatworks is doing this on the outskirts of San Antonio in the one-horse town of Buda, Texas. His boat Sea Dart is a 16-foot lapstrake-type build that combines the look of a canoe and a kayak ideal for lake or creek fishing, as well as hunting redfish along the coast.

Arrowhead Custom Boats in Austin, Texas, is another wooden boatbuilder helmed by David Nichols, who has long embraced the art and traditions of classic construction. His boats range from traditional canoes to ideal fly-fishing platforms.

Part of the resurgence of these wooden shallow-draft boats and classic Gulf Coast boats like the Lafitte Skiff were initiated by the determination of organizations such as the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and wooden boat festivals such as the hugely popular celebration in Madisonville, Louisiana. Small maritime museums like the one in Port Aransas, Texas, are also determined to re-introduce these skills and knowledge. Many of these organizations conduct traditional boatbuilding classes and are reviving these old processes and designs, which are creating a new legacy of hobbyists and entrepreneurs who are constructing beautiful heirloom paddleboats.

By Harlan Leslie, Southern Boating August 2014

The love of boating is more often than not a trait passed down from generation to generation. Strike up a conversation at any yacht club or at your favorite waterfront joint and it’s likely that person will have a fondly remembered childhood tale of fishing or sailing with a parent or grandparent. With over 123 million people residing in coastal counties or parishes in the U.S. alone, there are surprisingly only 12 million recreational boats in the country according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Obviously there is plenty of room for growth on many waterways, and one way to ramp up the next generation of boat owners is early exposure to boating and its way of life that many may not have access to via family members. A lifetime love for the water can come about simply by instilling that sense of adventure, self-reliance and the freedom found in boating to young kids. A new $100-million facility in Galveston, Texas, seeks to do just that.

Originally conceived as a modest high-adventure boating summer camp for the Sea Scouts—an offshoot of the Boy Scouts—the scope of the project on Offatts Bayou in Galveston rapidly broadened and now even includes a Community Youth Sailing Center and a maritime education facility for merchant mariner students and others. Financed almost entirely by a donation from a private Texan donor who is very active in the Sea Scouting programs, the 60,000-square-foot facility—including lodging, offices, classrooms, a cafeteria, and an endowment for accredited instructors—recently finished construction on their adjacent floating docks and piers. The complex will be capable of hosting 200-300 scouts on a weekly basis by the middle of this summer.

The Galveston Sea Base is already home to a fleet of donated and purchased Sonar and FJ sailboats, plus a retired 82-foot Coast Guard cutter that’s been converted to a functioning on-the-water classroom. They will be adding a variety of vessels ranging from kayaks and Optimists to large schooners with the goals of emphasizing sailing instruction, seamanship, navigation, and high-adventure. Novice sailors will be held to the protected waters of Offatts Bayou, and more advanced sailors will graduate to heavily supervised racing and offshore programs. These boating programs are expected to draw over 20,000 scouts per year from throughout the country and have already hosted scouts from Louisiana, Missouri and throughout Texas while the facility was in its construction.

Conceived as complementary and not as a competitor to the Sea Scout’s hugely successful Sea Base in the Florida Keys, the Galveston Sea Base will draw from scouting programs throughout the west and central United States and the Northern Gulf Coast. With many children lacking exposure to boating through a family member, this immense state-of-the-art program and facility is, and will be, a game changer in youth boating education for decades to come.

By Troy Gilbert, Southern Boating July 2014

Southern Sojourn

If you’re cruising along the Simon Bolivar Peninsula, don’t be surprised to see cattle drives with Texas cowboys moving their herds over two-lane highways crossing the ICW. The wide Texas beaches on the coast hide cattle country and oil derricks and slowly give way to raised beach houses with names like “Gulf Breeze” or “Jolie’s Hideaway.” The inevitable one-horse beach shop with their airbrush artisan and seashell wind chimes are also there, but sail past historic Fort Travis and the Bolivar Lighthouse rising on the western tip of the peninsula, and Galveston Island beckons with her historic architecture, beaches and maritime culture.

Once known as a gambling mecca until the Texas Rangers raided the town, Galveston was also the largest port on the Texas coast, pulling down cotton and cattle from the interior and ushering in generations of Indian fighters and future Texas land barons. Crossing the Houston Ship Channel to the island is spectacular, with its never-ending run of modern freighters bypassing Galveston and heading into Houston or sailing to points unknown. This leaves the island town with a different sort of nautical energy today—one of history, charter captains and resortwear.

Located on the island’s northwestern edge, the Galveston Yacht Basin is a full-service private marina and an ideal transient slip location to begin an exploration of the island. Filled with charter fishing vessels, the piers hum with skippers tinkering on their boats or, more likely, catching naps in the ubiquitous land tenders—their golf carts lining the marina. Dockside restaurants are sprouting up around the marina, and certain piers in the channel will get transients within easy walking distance of the historic downtown and seaport.

The Texas Seaport Museum with her beautifully restored 1877 Tall Ship Elissa is an ideal start to get your bearings. Lunch next door waterside at the Olympia Grill or Willie G’s and savor the contrast of Elissa with berthed luxury yachts and the modern cruise liners that now call Galveston their home port.

A block away is the Strand—Galveston’s historic Victorian-era shopping district. Filled with unique shops and whimsical cafes with wrought-iron balconies on the restored historic buildings, the Strand is the pulse of Galveston. Shop at the Admiralty for some of the finest ship replicas constructed from scratch using their original ship plans, or enjoy freshly made saltwater taffy at LaKing’s Confectionary. Catch a carriage ride through the historic residential neighborhoods filled with homes straight out of New Orleans’ Garden District. Tour or catch a show at the Grand 1894 Opera House before finishing with dinner and drinks at the legendary Rudy & Paco’s—reservations are a must.

Coastal artists abound and the street simply known now as Postoffice is full of galleries showcasing enough nautical art to adorn your vessel’s staterooms. Keep an eye peeled for the work of Gay Paratore, Robert Peterson and Gayle Reynolds. Postoffice is also home to many pubs and coffee shops and only a few blocks from the historic home tours on Broadway where massive stone mansions rise—Bishop’s Palace built in 1892 and the 1895 Moody Mansion are majestic.

Galveston—like much of the Gulf Coast—has been subject to the ravages of hurricanes throughout her history. In 1900, a massive storm struck the island and drowned over 6,000 residents. It is important to remember while walking the historic districts and neighborhoods of the island that after this storm, residents banded together and embarked on one of the most unheralded engineering feats in American history. Every surviving structure—from massive mansions to humble homes with picket fences and down to the lowliest barns—was raised up on stilts and piers to an average of eight feet high. Gargantuan amounts of dredge from Offatts Bayou to the southwest were then painstakingly pumped in to raise the grade of 500 city blocks. Streets, sidewalks and utilities were then rebuilt as well as a massive beachfront seawall, which again has become the playground of Texas. Today, the bustling seawall is filled with fishing piers, restaurants and 32 miles of beaches quietly rolling with surf from the Gulf of Mexico. Stroll the giant old-school Pleasure Pier, with her amusement rides and restaurants jutting straight out over the Gulf. Relax and fish off the piers before taking in dinner at the classic coastal seafood restaurant and cherished dining tradition, Gaido’s, which has run continuously since 1911—do not miss the charbroiled oysters brought in fresh from nearby Port Aransas.

Nearly all of the beaches in Galveston are open to the public with the most scenic being East and Stewart Beaches. Pack an ice chest and enjoy the warm Gulf waters, where a nice building wind from the east will even allow surfing. Keep your eyes peeled for Texans with their trucks and Jeeps, for nearly all of Texas allows vehicular traffic on the beaches.

Galveston is filled with museums and amusements for children. With the connection to the oil industry, a giant Drilling Rig Museum sits in the harbor, and the Railroad Museum resides on the Strand. Harbor tours run from the Seaport, and there are public golf and putt-putt courses as well as a multitude of water parks, state parks and hiking trails.

For an exciting and romantic evening boat over to Offatts Bayou and tie up at the Pelican Rest Marina. This private facility is angling to become its own mini-resort with a pool and adjacent tiki bars. The upscale steakhouse of Number 13 overlooks the grounds with ship’s captains cruising from pier party to pier party on giant tricycles. From the decks, the massive lighted pyramids of Moody Gardens and the Colonel Paddlewheeler across the bayou reflect on the waters while Jimmy Buffett cover bands work their magic.

Immediately next door to the Pelican Rest Marina is the multi-million dollar construction for the future home of the Sea Scouts in Texas. With private funding this facility and marina is set to become a world-class maritime school and camp for the Sea Scouts and will be an important educational facility for training the next generation of cruisers and sailors on the Gulf Coast.

Within a few hours’ sail north of Galveston lies the famous Kemah Boardwalk. With ample transient slips available, this giant amusement park and retail/dining establishment is filled with energy and hosts concerts and shore-side entertainment. Kemah and the areas nearby are filled with facilities for cruisers.

Galveston is home to residents who can trace their island roots back to when pirate Jean Lafitte roamed these shores. Filled with islanders enjoying their southern gardens, charter captains swapping fish tales at their favorite watering holes, and artists setting up easels to capture the sunsets, Galveston is one of those rare spots on the Texas coast that feels more in tune with the rhythms of the Gulf Coast than the bustling cities and sprawling ranches of the interior. The island and her residents are ready and waiting for you to tie up, walk her palm and oak-lined streets, and dig your feet into Texas sand.

 

By Troy Gilbert, Southern Boating March 2014

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