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Welcome to San Leon

Map reprinted from History of San Leon, Vol.1 by Alecya Gallaway (Left); Shrimp Boat Projects map of San Leon (Right)

“Why would I want to live anywhere else?”

– Dusty Hill, bassist for the band ZZ Top and former San Leon resident

Not only is San Leon our favorite unincorporated municipality in Texas, it is now also the home of the F/V Discovery!

Long before we started this project, San Leon was our respite from Houston and a point of access to Galveston Bay. We came to eat shrimp and oysters at Gilhooley’s and the Topwater Grill, enjoy a cold beer at the Sunset Lounge and relax along the shores of the bay in a place that truly has an off-the-map quality, an end-of-the-road sensibility and a disdain for most of things that make typical small towns “typical”. The character of the place may be derived as much from its unique geography as its unusual history. At an event last spring in Galveston, Gator Miller, the local publisher of the Sea Breeze News, explained that San Leon, as we currently know it, was actually developed through a real estate promotion concocted by Galveston Daily News, in which subscribers to the newspaper were given lots on the peninsula. When subscriptions were cancelled, so were the lots. The net result is a town that apparently has no clear title to any of its lots, and consequently no chain stores or franchised establishments.  While the strip mall may be prolific in the larger Houston region, here in San Leon, it’s absence seems appropriate. The town is, afterall, on a peninsula, framed by the bay on three sides, and with just a couple roads leading in and out. This is not a place where you might end up by mistake. You must willfully choose to visit San Leon, and when you do, you will be rewarded.

And yet, despite all of the romantic reasons for spending more time in San Leon, it was for purely practical reasons that led us to dock our boat here at April Fool Point. Because the town is surrounded by the bay, we now have immediate access to the fishing grounds of the bay. And this geography also insures that we’re situated in a place that is strongly identified with what’s left of the shrimping and oystering industries on the bay. Our immediate neighbors include longtime bay shrimpers Dub and Johnny, a popular local seafood joint called the Topwater Grill, and Misho’s Oyster Company, perhaps the largest processor of local oysters on the bay. And our new landlord, Capt. Wally, the individual perhaps most identified with April Fool Point, harbors a lifelong attachment to the sea, and a virtual library of sea-faring stories from Galveston Bay, to his native Poland and everywhere in between. And he’s the owner of the Point’s namsake shrimp boat the April Fool.

We’re not sure how long the F/V Discovery will be in San Leon, a lot of that depends on us actually catching shrimp. But we’re pretty sure this town isn’t going anywhere. Like most good places on the Texas coast, it’s a resilient place that has picked itself up after each hurricane. Many of the places we frequent took a battering in Hurricane Ike, but they’re still here. So do yourself a favor, turn off the main road and come visit San Leon.

The F/V Discovery in its new home at San Leon's April Fool Point.

First Encounters

Early morning scenes on the bay.

The reality of our first encounters with the bay aboard the F/V Discovery were not the stuff of our romantic dreams. The first four weeks should best be called The Sea Trials as they involved more trouble-shooting and repair than actual shrimping. Indeed with each day on the water came some near-disaster to be overcome and each day we returned to the dock exhausted with hours or days of repairs required to be ready for the next day of shrimping.

The more thrilling of these disasters included almost sinking as we crossed the ship channel while being called on the radio by a passing oil tanker, “Hey little shrimp boat! You ok?! I don’t know if he’s going to make it. Hey little shrimp boat…”   Our bilge pumps got going and we averted the sinking, but it was quite scary nonetheless. The next day we repacked the rudder stuffing box and put a check valve on the bilge pump through-hull, which solved our problem. Cue our second major disaster a few days later: while docking, the transmission refused to get into gear, meaning we could not move the boat forward or backward. We were left to simply drift. Luckily the wind pushed us against a dock pile allowing us to grab on and secure the boat. As it turned out, the transmission had dropped all of its oil from a bad rear-seal.  Really,  these near-disasters were probably inevitable as there was no way of truly knowing if the boat was ready until we put it to the full test. The giddiness of our first day on the water seemed a distant memory when we ended up back at the boatyard for an entire week pulling our transmission out and replacing all of its dried-out seals and O-rings.

Undeterred, we did get the boat back on the water after each hiccup, and have been able to piece together enough problem-free days to start developing a routine and the beginnings of an education born not from the boatyard but from these new encounters with the bay.  Our days on the water begin at 3:30am when we leave Houston for the 45-minute drive to San Leon. The early morning hours are justified by the profession: the channel-draggers need to race to a beacon and get their place in line and we are going to the flats– the vast shallow areas of the bay that flank the ship channels– and need to get to the fishing grounds before too many other boats wipe the area clean. In the end, the law allows us to drop our nets 30 minutes before sunrise and it usually takes an hour or longer from the dock to get to a good spot.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of setting out from the dock hours before sunrise into a dark abyss that is as promising as it is uncertain.  To find our way through the bay we rely on  a  GPS chartplotter (our onboard digital maps), the navigation lights that cover the bay with coded colors and flashes leading the way and warning of other boats and danger, and any of our growing knowledge of the bay picked up in the few previous days, all of which seem to only approximate the geography around us.  Each morning,  our place in this scene doesn’t become clear until the sky lightens with the first hints of sunrise.

These maps show the tracks of our first days of shrimping on Galveston Bay aboard the F/V Discovery, at three different scales. The tracks are recorded by our onboard GPS chart plotter and then overlayed onto NOAA nautical charts and Google satellite images.

The maps above document our first  few encounters. The black lines chart the routes we took on the first four days of shrimping and while they look like the maps of someone lost and wandering aimlessly around a new place, this is only partly accurate. The lines show us leaving from two specific places over this period, either the boatyard deep into Dickinson Bayou, and once from our  new home on April Fool Point. The lines then show us motoring to various areas in the middle-upper areas of Galveston Bay: places where we hoped to find shrimp! Some of these places were guided by Captain Gary’s past experiences, some because we saw other boats working those areas, some because of hearsay at the dock or the fish house on previous days, and some just to try a new spot. In each place where we chose to drop in our net, the line on the map takes the shape of a squiggle: a primary goal when dragging the net is to keep it away from the wash of the propeller directly behind the boat, which means we keep the boat in a constant turn. Thus the squiggle. The small loops on the maps are created when we pick up the net.  The doors are hauled up and then the lazy line is pulled in while the boat is put into a tight turn to ease the picking up of the bag, or “cod end” hopefully full of shrimp. And if it appears that a line just stops somewhere in the bay, we can blame that on our chart plotter getting turned off by mistake.

These maps are the beginning of us grappling with a geography that we are getting to know afresh and in a completely different way. As much time as we’ve spent around Galveston Bay, reading about Galveston Bay, talking to shrimpers and others familiar with the Bay, and going out onto the Bay in other boats, it appears that all of that was merely in preparation for the real education yet to come.

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