A few months ago my husband, Stephen, and I were talking while at our Texas home and he said, “Hey, we should go to a casino in Louisiana!”
“Cool, not sure why, but I’m down. Never been to a casino,” I replied with a lopsided grin. I’m never one to turn down a road trip.
“No, no. Not by car,” he exclaimed. “On Thunder!” Cue the music.
“Chocolate Thunder” is our glorious black and brown steed, a 2008 Yamaha VX Cruiser purchased for a song with 97 hours on the clock. A hard 97 hours. The engine bay was a garden of aluminum fuzz and mildew. The hull battle scarred from docks, underwater stumps, and accidental beaching. Stephen and I added an additional 100 hours on ‘ol Thunder in our year of ownership. That brought Thunder’s hour count to nearly 200 hours before setting out on an Intracoastal Waterway adventure.
If you haven’t heard of the Intracoastal Waterway – ICW for short – it is 3000 miles of waterway following the United States coast from Brownsville, Texas to Florida, then up the Atlantic coast to Boston, Massachusetts. The channel allows shipping traffic to navigate calm waters from city to city instead of battle open seas. Public boating traffic is welcome, and the ICW is more akin to a freeway than your average public lake.
Our poorly formed (read: cockamamie) plan was to drop in at the Stingaree Restaurant and Marina in Crystal Beach, Texas on August 4th and travel over 130 miles east on the ICW to the Golden Nugget Casino on the shores of Louisiana’s Lake Charles. Have a meal at the casino, snap some selfies, and head back to Texas. All in one day.
At first it was just Stephen and I who were brave (stupid) enough to tackle such a trip on a personal watercraft. Through our excited chatter a few of our coworkers, Bryan and Casey (who we nudged into buying their own PWCs months before), convinced themselves that it sounded like a lot of fun and invited their respective spouse and family along. This was seriously culminating into the real deal!
Sunday arrived. We stood in the Stingaree’s parking lot peering at the nearby busy merchant traffic entering and exiting the Waterway. The sun dawned its rays on our tired group of under-slept and over-caffeinated PWC travelers, as we double checked for sunscreen, tools, extra coils (in Thunder’s case), phone charger, energy drinks, drinking water, GoPros, and full gas cans.
Three dollars and a few minutes later we were all floating on our crafts raring to get to work impersonating tourists. We set off. Glassy water reflected each of our skis like a realistic oil painting. That is, until we neared the lumbering barges and tankers. Then we slowed our 50mph roll to avoid being sent into orbit by wake waves.
Chocolate Thunder developed an interesting problem when laden with 10 gallons of fuel on the back – a wicked porpoise ANY time we hit ANY sort of wave or accelerated. For those who don’t know, “porpoising” is when a ski bobs up and down. It pivots off of the rear pump area, similar to dolphins jumping in and out of the water. At first it was funny, but Thunder’s propensity to hop around soon grated on our nerves. The problem was exacerbated the more fuel we consumed from the front gas tank. After some experimenting, Stephen discovered leaning forward helped calm Thunder. I took it a step forward; or shall I say, a seat forward, by taking his place in the front seat while he stood. Back to full throttle again!
Our smiles, fist pumps, and cheers soon dissolved into contented stares at the water and the passing landscape. Avoiding the large, slow-moving traffic was easy. However, it was difficult to avoid the vegetation ships kicked up with their powerful diesel engines. We slalomed through a few midfields before Thunder started vibrating and the engine pitch changed. Less than an hour into the trip and we already had a ski down?!
Joy. Stephen and I waved down the two other riders to pull over on an open part of the shore. We were met with angry screaming…cows? Land surrounding the ICW was rich open plains perfect for cattle, and we’d apparently just disturbed their morning meal. Could Thunder’s new issue be the midshaft bearing or part of the rotating assembly? I mean, sure, as much as we loved Thunder, the ski was not the model of perfection. The engine bay looked normal when we removed the seat, parts were not overly hot to the touch, and minimal water sloshed about from entering through a small hull crack.
Something must have been sucked up into the pump and was still stuck in there. No amount of reaching, lifting, or looking got us any closer to finding any debris; the intake grate was far too narrow. It was either going to come out – or not. Either way, we were miles from anywhere. Onwards!
A few minutes passed at wide open throttle with the same vibration, then, BLOOP! The vibration went away. Yeah, must have been something in the pump that finally dislodged. We mentally washed our hands of the issue and returned to our meditative state.
Thirty or so miles later we reached our first turn at the Texas/Louisiana state line. Pulling out the GPS we surveyed our next move – find the alleged waterside gas pump at the Sabine Pass Port Authority. It was south of us by about 7 miles. We needed to go north to continue onwards to Lake Charles, which meant a gas stop was 30 minutes out of our way. Every ski except Thunder was running low on fuel. If we were to make it to the casino we had no other choice. Our group went to turn southward when we noticed nearby ripples in the water.
Fish? Shark? Gator? Then we saw a fin, then a few more. We intently watched the undulating surface without daring to take a breath. Finally – a small group of dolphins (or porpoises) breached the surface and disappeared under the dark water. WOAH!
None of us had ever seen dolphins this close in the wild! I whipped out multiple cameras to record the special moment. I was a documentary film major in college, multi-camera wielding came with the territory. As we idled around the dolphins came closer, giving in to their intelligent curiosity. We counted anywhere from four to seven dolphins frolicking about. We all took an inordinate amount of photos, squealed like school children when they surfaced, and finally stowed the cameras away to head to our first fuel stop.
Boy, was that a small fiasco. First, the tiny Sabine Pass Port Authority was nestled amongst huge industrial areas so we had a difficult time visually locating it. We floated around on our skis like confused little ducks, pointing and mumbling at the GPS. Then, once we found it, the pumps were confusing. To start the pump we had to enter in how much we wanted to spend on gas. Errr, would we get charged for the amount of money we entered, or the amount of gas we used….? Finally, the gas pump would randomly stop before our dollar amount. And not because the tank was full either. Weirdest fuel pump I’ve ever seen, but at least it was there!
Mostly fueled up, we turned back north and continued toward Lake Charles. Sabine Lake was the next big frontier. It dwarfed our PWCs with massive brackish water and distant shores. Rain storms surrounded us making for interesting dystopian imagery. I had to check the GPS a few times while sighting the entrance to the ICW on the far side. Not an easy task with bobbing Thunder on choppy open water. The water calmed, and so did Thunder, when we approached the Sabine River entrance to gaze down another lengthy ICW corridor.
One nice thing about the Intracoastal Waterway is how simple and straight it is for merchant traffic. We weren’t looking for simple, we were looking for excitement! To find that adrenaline rush we ventured off the beaten path for Black Bayou, a 19 mile twisting jaunt through uninhabited Louisiana swampland just northeast of Sabine Lake.
Like mature, responsible adults we slowly felt out the first couple of turns before we grabbed a handful of throttle and devolved into a pack of giggling school girls. The rest of the 19 miles were some of the most fun I’ve ever experienced on water. Something about tight switchbacks, ridden three-deep, as fast as possible produced a delicious cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine.
We passed by a few lurking gators and crawfishing locals. I stood a few times to look over the marsh just to see…more marsh. Nothing but the sound of our engines water splashing against the hull. It was a surreal experience, one of those memories you will cherish the rest of your life.
With thumping hearts we emerged out of the swampland triumphant. But once again, everyone except Thunder was running low on fuel. Methinks from trigger happy throttle fingers though the bayou, but hey, no judgement! What was the fun in knowing if we had enough fuel to make it to Lake Charles…
A traffic, or rather, a barge jam blocked the intersection where Black Bayou returned to the ICW. We were able to slide under the block-off rope and around the construction with ease. Had we been on a boat we might have had to turn around. Another check mark for PWC ownership!
The newer Yamaha FX Cruiser HO’s fuel warning sounded, but we dared not pull off due to a rock barrier on either side of the waterway. A couple miles down we found the perfect beach to stop and refuel. Well, it would have been perfect if a large barge hadn’t passed by right as we veered toward land. Close to the shore, Thunder was abruptly deposited on sand, then lifted by the barge’s wave and pushed inland up the sloping shoreline.
Once the offending wave started to recede, it left Thunder and both FXs nearly beached. There were a few tense moments as I drug Thunder to safety in just inches of water, saving it from becoming a yard ornament. The red FX narrowly missed being caught by the fallen tree carcass. The white FX somehow avoided most of the mayhem in a deeper area off the side closer to the shore. Go figure.
Best part of the whole calamity? Another irritated cow encounter. They hemmed and hawed, ran away, then turned around to look at us incredulously. You would have thought we were assaulting them. After the cows calmed down I checked in to social media with a video update while everyone fueled up. Gas stop completed, we navigate our way east, then north into Lake Charles.
Right before we passed under the bridge on Lake Charles though, a rogue wave launched us skyward. It was over in an instant, but not before one of our gas cans launched, whacked me in the back, then tossed its filler tube upon harsh landing. No use in looking for it, she gone!
We regrouped and rounded the corner under the bridge to lay eyes on The Golden Nugget – a beautiful sight for sore eyes and gurgling bellies. The Nugget’s welcoming beach and bar drew us into its sandy embrace. Just what hot, tired travelers needed! Not. We filled up on some greasy bar food and cold water, immediately regretting eating at all. Instead of going inside to gamble, I placed a bet on who would vomit first once we started on our journey home.
Fortunately, a marina with gas was within a few miles of the Nugget. The skis were running low again and I knew I wasn’t the only one who was nervous about refueling options to make it back.
Bowtie Marina was down a small inlet with a lengthy “no wake” zone that gave us ample time to digest. Darn, nobody barfed so my gambling career was over! As soon as they spotted us, the two attendants sprang into action and filled up our skis and gas cans to the brim. We paid inside after some small talk, then hit the water. Fueled up and through the “no wake” zone, we grabbed a handful of throttle and Thunder resumed its incessant bobbing once more with two full gas cans on the back.
The return trip was, thankfully, much more meditative because we recognized turning points and knew where gas was available. That left our minds empty to enjoy the ride. The only hiccup was a wrong turn on Black Bayou. A quick glance at the GPS had us back on track through the winding swampland grinning ear to ear.
Blustery wind stirred up some wicked chop as storms surrounded us on Sabine Lake. There was nothing Stephen or I could do to stop Thunder from bucking about in the waves, exacerbated by low fuel in the front gas tank. As soon as we were embraced by the calm waters of the ICW once more, Stephen pulled over at the first open beach area. We were only about 15 miles from our final fuel stop at the Sabine Port Authority, but Thunder was unridable with all gas weight on the rear.
I hopped off Thunder, unstrapped a gas can, and promptly tripped over a sneaky underwater rock. Hilarity and mild drowning ensued. The overfull 50lb gas jug shoved my whole body under the waist-high shallows. Only the can and my feet were above the surface. I struggled to get my feet under me for what seemed like minutes before someone relieved me of the offending can. In true ‘hold my beer’ fashion, I kept all five gallons free and clear over my head, and more importantly, above the water while I flailed about. I wasn’t about to let half of our gas get waterlogged; nope, not on my watch!
Hot on the home trail, we returned to the Sabine Pass port authority for gas and knew the routine this time. Stephen and I swapped so I could pilot Thunder on the final leg. He earned a reprieve after 7 hours on the water, but honestly, I prefer being a passenger. Some may call that a cop-out but, for me, it is more fun and frightening to be a passenger since you never know what the pilot is going to do. You have to pay attention and learn to read the machine’s movements.
More cows lined the shore, birds flew overhead, water splashed against the hull, and Thunder’s engine hummed at wide open throttle with a gentle vibration. Mesmerizing. As the clock struck 6pm we floated into the Stingaree’s marina bathed in the summer’s evening light, glowing with the joy of a journey well earned.
After nearly 10 hours in the saddle our bodies we ready for a reprieve. Our skis looked to have finished the adventure unscathed. Thunder’s previous scars gleamed in the soft sunlight, small drips emitted from the crack in the hull. Good job Thunder. We did it.
We dreamt up this crazy journey on a whim. An offhand idea materialized into an unforgettable experience shared with loved-ones and friends. Our watercraft permitted us to exercise our child-like curiosity to discover places unseen by land travel.
Life’s bliss stems from voyages that lie between you and your destination. The finest roads are unpaved, quench your wanderlust on the water.