Sunday, May 22, 2016

My Sailboat Trip Across Lake Pontchartrain

This is the story of my first and last sailboat trips across Lake Pontchartrain. Being a resident of New Orleans at that time (1964), those trips were my first real encounters with St. Tammany Parish. Four years later, I would be moving to Covington, graduate from Covington High and become involved with being a newspaper editor, photographer and cartoonist for the next 50 years. 

Here is the newspaper article I wrote in 1973 about the adventure.

Memories of a Sailboat Trip Across Lake Pontchartrain

By Ron Barthet - Northlake Sunday News June 3, 1973

Basically, I am not a super­stitious person. However, when the forces of fate leave one with no alternative but to write a particular article, one has to go on with it.

For those of you who do not believe in predestination, read on. When I was thirteen and living in New Orleans, my father bought a sailboat. It was a 19 foot, stubby little craft with a wooden hull, a moderate size cabin and a sturdy personality.

We sailed around the New Orleans harbor a bit, went for Sunday sails on the lake, and traced back and forth to Pontchartrain Beach quite often.
Always in the back of our minds, however, was the "ultimate challenge" of sailing across the lake to Mandeville. 

Neither of us knew much about sailing, outside of what my father read in boating magazines and navigational textbooks, and I never could master a knot worth anything.

At that time the land north of the lake was a mystical land, beginning with Mandeville on the shore. There were many trees, to be sure, but the vast expanse of St. Tammany Parish was unknown to both of us.

It took us a day to get ready for the trip, stocking provisions and getting all the gear ready. We set out from the New Orleans harbor as the sun was setting, a mistake we were to repeat again and again.

Wind = Waves

The wind came whipping out of the south, making the New Orleans side of the lake relatively calm, but as we ventured further out into the lake, the waves got higher and higher. Soon we were riding five foot waves hitting us from dead astern. 

This, com­bined with a 21 knot breeze from the rear, made the going rough, but not unbearable.

Some five hours later, we saw lights. Land ahoy! We took down ine main sail and proceeded on the jib sail. Not until we were some 50 yards away from the lights did we realize that we were not approaching the Mandeville harbor, but we were fast closing in on the wooden pilings around the north drawbridge of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a friend that had guided us unerringly across the lake.

With quick action on my father s part at the tiller and on my part with the flashlight, we just barely missed smashing into the pilings something like ten feet.

Both exhausted, we decided to leave the main sail down and go on to Mandeville on the jib. Whether or not Mandeville did, indeed, have a harbor was left open to question. We had not bothered to find that out.


An hour or so later, we finally saw Mandeville, but no harbor. Since the water near Mandeville is studded with hull-piercing pilings, we decided to anchor outside the pilings and sit out the night. In the morning we could find the harbor, if indeed, there was one.

It was a miserable night. The five foot waves that had been hitting from the stern were now hitting us from the side giving the boat the physical attributes of a cork bobbing up and down from side to side.

My father slept in the cabin, but I was unable to, having come down with a sudden acute case of claustrophobia. So I slept out under the stars frequently get­ting drenched by a wave that had exploded against the side of the boat.

Sleeping in the open cockpit also made it convenient for dinners of the past three weeks to make their reappearance. Come the dawn, we found, to our surprise, that we were but a mere couple hundred yards from the harbor entrance where we could have spent a safe, restful night. C'est la vie.

Solid Land

Tying up at the Mandeville dock we were able to step onto SOLID LAND for the first time in what seemed years. SOLID LAND is capitalized for those who know what it is like to step on SOLID LAND after being on a small sailboat for a day or two.

We walked down to a restaurant for breakfast and were amused by the way the room swayed back and forth while we were sitting there. After getting used to rocking on a boat for so long, one's equilibrium keeps up the feeling even though one is back on SOLID LAND.

That night it rained and the cabin room leaked, which was similar to curling up on an air mattress in a shower that is going wide open. One has never slept until he's slept on an air mattress with little creases full of ice cold water.

Nonetheless, we lived and the next night, we decided to tie up a little further up Bayou Castine, next to a boat owned by one of the town officials. Mistake number two.

Bayou Castine at that time of the vear is the testing grounds of new species of mosquitoes. We had more mosquitoes in that cabin than Teddy Roosevelt had in digging the Panama Canal. 


After spraying ourselves with every' mosquito repellent known to   mankind, we pulled anchor and headed back down to the harbor where the wind blew the little devils away.' The mooring there was a little rockier, but anyone would have preferred a few waves of water than waves of mosquitoes.

A day or two more at the Mandeville dock was enough, and we packed our gear and struck out once more into the lake. The trip back to New Orleans was uneventful, if getting a third degree sunburn can be called uneventful.

Fortunately, fate had little to do with the first trip. It was the "second" trip across the lake that hinted of things to come.

This time we left New Orleans harbor at four p.m. with a seven knot wind from the south southeast. An hour later the breeze had picked up to 20 knots, and we prepared for a storm.

Eventually the bad weather cleared, however, and we made it into the Mandeville harbor after an hour of maneuvering and hitting two crab trap poles. 


We docked at Mandeville again, had a good night's sleep and ate breakfast at the same Mandeville restaurant as before. The trip so far was fairly dull, nothing at all like the first disaster. So, we packed up and headed for the north draw of the causeway to sail our way to the mouth of the Tchefuncta River.

This took seven hours. We had a storm along the way (weather always plays heck with fate) and the motor we had along in case of emergency died. This, in itself, could have been termed an emergency.

Undaunted, however, we finally made it in the mouth of the Tchefuncta River after almost running aground twice. We an­chored in a scenic bend in the river and fought the mosquitoes again.

Not long after that, we pulled anchor and decided to go further upstream. My father revived the motor to get us going, and we both thought it was going to blow up. It didn't.

To our surprise, we found ourselves in Madisonville, paradise compared to what our previous anchorage had been. We tied up to the Madisonville dock, ate supper at a nearby restaurant and spent the night on the boat, a peaceful eight hours of rest.


Up at dawn the next morning, the sky was again dark, and we hurried down the Tchefuncta into the lake where we promptly sat stock still due to the wind giving out. The word for it is doldrums.

Nothing, Not a whisper of wind.

To add to the hilarity, a shell dredging barge began to chase us. Not intentionally, I don't think, but it was dredging in an ever widening spiral and everytime it circled our way, it would come closer and closer.

We paddled a lot. My father tried the motor once more and it came to life once again, though it sounded very, very sick. Twelve hours later we cased into the New Orleans harbor, both of us beyond being sun­burned. We were charred.

Nonetheless, we packed the gear away, and left for home.

Now, where does the predestination come in? All right.

First of all, since living over here, the Mandeville harbor is my favorite place to just sit and soak up the breeze. It's really a beautiful place just right for closing your eyes and suspending time. Little did I know when I came there by sailboat I would return years later to enjoy the breeze there after a day's work.

Secondly, little did I think when we docked at Madisonville that I would be living there someday. Madisonville is a quiet, solid town that kind of gets to a person. Fate works in all sorts of strange ways.

Now, about this article, I had no idea of writing about this until last week when I was literally forced to by a series of events. There I was, it was around six o'clock, and I was sitting at home playing with the cat. It suddenly struck me that I should go to Covington and work on the paper. 

When I got to Covington, I decided it was such a great night, that working on the paper would not do it justice. So I went down to Madisonville to see what was going on. I drove right on through.


Something told me to go to the Mandeville post office to check my post office box there. There was no mail. Getting more mysterious all the time, isn't it?

Well, as long as I was in Mandeville, I might as well go driving along the beachfront to watch the water splash, right? Something told me to turn left at the beachfront. I proceeded straight to the harbor, sat in the breeze for a few minutes, then called someone on the phone and interviewed them.

After that I walked down where the boats are tied up and saw a boat that looked a lot like the one my father used to have. In fact, I came right out and said "That boat looks a lot like the one my father used to have."

The motor support, the cables, the cabin design, the hull. Well, heck, it was the boat my father used to have, sitting right there staring me in the face. Pleasantly surprised, I sat on the dock reminiscing about the old times, with the boat nodding gently in agreement.

I went right home and had no trouble at all finding the log of the second trip and a picture of myself at the helm. Finding these with no trouble is a miracle in itself, considering I have 17 cardboard boxes full of old papers and old pictures.

So that is it. Predestination? Fate flexing its muscles? I wonder what's next in store?

The boat in question