By Herb Moering
Local history is what passengers received during a day aboard ship on a Breakaway Cruise out of South Padre Island on Feb. 19.
The 64 mostly Winter Texans on the three-hour excursion learned about the Port of Brownsville’s thriving industries, watched dolphins leaping out of the waters, saw pelicans and seagulls and enjoyed a shrimp boil lunch.
The group was a hardy bunch under the overcast skies, with a brisk breeze and slowly falling temperatures, heralding the arrival of a cold front in the Valley. But the cool conditions didn’t seem to faze them, with lots of conversation as those aboard became acquainted with new people.
Several couples indicated having been on the cruises several times, usually bringing visiting family or friends. Richard and Susan Moeding, who stay at the Fun N Sun Resort in San Benito, were on their third trip. This time they had along their daughter and son-in-law, Michele and Doug Tapio, from Minnesota, who were visiting for a short five days. The Moedings, who came from Minnesota seven years ago, wanted the Tapios to see the port’s ship channel, which includes the dismantling of ships and oil rigs for scrap and refurbishing of others.
Another couple, Tom and Ernestine Barnett, who have spent five seasons near Port Isabel on Long Island Village, brought friends Charles and Linda Pool, from Arkansas, for a first-time cruise. The Barnetts used to have a motor home and traveled a lot and were wearing sweatshirts from one of their travels with a message about “Getting Their Kicks on Route 66.” Ernestine indicated liking South Texas.
“It is so laid back and relaxing,” she said. “You don’t have to be in a hurry.”
The Pools’ first time in South Texas included the four going to Boca Chica and the Space X area the previous day. The Pools, who like to travel, said, “We wanted to see what there is to do.” The friends had attended the same church in Arkansas and had also been together in Florida.
First time Valley visitors Leo and Suzanne Desmarais were on a month’s vacation from work and enjoying their first cruise. The French Canadians from Manitoba found South Texas very beautiful. It was one reason the couple, who plan to retire at the end of the year, are coming back, having booked next season at Winter Haven Village in Pharr. Suzanne, who noted they kind of “go wherever the wind blows,” were renting a place from a Manitoba friend during February. They had been in Arizona for three years previously but found it “warmer here and very friendly.”
Much to the delight of the passengers, shortly after leaving the dock a dolphin was spotted nearby. Capt. Justin Smith later explained that the bottlenose dolphins remain here year-round because “they have the good life with plenty of food.” They are smaller than the other eight dolphin species, which tend to live in deeper Gulf waters.
Smith has been boning up on his South Texas history during his first season with Breakaway Cruises after being in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico. He obtained his captain’s license three years ago but related he had been a deckhand for many years because of a love of being on the water. He expects to return to staying in Port Isabel in the future where he likes the winter season and noted he has a daughter living in Dallas.
The captain’s history lesson included noting that the Port of Brownsville is the only deep-water port on the U.S.-Mexico border with some 40,000 acres available for development and some 17 miles of waterfront access, plus offering a direct route to international bridge crossings and rail connections. The channel has a 42-foot depth, with the likelihood it will go to a 62-foot depth in the near future so larger ships can dock. Cargo, he said, includes steel products and different forms of food commodities.
Scrapping of ships no longer of use included three smaller U.S. aircraft carriers that were dismantled a couple years ago. Shipbuilding is also going on as passengers saw the first of two container ships ordered by Honolulu-based Pasha Hawaii Company with options for two more. Oil rigs are mostly in the process of being refurbished.
Then there is the shrimping industry, with most of the 180 boats in berths along the channel, as the harvesting season doesn’t open until July. Smith said it is very demanding work often with some danger in being at sea for several months at a time. Shrimping is usually a family tradition with the port’s fleet accounting for about 13 million pounds and an estimated value of $72 million.
Some of those wild-caught shrimp were the basis for the buffet lunch cooked up by Ricky Martinez Jr. on the way out, plus cobs of corn, potatoes and carrots and fruit salad. When the wind blew the paper plates into the drink, Manager Joe Graham had his dock manager grab a wave runner and in a five-minute run deliver a new supply to the boat.
Deckhands and best friends, Jesus “Sunny” Garcia and Angel “Hollywood” Gonzalez helped lay out the meal and served refreshments during the cruise. The very personable young men were a delight to passengers with frequent comments about the passing scenes. Both the guys are into music, writing and singing songs, although Garcia is working on a business major at UTRGV in Edinburg.
Going ashore at the end of the cruise included a lot of smiling faces. The cruise company, which can be reached at (956) 761-2212, winds up its season the first week of March.