There’s a scent of the old sailing inter-island trading vessels, with a whiff of coffee thrown in, on the Galveston Bay breeze.

RedCloud, a steel 42-foot cutter-rigged ketch, might become a modern successor to those trading schooners. Owners Joe and Terry Butcher are betting there is money to be made by using an environmentally friendly form of transportation that consumes little fuel.

The Butchers, along with Joe’s brother Douglas Butcher, are on their way from Galveston Bay to Belize to put that theory to the test. They plan to pick up 10,000 pounds of rather special coffee and bring it back to Southeast Texas, hopefully in time for Christmas.

Joe Butcher calls the trip the beginning of a “new age of Eco-Sailing.” It would not have worked 10 years ago, he said last Wednesday on departure day.

What has changed?

“The price of fuel and people’s concern about the environment,” Butcher said. “We think both those will leverage sales. We think people will demand products shipped in an environmentally friendly way.”

Getting what Butcher says is “the best tasting and freshest coffee we have sampled” to the U.S. market might help, too.

The Joe and Terry Butcher are proprietors of El Lago Coffee Co. They live in an apartment near RedCloud’s berth at Clear Lake Marine Center, where the boat has been for much of the 13 years the Butchers have owned her.

Their destination on the current trip is San Pedro on Ambergris Cay in Belize. That’s the home of Caye Coffee Ltd., an associate in the venture.

Joe Butcher, 45, said Paul Claus, Caye’s roast master and owner, has come up with four roast combinations of hand-sorted, organically grown, sun-dried and hand-sorted coffee beans grown in the highlands of neighboring Guatemala.

A relatively shallow-draft sailing vessel has advantages in this trade. San Pedro’s port is shallow and not usable by large ships. Coffee, he notes, is not a time-sensitive cargo.

Preparing the boat, now SCV (for Sailing Cargo Vessel) RedCloud, for her new life and dealing with import regulations was not without challenges. Among them was the requirement for commercial vessels like RedCloud to hire a pilot when entering a U.S. port. Another was posting a $75,000 Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) bond.

He’s grateful to his agent, the Global Steamship Agency Inc. of Dickinson, for taking care of the bond requirement.

RedCloud, which has “El Lago COFFEE” amidships in yellow letters on both sides of the hull, appeared well kept and ready for sea. The Butchers bought the home-built boat from an owner in Sabine.

Both worked until the early 1990s in the offshore oil industry. Joe Butcher held a 1,000-ton freight and towing license and Terry Butcher had a 100-ton ocean operator license. They have had considerable coastwise experience in RedCloud, including a couple of Harvest Moon Regattas.

With a trip of perhaps seven days each way and Christmas getting closer every day, they don’t plan to spend much time in San Pedro.

Whatever the commercial results of the trip, the children of Ambergris Cay are likely to benefit from the voyage. On a recent trip to visit Caye Coffee, the Butchers noted that the children there were short of school supplies, and that there were few musical instruments for them to learn on.

With them aboard RedCloud are about a dozen music instruments and perhaps 500 pounds of school supplies. Wal-Mart donated some of it, and the rest came from fellow sailors and others who had learned about the trip.

John Ira Petty, a sailing instructor and licensed captain, is the sailing columnist for The Daily News.

By John Ira Petty

Published December 9, 2007