Cruiser’s Notebook: Lake Superior stop part of Alaskan sailing couple’s harbor hop ’round the world
by Cyndi Perkins

Clair de Lune at the Lake Linden docks on a vile late autumn morning. On a rainy autumn Monday at the Lake Linden Village docks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the cruising sailboat “Clair de Lune” of Anchorage, Alaska is defying the calendar. Weathered in by a cold front, Edd and Judi Clair delayed their departure until early October. By then most Lake Superior sailors have yielded to the season, lifting out for the winter or heading for warmer climates as the geese fly South. In comparison, Clair de Lune, a 1976 Valiant 40, is considerably behind schedule.

Edd and Judi are not particularly concerned about delays. “I’m from here and we lived in Alaska, so we know about weather,” says Judi. They heartily embrace cruising off the beaten path, traveling at Mother Nature’s pace. Their secret to enjoying a live-aboard lifestyle is meticulous preparation followed by an easygoing attitude and sense of humor toward dealing with whatever comes up. True cruisers know that something always comes up. If it’s not an operational thing, it’s a weather thing.

After totally refitting their boat (more about that later), the Clairs embarked on a shakedown cruise to Hawaii and back. Then they pointed the bow south again, heading from Alaska down the California/Mexico coast. An interesting west-to-east transit of the Panama Canal followed. After exploring “the other side,” Clair de Lune sailed across the Gulf of Mexico into the Eastern U.S. river system. Awaiting game ensued as spring floods impeded their progress upriver through the lock system that begins in Mobile and ends in Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Edd jokes that he could write a book titled “Doing the Loop the Wrong Way.” Even after the floodwaters receded in spring 2008, swift and powerful opposing currents made for slow going. Clair de Lune completed just 77 miles on her first three days headed up the Mississippi River, negotiating tow barges, logs and other debris while avoiding fast-forming ever-shifting shoals on hairpin curves. Judi’s top piece of advice for safely navigating the rivers is “Follow the charts, not the buoys.” In some stretches of the rivers, there are more buoys washed ashore than in the water while others are submerged.

From the Great Lakes, the couple was in a good position to head in direct yet leisurely fashion to the Caribbean for the winter.

But first came a mandatory and delightful side trip to Judi’s home waters. The couple harbor-hopped from the Soo across Lake Superior to the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Portage Lake Shipping Canal and into Torch Lake, where they tied up and plugged in at Lake Linden Village’s municipal docks in September rather than July. “We thought we’d be here on the Fourth of July. We were delayed by flooding on the Mississippi,” says Edd. “For seven weeks we waited on Kentucky Lake.” While in the Land Between the Lakes area in Kentucky the couple with the help of a visiting granddaughter managed to adopt two adorable turtles who are with them still, contentedly clambering about in a sturdy glass bowl. “We are trying to find a good home for them,” laughs Judi, explaining that a visiting grandchild talked them into taking on the amphibians. In addition to visits to and from family, the layover also including a side trip to Nashville, Ten., where Clair de Lune found plenty of water for its six foot draft, a hospitable town dock and convenient public transportation to local attractions.

Edd, originally from California, has sailed for many years, breaking away from it to spend several years focusing on work and family. Newbie Judy took an ASA sanctioned liveaboard sailing course in Seward, Alaska. She sincerely recommends the investment. “It was good for me to learn it on my own,” she says. After successfully completing the course and having fun doing it, she decided that cruising on a sailboat would be fulfilling. She didn’t think Edd was going to jump on her enthusiasm and buy “THE” boat as fast as he did, but when he accelerated the project she willingly kicked in her talents, including sewing.

The times that they are able to set the sails and let the autohelm pilot in the tradewinds are among Edd and Judi’s favorite sailing experiences. With an autopilot and windvane for self-steering, Clair de Lune does quite well on her own in favorable conditions. Her best performance was wing-on-wing most of the way from California to Hawaii. “We hardly changed the sail set,” says Judi. Edd says it turned him into a “Gentlemen Sailor.” “For 11 days I had hardly anything to do.” Because he now strongly favors downwind routes, Judi predicts that a global circumnavigation is in their future.

The legs of the Clair’s cruising journey thus far are San Diego to Hawaii in 17 days, followed by a 26-day sail back to Alaska, then back down the coast to “Frisco Bay” where they stayed for six months before continuing on to Mexico and the pleasures of the Gold Coast, including Barra de Navidad. “The Gold Coast was a fantastic experience,” says Judi. In Barra 100 boats anchored in a protected bay created the kind of atmosphere that exemplifies the cruising lifestyle. After listening to the cruiser’s net on the radio each morning, to hear news of arrivals, departures, requests for help and random equipment for sale, the Clairs eagerly awaited the local bakery boat for fresh-baked bread. Judi says she loves the “experiences of everything” when encountering towns and villages she has never seen before. “If you’re going past, you’ve got to see this stuff,” says Judi. “We’re cruisers. That’s what we do.”

Edd has picked up quite a bit of Spanish, and has found that “as long as you try a little” communication in foreign countries doesn’t need to be a stumbling block. “Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama … We’ve had great experiences everywhere.”

After experiencing Central America and transiting the Panama Canal, Clair De Lune crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Alabama. Edd’s 83-year-old mother Kitty was aboard for the entire trip from the Panama Canal to Mobile. She had always wanted to experience the canal and once that was completed there never seemed to be a convenient time to stop in a port and ferry her to an airport. Besides, she truly loves living aboard, say son and daughter-in-law. “She’d live on the boat with us if we let her,” says Judi. “In the locks we couldn’t count an 83- year-old as a line handler. She was our photographer.”

In 2008 it cost $605 to take a 40-foot sailboat through the Panama Canal. Passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic is done in one day, an estimated 51-mile nine-hour trip. Boaters who miss a lock or otherwise get stuck overnight pay a $300 fine. Chugging across Lake Gatun their guide started telling them that they weren’t going to make the lock in time. Eight knots is the recommended speed. “We don’t do eight knots,” says Edd. Clair de Lune valiantly plowed toward deadline at 6.5 knots. “We pushed it,” says Judi. They made it.

In addition to time limits on the Panama Canal there are requirements for lines, bumpers, line handlers and a hired guide. There are three locks up and three down. Boaters should expect to encounter giant cargo vessels at any time. Rafting of smaller vessels is required, and the bumper of choice is tires wrapped with packing tape. In keeping with the cruising spirit of teamwork, boaters with tires they have no further use for willingly pass them on to new arrivals. With so many boaters willing to help each other out, a Panama Canal passage is not as daunting as it seems. “It went smooth as silk,” says Edd. “We hired an agent for $300 but we could have done it ourselves and we will do it on our own on the way back through. He did do all the paperwork.” Contrary to the widely held belief that it takes a long time to get permission to transit, the Clairs say their passage was arranged almost too quickly to physically prepare for it. A fellow cruiser pitched in as one of the required line handlers, another common practice among transiting boaters. Judi said it was definitely helpful for Edd to go through the canal crewing on another boat before piloting Clair de Lune. Their local hired guide Julio was “a real nice guy,” she says, and it was easy enough to supply the required three meals, water, soda pop and coffee for the crew as they made their way through the famous channel.

Edd and Judi Clair relaxing in the salon of their sailboat Clair de Lune. Clair de Lune’s free and much easier journey up the Portage Canal to Lake Linden was a homecoming for Judi, with the docks located just a few miles from the little town of Laurium where her mother Leona Walkonen still lives. The couple enjoyed great time with family and friends and were able to make one of Leona’s wishes come true after Judi learned that the Portage Lake Lift Bridge operators wouldn’t be annoyed to lift the largest, heaviest lift span in the world for the 57-foot keel-stepped mast. “My mom wants to go under the bridge,” explains Judi. Since it would be a leisurely three hour trip out to the north entry of Lake Superior and back, obtaining a couple of lifts on demand was not a problem. Leona got her wish in early October, after Clair de Lune stopped for a pumpout and diesel at Houghton County Marina. A couple of days later the Clairs took a weather window, heading for the Soo in favorable although distinctly not balmy conditions on Oct. 9. They were looking forward to shedding the fleece and socks. “We just do warm now, there’s no reason to be cold,” says Judi.

The couple did enjoy returning to Alaska as cruising tourists, especially in Kodiak, which they say is expensive but friendly. “We recommend it — there is no better place to check out whales, bears and eagles — but it cost $9 for a shower at the Laundromat. It was $6.75 for a washer and $8 for a dryer.”

The couple planned to decide on a route out to the Atlantic once they reached DeTour at the east end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Unlike boaters who prefer sheltered grounds, both of them speak reverently and fondly of long passages on wide-open water. To reach the Atlantic, possible routes include the New York canal system through Oswego after venturing across Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario. Or they may have chosen to retrace the Great Lakes-river system route with favorable currents. When it comes to cruising style, the Clairs prefer anchoring out to staying in a marina.

From January-May 2008 they spent just 15 days in marinas. While at anchor they take the dinghy ashore as needed for provisions or excursions. To get around on land they use their folding bikes, or walk, rent cars or use the courtesy cars available at some marinas. For Hurricane Season the options include Bonne-Aire (St. John’s) or Corozal, Belize. Edd noted that it’s very important to keep the insurance company happy by ducking below or above the storm lines during the most threatening times of the year.

On overnight passages, the Clairs have settled on a watch system that works for them. Edd is a night person and Judi is a day person, so she begins watch after dinner and ideally stands until midnight. Edd takes over until dawn. During the day they play it by ear, taking turns to nap as needed. “We try to do six on and six off. The goal to short-handing is to feel good so that you can do your part,” says Edd. “You don’t have that third person.” The sail system is designed for efficiency and safety. “When conditions warrant we snap on,” says Ed, “but my theory is to avoid going on deck. All lines for every routine operation are in the cockpit.”

The couple was able to put so much thought into a designing the boat to their specific needs because they began from scratch. Claire de Lune was rudely used in the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill then left to rot in a boatyard for nine years. “The boat was a derelict when we bought her. There was an oil slick instead of an engine,” says Edd. “There was no useable plumbing, just mold and mildew.” The exhaustive two-year rehab and retrofit including installing a Perkins 4-108 diesel. Wisely remembering that “all work and no play” is no fun, the couple stowed work materials out of sight and continued to entertain family and friends in the boat as-is throughout the project.

A wind generator, solar panels, 17- gallon per hour watermaker and other amenities render the couple self-sufficient for six months, in keeping with their general cruising theme of proper preparation to prevent poor performance. Because they don’t like to be cold, the Clairs outfitted their boat with a Wallace forced-air diesel heater. “I think it’s the best on the market,” says Edd. “Instead of turning off it goes to idle, so it never does cool down and restart. It’s very economical to run.”

Clair de Lune carries an EPIRB and a life raft as well as redundant paper and electronic charts and GPS systems, single sideband and a variety of means to obtain up-to-date weather info. The communications system enables them to keep in regular touch with family, including their son in Anchorage, daughter in Des Moines, and three grandchildren

Benchmarks of a true cruiser include a willingness to cheerfully admit to running aground or dragging anchor. The Clairs admit to several groundings, and proudly report that in all eight instances they “got off by themselves.” For anchors and tackle they carry two CQRs, a Danforth, a Bruce-style claw and the appropriate chain-rope set-ups, along with a hydraulic winch to assist in the hauling. One of the biggest anchoring challenges was Hawaii, where the Clairs say they found cruising friendlier than anticipated but not a good place to stay on the hook for an extended period of time. “There’s lot of surf,” notes Edd.

The Clairs began their travels with St. Bernard Sophie, who became ill and sadly perished. They cherish their boat dog memories, including how such a large dog managed could magnificently manage to make herself so comfortable on a sailboat. But they aren’t looking for any other pets — besides the aforementioned turtles — “until we’re land lubbers again,” says Judi. Too many countries have pet quarantine requirements.
In the future, the couple plans on traveling back through the Panama Canal “and then we’ll get lost in the South Pacific for a while,” says Judi, obviously relishing the thought.

“We have been rediscovering ourselves. There is stress but it balances out. We both saw chiropractors when we were constantly at work. We are in better health than we were 10 years ago,” she says.

On November 24 I received an update on the Clair’s progress. They were in the river system at Kentucky Lake, on the Tennessee River headed for the Tenn- Tom waterway. They reported some very cold nights but little drama, save for an autopilot failure on Lake Michigan that diverted them to Holland, Michigan. There are repair services and marinas available in the area but Edd said he was able to use on-board spares, completing the repair “in just a couple of hours.” Having started the Loop the wrong way, Clair de Lune has set sights on doing it the “right way,” closing their loop with a trip up the East Coast of the U.S. and into the Hudson River at New York Harbor. Upriver they can catch the Erie Canal and start working their way back to Lake Superior. First of course comes the winter in the Caribbean. For snowbound sailors that is a delightful thought.

“Off the water, we have had fun also since leaving your area,” wrote Edd and Judi. “We flew to Anchorage with our daughter and her family and visited our son and his family for a week. Then returned to our daughter’s home in Iowa for another week of grand parenting. In Alaska, we had all three grandkids there for a week. Very special.
“That’s all our excitement for now. More to come.”

Cyndi Perkins and husband Scott, Houghton County Harbormaster, have been sailing Lake Superior for 14 years and have completed two 6,000-mile passages of America’s Great Circle Loop aboard their 32-foot DownEaster Chip Ahoy. Opinions expressed by the author are solely hers and not necessarily the opinion of Northern Breezes magazine.