Rites of Passage
by John Karklins
There are milestones in the career of every sailor - significant experiences that contribute to forming the attitudes and skills that make one a seaman. While there is no definitive list of these, a first storm, a night passage, finding and entering a strange port in adverse conditions - are all prime candidates for inclusion.
It was my fortune to share these experiences with my crew in a passage from Chicago to Cuskegon, Michigan in the fall of 1992. I had purchased an Allied Seawind 30 ketch that spring and was returning it to Torresen Marine for winter lay-up. My crew consisted of Russ Nelson, a friend and colleague from the University of Chicago, and Jim Stariha, and attorney from Muskegon and previous owner of the boat.
Jim had named her “Jealous Mistress” despite the pre-divorce suggestion of his then wife that she be called “Circe” in honor of the Greek goddess who turned men into pigs... Perhaps my re-christening her to Zvirbulis III” (“Sparrow”, in Latvian) invoked the storm - after all, there is an age-old taboo against changing the names of ships.
I felt some apprehension at the weather forecast. A cold front was due to cross Southern Lake Michigan late in our projected crossing. Winds were to shift 180 degrees, from SE to NW and increase in velocity from 10-15 to 15-25 kts. I always had a standing personal rule to avoid major cold fronts, and still do. In Chicago they usually arrive out of the NW and can cause ugly conditions to develop with remarkable speed. I once saw the lake go from a flat glassy calm to 5-6 foot whitecaps driven by 35 to 40 kts. of sustained winds in less than 10 minutes.
In deciding to go, I noted that the forecast wind directions both before and after the wind shift still gave us a good point of sail - a beam reach. The expected 15 to 25 kt wind speeds also didn’t appear excessive for a Seawind, a good sea boat - after all roughly half a dozen had completed single-handed circumnavigations by that time and had, no doubt, encountered winds in excess of 25 kts. in the process. The forecast was also consistent, not changing substantially in the last 2 days prior to departure.
We should have been leery when on departure morning, instead of the forecast partly cloudy skies and 15 kt. SE breeze we observed a steady downpour, low hanging, dreary gray clouds, drifting fog, 1/4 mile visibility and a fluky SE “breeze” of maybe 3 kts. At least they got the direction right...
We departed Jackson Harbor on the South side of Chicago around 10:30 A.M. under power and headed out into the lake. The engine, an old Albin, sported an enormous flywheel and delivered all of 20 hp when feeling good. Unfortunately, it chose this moment to not feel so good.... Full throttle produced a speed of 2-3 kts. Jim, who had come down from Muskegon for one more ride in his old ship, diagnosed a partially clogged fuel line and proceeded to clear it. Performance appeared to pick up somewhat at the cost of a cabin full of diesel fumes.
We started on a starboard tack steering a course of 035 degrees. Jim set the vang as a preventer on the main boom and we alternately sailed and motor sailed through the rain and fog for about three hours. The intention was to make landfall somewhat to the South of Muskegon and then turn North along the coast until Jim could recognize his home port. It is common practice in dead reckoning navigation to deliberately “undershoot” a destination or waypoint so as to know in which direction to turn to search in case no landmarks can be immediately identified.
The near total reliance on dead reckoning for navigation resulted from my failure to get the Loran working over the past summer. The antenna appeared incapible of receiving signals and the memory kept showing Lake Muskegon and a course sailed by Jim some years back. Another project for the winter....
Just to be on the safe side I had also looked up Muskegon in a book on Great Lakes harbors - it said something about the harbor being dangerous to enter in some Westerly gales....
Around noon the weather started to clear. by 1:30 p.m. the sun was out, the horizon was sharp with the Chicago skyline still in view. The wind picked up to 15-20 kts. as Chicago slowly slipped over the horizon. We broad reached toward Muskegon under 150% Genny, main & mizzen through building seas. It was wonderful, exhilarating sailing! We thought our troubles were over and started speculating on an early arrival. A quartering sea of around 6 feet developed by late afternoon. We surfed through bright blue, white capped waves that stretched to the horizon behind us.
The sun warmed everything. We stripped off our foul weather gear and basked, getting rid of the trapped condensate moisture in our clothing.
As the afternoon wore on intermittent fast moving clouds, ragged and light gray, would momentarily, but with increasing frequency block out the sun. They were very low clouds that blended with the rising surface haze that once more obscured the horizon and caused an almost surreal effect in which the boat appeared to occupy it’s own small, universe in which breaking water, wind, swirling cloud-mists and diffused golden sunlight defined the limits of being.
As sunset approached the ever increasing sun-less periods and the chill they brought forced us back into foul weather gear. With darkness setting in around 7:00 p.m. and the wind showing every sign of remaining steady or increasing, I decided to change down from the Genny to working jib as a precautionary measure - prefering to do the work in what remained of daylight.
Jim did the sail change and then rigged on of the spinnaker sheets as a safety line from the bow mooring cleats to the cockpit. The reduced sail area did not slow us perceptibly and we continued to charge along at hull speed (somewhere in excess of 6 kts.), occasionally semi-surfing on a wave.
With darkness the wind increased some more and difficulty was experienced with steering in the quartering seas which I estimated as being in excess of 6 feet. It was difficult to judge their actual size in the dark. the compass showed us swinging up to 15 degrees to either side of our 035 degree course fairly regularly with excessive helm corrections necessary to keep it in those limits. It indicated a need to reduce sail more.
It was at this point that Russ began experiencing the first serous signs of sea sickness. We were standing 2 hour shifts at the helm with Jim having the honors as darkenss became complete.
I was feeling some queasiness myself, though it may have come as much from apprehension and “nerves” as motion. The cure may be as unique as it ws effective. It consisted of consuming a Chicago style Italian submarine sandwich, complete with hot peppers, oil, olives, garlic, etc. from a small shop called Fontina’s in the Taylor Street neighborhood around Circle Campus. Fontina’s claims, no doubt correctly, to make the best submarine sandwiches in the world. Washed down with a small Stroh’s it quieted my stomach to where I felt no uneasiness for the rest of the trip. Before taking credit for a universal cure for seasickness Fontina’s should consider Jim’s later assertion that the sandwich had provoked the opposite effect on him....
The weather continued to deteriouate with the rain returning shortly after we passed a large freighter on a reciprocal course on our port side. He passed within about 1/4 mile of us, did not appear to see us and did not respond to our VHF calls as he disappeared astern.
It became increasingly difficult to keep our course as the wind started clocking towards the South. We cut our helm watches to an hour to compensate for the increased difficulty. Eventually our beam reach became a run during which we attempted to keep the wind to starboard of dead astern. Our 15 degree swings off course were making an accidental gybe increasingly likely.
If finally happened with me at the helm. The preventer kept the main boom from swinging all the way across and control was reestablished after several more half gybes and the loss overboard of my prized Morton Arboretum baseball cap that served in keeping my glasses semi-dry. The wind continued to track clockwise and eventually forced us to sail a course of around 120 degrees, still on a run. We were closing the Michigan shoreline well short of Muskegon.
After the unnerving experience of my gybes, Jim took over the wheel while I retreated to the shelter of the dodger and attempted to regain my composure and dignity. Putting on my Greek fisherman’s cap and doing some deep breathing did the trick.
During a lull in the wind we gybed the boat once more, this time on purpose, and came back to a heading of 030 degrees. Russ was now too sick to steer. The wind, having apparently moderated somewhat, was coming out of the SW. Jim continued to man the helm.
The respite was short. Around 10:30-11:00 p.m. the wind shifted a full 90 degrees to the NW and rapidly increased to 35-40 kts. with gusts in excess. The cold front had arrived.
Jim indicated he had problems “holding her” at this point and we decided to drop the main and go to a “jib & jigger” configuration. I put on my safety harness, we switched on the spreader lights and I went forward to the mast along the lee rail along the safety line. Lowering and securing the sail was remarkably easy despite the wind and the fact the sail was partially drawing and thus under load.
On my return to the cockpit after the 5 minutes or so it had taken to reduce sail the spreader lights had faded to a dim glow. The battery no longer had the power to turn on the engine. The ignition switch had been left on since the last time we had used the engine - some 8 hours previously. We switched to the #2 battery and started the Albin to charge up the batteries and to keep the bilge pump going. The engine remained on at low revs with the propeller in gear until we entered port the next morning.
Around this time Jim suggested we put on life jackets. This gave me a few minutes in the relative calm of the cabin while I dragged out the jackets. It also provided a few moments with no pressing immediate tasks - for reflection.
Uncertainty was a large part of my mind set. I had never experienced anything like this before and therefore had no idea, if this was a “normal” bit of heavy weather ot be overcome more or less “in stride”, or whether we were facing a “survival” situation with real and present danger to life itself. I had no frame of reference since no amount of reading could prepare me for the real thing. Fear appears to be at least partly a matter of semantics. While I did feel a good amount of apprehension, was highly aware of the unpleasantness of the situation and felt a strong wish to be elsewhere, there was no numbing, incapacitating fear, ala some descriptions I have read.
Recently the magazine “Men’s Health” published brief paragraphs from “famous men” about their “deepest fears”. in his paragraph Chuck Jeager denies ever feeling fear, claiming it a performance robber that is overcome by mental discipline. In the end it may be semantics, though I think my experience tends to support Jeagers view in that all apprehension, etc. disappeared during the times I was engaged in performing a task, i.e., steering the boat, shortening sail, navigating. All these tasks are demanding enough to leave no time for the luxury of fear. You simply either perform vital tasks adequately and survive, or you don’t, and get in ever deepening trouble....
Conditions at this time were more extreme than any of us had experienced. Jim estimated the waves as being in excess of 10 feet high and we both wondered how long the wind could continue to blow at the present ferocity. Russ later spoke of having seen 40 foot seas in the Pacific - he also admitted to having been on an aircraft carrier at the time.
We picked up the glow of town lights on the Michigan shore sometime after midnight and could see them intermittently between the rain squalls from then on. We were sailing on a close reach under working jib and mizzen with the engine in gear through ever more violent wind squalls that I believe exceeded 50 kts. for short periods and that finally blew out the mizzen around 2:00 a.m. I tied down the flogging remains without first hooking up the safety harness - foolish in retrospect.
We were getting some illumination from town lights, probably Grand Haven, reflecting off low clouds. The view from my relatively elevated position at the mizzen while securing the sail was spectacular. Ranks of greenish black waves, defined by white crests advanced toward us from the lake, passed underneath and accelerated shoreward. The boat motion was occasionally violent, especially when we happened to fall off a passing wave into the following trough. This would bring the boat to a sudden shuddering halt with a crash that felt as if we were impacting the bottom with our keel despite still being in deep water some miles off shore. All this was accompanied by a violent barrage of randomly flung bucketfuls of water. The cabin floor was sloshing about in water that was probably shipped through the companionway.
Jim was having difficulty identifying Muskegon despite a good set of binoculars, but thought it was probably the most northerly of three visible clusters of town lights based on a process of elimination - the first two being unfamiliar. At around 3:00 a.m. he went below for a cigarette. It didn’t help and he, too, succumbed to sea sickness.
He still had the humor to remark that our situation reminded him of a well known nautical cartoon, called “The Hardcase” in which an old salt, relaxing in a cockpit in the middle of a horrendous storm at night, laconically remarks to a companion, while casually spitting to windward, “...pity the folks ashore on a night like this...”.
I was now the only one left to handle the boat which was beating north parallel to the shore and taking the seas on her port bow under working jib and questionable power.... The rain had let up but the wind was unabated. Shore lights were now continuously visible and tentatively identified as Grand Haven. At around 3:00 a.m. we also identified the range lights at the entrance to Muskegon harbor to the north. I tried to head as close to the wind as I could to gain sea room to clear the seaward light and to keep from being deposited on the beach by the ranks of waves passing under us in the dark.
The difficulty of judging distances in the dark on the water can not be overemphasized. The Muskegon range lights, 20 or so miles off when we first saw them, looked enticingly close. Even at dawn, when I could have sworn they were a couple of hundred yards away, they were actually some 3-4 miles off. The concern of being carried onto the beach was partly fed by my perception of shore lights as being no more than a mile or so away when their actual distance was probably closer to 5 and maybe as far as 10 miles.
Dawn came around 6:00 a.m. gradually revealing gray ranks of foam crested rollers in stately processions to the beach. The sky was overcast and visibility increased slowly. It became more possible to anticipate and head into the larger waves. I estimated their height at around 12 to 15 feet from crest to trough. The spray had wet the lower 3/4 of the seaward light tower at Muskegon, which I seem to recall was some 40 feet high. The boat behaved beautifully, shouldering gently into waves, climbing to the crests, flattening them, and sliding quietly into the troughs, for a repeat.
The scene, with the windswept beach surmounted by tree covered dunes on our starboard side and a lone gull hovering motionless, hove to over the waves to port, had a beauty, even majesty, to it that is difficult to describe other than to say that it now forms one of those visual memories that remains forever in the mind’s eye.
As the harbor entrance grew nearer and the changes in the relative postions of the lights and background objects indicated that we would, in fact, shortly reach the entrance and protected water tiredness and stress were replaced by exhillaration approaching a “high”. The relief of tension was palpable.
Once inside the Harbor Jim and Russ relieved me at the helm and Jim docked the boat in the familiar layout of waht had been her home port. I went forward and dropped the jib.
It is an interesting topic. How prepared does one need to be for a crossing of less than 100 miles? If any of the thousands of things one can overlook results in the loss of your ship 25 miles from shore on a Snoopyesque “dark and stormy night” the answer is obvious. Must one then follow what I feel is the Steve Dashew approach and cram safety equipment on board in amounts to compromise buoyancy, destroy bank accounts, etc.? What is safe enough? After all, Shackelton sailed innumerably more miles over infinitely more dangerous seas in much worse conditions in a boat not even close in seaworthiness to mine and brought his crew safely home.
A quick list of known deficiencies includes, a dead Loran, original vintage 1969 sails, a less than healthy engine, a hand bilge pump of minimal capacity located in a cockpit locker where it was inaccessible in dangerous seas, no permanent jack lines, a defective fore hatch, an inoperative speedo-sum-log, a life raft that was badly out of date and probably inoperable. None of the above would preclude a crossing in fair weather, but each represents a weakness that can start compounding in unfavorable conditions.
A simple scenario of trouble can be imagined in the final 3/4 hour before reaching harbor, for example. We were beating under the working jib with the engine helping, parallel to the beach with large seas trying to push us ashore. In view of the age of the sails and the fact that the mizzen had already been blown out, what would a failure of the jib have entailed? The engine was probably not capable of delivering full power. With two incapacitated crew would I have been able to switch to the storm jib? Would it have generated enough power to tack and beat back out to gain sea room? Could the main have been put back up? Similar scenarios can be created throughout the entire trip. Can one prepare for all of them? At what point does preparation keep one from sailing at all?
The major weakness was probably lack of adequate crew experience for the type of sailing to be done. I was a beginner on my second “overnighter”. Russ had less experience than that. Jim, while having 20 years or more of racing experience, did not appear to know more than the rest of us about how to deal with the existing conditions.
In retrospect I think an earlier shortening of sail and battening down of the boat could have given a more comfortable ride and provided a sense of security that may have delayed or prevented the advent of seasickness. A better understanding of what could be expected and what measures to take would have reduced the anxiety level considerably.
In the end one probably can not answer all questions and prepare for all imaginable scenarios. While it is true that more experience would have been helpful, how do you gain experience without sailing and making mistakes?
Zvirbulis III now has a new Yanmar diesel and new sails. Standing rigging has been replaced with new sta-lok terminals. The forehatch is new. There are manual bilge pumps operable from the helmsman’s position and from below. We have GPS, and numerous structural and cosmetic repairs have continued to improve her over the last 8 years. There are permanent stainless steel jackstays. She now spends her summers in Belmont harbor in Chicago, where she can be observed at all times from my apartment window, and the winters at Crowley’s Yacht Yard. There is thus no longer a need to make late season trips to Muskegon.