Adventure Island Adventure
By Chas. Hague
One of the disadvantages of having one’s kids grow older is that the Big Family Decisions get tougher. Our two girls were no longer content to sit in the back seat until they got to wherever their parents had decided to go, but getting their input wasn’t easy.
“What sort of things would you like to do on our vacation?” I asked Laurel, my 14-year-old daughter.
“Stuff. Like?” I asked hopefully.
“You know—Stuff!” she said, exasperated. I was able to translate “Stuff” into attractions, museums and cable TV. Eldest daughter Sarah, at 17 already had her eyes on the distant hills of college and a career in theater. She didn’t care what we did as long as there were plays to be seen. Barbara, my wife, wanted someplace that wasn’t home. And I, a trailer sailor, wanted a pleasant place to stay overlooking sailable water.
Door County, Wisconsin, seemed like a good choice. It was close enough to get to in one day’s driving (two if we were not in a hurry). There would be opportunities for exploring—since we’d never been there the whole area was terra incognita. There would be shopping, summer stock museums—and of course, lots of water.
The Door County website had links to over 20 hotels, resorts and B & B’s on the peninsula. This made it fairly easy to check locations and prices. We had heard that the western, or Green Bay side of the peninsula was more interesting than the eastern (Lake Michigan) side, although also the more crowded. After a far from systematic sifting of the data, we settled on the Harbor Guest House in Fish Creek. The price was reasonable, there was room during the time we had available, and the website had a nifty 360-degree shot of one of the rooms. But what sold me was the exterior photo, taken through a forest of masts. Any place with sailboats in the backyard has to be good for sailing.
Sailing requires a boat, and I was planning to take my boat on vacation for the first time. The Widget is an O’Day Widgeon, 12 feet long, five foot beam, carrying 90 square feet of sail. Her small size makes her a wonderful craft for trailer sailing: light to tow, inexpensive, easy and fun to sail. Not a yacht—but, just because the boat is small, the spirit of Adventure doesn’t have to be.
I was all set for a carefree jaunt up through Wisconsin, family in the back seat, boat trailering happily behind, when logistics and the laws of physics intervened. Since the Widget is so small, our Ford Escort station wagon is a perfectly adequate tow vehicle. For short, lightly loaded trips.
In the months leading up to our Door County vacation, I kept doing variations on the same mathematical computation:
“Ooookay. The Escort is rated for five adults at 150 pounds each, plus 80 pounds of baggage, or a 1,000-pound trailer with 100 pounds on the hitch. I’ve got one sailor at 180 pounds, one crew at 160 pounds, two more crew at 120 pounds each, plus enough luggage for two teenage girls, their mom, and me; one boat at 500 pounds with a tandem bicycle at 40 pounds tied to the cockpit. That’s 580 pounds of crew, plus 120 pounds of luggage, plus 50 pounds on the trailer hitch, which is only 750 pounds, and the load limit of the Escort is 850 pounds, but that’s not including having to pull the mass of the boat, and what if the girls bring more clothes than that, and they’ll have to be crammed in the back seat of a compact car for 500 miles . . .
A week before our departure, I gave in and bought a one-size-fits-all trailer hitch for our slightly larger but older Taurus. That, at least, gave me two more cylinders in the engine. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. After spending three nights flat on my back attaching the hitch, I ran afoul of the peculiarities of the Ford electrical system. I was told by a couple of people that, in order to hook up the trailer’s taillights, I needed a fancy interface box at a cost of $60. This was supposed to “protect the car’s computer.” Other folks said no, I just needed a “T connector.” There was already a plug in the taillight harness to connect trailer lights, so, after fretting a bit, the cheapskate in me bought the T connector. It worked fine, and the care computer didn’t mind a bit.
Vacation! We had decided to leave Saturday afternoon and go only as far as Fond du Lac, at the bottom end of Lake Winnebago. Saturday was spent filling suitcases, hooking up timers, tying down a cargo of sails, gear, and bicycle into the boat, and buttoning down our house. Finally the car was loaded, the boat hitched up, and we pulled out of the driveway, with cheerful smiles and a teeth grinding “ScerrRRrreeech!” as the trailer tongue dragged over the curb. (The rear end of the Tired Taurus was down lower than usual.)
There were no incidents on the way north. I made a habit of checking the tiedowns and the wheel bearing temperatures at every stop. Stops were frequent at the factory outlet malls the line I-94. We arrived in Fond du Lac with no problems.
Sunday brought lowering skies and a sharp wind from the north, precluding a sail on Lake Winnebago. Instead we explored the Gallway House, sort of a miniature Greenfield Village just outside of Fond du Lac. Heading north again, we stopped at the cities of Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, then made our way through the cities of Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay onto the Door Peninsula. Here the bipolar disorder that inflicts Door County became apparent. The roads were fine and clear, with very little traffic—until we arrived at a town. Passing through Egg Harbor, Fish Creek (and later Ephraim and Sister Bay) were exercises in “Dodge the Tourist.” (Well, we were tourists too, but still . . .) Sara did a fine job, although it was the first time she had driven while towing the boat. We arrived at Fish Creek in fine fettle.
And here we received another surprise: Fish Creek does not allow boat trailers to be parked in town. Understandable—it’s a very small, pretty village, and the place would be half boat trailers otherwise—but it meant that we had to stash the Widget in the new parking lot behind the post office / library, five blocks from the harbor. Since Alibi Marina didn’t have accommodations for a boat as small as the Widget (the lake was low, the finger docks high) it made more sense to keep her on the trailer. This made going sailing a bit complicated:
(a) Buy ramp ticket from Town Dock office ($5).
(b) Drive to parking lot and hook up boat.
(c) Drive boat back to ramp. Find flat place out of everybody’s way. Settle on “No Parking” zone.
(d) Set up mast, bend on sails. 20 minutes.
(e) Back newly-rigged boat down ramp. Launch. Tie to nearby finger dock.
(f) Drive now-empty trailer back to parking lot and unhitch.
(g) Drive back to town dock, find legal parking space.
(h) Finish rigging boat, hoist sail, cast off. Claw away from upwind side of dock.
(i) At end of sail, do everything in reverse.
Sarah and I set off for aptly-named Adventure Island, only three miles off Fish Creek harbor, but farther in one straight line than we’d ever been before. The wind was from the South-southwest, and wonderfully steady, after the puffy, veery breezes over the small, inland lakes we usually sail. We cleared the harbor and set a course of due West.
Then came something else new to our experience: waves.
“Dad, I’m starting to feel funny,” said Sarah. I could’ve done without the motion myself, and the mast was slatting back and forth as the boat rolled in the beam seas. Although these waves were only about one to two feet high from the southwest, they kept coming—unlike powerboat wakes, which stop after awhile. I altered course a bit more to the southwest. This put us on a close reach, but we corkscrewed more gently over the waves.
When we arrived off the south end of the island, I turned us north on a port broad reach, figuring that when we got into the lee of the island, We would have easier winds and calm water to come about and head back. Then: “Look - rocks!” said Sarah, peering down into the water off the port side. So there were, and only a few feet down, too. I had intended to come about to port, but I suddenly didn’t know if I had enough water to make the turn without running aground. (My depth sounder is the centerboard—the sound of it dragging on the bottom means there’s no depth.) I didn’t want to head any more to starboard, since the wind was veering; a sudden gybe could’ve been violent. So, very carefully, I steered parallel to the shore of the island, alternately watching the rocky bottom to port and the sail to starboard. Finally, we reached the north end of the island, and the bottom ceased to be visible. We came about 270 degrees to port and headed back to Fish Creek.
I had planned to sail again the next day. But, the breezy morning we spent at the fine little Maritime Museum up at Gill’s Rock was followed by a dead calm afternoon. The Widget has a narrow wind window—more than 15 knots, it’s a bit too exciting. Less than 3 knots, we don’t go anywhere. With the marina pennants hanging straight down, we couldn’t have gotten out of our own way if we had set out. So we drove across the peninsula to explore the town of Bailey’s Harbor. In contrast to the frenetic tourist activity on the west side, Bailey’s Harbor was quiet and very pleasant, with Lake Michigan spreading smoothly away from the small harbor.
That evening we made Sarah happy by going to a performance of the Peninsula Players. This is a professional theater company that spends the summer performing plays in an open-air pavilion south of Fish Creek. Before the play begins, it’s traditional to sit, wineglass in hand, and watch the sun set over Green Bay right behind the stage. More impressive to me was the view at intermission, when the darkness of the north country was made deeper by the distant, mysterious glow of Menominee, Wisconsin across the island-pricked water.
The next day there was the promise of wind. We took the Widget into Peninsula State Park. This thumb-shaped piece of land between Fish Creek and Eagle Harbor contains hiking and bicycle trails, campgrounds, the Eagle Point lighthouse, and a boat ramp on the northeast side. For $7.00—the cost of entering the park—we got to use a nice double ramp with docks and adjacent trailer parking.
Laurel and I set off for Horseshoe Island. I had seen a calendar picture of this island and it was one of the places I wanted to sail to on this trip. After dodging the swimmers and fisherfolk near the shore, we set a northeast course for the island, about a mile away. We entered the Horseshoe bay, tacking around the other boats that were anchored in this picturesque spot. Suddenly, a boat horn blasted. BLaaaat! Startled, we looked for hazards, but saw none. Then we spotted the cause. A four-year-old child on a pontoon boat had discovered a pretty red button on the console. We gave them a cheerful “Blurrt!” in return on our hand held horn, and came about. We zipped down to Tower Point, waved at the people on the observation tower, and began tacking back to the west. The wind was shiftier, since it was coming over the peninsula, but the waves were easy to take in the lee. It took longer to get back than I thought, on account of having to tack back, but it was a lovely, sunny trip.
That was the last time we went sailing. The weather closed in, and our vacation ended before we had another chance to sample the waters off Door County. We checked out a couple of potential sailing sites on the way back home, but that was all.
Was it worth it? Dragging 600 pounds of fiberglass, aluminum and trailer over 500 miles up and back for a total of 4½ hours under sail? On a strict profit and loss computation, probably not. But the spirit of adventure isn’t rational. We met new (if not formidable) challenges, tested ourselves and our craft in conditions we do not usually encounter, and proved to ourselves that we have just a bit of what makes sailors.
Door County is on the web at doorcounty.org. Also:
• Door County Chamber of Commerce: 800-52-RELAX or doorcountyvacations.com.
• The Harbor Guest House and Alibi Marina, Fish Creek, WI: 920-868-2284 or harborguesthouse.com.
• 1999 Door County Maritime Museum: 920-743-5958.
• Peninsula Players, Fish Creek, WI: 920-868-3287 or peninsulaplayers.com.
Chas. Hague is a writer and sailor who lives with his family in Des Plaines, Illinois.