Sailing Western Lake Superior
by Sam Huonder

So who wouldn’t want to own a sailboat?
This is the question I ask myself, somewhat bitterly, as I climb back into my bunk at 5:00 in the morning, the second time I was up checking our anchor set because the wind shifted. It started at 12:30 a.m. when I had been wrenched from a sound sleep, knowing something was different. The anchorage that was peaceful when I went to sleep had a screaming northwest wind blowing through. This time I laid there for a few minutes waiting and hoping that Jim would feel it and wake up. But either he was sound asleep or doing a good job of faking it. So I got up and checked the anchor again and determined that our swing was safe and we weren’t dragging.

Jim and John do the moondanceAs I wrapped back up in the V berth, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Before drifting off to sleep again I started counting my grievances. The first five days of our two week sailing vacation had not gotten off to a great start. First there were battery issues, necessitating the replacement of our house bank of batteries. Then there was the broken shackle and the mangled sail slide and the broken reef point and the collapsing boat hook along with an autopilot that when turned on caused the boat to turn sharply and unexpectedly to port or starboard. With this inventory in progress, I drifted off to sleep again.

My husband Jim, our friend John and I had left Bayfield late on Tuesday night, hoping to make it to Isle Royale. We had tried to set sail earlier in the day but forecasted bad weather kept us in the marina. Finally at about 8 p.m. Jim and John could no longer stand my taunts and calling my bluff said it was time to go. Lack of winds meant we had to motor as we headed into the North Channel and made our way past Madeline Island but we weren’t worried, we would just use the autopilot. Well, at least that was the plan but the AP had other ideas. I steadied Emmanuel on her course and then turned the AP from standby to auto. What a surprise when the AP slammed us into a hard turn to port and of course I can’t turn off the Auto because the wheel is spinning and I can’t get my hand in between the spokes to shut it off.

Jim at the helm as we cross to Silver BayFinally I am able to stab the little button and turn the boat back to the original heading and catch my breath. Jim looks at me and asks what the heck happened. I shrug my shoulders and say let’s try it again so we did. Again, steady the boat on her course; turn on Auto and wham, hard turn to starboard this time. More frantic efforts on my part to reach the off button and regain control of the boat once more. By this time Jim and I are a bit shaken and utterly at a loss so we resign ourselves to hand steering. Not a happy thought. We have over 80 miles and 12 hours to go and someone will have to be actively helming it all the way. Oh well. Sailing teaches you to be flexible, we tell each other, so we’ll adjust. It was full dark by the time we passed the northern tip of Madeline and rounded Stockton to port and it was pretty cool being out there in the dark all by ourselves. I made a fresh pot of coffee and Jim and I sat in the cockpit chatting while John tried to get some sleep below. Since our visibility is greatly reduced I am now keenly aware that I am sailing between Stockton Island to port and Michigan and Outer Island to starboard. But I’m not worried for I have radar and GPS! Who needs stars to guide me, I have technology. (Note to self - after installing a hideously expensive new radar/chartplotter MFD, take the time to learn it before expecting it to guide you through a night sail with little visibility, you doofus.) I can’t for the life of me figure out how to steer the course I have laid in. I try following the little cursor and the dotted black line on the screen. I make a 30 degree turn to starboard and Jim pops out of the cabin, “Everything okay Hon?” he asks. I smile and say cheerfully “just a little course correction, no problem!” A few more minutes pass and I’m confused again. This time it’s a 45 degree turn to port. Jim pops his head out of the cabin again with a quizzical look and I give him the thumbs up. A few more minutes go by and I turn hard to starboard again.

Julian Bay in the early morningThis time Jim returns to the cockpit asking me “Another course correction Dear?” Just a minute later John lumbers out of his berth and up on deck and asks what the heck I’m doing. By now I am thoroughly demoralized and I turn the helm over to the men and seek refuge below with my paper charts. All this electronic stuff has my head swimming. I can hear John and Jim conferring in the cockpit trying to figure out the problem with the autopilot. I join them shortly thereafter and we try to puzzle out the radar and chartplotter but we are no match for the little gray box. John and Jim point out that we are all tired, we’re having equipment problems and we have no good reason to press on to Isle Royale. Nothing kills cruisers like trying to stick to a schedule so we decide to turn back. There is enough light from the quarter moon that we are confident we can get back to Julian Bay and get the anchor down. It’s about midnight by the time we are settled in and while John and Jim head for the cabin and some sleep, I find myself held on deck, spellbound. As fascinating as I find the Apostle Islands to be during the day, nighttime has a strange allure for me which probably goes back to my childhood when I loved to sneak out of the house. In pajamas and bare feet I would wander the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, loving how different, how foreign and mysterious the things I knew in daylight, seemed in the dark of night. I have always been a bit of a night owl and I love being up when the rest of the world is sleeping. I sit on the bow pulpit seat for a long time until fatigue wins out and I go to bed.

Wednesday arrives with lots of sun and wind so we head out of Julian Bay and turn to port. Our course, which takes us northwest with wind out of the north at around 20 knots means some hard upwind sailing as we pass Cat Island to starboard with Manitou and Ironwood to port. By early afternoon we are drawing near to Devils Island and the wind while staying off the starboard bow is now sending big rollers right at us from the open lake and we start taking the 4 and 5 footers on the nose. While Emmanuel, our 1995 Hunter Legend 40.5 has no trouble staying on her feet in these conditions, we decide we have had enough fun and abandon our plans for heading to Silver Bay. We fall off and start to consider where we will spend the night while I go below to assemble some sandwiches for lunch on the go. We decide to head for Raspberry Island and while on the way John finally forces our Garmin 3210 chartplotter to give up its secrets. Finally, we have a basic understanding of its many screens.

There is much joy aboard Emmanuel as I pass around the ham sandwiches. At Raspberry Island we tuck in behind the sandy spit and start to relax and Jim turns on the VHF to check the weather when NOAA chimes in with the report of winds switching to the NE after midnight, which makes our anchor spot a bad choice. Up comes the anchor and we start our search for a good overnight spot. The lower water levels this year make it chancy to tuck into Oak Island on either the southern side or the sandy spit on the southeastern tip. We continue our search and eventually make our way to Quarry Bay on Stockton Island. I find the whole thing disheartening. Here I was expecting to be in Isle Royale and we’re almost back where we started from. By the time we get the anchor down I am feeling somewhat grumpy about the whole thing. About that time Jim has the binoculars out and is inspecting the other boats in the anchorage.

Emmanuel at anchor in Quarry Bay“Hey Sam” he says, “there is a Catalina 36 over there by the name of ‘Our Lady’, isn’t that Marek?” he asks. Marek was a fellow sailor we met at Rocky Island and shared a bonfire with a couple of years ago. He and his wife Dorado came to the United States from Russia back in the early 1980’s. We had struck up a conversation that night because I have always had a small interest in Russian history which was the result of a fascination with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and historian back in high school. Some moments live in your memory forever and that night will always be one of them. It was mid October and it was a cool evening. There were three sailboats that night at Rocky Island and the folks on Pendragon, an absolutely gorgeous Lord Valiant, started the impromptu get together. The bonfire burned and Marek spoke and told stories of his life in Russia and gave me the smallest peek into what the words Gulag and Purge meant to those who lived through it. After that night Marek and I stayed in touch by email but had lost contact when I left a previous position back in September of 2006.

Now here we were almost 2 years later. Jim hailed Our Lady who responded quickly. We issued an invitation to join us for dessert and coffee, which was accepted with alacrity.

Jim, John and I dined that night on BBQ ribs with green beans and corn bread. A quick galley clean up by the boys and we were ready for our company. I dug out my stash of homemade chocolate cupcakes and made a pot of coffee. Just then we heard the buzzing of an outboard heading our way and we went out to the cockpit to greet our guests. That night Marek was accompanied by his lovely wife Dorado and their handsome son, Alex. It was a happy reunion and we sat and talked until dark.

In the next issue: Follow Emmanuel to Silver Bay and Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Sam Hounder is former Commodore of Black Bear Yacht Club and Rear Commodore of Sailfest. She and husband Jim have been sailing together for about 15 years. They keep Emmanuel in Pike’s Bay Marina in Bayfield, WI.



All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.