Come Aground?

Saturday July 2, 2011

This was supposed to be the weekend that we were going to start a two week cruise around Lake Michigan going everywhere from Chicago to Mackinac (through coastal cruising, not the race route) but since I just got done training for my position at my new job they did not feel that a few weeks off would be the best way to retain information.  So we had to settle for what we were left with and that was a three day weekend.  I’ll still take it.  We got to the boat the night before after an extensive grocery shopping trip ready to leave at a few hours after the crack of dawn.  That happened to be around 8:30 and we were motoring to the channel with sunny skies and warm weather.  Getting into the open water there was a fresh breeze blowing around 20 knots and waves were only 2-3 feet but coming in chaotic patterns.  After initially setting the autopilot and sitting there watching it change course between 30 degrees while it would over-correct itself from one direction to the next.  Finally I took my place behind the wheel, the original autopilot.  While I steered us on a pretty straight course we rolled into some fog and temperatures began to plummet.  Not in a ‘Day After Tomorrow’ kind of way, but enough for me to realize that my tank and nylon hoodie were too thin and the only extra layer of warmth I could add would be a spring jacket that ‘should have been warm enough’ to get me through the weekend because after all it’s July.

Cruising deeper and deeper into the fog we could no longer see the shore and we were blanketed in our own little world in the clouds.  Steering the boat became very disorienting as it felt like I was shooting straight West and was constantly checking the compass to verify that I did have Michigan coastline to my starboard side and not miles of water between me and Sturgeon Bay.  I told Matt that I’d hand steer until we reached Whitehall and then he could relieve me for a bit.  Silly me assumed that through the fog I’d still be able to see their lighthouse and be able to tell when we reached that point.  Since our radar had just been removed and the laptop with our GPS was in the cabin it wasn’t until I was five miles past Whitehall that we took a look at our location.  The winds were being very favorable that day, and since our SOG tracker was also out of commission we didn’t even realize that we were cruising along at a nice 6.2 knots.  With our seemingly endless trip from Holland to Muskegon last year we were allowing ourselves to get to Pentwater near late dinner time but at this speed we were looking at late lunch!  When Matt got behind the wheel it didn’t take him long to get into his old habit of easily getting off course, and the fog was not any help.  We resigned ourselves back to the over-correcting auto pilot while we relaxed under blankets in the cockpit, keeping an eye out for other vessels and shared a craving for some steaming New England clam chowder at that moment.  Not too long after, I was left alone to keep lookout while Matt caught some zzzz’s below.  Fog was continuing to get more dense and I sat on the top step of the companionway while craning my head to the left, under the genoa to the right, and in an Exorcism fashion behind me.  My heart jumped into my throat when a beautiful blue hulled boat came out of the haze like a ghost ship to cross in front of our port side bow.  While it was a little close for comfort we weren’t in danger of crashing and my guess is he knew I was there long before I knew he was.  Even though the stereo was faintly playing in the background it took me a minute to realize I was being hailed on the VHF and by the time I ran below there was silence.  Matt, who had been woken up by the call mentioned it sounded something like ‘vessel crossing on my port side please respond’ but I was too scared to reply back and figured that since we had already passed and collision was avoided it wasn’t a necessity that I get in touch with him.  I should have though, especially since Matt said he may have been hailing me to let me know that he was photographing our boat with sails up wanted to find a way to share them with us.  So if you’re out there somewhere beautiful blue hulled boat with toast colored bimini that was out in the fog on 4th of July weekend and had some newbie that couldn’t make you out on the water, please get a hold of me, I’m curious to what you would have said.  Even if it was just to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Back at my post I kept an even closer eye for anything moving in the water.  The problem with that was visibility was still getting worse and worse.  I even changed my position to sitting at the bow but when visibility was literally brought down to 50 feet I knew I needed a second pair of eyes with me.  Dragging Matt up on deck we each took a section of water to focus on.  Our speed hadn’t let up at all and after 3 hours of traveling we were already just over half way.  We continued on like this for awhile until the fog slowly started to dissipate. Unfortunately when the fog went away so did the wind.  It was a hard thing to do but I forced Matt to turn on the engine because I was not going to let our now 2 knot speed carry us the rest of the way to Pentwater.  As the sun came back out the layers of clothes began to come off and the grill was fired up for lunch.  I don’t know if it was our food that attracted them, but as soon as the fog or any sign of clouds were gone there were swarms of black flies out in force.  It started out with just a couple here and there, we’d swat them away and continue on with our lunch.  Another couple would join in with the buzzing, but not too much of a nuisance.  Then the biting began.  My god, there are few things I hate more than being bitten by black flies.  The smacking and swatting became rapid fire from me at that point and it was only moments before the fly swatter was out.  One down, two down, then five, then ten.  I’m not kidding when I say they began piling up on the floor of the cockpit.  Then the game went from killing to disposal as they were picked up and thrown off the side for fish food.  We did leave a few around though, just to send a message to the others.

By the time the swarms started to thin out we were coming up on the Silver Lake Sand Dunes.  If you’re not familiar with these, they’re a popular place for people to take dune buggies, Jeeps, Pickup trucks and any four wheel drive vehicle to cruise through the sand and dunes.  It was packed already on this holiday weekend and the top of the dune was lines with ORVs, their windshields glinting in the sun.

 Even with my zoom at max I couldn’t fully capture it


Knowing that Pentwater was just around the corner we started cleaning up the boat and changing into real clothes.  It was at this point that I realized I hadn’t packed a razor for the weekend and tried to substitute with those Euro Smooth pads that you see on tv.  Let me save you the consumer report and tell you right now that they don’t work.  Giving up hope on having smooth legs I turned my attention back to the GPS which was letting me know were were close enough to start looking for the Pentwater lighthouse which for some reason I would have expected to be as big as Muskegon or Grand Haven and was surprised to see just a little green and white striped pole.  Pointing the bow in that direction we bore down on on a beach full of jet skiers, power boaters, and high school to college people out sunbathing.  My brother always told me about when he’d go here with friends in high school and I didn’t realize how popular it was.

(Photo courtesy of

Definitely feeling out of place as the only one around we could see with a mast (don’t let the photo above fool you, there were no sailboats our this day), we navigated our way through the narrow and shallow channel into Pentwater Lake where our guidebook said there were good anchoring spots just past the channel walls.  Making our way into the inland lake the ‘anchoring’ spots were surrounded by mooring balls and only 35 feet from shore.  This was not going to work out.  Continuing our way in we saw a little inlet where a cat had already dropped anchor and it looked like there was just enough room for a 35 ft Sabre to fit next to it.  While Matt took position at the bow I was at the helm slowly motoring between forward, neutral and reverse.  Apparently we’d found a spot with a really soft bottom and weren’t getting great hold.  After sitting for 20 minutes and trying to monitor if we’d moved all the decision came to try again in another area not right next to another boat that we could cause damage to.  Motoring further into the lake we’d scan left and right for good spots to spend the night, but since it was a long narrow lake they were few and far between, and mostly already taken by other boats.  Coming up near the end of the lake we found one more inlet that was much bigger and completely empty!  Getting ready to make the turn toward the inlet I could see light and shallow water that I was making sure to stay very far away from.  I was still a good 200 feet from land when I began cranking the wheel in but somehow within seconds I watched the depth finder go from 30 feet to 14 to 7 and and our boat came to a screeching halt while Matt and I lunged slightly forward from the force.  Yes, I had just run us aground.  I was in complete shock as I thought I had been so careful, and Matt starts yelling “Throw it in reverse, throw it in reverse!”.  It was one of those moments like felt like it was going in slow motion as I came out of my daze and threw the throttle in reverse while upping the RPMs.  My heart was pounding as it felt like nothing was happening and I imagined having to call a tow and forking over our entire savings for it, but the boat starting backing out and soon we were in the clear again.  The whole situation probably happened in under 90 seconds but it felt like a lifetime.  If you ask Matt about it again now he’ll tell you that we hit with such force that we ended up on the coach roof, but I think he’s just trying to make me feel bad for being the first one to run the boat aground.

Getting my nerves to settle back down we made it into the inlet and dropped anchor right in the middle.  That way if we dragged during the night, no matter which direction we went hopefully one of us would realize before we could do anymore damage that day.  Since it was still just late afternoon I was hoping that we could take the dinghy into town and do a little strolling around.  Apparently Matt was more hoping for a quiet evening at anchor and since I get my way 95% of the time I figured we could do what he wanted that night and just chill in the cove.  Once I realized we weren’t going anywhere I poured myself a glass of wine and pulled out a notebook to start writing the post about our maiden voyage from Holland.  The one that happened over a year ago.  I’m that far behind on my writing.  Good thing my memory is impeccable when recounting things I enjoy.  We also went for a swim but since the ladder was not an option because the dinghy was in the way we resorted to using the fender step which is normally incredibly helpful from when getting to the dinghy to the deck but not a great way to pull yourself up from water level.  Even when Matt lowered it an extra 3 inches I couldn’t leverage myself up and made the decision to stay in the water until I was done for the night because once he helped me up I was up for good.

It was exciting to be in a different place for once and even though we were confined to the boat for the evening it was interesting to get a different view of our surroundings and get a little taste of what our life will be like starting next year.  Not even having experienced much yet Matt asked if I thought I could do this everyday for a few years and it didn’t take me a moment to respond “Absolutely”.

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