The Long Road To Lake St. Clair

Sunday August 19, 2012

After getting a second full nights sleep in a row we woke up again to find less than desireable conditions outside but knew we couldn’t stay put another day. There was still a small craft advisory on the lake, and wave had gone from 2-4 ft up to 4-6 ft, but they were no longer calling for thunerstorms and that was really the only reason we had stayed the day before. We can handle waves and rain, a little bit of lightning, but tunderstorms can bring surprise attacks of very high winds and that had been the only thing we’d been trying to avoid. Backing ourselves out of the dock like we actually knew what we were doing we made our way out of the harbor and channel into Lake Huron where we were met with 2-4 foot waves. Since we had all sails down at the time Serendipity kept bobbing from side to side and making the ride a little uncomfortable so we turned into the wind to raise the main sail, with a reef, to steady ourselves out a bit. Turned back around the ride was much more enjoyable, although we still had our harnesses on just in case (along with jacklines run from the cockpit to the bow). Thurning off the motor we were pushing ahead at 6 knots which is a pretty good speed for our boat, within about a knot of our max speed. While Matt was doing a few things below deck I was nestled into a nook just behind the wheel on the low side. What surprised me, sitting there all by myself, was how fine I was with the situation. Winds were at a steady 25, waves in the 2-5 range (a decent size for the Great Lakes since they’re shorter and choppier than the ocean), and speed was almost at our max. I don’t know what the past five days has done for me, but if this was two weeks ago in our home port I probably would have begged Matt to take us back in and wait until conditions got better. Maybe it was because I knew we’d have to cross oceans in conditions much worse than this or a 200 mile trip in just a few days really lets you get to know your boat and what it’s capable of, but I felt fully confident in both us and Serendipity.

 As I sat tethered into the cockpit I continued to watch our speed grow. We had been at a steady 6.1 or 6.2 and then it went up to 6.4-6.5. Woohoo, we were really flying now! But it didn’t stop there. Up and up it went until we didn’t just reach but stayed in the 7.0 to 7.1 range. I had never seen these numbers before. I called the numbers over to Matt who was sitting under the dodger on the opposite side of me and the radar, more out of excitement than worry. “It’s reading what?” he asked, “That’s pretty high, I don’t want to broach (be thrown on our side).” He said to keep an eye on it, which I did, and even though it did jump a little higher than that from time to time while we’d surf down a wave I kept it to myself because the boat seemed pretty stable to me and I liked the progress we were making. We were literally going twice as fast as normal. It wasn’t long before he was ready for a nap and I was in the cockpit alone watching us go up and down the waves. When it was my turn to nap below we had started heading a little more south with the wind now on our side instead of our back quarter making it feel like even more of a wild ride. I had been down below only 15 minutes when I began to roll toward the wall more and more and all of a sudden a huge wave crashed over the deck and the hatch (which was closed) right above my head. Even though I trust Matt to do many things by himself I knew this one looked like it might need assistance so I bolted up the stairs to see what was going on. Turns out we had almost broached and really needed to slow ourselves down before it happened again, even worse next time. He was already on it though, digging through a locker to pull out a very long rope, cleating it to one side of the stern and letting it trail behind us before cleating the other end to the other side. The drag of this rope behind us was meant to give us drag and slow us down but couldn’t do much against the now constant 35 knot winds we were in. Taking out one more rope he tied it in knots and cleated that to the stern as well bringing us down to the 6.5-7.0 range.

Again, I have no idea why this did not bother me at all but I did not feel one ounce of fright. Maybe because, again, the boat was handling it so well and the only scary thing were the numbers on the screens themselves. Knowing just a little bit about Lake Huron from specials on The History Channel I turned to Matt and asked, “I wonder if Lake Huron is always like this?”. M: “I don’t know”. J: “Cause right now we’re near Alpena and Thunder Bay, and that’s where all the shipwrecks on this lake are supposed to be”. M: “Oh….I could have gone without knowing that”. J: “But all of those happened later in the year, I’m sure we’ll be fine”. M: “Right”.

For the rest of the afternoon we sat cuddled next to eachother under a blanket. I was sitting closer to the chart plotter and would keep and eye on the wind and boat speed which stayed pretty constant after that point. There was about a 20 minute period though of sustained 40-45 knots winds and I even saw us at 8.7 knots of speed while surfing down one wave. Sorry, that’s a lie. I saw it twice. Everything was going fine and both of us were sitting with our backs to the port side when we heard a loud crack. Now finally freaking out that something major had broken on our boat we both looked behind us to the sound and saw that our flag which had been sitting in a metal fishing pole holder had broken off the boat and was now floating in Lake Huron. It was a bit of a relief that it wasn’t something major holding our boat together, but at the same time we’d just lost about $100 worth of goods. We could have stayed two more nights at Mackinac for what we’d just lost. Oh well, I’m still thankful it was nothing worse.

In the evening the winds died down a little and we started our shifts like normal. When Matt came to wake me up at 2 am (waaay later than my shift schedule) I was surprised to find that we were now down to an average speed of 4.5 knots. Perfect for a night watch because you still feel like you’re making progress but you don’t feel it’s anything you can’t handle should there be a sudden shift of winds. Bundled in my full foul weather gear for warmth, which I had been in all day but now it was in the low 50’s, I took my spot under the blanket and watched one of the clearest and most star filled nights I have seen since the two of us were in the desert two years ago. There’s no other word to describe it other than brilliant. There was even one star that was so bright it cast a reflection on the water. Since I was given an extra hour of sleep on my shift I thought it only proper to return the favor and just as the sky was getting pinkish hues I went to trade with Matt and was asleep in half a second. When I woke up the next time it was near 10 am (does this boy not know how to keep a schedule?) and we were now passing across Saginaw Bay with nothing but water in sight. We were barely keeping up with 4 knots at this time and when Matt got up a few hours later we were just starting to pass by land again and that is when all wind died. Topping off the diesel with the 3 jerry cans in the cockpit the motor went on and we were on our way again. For only an hour though before it began to feel like we were fighting a current and our speed dropped from 4 knots to 2. Thinking maybe we were too close to shore I spent the next hour or so trying to get us further into the lake where the open waters would allow us to gain speed again. The non existent winds had jumped up to 25 knots on our nose which I think was impeeding progress a little, but even trying to go at a close reach with the mainsail still up we could barely keep our speed above 3.

Before we knew it, dark was upon us and it was time to start night shifts again. The wind was at such a strange angle that it only gave us the option to be pointing in an almost ESE course even though we wanted to be going directly South. Waking up for my shift (finally on time!) I was told that a tack would be necessary soon because we were almost in Canadian waters. Well I didn’t know we couldn’t go into ‘Canadian’ waters so when the chart showed the line where half the screen went blank since we’d only bought charts for the US (note, if you ever take this route make SURE to have some kind of charts somewhere that show Canadian waters, you will need them) I pulled the main to center and then changed the course of the boat and tried to then bring the main over to the other side to catch wind and get us going again. Nuh uh, did not want to happen. I added 10 more degrees and then 10 more. By the time I finally got some wind in the sail I was headed on a West past directly toward shore. This was going to get us nownhere and slowly. Figuring I was better off going into those uncharted Canadian waters I brought the main back to center and changed course back to where I had originally been. What I did find out is that the wind must have shifted while I was sleeping and I could now get us on a direct South course and that was good enough for me. One more tack would have to be made since the entrance to the St. Clair River was on the SW side of the lake, but Matt could deal with that on his shift.

Handing my post over at 3 am I told Matt about the necessary tack and went back to bed, feeling only just a little bit bad that he had to take care of it in his still groggy state. When I was woken up at 6:30 the sky was light and we were only 5 miles from the entrance to the St. Clair River. Since I had visions of this being a very narrow area and very heavy with freighter traffic I was scared to start it on shift alone and made Matt promise he’d get up when we got to the entrance in case I needed help. After only 45 minutes of sleep for him I was entering the first buoys and keeping a strict lookout for any large ships coming up behind me. No freighters but plenty of power boats throwing wakes at me. Since our chart was trying to keep us in US waters it divided the river in half and then into halves again for North and South traffic. Two things I found out upon entering the river is that 1. My chart had me going just over the top of a dangerous wreck that I had to avoid last minute and 2. NO ONE in the river was paying any attention to US or Canadian waters. If there was open space you went for it, it was a free for all. Still no freighters but plenty of power boats whizzing by every which way.

The river was much prettier than I expected it to be and after we got through the first few miles which were industrial areas the rest of the river was lined with houses, condos and resorts. The water itself was also almost a Caribbean blue/green and so tempting to jump into. If it wasn’t for that current carrying us along at over 6 knots I may have thought about it. Both going on 5-6 hours of sleep we took naps in the early afternoon and when I woke up from mine I came above deck to finally see a large freighter passing by us. It had to be 400-500 feet long but slid past us just fine with plenty of room to spare. Just after this we started nearing Lake St. Clair and needed to choose which channel/arm/branch we were going to use to drop us from the river into the lake. Finding one that connects to the main channel across the lake and over to the Detroit River we followed it keeping a very close eye on depth since the channels would be only 20 feet deep in the center and quickly going to 6 or 2 feet near shore. Deciding it was best to hand steer from this point I was situated near the VHF in the cockpit and it also seemed to be the time a lot of chatter started going on. Or a live broadcast of ‘The Real Idiots of Wayne County’ as I like to call it. Within 45 minutes there was an obviously unsupervised child getting on channel 16 talking a bunch of nonsense and then talking back to the Coast Guard when the reprimanded the child for using and international hailing and distress channel. This continued on for 15 minutes. Then after a short break we were treated to some obviously drunk people (I’m hoping they were) who called in a false distress call for their vessel going down. The woman at the Coast Guard was extremely frustrated and rightfully so. Sad part is I’m sure she deals with that on a daily basis. I lost count of how many times we heard her say ‘Channel 16 is for hailing and distress calls only. Please turn all other conversations to a working channel such as channel 9’.

Getting dropped out to St. Clair it was a beautiful and warm Sunday afternoon and the beaches were packed with powerboats anchored on shore or little islands and there were parties abound. Completely ready to join them by this time, we had now been on the water for 54 hours, we kept heading out into the lake before we were in deep enough water, 14 feet mind you, before turning and heading towards shore and what we were hoping was a protected achorage. Having a couple of very close calls while entering the channel that woul bring us to the achorage, our depth finder was reading 4.8 feet when we only had a draft of 5. Somehow we managed to keep from going aground and navigated through the 8 foot channel to find a small bay that was full with other sailing and power boats. Finding one open spot on the side we dropped anchor and dug it in. 56 hours on the water and 280 nautical miles covered. I think I’m ready for a margarita.

Matt keeping watch through high winds and waves (and we still had our flag).

It looks like the Mitt!

Just entering the St. Clair River.

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