the all-seeingeye When Not to Sail the Great Lakes

This is the route we took.


In November (that's right, November) of 1997, I volunteered to help a friend bring his newly-purchased 30-foot Cape Dory Cutter around the state of Michigan, from Sutton's Bay to Windsor, Ontario, where it was to be berthed. This is a brief account of that trip, taken from my journals and the navigation log which I kept.

Day 1:

Depart Sutton's Bay around noon. Suffer a light grounding on a sandbar whose buoys have been pulled for the season. Removed buoys will prove to be a theme for the rest of the trip. Motor sail into Traverse Bay. Pick up a mostly stern wind with 10-12 foot swells. Boat spends much of the time with its transom almost level with the water. Excellent sailing, but the boat has a large rudder delay and the nasty habit of trying to come around to the wind. Jibing becomes the day's activity. Largely uneventful day shaking down and learning the sail rig for this boat. Put up in Charlevoix for the night.

Day 2:

Calmer weather today, but still from astern. Attempt (foolishly) to light alcohol galley stove to make coffee. Extinguish galley fire. (Note: dry chem fire extinguishers don't work real well on alcohol) Clean mess up, and discover previous owners have removed vital parts of stove which would have prevented fire. Spend most of the day motoring with sails raised. Cut across shallows off Waugoshance point near abandoned lighthouse east of Grays Reef Passage. Macinack Bridge in sight. Cross the bridge just about sunset. Rain begins and temperature drops. Put up in Macinac City Harbor.

Day 3:

Cold and misty, later clearing. Depart Macinac City for Presque Isle. Sunset within sight of Presque Isle Harbor. Decide to continue on and make up for shortened first day. New destination: Harrisville. Safely navigate inner passage along shore to Thunder Bay Point by GPS and light/landmark bearing. Wind still mostly astern, we run on motor and sail to hold course. Seas about 7-8 feet, no stars, almost no moon. About 5 miles into Thunder Bay, we notice that the jib has come unstowed and is whipping against the bowsprit anchor. I go forward to secure it. As I am working on the bow, the engine quits and a gust whips the boat around. The Genoa flops over the deck, picks me up and throws me into the pulpit rail, pinning me there at the full length of my safety harness for the next ten minutes or so with my outboard leg dangling in the water, while the others wrestle to get the boat under control. They can neither hear me over the wind, nor can they see me through the sail. Manage to crawl back to the cockpit and we spend the next half hour or so dismantling the control panel and learning how, exactly, one goes about hot-wiring a Volvo in steep waves in the dark. Engine restarts. After an hour or so, the engine quits again. Restart engine and proceed. Engine fails again, and we decide to sail a slightly different course. Wind and waves make it impossible to enter Harrisville without an engine. At 3:00 AM we anchor off in 20 feet or so and wait for morning. I stand anchor watch in the rain and just barely above freezing temperature. I doub't I'd have slept with two freshly cracked ribs anyway.

Day 4:

Manage to start engine and motor into harbor. Diesel mechanic arrives, and we discover that our tanks are almost half full of water. It is possible that the float valve in the tank vent is not functioning, and that a day of stern-down sailing has let almost 10 gallons of water into the tank. Pump out and replace fuel. Rig auxiliary tank on cabin top in case problem repeats itself. Cast off and head south under motor. Winds less than 1 knot at north end of Saginaw Bay. Engine quits again, leaving us adrift as current and light breeze cause us to drift toward shipping lane offshore. Make all sail and best course for steerage way. Work to purge fuel lines and re-prime engine. Decide to restart engine only in emergencies, as it seems to work for only about half an hour before clogging back up. Wind picks up across Saginaw Bay at sunset, presenting us with a reaching course that points straight at Port Austin harbor entrance. Making best speed of the trip at 11-12 knots. With breakwater in sight at about 12:30, we lower sails and proceed under engine-which quits about 50 yards from the harbor. Come about and raise sail, and restart engine. Rain, and fog, with limited visibility make harbor mouth a bit hard to find. Manage to get inside and feel our way to a berth, making the last twenty yards unpowered, as the engine cuts out again. Make safe berth. Seek out nearest bar. Note to mariners: a large neon sign proclaiming BAR in 4' high letters will be visible from dockside in every port on the Northeast shore of the state.

Day 5:

Field strip entire fuel feed system-including injector pump check valves while crammed head down in the port side cockpit locker. (For the non-nautical, this is a roughly coffin-shaped box at the waterline, which reeks of diesel fuel and rocks back and forth in the 1-2 foot chop inside the harbor.) Elapsed repair time, some four and a half hours. Return to bar and rent small cabin for the night.

Day 6: (The anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald)

Having reorganized the boat and stowed everything heavy or sharp, we plan to go out into a steady 30 knot north wind with 6-8 foot waves and whitecaps. There is quite a bit of chop inside the breakwater. Waves are breaking over the outer harbor wall in a few places, but the wind direction is perfect for clearing the shoals north of town and shaping a course for Port Huron, which we should be able to reach in about 8-10 hours even reefed. Casting off and clearing the berth prove difficult in the high wind. And the engine stalls (not clogged this time) going through neutral. (Later inspection when the engine is pulled reveals that we have been running on ONE cylinder) Not a problem except we are drifting around in a tight harbor. At some point in the next few minutes of excitement, a line goes over the side, and when we do get restarted, fouls the prop. We manage to manhandle the boat into a slip and begin to inspect for damage. The force of the rope wrapping around the shaft has dismounted the engine. Thus ends the voyage.

The next two days are spent preparing to haul the boat out and have it shipped overland. This requires a crane, hydraulic boat trailer, several miles of lines stretched around the harbor, and my spending 16 consecutive hours driving from Port Austin to Detroit to Windsor to Saugatuck to Port Austin and back to Detroit. It was fun.

Did she ever make it home? See the continuation.

After putting out the stove

Crew sights Macinac Bridge

Northern Lake Michigan

Hotwired ignition

Cottage in Port Austin

Engine repairs

Port Austin breakwater

Crippled boat secured in the harbor