Monday, July 09, 2007

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale

A geocaching associate of mine invited several of us to join him on his sailboat on an expedition across Lake Erie to Long Point, Ontario to log a cache there. I have never been either out on the lake or sailing so I immediately agreed. The plan was to go up Friday and camp dockside at Presque Isle, set out on Saturday the 22 miles across to Long Point, a transit expected to take 4 hours. Cache and camp and then come back on Sunday. Sunday would be against the wind and so would take longer but we should still have plenty of time.

The way that plans and expectations started coming undone gave me warning of things to come but once the die is cast, there is nothing else to be done. The first thing was learning the experience of the Cap'n, most of which was on a smaller boat on Lake Arthur. He had bought this 25 footer earlier this year and had been on several trips out onto the lake but had never transited the width of the lake and not for as long as we would be out.

The 10-15 mph winds out of the west we were supposed were going to change on Sunday afternoon to come out of the southwest. This would make our journey back even longer but, even so, we should have had plenty of time.

Turning on our GPS units on Saturday when we left the dock gave the distance to long point at 26 miles, not the 22 as expected, the difference between measuring in nautical miles and statute miles. This confusion lengthened the transit time.

The Cap'n gave me the rudder out of dock and I did a pretty good job of steering through the Presque Isle channel with the mainsail up. But when we rounded Gull Point and he put up the jib to really catch the wind, I had much more trouble, at one point heeling us over to the freeboards (50 degrees) and almost dumping us out of the boat. I was able to regain control and was allowed to remain at the helm.

Over the next 5 hours I learned quite a bit but was not good enough to make the top speed of 7 mph. The winds were stronger so the expected 1.5-2 foot waves turned out to be 2-3 feet. In the end, by the time we came about into the relative shelter of Long Point Bay, we had traveled about 35 miles, dock to anchorage in 8 hours.

The original plan was that we would camp ashore, or rather two of us would camp and the Cap'n would stay on the boat because he was recovering from a major spinal injury and needed the extra padding that was on the boat. The vast swarms of mosquitoes and the need to get moving as soon as possible to beat the afternoon wind change lead us to decide to stay on the boat. Being a light sleeper, I chose to stay lay out on deck rather than share the cabin with two other guys (with good odds of at least one snoring).

The breeze was cool but not chill, driving away the bugs. The boat swung back and forth at anchor but with few significant waves. The night sky was dark and incredibly filled with stars, the Milky Way as the Backbone of Night stretching horizon to horizon. I almost thought that this moment alone made the entire trip worth it.

The next morning we weighed anchor around 6 am but it was already too late. The winds were out of the southwest and we would have to fight them the entire way. A few hours of sailing and we could still clearly see the Long Point Lighthouse. Then, we had to tack west in an effort to align ourselves up on a beat towards Presque Isle and we were sailng back towards Long Point. That went on for a few hours before we finally got the chance to turn south.

We were sailing into the wind and waves at a 45 degree angle. Waves were up around 4 feet with an occasional 5 foot swell. I was working hard on each wave trying to keep a balance between a smooth ride on the rollercoaster waves and as much wind in the sails as I could. And it was hour on hour of this with only the previous day's experience. I could spend about 4 or 5 seconds at a time to look around t some of the massive freighters that passed by but then had turn turn my attentions to controlling the boat.

At 3 pm we had sailed 30 miles and was still a dozen miles out from Presque Isle. I had held a surprisingly straight and steady course southward but we had drifted east and would have to tack again to get to the harbor.

Then the rudder broke.

The 1/8" thick bar of stainless steel rated at 6,000 lbs that mounted the rudder to the boat snapped like a dry stick. As it twisted in my hands and the boat swung itself into the waves I hauled it in to keep it from dropping to the bottom of the lake. The Cap'n began a mild panic, trying to look over the side and assess the damage instead of doing what was really necessary at that point; bringing down the sails before the wind took us where it wanted us to go. I had to tell him to drop sail.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for us to get the outboard motor started and begin the long, arduous task of pushing us through 5 and now occasional 6 ft waves at 2 mph towards Erie. Once we got to the lee of the peninsula, the waves began to calm somewhat and our speed improved somewhat, maxing out at about 4 mph.

We pulled into dock after 7 pm.

The Cap'n admitted what I already knew; he would not have been capable of sailing under those conditions for as many hours as I did. He said that if the outboard hadn't started, he would have considered abandoned the boat which, even with what little I know, is the absolute last thing someone should do. He might be able to get away with that on Lake Arthur but Erie would kill you for it. My endurance and calm, steady resolve carried us through what could have been a disaster.

I'm still not sure what to make of it all. On the one hand, I have said myself that "too much advance planning makes for a boring story." But, in this case, not enough advance planning could have led to a fatality. To swing it back the other way, I never once felt like our lives were in danger, even with broken rudder and heavy chop.

Just don't ask me to do it again any time soon.

No comments: