PASSAGE IN A STORM
Apostle Islands, Lake Superior 2011
Walking on sunshine, I go up the cliff's stairs to Outer Island Lighthouse, which are four stories high. It's not exactly drudgery, but I am not having fun either, being a bit blue. Going over my plans for the day, it seemed reasonable to visit the lighthouse grounds one last time before sailing away to a safer anchorage. Walking the right side of the grounds to get the best view, see something new, and hoping to stir up the dragon flies once again. Yesterday, they had been out in the hundreds - well, actually thousands. I had never seen anything even close to this before.
Taking the trail into the woods, I ended up at a small stream with an old beaver dam. It needed some freshening up, but then so did I. Barefoot, I did not want to catch my feet on tiny twig stumps jutting out of the dam logs. Turning around, I walked back towards the lighthouse. Stopped at the brick outhouse and looked in. Willing to, but couldn't because the building was locked up tightly.
Then I noticed the doorway, door, and knob: they looked like something out of a professional photographer's portfolio. You could spend a lot of effort and never duplicate the crazy textures thrown together by man and "Mother Superior". Glossy smooth paint with long horizontal cracks on the doorway, a shiny faux tortoise shell door knob surrounded by alligatored paint. Turning on my Pentax W90, I took a close-up. I had a feeling of satisfaction, for coming back up Island to look for something new.
The day before, Craig Blacklock had greeted me from the beach, after having kayaked out on his own to photograph the lighthouse for his new book on the Apostles. He's kayaked 3,000 plus miles on Lake Superior. His experience told him that the coming storm would stay along the mainland coast, which is what NOAA was suggesting, too. Craig had left earlier, going around the East side of the Island to avoid any wind and waves from the predicted thunderstorm. It was time to get out of there.
The night before it had looked safe to anchor out, but this was the most exposed and dangerous bay in the Apostles. Rationally, I had dragged my Wayfarer up the sloped stony beach with my pulley system. However this put the boat's floorboards at a bad angle. The reward was a fitful night's sleep. At dawn, using the pulleys, I dragged the boat off the shore into the water. The sails were already hoisted, so I was quickly underway.
Rounding the NW corner I discovered the full force of the wind, so I ducked back into the its lee in order to put one reef in the main. This would reduce my wind profile and chances of capsizing from a sudden change in wind speed or direction. As with everything else, this decision was made mechanically and with logical thought. My emotions had to be counted out as unreliable.
The westerly wind forced me on a course over the top of North Twin Island, right into the wide open Mother, which she certainly would be if the thunderstorm reached out this far. Tacking over to port put me south of Cat Island and ruled out my hopes of making Rocky Island by evening. But I was sailing rationally, trying to avoid any big mistakes or weather. The sky overhead was becoming uniformly gray. Concentrating on the wind and my sails, I heard this low key wail and realized it was me. The pain from the new sandfly bites on top the old was just too much! I was involuntarily moaning. It reminded me how depressed I was, yet still sailing and keeping my thoughts on the task at hand.
The thunderclouds were forming to the west and south. Then the lightning flashed against the southern darkness. Counting the seconds between the lightning strikes and thunder claps, I noted the lightning was around 22 miles away. The sandflies had stopped biting my feet and dying by flyswatter. Guess we both now had better things to do. Progress was good about 5.5 knots upwind, and we were nearing the halfway point. But the wind did not let off, forcing me to tack, tack, tack. With the temperature falling, cold spray blowing, my body core temperature was dropping, slowly bringing on the urgent call of mother nature. I tried to get through the many layers: dry top, rain pants, shirt, shorts, and long johns. The self steering line was not working well, forcing one hand to tend the tiller, and I was getting a bit frantic. "Screw it!" I wet my pants and kept sailing. (Al's note: a classic occasion where my R&R position always works a treat even in winds of 50+ knots.) Forcing my thoughts off humiliation, I looked at where I was. Sterling storm clouds, strong wind, a stray sunbeam to the south, challenging but hopefully manageable weather. This is what I had wanted to do, depression be damned.
Then thunderclouds popped up over the Cat Island, coming dead at me. They were not welcome. The lightning strikes weren't either, but timing the thunder told me they were 8 miles ahead and 11 miles overhead. They never struck closer. "Thank you, God!" Then the rain began to spit little drops, an encouraging sign that heavy wind would not follow. Between tacking and heaving to, tending gear and relieving myself, I was still only halfway. This crossing was taking forever! A line of dark gray started up the south end of Cat Island. It was heavy rain creeping its way up the shore, very slowly, teasingly threatening me.
Half an hour later, dead ahead, the entire shore went white! I had seen this before, rain driven by high speed winds. A knockdown was coming; I would capsize and die of hypothermia before I could right the boat! My mind told me I was cooked, that it would all be over shortly, and there was nothing I could do about it! Heaving to, a second reef went in smoothly, thanks to having put in the first one as a precaution. Oddly, I think it was my depression that helped me stay objective and calm, despite my mind's dire warnings. I felt ready and kept sailing under control. If that white wall had been what I thought it was, it should have kicked my butt by now. Then it started just evaporating like fog, not moving at all. Mother Superior had pulled her punch, she had taught me a lesson in grace.
Sailing on double reefed, I had thought more of what could be coming than of what was happening. Finally, I looked down at the GPS and read 1.5kts. It was reasonable to put up full sail, and soon I was searching the sandy shore of Cat for an area with fewer rocks in the water. I picked my spot and set the anchor a little off the beach. Tonight I would sleep well, rocked gently by the waves. Two days later a National Park Service captain told me, "Strange storm the other day, they never come out this far." Fortunately, the full force of the storm did not reach the outer islands (40 knot gusts on the mainland, 30 knots further out).
When in a low pressure system you just need to keep sailing for a safe anchorage, and take it as it comes. Besides, some things are just so much more fun when they're over.
Four days later ...
... rowing up the west side of Devils Island to view the sea caves.
photos above courtesy of Wayne Hector
Left Devils Island at three thirty, sailed back into the Superior Waters Casino Harbor at 12:50 AM. Hey, it was my brithday, Aug 27, and I wanted to sail at night. I think I averaged under 2 knots. Pulled up on shore, pulled the sail up over my head and went to sleep, just like Margaret Dye.
Addendum: A great guide that includes the Apostle Islands is Superior Way by Bonnie Dahl. With the many anchorages and sandy beaches to pull out on, a careful sailor can find safety when needed. So go! I sailed depressed for 15 days, and Neko Case, talking about her depression, says it best,
“The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight,
the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.”