Sailing Through Storms on the Great Lakes

The waters of Lake Huron are famous for their unpredictability and quickly changing conditions. I’m often asked about getting caught in storms while out sailing. Anyone that hasn’t been in storms that made them wonder if they would make it home or say they aren’t scared when in a storm at sea is lieing or hasn’t been in one.

This is a few storm tales that otherwise would not have made this section because the rest of the sail wasn’t worthy of a Tales page by itself. They range from magical to terrifying.

On the magical side is a rain storm I encountered sailing South along the coast of the thumb of Michigan above Port Sanilac. The air was light and I was motoring along on a bright sunny day enjoying some tunes and sipping an ice cold beer. Behind me to the North was some weather I was keeping an eye on for much of the day without much worry of it affecting me. After many hours of lazily cutting the smooth water the dark clouds started to gain on me slowly. The wall of rain became visible through the binoculars as it slowly closed in on me.

I soon realized that I couldn’t stay ahead of the front long and readied the boat for the rain stowing odd and ends below and breaking out the rain gear. Ready to do battle with the weather I sat and waited as the rain slowly caught up with me.

With the Peregrine steadily churning along on autopilot I enjoyed the bright sunshine, smooth as glass water, Tom Waits on the Bose speakers and a cold beer fresh out of the ice filled cooler as I kept an eye on the dark clouds gaining from behind. I was bummed out that such a picture perfect day was going to be ruined by the rain clouds chasing me down the coast.

As I finished my beer the wall of rain was getting real close. The curtain of water eased up and a finger of rain took the lead along the port side. The rain passed about 30 feet off the rail and cruised along beside me for about ten minutes while I watched in awe from the sunshine of the cockpit.

The finger of water racing alongside slowly eased back into the line of rain behind me stretching from the shore miles away all the way out to the horizon to the East. Slowly the wall of water behind me finally started to lick the tail of the boat. I walked up the side of the boat to the bow just ahead of the rain stopping at the cooler for a fresh beer and stood on the fore deck watching the rain drench the back half of the boat. The amazingly distinct curtain of rain stalled out just before the mast and held steady there soaking the back of the boat while I watched from the sunshine of the bow.

The rain line held at the mast for all of that beer and yet another. It was magical being able to walk up to the rain and actually stick my hand into the steady drizzle while standing dry. The rain and I ran hand in hand running South for what seamed like forever. It was pretty cool having to step a few feet into the rain to get a refill out of the cooler then jumping back onto the stone dry foredeck to dry off in the sun.

Eventually the rain got a burst of energy and pulled ahead of the boat a bit and I ran for shelter under the bimini umbrellas behind the wheel to finish my beer still smiling from the amazing ride I had just been on. The rain lasted for hours breaking just before I swung in between the break walls of the Port Sanilac Harbor to tie up for the night.

Then there are the flat out terrifying storms that anyone out cruising some distant on the Great Lakes will hit once or twice a season. The next two storms were both while crossing the mouth of Saginaw Bay on the thirty-five mile passage from Port Austin at the top of the thumb of Michigan North to Tawas Bay and East Tawas. I have always said that this stretch has a reputation of being both the best day of sailing and the worst day of sailing all on the same day.

I had been holed up in Port Austin for a few days waiting for the seas to settle down enough to make the crossing. The North winds had the waters churned up pretty bad with high winds and nasty fifteen footers pounding the seawall around the clock. Not a boat came in or out of the normally busy harbor for days.

Finally the Coast Guard weather report was looking better. Three to five footers and a thirty percent chance of thunder storms with a possibility of waterspouts. With a West wind filling the sails I jumped out of the harbor headed North. Everything went great. I set the coarse on the autopilot and kicked back enjoying the beautiful blue water and clear skies.

Land behind me had long since disappeared and the shore line in front of me was due to come up over the horizon at anytime. Forming ahead of me on the horizon was a large fog bank off to my right. I adjusted my coarse five degree to the West in hopes of skirting around It. Storm cells on the open water seem to have a search and destroy feature. The more I tried to dodge it the faster it seemed to come after me growing in size. The wind slowly shifted out of the South and seemed to be getting sucked into the fog. I turned West aborting my coarse to the Tawas Bay Light and with full sails up I tried to out run the growing wall of fog.

As the fog bank grew the flashes from lightning deep inside got stronger and stronger. When weather comes off of the warm land out over the cold water sometimes the storm cells will get sucked down low across the lake. This was a big ass thunderhead that we are used to seeing up in the sky. This storm cloud had dropped down right to the water and wanted me. You think they look menacing in the sky you should see one face to face.

I had readied the boat for rain and had the foulies on. I was sailing my ass off parallel about a mile South of the fog with the toe rail to the water when the wind all at once quit and the boat shot straight up sails hanging limp.

The hair was standing up on my neck as I hit the key and fired up the motor, aimed her dead south and hit the autopilot running for my life from the fast approaching yet amazingly calm looking fog bank. I furled in the fore sail and locked it down then headed up to the mast to drop the main sail. You don’t want to be caught with your sails up when things turn ugly.

Before I could get the line released to drop the big sail the fog bank caught up with me and all hell broke loose. An explosion of wind came from the North out of the cloud catching the loose sail filling it with a bang. The autopilot couldn’t keep up with the sudden blast of wind and the boat swung around into a broach putting the toe rail to the water. The sun was blocked out once I was in the cloud and all was dark.

I managed to crawl back to the relative safety of the cockpit and released the autopilot to nose her into the wind to let the air out of the main sail before the mast broke. The wind speed indicator was holding steady at sixty knots of wind (70 mph).

I struggled to keep the nose pointed into the constantly changing wind direction. The needle on the wind point dial was swinging violently. I knew if the wind got a hold of the sail again I would lose the mast or worse. Visibility was zero because the water was being picked up and blown by the wind and the thick cloud blocking out the sun.

I couldn’t turn the wheel fast enough to follow the wind shifts and had to just start throwing it one way or the other and let it spin wildly. The airborne water was so painful I couldn’t open my eyes in the direction of the wind. It was like riding a motorcycle in the rain with no eye protection or windshield.

Being twelve miles offshore and in over a hundred feet of water with no land in sight I had no worry of hitting anything natural. I sat in front of the wheel laying down in the lee of the front of the cockpit. I don’t have a dodger so I was exposed to the raw wind. Reaching behind me I flung the wheel back and forth sailing blindly with only the wind point to guide me.

The sail was flapping loose and making a sickening sound of banging and slamming rigging. I bumped the engine up into the redline trying to keep control of the boat. I didn’t find out until later but the battens (fiberglass pieces several feet long that slid into well secured pockets and help shape the sail) were working loose and flying off the back of the boat one by one.

The wind held at sixty knots with higher gusts for around fifteen minutes before easing up to forty knots. That’s when the lightning started to fly around hitting the water. The bolts weren’t coming down like normal as the storm cloud was already on the water. It just twisted around in the fog bouncing in and out of the water. I could see the water look like it was boiling where the bolts of lightning grounded into the water. It actually had a smell to it every time it hit. I just knew there was no way I was going to get out of there without a mast full of lightning.

Once inside the storm cell the wind direction became more stable but got more gusty. The lightning eased up as the front of the storm passed. I took solace as the sunlight became steadily brighter. I was getting closer and closer to the backside of the cloud.

I eventually emerged from the backside of the cloud into the bright sunlight and calm water, beaten and bruised but still upright and moving. I climbed back behind the wheel to see where I was on the GPS. The track line from my path was a twisted series of loops overlapping each other like someone had been doodling on the chart.

The wind was spinning around from side to side and often straight down from above with no rhythm or reason. I found I was running dead East away from my destination. I set my course heading to the North West and set the autopilot.

After dropping the main sail and tying her down I made a quick inspection of the boat before settling back into the cockpit for the last two hours of the trip around the Tawas Bay Light and up to the East Tawas State Harbor. Even after I got enough wind to break out the sails I just continued on the motor leaving the sails stowed away all the way to the dock out of complete exhaustion. Since then I try to drop my sails much earlier when the ugly stuff pops up.

The last recount I’ll bore you with was in the same stretch of water years later. The sail into Port Austin that trip is the short video clip on my video page titled “A day in the life of“.

The weather was getting rough as was documented in the video. I holed up in Port Austin for a couple of days waiting for a weather window for the jump across the big bay. The weather funnels out of the shallow bay for 30 or 40 miles before dumping out into the deep cold water and makes bad things happen.

The marine weather called for five to ten footers and a South west wind of 10 to 15 knots. That should put the wind and waves pretty much going the same way I am. Five foot waves off the stern is fine, ten footers are a little bit of a pain in the ass but doable.

I had crew driving in from the Atlantic coast to sail the next week’s leg of the trip with me and I had to meet them in East Tawas that evening so I was willing to push the weather odds a bit to make my pick up point.

All went well out of the gate. I was the only boat willing to try getting out of the harbor heading North. A few rolled out heading South counting on the offshore winds to make for smooth water. Going North the wheel o’chance of the Saginaw Bay kept the Northbound boaters at dock.

This time the fun started only a few miles into the trip. The winds kicked up from the west to a steady twenty knots. I furled the fore sail in and ran the main as I rocketed North leaving land far behind me. The waves kept building bigger and bigger. Ten footers turned into fifteen footers but all was good and I was flying along at a steady eight knots.

In short time the waves built up into twenty foot rollers coming to the port side from slightly behind me. It was a rough ride but damn I was making good time. Once I was out in the deep water the wind shot straight out of the bay. Before long I was sailing in thirty knots of wind with higher gusts. I decided to fire up the motor and drop the sail because the boat was being overpowered by the wind. Keeping the boat steady in the big ass waves was a two handed wrestling match.

I swung her around into the waves and wind and set the autopilot. The boat was being badly twisted in the waves and before I got to the mast to drop the sail the steel belted drive belt in the autopilot snapped under the strain! The autopilot was turning one way and the wheel was going the other.

The bow caught the next wave and was thrown around in the opposite direction and the loose sail caught air. The fight was on!

I made it back to the wheel and struggled to get her back in control.

I set up again for a sail drop and upon engaging the autopilot I quickly realized what went wrong on try number one. The main sail will not drop unless the boat is pointed directly into the wind. With no way to do that I had no choice but to sail her out. The boat fought to turn right as I scaled up the waves and left as I surfed down the waves. It took all my might to hold the wheel steady. I was holding 12 and 13 knots per the GPS on a boat that has a terminal hull speed (as fast as it can go no matter what) of ten knots.

I braced my feet against the sides of the cockpit and muscled the wheel for hours. Years later both of my feet still have the marks left from where I was worn raw and bleeding from the strain put through my legs fighting the wheel.

I spent the afternoon riding out 20 and 25 foot waves and 35 knot winds. I couldn’t let go of the wheel to rest, eat, drink or pee the whole way.

The thirty-five miles usually takes five to seven hours to sail. I made the crossing in three and a half hours that day. It was both scary and exciting. I just hoping everything would hold together long enough to let me brag about the speeds I was holding, with only one sail yet! Once I raced past the Tawas Bay Light I swung up and around behind the Tawas reef out of the waves and got the wheel to lock down long enough to drop the sail then motored the last mile and a half into the harbor.

I was the only boat in or out that day and several boats were damaged right in their slips from the winds. I had plenty of help tying her up as the other boaters came over to hear how bad the waters were out there. I limped up onto the dock like an old pirate, feet bleeding looking like I had been in a fight and exclaimed, you don’t wanna go out there!

Most sailors don’t single-hand or run long distances and as such can pick and choose their sailing days better. Fair weather boaters do avoid the trauma, risks and dangers of rough weather, but are you really living your life to the fullest if you don’t push your limits to the very end once in a while?

If you don’t absolutely scare the shit out of yourself periodically, how can you justify to yourself when laying on your deathbed that you lived life to the fullest and didn’t just coast along wasting opportunities and adventures. Don’t end up wishing there was more to look back on than working overtime and cutting the grass..

A man has got to know his limitations. You don’t learn what those are sitting in a recliner all weekend watching someone else drive a race car or play football on TV…