Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Harbor To Harber

Harbors

First crossing.

The goal was to get across the Lake during that first summer with Speakeasy, a 35-year-old, 26-foot Columbia. There was a lot to do. There was a lot to learn. Speakeasy was our first boat and, since its cost was low--a double scotch--there was much to find, fit, and fix on her elderly but solid frame.

We had good help motoring from dry dock, a dozen miles and a few hours from the southern-most edge of Chicago to Monroe Harbor. The crew was familiar with Speakeasy, having variously raced her in beer-can events and across Lake Michigan. The previous owner was nearby, taking his new boat to her seasonal slip. The old outboard motor ran well once it got started--a finicky start as usual, as we were to learn.

We'd never stepped a mast before--never seen a mast stepping either. It was, as I imagined it, like a barn raising in that friends and neighbors were brought together for a single purpose. Teamwork was important. We learned the value of each crew member as one broke to a shout under the stress of placing a 45-foot pole into an 8-inch slot on the deck of a bobbing boat. Another crew member lost favor when he lost his concentration and endangered crew and boat. Everyone onboard was being sized for future duty. Was he steady, could she handle the tiller, could he follow orders, could she give them.

With so many things to learn, fix, and fit on Speakeasy, the summer went by fast. Learning the basics of mooring, docking, and raising and lowing sails was our main diet for the first month. We also practice throwing bits of hardware into the Lake and then attempting to order new ones from the local marine store or through online sources. It's common, I learned, to drop little screws, bolts, nuts, and tools into the drink when you're working on stanchions and roller furling. Everyone we talked to had a story of loss. Very few had a story that ended with the recovery of a the bit that went over. The project that took most of our time was fitting the roller furling, which entailed collecting the parts, reading the French/English documentation, and reordering bolts and nuts that we dropped along the way. This project waxed and waned as parts arrived, were tested, and often returned because the parts were wrong. Finally, in July, we furled the gennie with the roller and unfurled it again. That was a champagn evening on the water.

With the roller furling installed and adjusted, we were ready for the goal of the summer--crossing Lake Michigan. We watched the weather and timed our crossing to correspond to a free Friday and weekend and the offer of a slip in New Buffalo from a friend whose boat was not yet in th water. We left in the morning as soon as the tender service was available to take us to Speakeasy. The weather was perfect, but we knew the next couple of days would be less os.

The SW wind at 20 knots propelled us briskly on a beam reach. A borrowed GPS kept us on course and informed us of our progress. It also told us that our speed gauge was off by 10-per cent. Seeing the city shrink behind us and disappear was a thrill. About the same time that we lost sight of Chicago, we saw traffic in the shipping lane. Ore and coal ships were stocking the mills in Indiana. Fortunately, no ship was near and visibility was great.

We relaxed and prepared a cold lunch. Our galley included an icebox and dry sink--the water pump had broken over a year before. Braunschweiger and cheese sandwiches slaked by ginger ale. We'd eat much better once we reached New Buffalo. Before long, about 4 hours out, we began to see water towers on the Michigan shore. We got the glasses out and tried to determine the location of each tower. Gradually, the towers got larger and we could see other details along the shoreline including massive dunes and beaches. The harbor lights of New Buffalo came into view at about the 6 hour mark and we made our way toward it with only minor adjustment to Speakeasy's sails.

As we approached the outer harbor, we saw a 36-foot cruising sloop approaching the harbor ahead of us. What good fortune. We'd be able to follow this more experienced sailor into the narrow passage. What skipper could have less experience than we on our first trip? What we saw instead did not give us confidence. The sloop passed the mouth of the harbor, which made me think that they were not turning in. Next we saw them double-back and turn to the wind to douse their sails. Something must have happened during this maneuver, because the sloop tipped wildly before the mainsail was down and again after it was doused. The waves were breaking against the shallow, sandy bottom of the near shore. Waves that had been about 4 feet, were now 2 feet taller. Worse, the waves headed straight into the narrow harbor opening. We wanted to see how an experienced sailor maneuvered between the breakers and the concrete walls of the opening, but we were not watching an expert. We'd have to learn what we could from a less experienced sailor.

As we watched the sloop, we learned exactly what not to do. The sloop approached head on with the waves to the stern. The sloop had little control over the waves pushing and getting the boat pointed at the harbor opening must have been a chore. Just as it looked like she had enter the harbor safely, the sloop turned and took a wave to the beam tipping the craft wildly to port. The sloop was out of control an headed toward the north wall. Fortunately, the skipper righted her and steered her into and through the passage. Whew!. Now, we would have to try to do better.

With Beth at the tiller, we headed up and doused the sails. We hoped our little outboard motor would have enough power to get us out of any trouble the waves might cause. As we sized the situation, I asked Beth if she'd like to give up the tiller while we entered. She did gladly. Now it was up to me to do something sensible. Since the wind and waves were from the the Northwest, I decided to approach the harbor entrance from the South so that I could quickly head into any large waves while we approached the opening. It seemed to take forever to get near the mouth as we took wave after wave to our port. I determined that if I could get beside the opening and time the incoming waves, I could turn Speakeasy into the mouth and power forward with the waves until the northern wall protected us from them. At the point where we could turn into the mouth, a large wave approached and I had to turn into it. With that done, I turned Speakeasy about and pointed her into the harbor mouth. Waves hit us from the stern, but only propelled us in the direction we wanted to go. A minute later, we were safely behind the wall where the water magically became calm. Nothing like the waves a few feet behind us. We'd made it to New Buffalo!
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