We set sail on a lovely day unaware that we would survive a squall. Little did we know that extreme adventure and a near death experience were in our future when we began our journey along the familiar coast of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula.
The allure of freshwater and lush green islands make this area popular for sailing, Sure, we knew that weather on the Great Lakes could be challenging and unpredictable – sometimes even deadly. Just a week earlier, news reports indicated that two experienced sailors had died when their 35-foot sailboat WingNuts capsized during a storm on Lake Michigan in the Race to Mackinac.
But on this day in July 2011, we woke to a sunlit sky and a gentle onshore breeze, ideal for day sailing. This was intended to be our final sail aboard Tara. Her owner, my father, had decided to sell the 36-foot cutter after 20 years of enjoyment.
Anticipating a lovely cruise, we set sail from Fish Creek. Our course would take us past Little Strawberry Islands, around Chambers Island, and back. The forecast called for a change in weather with the possibility of an evening storm, but we expected to be back and dining ashore.
For the better part of the morning, we sailed under a light breeze and sunny skies. We shared stories and captured memories. Our guests, my aunt and uncle, were delightfully entertaining. I navigated and served as crew, while my 85-year old father assumed his rightful role as skipper.
By late morning, wind and waves had kicked up making cruising even more enjoyable. We dropped anchor for a light lunch in a protected bay. It was quiet in the northwest where storms typically arise. We checked the forecast again just to be sure. (NOAA marine forecasts are available through the National Weather Service)
While my aunt prepared lunch, I took a brisk swim. Then I noticed an unusual occurrence. There were no surface waves. Yet underneath the surface, I felt current building and a surge. After 20 years of racing on Lake Michigan, I could sense danger even without other signs of changing weather. Instinctively I climbed aboard,
encouraged everyone to finish lunch and promptly set sail for homeport.
We tacked into the wind to clear a shoal. As we made our way along the eastern shore of Chambers Island, the wind shot to 18 knots. Across Green Bay I noticed a squall forming.
As winds continued to build, I distributed foul-weather gear, life jackets and safety harnesses before the rain came. I checked to make sure the radio, EPIRB (emergency beacon), radar and GPS were operational so we would be prepared.
After what happened aboard WingNuts the week before, there was much discussion about the merits of using safety harnesses. If we became entangled, we needed to be able to cut free. Was a harness really necessary? There was no time for a debate! We each made our own decision.
Then the wind out of the northwest climbed above 25 knots. We took down the sails so we could motor home. We had hoped to stay ahead of the front. Within minutes of taking down the sails, the skies turned dark and ominous. Barometric pressure dropped. We got hammered with rain! The storm moved overhead. It was only mid-afternoon, yet day turned into night. Bad weather hit us long before predicted.
Although operating under bare pole and motor power, the mounting waves and 40-knot wind caused the yacht to heel over. We hung on for dear life as wind and waves continued to build! Anything could happen but there wasn’t a thing we could do. Nature would take its course.
I secured my safety harness to the mahogany after taffrail to be near my father. Dad had not taken time to put on his life jacket or safety harness, so I held onto his foul-weather jacket to keep him from being washed overboard. My aunt and uncle sat low on the cockpit sole to avoid being pitched out.
With a strong weather-helm, the wheel became extremely difficult to handle. Autopilot was of no use. The job required sheer strength, determination and a cool head. Our guests remained calm while my father wrestled with the helm and we contemplated the best course of action. Could we out run the storm?
After rounding the last mark, the northwesterly wind was on our port quarter and still building. Our options were: ride the wind into the harbor; ride out the storm offshore; or, head back into the squall and hope it would quickly pass overhead. These options were not without risk.
This was scary and the worst was yet to come. Would we survive? There were waterspouts forming ahead. The storm raged all around us with wind gusts from gale to hurricane force. According to my father, the anemometer registered 77 knots, roughly 86 miles per hour!
The storm front rolled over us as we made way toward homeport. With this wind direction, getting into any slip, even a temporary one, would be extremely difficult. Powerboats raced ahead easily beating us into port, capturing most of the transient slips. Would a temporary slip be available and accessible in these conditions? If not where would we find shelter from the storm?
We found temporary shelter in the lee of a large motor yacht secured to the main dock. It blocked the worst of the wind and sheltered us for the time being. We spun Tara in circles to stay tucked behind the motor yacht, prepared to ride out the storm there if necessary.
With help from those on shore, we eventually secured a temporary slip for the night. With skillful maneuvering we were able to motor Tara into a slip while being knocked about in the wind. We succeeded in docking safely under extreme conditions. Nobody aboard Tara was injured.
The next day the sun came out and life continued. For us, our story ended well. Our hearts go out to the skipper and crew aboard WingNuts and to all sailors caught sailing in through a violent storm on the Great Lakes.
After two decades living our dreams aboard Tara, our final sail was truly a “grand finale,” an adventure I will long remember for testing our survival skills.
© 2012 Anne Wall, All Rights Reserved.