The mainsail was reefed and the 110 genoa was pulling hard as "Robins Nest" crashed through the huge waves. The wind and sea conditions were much worse than the forecasted 10-15 knots and 1-3 foot waves. But the boat was moving well as Beaver Island grew nearer every minute. Behind us was our first Lake Michigan crossing and ten great days of exploring Green Bay's Door County Peninsula. This was the half way point of the cruise and more familiar waters lie ahead.
Earlier that day we had left Washington Island, Wisconsin and our friends on "Bonnie Jean." They were also crossing today, but were heading for Frankfort. The security of having another boat near was gone. We were on our own!
As we neared the southern tip of Beaver Island the wind began to die. The reef was taken out of the main and then the 150 was hoisted. But mother nature soon decided it was time for us to motor. As we motored on, we heard a familiar voice on the VHF. It was Gary & Jean on "McKenna." They were making their annual July fourth voyage to the "Beave" and were motor sailing up the eastern side of the island. Perhaps our sail wasn't over for the day.
It actually felt pretty good to be level for awhile. Our bodies had become accustomed to the 20 degree heel of the last 10 hours. This was a great time for a snack and a cold drink. As we relaxed in the cockpit, we noticed the club burgee was beginning to flutter. It was time to raise the head sail again. We'd have a pleasant downwind run to St. James Harbor. The sky was a beautiful blue, not a cloud to be found. What a great way to end the day!
By the time genoa was raised and the halyard tied off the wind had changed from a pleasant light breeze to a full gale. It was impossible to trim the sail as the mast flexed forward. A quick glance at the knot meter showed that the needle was buried at 10+ and our little 27 Catalina was flying downwind. Getting the headsail down was no problem but keeping in on deck was a real battle. With safety harness snapped on, the wrestling match with the sail seemed to last forever. Finally the sail was lashed down!
The howling wind and vibration of the mast brought our two sleeping crew members out of the cabin immediately. The four of us sat silently as we watched the rolling waves increase in size. The frothy white caps were being blown horizontally and were pelting our faces like broken pieces of glass. The boat seemed to shudder as it raced along under bare poles.
The radio, which could barely be heard, blared out numerous calls to the Coast Guard at Charlevoix. We weren't the only boat out in this blow. Our thoughts turned to our friends who were probably near the Manitou's and heading right into the wind.
Keeping the vessel under control as we surfed down the waves had become quite a challenge. Suddenly my concentration was broken as someone shouted "my GOD look at the dinghy!" Our inflatable had become airborne and was along side the boat beating against the shrouds about eight feet off deck. Before anyone could react the dinghy flipped upside down and dove under the water.
The water filled dinghy made a great sea anchor as our speed immediately dropped from 6+ knots to 1 knot. At this rate it would take 6 hours to reach the harbor. No amount of pulling on the tow line would bring the dinghy up. Our only alternative was to cut her loose. One slash from the rigging knife and our new inflatable quickly bobbed to the surface and sped off toward shore.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we spotted the buoys which mark the entrance to St. James Harbor. For the past hour I had dreaded the thought of making the turn into the harbor. Passing between the buoys, which marked the rocks on either side of the cut, would put us beam to the wind & waves. This was not a pleasant thought but we had no choice.
Slowly we eased the tiller to a course which would take us into the relatively calm harbor. It seemed as though the wind was still building as each wave crashed against the hull or broke over the cockpit. Not a word was spoken as we slowly made our way past "Looney Point" and into the bay. Several boats were anchored just inside the harbor and seemed to be holding well. The Wind still blew furiously but at least the seas were smaller.
"Robins Nest . . . Robins Nest . . . Robins Nest, where are you and how are you doing?" echoed the radio. It was Gary from "McKenna." "We're wet, we're exhausted, we've had enough sailing for one day, and we need a slip!", was our reply. Unfortunately, this was July 3rd and there wasn't an available slip in the harbor. Anchoring was our only choice!
For the next two hours we attempted to get the hook to hold. The wind was just too strong and no matter what we tried the anchor would not set. It had been 14 hours since we had left the quiet fishing village at Washington Island, we couldn't circle in the harbor all night.
We keyed the microphone and called our friends on shore, asking for advice. Brian, the skipper of "Irish Mist", a real Beaver Island veteran, answered our call. "It'll be impossible to set an anchor in this wind, the bottom is poor, and it's been blowing 50+ knots for the last three hours", was his reply. "The ferry dock is open and the next ferry isn't due until morning. It's not legal, but why don't you pull in there, it's you only choice. Have your lines ready, we'll get a gang over to try to catch them. But it we miss you'll be blown into the boats rafted off the city dock! GOOD LUCK!" "Let's go for it!", was my reply.
The crew readied the lines as I turned the boat toward the dock. As we approached we could see the dock lined with 10 or more sailors! What a great sight! The first mate and crew, even though very tired, made perfect tosses! Our "old" and some "new" friends made perfect catches! We'd made it! "Welcome to beautiful Beaver Island! Glad your're here", called Brian.
That evening the wind continued to blow at 40-50 knots for another 10 hours! It was a long sleepless night as thoughts of what could have happened ran through our heads. After three years of cruising Lake Michigan we had finally experienced the fury of the "Big Lake." We had survived our first big blow!
For the remainder of our cruise "Mother Nature" supplied us with more than enough wind, but pleasant sails. "Bonnie Jean" also had a wild trip but came through it fine. Our dinghy washed up on shore near Looney Point and was returned to us on the Beaver Island Ferry at Charlevoix (which is another story in itself!).