Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reunion Cruises


s/v Bella (photo by Sherry)

 … and suddenly it's October.

Bella is out of the water for the winter and I am back on the road. My main job now is saving boat money for next summer. Perhaps I can get caught up on my writing as well.

August was a month of reunions. My brother, Tim, and his family were visiting the States from Switzerland. Tim's and my schedules lined up so that we could go sailing. I hope to get the rest of the family out when they return next year. Part of the old family crew [see below] was back together and we had a great day of sailing. Even Bella was enjoying herself in a brisk breeze and plenty of sunshine. I think that was the day I lost a hat.
Lost Hat

A few days later, my crew from the lake crossing came out for another sail. Dave and I had a nice sail and we took Bella out on the big lake. It was the first time that I had her on Lake Michigan since Dave and I crossed from Milwaukee, so it was a double reunion of sorts.

Bella was back in her element out on the big lake and the wind was just right on our return; opposite what it had been in June. We took up the challenge to sail all the way up the channel into Muskegon Lake without using the engine. Bella crept along, wind at her back, as other sailboats under power and all the powerboats were passing us. We had to wiggle past the sheriff and a boat they had stopped halfway down the channel. As we ghosted by the USS Silversides Museum, I said I thought we were going to make it all the way.

Dave and I under tow in June
“Shut up!” Dave exclaimed, “I've been trying not to jinx us by saying that.”

Bella gracefully took us all the way. It was quite a victory over having to get a tow last time.

As much as I enjoyed sailing with Tim and Dave, the important reunion was the privilege of sailing again with my Dad. Somewhere around 1976, Mom and Dad bought the family a sailboat. I had come back from scout camp with a Small Boat Sailing Merit Badge. During his Navy days, Dad did a Far East tour in the western Pacific on the USS Bennington (CV-20), an 872 foot Essex Class Aircraft Carrier. While he was aboard, the Bennington was sent to Sydney to help the Aussies celebrate ANZAC Day. He later helped build the USS Enterprise (CVN-65); 1123 feet long! We thought we were qualified to sail a 15 foot Chrysler Mutineer.

My sailing experience started with a Sunfish on Arrowhead Lake at camp. The Sunfish has a single lateen sail and is a good basic sailboat. Our Mutineer, a sloop we named the Luff Boat, had a furling jib forward of the mainsail. Sailing a sloop seemed more like proper sailing. Dad was my first captain.

Mom and sister Amy didn't appreciate the heeling motion of the Luff Boat as much as the guys. Our crew was most often Tim handling the jib sheets, me on the main sheet and Dad on the tiller. We drilled, practiced and sailed in bristol fashion. Dad called out “Ready About” and “Hard Alee.”

Our crewing was proper and salty but not really formal. We were all learning and we talked about the wind, the points of sail and navigation on the many Michigan lakes where we sailed. Dad let us try our hand at the tiller. It was with Tim and Dad that my love of sail began. With them, I began to get a 'wind sense' and some skill as a sailor; many of the most important moments of my life.

It was with Tim and Dad when I first got addicted to the sensation of a sailboat shouldering into the waves. With them, I first learned the quiet joy of gurgling along barely making way and felt the exhilaration when heeled over tearing across the water. I can still feel those delicioius moments hiked out over the windward rail with the boat heeling so much I could see the centerboard ghosting under the water over my shoulder.

Later, Dad was confident enough in my seamanship that I was allowed to take the boat out myself. Often towing her behind the family Chevette to go sailing with a buddy or a girlfriend. It was during these days that I discovered the true love of my life – sailing. These last eight years specifically, but really my whole life has been trying to get back to sailing. I had a few boats when I lived in Florida and even lived on one for a while. I've been working hard to get to the point that I can sail off for a while on an extended cruise. Turns out its a lot of work to set yourself up to be a boat bum.
Captain Dad

Back to this August, my cousin Sherry and her son Ben came out from New Jersey to see Grandma Curtis. While they were here I was going to take them for a ride. The dock where I kept Bella is not quite stable. I had been looking around for a dock or a pier that was more solid. Dad has some balance issues these days and I wanted him to be comfortable enough to come out and go for a sail. I hadn't found it yet, when two cars worth of family showed up to watch me take Sherry and Ben out. Dad came walking right out on the dock to greet me. I was elated! When Sherry decided to stay on shore and take pictures, I asked if anyone else wanted to come along with Ben and I. Dad stepped right up! It was fun to have Ben aboard and talk to him about sailing. He and his dad have a Sunfish they rescued and are sailing in Jersey. No offense to Ben, but to have my Dad, my original captain and sailing mentor aboard was incredibly important to me.
Ben

It was an auspicious day! The wind was such that we ended up sailing up the lake toward the city. We didn't make it easy for Sherry, the photographer, to get any good shots until we were coming back.

Next year is going to be a big year for Bella and I. These special moments will be along with us as we sail south.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Lake Crossing, Part Three

This is third of three posts. Find the first and the second.

Last I was telling the story, I thought I saw snow. The first week of June, Dave and I were sailing across Lake Michigan bringing my boat, s/v Bella, home from Milwaukee where I had found her. It was very cold. The Mid Lake Buoy had reported 39 degree water temperature midday Tuesday. We left that afternoon and sailed all night into Wednesday morning. After dark, I had occasionally shined a flashlight at the wind vane on top of the mast. Somewhere around 3:00a, I saw little flaky things blowing across the beam of light. I didn't need to see that.

By 5:00a or so, I figured that we were well across the northbound shipping lanes. We could rest easy that freighters were unlikely for the rest of the trip. About that time, I saw another sailboat. It was five or ten miles away, motoring south and west, a white hull and bare mast like a ghost in the moonlight. Put some damn sail up, I thought to myself. It was a beautiful night for a sail.

The sun came up and Bella started to warm up. We had most of the trip behind us. Though we were getting back into cellular range, our phones and Dave's iPad were running out of juice. I managed to text an ETA to our ground crew. Mom and Dad, and Nancy would be waiting on shore and taking lots of pictures. My optimistic ETA turned out to be wildly inaccurate, but that's sailing. 
Dave's iPad tracked us until its battery died.

Approaching Muskegon with more than 10 hours on the tiller, my brain started playing tricks on me. The coast ran for miles and miles to the south. The far away dunes looked for all the world like a jetty sticking out into the lake. The lighter color of the shallow water along the beaches could have been the mud trail of a river emptying into the big lake. Or it might be a sand bar! I strained my eyes, hand twitching on the tiller, ready to come about at a moment's notice.

Gradually, the coast came into better focus. I compared the smokestacks on the horizon with those on the chart. The GPS was locked in on the coordinates of the Muskegon jetty and it still wanted me to head a little south of east. I wasn't completely convinced but I trusted the stacks on the chart and the GPS. We sallied ... well, sailed forth.

On the Michigan side of the lake, the forecast was for stronger winds, 15-20 knots, and the chance of rain. Bella was in her element. She healed over, lee rail almost in the foam and I thought heard her snort like a thoroughbred. I felt safe and dry but was concerned about handling all the lines if I had to tack in a hurry. I called to Dave for help.

Headed more south than east with a shift of the wind, I could finally see the Muskegon jetties. We were pointing toward the beach north of the jetty but I wanted to get in close before tacking. It was going to be tricky getting up the channel. With Dave helping me sail Bella, I raised some signal flags to make a grand entrance into Muskegon. Dave called me Captain Subtle and teased that the drag of the flags was costing us at least a knot of forward progress. Nevertheless, Bella was decked out like a debutante and I was a proud skipper.

We tacked south toward the jetty. I waited as long as I could stand and we tacked in toward Muskegon but we couldn't make the channel. I'm not a racer and more than a little rusty anyway, but slicing acute angles out in the lake is hard. We sailed back to the north, then tacked down along the same track and past the entrance. I waited, waited some more, cursed myself, waited some more, and finally tacked – dammit – we missed the entrance again. Back to the north and then south again. This time closer to the end of the pier.

And then I heard the securite call from the Lake Express.

The Lake Express is the Milwaukee to Muskegon ferry. She was letting all stations know that she was coming into channel at Muskegon in ten minutes. I hailed them on the radio and practiced my real-sailor-radio-etiquette. On a working channel I told them that I was a sailing vessel also approaching Muskegon but would stay well out of their way.

Staying out of their way was a bit of a joke. The Lake Express crosses the lake in two and a half hours. We were almost 22 hours into our trip and only just approaching the coast. Worse yet, on our way out Tuesday, we had seen the ferry go into Milwaukee for the night. Here in Muskegon, Wednesday morning, she would enter the channel, cross Muskegon Lake, disembark her passengers, load again, and - dammit - leave for Milwaukee, all before we managed to enter the channel.

Back on Bella, we sliced as thin as we could closer to the jetty and then way, way past. This time, tacking back, we managed to enter the outer harbor. I was amazed how close to the wind Bella could sail! At times, she was headed so close into the wind, the wind vane practically pointed in the direction we were sailing.

We sliced back and forth inside the jetties; Bella was ripping. I could tell she just loved a broad reach. A broad reach is the fastest point of sail where a boat crosses the wind, rather than sails into it. Her theoretical hull speed is 6.4 knots. Dave called out when we hit 6 knots! It never felt like she was out of control. We were safe and dry and within a half a knot of her top speed. It was awesome sailing!

It was raining a little too.

I handed the tiller to Dave and went below to check the heading of the channel. If the wind direction out on the lake held near shore and I could get Bella pointed close to the wind on the starboard side of the channel, we could inch our way into the lake. We flew back and forth across the channel entrance looking for the right tack but we could not cut it close enough. The geography of the dunes and the seawalls of the channel funneled the wind straight out into the lake. Try as we might, we could not sail right into the wind and without an engine that was it. I dropped anchor just north of the channel mouth and called for a tow.

Next I had to get all those damn signal flags down. Even Captain Subtle can't make a grand entrance under tow.

The trip from outside the channel into the marina was complicated and at times infuriating. I'm not even sure I want to tell that part of the story. Nothing can diminish the fact that we made it. A couple of rusty sailors had crossed almost 75 miles of open water on the fifth largest lake in the world. We had survived more than 22 hours, overnight, just Bella and us against the elements. It was wonderful, it was amazing, and it is exactly what I have always wanted to do.
Home Dock, Torresen Marine

The Lake Crossing, Part Two


This is the second of three posts. Find the first and the third.

West Michigan is blessed with sunsets at the lakeshore. The population here is thick with sunset addicts. Actually people come from all over to savor the moments when the sun sizzles into the western horizon and splashes its colors across the clouds and sky. These sunset fans will all know the icy blue color the lake often gets in the fading light of the day. On our trip across the lake, as the sun flared orange and red over Lake Michigan, I was surrounded as far as I could see in every direction by that shimmering, living topaz blue.

I really should have woke my crew, Dave, to see the sunset. We had done the first six hours together and were going to split the rest of the night in three hour watches. I had let Dave take the first break. As the sun slid toward the horizon and the premature moon came out, I revelled in the fact that I was sailing my
own boat across Lake Michigan. It was glorious. In all my days and daydreams of sailing, I had longed for sailing beyond the horizon. I wanted to get to where I could not see land – anywhere. Like the sweaty junior high anticipation of actually dancing with a girl, I had no idea what I was doing or if I could pull it off, I just knew that I wanted to more than anything else. The night was a little overcast without many stars and it was getting cold. Dave wasn't due into the cockpit until 10:00p.

The lapping waves and gurgle of the boat moving through the water is as relaxing as you might imagine – in the cockpit. When Dave relieved me and I went below to catch a little sleep, I couldn't believe the racket! Imagine shrinking yourself to lay inside the drain of your bathtub as it empties, the loud rush of water was deafening. I wasn't sure I could sleep as excited as I was; let alone with all that racket. It hadn't occurred to me that in all my sailing, having never really sailed offshore, I was never down below underway. Soon I managed to slip off to sleep anyway.

And then the proximity alarm went off.

“What is that?!” Dave called from the tiller.

One of the reasons I've been so happy about getting Bella is how well equipped she is. The VHF radio, normally used for talking to other boats, bridge tenders, and marinas, is also equipped with GPS and AIS. The GPS is just like in your car without the streets. It tells me my latitude and longitude, plus which way and how far it is to a waypoint; a destination.

The radio also recieves AIS signals. Cargo ships, ferries and other commercial vessels are equipped with transponders that broadcast their name, call sign and heading. I had set up the radio to warn us when a big ship was seven minutes away. I just hadn't told my crew.

“He's lighting up our sails with a spotlight” Dave said.

I poked my head out the companionway and could see running lights of something big behind us. By his green and white lights, I knew he was headed north well behind us to the west. Their amazingly powerful spotlight was just a pinpoint out there, but a splash of light against Bella's white sails. There were a couple other boats north and east of us, but their lights were far enough away I couldn't make out which way they were headed. The AIS screen wasn't showing anyone on a convergent course. The couple of blips that were there were just skirting the circle, off in other directions. I laid down again but didn't sleep any more. As jazzed as I was just to be sailing that would be enough.

About 1:00a, on Wednesday now, we traded spots again and I was back on the tiller where I wanted to be anyway. It had gotten even colder! I had five layers on and draped the wool blanket across my lap when I settled in and got Bella in her groove. The joy soaked
back into me and kept me plenty warm. We were slightly north of Muskegon already. Later when the wind shifted, again in our favor, I slid Bella's bow more toward Muskegon. We hadn't tacked yet. We ran before the wind from Milwaukee, then leaned into a broad reach to the northeast and had just leaned into a reach toward Michigan. The boom hadn't crossed the boat since we were becalmed a mile from Milwaukee. The wind gods were taking good care of us.

Its funny how being skipper changes your attitude. The feeling of responsibility weighed on me. I couldn't have made the trip without Dave being along. He was a great help. Though I had considered making the trip alone, I couldn't have pulled it off. But with crew I was also responsible for more than just myself. Though it was more comforting than worrying, it was at the forefront of my thoughts.

At 4:00a Dave was to come back on watch. He woke up freezing cold and couldn't stop shivering. I was worried about him getting hypothermic. It was cold and damp now, but we hadn't ever closed up the companionway in the fair weather we'd had. When it got cold overnight, the cabin had gotten just as cold as the cockpit.  I had him heat up some water on the stove to warm the cabin and told him to stay down there. He bundled up and eventually fell back to sleep with a couple drop boards in the companionway and the stove on. Without an engine, any medical issue could have spelled the end of our trip and quite possibly the end of s/v Bella.

I was doing fine, until I saw snowflakes.
Well ... not quite this much snow.















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Last image from Flickr. Used without permission. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Lake Crossing - First Installment


Moon Over the Flag

This is the first of three posts, find the second and the third

When we last left our hero, he was trapped by the fickle winds and roiling weather in a Milwaukee marina just wishing he could give a friend a daysail.

I was stuck at the marina because the starter on s/v Bella would not turn the engine over. Given my time constraints,  I decided to cross the lake without an engine. The one good thing about sitting on a boat with no engine wishing for better wind was that in just watching the weather, I had rehearsed many scenarios for sailing off the dock and out the pass into the lake. 

Dave, my crew for the lake crossing, was as excited as I was to do some serious sailing. When I called to explain my decision to sail without an engine, Dave was still gung-ho. If I had broken the mast off and proposed sailing across the lake with a jib strung sideways on the jagged stump, I'm not so sure that Dave wouldn't have been up for that too.

I had been tempted to try to beat Sunday's weather and cross the lake on Saturday, the day after the launch and tow. The weather window, however, was very small. As this crossing was to be my first actual sail on Bella, prudence was the better part of valor. Dave came over on the Lake Express ferry on Monday. The plan was for a Tuesday departure with Wednesday held as an option.

As mentioned in the last post McKinley Marina is close to shopping, dining and museums. While we didn't take time for museums, Dave, Nancy and I walked all over, did some provisioning and found a fantastic little Thai Restaurant. Tuesday morning we wandered across the street to Collectivo Coffee for a crew breakfast. After some coffee, one of a sailor's four basic food groups, Dave and I began our preparations. Nancy wasn't making the trip across as she was driving home, but she stuck around. She had volunteered to take pictures, some video and also made some guacamole and a veggie soup for the crew.

Its counter intuitive to land lubber logic but we were leaving in the afternoon in order to sail all night and arrive at the unfamiliar harbor during daylight. The trip was to be around 20 hours, so making the trip in one day's light was just not possible. I had wanted to push off before 4:00p, but rain late in the Muskegon forecast had me move that up to 1:00p. The wind forecast was for northwest wind backing to northeast on the Wisconsin side with east wind at Muskegon for most of the next day, Wednesday. My float plan was to head northeast until the wind shifted and then southeast into Muskegon. A dog leg for you land lubbing golfers.

The wind was 5 to 10 knots slightly north of west. I was glad it was a bit mild for the my first ever sail with Bella. The 100% jib was a little small given the wind speed perhaps ... prudence again. We bent a spring line amidships and stowed the bow and stern dock lines. With a backed jib, we eased off the dock using the spring line to control Bella's first steps before the wind. When the jib came across, we were sailing! I cut the corner of the mooring field, passing one boat and several buoys to port with the rest of the basin to starboard. I laid her over into a broad reach and we sheeted the jib to run the channel. It all went like we were a seasoned crew. I loved it.

Bella trembled with anticipation and hitched her skirt to jog a little – even under the jib alone. Dave stowed the dock lines and fenders as I sailed her into the area behind the breakwater. We headed straight south across the wind, tacked back along our track and then entered Lake Michigan through the northern entrance with the wind behind us. Dave, Bella and I fell into a groove and got familiar with each other. We raised the main and she pushed a little harder eastward toward Michigan, her new home.

Wind in my hair, my hand on the tiller of a boat shouldered into the waves can only be described as spiritual exaltation. Even without much chop on the lake, Bella galloped to an even rhythm, like breathing. Sailing is just so natural and positively alluring to me – it is where I belong. Whenever I return to sailing, I am amazed that I had survived however long as I have without it. I know its the same feeling a parched, wilted flower feels the morning after a rain, when she straightens, and opens up again rejoicing with a beaming smile to the sun; for the sun stands in as the whole beloved universe.



And then the wind stopped.

We were a mile or so off Milwaukee and becalmed. Becalmed is a part of sailing, its OK. Without an engine, however, becalmed is more disconcerting. We were so close, the Milwaukee skyline still loomed above us. Worse yet, but for the lake, we still could have easily walked back from there. I maniacally twiddled with jib sheets and the main. I tacked the boom by hand over my head. With the lopsided, dilated eyes of a twitching lifeboat survivor, I searched frantically for the slightest puff of wind.

Exuding a wisdom beyond his years, Dave calmly said, “Dude, there's no wind. You're not going to accomplish anything but wearing yourself out.” I managed to settle down, anesthetized by the gentle rock of the waves. We munched on guacamole and jicama ... and waited.

Eventually, without making us suffer too long, the wind returned. It came back a little south of west, then later backed to the northwest and we went from running to reaching again. I had been very happy with the deal I had got on Bella just as raw equipment. Now I know first hand that she sails like a dream. The sailing was glorious and I am thrilled with my new boat. She has no idea what I have in store for us.
Sailing Again off the Milwaukee Skyline