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1986 Transfer Trip

Day One: Jefferson Beach to Sarnia

Saturday, June 14, 1986. Aboard Serenity

Map The most extraordinary thing about the trip so far has been the time that it begins--6 a.m. on A-Dock at Jefferson Beach Marina on Lake St. Clair, about fifteen miles northeast of Detroit. Eleven of us arrive, and we drag enough gear aboard the two thirty foot sailboats, Serenity and Voyager II , to sink them far below the lines their designers had intended them to sail on. For early June the weather is not too hot. The skies are overcast and the threat of rain will be with us most of the day, but the sun is out now. There is not much of a breeze, and the flag at the gas dock hangs limp. The crews are divided as follows: on Serenity the Skipper is Ray, a retired pilot and air traffic controller, and a veteran of many transfer trips; the students are me, Bob, Dave, and Chris; on Voyager II the skipper is John, who, although he shares many things in common with Ray, having also been a pilot in World War Two, being retired, and having made countless Transfer Trips, is very much unlike his counterpart in style. Where Ray issues orders and commands with a military crispness, John would be likely to preface an order to change course to avoid the imminent peril of a collision with a one-thousand foot freighter with "Now this is only a suggestion..." With John are Marsha, Bruce, John, Ken, and Stan. Just past 0700, we finally cast off with a great deal of excitement, and the trip is underway.

Serenity , an S-2 Model 9.2A, takes the lead as we power out into Lake St. Clair and find the lake and wind both dead calm. Motoring on Serenity is not exactly how we all had envisioned our "sailing" trip. The small diesel is loud and vibrates, and the boat seems to want to wander to port all the time. Her helm is far from neutral, and she will stray off course at the slightest lack of attention. Following us on Voyager II , the other crew begins to wonder why we can't steer a straight course; they'll learn the answer to that question when we switch boats in a few days. Voyager II , a Cal 30 with full keel, attached rudder, and offset propeller shaft, has a delightfully easy and neutral helm under power, and she will hold a line all day with hardly a nod from the helmsman.

Our transit of the lake offers the only real opportunity of the day to sail, as once in the St. Clair River we'll be unlikely to find the breeze favorable, but there is so little wind on the lake that we decide to not even bother raising a jib or taking the cover off the main. Behind us on Voyager II they raise their mainsail, and we watch it luff in the boat wind. They hail us on the radio to remind us we are on a sailboat, but we ignore their sarcasm and continue powerboating our way northward. As the early June sun climbs ahead of us in the east I begin to realize big mistake number one in my preparations for this trip--I don't have sunglasses!

The glare off the water on this hazy morning seems able to penetrate into your eyes no matter how tightly you squint! I am thankful for the sun visor I just acquired a few days before; with its brim pulled low it keeps most of the sun out of my face. Getting ready for the trip has meant buying lots of new stuff, like new foul weather gear that I hope I don't need, and some new sweaters and jackets for the cold weather I hope we don't get. When I finally packed it all into the new sail bag, I had too much stuff! Could it possibly get so cold that I would want the new winter weight jacket I just bought? No, it's just too warm a jacket for June weather. At the last minute I decided to leave it home and take a much lighter and smaller one instead. Leaving that jacket home would be big mistake number two.

A few weeks before, I had wondered about the trip and how long we would be sailing each day, so I bought a small-scale chart of Lake Huron on which the entire trip could be plotted. I marked off rough DR plots of our intended courses. I began by having us sail at 4 knots and leaving each day at about 10:00 a.m. What a surprise! That would put us into our destinations at midnight! I found out that in order to make the progress we had set as a goal for ourselves, we had better be sailing closer to 5-6 knots and leaving at 8:00 a.m. each day; otherwise we'd be doing a lot of after-dark sailing. Ray had warned us that "we would motor-sail anytime we were making less than four knots", and he promised that "we would all get plenty of time at the tiller". Now I begin to see just what that meant! Time at the tiller is divided into half hour shifts, and a rotation of Dave, Bob, Chris, Jim, Ray is established. Two hours off and a half-hour on becomes the watch schedule. If there is one thing on board Serenity this first day it is enthusiasm.

No one can stand that two hour wait until they get the boat back in their hands. To pass the time, countless bearings are shot, fixes plotted, chart datum noted, and landmarks sighted. Unfortunately we have no sails flying or I am sure countless sail trim adjustments would have been made, too. But plenty of lines are coiled, rigging re-rove, sail bags and gear stowed and re-stowed, all in an effort to absorb the boundless energy and delight we all have and feel in making this trip begin. It is now, here in June, that we will release all that stored up sailing energy: all those expectations of fun and new adventure that have been built up in a cool basement all winter, plotting our imaginary cruise among the delightful islands of the North Channel. All those dreams will now be coming to reality!

When you sail the western part of Lake St. Clair there is one landmark that stands out above everything else: The Miller Memorial Light. It is atop a twenty story building, the only tall structure on the entire shoreline. As long as you can see that light, you're in "local waters." At 9:45 a.m. someone looks back and says "Hey! You can't see the Miller Light anymore!" Now we know we are really heading north! From Lake St. Clair, we turn into the St. Clair Flats Canal Cut-Off and motor up the same narrow dredged channel that all Great Lakes shipping passes through. Past Wapole Island, Canada to the east and Harsens Island, Michigan to the west, our course wanders back and forth across the international boundary between them.

From the Flats Cut-Off, we motor on, past Algonac, and into the St. Clair River. Now we are in new territory, beyond the limit of all previous adventures by boat. The wind stays light and unfavorable, and we continue to motor, making about 5 knots through the water. Unfortunately, the river current is against us, and it subtracts about a knot from our progress, although no one really calculates this into our dead reckoning. We have a quick lunch, made from our rather limited stores aboard. Unlike the other crew, we plan to eat out in port every night, and we have not brought an excessive amount of food aboard.

The river at this point is a half mile or so wide, with nice homes and residential areas on the American side, farms and some industry on the Canadian. It provides a wonderful backdrop for our trip. We settle into patterns: who will sit where, who will take the boat into the dock, who will take it out tomorrow, who will make breakfast, who will change the diesel fuel filter in Sarnia. This last task falls to me. We seem to think there is an air leak in one of the centrifugal fuel filters that was just installed over the winter. I get assigned to examine it and see if I can fix it. Checking the fuel filter will be a dirty, smelly task. I'd much rather have drawn something like "coil the dock lines", but I guess there's enough work to go around.

The afternoon brings more clouds, and about 4 p.m. it starts to rain. It's just a brief shower, but it gives us all a chance to try out our foul weather gear. By the time we all get below, dig out the gear, get it on, and get back on deck, the shower is almost over. What the heck, it was something to do. On this trip, we even get excited and happy when it rains!

As we finally approach Sarnia, the pace of 4 knots speed over ground having postponed our arrival to about 6 p.m., we are a tired and sunburned bunch. We hail the municipal marina on the radio, and they assign us a slip. There are plenty to choose from: at this time of year there are practically no boats cruising about and filling up transient slips in Canadian marinas. We might be their first customer of the year.

My messy job with the fuel filter intervenes in the fun. Bob--who owns a hardware store--gives me a hand. He is a natural mechanic, and he's much better suited to crawling into the cockpit locker where the fuel filter is located because he weighs about 70 lbs. less than me. We manage to top off the filter spin bowl and reseal the system. We both hope there isn't too much air left in there to be bled off by the engine itself as it sucks fuel down the line. Now I am a mess, I smell like diesel, and I have a cup or so of excess fuel to dispose of. The dock-boy takes the fuel from me, but the odor of it stays with me (and the boat). I guess that is what cruising smells like, isn't it?

It's finally time for dinner at the bar and restaurant attached to the marina. I order a big mug of draft beer--wouldn't you know it, there's a problem with the tap and it takes them ten minutes to serve my draft; everyone else is content with bottled beer, and they are busily drinking away. A couple more rounds all around and this crew will have no problem sleeping tonight.

Continues with Day Two.

Copyright © 1995, 1996 by James W. Hebert. All rights reserved.
Page Last modified: October 19, 1996