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1986 Transfer Trip

Day Three: Goderich to Port Elgin

Monday, June 16, 1986. Aboard Serenity

Afternoon: Point Clark to Douglas Point

"Goderich is the only harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Huron that the competant yatchman can enter under any weather conditions." --Great Lakes Cruising Club Guide

I am really feeling drowsy, and with good cause. The first reason, no doubt, is the lack of sleep the previous two nights, for I've never slept in a sleeping bag before, and getting acustomed to it in the cramped vee-berth is not easy. The second cause is my initial exposure to the effects of Scopolomin, having stuck a patch behind my ear for the first time just that morning. Drowsiness is a well-known side affect of the drug, which otherwise suppresses seasickness. A third factor: I am now definitely coming down with a sore throat and cold. My lack of rest the previous week has denied me any sleep reserves to draw on, and the short naps I am getting between 3 and 5 a.m. on the boat are not doing enough to replace the energy used in sailing ten or more hours a day for several days. So while I do not like the drowsy feeling the patch is producing, the idea of a few minute's nap while underway is very appealing, and I curl up on the starboard settee, now on the lee side of the boat, and begin to drop off to sleep.

The Skipper, whose tiller trick follows mine in the rotation we have been adhering to, comes down after his stand at the helm and heads into the windward port berth for his daily afternoon siesta. For ten minutes I hover in that confused state of half asleep, half awake. Ray suddenly detects something different in the pitch of the boat and yells up the companionway to find out what is going on. Chris replies something to the effect that a change in weather is coming. The tone of voice tips Ray that it is going to be a serious change, and he immediately bounds topsides, takes one look around the horizon and orders, "All sails down, NOW!"

When we began this journey three days earlier, the command to drop sails would have taken a minute or two of our collective effort to produce compliance; now, with the urgency we all hear in Ray's voice and the much improved coordination among ourselves, the main is down and secured to the boom with six sail ties in a matter of seconds. In a few seconds more, everyone is back in the cockpit with full foul weather gear on. I am the last one up, still reeling from the soporific effects of the Scopolamin. Dave had scrambled to the mast to lower sail in his stockings; he quickly gets his boots on. An instant later it hits us.

The Storm

With hardly a moment's lull, the southeast breeze that had been warmly and comfortably carrying us northward is replaced by a cold and powerful blow out of the northwest. The new wind is something I have never experienced before: very cold, very steady, and very strong. Perhaps it is a neophyte's over-estimation, but the wind is 40 knots, or more. It never seems to slack, and even better, it never seeems to gust. It just blows like nothing I have felt before. I am in awe of it. There is not yet much water coming on board and the sun is still as strong as ever, but in spite of the layers of clothing I am wearing under the full foul weather gear, I am getting cold. The only skin surfaces I have exposed are the tips of my fingers. I readjust my sail gloves to hid them. I pull my cap down tightly and draw the string on my hood as taut as possible, leaving only my glasses sticking out. Still, I get colder. I am trying to keep an eye forward to watch our progress, but I soon learn that facing into the wind is much colder than leaning my back into it.

I don't know the exact time the storm hit, or exactly what our position is. We are south of Douglas Point, perhaps a mile or two, and it's early afternoon, about 2:00 p.m. The Ontario coastline in this region has a rather high bluff shore, and the chart shows lots of rocks and shoal water near land. We are about half way between two possible refuges, Kincardine to the south and downwind, and Port Elgin to the northeast and upwind. The decision to press on toward Port Elgin is made by the Skipper, Ray. I should say, I assume Ray made that decision, because he didn't take a vote on it! When the heavy weather hits, the tutorial aspects of the trip are left aside, and in their place is Ray's firm and confident leadership. We will carry on to Port Elgin; it is just around the corner of Douglas Point.

Earlier, there had been a regular and growing wave pattern out of the southeast. When the big winds from the northwest hit, they bring with them big waves of their own. Initially, the two collide in a confused and short sea, but the nor'wester is so strong that after a few minutes the southeast wave pattern dissappears and is taken over completely by big waves from the northwest. They hit us hard on the port bow as we bear down the coast on course Oh-four-Oh degrees, motoring with bare poles at an indicated 4.5 knots. After a few minutes, everyone's anxiety settles down as we see that the boat is going to be able to handle the waves and wind. As long as we can motor and hold this heading, we will be able to make Port Elgin. The motion on the boat is not particularly bad, and no one seems like they are going to get seasick. In fact, the S-2 is rather well behaved, and taking water into the cockpit is more the exception than the rule. We settle into a new rotation; Ray stays wedged in the companionway, binoculars in hand, in command of the boat; the four crew rotate tiller duties on a fifteen minute basis.

Taking the tiller brings a welcome relief; sitting in the cockpit, watching the big waves, hiding from the big wind, tends to depress your spirits. I find myself wondering about my choice to make the trip at all! I scan the lonely shore, looking for anything that might indicate a boat could make safe harbor there, but there is little to see. When the chance at the tiller comes, it gets my mind off the situation; I have to concentrate on steering and taking the big waves, and for fifteen minutes I have something else to think about besides the peril of the situation. It is colder, standing and looking forward into the wind, but it is good for the spirit, and staves off the depression that the waves bring on.

The next three hours are, monotonously, about the same. The wind blows, the waves grow, and the boat and crew grow to meet them. The first milestone occurs when we finally round Douglas Point. The size of the power plant there is gigantic; it is so large it distorts your scale. So even though we know we are probably not making anything like the four knots plus our speedo indicates, when we pace our progress by gazing at this enourmous power plant, its size reduces our apparent speed even more. It feels like it takes forever to get around the point, but finally, after more than an hour, we are definitely around it. But this too has another implication; to me it says that now the die is really cast: we must make Port Elgin. There is no chance to turn back and run off before these huge waves to Kincardine. To do so would mean re-rounding Douglas Point and I think that no one has enough energy to do that again!

On the trip we share the navigation duties, each person taking a day as navigator. Today I am not the navigator, but I do have a general picture of where Port Elgin is and its distance from Douglas Point. Now I find myself wishing I knew more precisely the numbers involved. I want to calculate when all this is going to be over, when we will set foot on dry land again. I begin to curse myself for not having read the cruising guide more carefully that morning. I had just scanned it over a few times, noting things like the size of Port Elgin, and if there were good places to eat; now I want to know how well the harbor is protected, how difficult it will be to enter with this big sea from the northwest, and if there are special precautions to be taken in approaching. I also recall the passage I had read the day before in the cruising guide concerning the approach to Goderich:

"Goderich is the only harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Huron that the competant yatchman can enter under any weather conditions."
I wonder where that leaves Port Elgin under these conditions? All this information lies just a few feet away in the cabin, bound into a looseleaf binder, but I never even seriously think about going below to try and find the book. It is too rough to go below unless you have to; I don't have to, yet. I can live with the anxiety about Port Elgin more easily than I can live with the reality of going below in the rough weather.

After rounding Douglas Point, our course allows us to turn more eastward, and our situation with the waves improves slightly. We are quartering them now. The boat is doing fine, although it is difficult to steer when the waves get hold of the transom and try to swing it around; often the tiller requires two hands braced against two feet to hold it. The dingy is miraculously well behaved. Dragged by the long painter through waves as high as the dingy is long, it rides the storm in fine fashion. It appears to not be taking water. Occasionally a gust will catch it on a wave top and blow the entire hull up, the lee rail almost burying, then finally it slams back to the water as the painter drags it forward. After watching this action on and off for a couple of hours, the dingy recovering every time, I decide that if it was going to capsize it probably would have by now, and therefore it is no longer necessary to keep a constant eye on it. Besides, its utility as a rescue vessel to which one could abandon ship is seriously in question. It is fortunate that none of us know just how unstable and treacherous it is, even in the glassy calm of a harbor or marina; remaining afloat in it in this weather would be impossible!

From my seat on the windward side of the boat, I stare toward the shore. In this part of "southern" Canada, hilltop farms fill the horizon. The large silver silo of a prosperous farmer becomes a landmark. As the tiller changes hands every fifteen minutes, I mark its relative bearing on the boat. At the next change I look up for it, hoping to find it somewhere farther aft than it had been, and thus confirming the actual progress of the boat along the coast. These changes in bearings come very slowly. It seems like takes several 15-minute-shifts to affect any perceptable change in the bearing of these landmarks. Once I notice a tall radio tower on shore. When I look back to check it later I can not find it and wondered if perhaps it has fallen in the high winds!

After several hours of the storm, fatigue begins to set in. Except for the brief stints on the tiller every 45 minutes, I have been wedged in the same position on the windward side of the cockpit for over three hours, braced against the pitching of the boat, hiding from the wind behind the cabin. I feel a little guilty about monopolizing this spot, for it seems to me to be one of the better refuges in the cockpit, although if we do take some spray, this is the prime spot to get wet, and, being on the windward side, the full force of the storm is blowing across the back of my tightly pulled foul weather hood. My new sailing gear is getting a workout and seems to be, so far, up to the task. Nothing is leaking, and when a big wave catches us wrong and sends a splash of Lake Huron into the cockpit, I, for the most part, stay dry. Not warm, and dry. But just dry. I am wearing all the warm clothing I have with me, including a very heavy shetland wool sweater I had just purchased a few days before the trip. I recall now that as I handed over the Visa Card to the cashier at Tom's Marine Hardware, I was thinking that this was a lot of money for a sweater that I probably would not need to go sailing in June. October or May, perhaps, but probably not June. Now it seems like the buy of a lifetime! Hah! I wish I had spent the extra two hundred bucks and got the Patagonia foul weather gear that you could actually be warm in!

The sun is the one salvation of this storm. For in spite of the fury with which the wind blows, the sun stays strong and bright. If you could just get out of the wind, you could probably get warm from the sun. There is not a cloud in the sky near us. The big blow has cleared all of that off to the east, and that obscuring haze, which had hidden the coast all morning, is completely gone. Visibility is excellent. How much more rotten this whole mess would be were we in a driving rainstorm and fog! I am very thankful that we were not.

Another comfort in all this is the other boat. Voyager II is out there with us. She is holding up; we will hold up. At the beginning of the storm we were sailing close together, perhaps a bit too close. As we rounded Douglas Point she was just a few boatlengths to leeward of us, and aboard Serenity we all watched with some amazement as Voyager II revealed the details of her undersides to us. It was not unusual to see the bottom of her deep full keel and rudder skeg as a wave rushed through her, her propeller suddenly out of the water; or maybe it was an illusion brought on by the unaccustomed clarity of the water.

Initially we stayed in close range with her, but after a while we seem to be bearing off a little more towards the coast, while she stands out a bit farther. The status of "lead boat" is indistinct now. We are going where we are going; if she chooses not to follow that will be her course, and in this weather, we are not going to "go around once" to find out what is going on. There is, I am sure, just a touch of that every-man-for-himself kind of spirit going on here. I am not really sure how far apart we actually get. With the height of the waves between us and the heel on the two boats, only the top ten or fifteen feet of Voyager II's mast is visible for a great deal of the time. It looms out of the Lake on our stern quarter, sticking out of the trough of a deep wave, reeling at a crazy angle, showing us only the spreaders and masthead, and nary a glimpse of the hull and crew. Sometimes, when I turn to look for her, not even that view is available; I hope that someone else on the boat has seen her recently.

Up to this point the boat has been functioning perfectly. I am mentally drafting a letter of congratulations to S-2 Yachts for the quality of her construction and will post same as soon as we make terra firma . But, there was one little anxiety in the back of my mind. The diesel had been renovated that Spring to include a redundant system of fuel filters. There had been a problem with algae in the fuel tank, and occasionally a clump would come through that would clog the filter and stall the engine. To combat this, the new redundant system was installed; one had but to switch from aft filter to forward filter if a clog occured. However, in the relative calm of motoring up the St. Clair River two days earlier, we had experienced a loss of power while on the aft filter. We switched to the forward filter, and power was restored. That night in the marina I had drained the aft filter, and found some algae in it, but also quite an air bubble. The fuel system was not entirely airtight, perhaps, and some air had been sucked in. I had tightened most of the hose clamps and connections, of which there were many, and hoped that that would cure the problem; there were some I could not reach.

After the repair, we ran on the proven forward filter on Sunday, when we needed all the power we could muster to motor out of the mouth of the St. Clair River into Lake Huron. Today, however, back a few hours ago, when everything was quite peaceful and we didn't really need the motor, we decided that this would be the time to switch back to the untested aft filter. I, being of somewhat doubting mind, had made a notation of the time at which we switched to the aft filter by starting the stopwatch running on my wristwatch.

We have been on the aft filter for over four hours now. I am not sure if there is comfort in that or not. It had taken over eight hours of motoring on Saturday to draw enough of an air bubble to affect the fuel flow, plus who knew how much time prior to that running on that filter. Every hour we run on it is another testament to its reliability, yet if there is an air leak, surely it is growing larger each hour, too. It is a double-edged sword! I wonder if anyone else is thinking about that fuel filter. I sure am. I check my watch with some regularity to observe the time elapsed since we switched.

It is with all these things in mind--the wind, the waves, the cold, the fatigue, the harbor at Port Elgin, the navigation, the fuel filter--that the end of the ordeal of the storm began.

Continues with Day Three, Part 3: Douglas Point to Port Elgin.

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