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1986 Transfer Trip

Day Three: Goderich to Port Elgin

Monday, June 16, 1986. Aboard Serenity

Part Three: Douglas Point to Port Elgin

We have one more intermediate destination before we can turn towards Port Elgin. Somewhere, about two miles off this shoaling and rocky coast is the Logie Reef buoy...

We are still making course 040, paralleling the shore, about two miles out, in plenty of water. In the now excellent and unlimited visibility, a number of objects grow out of the coastline ahead of us. Ray remains perched in the companionway, scanning the horizon with 7x50 binnoculars, navigating according to some unseen chart. Over the screach of the wind, he shouts helm orders:

Come on guys! Hang in there guys!
Let's keep it going guys!"
There is no doubt who is leading this trip. This is a small problem for me. I'm not in total control of my own destiny here. I have to trust other people; people that I have only known a short time. I wonder about pressing on to Port Elgin--maybe it would have been better to go for Kincardine; I wonder if Ray really knows the approach to Port Elgin--we had gotten into a little argument about the approach to Goderich and ended up on the wrong range; I wonder if Dave and Bob and Chris are all up to it--will a big wave sweep the tiller out of their hands and broach the boat? If my butt is going to be on the line, I want it to be me controlling things. Instead, I am being controlled. I am in this situation, and I won't get back in control until I set foot on land. There, I can, if I wish, jump ship, get a taxi, fly back to Detroit. I can regain control of my destiny. I can never go sailing again. Or, then again, I can just hang in here. I am getting a lot of confused feelings. I think it's due to the combination of the Scopolomin and the waves. Big waves get very depressing.

Little things can really perk you up. The harbor of Port Elgin becomes visible along the coast! A collection of sailboat masts stands out along the green of the shoreline. Or is that a clump of birch trees? A few minutes pass; it is clearly sailboat masts! We have turned another corner; we are on the home stretch. Now the first break in the long routine occurs.

It is remarkable the strength that everyone has brought to this task, and especially so for Ray, for he is the elder member of the crew by at least twenty years. I marvel at how he stands, undaunted and seemingly unaffected, while I sit weary and tired. Able to see a number of landmarks ahead, Ray can tell easily if we are on course or not by their relative bearing. But the seas are getting bigger than ever, and the boat is more prone to be swept off-course by their passing under us. To hold the boat "on course" in these waves means staying within plus or minus twenty degrees. That is really good helmsmanship if you can hold that. Swings beyond that are common, and as the seas continue to build and we all get more tired, the wider swings occur more often. The S-2's rudder, hung quite a ways aft of the keel, gives you great leverage and control in lower winds; you can spin the boat around, practically turning it in its own length. Now, it exerts the reverse force on the helmsman. As a big wave rushes under the transom, the tiller requires plenty of muscle to keep it from jerking out of your hands.

So now Chris, despite good athletic and sailing ability, finds the tiller harder and harder to control. Serenity yaws off and on course. I don't know if we are really yawing any more than we have been. From my vantage point in the cockpit it is hard to tell; from Ray's vantage point it evidently is not. Ray yells for Chris to "Get outta there! Get somebody else on the tiller!" I am next in rotation, so I jump in. I am in two minds about this: I am glad to have the tiller back, to have at least that element of control, but I am sorry for Chris, for getting waved off the helm has to sink one's spirits. Looking depressed, Chris retires to the farthest reaches of the rear of the cockpit and avoids eye-contact with anyone.

Now Ray is on my case to keep the boat on course. It is a battle. If it's possible, the waves are getting bigger, and they now seem able to grab the boat anytime they wish and sweep her twenty, thirty degrees off course. I doubt that I am doing much better than Chris was. The water is shoaling up a little out here. We have one more intermediate destination before we can turn towards Port Elgin. Somewhere, about two miles off this shoaling and rocky coast is the Logie Reef buoy, which we must round to starboard before we can line ourselves up on the narrow channel into Port Elgin's harbor.

The Logie Reef Bouy

I am still at the tiller when Ray turns around in the companionway and orders "TURN LEFT IMMEDIATELY!" There is not a lapse of a microsecond before I have the tiller down hard and Serenity begins to respond. As she turns up into the wind, we take the sea head-on for the first time. The size of the waves doubles in that instant. The first one comes at us; we all pause to watch it, wondering if the bow will rise to meet it, or if it will come crashing down on the deck. We rise to meet the wave. Now, what had prompted the sudden turn? Has Ray seen surf breaking on the reef; has a rock loomed ahead? No. "There she is guys - There's the buoy!" yells Ray, and indeed, just off the starboard bow a hundred yards is the buoy. The appearance of any aid to navagation to my sight has never felt so good.

The red buoy's attitude to the waves is something I will never forget. It is being continously set back out of its normal vertical profile by at least thirty degrees. It is practically buried by the wave crests and it seems to muster just enough buoyancy to float back up in the troughs. My first reaction to it is delight: we found it! My second thought, after watching it interact with these waves: how far has it been dragged off station? Wherever it is, we are going to round it to starboard.

We are just a little downwind of the mark. Rounding it to starboard means making about 100 yards headway into the waves. After encountering six waves head on, the knotmeter indicates our forward progress at half a knot. If we were anchored, the water rushing past us would probably spin the knotmeter impeller at least that fast. We are not making much way at all. It is also getting increasingly harder to steer into the big ones with so little way on the boat. I am tired now from the ten minutes or so I had been at the helm, and I am losing it. Ray yells for Dave to jump and to fall off 45 degrees, getting the waves off our chin. We begin a very slow crawl out toward the buoy. We will have to more or less tack our way out there, and we are actually sailing away from the mark half the time.

The boat speed is way down now, around 2 knots, and progress is agonizingly slow. Finally, it looks like we are gaining ground on the buoy, and we can make it around on the next "tack". Ominously, I notice the engine has missed a beat. I have been carefully listening to it ever since Dave took over the tiller. It was running fine, and then, it jumps one beat. The boat is really sloshing around now, and the fuel in the tank has to be stirred up. Any algae in it is certainly not on the bottom.

Bob must have been listening to the diesel, too. The next time it skips a beat we look at each other. Then Bob speaks aloud what he has heard, "The engine is missing a little." I tell him I hear it, too. We resume our listening posts. Perhaps it is just the propeller coming out of the water, or the fuel sloshing in the tank, but something is wrong with the engine. After the third miss, Bob and I dive for the starboard cockpit locker hatch, reach in and simultaneously throw the two valves that will get us back to the old reliable forward filter. The engine never misses a beat after that. Thank you.

Shortly afterwards we are around the buoy. I can't recall how close we left it. I am looking at the shore now. It appears to us on the crests of the waves, then drops out of sight for a few seconds as we fall through the troughs. The shoaling water has caused the wave height to increase dramatically. (Later, Voyager II's crew will tell us that they will lose us momentarily in the waves--two thirty-foot boats, a few hundred feet apart and not visible to one another!) We are about a mile and a half off shore, and we are closing the coast at breakneck speed. We are surfing down the front of these big waves, and the knotmeter is up over six. We reduce power to try to slow down, but we have to keep enough on to maintain steering. It is a great feeling. We are almost done with the storm. We are going to make it. Then Ray really pulls one out of his hat...

After exuding a calm and confident manner all afternoon, he now turns to us, letting his hair down for a second, and says, "I'll tell you what, guys, I've never seen anything like that!" That was the worst!"

My gratitude at not knowing this earlier cannot be measured. I have endured much of the storm with a grudging resolve that this is some ordeal that practically everyone goes through in the process of sailing up Lake Huron. To find out that this is WAY out of the ordinary comes, at first, as a shock, but then makes for a growing lift of the spirit with the realization that we have withstood it--the worst--and passed with flying colors!

The dingy surfing past us on a big wave brings the reality of the situation back to us. Get that painter fouled in the prop now and we'll have one hell of a mess. In short order the dingy, amazingly still afloat and dry, is tethered to a very short line off the stern cleat. But steering in through these big rollers is nothing to sneeze at. Hell, these are big walls of water. Looking back at them you look up to their crests, where the wind is busy blowing white water horizontal and down on you. Now again, the Skipper pushes just the right button.

With everyone sensing a partial return to normalacy at hand, Ray suddenly re-establishes the tutorial portion of the trip. "Whose turn is it to bring the boat in today?", he asks.

"Jesus Christ!", I think to myself; wasn't it enough that we got here? Couldn't we hold school in abeyance until the next day? But, ah, the sweet irony of life, for, according to the rotation to which we adhere, today the honor of bringing the boat in will fall upon Chris!

From a quiet perch in the rear of the cockpit, Chris comes forward and takes the tiller. Now, with safety so close at hand, I'd feel better if Ray, being the most experienced with the boat, would preempt us all and take it in himself; we have come too far to chance anything happening now.

I am wrong. It is exactly the thing to do. Handing the boat over to Chris at this final stage of the day's sail provides just the patch needed to repair the tear that Ray had ripped in her confidence when he had thrown her off the tiller 45 minutes earlier. And bring us in she does.

We sail--we surf!--smartly down the narrow channel, its small red and green buoys wildly bobbing in the path of the 12-14 foot waves rolling through us. Once inside the breakwater, we come round and, with a few hails from a handful of folks standing by to help us, head for our berth, an end slip facing dead to wind. A few seconds more and we will be on land again! "Hey", the guys yell from the dock, "you don't have any fenders out!" Fenders, hell, we can put a little scrape in the gellcoat--no one would complain about it under these circumstances. But the docking is great, we hardly touch the pier, and the five guys ashore hold us off the pilings until we fumbled in the lazarette for a big bumper. We are in. We made it.

I bound off the boat. I want firm ground under my feet for a second. I am pumped! We made it! There isn't a scratch on anyone. There isn't a scratch on the boat for that matter. We stood up and took it for four or more hours, and everyone is safe and sound. Voyager II is right behind us now, making for the adjoining berth. We have all made it! For us, the storm is over.

Continues with Day Three, Part 4: Stormy Night.

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