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Close Calls and Other Scary Moments Aboard


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Here at the magazine we’ve long been fascinated with seaworthiness and the idea that small boats are more capable than most people expect. As the magazine’s subtitle (Small Boats, Big Adventure) suggests, we actively seek out stories of little boats facing big challenges and we’ve published plenty of dramatic tales of adventure. This sort of thing makes for entertaining reading, but more importantly these stories are nearly always full of lessons we can apply to our own sailing. (Better to learn from someone else’s ordeal than have to learn the same things the hard way.) 

With that in mind we thought it would be interesting and informative to ask you, our readers, about your own close calls and scariest experiences boating. As some of you will recall, we prepared a detailed 17-question survey and sent it to thousands of you via our Small Craft Newsletter e-mail list. We received some fantastic, thorough responses—thank you. 

Were there any lessons or takeaways? Were there any consistent themes or common denominators? Any surprises? Yes, yes, and yes. 

So without further ado, let’s take a look at your close calls and scariest moments on the water.
 

IT’S THE WIND, DUMMY

“Went out with a friend to review a boat he wished to purchase. Wind, rain, waves came from nowhere, from 5 mph to 40 mph in less than 10 minutes. Knocked down three times. Water actually flooded into cabin (but none in cockpit strangely enough). I was unable to reef because of the way the owner had rigged the halyard. The entire incident lasted less than 15 minutes. My friend did not buy the boat or set foot on another ever again.”

“Failed to consider the potential strength of incoming thunderstorm.” 

“Sailing in Grays Harbor out of Westport, Washington. The wind picked up and I was overpowered. No way to reef the mainsail. Ran the boat up on a sandbar and took the mainsail down. Pushed the boat back into the water and sailed back to the boat ramp with the jib alone. Promptly sold the C-Lark and purchased a Sea Pearl 21.”

“Unexpected downburst, lasted only 15 minutes; winds of 34 to 40 mph.” 

“Was told later it was a straight-line 15-minute wind burst between 60 and 80 mph. This was on the Ohio River. My boat came out of the water (sails were not up) and flipped end over end repeatedly. Sun came back out as quickly as the storm had appeared.”

 

 

Maybe it makes sense given we’re mostly talking about small sailboats, but the first major revelation of our little study was that high winds were the most common factor in our respondents’ “worst moments” on the water—far outweighing factors like large seas, fog, cold weather and tidal currents, for example. 

It was also largely unexpected high winds that created trouble for our sailors. Did they fail to check the weather forecast or did winds simply exceed the forecast? We don’t know, but whatever the case, the sudden appearance of strong winds was a major theme throughout the tales of woe. In fact a full 25% of you specifically cited “failure to check weather” as a key factor in your dangerous situation. 

Another common corollary was being unable or unwilling to reef. As any small-boat sailor who’s had strong winds arrive suddenly knows, sometimes just letting go of the helm to tie in a reef can be daunting or impractical—especially in situations where maneuverability or course choice is restricted.

 

A number of our respondents might have been able to avoid trouble had their boat been equipped with reefing gear (a surprising number had no provision at all) or if they’d practiced the reefing process thoroughly on boats so equipped. 

As we’ve seen time and again, most small sailboats can cope with bad weather if they can just reduce sail area enough for conditions.

 

Lessons Learned:

1. Check the weather—particularly the wind forecast. Based on our survey, if a sailor was able to avoid high winds (obviously not always possible), he or she would eliminate a factor that weighed heavily in 80% of our “worst experience” responses. 

2. Make sure your boat can be reefed, and practice reefing until you’re comfortable in the operation. A reefing plan is only theoretical and possibly useless until you’ve practiced it—preferably in real wind. As pugilist Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Know exactly how you’ll respond when the wind comes looking to knock you out. 

3. Expect bad weather. Even if the forecast says otherwise, plan on encountering strong winds and make appropriate preparations. 

BUT WHAT ABOUT WAVES?

“We ended up in large waves that caused the boat to submarine. It managed to resurface before filling the cockpit but was scary as it limited how we could maneuver and we missed the sheltered back channel, keeping us in these conditions longer than needed. Had one thing gone wrong we would have been in trouble.”

“Extremely high waves for a 15-foot boat, guessing 10-12 foot waves with very short duration. The only saving grace was no waves broke while the boat was directly below them.”

While waves and breaking seas weren’t as common a factor as wind, they definitely played their part in a number of stories—sometimes breaking in harbor entrances or onto the shores of intended destinations—other times over the stern of respondents’ boats. 

IT WAS MY FAULT

“That particular day we had never seen the lake in such a fury…The wind was more noise than wind and was properly terrifying. We were two of us: My dad and me, 14 years old and a whole 120 pounds. But we were old sea dogs and just had to try the boat in huge waves and hurricane-like winds. If trouble came people were bound to help us. So we furled somewhat and had the storm jib up when we took off—literally. We lasted about a minute and 200 yards. The boat was a wild and crazy mustang. Of course it heeled, but a Flying Scot is really wide and the underside of the boat, leaning over, took the wind and became a sail itself and capsized us instantly…The Scots don’t sink, we just had to get the bow to the wind, climb on the daggerboard and get back in. A motorboat got us back to harbor. The lesson I learned is that when something looks worse than bad, stay away. Common sense should override the adrenaline rush. Never be arrogant with nature…”

A number of respondents mentioned being young, foolish, inexperienced—or some combination of those things, when they had their scariest moment on the water. “Youthful ignorance,” one respondent called it. While these situations can end up being great learning experiences, that’s only if we survive them. Nearly 40% of our respondents mentioned “Inexperience” and/or “Overconfidence” being a factor in their circumstance. 

An additional factor in a couple of the incidents was that they took place during sanctioned sailing events where a schedule, racing competition, peer pressure, or a false sense of security from sailing with other boats played a role. 

Lessons Learned:

1. If it looks bad, it’s probably worse. As surfers know, waves look a lot smaller from shore than they do when you’re ducking under them. Same goes for wind and sea conditions—it’s probably rougher than it looks. How many times have you taken a photo in ugly weather only to be disappointed with how boring it looks as a static image? There’s nothing quite like being right out in the elements.

2. Know your limits. Don’t intentionally tempt fate. If you insist on pushing your limits, gear-up with the right safety equipment and have a series of bailouts or contingency plans. 

3. Accept that younger sailors might make poor decisions and look to prepare them and the boat for that reality. 

ANCHORS AWEIGH

“Sunk at mooring after being holed by abandoned mushroom anchor that was in upright position.” 

“Anchored in a cove exposed to the north. Cold front came through overnight and brought north winds. Motored out at first light into heavy seas, 3-4 feet. No anchor well, anchor and rode piled on foredeck. Anchor fell off and rode wrapped around outboard prop. Ended up grounded on nearby island. Dinghy was our ‘lifeboat’ that got us to mainland. All took place on Lake Huron south of Alpena, MI. Happy ending: I asked my girlfriend to marry me that day and we’ve been together 33 years.” 

“Pushed onto shoals in heavy wind/sea during the 2017 Everglades Challenge. Two anchors failed to hold on silt bottom, ultimately requiring rescue by Boat U.S. Towing to avoid being pounded into surrounding mangroves.”

“Severe thunderstorm—65-knot winds (verified). Poor holding. Anchor dragged. Blew ashore. A fishing boat pulled us off next morning.” 

“Left Kingston returning to Brownsville. Wind 25 knots. Heavy, steep chop. Pounding damaged ice box platform. Anchor mount came loose and anchor was swinging freely off the bow. Singlehanding. Ran downwind under jib and went on foredeck to secure anchor. Was able to secure things and resume. However, there was potential for serious damage or injury. Swinging anchor could have holed the boat. I could have gone over the side. Could have stayed in port. Should have stayed in port. Lucked out.”

As we learned in our recent anchoring survey and resulting article (issue #104), many of us have easily-stowable but relatively ineffective ground tackle and, consequently, plenty of stories about dragging—and this survey was no different. Where it became someone’s scariest moment, however, was dragging onto rocky shores or into breaking waves. 

To our surprise, anchors also featured prominently in our survey in other ways. In addition to the one boat holed by an abandoned anchor, a few respondents had their anchor and rode get away from them, with anchors bashing against the hulls or anchor rodes fouling engine props. 

Lessons Learned:

1. Take another look at your anchor type and entire ground tackle system. Do you have one of the better modern anchor designs? Do you have some chain and enough rode to pay out 7- or even 10-to-1 scope if needed in storm conditions? Do you have a second anchor aboard? Can you access your anchor and set it from the cockpit if going forward isn’t practical or safe? And just like with reefing gear—have you practiced anchoring? 

2. Anchors are big, heavy, and sharp. Don’t leave them lying around loose. As author John Vigor says, “Think inverted!” Where will your anchor go if your boat bounces wildly or gets upside down? 

WHAT FAILED?

“A furling jib would have allowed more time to prepare before the storm hit.”

“This is the second time I have experienced issues with the centerboard becoming jammed. I have no idea how to resolve this issue.”

“I was sailing, doing 5 knots downwind in great weather. There was a loud snap and my mast broke at the deck line. She’s a gaff-rigged catboat with 280-square feet of sail. Mast, gaff, boom, and sail all in the water.”

“Mast took on water, lack of flotation in mast.”

“Starboard chainplate parted. Mast went over.”

“Outboard failure.”

Although the old maxim “the boat can take more than I can” proved true and most of you said the boat did fine, we asked what, if anything, about your boats failed to meet expectations or match conditions. 

Wishing for a better (or any) reefing system topped the list, at 22.6 percent. Almost 15 percent of you said your secondary propulsion system (mostly outboards) failed, and nearly 13 percent of your boats didn’t have any or enough flotation (one owner capsized and watched his 23-footer disappear completely in less than three minutes.) 

Another 13 percent of you (probably those having trouble reefing) said you could have done with some additional ballast. About 10% of you said your cockpit drainage or bilge pump was less than effective, and another 10% said your boat didn’t point as well as conditions demanded. 

As for the boats you got in trouble on, there was a wide variety of type. Roughly equal numbers were aboard boats in the following categories: small open dinghies or racers, 13-19-foot trailerables, larger trailerables, and larger keelboats. 

Fewer than 30 percent of you considered your boat’s small size and weight a factor in your troubles. (For comparison, 50% said operator error was a factor.) 

LESS COMMON, BUT STILL SERIOUS PROBLEMS

“I did not see low-hanging high-voltage line.”

“I was due to pass under a low bridge under engine. The tide was exceptionally high. Two height gauges gave conflicting clearances. Due to hypothermia I made an over-optimistic conclusion that ‘there must be enough headroom.’”

“Hot Florida day, and we were sailing close (and parallel) to shore when wind suddenly died, therefore we were rowing. Adjacent boat wake caused water to be shipped over the gunwales. We were swamped but still afloat. Was able to (very carefully) catch enough wind to sail to shore. Had automatically-inflatable life vests stored safely in the aft lazarette where they promptly deployed on exposure to water, and therefore were jammed and could not be extracted or used.”

Lightning was only cited by about 12% of you, but they were some of the more harrowing accounts. One sailor rode out a series of lightning storms at anchor watching his electronics fry, another watched in horror as lightning struck his own mast. One sailor concluded, “I learned if you hear thunder, no matter how distant, get off the water.”

Two respondents had masts hit power lines, with plenty of sparks and broken shrouds. One occurred while the boat was on the trailer at a launch ramp, the other in the middle of the night motoring into a marina steering by flashlight. 

Groundings (30%) occurred in a surprisingly high percentage of incidents, but we don’t know how many were the cause of troubles versus those that were simply a result of other problems like dragged anchors. 

Jammed centerboards were also indicted on a surprising number of occasions. Do you have a way to access and free your board if it becomes jammed? 

PFDs

“Solo sailing into dock. Stalled the boat into the wind and was stepping to dock when wind shifted and pulled boat away from dock. I went into the water but hung onto boat. Was wearing sweats, jeans and wind pants and could not climb back in boat. Steered through a tack and a gybe before bringing her back to shore and walking out. Water temp was 52º. I got stripped down and changed clothes, warmed back up and recovered the boat…. I have raced offshore and sail weekly, but never have I had as close a call as at the lake five minutes from my house. No one was there to help.”

“It was December and a beautiful, sunny, 70º day, which is very unusual for Northern Illinois, so we hurriedly put the boat in the water for our last sail of the year. After sailing up the creek a bit, we turned 180º and raised the centerboard about 80% for a downwind run to an area where the lake narrows and the winds are blocked by the surrounding hills. At the end of our run, we found the winds not blocked as usual, but swirling. I went to lower the centerboard, not knowing it had gathered a black sticky mud and was now stuck in the trunk. Upon tacking, the boat began to heel more than expected. When I tried to release the mainsheet, I found it was caught in the mainsheet block. The boat heeled onto her rail and in an instant she turtled. The water was in the 40s and in our haste we hadn’t put on our flotation devices. I tried righting the boat, but my wife was panicking and wouldn’t let go of the mainsheet, making it impossible to right the boat. Two canoeists came out and brought my wife to shore, while I tried unsuccessfully to right the boat as now the mast was stuck in the lake bottom.”

“A guy in a 19-foot center console powerboat was running full speed down the river and daydreaming. I was sailing a catamaran. He ran over me and the catamaran...cut both hulls in half and cut the mast in half...ran over my back. The compression of the powerboat pressed it and me underwater. The life jacket took the compression blow and also prevented me from drowning.” 

The good news is that only 20% of your incidents involved someone going into the water and, when it happened, 67% of you were wearing a personal flotation device. The bad news is that 33% of you hit the water without a PFD. 

WHAT WASN’T A PROBLEM

A number of potential factors came up less than expected. Extreme heat and cold weather were rarely mentioned, although a few of you did say your decision-making was negatively affected by being cold, and several of you said your foul-weather gear failed.

Fog was barely a blip on our survey’s radar, and trouble caused by rogue powerboaters or other marine traffic came up in less than 10 percent of responses (although when it did happen, it was potentially deadly). Fire didn’t come up at all. And none of our respondents said alcohol consumption was a factor in their situation. 

About 10% of you were towing a dinghy at the time of the incident—a few said it was helpful, a few said it was a non-factor, and one said it contributed to the problem.

THE GOOD NEWS

While each of these events was stressful or worse for those involved, there were also, arguably, a few encouraging numbers.

For starters, while knockdowns (41%) were fairly common, actual capsizes (28%) we’re pretty rare considering these were “worst-ever” scenarios. Collisions (10%) and actual sinkings (3%) were rarer still. Nothing about the survey has changed our opinion that small boats, properly-managed, are plenty safe. 

Even as the worst was happening, only 20% of the situations involved a person ending up in the water, and in the end, only 4% of all events involved injuries.

CONCLUSION 

It occurs to us that the most significant lasting damage from these scenarios is the psychological trauma to the sailors involved. Many of you were rightly shaken by what took place. One sailor wrote: “It put me back onto smoking for awhile.” Another said that after the incident he “took a short walk and a long beer.” But in every case, lessons were learned and those involved are unlikely to repeat the experience. And only a few of you appears to have been scared off the water entirely.

Ultimately it would seem that sailors who do just three things: Check and respect the weather forecast, know how to reef sails on their boat effectively, and who wear their PFD, will greatly reduce their chances of adding to their own scary stories. •SCA

 

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Hi All,

I found this article interesting and thought I would share with the membership.
Would you like to share your own scary moment?
Dennis
 
From Ted Johanson (PadrePoint):
 
Not too dramatic, but close to a capsize on Lake DuBay with my wife in one of my first times sailing with my new Core Sound 15…
The boat has two masts, the main in front and mizzen near the middle. Each sail has a sprit that extends from the clew to just forward of the mast. I read about one Core Sound person who managed to let the mainsail become caught by the mizzen sprit when it came through on a tack, putting him over into a capsize.  (His problem was not correctly building a six degree rake into his mizzen mast. He rebuilt the mizzen step to the correct angle and problem was solved.)
 
Yep, that’s what I managed to do. It was a stronger wind with some gusting, but not so strong as to not sail. I reefed the sails before launching. I had just raised both sails when a gust hit the the main bringing it across the boat, but it got caught on the mizzen sprit amidships. With all that power in a “stuck” sail we immediately started heading over, and I was falling toward the leeward side of the boat and desperately trying to scramble to the other side to counterbalance the steep heeling. My wife immediately felt the boat getting blown over and was able to quickly scramble across to the windward side. We managed to not capsize as we gained balance and I managed to free the mainsail to spill the wind.  Yes, I was very impressed with her quick reflexes and climbing. 😁
 
Hmmm… what caused that sail to get caught?
 
We sailed (carefully) a while before heading home.  Now to find the problem.  I put the sails up in the yard and saw the effects of having built the sprits too long. My thinking was that once I cut the sprits to exact length, I couldn’t make them longer if needed, so leave them a little long, just in case.  And, I might need to whittle another pin into the end if the one I made broke or didn’t work.  I was just trying to be clever, I guess. 
“Wrong!!”  😬
 
So, referring back to the plans, I did the measuring and cut a little “circumcision“ to each sprit, around 4 inches or so.  Then I did some more testing with the sails up to assure good clearance. I also noticed that if the mizzen snotter (the rope tightening the sprit) is way too loose, the sprit can lower and protrude too far forward from the mast, possibly catching the mainsail.  That is something I keep in mind. 
 
So, was it scary?  In that instant moment of the boat unexpectedly getting caught by the wind and quickly heading over, yeah. And I really didn’t want to capsize during my wife’s first venture with me in the new boat (not an impressive thing.)  But, she is very comfortable on the water and was able to climb up the deeply heeling boat to keep it from dumping onto its side, and I soon joined her to get control in things. 
 
No, the “scary” level wasn’t very high. It was more of an “oh… (for purposes of an email) shucky darn” moment that got fixed before we needed to swim.  
 
Ted Johanson
 
Below: A nice calm evening sail on Lake DuBay with my wife in our Core Sound 15.  One can see that the forward part of the mizzen sprit is not real far from the mainsail’s leech.  There isn’t a problem with this unless I have an overly loose snotter, letting the front of the sprit drop about a foot and moving forward. Then it can be too close. 

Photo by Dennis Gamble as he passed by on his travel up the river with friends:
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A response and story from Dennis:

 

Thanks Ted.  I will have to check my sprit end geometry too.  I bet my main boom could catch it in a wild jibe as well.

 
I think since we sail mostly in the Summer, on the warm waters of Lake Dubay, most personal danger is mitigated by the wearing of a PFD, regardless of what happens to the boat.  Early and late season sailing, and sailing on cold waters or in remote areas, calls for additional caution.   It always pays to consider the worst case scenarios before heading out.
 
I once capsized my Hobie 16 on Lake Dubay on a Moonlight Cruise.  I was sailing alone in moderate conditions.  It was getting near sunset and time to head for the landing.  The other boats had already pulled out, or were heading up river, when a sudden gust of wind capsized my boat.  It happened just when I crossed in front of the dam, which probably accounted for the sudden increase in wind speed, as the wind was from the East that evening.  I did attempt to ease the main, but it caught in the jam cleat, and over I went.   I spent about 15 minutes trying to right the boat - unsuccessfully.  I just wasn't heavy enough to right the boat myself.  I considered dropping the main to make righting easier, but was concerned that removing my weight from the lower hull would allow the boat to turtle, and perhaps result in the mast getting stuck in the lake bottom.  Since both the air and water temperatures were in the low 80s, I decided to just stay on the lower hull and drift across the lake to the westward shore.  By paddling a bit, I was able to direct the boat to the beach over by Deer Island.  It probably took about 2 hours to drift across the lake.  It was well dark by the time I reached the far shore.  I never got cold, but I could see lightning to the West as I drifted across the lake.  I was fully expecting to get blown back across the lake by the approaching thunderstorm.  After righting the boat, I was faced with a sail back across the lake in the dark without nav lights, and the possibility of an approaching storm.  I had plenty of wind, but I didn't want to capsize again and start all over, so I tacked fairly cautiously back to the landing.  It was well past Midnight by the time I got back.  This was also before I had a cell phone, so I half suspected that my wife would have called the Sheriff's Department and reported me missing by then.  As it turned out, she was visiting friends and never noticed I was late.   I did end up buying a righting bag after that, so that I could right the boat myself if necessary.  I also learned that catamarans capsize more quickly than monohulls, at least in my experience. 
 
Dennis
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Bob offered another response:

 

Here’s my scary moment. 

 
One summer in the mid-1980’s I taught sailing at Fox River Marine in Oshkosh, WI (I’d previously taught sailing for Hoofer’s Sailing Club in Madison and for the UW P.E. Dept.). On the last night of a 3 week course I had 3 students with me on a Hunter 33 as we practiced tacking, rotating positions at helm, winch, and tail. Everything was going well until, without warning the mast crashed to the water. It was surreal. My first reaction was to get on the radio, forgetting that the antenna was now underwater.  The best we could do was pull the rig along side the boat, fire up the diesel inboard and creep back to the Marina. It was near dusk when it happened and we were in the middle of Lake Winnebago. The dock master knew something was wrong when we didn’t arrive back on time and he couldn’t hail us on the radio. He stayed late, thankfully - it was well after dark.
 
What caused the dis-masting?  Later examination (insurance, and other) found that marina maintenance staff had forgotten to put cotter pins in the chainplate clevis pins when they readied the boat in the spring. The boat had been sailed frequently before one pin eventually worked its way out and down came the rig (gravity isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law).
 
What if it had been rough water? would a spreader, then pointed at the boat’s side, stab holes, and sink us?  We had lucked out.  Still, that thought was with me as we took turns steering home. I still think about it. 
 
I maintained a calm appearance enough that the students considered that I had, perhaps, “staged” the event as part of the lesson. I was proud of that.  I actually WAS pretty calm. Most of whatever fear or nervousness was in retrospect - again, what might have happened.?  That’s a value of “close calls,” I guess. 
 
What I learned?
 
 1. Check for Cotter pins/split rings, especially if someone else puts the mast up. 
 2. A big boat mast and rigging can’t really be man-handled - the best we could do was get it alongside, not up on deck (and that was in light air and flat seas).
 3. Calmness takes over in an emergency. The scary part is remembering it.  
 
-Bob
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Some of you may remember the near-death story about my experience in an International 505. For those who don’t, attached is the June 2004 club newsletter both for the story and a bit of history of the club. Enjoy!
Joe Terry
 
Joe’s second crazy sailing adventure:
During the late winter/early spring of ’93 Lee, a friend of mine, decided it was time for him to fulfill his lifetime desire to own a boat and learn how to sail. This desire was partly my fault, because one year earlier I had the opportunity to go sailing for the first time (that would be ‘Joe’s first crazy sailing adventure’, if you wanted to know) and we talked at great length about how wonderful it was and so on and so forth.
In any case, Lee’s interest was sparked and he was on a mission to buy a boat. He searched around for a really cheap sailboat and found the neat looking red and white boat. It needed a little work but had sails and a trailer and he was told it was tired but was pretty much ready to hit the water. I didn’t know much about different types of sailboats but this one looked plenty exciting to me.
The boat was, in fact, a 505. And for those of you who are not familiar with a 505, as I certainly was not at the time, it’s probably one of the worst beginner boats you could find. Look up the race handicap in the Portsmouth book and it’s right up there with some of
the fastest monohulls you can sail (the DPN number is 80.2). It is very over canvassed, has a trapeze so the crew balances out on a wire, and flies a spinnaker, and its design for extreme speed makes it quite unstable. To put this boat in some perspective, this picture was taken at the 1991 National championships and this boat was literally flying. The picture on the next page was taken from the ’96 UK national championships... I digress...
One big problem was that Lee didn’t know how to sail and for all practical purposes, neither did I. I had only been on a sailboat once before so since I had more “infinitely more” tiller time than he did (about 30 minutes vs. his 0), Lee though I should be his coach. My first experience with sailing was so much fun I just couldn’t resist, so I agreed.
So on an early spring day, we got together in Lee’s yard and tried to figure out how to step the mast and rig the boat. This is quite a project if you’ve never done it before and it took us pretty much the entire day to figure it out. This boat was set up for some great “day sailing” with a roller furling jib. It took us quite a while to figure out that the jib had the forestay rolled inside of it. But in the end we were both pretty excited and thought we had just conquered the world.
A few weeks later (the second week of May) we decided that it was time to go sailing. We had both read some small boat sailing books and figured we could make things work. The weather was nice – about 60 degrees and the nearest lake was Devil’s Lake in Baraboo; just a few miles away from Lee’s house. We improved dramatically on our boat setup. It took only a few hours rather than all day. We were really excited when we backed the boat off of the trailer and into the water.
We left the jib furled and sailed away with just the main.
We were grinning from ear to ear as we sailed away from shore. This sailing thing was FUN! In addition, the boat was moving along pretty nicely – a lot faster than the Santa-Cruz 25 I had my only other sailing experience on. Devil’s Lake is not an optimal sailing lake. The water is always very cold and the wind is fluky due to the bluffs on the east and west side of the lake. This results in gusty and shifty conditions when the winds are blowing. In any case, we were managing the boat rather well and thought we could shake out the jib and see how the boat really handled. Lee started trying to unfurl the jib but was having problems. The furling lines were tangled and he was going to need some help in order to shake it out. We were right in the center of the lake and the wind wasn’t blowing too hard (maybe around 8 to 10 mph) so I cleated the main and went forward to help lee.
Little did I know that cleating the main isn’t a good idea. That lesson was learned very quickly... A little gust knocked us over in a heartbeat and we found ourselves confused by the whole situation and swimming in 50 degree water. Since we were still on the “sail” side of the boat, Lee uncleated the main and I started swimming for the centerboard.
We recollected quickly from the books we read that some weight on the centerboard can right the boat, so that’s what we did. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of water on the main sail and our weight didn’t seem to be righting the boat. We kept trying, but things just weren’t working like we had thought. Just then, I thought I heard something. Something like a little blurp, bubble, burple, bubble sound. The 505 has a sealed deck/hull and the sides of the boat being sealed act as flotation. This boat obviously was no longer sealed and the bubbling sound we heard was air bubbling out of the tank, meaning water was going in!
We quickly determined that this boat was sinking fast and there wasn’t much we could do to right the boat. To top it off, Devil’s Lake prohibits power boats and a quick scan of the lake gave us a grim feeling: there wasn’t anyone visible on the water.
There we were, in 50 degree water, smack dab in the middle of the lake with a sinking boat. We evaluated our options and things didn’t look good. The way we saw it, we had those cheap bulky orange life jackets on so trying to swim for shore (about 1⁄2 mile) would be futile. We might have been able to swim for it without the life jackets, but the water was really, REALLY cold and we were worried that we might be hypothermic in a few minutes anyway. If we stayed with the boat we’d be a little more visible, but at the rate the boat was sinking we’d only have a boat for perhaps another 10 minutes. So we did what every other red blooded American would do in a similar situation, we looked at each other for a brief second, then looked towards shore hollered our heads off for help.
After about 20 to 30 seconds, we noticed several kayakers paddling our way very quickly. We were thanking our lucky stars that SOMEONE heard us and although we couldn’t for the life of us figure how a kayak could really help; there was comfort in knowing that someone at least knew we were out there.
Several minutes later about six kayaks arrived. The 505 was going down by the bow and only the last foot or two of the stern was above water. Comically, it looked like a mini Titanic. For some reason I blurted out and asked if anyone had anything that would float and a very long rope. Like magic, one of the guys pulled a coil of rope out and a little inflatable pillow like thing and asked if that would work. He tossed it to me and I tied it to the stern just as the boat slipped under water. The coil had a good 100 feet of line on it and we were in about 45 feet or so of water, so even if we didn’t make it back before turning into two giant blue popsicles someone could at least locate the boat.
Then one of the guys in the kayaks instructed me to climb on the back of the kayak. He said to do so very carefully and to stay laying down the entire time – to just slip on like a seal climbs on a partly submerged rock. I did as I was told and slid on quite easily and didn’t tip the guy
over. Lee had already slid aboard another kayak moments earlier and was being paddled towards shore as I was tying the line to the boat. The kayakers briefly debated for a moment which way to get back to shore. Heading the short way lead to a rocky shore line but was quite a distance from any real help. They decided to go the longer way and head towards the beach where the ranger station was and likely some medical help if needed.
On the way back I was really starting to feel the cold, but at least my whole body wasn’t still in the water. There were three kayakers including the
one I was catching a ride from in my “group” and they started talking and laughing. I was freezing, turning mostly blue, was shivering so bad I could hardly talk, and saw nothing funny about the whole situation. Then one of the guys turned towards me and asked, “So, how much did Charlie pay you?” I knew I was cold, and was maybe starting to go hypothermic, so maybe I just didn’t understand the question. He asked again, “So, how much did Charlie pay you?” I responded asking who the heck was Charlie and what are you talking about. They concluded by asking, “So Charlie didn’t pay you to do this?”
As it turned out, these people were from the Chicago area taking a class in sea kayak rescue. Charlie was their instructor and the day before taught them how to tow a victim just like they were towing us. They all thought this was a staged drill because having real “victims” for them to rescue was just too good to be true. Besides, the sail had the letters SOS on it (they thought it said SOS, not 505). Little did they know at the time that if they wouldn’t have been there we likely would have gone into hypothermic shock and drowned.
By the time we got to shore I did see some humor in the whole situation. I tried to imagine the picture from their perspective and seeing two nuts out on the lake, with a sinking boat, with SOS on the sail, and on the second week in May isn’t very normal. But at the same time I was still freezing my hiney off and needed to get warmed up fast. As soon as we got to shore I took off running up and down the beach, trying to generate some heat. A short while later after about a mile of running we warmed back up and were just fine. 
After getting some skin pigment back we went over and talked to the group for a while. We were invited to join them that night at their camp for some BBQ and talk. We did, and got to meet Charlie. We all had a great big laugh at what was; however, what could have been still makes me think someone else was keeping a close eye on us that day.
In the end, several weeks later we managed to raise the mighty 505 and it lived to sail another day. Raising the 505 is another story in itself.
The way I see it, there were several lessons to be learned from this story. Here are just a few: First, don’t go for your first sailing adventure in Wisconsin the second week of May in anything less than a keel boat. Second, if you go out in cold water, make sure you have some help in case things go bad. Third, make sure your boat is sea worthy enough not to sink if capsized. Fourth and most importantly, don’t cleat the main in a dingy and leave the main and tiller unattended.
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By Mike Koss, LDBSA

 

An Isle Royale Adventure

 

July 19

On Sunday July 19 2015, three of us from Lake Dubay Sailing Association left the serene confines of lake Dubay in Central Wisconsin, to brave the wilds of Isle Royale National Park, located in the northwest of Lake Superior.  Bill Jones trailered his Hunter 23, and Chuck Jagodinski and I trailered my Catalina 22, Blewboat, up to Grand Portage, Minnesota, and put in at the friendly little marina at the campground/Casino there.  As Bill had been to Isle Royale once before years ago, and is a savvy experienced big-water sailor, we drafted him as our official guide.

 

July 20

The next morning, we departed Grand Portage marina, bound for Windigo Harbor, at the end of the long inlet of Washington Harbor on the southwest end of the island.  Winds were light and variable, so we motor sailed most of the 20 or so nautical miles on a course of east by south, taking about 4-5 hours for the crossing, which was sunny, warm and uneventful.  We tied up at the NPS dock, and checked in at the visitor center there and took in the exhibits at the center.  We then moved to our assigned docks and settled in, doing a little hiking and dingy exploring, taking in this extraordinary wilderness.  All in all, a gorgeous day.

 

July 21

The next day, Tuesday morning, we checked weather at the Park Service, which looked favorable, and departed Windigo Harbor, starting on a clockwise circumnavigation of Isle Royale, heading northeast for McCargoe Cove, about a 20-mile jaunt along an unforgiving rocky coast, staying about a mile offshore for most of the way, until we GPS’d to the cove entrance, which is narrow, zig-zaggy, but well-marked with buoys.

 

It is worth noting that McCargoe Cove is named after a British Naval Captain who hid a 90- ton brigantine in the cove in order to keep it out of American hands during the War of 1812.  They must have kedged it in through the entrance.  The cove widens out after the entrance, but not wide enough to tack a 90-ton sailing vessel, so there must have been a lot rowing involved unless the wind direction was perfect.  To make a long story short, we motored down the 2-mile length of McCargoe Cove, and tied up at the NPS dock there.  We shared some camaraderie and beers with a group of the most bug-bitten backpackers I’ve ever seen- they had bites on bites.  The weather by this time had turned cloudy/rainy cool, so we put up boom tents against the rain, and retreated inside, warm and dry in the extended cabins.

 

July 22

The next morning dawned cold and foggy, but calm, having rained on and off through most of the night.  We got an early start, as Bill indicated he wanted to be on the south side of the island by early afternoon before any really bad weather had a chance to blow up.  I had recently purchased a chartplotting GPS shortly before this trip, but never had to rely on the chartplotting part of it to navigate.  This morning the fog was so thick that we would not have been able to move without it.  We did not have radar, but chartplotting GPS was the next best thing.  In the narrow confines of McCargoe Cove, and later running up the Amygdaloid Channel toward Blake Point at the far northeast tip of the island, we often could not see land even though we were maybe 100 yards from it.  As we made our way northeast, the fog began to lift, and we rounded Blake Point well offshore and turned to the southeast, finding the long fiord of Tobin Harbor, we anchored about 2-3 miles in, secure from any wind save northeast.  By then the day had turned sunny and pleasant, so we dinghied into the seaplane dock there, and walked the short distance to Rock Harbor Lodge, with its small sundry store which caters to backpackers and tour boat guests.  There is also a small hotel with a nice restaurant there, as well as transient dockage.

 

Isle Royale seemed to have two weather zones during our visit- the cold wet foggy north side and the sunny warm south side.  Because the water in this northern part of the lake is cold (in the 40’sF cold, even in the summer), fog banks would roll through every few minutes.  The temperatures would dip dramatically, fog would roll through, and leave just as quickly, the sun would come back out and warm up immediately- very strange compared to the mainland.

 

July 23

We spent a quiet night on board at anchor in Tobin Harbor, and got going the next morning, retracing our course out of Tobin Harbor to make the run down the length of Rock Harbor with a following northeast breeze, wing and wing the whole way.  We found the NPS dock at West Caribou Island, near the Middle Islands Passage, and tied up for the night in midafternoon.  Bill knew of an old cemetery located on a little island just off of our dock, so we dinghied over to check it out.  The approach to this island is very shallow and rocky, so care is needed, even with shallow draft.

The 3-4 gravesites have a little fence around them, and the markers are unreadable, but I would guess they have been there for over a hundred years.  From there we dinghied about a mile away to a former commercial fishing operation and lighthouse at Middle Passage.  The view of Middle Passage from the top of the lighthouse is worth the climb- stunning in good weather, which we had.  The wind had started picking up on the way down to the fishing camp, and Blewboat’s dinghy had all it could handle, so I asked Chuck to Ride with Bill (who’s dingy had larger pontoons).  We spent an uneventful night tied up at the NPS Dock.

 

July 24 

The next morning, we continued our circumnavigation, headed the 20 or so miles southeast to Hay Bay, where we found another NPS dock to tie up to for the night.  Hay bay is a sheltered, if somewhat buggy place, with shallow water and some weeds.  At the head of the bay is a small stream which Chuck and I were able to explore for a few hundred yards upstream by dingy.

 

July 25

The next morning, we headed out across Siskiwit bay, rounding Point Houghton to once again head southeast in light winds staying about a half mile off shore, past Long Point, Rainbow Point and Cumberland Point, getting into Grace Harbor late in the afternoon when we hit the first thunderstorm of the trip, fortunately in relatively sheltered water.  We got wet, but made out way back into Washington Harbor and thence back to Windigo, where we started our circle, and tied up once again for the night.

 

July 26

The next morning, we awoke, had breakfast on board, and went up to the Park office to check weather (as I recall).  I don’t specifically recall what the forecast called for- probably for chance of showers late in the afternoon- nothing alarming as I recall. (Or we would not have left Windigo that day) As I recall, we got a later start than I would have liked, but when we got out of Washington Harbor and out onto the main Lake for the 20-mile hike back to Grand Portage, the sky was clear, with winds about 10 kts out of the southwest, more or less running up the western Lake Superior shoreline.  Waves were running about 2 feet, very manageable for Blewboat and Bill’s Hunter 23.  I think it was around 10:00 when we entered the lake proper, on a course of 282 degrees.  Sailing was great, with Blewboat at full mainsail and 100% jib, doing 5-plus knots on a close reach, towing her dinghy.

 

At some point we saw the sky to the north of the Island getting dark, and sure enough, thunderstorms were building- four distinct, scary- as- hell-looking cells, in a line from southwest to northeast, coming off of the Canadian shore, evidently heading our way. 

 

The inrush ahead of the squall line added to the existing south-westly wind flow.  As we proceeded, the wind picked to 12kts, 15 kts, 20kts & more, and Blewboat was getting to be a handful with that much sail up.  Chuck and I took turns at the helm, but for some reason we did not reef- I think we thought the wind was probably temporary and would settle down, and we would wish we’d have left the sail up.  Big mistake.  About that time, we noticed that Bill had headed south of our position- we tried but failed to reach him on VHF to find out his intentions.  By this time the wind was so loud that I doubt he ever heard our radio calls.  As it turns out, Bill had started his motor to head south into the wind in order to get a better line for Grand Portage- by heading south he could bear off of the close reach and take the wind and waves (which were building rapidly) more on the beam, (Did I mention that Bill is a really cagey sailor?)

 

Chuck and I continued to bash into wind and waves on a close reach to the point where taking the jib down was obviously necessary, but dangerous in those conditions.  We waited waaay too long to reef.  Chuck and I had taken turns going forward on deck, and it was my turn.  Breakers had built from 3 feet to 5 or more when I crawled out on deck with harness and tether, and clipped onto the bail ring at the base of the mast.  The motion at the mast was extreme, with breakers coming down on the bow.  I remember looking up at the tops of the waves as I struggled to uncleat the jib halyard, move out to the pulpit and pull the jib down.  As I was attempting to do this, a strong gust knocked us down, and I slid downhill off the boat into the water, attached to the boat by my tether, which was running up over my head to the mast.  I still believe to this day, not to be too dramatic, that I would have died that day had it not been for my harness and tether.  In those conditions, there is no way that Chuck or anybody else would have been able to handle the boat by themselves to turn around and find me in those waves before I froze to death.  The surface water temp, which I had checked earlier in the day out of curiosity, was 43F. 

 

I used the tether like a rope to pull myself back up on deck, pulled the jib down and tied it off to the pulpit, and crawled back to the cockpit.  By this time, it did not look like we would be able to lay Grand Portage Bay, and in the interest of getting the hell out of there, started the engine in order to point higher.  Even with the engine running, we never did lay Grand Portage Bay, but were forced north, narrowly missing the rocks of Lucille and Susie Islands, to finally find shelter behind the sheer vertical rock cliff of Hat Point at the entrance to Wauswaugoning Bay, one Bay to the north of Grand Portage Bay.  Once there, the sea state went to almost flat, with no wind, like another world.  It was then I realized I was shaking uncontrollably, the sure sign of hypothermia.  Chuck had put foul weather gear on before the crap really hit the fan, and so was in better shape temp-wise than I was.  I went below and stripped off all the wet stuff and got into dry clothes, and felt better immediately.

 

Crisis averted, the squall line passed overhead, and it rained very hard, straight down, no wind, positively weird.  We then motored out around Hat Point toward Grand Portage Marina, the wind having dropped to zero, and the seas becoming round-topped and decaying.  We motored to the marina in less than an hour, and tied up where Bill was waiting for us.  The Harbor Master was afraid for Bill when he made it in, he looked hypothermic.  The harbormaster was afraid for us as well, and made several radio calls to check on us, but we never heard the calls.  I don’t know if it was because of a faulty radio or the screaming wind- if the radio was working, I don’t think we would have heard it.

 

As that day went on, we found out that the squall line (which was not forecast) eventually encompassed the western half of Lake Superior and clobbered the Apostle Islands a few hours later.

 

 

Lessons learned:

 

  1. Reef Early, reef often.  We waited way too long to take in sail.
  2. I already knew this, but wear a harness and a tether, and clip onto the boat when going on deck.  If it gets rough, clip on even in the cockpit.  Your life may depend on it.
  3. Put on foul weather gear or at least have it handy if you think you are going to get wet.  The day was actually warm, around eighty degrees, but the water was frigid.  If you can stay dry, you can stay warm and stave off hypothermia. With wind on wet skin, it does not have to be cold- If you get too cold, you are in real trouble.
  4. Instead of bashing into wind and waves to get to a certain point on a map (get-home-it is), we would have been better off to do what Bill did and make a detour to get a better point of sail, or turn away from the land that we narrowly missed, and head away from shore, take down all sail, and ride it out.  I found out that Blewboat can handle worse weather than her crew can.
  5. Make sure your VHF is in good working order.
  6. Make sure everything is in good working order, or don’t go.

 

Would I do this again?

 

Absolutely, but smarter next time…

 

Mike

Blewboat

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  • 2 weeks later...
John Hager wrote:
 
For over 50 years, Betsey, my wife, and I have canoed numerous bodies of water. They have ranged from white water,  like the Wolf, Peshtigo, and Bois Brule to more quiet bodies of water like Lake of the Woods, Sylvania, BWCA, and the over 25 years tripping the Quetico. 
 
One of the more serious situations we ran into when paddling, is when the wind is blowing and an island splits the wind into two wind trains.  When they meet again at the downwind side of the island, they form an area of confused water with waves crisscrossing from two different directions. 
 
We experienced this same situation while sailing on Lake Superior in the Apostles Islands but on a much larger scale.  The day before we departed from Sand Island there was a strong storm to our west.  The morning of our leaving Sand Island a fairly stiff wind was blowing out of SSE. With the wind at our stern, I thought it would be an easy run to the north point of York Island. I opted not to go south of York Island due to the rocky shoals and shallow water. When we left Sand, the motor sailing was fine.  
 
It wasn’t until we were not quite halfway to York, that conditions became concerning. The swells were rolling in from the open waters to our west and another set of waves coming from the south, The meeting of these two wave trains crisscrossing each other made for our most serious sailing situation to date.  
 
When we were in the trough of a wave, we could not see land and when we were on top of a crest, we would look down into 5’ or 6’ depressions, larger across than our 22’ sailboat. One wave would hit us on the port side and the next one on our stern. It was truly a white knuckle time, as both of us were gripping tightly, me on the tiller, Betsey on my arm.
 
We don’t remember exactly how long this passage took, our guess is over an hour to motor just under 3 miles.
 
It is never a good sign when one's motor comes out of the water or when the water comes over your bow or both!
 
We love our Catalina C22!
 
Note:  What we should have done was turn back to Sand Island, even if it was a longer distance and
pay closer attention to wind forecasters, like the app, “Predictwind”.
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