The Storm Ahead
A few years ago my wife and I went sailing with another couple and our 9 year old son. We took our 31 foot sloop on a four day trip in the North Channel. If you're not familiar with it, the North Channel is a remarkable body of water at the very northern end of Lake Huron. Dotted with hundreds of uninhabited granite islands, this pristine oasis is considered the best freshwater cruising ground in the world. Great Lakes sailors who've been there talk longingly of its splendor. Those who've not been there talk of it in the same grand and mysterious terms as Atlantis or Babylon.
Our venturesome voyage commenced with a gentle cruise eastward from Hilton Beach and St. Joseph Island across the northwestern end of the Channel, past my sentimental favorite island, East Grant, with its horseshoe shaped anchorage exposed to the open water to the west--a surreal spot on evenings when the winds are easterly. The sunsets seem to last forever, displaying colors I didn't know even existed.
We continued on, south of the French Islands and into a stunning natural harbor on the south side of L-shaped Turnbull Island. This idyllic anchorage is surrounded by Turnbull and at least 60 tiny islands. We had a lovely evening, swimming in the crystal water and exploring nearby beaches and rock formations. Dinner on board tasted particularly good that night.
The next day was devoid of wind, our chosen method of propulsion, but otherwise perfect. We cruised west under diesel power through Whalesback Channel, through the extremely narrow passage called Little Detroit, across McBean Channel, then hooking south to pick up the hidden needle-thin secret side entrance into the natural harbor of The Benjamins--two pine-studded pink granite islands of indescribable beauty.
We dropped anchor in relatively deep water off the east edge of South Benjamin Island, at the base of a sheer 200 foot granite wall. The weather that evening was unusually warm for the North Channel--perhaps 80 degrees--and we took advantage of it, spending liberal time in the water, climbing the rocks, and exploring in our dinghy.
Our plan the next day was to cruise south and then west to Meldrum Bay, a tiny settlement of 60 year-round residents on the west end of Manitoulin Island--the largest freshwater island in the world. Taking pride in my seamanship, especially attention to the safety of my passengers, I started checking the weather on the VHF radio at 6 a.m. I listened to the same forecast at least ten times before we sailed out of the anchorage mid-morning. It was a bit cooler, winds were light to moderate, and seas relatively calm. There was no threatening weather in the forecast.
We sailed west across the northern end of Ennis Island, then picked our way south through some reefs toward the deep water along the southern side of the North Channel.
Approximately eighty by twenty miles, the North Channel is a sailor's sanctuary, surrounded by islands to the south and the mainland of Ontario to the north. In July and August the marine forecast more often than not warns of possible thunderstorms, but they seldom pose a problem and almost never are severe.
But this was a rare day. In spite of the featureless forecast that had repeated itself all morning, by early afternoon the outlook was quite different, and quite alarming. A very severe thunderstorm cell had formed to the west, and was headed our way. Soon, warning broadcasts were being aired on every channel at five minute intervals. The storm was big and bad, the likes of which the North Channel sees perhaps once every ten years. And we were heading right into it.
Sailors have a few options in situations like this. You can "run before the storm" (outrun it). For us this would have meant heading the opposite direction, and the storm was approaching at a speed that made this impossible. You can seek a safe harbor. But the North Channel has few man-made harbors and we were near none of them, nor were there any nearby natural harbors. Plus, the last thing we wanted was for the storm to catch us while navigating rocks and reefs into a safe haven. Our only sensible choice was the third option--get into deep water and prepare to ride it out.
As the storm approached I took down both sails. My "crew" was relatively inexperienced, so I wanted to make our impending joyride as simple as possible. We fired up the diesel and headed onward toward the storm. My friend Phil, an able helmsman, got decked out in the best rain gear on board, but I warned him that we were all going below at the first sign of lightning. That didn't take long. The lightning approached very suddenly, tentacled bolts spearing all the way into the water ahead of us--a rare occurrence. We put the engine in neutral (it's important to keep the engine running--a lightning strike can disable the electrical system and render you powerless), laid a hull, and headed below.
Laying a hull is the same concept as heaving to--a well-known sailor's technique for riding a storm. When you lay a hull you lock your wheel hard in one direction. The wind will catch the lighter bow and push it downwind. Once the boat gets "way", the locked rudder causes the boat to turn back into the wind, effectively stopping the boat. The process repeats itself over and over. The idea is that in giving up control of your vessel to the weather you take measures to prevent the vessel from moving at the rate of the weather, or "scudding". By laying a hull we were able to slow the movement of our boat to around 1.5 knots, perhaps less than one tenth the speed we'd have been moving otherwise.
You wouldn't do this with a power boat--the downside of laying a hull is that half the time the boat is broadside to the waves--which soon kicked up to 6-8 feet (that's a lot in the Great Lakes, where the waves are very close together). The boat was rolling severely. But while it was quite uncomfortable, I knew we would stay afloat, thanks to 3,000 pounds of lead in the keel (Weebles wobble but they don't fall down).
Anything that wasn't bolted down was flying around the salon, including Phil. I looked out the side porthole and noted our dinghy, which was being towed at the end of a 100 foot painter (a fancy word for "rope"), was now just off our beam. It was 15 feet in the air flying like a kite. At one point when the winds subsided I stuck my head out to check the wind-meter. It read 50 knots--in a lull! We were experiencing hurricane-force gusts.
The major part of the storm lasted perhaps 20 minutes. It seemed like 20 hours. Once back in control we beat against slowly subsiding six foot seas the rest of the way to Meldrum Bay. When we turned south to head the final two miles into the bay to the provincial docks, the sun reintroduced itself. By the time we tied up, the sky was gloriously clear and the once-fierce winds faded to a relaxing zephyr. Just another perfect evening in the North Channel.
I often reflect on the lovely dinner we had that serene evening on the veranda of the Meldrum Bay Inn, recounting our day's adventure.