Day 5: 15-20 knot winds
Day 3: So, as I mentioned, we were hoping to get a good nights rest at Mackinac Island, head out in the morning for the bridge, and then return to Cheboygan later in the day. It seemed like a good sail plan. Unfortunately, the weather turned on us. Mackinac Island’s marina is pretty wide open on the south side of the island, and when the wind picked up it also brought the swells with it. The boat rocked like a bronco all night long. I must’ve went up on the deck at least once an hour to double check the dock lines and make sure the bumpers were secure. I also had to let us out further from the dock as we were banging hard against it. Needless to say, part one of the plan (a good night’s rest) failed.
The next morning wasn’t much better. Winds had died down some. I turned on the radio and looked online at the NOAA forecast for that afternoon. Forecast was winds from the west at 10-15 mph with a 30% chance of thunderstorms later in the day, and the radar showed increasing clouds throughout the day. I figured it would be best if we got going as soon as possible to have a better chance of beating the storms.
I do find it amazing that meteorologists have the only job where you can be wrong so often but yet still keep your job. We headed out of the marina and turned west toward the bridge. After only about an hour into our sail, the weather turned for the worst. The winds picked up speed and were showing about 30 knots on my wind meter with gusts up to 40! The waves went from the 3 feet predicted to swells over twice that. We were getting banged around like no other. Remember, on this journey, it was only my Dad and myself. I was also the only one who had any sailing experience (and only a few weeks at that).
The first order of business was to put our life vests on and then put a reef in the sail. In hind site, I should have been prepared and instructed my Dad on how to reef the sail prior to leaving the dock. Luckily, the boat had a lazy jack system in place. While it took some creativity on my part to walk my Dad through this as I manned the helm, we finally had the main sail reefed appropriately. Even with that, the boat seemed to have a mind of its own. Each wave seemed more determined than the previous at taking us off course. With the wind and the waves beating us around, I decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue on to the bridge. A change of plan was warranted.
At one point, we considered going back to the marina and wait until the next day. Instead though, I thought, what if we went around the north side of Mackinac Island and then headed south on the east side of the island? We could then use Mackinac Island and Bois Blanc Island to the south as protection from the wind. The water would be less turbulent and the effects of the wind easier to deal with. I knew the trip would be longer to get back to Cheboygan along that route, but with not going to the bridge, we had time to spare. I ran the plan past my Dad and he agreed that the bridge would have to wait.
As I suspected, the wind was much slower on the other side of the island. What was a rough, hair raising, experience turned into something much easier for us newbie sailors to handle. Instead of 30-40 knot winds, we had 15-20 knot winds and only 3 foot waves. Aside from the coolness of the day, it was actually a pretty nice sail. We were making great time as the wind was coming across the beam almost perfectly. We even took time for a nice lunch of ham and turkey wraps and a couple of beers. Then, we came to the end of our “protection” from the winds.
Once again, the waves started knocking us about. To make matters worse, the wind picked up even faster, and with coming around Bois Blanc and having to head westward we were now having to go upwind and close hauled. With the winds at that speed, the boat speed came to a crawl. At times it felt as if we were standing still or even going backwards. I could see our channel marker though and new the Cheboygan marina was close. So, we kept on.
As we got closer to the channel marker though, the shorelines just didn’t look right. None of my land marks were around. Then it hit me. I was looking at the wrong channel marker! Son of a ….. We were off course. I thought there was only one of these historical 14 foot unmanned channel markers in the Lower Straits. Apparently, after looking at the chart again, there were 2. “What else could go wrong,” I thought. Unfortunately, that was the wrong thing to think as then it started pouring down rain. With the wind, it felt like sand pebbles beating my face. At that point, I declared, “That’s it!”. I told my Dad to bring down the sails and powered up the engine. I figured it would be safer and faster to simply motor in as quickly as possible rather than having to tack back and forth to get to Cheboygan.
With the high swells, the strong headwind, the rain, and everything else mother nature was throwing at us, it still took us another 3 hours to get to our marina. I was exhausted, soaked, hungry, and exhilarated all at the same time. When we finished tying the boat to the dock, our neighbor summed up the adventure for us by exclaiming, “Are you guys crazy?! Why would you be sailing in this weather?”
I must admit, it was definately a learning experience. I had another day during that week where the winds and rain wreaked havoc, but not near as bad ason this trip. The second time around though, I was much better prepared and much more confident in myself and the boat as well. I also learned the importance of making sure everyone on the boat understands emergency procedures including reefing the main, where the life jackets are, how to read charts to adjust course as needed, radio procedures, etc… I’m sure much worse will be thrown at me, but experiences like this will help me be more prepared and help me gain more confidence as a sailor.