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The best and worst things about singlehanded sailing Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me -- a cruising anecdote


When I am cruising, I lose track of the days of the week. They blend into each other and weekends lose their significance. So it didn't even cross my mind that maybe Saturday was not a good day to begin my passage from Lake Erie to Lake Huron -- up the Detroit River, through Lake St. Clair, and then on up the St. Clair River.

I should have made the connection. The previous afternoon I had arrived at Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island at the west end of Lake Erie. I had heard a lot about Put-In-Bay; boaters I had met on my cruise said it was a "must-see." I had never seen and, being in the area, I figured I'd stop by.

It may help to understand that I can handle, but do not particularly like, crowds and noise. One of the reasons I cruise singlehanded is to find solitude and quiet. If you know about Put-In-Bay, you know where I am going with this.

I entered the harbor and maneuvered through the congestion. I had expected that. I heard the sounds of raucous partying. I had expected that. As I approached the Municipal Marina, I saw boats rafted three deep. I hadn't quite expected that. The Richardson's Chart Book said "Transient Dockage: 300-500 slips." Surely, I had reasoned, there would be a place to squeeze in my 26 footer. But I was starting to have my doubts. I pulled up to the gas dock and asked the attendant "Is this normal?"

"This is probably our busiest weekend of the year," he replied. "It's Christmas in July."

Well, I had wanted to see Put-In-Bay and, technically, I had. So I cast off and spent the night at Pelee Island.

When I am cruising, I quit paying attention to the news and tend to forget about everything else going on in the world. Thus, I forgot (if I had ever known) that the Tall Ships were going to be in Detroit that weekend and Saturday was the start of the Port Huron to Mackinac Race.

Saturday began no differently than the previous several days. I had seen no other boats since departing Pelee Island. It was warm, humid, and hazy. The winds were light. The weather report predicted a 30 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon.

As I entered the channel leading from Lake Erie to the Detroit River, I encountered a southbound freighter and could see a couple of pleasure boats in the distance. But the farther north I traveled, the more boats I encountered. Soon, I was surrounded by boats, both southbound and northbound -- groups of big powerboats up on plane kicking out huge wakes, bearing down on me, crossing in front of me, overtaking me. I felt like prey being hounded by a pack of wolves. It finally dawned on me that it was a weekend and Detroiters drove their boats just like they drove their cars.

I anticipated the congestion would ease the farther I got up the Detroit River. It didn't. I learned later that traffic was much heavier than usual on this particular Saturday because of the Tall Ships and the Port Huron to Mackinac Race. I hugged the eastern edge of the channel and tried to stay out of the way -- until I heard a severe thunderstorm warning broadcast on Channel 16 and saw lightning directly ahead.

I checked my chart and located an intersection to a secondary channel that ran along the west shore of the Detroit River. I worked my way across traffic, entered the secondary channel, and headed south away from the storm, looking for some place to take shelter. Nothing.

The storm caught me. It poured rain. Visibilility dropped to zero. Lightning struck all around me. The wind gusted to gale force. The dodger started leaking. The bimini started leaking. Rain was blowing into the cockpit from the sides.

Since I was singlehanding, I couldn't leave the helm even to get my foul weather gear. Being unfamiliar with the channel, I wasn't about to try going anywhere. So I just sat there for almost two hours, getting thoroughly soaked, watching my depthsounder and maneuvering to hold a position as close to the edge of the channel as I dared, straining to see beyond my boat and hoping I wouldn't be hit by some fool traveling in these conditions.

After the storm let up I continued heading south and, about two miles downstream, found a vacant dock where I could tie up. The rain quit and the sun came out. I changed into dry clothes, spread my wet clothing out to dry, and took a couple of hours to relax and monitor the weather.

When all seemed clear I cast off and headed back north, retracing my route up the channel I had come down. Just past the spot where I had been hit by the storm my engine started sounding funny. I shifted into neutral and checked things out. Nothing was obvious. I shifted back into forward. It still sounded funny. I shut off the engine and checked again. Still nothing. I started the engine and continued slowly, pondering the possible problem. My thoughts were interrupted by the wail of an alarm. I immediately killed the engine.

Dummy! I had completely overlooked my temperature guage. The engine had been overheating and I had missed it. I guessed correctly that seaweed had blocked the cooling water intake. Hanging over the transom wielding my deck brush, I eventually managed to clear the intake. But I decided to call it a day and went back to the dock I had tied up to earlier.

Luck has a way of balancing out and time has a way of changing one's perspective. That night I met Ken, a marine mechanic. He had come down to help a buddy who had been caught by the same storm, but farther north, and experienced worse weather, including hail. While maneuvering to deal with the conditions his friend had hit an underwater obstruction and damaged his outdrive. Ken and I talked until 0200 and before leaving he checked out my engine as a favor. It was cooling properly and had suffered no apparent damage.

Afterwards, I sat in the cockpit for a while simply enjoying the peace and calm. It had been one of those days but my earlier vicissitudes were already memories and I began to appreciate how fortunate I was to have arrived in Detroit while the Tall Ships were there. I went to bed excited about seeing them in the morning.

Copyright 2004
David Guenther

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