Safety First

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Chicago to Mackinac Island sailboat race officially kicked off on Saturday. It sounds like fun, and after we bought our current boat in 2002, we checked into it. And quickly ruled it out.

The Chicago-Mac race is by invitation only, and that probably means credentials we don't have. It also requires experienced crew and some off-shore sailing equipment we couldn't afford to buy at the time.

These requirements make a lot of sense. The race covers 333 miles, and during part of the course the boats may be as much as 40 miles from the nearest shore. Storms can pop up quickly over one part of the lake while the sun shines brightly just a few miles away. In fact, one boat was hit by lightening this year. (The crew was safe but the boat was damaged and had to leave the race.) So I don't blame the race organizers for putting safety first.

If we spent a lot of time in the middle of Lake Michigan or sailed the ocean, we'd buy that extra safety gear. But we usually sail in sight of land, and even when it disappears it is rarely more than fifteen miles away. And we're cowards who stay at home if the weather looks threatening. So we can get away without a life raft or an EPIRB (which broadcasts it's location in an emergency).

Not that we ignore safety. Life jackets, safety harnesses, and tethers have always been standard equipment on our boats. Since I can't swim, I wear my life jacket whenever we are on the water, and children must wear them or the boat won't leave the dock.

But there is some safety gear we learned about the hard way.

The first time we tried to sail the North Channel, we never reached Lake Huron. At the time we had a trailerable 23' sailboat, and we put it in the water at DeTour Village, Michigan. My brother joined us with his 18-footer, making two boats, three adults, and two children (ages 12 and 8) in our party.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and perfect sailing weather when we left DeTour. (That's DeTour Lighthouse in the picture.) We had been out about an hour and were sailing in moderate winds when... Crack! Suddenly the upper part of our mast was lying on the cabin roof and the sails were in the water. The mast had snapped just below the spreaders without giving us any warning. (For the non-sailors out there, the spreaders are the part of the mast that spreads out like arms on each side.) We were proud of our calmness and quick action, but we never did find out why the mast broke.

We motored back to the marina at DeTour and docked there for several days as we called the insurance company and did some sightseeing on land. But when the week-end rolled around again, we decided to use our sailboat as a motorboat and cruise up to Canada.

Everything went fine--until our return trip.

I was navigating (by sight) and was sure we weren't anywhere near the reef that showed up on the charts. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

With a crunch, the rudder struck an underwater boulder. Although we didn't take on any water, we couldn't steer the boat. We were stranded, and we couldn't use the radio to call for help because the antenna was at the top of the mast and the mast was tied to the trailer back at the marina.

(In my defense, I was used to sailing on Lake Michigan, where the water is at least 25 feet deep and there is nothing to run into except the shore and a few man-made structures clearly visible above the water.)

My brother and daughter were sailing on his boat, but we had left them far behind. When they eventually came by, they called someone to tow us off the rocks. It makes a good story, and my children will never forget that vacation.

The point? We bought a handheld radio as soon as we got back home, and our current boat has a depth finder. We also bought a GPS to help us pinpoint our location (and keep us away from reefs) before we attempted (successfully) to sail the North Channel again.

Because safety is important, even if you have to learn it the hard way.


patti said...

Wow, Kathryn! I've only attempted crewed sails.
Thanks for sharing. Like this blog and plan to be back!


Caroline said...

Great post. I love the tho't of sailing, altho I never have. And I've heard that the lakes are famous for their storms. Can we have more posts about sailing? :)

Kathryn Page Camp said...

I don't know that I want this to be a sailing blog, especially since we just do it for recreation. But I do have a few more stories I can share from time to time . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your sailing story. I almost thought I was reading a great novel. I have so many stories about boating on a river that resembles sailing.

Post a Comment