Murphy's Law

Monday, October 3, 2016

Murphy’s law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. A good sailor tries to anticipate what can go wrong and prepare for it. Roland and I were not good sailors in 1995 when we made our first attempt to sail Lake Huron’s North Channel.

By 1995, we had already sailed for three seasons. But we had stayed close to home, and our experience was limited to the wide-open spaces and uncluttered depths of Lake Michigan. Now it was time to try something different.

It was to be a two-sailboat trip. Donald would bring his 18-foot Precision, Scheherazade, along as well. Twelve-year-old Caroline would sail with him during the day and sleep on Das Zeltlagermanie at night, and eight-year-old John would reverse that. The picture at the top of this post shows the five sailors as we got ready to leave Indiana.

It was the first time we had trailered Das Zeltlagermanie more than a few miles. Now we were making the much longer trip to DeTour Village—my childhood home—on the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We stopped several times on the way to redistribute the weight on the boat to prevent swaying.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and perfect sailing weather when we left the marina at DeTour and headed for our first anchorage at Harbor Island. We had been out for about an hour and were sailing in moderate winds. Das Zeltlagermanie had just completed a tack when . . . Crack! Suddenly the spreaders from our aluminum mast were on the cabin roof and the sails, shrouds, and lines were dangling in the water. The mast had snapped just below the spreaders without giving us any warning.

Close behind in Scheherazade, Donald and Caroline realized that we were in trouble. They quickly took their sails down and came alongside to help.

Working almost without thinking, Roland, John and I pulled the sails and lines out of the water. Then Donald came aboard and helped retrieve the mast and secure the rigging so we would not lose it as we motored back to DeTour. We were proud of how calm we stayed in the crisis. I even thought to snap this picture after we got everything straightened up:

Back at the marina, we took the sails and lines off and stowed them away, and we removed the broken mast and tied it to the trailer. Das Zeltlagermanie looked naked and forlorn. But she was a conversation starter, and almost everyone at the marina came by to ask what had happened.

Das Zeltlagermanie still offered us a place to cook and sleep, so we stayed at the marina that week awaiting instructions from the insurance company. We used the time to sightsee the Eastern Upper Peninsula by car. One of the places we visited was the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. That might have been a mistake, as the museum and our vacation shared the same theme. But we did have dinner in nearby Paradise.

Sightseeing on land did not satisfy us, however. It was supposed to be a cruising vacation and we still had a motor, so we decided to take the boats on a weekend trip to Canadian waters.

In company with Scheherazade, we left the marina on Friday to cruise up St. Mary’s River. That night we anchored on the east side of East Neebish Island, rafting the two boats together. It was the first time Roland, the children, and I had anchored out, and we slept well. Donald woke during a thunderstorm and kept anchor watch until it passed, but our anchor held both boats through the thunderstorm and high winds.

On Saturday, we visited St. Joseph’s Island in Canada and then headed to Bruce Mines on the Canadian mainland, were we docked and spent the night. After attending church and doing some sightseeing on Sunday, we headed back to DeTour. In spite of our earlier mishap, we were enjoying our vacation.

Since we were motoring and Donald and Caroline were sailing in light winds, Das Zeltlagermanie got way ahead of Scheherazade. I navigated while Roland steered, and I kept a careful eye on a shallow, rocky area marked on the chart. We did not have a depth sounder or a GPS, but I was sure we were quite a ways east of the rock bed, so I was not concerned.

I had just relieved Roland at the tiller when he looked over the side and yelled, “Rocks!”

Too late.

Crunch. The rudder struck a boulder and was propelled forward, breaking the top rudder bracket and putting a small hole in the transom. The hole was above the water line, but we could no longer steer the boat with the tiller. Roland tried steering with the outboard motor, but he could not find the adjustment to loosen the steering. Despite the light winds, a strong swell made steering difficult. And without loosening the steering, the motor was too stiff to steer a straight course.

There were no other boats around us, and we did not know how far back Donald and Caroline were. We would have used the radio to call for help, but the antenna was at the top of the mast, and the mast was tied to the trailer back at the marina. We did not have a handheld VHF for backup, so we were unable to contact anyone.

When we saw a boat off in the distance, we shot off two flares but got no response. The boat was too far away, and it may have been too light to see the flares anyway.

Using the motor, Roland steered Das Zeltlagermanie in a circle to keep it from floating closer to the submerged rocks and further damage. Other than that, there was nothing to do but wait. We could only hope that Scheherazade or another boat would come by and see us, or that Donald would send out the Coast Guard when we did not return. It was mid-afternoon when John spied sails to the north. “There’s another boat,” he cried. “Could it be Uncle Don and Caroline?”

This time Roland tried the air horn. Three short blasts. Three long blasts. Three short blasts. Then a long pause.

Of in the distance, Caroline recognized our denuded sailboat and turned to Donald. “It’s Mom and Dad! They’ve run out of gas!”

“Get the air horn from the cabin and we’ll signal them back. Scheherazade to the rescue!”

Donald’s boat and motor were too small to tow us without our steering, so he used his radio to call a towboat. When the towboat arrived, it towed us to the Yacht Haven on Drummond Island. Roland, John, and I left Das Zeltlagermanie there for the night, borrowed a car, and caught the last ferry to DeTour. We got there around 10:30 p.m., just before Donald and Caroline arrived at the marina in Scheherazade.

By then we were all starved, but DeTour rolled up the streets at 10:00 p.m., and all the restaurants were closed. We had left all our food on Das Zeltlagermanie, and there were no stores open to sell us groceries. My family still had a cottage at DeTour, so we slept there that night. But there was no food in the cottage, either, and we went to bed hungry. To me, that was the biggest disaster of our vacation.

The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast before taking the ferry back to Drummond Island to get Das Zeltlagermanie out of the water. That wasn’t easy, either, due to the lack of steering and a steep boat ramp. But eventually we got it out and made our way back to Indiana.

We never did find out why the mast snapped. Our best guess is that we had unintentionally weakened the structural integrity of the mast when we widened a hole to replace a baby stay and added further stress by providing insufficient support at that point when trailoring the boat to DeTour.

Landing on the rocks was my fault. I simply misjudged the distance.

Two lessons we learned were to always carry a handheld VHS and don’t rely soley on judgment when determining distance from a reef or other impediment.

The dealer repaired the boat and the insurance company covered most of the cost. We spent several more years sailing Das Zeltlagermanie on Lake Michigan, and we didn’t give up our dream of sailing the North Channel.

But first we bought a bigger boat.

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