Cruising

Great Lakes Solo

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I have always been drawn to solo sailing. I’m not sure if it’s the challenge, the peace and solitude, or just the difficulty of finding good crew. Singlehanding has its risks, but I’ve also found sailing alone very rewarding.

Aboard my Westsail 32, Antares, I cruised from Detroit up Lake Huron and into Lake Michigan. The first leg, from Port Huron to Mackinac Island, was about 200 miles. Since cruising sailors never go to windward, I spent a few days waiting for a southwesterly to slingshot me up the big lake. Keeping to a schedule is the cause of many a rough, and often dangerous passage. Patience is the key.

Waiting in Port Huron, I checked over my safety harness and jacklines. I wear the harness at all times on deck, but constantly remind myself that its security is questionable. Alone and over the side, dragging beside the boat at 6 knots, the chances of climbing back aboard are slim.

I lean toward the KIS (keep it simple) philosophy. I use an Aries self-steering windvane and have yet to invest in roller furling. The boat lacks electric pumps and hot water (sun showers work fine). I have a 12-volt refrigerator, but always stock up on ice to reduce battery draw. Too many cruising boats are plagued with mechanical problems, so I’ve chosen to keep my boat’s systems to a minimum.

Patience rewarded, with strong southwesterlies forecast, I jumped off at Port Huron for the ride north. By evening, out past Michigan’s “thumb” in the open waters east of Saginaw Bay, the seas began to build and it started to rain. Here is where solo sailing showed its downside. Dowsing a big genoa in strong winds is difficult with help, but solo on a pitching bowsprit, soaked in spray and hanging on for dear life, it’s downright dangerous. In retrospect, I should have reefed earlier. In the future I’ll also be sure to run off downwind and blanket the headsail behind the main.

Staggering below, I fought off the urge to collapse into my bunk. The show must go on, and there was no one else to play my part. Checking my position, which I plot hourly on a paper chart, I found I was beginning to stray over into the shipping lanes. So it was back on deck, where I adjusted the windvane and trimmed the sails. I was now running under reefed main and staysail. One of the things I like about Antares’s cutter rig is that it is easy to adjust with different sail combinations. Overhead, lightning flashed and rain hammered my back. Antares dug in her shoulder and ran north like a racehorse.

Down below I tried to eat and drink a little. Sliding back the hatch, I scanned the horizon and set the alarm so I could get some sleep. Years ago, before a solo cruise to Bermuda, I built a 12-volt alarm that can be set for up to one hour. This time around, I set the timer for 45 minutes. I know that’s too long to safely sleep without a lookout, but I had to weigh the risks of a collision at sea with those of complete sleep deprivation—neither a great choice!

What seemed like just moments after my head hit the pillow, the alarm went off and I scrambled across the dark cabin to shut it off, and then hurried topside to have a look around. I was as alone as if I were in the Southern Ocean, but I also knew that just over the horizon might lurk a freighter that could be on me in 15 minutes. I checked the GPS, plotted my position, confirmed the course and fell back asleep. Instantly, the alarm sounded again and I was back up on deck. And so it went, through the rest of the night.

By morning I was well north and making great time in dense fog. I considered putting into the protected anchorage at Presque Isle, Michigan, but decided that without a chartplotter or radar it would be too great a risk. The bowsprit barely visible, I ran wing and wing before steep seas. Antares was closed off in her own tiny world, riding the swells like a duck.

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