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Cruising: A Lake Superior Circumnavigation

Setting out onto the chill waters of North America’s greatest lake

Setting out onto the chill waters of North America’s greatest lake

By the time I awoke it was already too late. I knew something was wrong before I’d even fully struggled out of my sleeping bag, before I’d unzipped the tent and was standing out on the wet sand of the beach. In front of me there was only one boat where there should have been two. Sundog, the other of the two 18ft beach cats the four of us planned on using to circumnavigate Lake Superior, had disappeared. Only Lunacy, the other half of the team, remained, white hulls gleaming.

A thunderstorm was gathering to the south, the gentle breeze increasing to a steady wind, as I charged down the shore looking for a boat I already knew was long gone. Dead and gone, eaten like so many others by the vast, remorseless body of water that is Lake Superior. The sun was dawning a viscous red through the heavy mist of the oncoming thunderheads. I knew I had only a few scant minutes before the storm ripped Sundog and our dreams out onto the lake’s unforgiving open waters. I stopped at the end of the beach. The red rocks of the low cliffs that guarded the coastline were bereft of any sign of our boat, our dreams and the plans we had been making the past two years.

We’d set sail the day before, leaving from Bayfield, Wisconsin, a little port town nestled among the green jewels of the Apostle Islands. Our first day had been incredible, and we’d reveled in the feeling of the boats flying across the surface of the world’s greatest lake. Bow spray crested gently over the twin hulls as we sliced through the small waves ruffling the crystal waters. The wind died in the afternoon, but then picked up again, just enough to get us to our first campsite on a beach near the small town of Cornucopia.

The four expedition members stretch their legs ashore

The four expedition members stretch their legs ashore

Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area. Depths reach from an average of 500ft to a cratering 1,333ft, a conveniently easy number to remember. The lake is famous for its mercurial moods, icy waters and, of course, the fact she never gives up her dead. Every year, Lake Superior claims both boats and lives. I knew full-well the lake’s reputation when three friends and I began planning our circumnavigation.

It was only natural, I suppose, that my upbringing as a sailor (and the eternal optimism that seemingly comes with it) would one day lead me to convincing my mostly non-sailing friends that circumnavigating one of the more notorious bodies of water in the world would be, if not easy, then at least fun. The four of us had all graduated with degrees in “outdoor education” from Northland College, also located on Superior shore, so they couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned.

We had set aside 30 days to complete the voyage and devoted countless hours to researching the route and gearing up. Our gear included a pair of matching Sol Cat 18 catamarans nearly twice as old as us, which we’d laboriously repaired in my father’s heated garage at work. We’d funneled thousands of dollars into the boats and our plans and when the time came to finally cast off lines had left Bayfield in the highest of spirits.

Now those emotions were long gone. If only I’d done the right thing the night before as Sundog still lay on the beach like a lazy seal. If only I’d listened to my partner and crewmate, Sarah.

“Do you think we should tie up the boats?” she’d said.

“No,” I’d replied. “I’ll just be hyperaware.”

I’m not even sure what I’d meant by that. One thing I did know was that I was certainly hyperaware now. After hastily donning our drysuits, Sarah and I pushed Lunacy out into the water to continue the search. As we did so, I strained my eyes, trying to pick out any sign of the boat’s orange hulls in the storm. No luck. We raised sail and made our way along the wild shore, blindly hoping.

A lonely Lunacy wonders where Sundog may have gotten to

A lonely Lunacy wonders where Sundog may have gotten to

The short cliffs of rasping sandstone in front of us appeared dull and foreboding, boat-eaters, carved by centuries of wind and waves into deep crags and shadowy nooks. Hunks of fallen cliff lay submerged just beneath the surface. We sailed past nervously, searching for orange hulls, white sails, any hint of Sundog. If we could only find our wayward boat before the storm hit, our expedition might still live to see day three.

I tried pushing images of Sundog’s mangled hulls and broken mast out of my mind as Sarah and I scanned the shoreline, pinging Alec and Clair, our fellow expedition members, over our handheld radios as we did so. The thunderstorm arrived with a few burly gusts that sent us scuttling for shelter behind the cliffs. There was no searching to be done while the storm passed through, reducing visibility to a half-mile or less, so we headed back. My optimism flagged. I paddled in time with Sarah, limply trying to avoid thinking about what was going to happen next. It certainly wasn’t going to be our expedition.

Back at camp, I struggled into my sleeping bag and tried shutting down my brain. We’d been on the water about an hour, and the weather had now cleared, turning the morning into a windless, sun-drenched sauna. The next step was fairly obvious: around 0900, I called the Coast Guard, and after convincing them there was absolutely no way someone would want to take a 40-year-old catamaran with a 3.5hp engine out for a midnight joyride, they put out a radio bulletin for us. Maybe someone would spot Sundog before they ran her over.

The author in hot pursuit of his lost catamaran

The author in hot pursuit of his lost catamaran

I hung up and joined the others for some oatmeal on a nearby picnic table. The gray mush was bland and hopeless. All our brown sugar was aboard Sundog. We could only assume, post thunderstorm, that if the boat hadn’t been driven onto the rocks or bashed to pieces against some cliff, it had surely capsized, filled with water and turtled. While it probably had enough positive flotation to keep from sinking, even upside down, finding its twin hulls among the thousands of square miles of lake would like finding a needle in a haystack.

No one wanted to talk about what we would do if we couldn’t find our boat, so we didn’t. I called some other friends in the area and asked them to keep a lookout. Sarah joined our support-van driver, Jerry, in searching the coastline. Alec and Clair tried to get me to finish my breakfast.

An hour later, still of no luck. I started pacing, partly from anxiety, partly to put some distance between my oatmeal and me. It was then my phone rang.

“Yeah,” Nathan, the Coast Guard service member at the other end said. “We’re thinking, maybe, we’ll look for your boat as, like, a training exercise.”

There was a moment’s silence as I worked to rehinge my jaw.

As I did so, Nathan kept talking. “Shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll be up there in an hour or so,” he said.

It was like hearing the National Guard was responding to one of the lost dog fliers you had just finished pasting all over town. True to his word, Nathan and his squad showed up soon afterward, their cutter throwing up a frothy bow wake as it glided over the now calm seas. He gave me a ring to let me know they’d found our boat. “What? No way!” I said. Next thing I knew, though, they were roaring off in the wrong direction, westward, following the mast of a 40ft sloop that had left Cornucopia earlier.

I was starting to become morose again. The waters surrounding the Apostle Islands are fairly shallow. But there also parts where the depth hits around 400ft. I was hoping it was that deep. I’d heard you don’t have to pay salvage costs if your boat sinks in over 300ft of water. It wasn’t long before Nathan called again to acknowledge his earlier mistake.

“What color was the boat again? Uh-huh. And the shape? Right. What did you call it? Oh yeah, a catamaran. OK.”

Making sail again after breaking camp ashore

Making sail again after breaking camp ashore

After that headquarters called to let me know they were doubling down on their efforts, utilizing some new computer software they had for tracking currents to try and figure out where Sundog might have drifted. Nathan called again to let me know he was working his way east. The sun slowly burned its way across the August sky. The puddles around our picnic table had long since dried out. I tried not to think about the future. Bleak thoughts assailed me anyway.

If Sundog was truly gone then our trip was over. Even if we found her, she’d probably turtled by now, which would be just as bad since it meant all the gear aboard her was lost. Some of it—the flares, air horn and other safety gear, wouldn’t be too tough to replace. The daggerboards, though, which had been lying loose on the tramp, were another matter entirely. They might not even be commercially available any more. I wondered how long it would take to fabricate another pair from scratch. A week’s delay would axe the trip as surely as if the boat was never found. We might as well just go home. As I started thinking of answers to the inevitable question, “Back already?” I realized I’d finally admitted to myself our great adventure was now well and truly over.

My phone rang. It was Nathan again.

“Yeah,” I said, lifelessly.

“We found your catamaran—your boat,” he said.

I almost dropped the phone into my oatmeal. “No way!” I said, wondering if it would be considered inappropriate to hug an active-duty member of the United States Coast Guard. “Is there, uh, anything still on board? Like two boards and a bag?” I said, hoping against hope.

“Maybe,” Nathan said. “There were a few things on there, but we’re coming back to pick you up. To be honest, we couldn’t quite figure out how to tow this thing. We’re going to put you on it first.”

Alec and I immediately suited up and were standing at the dock watching as our saviors came alongside a few minutes later. We stepped aboard, and I nervously clutched my paperwork as we rocketed in the direction of our wayward boat, which had apparently floated nearly eight miles to the east—dodging an island and a towering line of cliffs as it made its way toward the Apostles again.

When we finally hopped back aboard, I was astounded to find every carelessly strewn piece of gear, every poorly packed bag, even the daggerboards, still sitting exactly where we’d left them. Incredibly, the expedition was back on, with nary a part to replace nor scratch to repair.

After that, we fought with the recalcitrant engine a bit, but it failed to start, and the halyards were now all tangled up, so Nathan and his squad threw us a line and towed us to the nearest beach. Once there, we cast off the tow and slowly surfed up onto the narrow strip of sand. After straightening out the halyards we sailed the rest of the way to Cornucopia, where we dragged the boat back up alongside Lunacy, a good 30ft away from the waterline. No midnight wave would take either of them this night, though we made a point of tying up both boats this time, just to be safe. 

Ed note: Brontë Gross is a charter master with Dreamcatcher Sailing in Bayfield, Wisconsin, where he works to introduce people to the “joyous miseries,” as he puts it, of sailing. As for the circumnav, the crew made it halfway around Lake Superior, reaching the middle of the most remote part of the Lake, the Pukaskwa Peninsula, when a shroud snapped forcing them to have to trailer the boats home. The dream, though, is still out there, Gross says, floating on the current, waiting for another try...

June 2021

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