Great Lakes Solo Page 2

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
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By midday, Mackinac Island was about 70 miles to the northwest. The fog lifted slowly and the wind began to die. Well out of the shipping lanes, I took a long nap. During daylight hours in open waters, I assume that other small craft will avoid me as I sleep—a calculated risk. Relying on the kindness of strangers, I sailed ahead.

Around nightfall, still 35 miles out from Mackinac Island, the wind died completely and I started the motor. At 0200 I finally picked my way into the harbor at Mackinac Island. The chain rattled over the bow roller and the anchor quickly set in the sandy bottom. I had completed my passage.

I take the “more is better” approach to anchoring and use a 45-pound CQR with 3/8in chain. I also keep a 35-pound CQR with 25 feet of chain leader ready in the aft locker. My manual windlass is invaluable; it and the Aries windvane are my favorite gear.

I woke to a fine sunny morning. The sound of buglers playing reveille at Fort Mackinac mingled with the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. First settled by French explorers in the 1600s, Mackinac Island is rich in history and charm. Since cars are banned, the island moves at the leisurely pace of a hiker, a bicycle or a horse. It’s a perfect complement to the world of sail.

I spent a few days at Mackinac, and in the evenings warmed up my bagpipes and gave the crowds ashore a concert from the foredeck. My pipes have proved a fine way to meet other boaters and people ashore. A singlehander can become isolated, but with my bagpipes I always make new friends.

One evening the owner of a 140ft megayacht invited me aboard for drinks. When the big yacht departed the next day, I piped her out of the harbor, her guests lining the railing and waving goodbye.

Light winds were forecast for the next morning and because the Straits of Mackinac, the narrows that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, are notoriously windy with strong currents, I decided to take advantage of the calm. By sunrise I was under the mighty Mackinac Bridge and well into Lake Michigan. Turning south, I set the spinnaker in the light morning breeze. I often set the spinnaker by myself, but have gotten into trouble furling too late and now dowse it the moment the wind tops 12 knots.

Ghosting along on the flat lake, huge boulders slipping by in the clear water, a warm sun on my face, I was in paradise. After a short stop at the pretty town of Charlevoix, I pushed north under full sail, bound for Beaver Island, 20 miles off the Michigan shore.

One of the keys to singlehanding—and life in general—is anticipating problems before they happen. Far ahead I saw what looked like whitecaps. “Now that’s odd,” I thought to myself. But I didn’t do anything, because in my immediate vicinity, it was still only blowing about eight knots. Suddenly a strong east wind bowled Antares over, burying her rail. I wrestled in the big jib, wondering what kind of a sailor would ignore such obvious warning signs.

After that it was a fast run to Beaver Island, and I had my hands full when I got there: dousing sails, consulting the chart, confirming my position, and keeping an eye out for buoys and marks. The wind whistled and the boat leaped from wave to wave as heavy seas crashed on the nearby shore.

Luckily, the anchorage was well protected, and there was a wonderful scent of northern pine air. The east wind blew hard for days, so I waited—no point in bashing my way back through the straits. At night I read by the light of a kerosene lamp that took some of the chill out of the northern air. By day I hitchhiked around the island, visited the lighthouse protecting its southern end and explored the small village that surrounds the harbor.

At last the east wind died and it was time to head back home. I weighed anchor, waved farewell to the north country and made my way east. No doubt there’d be adventures ahead, but with planning, patience and a little foresight, they’d be good ones. I looked forward to another fine solo passage.

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