Reflections of Cruising Lake Erie

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The author has spent decades exploring Lake Erie aboard his Carl Alberg-designed ketch 

The author has spent decades exploring Lake Erie aboard his Carl Alberg-designed ketch 

For once the forecast had been correct: 20 knots southwest, with waves 4 to 6 ft. Around 0300, I rolled over in my bunk unable to sleep with the sound of the wind in the rigging and the occasional groan of the fenders against the hull.

“Just sleep. There’s no way you’re returning home tomorrow in these kinds of conditions,” I told myself.

With the arrival of morning, though, and with the wind still blowing 20 knots out of the southwest, I cast off lines a few minutes after sunrise in hopes of making the return trip before the predicted late-afternoon thunderstorms had a chance to come rolling across the open waters of Lake Erie.

ErieMap

As a child growing up in the upper Midwest there was always this presence: a large, wild, beautiful space immediately to the north of us, a space that dominated our lives much as it had dominated the lives of generations of my forebearers. My entire orientation growing up had been based on this open space to the north. It was always there, so close, ever-changing, mysterious, more than a little beautiful, more than a little dangerous.

I remember the time my father was offered a promotion in a much larger and more affluent community 100 miles to the south. He turned it down because it would take him (and us) too far from the water. I was eight at the time, and in spite of the much-reduced income that came as a result of my father’s decision, I grew up a wealthier person because of my proximity to Lake Erie. My father had it right.

And so it was, 60 years later on a late August morning as the sun was rising over Middle Island in Canada, that I found myself sailing out of the State Park Marina on Middle Bass Island and setting a course for the port of Lorain, some 30 miles west of Cleveland. It’s a trip I have made many times. In fact, this crossing represented the eighth time I’d done it that sailing season alone. It’s a little under 40 miles with about 25 miles of open water. On a clear day, you can see land the entire way. My companion, as has been the case for nearly a quarter-century, was the 43-year-old Cape Dory 30 ketch, Valhalla. I have maintained the boat in nearly original condition more out of necessity than want. Few modern improvements aside from a GPS chartplotter have been made. Nearly my entire maintenance budget goes toward replacement sails. I’m currently on my fourth complete set.

Landfall, with the entrance to Lorain harbor dead ahead 

Landfall, with the entrance to Lorain harbor dead ahead 

With the southwesterly, I only needed to make a single jibe as I rounded the north side of Ballast Island and set a course for Long Point on the northeast tip of Kelleys Island, about 12 miles distant and in a direct line with Lorain. The promised wind was now coming from slightly aft across Valhalla’s starboard quarter. I secured the preventer on the main boom and, with mizen and working jib pulling like a team of horses, settled in for the ride of a lifetime.

The air temperature was in the 80s, the water temperature in the upper 70s. The southwesterly drove the boat downwind at hull speed as I hung on and let nature and the design genius of the late Carl Alberg do their thing. Closing my eyes I was reminded of years earlier, sailing a kit-built Sunfish at speeds that seemed impossible to the kid I’d been back then. The rush of Valhalla’s bow wave, the wind and surrounding white caps also brought to mind my dad, my grandfather and his father before him. It really was the best sail ever—I mean it this time!—as I ended up covering the 38 miles in just over five hours, getting back well ahead of that afternoon’s thunderstorms. Thanks again, Dad, for not accepting that promotion! 

Photos courtesy of Robert Wagner

June 2021

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