Early in the 2014 season, I had set a goal of sailing Lake Ontario aboard my MacGregor Venture 21. As the summer pressed on that goal turned into a multi-day excursion from Rochester, New York, to Wellesley Island in the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The departure date was set for September 12, as I had hoped the weather would still be summer-like and too early for the signature Lake Ontario northerly autumn wind and waves.
The morning of the 12th, I left for Rochester Harbor with my MacGregor in tow, stopping along the way to pick up my fellow adventurer, Jim. Soon afterward, we arrived under sunny skies and seasonal temperatures at the boat ramp, both of us wearing mile-wide grins. After triple-checking every little turnbuckle, shroud, bolt, screw, wire, halyard, sheet and sail, we launched into the Genesee River.
The weather was seemingly perfect and invited us out onto the open waters of Lake Ontario with a steady breeze and small, rolling waves. Clearing the tip of the breakwater, we turned toward our first waypoint due east and sailed on. The wind was steady, but not overbearing, and we were able to keep our bearing without much adjustment to the sails.
After a couple of hours, we had made decent progress and passed the Webster Park fishing pier. As we did so Jim took over the helm so I could meander around the deck and take in the sights. I settled into the cockpit and brought out my dinner: a can of soup, cooked to perfection over a propane camp stove. The whole experience of cooking and eating dinner while sailing along on such a beautiful evening became my “nirvana moment” of the excursion.
We continued sailing northeast for a few hours as the wind built from a calm breeze to a steady, heavy wind, with Jim still at the helm. Eventually, I took the tiller as the wind passed 20 knots, with gusts up to 25. As I did so I was amazed at how long Jim had held on through the stronger wind and waves. The point of comfort, even for me, was fading fast as we began to heel excessively.
Eventually, I changed course and came about to the southeast, after which waves began crashing over the bow more than ever as the wind began gusting to 30 knots. As the weather continued to build, it occurred to me I had never experienced conditions like these during my daysails on the Finger Lakes; nor had I ever set up the reef points on my mainsail; nor did I know how to use them. As a result, my mainsail wasn’t reefed, and I was carrying a full working jib, far past where I should.
The boat was now sailing with a truly excessive amount of heel, spilling the excess wind as we bashed into the steep waves. Sailing at night, with nothing more than navigation lights, had become a point of concern. You can be fooled by the darkness when you can’t see the dangers around you.
By now the sails were becoming drenched with each gust and crashing wave. So with the boat threatening to capsize, I made the decision to lower the sails and to motor toward Williamson. Having no heavy-weather experience, I thought dropping the sails would be better than allowing the wind to batter them while we clamored about in the darkness. Jim ran to the bow to lower the jib, but try as he might it wouldn’t budge. I called for him to take the helm so I could make an attempt. As I crawled onto the foredeck with waves crashing over us, I pulled on the jib as hard as I could until, finally, it came down on deck. I unhanked it from the forestay and began making my way back to the cockpit, with the jib in arms, only to have a wave crash into the boat and knock me down so that my legs slipped and hung off the side as my arm caught the lifeline. Instantly, Jim ran up to grab my arm, but I motioned for him to go back to the helm. Pulling myself back onto the deck, I threw the jib into the cabin and climbed into the cockpit.
After that Jim and I traded spots as he went to lower and furl the main, I started the 2hp outboard motor and began powering at full throttle toward Williamson. The wind was now shaking the main more violently than ever, and when the sail suddenly gybed and there was a loud thud, I knew it could only mean one thing and sure enough, I saw Jim sitting in the cockpit, rubbing his head, laughing hysterically.
After I made sure he was safe, I ran up and dropped the main, after which I gave a sigh of relief. Not only were the sails down, but I had not inadvertently killed the only guy crazy enough to join me on these adventures with my sailboat.
As the waves continued to batter us, it seemed like for every 20 feet we traveled, the next wave would knock us five feet back. Eventually, though, we could see the lights of a few houses on the shore and I set my course to the brightest one. It was now as dark and windy as ever, and the waves were still heavy. But I made out what I thought to be a little cove where Jim threw out the hook and tied down the rode. Luckily, the anchor set the first time, and the waves pivoted us into the proper position to stay put.
The morning came quickly, as did 40-degree temperatures, and I shivered my way through making coffee on the camp stove. As I was doing so the forecast on the VHF announced a small-craft advisory for the region, so I woke Jim and explained our situation. Suffice it to say, our options were limited. Either we could continue on and run the risk of heavy weather in unknown waters, or head back to Rochester and face the possibility of heavy weather in an area we already knew.
After some consideration, we chose the latter and Jim weighed anchor as I pulled the “brave little toaster” to life, and we motored away from the safety of the coast to set sail once more.
An hour or so later, the rain began. Jim was prepared for wet weather, though for some reason I was not. And while we traded places at the helm every so often as we neared Webster, I’m pretty sure Jim spent more time at the helm than I did, as I shivered, soaking wet, between the cabin and cockpit.
Passing Webster again, we began to see the point of land off Irondequoit Bay, as well as the buildings of Rochester Harbor. As we did so we both became increasingly cheerful—until a deep, dark and ominous storm front came into view, which I realized was the true reason for the small craft advisory. As the clouds came ever closer I explained our options to Jim. If we made good speed, I said, we would hopefully reach the breakwater before the storm hit. However, if we didn’t want to risk it, we could hide out in Irondequoit Bay. I think in the end we were both beginning to miss land and dry clothes because we decided to take a chance and make a run for the harbor.
We made it to within 100 yards of the breakwater before the gale arrived. Instantly, the winds increased to 30 knots, with gusts well in excess of that. Once again, we quickly lowered the sails and began to motor. However, our “brave little toaster” was no match for these kinds of conditions, and the best we could do was maintain our position with the bow pointed into the waves.
Then the motor died. I pulled on it relentlessly, until finally, the starter cable broke completely. The waves were now pushing us toward the shore, putting us at risk of running aground, so Jim threw the anchor over the side again. It latched onto the rocks below, keeping us safe while the gale blew through.
After that we hid out in the cabin, watching the wind, rain and waves through the port and starboard portlights, dripping wet and numbingly cold, until the rain finally subsided and Jim went out to look at our motor, which was, at this point, our only hope for getting back home.
Eventually, he realized the bolt had fallen out of the pull-start assembly, so I fumbled through my plastic containers of spare pins, cotters, wiring, nuts and bolts until I found one which Jim said he could use to make a temporary repair. Soon afterward, he pulled on the starting cord of our “brave little toaster,” and it roared to life. Success!
Entering Rochester Harbor was an absolute thrill. Never before had the turbid waters of the Genesee looked so welcoming and safe. Exhausted, we threw our lines onto the dock, and pulled the boat out of the water to prepare for the drive home. It had been an adventure neither one of us would forget anytime soon.
What I learned
1: Size does matter when it comes to outboards in proportion to your vessel and the conditions. A 2hp was clearly not adequate for Lake Ontario on a 21ft sailboat
2: Knowing how and when to reef the mainsail would’ve been invaluable: I learned and applied the practice after this experience. Leaving a small amount of sail up for stability is better than having no sail at all
3: Lifelines aren’t just for an occasional hand while making your way to the bow. Setting up jacklines, tethers and harnesses could have been lifesaving had I not caught myself when I got knocked down. We had run MOB drills prior to our journey, but they would have been useless in the dark, rough waters of Lake Ontario. A life jacket would have kept me afloat, but succumbing to hypothermia would have been likely if I could not be sighted and retrieved
4: Lake Ontario can turn dangerous quickly, especially at night: I should have had more practice and experience before sailing in the dark
What we did right
1: Wore life jackets, at all times
2: Lowering the sails and motoring to moderate safety when conditions far exceeded experience; I focused on simplifying matters in a complex situation
3: Constant communication with our float plan holder, with updates on our course changes, times and contingency plans
4: We gained invaluable sailing experience for future excursions, as well as real-life reasoning for studying and practicing maneuvers, from the basics I thought we’d never use, to heavy weather techniques. Practice is not always for daily use, but often for knowing what to do in adverse times
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Matt Harrington has been sailing the New York Finger Lakes for 14 years