We were blessed. It was July 13th, 1989 and for days we’d enjoyed weather that was either warm or hot, sunny with only an occasional overcast period and moderate winds. The forecast for this day was more of the same though winds would be a little stronger. Normally this would merely mean another fine day of fun in the sun but, when you live on a boat and are travelling, weather is critically important – particularly wind conditions.
We were on a mission and our adventure had started on the 1st of July. We were moving our new boat “Chalet de Mer” from the Yacht Sales Center to our home port, a journey of about 300 miles. It was a rushed departure with the Salesman delivering last minute finishing pieces just before we left. Amid much excitement and celebration we loaded supplies and gear to ensure we were prepared for anything. On the down side – the late delivery of our boat combined with our committed departure date left us no time for trials – to make sure everything was working on this new vessel. With fingers crossed and best wishes from a host of friends who’d come to see us off – we set sail.
Although we’d been sailing for a number of years this was our first real cruise. John, my husband, was an avid and fairly successful racer so casual sailing took second place. We’d done the week-end runs to local hot spots but never traveled any great distance. It was fun going into new ports, meeting the local dock people and getting a sense of their world. Boaters, particularly sailors, are naturally drawn to each other because of their common interest and with a new boat right off the assembly line we attracted a lot of attention.
Generally we would arrive in a port mid to late afternoon then next morning be up early and off to a new destination. Sarnia was different. Located at the top of the St. Clair River and overlooking the entrance to Lake Huron it is a major cruising stop. In our planning we allowed more time there to explore and provision . With this added time on the dock we got to know our fellow sailors a little better. At the top of Lake Huron is an area called the “North Channel” and it is one of the world’s most beautiful cruising grounds – comparable to the Greek or Virgin Islands so this is where most of them were headed.
Sam and Lil were a younger couple, dedicated sailors who had zealously studied and prepared for their first cruise on their new boat, Teamwork Won. Dietrich and Delores had a sloop, same make as ours but a year older, named Legacy. Dietrich was very excited to see the new model and anxious to have us join an association of like boats. They were an older, somewhat conservative couple, not quite retirement age, but deeply into their love of sailing.
We talked together about the challenge of going under the Blue Water Bridge into Lake Huron. We would be going against a very strong current and the locals had stressed how important it was to keep our speed up. We would all need our motors going at optimum efficiency to get through. A decision was made .. we would leave Sarnia together. That’s as far as group planning went. Each captain did his own charting and set whatever equipment he had on board. There is a saying “Sailors’ plans are etched in jello” because anything more firm is too much of a commitment. Going with the flow is a much safer way to sail.
We were all up about 6 a.m. Legacy and Chalet de Mer both hit the service dock for fuel and Chalet de Mer got a pump out. We were off in record time. Teamwork Won led with Legacy following close behind as they cleared the harbor, gained speed and moved under the bridge into the current. We brought up the rear. As we cleared the entrance and pulled on the throttle we realized we weren’t gaining speed. Oops. It felt like we were dragging something and John quickly judged we’d picked up weeds in the harbor. With rocks on both sides we would quickly lose control and the potential consequences were threatening to say the least. He swung the wheel and quickly shifted into reverse praying the current would dislodge whatever was caught and amazingly we began to pick up the speed we needed. We went under the bridge backwards. I saw people on the bridge and on shore pointing at us. Dietrich, already clear of the current, assumed we were in trouble and immediately turned back into the current to come to our aid. It was a very brave move for him. Sam slowed and kept an anxious eye on us. Later he claimed to have made an objective assumption we were simply grandstanding with our new boat. On meeting he had quickly gathered John was a competent and knowledgeable sailor. He knew he couldn’t get close enough to help but was poised if whatever John was doing didn’t work. Once we broke into the lake and out of the current we turned, shifted into forward and got about preparing to raise our sails. Our prayers had been answered – the crisis was over. Our new friends could relax and move to their required headings.
It was one down and whatever lay ahead to go…a lot of fishing nets with oddly marked buoys floating on the surface, building waves and a substantial heal meant we would be well advised to keep our troubleshooting skills and prayers on high alert.