The wall of black hit our boat.
Winds powered up from 5 to 70 knots. Waves grew from 1 to over 12 feet instantly, breaking upon themselves as frothy whitecaps collapsed down into black troughs and blew water pellets from the crest.
Our boat was bashed as our mother shoved the Genny down the forward hatch where my younger sister and I pulled the sail into the cabin directly on top of ourselves.
Dad held the tiller pointing the bow into the wind as my older brother reefed the mainsail.
Waves came from all directions.
My older brother, Mom and Dad layered on rain gear as they were stung by the pellets like kamikaze wasps. Torrential rain whipped sideways as the boat was heaved about.
My younger sister and I huddled in the cabin, as directed, not scared but aware of urgency.
Temperatures dropped 20 then 30 degrees, soaking and chilling the crew.
The boom was chocked to center by the main sheets.
We were facing north but blowing in reverse at 4 knots. There was little to do except fight and anticipate the next big wave and try.to.hold.steady. Bobbing straight up, then back down and getting hit from the side by cross waves.
Until then it was a warm sunny day on Lake Michigan in 1986.
80 degrees with a light breeze. A boring sail up the West Coast of the Michigan shore. We lounged, making slow progress having left White Lake, Michigan hours earlier and only progressing about 6 miles.
We were convicted in our laziness, waiting for the next port to arrive while watching the shore slip by slowly. Minutes took hours, but it was summer so we didn’t mind. My brother, sister and I played the common deck games we invented while cruising the Lake every summer since birth. At 12, 8 and 6 our games were imaginative.
Off in the distance a wall of dark clouds came from the North, hanging low and moving quickly. We were too far to retreat. The shore offered only danger. We put our guard up and faced what became the worst storm we’d ever encountered on Lake Michigan.
“I think we should take down the Genny and prep the storm jib” Mom said.
She repeated the comment with more emotion, louder.
“Ok” said Dad, releasing the Genny (jib) halyard.
In 5 minutes the storm covered more than 5 miles, bearing down like a train. She ran to the bow and yanked the Genny down. The bow of the boat sprung straight up the first wave.
Mom climbed back to the cockpit, fighting to stay in the boat.
The boat tossed about. In the cabin we bounced like balls from a ping pong paddle.
Occasionally the aft cabin hatch slid open. Rain and a wet crew member poured in for a minute grabbing necessities and climbing back out.
This went on for hours into the darkness.
But before darkness it was daylight and we weren’t the only boat to get caught with our sheets out.
The VHF radio was turned up to listen to weather and ships calling for help. Mayday.
We couldn’t help. We were small, slow, distant, and at the mercy of the storm. We could hear and see the victims churning about: a sailboat who lost rudder control (likely a sheared pin), and another inexperienced crew pleading for assistance.
We viewed the boats tossing and drifting out of sight. Hoping that mercy would honor the floating fiberglass bobber. It was a game of time. Whichever ended first – the boats or the weather.
There is a saying, “if you can handle a boat on the Great Lakes, you can handle a boat anywhere.”
Most people make the deadly mistake of thinking Lake Michigan is incapable of harboring some of the worst storms of any sea. It’s a lake, after all.
But songs have been written about the storms that sank unsinkable freighters. Buoys and visible wrecks mark the more notable or dangerous while the most famous “Edmund Fitzgerald” is hidden 500 feet below.
Over 6,000 wrecks can be found throughout the Great Lakes; hundreds known on Lake Michigan.
What makes Great Lakes storms such killers?
The Great Lakes are not as large as oceans so the waves have less distance to form. They thus form short, steep waves like alleys between buildings.
The storms start swiftly. Ships are caught unprepared. Wet graves are dug.
Large freighters sink on the Great Lakes partly because of midline breaches: vessels caught bow on one peak and stern on the other, splitting in half. Smaller boats – yachts – of 45-60 feet – cannot transition wave to wave, so end up heading down one face as the next buries the bow in water, or swamps her entirely.
But our boat – Faith – was of both size and build fitting for a lake like Michigan.
25′-9″ long with a full leaded keel, perfect to ride steep waves up and down while remaining upright.
Our family was notorious for going out in hard conditions – cruising in seas of 6 ft waves and 20 knot winds wasn’t abnormal. My parents were trained by Great Lakes sailing legend Bill Morgan, once a deckhand on a pirate ship in the caribbean in the early 1900s, and since a master captain who solo-sailed around The Great Lakes for fun.
For a long time we did not have money, but we bought Bill’s boat and set out for two weeks each summer touring Lake Michigan as a family, earning our sea legs.
And there we were.
The battle finally subsided to 6ft seas and 30 knot winds.
Exhausted, we came about and ran south back to White Lake, arriving at nearly 2am.
We huddled into the yacht club restaurant which the manager held open serving hot drinks to harbor workers. The cooks gone, we ate 6″ pepperoni pizzas from the microwave. The taste of death averted, life given back.
Others were not so lucky.
Off Traverse City, Michigan at least one boat capsized. Four people drowned in the storm, other cruisers were washed ashore as they lost control. Damage was extensive to ports such as White Lake. Boats moored at the harbor were lifted onto docks and run aground on shore. Boats arrived by US Coast Guard tow all night, with harrowing tales of survival. Others had to be salvaged from beaches.
But we survived. Maybe it was the training by Mr. Morgan. Maybe it was the skill by which our parents sailed the boat. Maybe it was right-place-right-time. Maybe it was practice. Maybe it was the boat itself.
Sometimes it’s just your lucky day. And we were glad to take it.