Our final five-day trip was characterized by wacky and wild weather. It seemed that Mother Nature didn’t quite know what the season was, or how to transition gracefully from spring to summer, but instead acted on strong, spastic impulses in every direction. We all know that this is the “new norm” with weather—unpredictable and extreme. For our farmers and gardeners, I’ve been told, it has meant a discouraging planting season: our CSA farmers just went out to replant cucumbers (in July!) due to the seeds getting frozen or drowned a couple of weeks ago. For us, though, it was more fascinating and exciting—okay, and more stressful for Captain Mark, who was confronted with three wildly different forecasts from the land forecast, the near-shore water forecast, or the off-shore forecast. “Okay, the winds are either going to be light NE, strong SE, or steady SW. We’re going to have clear weather, thunderstorms, or hail.” Though I was sympathetic to the meterologists’ job after a few days when we did, indeed, see every possibility that they’d mentioned in a single day. More than once the winds either shifted 180 degrees or completely died. We know that it’s very difficult to predict Lake Superior’s forecast under a stable climate; doing so in the midst of climatic change has been a circus! Needless to say, the itinerary on this short trip changed constantly; how many plans can one fit into five short days?
Happily, our participants—Andrew, Colin, and Tom—were up for anything and proved very capable of going with the flow. They took advantage of sail handling whenever there were sails to handle and spent a lot of time at the helm. Andrew peppered Mark with questions whenever they both happened to be in the cockpit. Colin, our east coast representative, told us what it was like to be right near the eye of Hurricane Sandy. And Tom, who has sailed with us before, proved the same quiet, steady presence he has in the past.
We went from Grand Marais to the Apostles on Thursday, June 27, despite the fact that the winds never materialized. We sailed slowly when we could, and motored the rest, and came into Stockton Island at dusk. The next morning on shore, the bugs were terrible—like they are everywhere else in this wet year—which didn’t keep us from dipping in the still-frigid-but-perhaps-hitting-40-degree water. It looked kind of thundercloudy, and the temps were moist but chilly. Could we get thunderstorms in such a chill? We had planned to sail west to Raspberry Island but warm, then cold, blasts of air were interspersed with a light NE wind that sent rollers right into Raspberry Bay. Because of that, and also because the radio weather was full of dire warnings about the next couple of days, Mark pulled us altogether into the cockpit to discuss our options. Colin and Andrew had been excited about kayaking the sea caves, but when Mark painted the scenario (“possible thunderstorms with clocking winds up to 35 knots and lightning—but only possible—“) they easily changed their vision. So we headed for Cornucopia, a safe marina, 20 miles down the south shore. On the way there we were blasted with cold air downpours. We pulled in with an hour to spare before twilight; ironically, the air seemed to be settling down. We weren’t deceived though, as it was warm moist air—the warmest we’d seen the entire trip.
By the next morning, when Mark and I went on our early morning run, it was HOT. Actual heat. We’d forgotten what this was like! Too hot to run! The dip in the Lake wasn’t as good as you might think because the biting flies were out. We ate a leisurely breakfast of scones, eggs, and fruit (quickly losing our appetite over the heat) and dried everything out. It was sunny. We headed south to Port Wing because strong SW winds were predicted the next day. Leaving from Port Wing would give us an excellent wind angle.
When we first left we were in a strong off-shore breeze (wind blowing shore-to-water) which was clearly due to the heat. About ½ mile out, that wind died and we bobbed around, trying to figure out what the wind was doing (essentially nothing). We noticed a strange phenomenon: we would feel a breeze on our face that would be completely different from what the wind vane at the top of the mast was telling us. The winds were different at the surface and 50 feet up. Eventually we gave up and motored out another mile until we could feel a breeze, which turned out to be NE (not even mentioned as a possibility on the radio). This wind also brought us smack into thick fog. By now even Colin, who’d never been to Lake Superior, had known to put on long underwear and foulies even if it’s 80 degrees on shore. So we were ready for chilling wet fog. We got in the Port Wing vicinity and the wind died again. We waited, spun around a bit. The girls got tired of bobbing around in their bunks below (“Mom, when are we going to turn on the motor?”) and came up to join the fun, which turned out to be a MOB drill. As the fog dissipated and a breeze picked up—again, NE—we had a great time with three successful attempts to pick up the life ring after it was thrown overboard.
Then we went into Port Wing. ½ mile out from land, we again hit the 20-25 knot SE winds coming straight off the hot land. We were ready. Coming into the Port Wing dock which is only about 20 feet long was a circus. Mark had Colin and Andrew hop out on the pier first and be waiting by the dock. I edged our stern, side to the wind, into the side of the dock, where Mark leaped out and took charge. Seven people, four bumpers, six lines, lots of pushing muscle, and two friendly kayak observers (who turned out to be old friends from Widji!) –what entertainment! It was the wind that made it exciting. There wasn’t time to screw around however, and within a few minutes we were backed into the slip between these tiny docks, attached on three sides with bumpers to protect us from any situation. We hoped. Then we switched modes—time for relaxing, swimming, enjoying friends, and eating.
That evening the first of the major storms started to come through—those front lines of deep gray, where you go out on the pier and cower with delight. All actual storms were short-lived though. The next morning, with weather looking pretty benign, we headed out in strong SE winds—and once again, they died ½ mile out and left us with nothing. No SW winds! Darn! In a flat calm we motored until NOAA warned us that hail and tornados were happening in Duluth. On Tom’s i-phone we watched the radar which tracked the storm up the north shore. We stopped the motor and just drifted, avoiding land. In the middle of the Lake there we were far enough from both shores to avoid the brunt of the heat-induced craziness. BUT the flies were incredible. They covered the dodger, thousands of them. Cedar got a fly-swatter and swatted away for awhile. The rest of us tried not to think about them. They disappeared a few hours later. Another storm came through; this one tracked along the south shore. The clouds were indescribable. The third storm, though I’m sure it was falling apart over the cold water, actually came out over the water. The black line billowed up and we knew we weren’t going to get out of this one. We took down the main sail and put up the storm sail, just in case. We floated silently, watching. There was continuous but very distant thunder and no lightning visible. Without lightning this was more fun than anything else. Jaw-dropping mirages were everywhere. “What’s THAT?” “A mountain?” “A volcano?” “Another mountain range?” “Hey, look at that!” “What IS that?” “Land?” “No, fog.” “No, cliffs.” “There are no cliffs on the south shore.” “Actually I think it’s fog moving under hot air.” “Look, it’s a pile of snow!” This was the conversation in the cockpit.
When the storm actually hit, it sounded like a dump truck of coins had just tipped over us. Dime-sized hail clattered and splashed on the water, creating a million ripples. Short blasts of wind barely registered on the storm sail. We crowded in the cockpit and watched (see our video on Facebook) and exclaimed.
Afterwards, we motored in. The skies cleared other than one small, quickly billowing storm just as we were arriving. That night, when Mark and Cedar did our first evening charter, those strong SW winds finally arrived and gave the daysailers one heck of an evening sail.
By morning (June 30) stability had returned. It was cool, but not too cool. Just a good Minnesota summer morning. In early May, we had departed Knife River amid the ice. Now we were returning in summer. Time for daysails! Two-hour sail, anyone? 4 times a day, 7 days a week…..time for all you armchair readers to come up and find your own special spot in our cockpit.