It is 5:30 am on Saturday, June 29, 2019. The sun has crept up over the horizon and now casts light on a windless, still morning. I fire up the diesel engine as Ana readies Bella Blue - pulling up fenders, untying lines, unplugging cords. I put her into forward gear and we slip out of the slip and slide into the calm channel of the Port Dover Harbour Marina, kicking off our two week sailing tour of Lake Erie.
We motor out onto the glassy lake and set a course south for the end of Long Point, after which we will turn west and sail to Put-in-Bay, Ohio - a complete journey of about 150 nautical miles, which I estimate will take about 25 hours, if all goes well. Play foreboding music here and pan the camera to our smiling faces, enjoying the sail, just like the beginning of every horror movie where things start out great and everybody’s happy, but you know it’s all going to turn to hell soon.
We are only a few miles out into the lake when we spot an island, but there are no islands in this part of the lake, so it seems rather unusual. We motor up to investigate and find a 20 by 20 reed island floating around, waiting for somebody to claim it. I would have jumped off the boat and onto my new island, planted a flag and the seeds of a brand new, utopian society, but upon closer inspection there wasn’t much holding the thing together besides some thin roots, so I probably would have plummeted right through it into the cold lake water and lost my flag.
After that bit of excitement Ana goes back to bed and I continue on, very much enjoying the beautiful morning, the solitude, and that special feeling that comes with the first day of a big vacation from work and regular life. Then the biting flies arrive. The Great Lakes have a lot of Great Bugs and this lake is no exception. Last weekend we did a cruise out on the lake and were attacked by swarms of fish flies - so many that the stern of our white boat turned black with bugs and we spent the entire time dumping buckets of water trying to get them off. Well today is different and the mushy fish flies have been replaced by these little nasty biting flies, that look a bit like house flies, but like to zero in on your feet and ankles and bite them, just for fun. So I get out the basura - our homemade Portuguese broom, - and start beating them to death. Before long the carcasses are piling up on the boat, but they just don’t get the message. Fly killing keeps me busy for about three hours, reminding me that there are always so many things to do on a sailboat that you rarely have the opportunity to get bored.
The family wakes up and we have some breakfast while letting the sailboat’s auto pilot guide us down the lake, pointed directly south-west, directly into the building wind, making sailing useless so we stick with motor power. And then, after a couple more hours of bug killing I notice the engine is making a strange sound, so I go down below to investigate. I pull the engine hatch open, look in, and see white smoke billowing out. I yell at Ana to cut the engine, which she does, but not before I see water squirting out from somewhere, which is hitting the overheated engine and instantly evaporating into clouds of smoke. We set the sails and get the boat moving again then I go down below to take a closer look. The engine exhaust riser head looks to be cracked, but the huge double threaded union holding two of the pieces together has been sheared off and is completely broken. Which means no cooling system, which means no motor power. Shit. Boating is so awesome, until disaster strikes, then it’s not so awesome, and disaster does strike with some regularity, as all boaters will attest to.
It’s decision time. We can either head towards Ashtabula, where our vacation companions Tony and Angela in their powerboat are heading to, or cut over to Erie, Pennsylvania, which is closer, bigger, and much more favourable for sailing with the current wind, but out of our way. I make the (bad) call to continue towards Ashtabula, but after a few hours we realize the wind in our face is killing us - only making 2 knots - which means it’s going to take at least 12 hours to get there, which means we will arrive in the middle of the night with no motor. We change course and head to Erie, and with the wind on our beam we are doing greater than 6 knots and making great time.
Along the way we’ve been trying to figure out what to do. We get in touch with our friends Tony and Angela, who are joining us on the trip, but are ahead of us in their power boat, but they start making calls for us looking for parts. With an intermittent cell signal we do some searches for parts online but can’t seem to find anything, besides a stainless steel model in the UK that costs $600 and will take weeks to ship. We call every diesel repair shop and dealer we can find, but no luck. I try contacting our mechanic in Port Dover, but can’t get through to him. Soon we lose signal completely so instead focus on the sailing, conserving battery power, and keeping the kids from going batty.
The most important piece of equipment on this trip so far is the Portuguese basura corn broom - the only thing that works for killing the horrible biting flies, which are a constant nuisance and driving us crazy. Ana somehow accidentally drops it overboard and screams “Basura overboard!” and we trigger the man overboard routine. I mark the spot on the GPS and do a tack to turn the boat around while Ana stands in the cockpit pointing at the floating broom, getting smaller and smaller in the distance. The kids ready the boat hook. We approach the broom under sail, going quite fast, and Ana snags it with the boat hook, but there’s nothing to hook onto, so it slips away but I jump to the stern of the boat, hang from it with one hand and reclaim the basura. Yay!! In truth, I was planning on doing a practice man overboard test with the family sometime today, so it all worked out very well and I am very proud of my crew. The broom is promptly put back into service killing flies.
As we draw nearer to the US we get a cell phone signal and Ana is rocked by a call from her sister in law with the news that her uncle Joe has just passed away. Yesterday he had been moved to critical care and we went up to the hospital to see him, and things hadn’t looked very good. Joe and Concecao are an amazing couple, perpetually in love, and have five adult children and an army of grandchildren. This is the family on Ana’s side that we are closest with and have spent countless hours with them over the years. Joe had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago, which took him to the edge, but his determination and strength was enough to overcome it, and he made a remarkable recovery, and until three weeks ago he was great. But complications arose, which put him back in the hospital. We all said our goodbyes yesterday, thinking we may not see him again, and we were all broken up, but especially Ana, but we were at least able to see him and the family. In an incredibly unhappy coincidence, our good friend and sailing (and life) mentor Cesar, who had also been hit with the fucking cancer two years ago, was also in critical care and we were able to see him too. But I can’t write about him now, too much sadness for one blog. It makes our current issues quite insignificant, but does remind me that life is so precious, and being stuck in the middle of a giant lake with my family on a disabled boat, an improbably plan, and uncertain outcome, is truly living life to the max, and we are not wasting a second. Cesar would be loving it!
As we approach Erie, we finalize our plan. There is a long channel leading into Presque Isle bay, and the wind is directly in our face so we won’t likely be able to sail through it. But we should be able to shut the water intake sea cock for the motor and run it dry for a short while, until it heats up too much and disables itself. We will sail as close as we can to the channel entrance, start the motor, power though the channel, then once we clear it put the sails up and sail the remaining 2 miles to the marina, letting the motor cool off, then start it again to get into the dock. As as backup we will get the dingy and motor ready to go, and tow it behind the boat, so if things go pear shaped I can jump I the dingy and tow Bella Blue. If all else fails, we’ll drop the anchor and call a towing company. That’s the plan. But there’a lot of things that can go wrong so although I’m appearing confident to the kids and Ana, I’m just not sure how this is going to go. In truth, this is what boating is all about - having to problem solve, make fast decisions, and being as prepared as possible for the disasters that will inevitably happen, more often than you think.
We sail into the channel entrance, tacking back and forth into the wind, as we prep the dingy, lines, engine, lifejackets, and everything else we can think of. We enter the channel, thinking we might be able to do short tacks and work our way up, but then boats start approaching from the other direction, and our tacking is interfering with their passage, so we wind up the sails, and turn the engine key. But it won’t start! The boat is now floating backwards, heading for the unkind concrete wall of the channel edge. Ana tries it again, it turns and turns, whining and chugging, and finally sparks to life, so I ram it into gear and we are powering up the channel. The engine sounds terrible as it’s running without water and heating up fast. I’m down below watching the engine, but powerless to do anything about the overheating, besides blowing on it and fanning it with a dish towel, which is completely useless but somehow makes me feel a bit better. We make it a third of the way up the channel. Then we are halfway, so far so good, but the engine is smelling hot. Then we are three quarters of the way up and the overheat alarms goes off and the engine automatically shuts down. Boats are coming at us from both directions and the powerless sailboat is now being blown around with no space to sail. I frantically leap into the dingy, fire it up, motor to the front of the boat and Magnus throws me a line. But the little 4 hp engine is just not powerful enough to pull the boat against the wind, and we are lost. Just as I’m about to yell to the crew to drop anchor, two guys arrive on Sea Doos and ask if we need help. I pass him the line, he ties it onto the back of his machine and straightens out the boat and begins towing us, offering to take us to wherever we need to go. The marina is about 2 miles away and the two Sea Dooers pull Bella Blue in all the way while I putter ahead in the dingy looking for the marina entrance.
Ana is at the helm and pilots the boat in magnificently through the narrow marina entrance while I dingy over to an open dock and get ready to catch their lines. Ana guides her in nicely while Magnus tosses me the bow line and Stella throws the stern line, both right on target. Ana jumps off the boat and helps me to tie up, and Bella Blue is safe again. I offer the lead Sea Dooer (who sports a groovy hipster beard and doo) some cash but he won’t take it, saying “Everybody needs help sometimes.” Isn’t that the truth.
We make the call to customs, and have to wait for 45 minutes, but finally get cleared and only then together do we breathe a giant sigh of relief, letting those stress toxins start to slowly dissipate. We get checked in at the Commodore Perry Yacht Club, pay for two nights, are given a beer from one of the members, proving yet again that Americans are simply the best hosts one could ever ask for.
The legendary Sloppy Duck bar and restaurant are a two minutes walk away, so we head over and sit down for a well deserved drink and meal, while the party momentum builds around us, partygoers arriving, the band playing, drinks flying, volume increasing. The mood at our table is more sombre than celebratory, still thinking about Joe and Cesar, not knowing how we’ll fix the engine, not sure when we’ll be able to meet up with Tony and Angela, but definitely happy to be safe and settled. Stella’s future 18-year-old self is revealed when she turns to me during dinner and says, “Dad, you know that guy towing our boat. I luuuuved his beard.”
As I collapse into bed at 11pm, exhausted, I start to wonder what tomorrow will bring, but sleep overcomes me before I get halfway through that thought.