Recollections of Plum Island Seeing The Light

By David Robb Home Back

A close call in September

As late September approached, the yachting crowd was dashing to get their boats to the storage yards in Sturgeon Bay for their annual winter lay-up. This spurred a mid-morning call for help from a 36-foot sailboat who reported that they were southbound mid lake with a broken side stay. This precluded them from tacking and thus, destined them eventually for the rocky shore less they came about and dis-masted themselves. Both options were equally bad. As deadly as wrecking on a rocky coast, dis-masting can be a mortal blow to a sailboat. It can inflict such massive damage as to cause the loss of the vessel and life. In Lake Michigan at that time of year, life expectancy in the frigid water is measured in minutes, not hours. As if that wasn't enough, once in the water, the probability of find (POF) is about 2 chances in 100 with the four to six foot sea that was running that day. Speed was essential and that meant we took the fast 41-foot boat. These boats are tough and built to take a beating but the beating was designed for a five-foot sea.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) were not even a glint in anyone's eye yet. All reported positions were estimated and could be off in bad weather by 25 square miles or more. A six-foot sea meant that a boat would ascend and fall a total of twelve feet from trough to crest. This made visibility markedly difficult and very near-sighted, that being the next wave or perhaps the next. There was always another wave that was higher and would obstruct our view. Based upon the yachtsman's reported position which was always unreliable and a "guesstimated assessment" that we fondly referred to as SWAG, (Scientific Wild Assed Guess) we laid a course to intersect theirs. Our odds were fifty-fifty of finding them at best. Theile, Far and I were assigned and off we went fifteen minutes later.

Our total distance was about 20 miles at about 25 knots. It was quite a ride at first. The boat would launch itself off each wave and belly-flop into the trough with a terrific jarring of the hull. Time was of the essence but steel boats are breakable. Even so, we pushed the 40529 hard. After a half an hour of hard riding, the waves increased and we had to reduce speed, which meant we had to recalculate our ETA and position. That was tough when you couldn't keep your feet in contact with the deck. Fortunately, the wind didn't increase so for what we could see, we saw pretty well but not far.

As we approached the supposed area of the sailboat, all eyes were in every direction at once. Theile concentrated on the compass and averaging our course. Far and I stood on tiptoes to see over every wave we could. As the minute hand crossed the appointed time we were to intersect with the yacht, we looked for a mast over the waves. There was none. The gloomy possibility that they were dis-masted already increased the odds of finding them. Wallowing in the waves only a couple feet out of the water, they could be in the trough right next to us and never be seen.

Farr spotted it first. It was a boat mast about thirty yards to our port. We let out a cheer. This was the equivalent of aiming at a target 1000 yards away with a rifle in a high wind and hitting the bull's eye on the first shot. The mast was evidence that they were all right which was an enormous relief.

Now, what to do?

As we worked our way closer to them, the high waves prevented any possibility of putting a man on board to help. We communicated with them by radio. They were in pretty bad shape. They had hauled down their sails to relieve the strain on the mast and reduce their headway towards land and then lashed the mast in a jury rig. The boat was rolling badly which had infected both the older man and his wife with debilitating seasickness. He was weak and his wife was below unable to help at all. He reported that his engine would not start and requested a tow. Empathizing with their plight, there was nothing else to do but pass them a towline that we floated to them down wind in a life jacket. With the seas now running at about eight feet, we made a slow turn to the west and payed-out three hundred feet of line to absorb the shock of a twenty thousand pound boat tugging on their bow cleats. Normally, we would run a line around the mast to relive the strain on the deck mountings but that was obviously not an option. This was like trying to pull a boat made of crystal without breaking it.

We were about twenty miles out in the lake and making about 3 miles an hour against the huge seas. We knew the sailboat would make it, it always does, but at their age, we were concerned that the husband and wife may not be able to survive a seven-hour crawl to shore. All we could do was take it minute by minute and hope the seas would subside as we drew closer to shore.

We tried radioing the station and then any unit within range but the weather and attending static precluded any thought of help. It was cold and miserable in the exposed wind where the helmsman had to stand. We took turns driving the boat in half-hour shifts. By 2:00 PM, we thought that if we could get a hold of someone, we might be able to call in a "hello evacuation" from Traverse City, Michigan. It would be tricky because of the sailboat's mast flailing around when they would try to lower a retrieval basket. The more we thought about it, the less likely we believed it would work. Light was diminishing and the opportunity for help was fading with it. Our periodic radio calls to the hobby-horsing sailboat in the darkness behind us eventually failed to raise a reply. We didn't know if something had happened to them or the boat. The only indication that they were there at all was the constant tugging on our stern.

Surviving a storm in a small boat when the odds cease to be in your favor result in some unique realities. Stress increases and the cold deadens your senses which slows your mental acuity. Time becomes extended as you negotiate each minute of the weather and sea. Gordon Lightfoot in his song, Tale of the Edmond Fitzgerald got it just right when he wrote in his lyrics, "Nobody knows where the love of God goes, when the seas turn the minutes to hours…," and seven hours in a storm when lives you are responsible for could be helplessly draining away behind you made it an eternity.

Time did pass as we closed on the refuge of Bailey's Harbor, guided by the fixed white glow of the Cana Island Lighthouse. The closer we got, more we realized we may have beat the storm just to be wrecked on the break wall of salvation. As I had learned was the rule, all night time rescues are a contradiction in darkness and confusion. The narrow opening in the break wall was marked by a tiny flashing red light. That tiny light blended with a myriad of lights born of a town with a thriving tourist industry. Street lights, porch lights, store lights, bars, gas station, drug store, resort and residential lights all combined in a confusing spread of red and white lights that made finding the entrance a crap shoot of about one in ten. At one point, what we thought was the main entrance flashing red light, made a right turn and drove off. Only experience and careful calculation would place us in the right position.

The difficult part would be actually getting through the narrow gap. Lake Michigan becomes amazingly shallow as you approach from the sea in that area. Waves that have rolled over ninety miles from Michigan pile up to frightening heights at the entrance of the break wall. A boat, even a twin screw boat like ours requires superb seamanship in daylight to pass the entrance safely less you end being picked up by the stern and thrown sideways against the unforgiving wall. Our boat may make it through but then we would have no control over our tow that was still on the outside of the opening. We had to take the sailboat in with us on a dangerously short towline. Had we the choice, we'd have stayed out where there was sea room until daylight but we had to get those people ashore and to medical help as soon as possible.

It was dangerous for Farr and me to be on the open rear deck when we were being thrown around by waves that came not only from the sea but reverberated from the break wall as well. We had one shot at it and it had to be right. Theile made sure everything was just as he wanted it as we closed on the gap. We hauled the sailboat to within fifty feet of our stern. It was a close as we dared for fear that a stern wave could pick it up and carry it down on top of us with disastrous results. The thought crossed my mind that we could actually die within a quarter of a mile of hundreds of people and flat water.

As the entrance gap became visible, there was no room to turn back. Theile swung the wheel frantically while working the engines in caterpillar fashion until he abandoned the wheel altogether and maneuvered us through the narrow opening. I held my breath as the wall came towards us and the boat slid sideways out of control on the crest of a wave. Farr recoiled to the opposite side of the boat. We were going to wreck. With a mere foot to clear us on the starboard side, we slipped into the placid harbor. Immediately turning to the sailboat, we saw that she was surfing towards the wall on the crest of a wave just as we feared. Theile yelled, "Hang ON!" and pushed the starboard throttle all ahead to spin the sailboat left and take up the slack. The sudden thrust was sure to rip the fragile deck cleats out of the boat and loose our tow. The towline went taut with a twang and the sailboat bow was yanked around violently. With a white froth turning up from our propellers at full throttle, the sailboat cleaved between the break wall ends and shot off at a tangent toward a row of empty boat docks inside the harbor. A reverse of the throttles and a hard right turn to cushion the shock, the sailboat was brought up short of a collision and heeled obediently after our boat. Idling in a large circle, we scrambled to saddle the boat along side ours and take it to the dock.

To our surprise, we were greeted with a distant applause and then cheers from nearly fifty onlookers who gathered on the pier. Word had come down the shore to watch for a Coast Guard boat trying to make it to shelter. When they saw our lights approaching the harbor, they gathered anxiously. A few moments later, we secured and rushed aboard the sailboat to check on our yachtsmen. We found them unconscious in the cabin. She was lashed to her bunk from fatigue and he was down on the deck between the two bunks in the same state. Water, blankets, food contents from the galley lockers all combined with the remains of human vomit that caused us to retreat retching to the nearest rail. Theile called for a doctor and an ambulance that appeared in less than five minutes. The elderly couple were quickly checked and evacuated to the nearby resort and warm beds where they were treated for dehydration, mild hypothermia and exhaustion.

After securing the forty boat for the night, we called the station with a quick report that we were all safe. Chief Gleason advised that we find lodging for the night and return in the morning. The gracious owners of the lodge gave us a warm dinner and beds followed by hot showers and a stirring breakfast of steak and eggs for breakfast. A quick check out the window for the sea conditions that day said we could eat to our hearts content. A week later, the Sturgeon Bay newspaper ran a story extolling the courage and bravery of the Plum Island crew that saved the lives of the president of a nationally recognized computer company and his wife in overwhelming sea conditions. We knew that they were not overwhelming and chuckled at the exaggerations and praise. The crusty Chief Gleason was noticeably proud of his crew that day.



This entire story is copyright by David Robb, and appears here with his permission.

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This page last modified 08/23/2003