Reflections on Shoals and Swells: A Sailing Story Part II

“I was a jerk.” Dad said.

“You weren’t a jerk, Bill,” Todd was quick to respond. “It was an accident—a culmination of a series of unforeseen events.”

It was a Sunday with Dad. Todd, John, Dad and I were having lunch together after church on Shepard Avenue. The story Dad was preparing to tell has haunted him since 2002. For the past several months, after church Dad has preferred to pick up the salad he likes from Applebee’s and head home to rest. But this Sunday, I had made a beef burgundy stew that morning. There was chocolate cake and his favorite tapioca pudding for dessert. We had work to do.

“Your auto pilot went out along with all the instruments,” Todd continued. “You had planned to go over to Beaver Island and instead went back to Washington Island. That wasn’t the plan—you hadn’t studied the charts to plot out your course. Bill…you ended up in unexpected huge swells which limited your visibility. There was a strong east wind. You tried to guestimate before you tacked to compensate for the wind and waves. They were pushing you west towards the coast—you had put in a correction factor of windward five degrees.” Sailor talk.

“I was over confident.” Dad persisted.

“Sometimes you have to encounter circumstances you hadn’t planned for. A sailor has to be confident! ” You tell him Todd. I could see Dad was about to beat himself up all over again.

“You love adventure Dad, always have,” John chimed in. I was glad John and Todd were with us. I didn’t want to listen to the rest of this story alone. Dad had arrived at the dinner table with his sailing charts. The spark of adventure still in him as he studied the course he had sailed that day, noting the exact degrees of his turns.

“Why I was only a half degree off in my correction!” He suddenly noted. Maybe it was good he was reliving this experience. “The Lord sure must have wanted to show me something. The wind was out of the east so it would have given me a beam reach. I remember a power boat guy had asked me that day, you’re going out in this weather? I loved sailing in that kind of weather. It was great…….

The problem was, I should have gone at least another hour before I made the turn. Had I used the chart, I would have figured that out. Or, there was another option I could have taken. I saw the top of the mast of the sailboat behind me turn into Rock Island passage. Then the boat could get behind on the lee side of Washington Island so he was protected. I remember seeing his mast before he turned. I didn’t do that because I wanted to be able to call Dolores and say, Can you see me?

So, I had spent the night in Manistique, and the following morning I checked the weather. It didn’t sound too bad—like I said, there was an east wind which was moderately heavy, with four to six foot waves. If I would have looked at the chart before I sailed, and plotted my course, I would have seen that I only had approximately a five degree clearance to the shoal that’s just off of Rock Island. Had I understood that, I would have gone out further, approximately 12 miles on the 150 degree heading before I made my turn to 220 degrees.

I prepared to set sail with the feeling that I knew my way back because I had just come up that way the day before. I knew I’d need a lunch so I had some yogurt in the cooler, bottles of water on board, along with a coffee can to use for a toilet because I had to stay at the tiller since the auto-helm was out.

I revved the engine and busted through the little sand ridge that was keeping me away from the river water. I went out on the heading I came in on—150 degrees—to the point that I assumed was the point to make my turn to 220 degrees. It was purely on guess. I would stay on this heading until I reached Ports des Morts passage, then sail around Washington Island into Kapps Marina. That was my plan.

It wasn’t long before the wind picked up considerably. The waves that had been enjoyable began turning into huge swells. They were so large that, in spite of the wind, the boom would swing back when I entered a trough, then out again when I got to the crest. I tied off the tiller to hold it generally steady, went forward, snapped my harness to the safety line on the starboard side of the boat until I got up to the mast, then snapped it around the mast, tied off the sails and motored the rest of the way.

After about an hour I noticed a boat off my stern. I could only see the top of his mast when I was at the crest of the wave—when I was in the trough, he’d be completely out of sight. My normal procedure when I was cruising in the boat was to mark the chart every hour on my penciled course line with my estimated position, to know approximately where I was. Not using a chart, I wasn’t doing this. But that would have been hard to do with all I had to manage due to the wind and crests.

Six hours had passed when I saw a sand beach which I thought was Rock Island. I would come to find out that it was actually Fish Island which connects to Fisherman’s Shoal. It wasn’t long before I realized the sand beach was not in the distance but right in front of me because I saw seagulls sitting on it. It was a shoal (rock formation). The water depth around the shoal is probably twenty-six feet. I tried to turn upwind to go around it but it was too late. The waves were too high and the wind too strong. I got slammed into the shoal.

My first impulse was to put the boat in reverse and try to back off. That was hopeless.

Once I hit the shoal the boat seemed to be stuck there. The swells came up over the stern and right into the open cabin door. As a swell would come along, it picked me up and slammed me down on top of the shoal. Revelation landed on its keel and fell over on its starboard side.

I distinctly remember having a vivid thought—Paul’s shipwreck in the Bible. The Lord had made it clear to Paul that the boat and all its equipment would be destroyed but no lives would be lost. It seemed to apply to me in my case and I never had any fear.

The radio was mounted on the starboard side and was still above the water. I didn’t try to assess anything further except to put a call into the coast guard and tell them my dilemma. They responded right away, and started asking me the usual questions—how many people on board; what color is your boat? I quit answering their questions after I told them I was alone on the boat.

I pulled the life raft out of its canvas bag, tied it to the boat and threw it in the water. I gave the line a yank, which should have inflated it, but every time I yanked, the bag just came closer. I couldn’t get enough pressure to release it. But then I realized I didn’t even need it because I had a dingy attached to the back of the boat. It was swamped and the waves and winds were blowing it right to Rock Island.

By now, I was in the water trying to evaluate what else I had to do while I waited for the coast guard to come and pick me up. I knew that this shoal was not very wide. With each wave, the boat would be picked up, moved several feet down wind, and then be slammed back onto the shoal. Not being certain of the width of the shoal, I became concerned. I knew it was possible for the waves to blow me all the way across the shoal which would allow the boat to sink into the 26 foot deep water. If that were to happen, it could conceivably take my dingy along with it. I decided to cut the line so I reached for my sheath knife and got it out. In the process, my hand slammed against the sailboat rail and I dropped the knife. I realized I had a pocket knife in my left pocket. As I reached into my pocket, I noticed my finger was painful. I got the knife out, looked at my hand, saw that one of my fingernails had been torn out, and cut the line. At this point, all I could do was hang onto the line of the dingy with one hand, the boat in the other and wait.

It wasn’t long, I would guess maybe a half hour, and the coast guard boat appeared. They stopped about 100 feet from me and I thought, come get me guys. Then I realized they couldn’t because of the shoal. I pulled the dingy up to me and climbed into it even though it was swamped. The floatation built into it kept it up. The waves and the wind blew me directly to the coast guard boat. I had to keep my hands on the gunnels to keep it from tipping. All I’d have to do was wait until the wind blew me up to the boat. Instead, they threw me a line. As soon as I reached for the line I was dumped into the water. My dingy took off and I was blown and pulled up to the coast guard boat.

When I got there they said, “Turn around. Put your back to us and we’ll pull you up.”

I said, “You know, I’ve thought about this for years.” I had read about a sailor in his sailboat that was picked up by a steamer. They threw him a line which he had to hold onto while they pulled him up. I realized that would be pretty tough to do. “Let me put a bow line in the end of your line. I can stand in it and you can pull me up.”

“No! You have to turn around, put your back to us, and we’ll lift you on board!”

So reluctantly, I turned around; they grabbed me under my arm pits and yanked. I don’t think they raised me six inches. They must have practiced this move in swimming suits. I was in my clothes with the life preserver beneath my jacket which obviously added a lot of weight.

They tried a second time with no better result. I said “Look you guys, let me go along your gunnel, and I can climb in at the stern where your outboard motors are mounted.” They listened and I climbed in at the stern.

We left Revelation on the shoal at the mercy of the waves, smashing it onto the rock. By this time the slamming had separated the mast from the boat.

We were now on our way back to Washington Island. I asked if they had a cell phone I could use. I called Dolores and said, “Honey, I’m going be home a little late. I’ve had some complications.”

“I know where you are!” She said. “You’re in the coast guard boat!”

“How did you know I was in the coast guard boat?”

The two men on the coast guard boat turned to me and asked, “How did she know you were in the coast guard boat?!”

Will Krueger, from Kapps Marina, had heard the call to the Coast Guard. He then called Dolores and said, “I just heard a call that a sailboat named Resolution has hit a shoal. That sounds pretty close to Revelation to me and I know that Bill’s out there. I thought it might be him.”

Dolores called Ed to tell him what was going on. He told her, “Oh Mom, don’t worry! He’s probably having the time of his life!” Then she drove over to Kapps Marina—the place that the Coast Guard boat would come in. As we approached the harbor in the coast guard boat, one of the men said to me, “Will you do me a favor when we get in?”

“Sure. What’s that?”

“Just do what we tell you.”

When the boat got into the dock, paramedics were already there. They said to me, “Come on Bill, you have to go to the clinic.”

Well, this was after I was off the boat so I said; “I don’t want to go. I just want to go home.” They didn’t give me a choice. I got in and they took me to the clinic where they checked me over and told me my finger needed attention. The nail had been broken about three-quarters of the way down and they said I had to go to the hospital in Sturgeon Bay. Dolores had brought me some dry clothes. The nurse and other women wanted me to change into them. I didn’t want to change in front of them so the doctor held up a sheet for me and I got into the dry clothes. (Joanie had later asked, Worried about shrinkage, Dad? Dad had answered her, You bet.) Then Mom drove us to the Ferry.

They fixed my finger and we spent the night in a hotel. I lay in bed that night and thought about all that had happened.

The problem was I figured I didn’t need any help from the chart because I knew my way, having just traveled the course up to Manistique. Had I used the chart and laid out my return course, I would have been aware of Fish Island and Fisherman’s shoal which I ended up on top of.

For many years, I’ve reflected on this event. To me, this story parallels the tendency I’d hear from you kids growing up. You thought that because you’d read the Bible or heard the stories, you knew what it said and didn’t need to read it for guidance each day.

This thought has stayed with me since my shipwreck. Had I used the chart, the shipwreck would have been avoided. As sailors, we need to continually refer to our chart for direction of our course. Likewise, I believe, we need to continually refer to our Bibles for guidance in our lives.”

Todd and John had left the table over an hour earlier. Since I don’t sail, it took me a while to get the details right. Likewise, it took me many years to heed Dad’s wisdom and pick up my Bible. Those who know me, know that I now begin each day with it—taking time to study it and reflect. I wasn’t always this way. When I turned 50 I said a prayer that the decade ahead would be one of following my calling—taking God’s path. It’s been an amazing decade.

As I near 59, I approach it with wonder and anticipation of what the next decade will hold. Life is quite a ride…a sail through the crests and troughs. But like Dad said, I have no fear. I know I have my Chart…and a dependable Safety Harness.

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14 thoughts on “Reflections on Shoals and Swells: A Sailing Story Part II

  1. Again, I got goosebumps. Your dad’s story and the way you tell it are so compelling, but the last two paragraphs are where I got the goosebumps. Wonderful writing, Deb!

  2. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your
    blog and in depth information you offer. It’s
    nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Wonderful read!
    I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding
    your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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