Lake Michigan story

Share stores of your big days, soul rejuvenation experiences; moments that defy time.

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Bill S.
Posts: 271
Joined: Tue Jul 22, 2003 9:37 pm

Lake Michigan story

Post by Bill S. »

We recently returned from a month at our place on northern Lake Michigan. Here's a story to stoke the fires and pass the time till the fall winds arrive around here.

Our trip began with a happy coincidence--or omen. While riding the ferry across Lake Michigan, my wife, daughter and I ran into Randy and Jane Johnson who were on their way to visit friends and do some sailing. The day was crisp and clear, with a fresh 20-knot nor'easter blowing down the lake, and it was great to hang with Randy and Jane in the sun in the lee of the bow of the ferry. Their friends own an adventure sports shop an hour down the coast from our place, so Randy and I exchanged numbers in the event we might get a session together later in the week. Alas, in the next few days the wind was not to be, but our chance meeting with Randy and Jane set a positive tone for the trip.

I regret only that I didn't have my guitar with me. Randy, freshly returned from a Ride gig in Worthington, naturally had his harp in his pocket and was ready to jam. Playing the blues in the middle of the big lake would have been sweet.

Once in Leelanau County--due east of Door County, Wisconsin--about once a week a front came through, kicked up a day or so of warm southwesterlies on the front, then a day of cooler and stronger northwesterlies on the back. In over two decades of summer windsurfing on Lake Michigan, I can't remember a July with more unsettled weather and great winds. Nearly every day had at least an hour or so of sailable or kitable breezes, if you were riding big stuff. The awesome thing about the Great Lakes, of course, is that even a "marginal" 10-20 knot day generates 3-5 foot rollers to the horizon. 5.5 is my largest sail and I got in 10 solid days on the water, with two all-day 4.7 blasts and one all-time Great Lakes 4.0 day with onshore waves running 8-12 feet and monster sets that were truly humbling.

On that day, I joined the local core for an epic wave fest at Leland. Northwesterlies at 30+ knots had been blowing non-stop during the night, and a massive onshore swell created a deafening roar as waves met their first sand bar in 120 miles and pounded the dunes. With an Army Corp. breakwall protecting a small marina, Leland is one of the few sites along the Sleeping Bear coast where a launch in such conditions is even remotely possible. The trick is to swim your rig out in the glassy water behind the breakwall, catch a gust, then slip powered-up into the jacking mast-high troughs just beyond the harbor's entrance. Timing and prayer are critical. If you make it past the harbor light, there is still a half-mile of churning whitewater and an unrelenting parade of body crunchers to deal with till you're safely outside the zone. Like Duluth on a big nor'easter, any one of these crunchers can snap your mast and subject you to a sobering 45-minute spin through the rinse--and mile-long walk of shame--before you can say "Lakawa." The risk to reward ratio is great, though. Once outside, if you're not too greedy with the edge, you can ride some of the biggest, cleanest waves in the entire region.

There were seven of us total and the stoke was contagious. If somebody went through the rinse everybody got off the water and waited till he was okay before heading back out. Once again, I was reminded that big Great Lakes onshore waves are in many ways more challenging to ride than more spread-out side-on ocean conditions, and that fear can be a powerfully focusing and motivating force. The best advice is still Randy's: While you can't stop the wave, you can learn to ride it. In the parking lot afterwards, there were shared smiles, sandwiches and cold ones all around. Even on Lake Michigan, a big wave session in July is a gift to be savored.

That evening, with the wind rocking even harder though a little more side-on, I threw caution to the wind and went out for a solo session at sunset off our beach north of Northport. The waves were now as big and clean as I had seen them in years--like those in an October gale--and I figured if I made it out I'd be in wave sailing heaven. I rigged the 4.0 again, still wet from the day's sessions, kissed my wife and daughter, and with more than a little trepidation in my heart posed the rhetorical question, "If it gets extreme, ditch the rig, right?" My wife replied, "right." Exhausted from the day's epic sessions at Leland but yearning for one last ride, I headed for the beach.

Remarkably, I caught a massive gust and made it out. The downside is that I had to ride the whitewater for about a mile down the beach from our place to do it, so that now I was well out of sight of my wife and the binoculars. After several successive way over-powered cut backs on one massive blue-green monster, I went to bottom turn and jibe for home and the wave jacked up and buried me--still in the straps--in the sandbar. Unfortunately, my mast cracked just above the base (so much for the purported strength of RDMs) and without a break between waves all I could do was endure the beating and hold on like hell to the rig. As I drifted into a killer shorebreak, I managed to disconnect the rig from the board, chuck my harness and holding on to the foot straps surf the board in. At some point in the thrashing that followed, I congratulated myself for at least having had the sense to wear my drysuit, in which I was toasty, and to not have sailed out farther than I could swim. These thoughts were calming, and a half-hour later, fully worked and water logged, I dragged board and myself up on the beach, collapsed in the sand and gave thanks. A while later, my rig and harness washed in, and I started breaking things down for the long trek home.

Now it was dark. On the deserted mile-long walk back to our cottage, with my broken rig lashed to my board and the wind gusting in the 40-knot range, I literally bumped into the County Sheriff. My wife, as I had expected, had done the right thing and called him and the Coast Guard when I hadn't returned before dark. I was embarrassed when he pulled out his cell phone and told the Coast Guard not to send the chopper and cutter up from Traverse City. When we got back to our place, the local fire chief, an old family friend, was there sitting with my wife and daughter. He'd heard the banter on the short wave and had come out to help.

In the end, I feel most badly about what the event put my wife through. While I knew I was going to be okay, for an hour she rode an intense emotional roller coaster, all the while having to keep on her game face to comfort and reassure our four-year old that daddy would be back soon. We've been together a long time, and have had a close scrape while rock climbing together. But this was different. My daughter now understands the concept of "rescue," but this is cold comfort in view of what might have been.

After telling me of the terrible thoughts that passed through her mind while I was out on the howling dark lake, my wife affirmed her support for my life-in-the-wind and said that, while she had started to feel the grip of true fear, she trusted and respected my judgment. Good partnerships are built on trust and respect, and I've decided that the least I can do is return to her that which she graciously gave me. And so, after 20 years of windsurfing solo on Lake Michigan, routinely as far as five miles off shore, I doubt I will sail solo in such conditions again. A solo 5.5 offshore session on a sunny afternoon is one thing. But blown-out 4.0 in monster onshore surf at dusk is now for me quite another.

Still, the big days on the Big Lake will always draw me on to the water, challenge me to relax in the maelstrom and enjoy the sensation of riding in spirit with the powerful forces of nature. In the scope of any life, periodic reality checks are good for the soul, and for me wave sailing on Lake Michigan is as soulful as it gets.

Dress for the swim in, and never sail out farther than you can swim.

NB: The Sleeping Bear/Grand Traverse region, in the northwestern corner of the lower peninsula of Michigan, is a fantastic place to sail, kite, bike, golf, fish, swim, or just hang on miles of sugar sand beaches. From here, it's 5-1/2 hours by car to Manitowoc, a four-hour ferry ride to Ludington, then another two hours north to Traverse City.
Posts: 660
Joined: Thu Nov 28, 2002 10:01 am
Location: Forest Lake

Captivating story!

Post by Randy »

Now that's a story! It's got everything windsurfing has to offer...the challenge, the risk, the insight and the gratitude. What more can you ask for a recipe to happiness? Maybe a jam session sometime soon?

Hey Bill, these are the moments we'll never forget and the ones that fully put us into that sense of wonder. Any elaboration on the moment the wave closed in on you? Do you remember it? Was it a full collapsing wave with no escape? Your thoughts when you went from being the wave to being eaten by the wave? Just curious? So glad you caught wind after I left, and again, too bad we've not connected on any of the Superior days, but September winds aren't far away.

Maybe we need to get a fall posse to Michigan together? I think Eric would go after shredding it up on Superior. Speaking of which, Eric, we're still waiting for your colorful commentary on Superior. I still can't believe you've been sailing for just a few years.
Ride...just be it!
Eric S
Posts: 970
Joined: Tue Nov 26, 2002 2:42 pm
Location: MN, USA, Earth

Post by Eric S »

Thanks Bill. That was a great way to start the day reading that. I was on the edge of my seat. I jotted some notes down about duluth but nothing comes together. Sometimes writing is like taking a poop.

I'm constipated, now where's that Exlax?
Dave Z
Posts: 1130
Joined: Wed Dec 04, 2002 12:13 pm
Location: White Bear Lake, MN, USA

Post by Dave Z »

Loved the story Bill. Considering the lack of sailing this summer it's nice to hear you scored (and didn't kill yourself in the process) over on Lake Michigan. Considering I haven't sailed in over a month the stories still fuel my stoke for the sport and keep me optimistic for the Fall winds :D
Posts: 5274
Joined: Sat Oct 26, 2002 10:06 pm
Location: Here, Now

Post by Tighe »

very nice...nicely told and what an experience.

There are those few experiences that we'll never forget, whether they make it to Lakawa Stories or not. Sounds like this was one of them.

With your permission I'd like to archive it in Stories.

Hope to make it over there with you some day.
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