A cautionary tale—not without humor—in which youthful arrogance and stupidity encounter a colorful maritime disaster, somehow managing to avoid tragedy.
That was then … summer, 1976.
As I get older, I try to console myself with thoughts like, “It’s not all bad--there are benefits. I’m getting wiser as I get older.” (Transparent self-deception?)
In Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, there are lines that can raise the hair on the back of your neck:
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
I suspect that anyone who’s been in a storm either at sea or on the Great Lakes will appreciate his metaphor for gnawing fear.
My cousin Rob (Class of ’67) is the kind of guy who’s always been easy for me to look up to—at ease with himself, smart and capable, with the courage to do adventurous things like buy a 33-foot sailboat when he moved to Duluth, Minnesota to work as an Emergency Room Physician for a few years. I was fortunate to sail with him on Lake Superior during the years after college when I was in dental school. I’d drive to Duluth on a Friday night, and we’d head out onto the Lake on Saturday morning.
One Friday night when I arrived, Rob said, “Hey, no need to wait ‘til tomorrow. Let’s head out for Bayfield tonight.” So we left his berth in the Duluth harbor and motored towards the aerial bridge. It was always a treat to blow our air horn—three long blasts—and see the bridge traffic get stopped and the whole span go up, just for us so we could clear our mast as we went beneath it. We motored out past the signal lights of the channel and into the darkness of the open Lake. We set sail and took turns at watches. Aside from minding the wind and the sails, you stay on a compass reading to keep yourself on course. If your course is going to lead you anywhere near shore, then you need to watch the depth gauge too. Rob’s boat drew about five feet of water; any less and we’d go aground.
About 3 AM the wind started to come up fast, the waves were getting big, it started to rain and blow really hard. Spray from the waves started coming over the side. It was the summer of 1976, and the Edmund Fitzgerald had gone down the previous November. “Superior never gives up her dead” occurred to me—I already knew why. The temperature near the bottom of the Lake remains near 34 degrees, which means that the bodies of those who drown—or simply die from hypothermia—sink to the bottom and just stay there, like bags of BirdsEye frozen peas in cold storage. I didn’t want to join them, and tried not to think about it. Things were getting bad enough for us to decide to head in closer to the south shore, drop the anchor, and ride out the storm until dawn. When well anchored with all the hatches secured tightly, Rob’s boat would rise over cresting waves in a storm well enough. We might not sleep much, but we’d be OK.
So, we started the engine, pulled down the sails, and headed towards the south shore, watching the depth gauge carefully. Now, if you want to anchor a boat to resist the wind and waves of a storm, seven to one is the safe ratio for length of anchor line to depth of water. Rob did a quick calculation based on the depth of the water and how far off shore we were, and determined how much line we should let out. We dropped our anchor at what we thought was the right distance away from the shore. Rob kept the bow into the wind and the waves as I paid out the anchor line from the bow. Drifting downwind in an arc, we’d nearly reached a point directly downwind from the anchor point when we felt the sickening lurch of the boat beneath us as the keel hit bottom.
As it happens, sand bars come and go each year on the south shore of Superior. That year there was one that went way out into the Lake—and we were stuck on it. Trying to motor off the sand bar into that wind and sea was hopeless. The waves were so big that we could hear the prop racing as it came out of the water with each wave trough passing under us: “Rub,bub,bub--Grrrh-eeeeee!! Rub,bub,bub--Grrrh-eeeeee!!” There was no way that engine was going to push the boat off that sandbar. I was scared—and knew I ought to be.
Clearly, we couldn’t control the boat and there was some risk it might break apart since it was no longer riding on the surface. Lake Superior is always very cold; it doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are—you have to stay out of the water. There was nothing to do but inflate the rubber life raft and abandon ship. In spite of the wind we could hear the waves crashing down on the south shore in the darkness no further away than 300 yards away downwind. We grabbed our sleeping bags, flashlights, compass and a map, and climbed into the yellow life raft pitching up and down on the down-wind side of the boat. Pushing off, the surging waves and wind blew us up on the shore in only a couple of minutes. We were soaked to the skin and freezing cold—but safe.
We got into our sleeping bags and spent the rest of the night under a clump of bayberry bushes on the shore, trying to get warm in a steady drizzle. We huddled there, cold, wet, and shivering, as we listened to the sound of the waves against the shore. Through the wind we could just make out the “Grmmm--Bum, Bump! Grmmm--Bum, Bump!” sound of Rob’s boat being ground further into the sand bar by the waves.
At daylight, the lake was calm and a grey mist nearly obscured the boat, sitting at an angle stuck on the sand bar. Hiking south through the woods, we found a road and tried to hitchhike into the nearest town. We looked bedraggled and pretty disreputable; no one would pick us up. We walked several miles to Cornucopia, pop. 140. When we asked if we could use a phone to call the Coast Guard, we were helpfully introduced to a guy known simply as “Muffler”, who assured us that he could easily pull us off with his (motor) boat.
An hour later, we’re heading out on the Lake in what turned out to be a boat no longer than 22 feet with an 80 h.p. motor on it—small by Lake Superior standards. As Muffler tosses back his second beer since taking the helm of his boat and is laughing at the spray blowing over the side, Rob and I exchange looks. We’re beginning to have doubts about relying on Muffler. The man seemed fearless—and this wasn’t a good thing. When we round a sheltering point and start slamming harder into really big waves coming off the open Lake, even Muffler hesitates. As he turns around and heads back to Cornucopia he nearly ‘swamps’ his boat under a cresting wave.
A phone call to the Coast Guard and three hours later, we’d made our way back through the woods to Rob’s boat. Around the point comes a 120-foot Coast Guard cutter from Duluth. It was an awe-inspiring sight—this huge, beautiful ship with the American Flag flying above her bridge. They’d come all that way just to help us; it was humbling. To pull us off the sand bar, the cutter eased into a position nearly 100 yards out with its stern directly facing us. Rob rowed out to verbally release the Captain of the Coast Guard cutter from responsibility for any damage to Rob's boat during the operation. Rob rowed back from the cutter dragging the end of a rope as big around as my wrist, which I tried to fix to our bow cleat. The rope was so big that it barely fit. (Moments later I nearly got my fingers caught and crushed under it. That would’ve been goodbye dental career.)
With its big diesel engines making a deep “Thrum-Thrum-Thrum” sound, the cutter slowly pulled ahead to take up the slack in the line. We feel Rob's boat shift, and we're sliding off the sand bar. After waving our arms and shouting "Thank you!!" to the Coast Guard a dozen times, we passed some tense moments as Rob watched below for any water coming in through a damaged hull. Blessed with an absence of leaks, we sailed to Bayfield. We had a nice late dinner in a restaurant, drinking to the good health of Rob's sound ship that had pulled us through--and thanking the Fates for smiling on us.
I hate to admit it now—with blissful ignorance we hadn’t even checked the weather report before we’d left the Duluth harbor the night before. Now that's a blunder that you're just never, ever supposed to make. We were very lucky. Lake Superior is unforgiving; any number of things could have gone terribly wrong.
Nearly all of us have had times when Life has managed to kick us squarely in the teeth. And like many of you, I’ve lost friends over the years; a climbing accident, a suicide, a car accident, among other causes. Sadly, those friends can’t tell us their stories any more.