Come Hell or High Water
by Heather M. Whitley
The day we left Bay City, Michigan there was a small crowd of well wishers gathered but one person was noticeably missing. Don Jarema owned the Sounding II for over a decade before we bought it. For a month he had been right by our side. He helped us in every way, he answered - and at times reanswered - our naive questions. Aside from her size it was probably Don’s love for the Sounding II that sold us on her. We suspect that is why he is absent on this day, the day his beloved pulled away from her home port.
We are headed to the Gulf of Mexico but first we have to successfully navigate the waters of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, in November. We hired Captain Alan Block to help us get from Bay City to Chicago for three reasons: first, neither one of us have done any real sailing before; second, the boat had been in dry dock for three years and was splashed the day before our departure; and lastly, we wanted to arrive alive. As it turns out, we were the only three who believed we would. Before selecting Capt. Al, we entered into negotiations with another Captain who, during our third conversation, tripled his original asking price. He even requested a cashier’s check to be prewritten to his family because “we’re probably going to die.” We never understod why someone would die for $3,000 dollars.
|Douglas, Al & Heather
Then we found Alan. It was a perfect match from the get-go. He is a yound, well-educated man who decided corporate law was not for him. His story resonated with us since we are in our early 30’s and not interested in the daily grind of suburbia. Alan had also sailed a Samson Ketch ferrocement boat in Scotland, which made us comfortable with his ability. Know-how and personality, for us it was a done deal.
At 3:00 p.m. on a sunny unseasonably warm day in November our trip begins with a 24 hour overnight motor cruise to Harrisville, MI. We waved good bye to the small crowd and headed north to Saginaw Bay. The virtually non-existent winds were coming from the southwest, the boat floated, the engine ran and the water was flat. Our day had finally come and we were blissfully unaware.
The three hour watch rotation started at 6 p.m. with Douglas. I took the second watch (9 p.m.-12 a.m.) and Capt. Al, the thire (12 a.m.-3 a.m.). We would repeat this rotation until 7 a.m. Douglas’ watch was uneventful. Except, as he discovered, steering a 26-ton vessel was not as easy as expected. We surely were not making good time dur to the zigzagging and donuts but none the less we were giving it our best. The first night of dead reckoning and chart reading was nerve racking too. When you are just learning something, you give it your full attention. However, when you are just learning a whole bunch of something’s, your brain starts to short circuit. We have wheel steering and in the dark, steering by compass, I forgot which way to turn the wheel. I have no idea why my brain wouldn’t slow down long enough to tell my arms - “it is just like a car.”
At 11:30 p.m. the engine began sputtering and then came to a complete stop. We were now in about 4-foot swells which wasn’t as scary as it was inconvenient. Al suspected it was the fuel filter, which we would have never known on our own. “Eighty percent of your trouble is a clogged fuel filter, the rest electrical” he said. This was our first fuel filter change. Not only did we not know what we were doing, we were going to be rocked as we figured it out. This job called for coffee! As you can imagine, a ferro-cement hull on a November night in Michigan does little to warm the soul. One should at least be able to get a cup of coffee. But the rocking and the combustible fuel had other plans.
“Uh, guys, the stove is on fire” and with those words Douglas and Al were out of the engine room. Douglas, a long time restaurant manager, calmly reached for the galley extinguisher. Pull, pull, pull and yank, yank. “Uh, ok, now the boat is on fire” I exclaimed. Douglas’ fire extinguisher had a zip tie holding the pin. No time for a knife, so Capt. Al grabbed another and in a nano-second the entire boat was filled with yellow dust. The cross between diesel fuel and fire combative dust was too much for us all, even the dogs. The stench, the cold and the time of night took their toll on me. I expected Douglas to climb into the rack with me at any minute since they had just finished putting on a new fuel filter and the boat was no longer on fire. However, it was not to be.
Apparently, Jackson De Ville (Jax), our loving but thick German Shepherd spontaneously decided he needed some fresh air. With a burst, he headed up the cabin ladder. Of course, on this, his second day aboard, he did not yet know how to climb the ladder solo. He must have been quite concerned when the laws of gravity kicked in and he began to fall backwards. He would have been fine except for the bucket of diesel fuel just below. Capt. Al and Douglas, in an attempt to be environmentally sensitive, had filled a 5-gallon bucket about a quarter of the way with fuel. Before they could funnel it into a jug with a lid, the bucket swallowed Jaxs’ hind end. His new found position and the commotion from the guys really startled poor Jax, who by this time had kicked himself out of the bucket and was shaking diesel everywhere. Not only were both Doublas and Capt. Al covered in fuel, but so were the curtains, ladder, ceiling, bulkheads, helm, floor, charts, clothes and of course, so was Jax.
|Brooklyns & Jax (front)
All that could be done was to get Jax out of the boat. Al pitched the petrified pup up the ladder. Who knows how much skin rather then harness was used to hoist Jax, but up he went. Douglas followed the pup up top as it was still the middle of the night, waves made the boat unstable, and painted concrete allows little traction for someone without opposable thumbs. Douglas called Jax, but Jax was scared, so scared that he started to run about the deck. Just as another wave rocked the boat, Jax attempted to stop. His paws did nothing to cease his momentum. It was only God’s grace that the diesel pawed pup didn’t go overboard.
The whole event took 5.1 seconds, but dear sweet Douglas used Al’s entire 3-hour watch to clean up. They let me sleep, I have no idea why.
Apparently, that wasn’t our only near miss of the night. Douglas noticed a slow approaching object on radar. He lost sight of all the ships, tankers and marking lights for a few moments at night and decided to change course to avoid collision. The object kept approaching closer and closer, an ominous object heading straight towards us. He was never able to determine what it was exactly. All he knew for sure was that it was big, it was dar, it was close, and it wasn’t on the radar or the charts. We passed the object withing 20-30 meters of what appeared to be either a nonworking buoy or a shipwreck but, afraid the strong winds would push us off course, Douglas chose not to go in search of a spotlight. To this day, it is still a mystery but my money is on the Lockness Monster.
You can imagine what a wonderful site Harrisville was to behold. We could have tied up at Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’s junkyard and been grateful. To our delight, though, Harrisville is a darling little lakefront community. After filling the boat with a fresh supply of diesel we went right up to a diner, the Flour Garden, for breakfast. Ahh, to be warm while eating hot food, that must be what Heaven is like.
The rest of that day was spent cleaning up the boat, watching movies on tape, walking the pups and napping. While walking the dogs, I saw a black ball of fur speed across the grass. It caught my attention because it was a bit late for bunny rabbits I thought. It was a jet-black squirrel. I had no idea that they came in black; red, gray, brown, even albino but not black. The dogs only had eyes for the grass and didn’t even notice the uniquely colored critter. The next day we went grocery shopping, checked our email at the public library and went on the hunt for two thing: a throttle cable and a shower.
The town is full of wonderfully nice people. Everyone we met, without exception, was extremely gracious, still it took some convincing on my part to get Douglas to knock on the door of a closed Bed & Breakfast. “We don’t need the bed nor the breakfast, just the shower. Can you help?” To my surprise, they readily agreed and didn’t even seem all that taken aback. The Olson’s, owners of the Widow’s Watch, were extremely welcoming. Sue Olson even made us coffee and offered homemade banana bread. The hot shower water ran right through my skin into my bones. Delicious.
I had to feed my guys a hot meal, so Douglas and I parted ways. He was off to find that throttle cable. The hardware store didn’t have one and the auto parts store wasn’t open. No one was quite sure when it would be, as the owner doesn’t regularly observe his posted hours of operation.
A young man at Mill Hardware and Lumber offered to run Douglas 40 miles into the next town but his boss decided he couldn’t do without hime for that long. Instead, the boss said “give ‘em your keys.” A surprised but appreciative Douglas thanked them both. The young man walked Douglas to the truck and with an extended hand, Douglas introduced himself. The fair haired, freckled man replied, “they call me Opie.” With an apology, Opie took his guns out of the cab. “I don’t mean to offend you, but I do hardly know you.”
In addition to the truck, Opie offered Douglas his gloves and a brand new pair of wool socks to keep him warm on his trip through the Huron National Forest. I wish I could have gone with him to see the giant White Pines parting that way with me along. Only Douglas can meet a feller’ named Opie, borrow his truck, wear his work gloves and gratefully accept his huntin’ socks...all the while making the guy feel like he got the good deal.
“What’s this?” Al said looking at the last two slices of banana bread. So we relayed the days events to him. Afterwards he only smirked and said “you two sure are cheeky.”
We filled our bellies with broccoli cheese soup, watched a movie and hit the rack. The next morning would bring another 24-hour push to Mackinaw City.
Heather M. Whitley and her fiancee Douglas Beaven live in Powell, Ohio. They have been on an on-going journey from Bay City, Michigan to Pensacola, Florida.