Epilogue to the Alpena Story

Remember this place?

And remember this?

Well, we had insurance pay for a new tiller handle, along with the fiberglass repair. A week before we left Alpena, I called the marina to make sure they had replaced the tiller, since they had not mentioned it in our previous conversations. It turns out that they forgot to order a new one, so they epoxied the old one together, so we could leave. They would ship us the new one. We just wanted to get the boat back to Bay City, and the epoxied tiller did fine in the rough water we encountered on both legs of that trip.

A month later, no tiller. And no word from Alpena. So we gave them a call. They said that they could not find a tiller that would fit our boat, so we would have to send them our old tiller, so they could make a new one. We suggested that they just send us a check instead, for the amount insurance paid them for the tiller. They agreed that that was a good idea.

As of last week, there was still no check. So Rob tried to call the marina. They were closed. He called the city manager, who said he would talk to them.

Yesterday, we got our check. And the insurance adjuster said to let him know if we can’t find a tiller for that amount, and they will send us another check. So, if you’re going to Alpena, stay in a hotel or one of the nice campgrounds rather than the marina. But, by all means, get Progressive insurance!

300 to Starboard

I have been working on this post ever since I heard a song that reminded me of the trip through the fog last summer. I hope you enjoy it!

“Course change to 300, in 5 seconds. 5…4…3…2..1…Mark!”

My husband’s voice echoed through the billowing fog that engulfed our small sailing yacht. I looked away from the wall of white before me, toward the identical wall to my right and clenched my right hand and the battered, wooden tiller handle. My downcast eyes stared at the roughly cracked wood, held together by the strap from a life jacket with a metal clamp over the top. They followed the 44-year-old curved handle up to the white knuckles of the hand controlling it.

No. I shouldn’t do it. I wanted to do anything but pull that tiller toward me.

According to Rob’s navigating–using only manual instruments and charts–Bay City was through the wall before us. To turn to starboard meant to motor to Alpena. We saw no landmarks; the shore could be within feet of our boat, or there could be no land in sight. All we had were the charts and our skill.

Bay City was home. They had a state-of-the-art shop, excellent hauling equipment, nice facilities, and a great staff. Alpena was the opposite. For the past week, we had been stuck there, waiting for fuel. Who ever heard of a gas dock being empty?! The showers were dirty, although that wouldn’t matter now. A dockhand had crashed our boat into the dock, and their harbor master was nowhere to be found. This was not a place I would trust with my beloved Moonraker.

“Are you sure?” I asked again. Through the fog, I could see my husband nod. Of course. A 6-hour run would be much safer than the 15 hour trip to Bay City.

With a heavy heart, I pulled the tiller handle towards me. For most of our two-week trip, I’d taken the helm. When we first entered Thunder Bay, I had piloted us through a storm. Yet the tiller never seemed as heavy as it did that afternoon.

I pulled and pulled. I could think of nothing else. Somewhere, deep within my heart, I did actually comprehend that we were in danger. While I blinked back the tears, mourning the loss of our dream, I looked around me, seeing nothing but fog, and briefly wondered if we would see land again.

Such thoughts were to be banished immediately. We had no choice.

I could not consider that the tiller handle was broken and poorly repaired. We hoped it would hold together in the current, calm conditions. The weather report did not call for a storm, but it had not called for fog either. I could not consider that we would definitely die in a storm. That there was so much fog that we could see nothing. That we were headed for a distant port that I did not trust.

300. The round compass sat across from me, mounted on the weathered, white bulkhead. Slowly the wheel within it turned: 210, 250, 260, 300. That number became my focus, my chi, during this long meditation. Maintain 300. As the propeller on the engine caused the boat to pull to port, I pulled the tiller handle toward me, in a sort of rhythm. Focus on 300. Not on fear. Not on loss. And definitely not on danger. Everything depended on 300. I had to make the compass say that. Nothing else could occupy my mind. Our lives depended on that number. And on Rob’s ded reckoning that it was right. Yet I knew where we were going. Were we really is so much danger we couldn’t make it to Bay City? What about Roger’s City, to the North? Anything but Alpena.

I remembered the day after our tenth anniversary, when we had set out on this trip. When I was grocery shopping that morning, an old song from the ’80’s had played on the radio. “It’s so very plain for me to see, the dream is over.” I found this line playing over and over in my head. Dream is over. Dream is over.

Moonraker was our dream. After a turbulent spring and June, we had set out to spend a month sailing around the Mitten, into Lake Michigan. Now it’s over. Over.

No.

300. Nothing more. I had to job to do and I could do it. Back to 300, to the task at hand. I could hold that. I may have doubted myself as a helmsman in the past, but that day I knew I could do it. I could keep us alive.

Yet my mind wandered.

Dream is over.

My mind took me back to the morning we left Alpena. Finally! I had told our friends that we were leaving that morning, rain or shine. Our friends, in turn, had cautioned us. Two people, from a boat we knew, from Bay City, had died in a storm the day before. Be vigilant, one friend wrote.

And we were! The forecast was perfect, even though the fog was beginning to rise as we past Thunder Bay Point. We would be having dinner in Presque Isle. Would it be the seafood buffet, or would we save our money and grill out? Thinking the latter, I bought charcoal before we left Alpena. Cook-outs were fun, and our 4-year-old would have a chance to run around and play. The charcoal was still sitting in the boat when we pulled it out at the end of the season.

Rob sat down with his navigational equipment, and I took the helm. Wearing her life jacket, our daughter chattered happily, as Rob told me our course. 45. Northeast. We were going to cut it close to Thunder Bay Island, but the charts all indicated we could pass. I held 45.

We did not know that Thunder Bay Island had a magnetic pull. That, if you fail to round the markers, far away from the island, it will cause your compass to read incorrectly. 45 was not 45.

Beginning to question it, Rob sent me below to retrieve his navigational equipment. I was in the back, with his parallel rules, digging for his dividers, when it happened.

The sickening thud. The vibration below my feet.

The keel hitting the rocks.

We were stuck. Trying to force the rudder to move, with the boat in reverse, Rob snapped the tiller handle.

We sent our daughter down below, hoping that the Wonder Pets would keep her occupied, while we attended to the situation.

We finally freed our boat by throwing out the anchor, while I swung on the boom. We tilted sideways, lifting the keel off of the rocks. Once again, Moonraker was floating.

For about an hour, Rob steered while I sat on the side deck, looking for the sudden shallow spots that seemed to come out of nowhere. After two hours, they had disappeared. We rounded marker 13, indicating that we were far enough from the island that our compass would not be affected. We left the bay and motored toward Presque Isle, out in the open Lake.

We turned off the DVD player, and our little girl sang while she colored at the dinette.

Feeling home free, Rob sent me below to get him a glass of iced tea. “I can finally relax,” he said.

Finally. Relax.

Down the stairs I walk, not watching where I am placing my feet. To the refrigerator, which is set inside the counter. I retrieve the iced tea pitcher, and pour him a glass. Without looking, I hand it up to the cockpit, where he sits. Now, to get me one.

It’s wet.

The carpet.

Is.

Wet.

The phrases all come to me, phrases I would rather keep out of my head. I try to abolish them from my mind. Taking on water. Disabled vessel. Sinking.

Sinking.

It is then that I notice the fog. We can see nothing. We are nowhere. We are in the middle of a white nothingness.

And we are sinking.

Moonraker, my boat, my home, my soul, was sinking. And we were as well.

300. This was my focus. I heard the bilge pump turn on again, as it had been doing about every 30 minutes. It was keeping up. For now. Below, in the v-berth, we heard our daughter laugh. She was watching cartoons. We kept handing her snacks. When things calmed down, we would let her out, when Shaun the Sheep lost his appeal. She smiled, not knowing what was going on. If she knew, it would be too much. Too much for her, for us…

Dream is over.

At the helm of Moonraker, I could fly. With the sails out, wing-in-wing, going downwind, nothing was impossible. In her I felt a freedom I had never thought was possible. This summer I experienced a life I had never known existed.

A wind blew through my hair, and I knew that if we raised the sails, we could do it again. We could make port faster, faster. Sailing was what Moonraker wanted to do.

But we couldn’t. We couldn’t because of the keel…

There it was. The keel. The thought I kept trying to abolish. The keel. If it separated, if we strained it, if it fell off… It was unthinkable. And there was no point. If the keel fell off, we would have no time to think, before it was over.

Over. But it wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t.

300. We didn’t deviate. We wouldn’t. We would live. Thunder Bay. I had nearly lost a boat there before. This time I would not. I would see the other side. Yet, now, we were not moving in that direction. We were going back to Alpena. Back. But if we made it, there would be another day.

300. Nothing else. That helm was my duty, my calling. It was all I had to worry about. We could see nothing, but I trusted my husband. If I maintained 300, we would make it.

Through the thickening fog, I saw a distant beacon. Thunder Bay light. This time we would keep our distance. 300 kept us out past the magnetic pull, past the rocks, past the danger. Marker 13 materialized out of the fog, directly to starboard.

300. I wanted to go back to Bay City, to the place we knew. But I trusted Rob. I trusted his navigation. This was the route he had told me to take. Alpena, Alpena. He thought anything further would jeopardize our lives. If we made it to Alpena, we would be all right… The pump was running. We were floating. We would live. We just had to keep going. 300. 300. 300.

We were still encased in the fog; we were still being swallowed by it. In the distance we heard the roar of a motor at full speed. Before I even had time to tighten my grip on the tiller handle, the power boat rushed past us, too close for comfort.

We both shook our heads, marveling at the idiocy that went beyond words.

300. We plowed ahead, ahead. Then, with no warning, we began to see trees off in the distance, to starboard. Thunder Bay point. We were in its lee, which caused the fog to lift. Ahead, in the distance but now in sight, was the break wall. Alpena.

300. I still watched the compass, but it was safe now. It was time to call the marina. We already knew they did not answer radio transmissions, so Rob dialed the cell phone.

“We’re taking on water. Can you pull us out? We’ll be there in an hour.”

“Taking on water? Are you all right?”

“The bilge pump is keeping up, but the boat needs to be pulled when we get there.”

“All right. We close in 45 minutes. We’ll pull you first thing in the morning.”

We would be spending the night on a sinking boat, because they wouldn’t stay open for an emergency.

Slip 37.

We sat in the cockpit, taking it all in. Beneath our feet, the pump ran every 30 minutes. It wasn’t increasing. Moonraker was our home, and this was our last night on it. Until….

Nobody knew if and when we would be back.

And yet we had survived. We had proven our skill to each other, to ourselves. There was no question: we would sail again.

Whether on Moonraker or on another vessel, the water was calling us. And we would answer.

A Wonderful Sail!

I haven’t posted in awhile, because we ran into Internet issues. Our MiFi is wonderfully portable, but we do have limited bandwidth. Now it’s reset, and we’re ready to go!

So, we left Tawas on Sunday. It was a bit cooler and lumpy. We left motoring directly into the wind. Moonraker took the waves smooth enough for us to enjoy hot tea as we began our trip.

We changed course at the freighter dock, on the edge of Tawas bay. Rob turned up the music on our iPod and pulled me up to dance with him in the cockpit. The flag was blowing furiously toward the portside. We wouldn’t be using anymore gas that day!

My left arm got a workout, as we sailed on a close reach all the way back to Bay City. Our speed was 7.5 knots, which is 2 knots above hull speed (which is supposed to be Moonraker’s top speed; it’s the speed it goes under power). We were heeled quite a bit to port, which is not something we’ve ever experienced on that boat. We were bouncing in 4-5 foot waves, but I got good at pouring tea under the conditions!

The river was full of boats under sail, which was a very unusual sight. We didn’t start the engine until we were within sight of the marina.

The sun was out while we were underway, so we arrived in Bay City good and tanned. It was, however, cold in Bay City, so not many of our friends were there to greet us. We were able to see many of our A-dock neighbors at the campfire, though. It was good to be back.

Aboard Once Again!

45 days ago, we thought that Moonraker was totalled, after we ran aground in Thunder Bay. Yesterday morning, we drove up to Alpena to climb back on board. Moonraker was in the water, in the same place she was that day in July when we sadly removed all of our belongings. The first order of business was unloading everything back onto the boat.

Unfortunately, my camera battery died right after I took that picture, so it was charging while we watched Alpena fade into the distance.

Thunder Bay was not going to let us out easily. We motored directly into the wind, in very choppy water. First, we encountered 4-foot waves, which we uncomfortable but not a problem. Then the 10-foot swells started. Occasionally, at the bottom of a swell, we would feel an uncomfortably familiar vibration in the floor and hear a low thudding sound. It was just the boat vibrating against the water, but it still gave us chills.

As we left Thunder Bay, we had to turn sideways to the swells, which were increasing in frequency. We have never seen anything like this in the Lakes; we wonder if Hurricane Irene was affecting the wave patterns. Rob sat at the dinette plotting our course, and he was thrown to the floor, along with his charts and navigational equipment! Beanie, of course, was unphased. The waves always criss-cross at the edge of Thunder Bay, so we were being rocked from all directions.

Once the swells calmed down, Rob’s charting revealed that we had been mistaken about the time it would take us to sail from Alpena to Tawas. Instead of making Tawas by dinner time, we would be there around 11:00 p.m! We considered stopping in Harrisville, but decided that we would rather be on our boat. This would mean navigating at night, but that couldn’t be anymore difficult than navigating in the fog.

Here are some pictures we took after the swells calmed down:

As the sun was going down, our engine began stalling. It would run for about 5 minutes, then begin sputtering and stalling again. Finally, it would not start up again. Rob got out his tool box and did a repair as we drifted past Oscoda.

When we removed the float bowl on the carburettor, it was filled with milky gasoline. We think that there was water in the gas tank, and the swells mixed it in the the gas. We will put a water separator into the fuel system when we get back to Bay City.

With that mishap behind us, we motored our little Moonraker into the night. Above us were more stars than I have ever seen. It was breathtakingly beautiful and eerily silent. We gave ourselves lots of room to get around Tawas point, going even beyond the markers. We are not taking anymore chances with shallow water.

At 11:30, we arrived at Tawas Harbor once again. My parents, who are cruising on their boat for the first time, met us at our slip on the floating dock. It is wonderful, and very unreal, to be back here, living this lifestyle again. It took me over an hour to walk down the dock, because everyone is friendly and wants to chat and to hear our story. It’s great to be back.

There were stars up above, all around the mast.

Watching the compass at night strained my eyes so much, that they are still a bit bloodshot and puffy today.

A Successful Failure

With time comes perspective.

Instead of being sad and disappointed that we were not able to spend the entire summer on Moonraker, I am realizing that what we accomplished was more than we have in previous summers. In two years, we moved the boat out of the derelict lot at Pier 7 and cruised to Alpena.

Every summer we’ve owned Moonraker (we bought it in the fall of 2008), we’ve intended to live aboard and take a month long cruise. And this is what happened each year:

–In 2009, we set out to fix it up in July, after our June camping trip. We saw that the bulkheads were detached at the corners, and we thought this was catastrophic. The chain plates, which anchor the mast, are driven through the bulkheads. Only in August, when we researched it, did we realize that I29’s have very long chain plates on the other side of the bulkheads, and that the separation was very easily repaired. We fixed it, painted the interior, stepped the mast, and had the engine installed.

–In 2010, we had another late start, due to events and get-togethers with family and friends. Then we painted the waterline stripe and the bottom. Due to improper ventilation while it was shrink wrapped, the engine had a piston that hung up. We tried many repairs, especially after my parents secured a good deal on a slip for us. Finally, around this time of the year, we launched and hobbled to Bay Harbor on 2 cylinders. Luckily, Rob was able to repair the engine when we got there.

–In 2011, we launched in May, and lived aboard at the marina all of June. We cruised it from July 8-July 19. We will cruise it back to Bay City as soon as the repair is completed.

So, all in all, we’ve made some progress! Next year, we will live aboard (completely closing up our house) and cruise all summer. We will stop back in Midland every 2 weeks for Beanie’s therapy.

Back to Alpena

No trip to Ossineke would be complete without visiting Moonraker in Alpena. Besides, I wanted to see Rob’s “accomplishment,” before they repaired it. Here are some pictures from our excursion to the marina:

Beanie was happy to get back to the play area!

Bottom paint missing from the rudder, but thats just from the prop.

Robs great accomplishment--its a very RELIGIOUS (aka "Holey") boat! To his credit, the marina did drill out the cracks, so it would drain faster.

Missing bottom paint, all along the keel.

Rob on board, handing stuff down.

So, now we have Beanie’s potty chair, the cable for my camera, and lots of cans of refried beans. We talked to the harbor master, because we were concerned that we would incur storage fees once the repair is finished (since I will probably be back at work at that time). He said that, since things have taken longer than expected, we will not need to pay slip fees after the repair is completed. The boat will be launched and placed in a slip as soon as they are finished, so they can watch it and make sure it isn’t taking on water. And we checked the cracks–it’s not leaking water, but it is still damp.

8 Days Later…

Since we’re camping in the woods, I’d talk about two of the biggest summer nuisances everybody encounters: bugs and sunburn.

On the water in Michigan, the mosquitoes seem to come out for an hour or so, then go away. That’s easy enough. We just go inside and put up a screen, if we can. The flies are more problematic. They seem to go especially for the ankles, so, often, wearing socks or wrapping a towel around my ankles fixes the problem.

But sometimes simply putting up a barrier doesn’t work. We have had success with Mosquito Coils; however, they are not necessarily the safest or greenest method. A safer alternative is burning Citronella Oil, which has always worked quite well for us. We either get it in a candle or burn it in Tiki torches.

What if that doesn’t work well enough? Or if you’re walking around, rather than staying in one place? How about some old-school bug spray? While DEET obviously doesn’t cause any problems immediately, it is not a chemical that you want to be constantly exposing yourself to. Here is some more information on that. As an alternative, we have had a great deal of success with citronella-based lotions. These do not work quite as well as DEET-based sprays–you might get a couple bites and you will have to reapply more often. I have a friend who has had a lot of success with this product as well.

So what about sunscreen? True, commercially produced sunscreen are not nearly as scary as bug sprays. However, if you’re trying to reduce your exposure to possibly toxic chemicals, you do need to read the label. Here is a description of some of the common ingredients in sunscreen. I disagree with that author in the end, though. Sunscreen obviously prevents sunburn, which is a know risk factor for skin cancer. And, even without the cancer risk, I do not know anyone who enjoys being sunburned. The solution is a mineral-based sunscreen. This brand is my favorite–it is inexpensive and easy to find in stores.

So, stay safe and stay comfortable, while also staying green this summer!