I’ve only ever known Lake Michigan around its shores. How its blue laps the seawalls of Milwaukee. How its waves roll onto the city beaches of Chicago. How Michigan’s sandy dunes slide into the water’s edges. Like a present known only by its wrapping.
The middle of the Lake — the unknown — unnerves me.
Fellow boaters have described the Great Lakes as wild and unpredictable. Michigan and Superior especially, because they’re so deep in respect to their width, making the water act like it does in a bathtub. The Lakes don’t have the vastness of oceans, so their waves can churn easily into chaos, with no rhythm, no predictability. It’s a phenomenon that can make the water appear calm on the west shore, while wind whips the middle, and 12-foot waves break on the east side.
A rather alarming map, especially for boaters:
So we check the weather, check the models, check the maps, check, check, check. Then I was reading forums about lake crossings, and someone wrote: “Sure, check NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), but don’t count on it. I’ve been in 6-foot waves while I’m listening to NOAA on the radio reporting flat to inches.”
I didn’t doubt our boat’s ability. She’s seaworthy, and her sister ships have circumnavigated plenty. But we’re still very green sailors, and I envisioned one mistake — like not reefing soon enough — would lead to another and another… Good, conservative judgement can lessen those mistakes, and so far in many of our experiences, Kirk’s instincts and proactive planning have kept us on the safe side of potentially dangerous situations.
What concerned me the most, however, I hadn’t considered until a couple hours into our 20-hour trip, when I was hurling over the side of the boat.
And then again, fifteen minutes later. And again a few hours after that. The third time sent water, a pulverized ginger chew and Dramamine tablet overboard. Too little, too late.
Lying on the cockpit seat in the foetal position with my eyes shut so they couldn’t see motion (I was way beyond the looking-at-the-horizon fix at this point), I felt scared. How could I be of any use if I was so incapacitated? Kirk hadn’t planned on sailing singlehanded.
When the conditions are the worst, when it matters most to have two able-bodied people taking care of the boat that is taking care of them, those are not the times I want to be down on the floor.
And I was so down. It was 4AM and Kirk hadn’t rested one minute. He’d been wrangling sails, plotting our course, hanging onto the boat at the helm as she flew up and down waves in the dark. We were both exhausted and had only been on the water for a few hours. After a full day of work, preparing the boat, and a crappy sleep the previous night, Kirk had been reluctant to leave at midnight. But we wanted to take the wind when we could get it, and it was forecasted to die the next afternoon. So we decided to go, which brings me to back to me, trying to relieve Kirk from the helm.
I did okay steering for about 5 miles, maybe a half hour. Then I had to sit down. I watched the horizon bob below the lifelines, then rise high above, then below, up, down, up down…
Suddenly, the inevitable. Really? I thought, when my mouth started salivating — that unmistakable precursor to hacking up your most recently enjoyed meal. Mine was coconut rice and beans. Ugh.
Immediately after pulling my head through the life lines and back into the cockpit, I felt like a new person. For about three minutes. Then it started coming back. I tried to psych myself up. Come on. You can do this. Be proactive.
I took the helm back from Kirk. This time, even with a renewed sense of being, steering the boat — being responsible for something other than monitoring my own nausea — didn’t work. Again, over the side.
“Are you okay?” Kirk asked. His eyes betrayed extreme concern.
“Don’t worry, love, I’m fine.” And I was, in that moment, feeling better again. But talking — even thinking about talking — aggravated the nausea, which left me wondering if he was wondering the same thing: Is this what sailing is going to be for us? Me, a sick, helpless pile on the floor?
Magically, around noon, after six hours of mostly horizontal existence, I sat up. Pretzels sounded good. I was quite hungry after losing my last meal to the fishes. I started with two pretzels and three grapes, eating them over a period of ten minutes. So far, so good. I ate a bit more. Then an hour later I dug out grape tomatoes, hummus, and even a stick of turkey jerky from the fridge. I’d turned a corner.
A few hours later, I went below and started tidying up. Tidying up! Below! Moving around the cabin, stowing things, looking down, not looking at the horizon… What was this magic!
The lake. It was calm. So much for gaining sea legs.
Then, around 6PM, we saw land: Michigan’s west coast dotted with sand dunes. After nearly 100 miles, we would dock in the quaint boating paradise of Pentwater. Kirk and I sat on the foredeck after readying the dock lines, watching the channel entrance get closer.
“I don’t want you to feel sick all the time,” Kirk said.
“I don’t want to be helpless all the time,” I said.
“You sure you want to do this?”
Sail? I can’t not. There’s no way a little seasickness is going to terminate a decade-long dream that was just getting its toes wet.
We motored into the channel. People walked along the sea wall, taking photos of the sun setting into the lake. Boats hummed slowly to and fro. The channel opened up into an inland lake, houses tucked into the pines, boats tied to their docks. Sailboats awaiting their next jaunt on the Big Lake bobbed on their moorings. The waterside patio of the yacht club buzzed with people. Flags waved gently in the breeze against a purple dusky sky.
Slip #41 at the Pentwater Municipal Marina awaited our arrival. Kirk tucked our boat in and we tied her off. We cheersed our first crossing with a glass of Tullamore Dew.
That night I researched seasickness remedies. I’d get the wristband thingy, the goggles, the earplug, all the ginger-flavored edibles available. I’d try anything, everything.
Even then, I couldn’t imagine giving this up. We’re just getting started.*