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By Tom Pamperin - Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin - USA

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A Small Boat Cruising Primer for the Brave, Hardy, or Foolish

Day 18: Along Drummond Island’s southern shore (6 miles made good)

Light headwinds, one of Jagular’s many weaknesses. Rowing, one of mine (though I’ve gotten much better on this journey). Calorie deprivation setting in—haven’t had much interest in eating in the past two weeks, too busy sailing. After a couple of miles, I decide it’ll be worth it to hoist the sail and treat myself to a long afternoon of tacking. Houses are fairly common along this stretch of shore, it turns out. If I weren’t barred from camping ashore until clearing Customs, I’d have to be on the lookout for an isolated stretch to camp on. It might have ended up looking something like this:

When you’re cruising, every day is laundry day! The southern shore of Drummond Island looks a lot like this.

Today taught us:

1) It’s hard to tell which is more frustrating—rowing into a headwind, or beating into a headwind.

2) Sometimes, six miles is enough.

3) In fact, sometimes it’s about three or four miles too far.

4) Those last few days, the ones that we already discovered are the longest ones of the whole trip? They’re even longer than you might think.

Day 19: Final leg to Drummond Island Yacht Haven (22-ish miles made good)

This could be the last day; up early, hoist sail, and begin tacking once more into light southwesterly winds. The rain is gone, replaced by a general haze, a bit ominous because here out on the southern end of the island we’re on the edge of big water, Lake Huron opening up ahead of us, a vast expanse of water, big enough to make me nervous, as if Jagular and I are walking too close to the edge of a very tall cliff.

It’s a long day, and the wind dies just as it looks like we might make it around the corner on one last long tack. Still plenty of daylight left, so I take to the oars again and row past Espanore Island, through water so clear I can see the bouldery bottom thirty feet down. We’re almost there; I can see De Tour Passage light on the horizon, and a steady parade of huge freighters converging on the channel—the narrow passage between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Drummond Island is one of the busiest shipping lanes in all the Great Lakes. As we pull into Whitney Bay’s maze of islands in the early evening, the wind picks up—a headwind again—and we start tacking for De Tour Passage, just trying to make it around the corner.

De Tour Passage light off on the western horizon. I assumed this was a typical buoy-sized light—until an 800’ ore boat passed in front of it, and two-thirds of the light was still visible above the freighter’s towering superstructure.

Just as we’re nearing the turn up De Tour Passage, the wind turns fierce and gusty, pouring out of the southwest like a series of buffeting backhand blows. I’d like to reef, but I’ve already cut the corner too close and have to short-tack my way out of trouble—no time for much else for a few minutes. If Jagular didn’t have a 5” draft, we’d have smashed ourselves up rather thoroughly on the rocky fingers of Crab Island, the long shoal jutting southwestward from the spit. As it is, we scrape by unscathed. And now the wind is heading the right way, racing down the narrow passage, picking up speed and intensity, and we’ve got a straight shot up De Tour Passage. It’s already well into the evening, but we are MOVING! It’s terrifying, in fact, and I should stop to tie in a reef. We’re surfing down the waves on the edge of control, and I’m pumping the tiller back and forth to try and avoid broaching, beyond over canvassed.

But we’re so close! The hell with it, I think, I can swim to my car from here if I have to. Which isn’t even an exaggeration; De Tour Village is just off my port bow, in sight. I’m planning on making full use of the favorable winds, though—we’ll sail right past, clear customs at Drummond Island Yacht Haven, and tomorrow enjoy a leisurely five-mile sail back to the mainland and my waiting car.

After a brief round of circling back upwind to avoid getting smashed by the Drummond Island ferry, we continue on. This is the fastest we’ve sailed, almost a dead run (but not quite—I’ve learned something in these past few weeks) and surfing constantly, sliding across the waves like a car on ice, and I’m half expecting disaster with each new wave. So fast! So stupid…

A couple of big sloops have followed me into De Tour Passage, running downwind under jib alone. It takes me a while to realize that the gap between us is getting bigger, not smaller. We’re beating a couple of thirty-footers; the balance lug is a great downwind sail, and shows no tendency to jibe despite my terror-infused exhilaration.

As we round the corner into Potagannissing Bay, we’re in the lee of Drummond Island and on a broad reach now, utterly relaxing after a couple of hours on the edge; nearly sunset. I try and remember how late Customs is open. Ah, we’ll get there when we get there. They’ll have a phone with instructions on how to call in if we arrive after hours. And so we enjoy the last couple of hours of our voyage, a perfect sail across the bay.

And then the marina is in sight; we’re set up perfectly for an entrance under sail, cooking along as fast as we’ve ever moved. The last few weeks have given me the confidence to try something really stupid for our finale: we come screaming around the breakwater, do a rapid jibe at the harbor entrance, and scoot along between the docks, our boom inches away from the boats to our left, the hull nearly scraping paint off the boats docked to our right. It couldn’t be more perfect. We run straight down the narrow space between docks toward the boat ramp I’ve spotted on the fly. Fifteen yards out I uncleat the halyard, catch the sail and yard as it drops into the cockpit, and coast right up onto the concrete ramp, where I step ashore without even getting my shoes wet.

Ok, I wasn’t wearing my shoes…

Surely those nice Customs officers won’t mind if I camp ashore tonight; after all, I tried to call in like their sign asked me to…

What we learned today?

1) You can get away with some pretty stupid things; the sea is capricious, and occasionally amuses itself by letting fools go unpunished.

2) If you arrive at Drummond Island Yacht Haven at 9:30 p.m., you’ve missed Customs by half an hour.

3) However, there will be a courtesy phone with instructions about how to call in to clear Customs.

4) But the phone won’t work.

5) Neither will the cell phone you borrow from a friendly power boater.

6) But the friendly power boater will give you some cold beers and Laughing Cow mini-cheeses.

7) Which WILL work.
8) And besides, the Customs office will open at noon tomorrow. You can just pull your boat on the beach, set up your tent in a stealthy corner of the marina playground, and check in with them when they arrive.

9) Although, when you see them get out of their car in slate-gray Border Patrol uniforms and military haircuts, you’ll start to fear the worst.

10) Which they will be only too happy to provide.

11) They might take your passport and hold it for three hours, collecting your fingerprints, your address, your social security number, your cat’s vaccination records, your report cards from elementary school (and that “U” in conduct from second grade? that’s going to be big trouble, I’m afraid), and remind you every few minutes that they can take your boat and fine you $10,000, and throw you in prison for ten years.

12) They’ll probably use the word “contamination” several dozen times while they discuss the un-American and potentially terroristic implications of you failing to stay aboard your fourteen-foot boat instead of sleeping in your tent on the beach.

13) Eventually they’ll come down to “inspect” your boat, at which time they will realize why you didn’t stay aboard all night.

14) But rather than evoking empathy from them, this will only make them angrier.

15) But not as angry as you suspect they’d be if they caught someone—a scofflaw small boat cruiser, say—hitching a ride to the mainland early in the morning to avoid sailing there in 20-knot headwinds later in the day, returning on the ferry with his car and trailer, stopping at a restaurant for a leisurely and luxurious breakfast (a gyro omelet, let’s say), and getting back to the marina just in time to clear Customs at noon when the officers on duty arrive.

16) Not that I would do anything like that!

17) But somehow it’ll probably work itself out fine; you’ll probably get your boat on the trailer and all your gear (and yourself) safely and dryly stowed in the car just seconds before a huge thunderstorm begins to explode in bursts of hail and lightning and cold fat raindrops that smash against your windshield like splattering bugs, while you pop in a Jimmy Buffet CD and start to wonder where you’ll end up sailing next summer.

Jagular at the Drummond Island ramp. I’ve grown awfully fond of this little boat…

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