Saturday, May 30, 2015

Oh Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, Aye?


August 8, 2009
Aside from a visit to historic Quebec City in 2001, my next most memorable trip to Canada occurred in 2009.  Our SweetWater and a crew of six raced the Trans-Superior Race, Trans for short.  The Trans is a sailboat race that occurs every odd numbered year.  The race is a 400 mile course, give or take a hundred miles, from Sault (pro. "Soo") Ste. Marie, Ontario in Canada to Duluth, Minnesota.
L to R front: Pat Collins, Tambrey Collins, Amy Brooks.  L to R back:  Carl Richards, Ardys Richards and Ben Fornear
The actual course distance depends upon the direction of the wind, the number of times the boat is required to tack, and the skill of the crew in strategizing the optimal course headings for the duration of the race.  Like the DYC races we regularly participated in, this race had several "classes" of participants.  
SweetWater was in the Jib & Main (J&M) class, of course, but there were a few classes that were unique to this race, such as the single-hand racers, the double-handers, the really large fast race boats, and other racing boats whose relative speed was somewhere between the really fast racing boats and SweetWater.  By 2009, I had come to have quite warm feelings toward Canada and Canadians in general, in spite of my inability to "tell" them apart from U. S. citizens unless I heard them speak.   If I heard words like "house" or "shout" or "about" spoken, this was nearly a guaranteed method of identifying a Canadian.  The "ow" sound is charmingly distinctive to Canadian vernacular. Perhaps my warm feelings toward Canada were aided in part by a few hundred episodes of "The Red Green Show" or perhaps by getting to know several of my scientist husband's Canadian counterparts....whatever the explanation, Canada had become, for me, a pleasant and interesting part of the North American continent during those intervening years.  


The Trans race was preceded by a fabulous two week long, leisurely sailing vacation while delivering the boat to the starting line.   We spent a night or two in various Lake Superior towns---  Ontonagon, MI where we ran aground at the marina entrance and were then graciously invited to raft off of a small local sailboat for the night; Houghton, MI which was reached by following a manmade channel that separates the Keweenaw Peninsula from the rest of the Upper Peninsula (the U.P.).  During the race, we would be sailing around the Keweenaw but this channel provided us a significant shortcut for the delivery of the boat.  We visited Marquette, MI where we took the dinghy out to see a sunken ship close to shore.  There have been some 350 shipwrecks on Lake Superior, most on the rocks, but some ships were lost to impressive storms which come with what are known as "the gales of November."  Beyond Marquette, we "oohed and ahhed" over the beautiful cliffs of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  We spent a lovely two days in Grand Marais, MI which has a historic museum lighthouse and for some unknown reason, also has a small house that resembles a giant pickle barrel.  By the time we reached Whitefish Bay we were joined by other boats from Duluth also headed for the Soo for the start of the Trans-Superior.  All of the boats gathered up together behind a protective breakwater which was located a short two mile walk from the Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Shipwreck Museum.   We all paid a visit to that museum where we saw the rescued bell from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which leads one to a somber reflection upon the 29 lives lost to the deep.  Surely no one can travel upon the cold and deep Lake Superior without an awareness of her awesome power. 


On our return 2 mile walk back to the boats, many of us picked wild blueberries which lined the narrow little road its' entire length.

Early the next morning, one of the women from another race boat prepared breakfast for everyone--crepes filled with wild blueberries.  I'd never tasted any better breakfast!  From this overnight stop, it was a relatively short sail to Sault Ste. Marie.   By this time, there was clearly heightened enthusiasm and gaiety on all the sailboats headed toward the Soo.  When a number of our boats had arrived at the entrance to the St. Mary's River, we gathered together and rafted up in order to enter the Canadian lock so that we could move through as one unit.   When the great iron doors of the lock closed behind us, we left Lake Superior and rode the falling water level to the St. Mary's River 21 feet below.  

We were welcomed at the Robert Bondar Marina in Sault Ste. Marie, along with many other boats planning to race the Trans.   Each of the American boats called in to Canadian Customs and then we had a day of rest in Canadian waters before the start of the Trans.  The excitement rolling off the race boats was palpable.  I admittedly gawked at some of the tanned sailors who looked so at home in their worn sailing garb that I could vividly imagine their collective histories of races they had done and won,  throughout the Great Lakes and on the oceans.  I admired one of the strong young women sailors who quite handily went up the mast of her boat to perform some required task.  While aloft, she enjoyed the sights and reported her observations to us below.  All the race boats required provisioning for the return race to Duluth.  A few vehicles had driven to the Soo from Duluth in order to deliver supplies as well as additional crew that could not afford the time off from work to sail the boat to the start line.  One of the pickup trucks was driven by the patriarch of a well-known sailing family in Duluth and he happily brought my husband and I to a major grocery store so that we could purchase our provisions for SweetWater. There was much visiting between the boats into the evening, frequently involving sharing of libations and good hearted wishes for a good race the next day.  


Race day dawned cool and gray.  Foul weather gear was in order, obviously.  (For non-sailor readers:  
Foul weather gear "modeled" by Pat and Tambrey Collins
"Foul Weather Gear" - Very hardy jacket and full-length bibs that are waterproof, lined for warmth and with a neon hood that is designed to prevent any rain from running down one's torso.  They are quite cleverly designed apparel.....multiple huge pockets that stay shut with velcro, fleece lined hand warmer pockets in front, closures that snug up around the face and wrists, legs that fit over the tops of rain boots.  The reflective tape is to make it easier for fellow crew to see you in the night with their headlamps and god forbid, to find you in the water if you were so unfortunate as to go overboard. I have often wondered where this outfit was when I was growing up on the farm with piles of snow to wade through on my way to the barn.)  
The return trip through the Canadian lock to reach Lake Superior was memorable.  Approximately 20 sailboats rafted together to begin the upward trip to the higher level of the Lake between the high concrete walls.  The sound of some ~100 sailors exuberantly singing "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor" while standing on boat decks will remain in my head until I die. The song words echoed and bounced off those concrete walls. Never more than at that moment, did I feel like a real sailboat racer.  Enthusiasm was obviously infectious, regardless of the fine mist falling.  

Entering onto the big Lake was a different sort of excitement.  She had become riled up during the night.  The waves were pushing east toward the Soo, and the boat happily galloped through the waves toward the start.  The mist turned to a drizzle and the wind which had been imperceptible in the lock was now a good blow.  The sails were raised and  SweetWater launched off at the start along with the other racers.  Now, I have to come clean on this next point.  We had adopted a system of assigning our 6 crew members to be either "on" or "off watch" and we had an "in-between" category in which you might be called up to help if there was some real need.  We had mapped out this plan which we intended to follow throughout the course of the race which was to ensure that no one person was required to stay awake for extended periods during the night.  At the start of the race, my designation was "Off watch".   Given that the weather was frankly, unpleasant, and given that I had not been alone, truly alone, since we left Duluth two weeks before, I rather relished the notion of going below and acting out my "Off watch" status.  After the race start, I decided to lie down in our V-berth bunk and pretend to sleep, AKA enjoy time alone.  (I would not have wanted to race with anyone but these crew members but I was in dire need of alone time).  Well, anyone who has slept in a V-berth under vigorous sail can probably tell you what happened next.  Let me throw out some words that may paint an apt image for the reader.   Let's try pinball?  A dryer? Racquetball?  Tilt-a-Whirl?  You get the picture.  Well, I held out for a few minutes--I REALLY wanted some alone time, as I said.  I finally gave some thought to how the rest of the crew was up on deck weathering the blowing rain and also came to the realization that if they were so inclined to think about it, they would know that I was being tossed around like pizza dough and would eventually have to question my sanity--boat owner or not.  So........ I sighed and finally went up on deck.  


Fog had settled on Lake Superior.  
Depending upon how quickly a boat elected to tack after the start, a boat's trajectory may diverge from another's fairly quickly.   As long as we were within 40 miles of another sailboat in this race, we could hear radio transmissions and communicate with other boats.  Eventually, we were out of range and not able to radio other boats.  As described in a previous post, "The Best Brie," SweetWater is not known for being fast, especially when compared to the many true race boats in the Trans.  It was not long before SweetWater was essentially alone on the lake in the fog.  The race course was entirely within the shipping lanes used by the great thousand foot freighters and ocean going vessels that traverse Lake Superior from the Soo to Duluth. One of our safety procedures on the lake was to have a crew member check the radar every 15 minutes and document what, if anything, was observed within the 12 mile radius we had selected.   No vessels were ever seen on radar which was of great comfort to us for the first 72 hours of this race, all of which was sailed, more or less, within a little capsule of fog.   The steady wind did not last long for SweetWater and we plodded along in the fog.  
We fell into a comfortable rhythymn between the six of us....taking turns on watch as planned.  I was the cook (since I was the only one who knew where the food was hidden) and I really enjoyed preparing meals for the crew.   We ate fairly well, actually.  Other than one evening with increased winds during which seasickness struck a couple of the crew, the first 72 hours were fairly uneventful.  

We continued our practice of checking the radar every 15 minutes.  On the third day, with just a sliver of sun struggling to pierce through the blanket of fog above us, I thought I heard an engine.  Now, I cannot emphasize how quiet it is to be on the water, under sail, with little or no wind.  The occasional gull that we came across having a rest on the relatively flat water did not "talk."  No other squawking birds came out that far onto the Lake.  It was a rather beautiful cocoon of silence.  I commented, "I hear an engine over there," pointing over the forward port side.  A crew hopped down below to check the radar.  "Nope, nothing on radar."  Well, that's good, but then what is that sound?  Within another minute everyone on board was hearing the deep drone of an engine approaching.  
Hearing but NOT seeing a ship
"Sounds like a BIG engine....right over there."  We all strained to see something through the fog as the sound became louder.  My husband, the Captain placed a call on Channel 16.  "This is sailing vessel SweetWater under sail on a heading of 240 degrees.  We are sailing at less than 2 knots at approximately 40 miles northwest of the Keweenaw Peninsula.   Calling anyone in this vicinity."  "Yes, Captain, this is the freighter, _________, we've got you on radar.  Maintain your course.  We will pass you on your port."  We gaped at one another.  My husband engaged in brief conversation with the voice.  "We are not seeing you on our radar. What is your location?"  Absolutely nothing on our radar.  Peering intently in the direction of the now loud, rumbling engine.  "Ah, Cap'n, we are about 150 yards off your port heading east.  We've seen you for quite some time."  Our Cap'n -  "Thank you, SweetWater out."  And then, through a narrow

gray slit in the fog, we saw her--the thousand footer, no doubt, sliding past us close enough that I could have thrown a baseball to a catcher on it's deck!  We were alternately somber and then giddily relieved.  We had been sailing blind for 72 hours, blithely trusting that our radar was keeping us from becoming fodder under one of the mega freighters traveling on the lake.  At what point did the radar stop working? We'll never know.  For the remainder of the race, we posted crew to watch very carefully through the fog on all sides.  
Amy, Ardys, Tambrey, Pat and Carl, at the helm
Only 3 hours out from Duluth, the fog suddenly vanished.  The sun shown warmly.  The wind picked up for a marvelous sail toward the finish line.  We shed our foulies that we'd worn since the beginning and changed into matching SweetWater T-shirts, gifts that I had squirreled away to present as a surprise for the crew when it warmed up a bit during the race, and only now were they appropriate attire.  Ah, Lake Superior in August. 


Amy calling home to say we're close to the finish line.

SweetWater crossed the finish at 6.5 knots with smiles and self-congratulatory shouts.  As usual, we yelled, "We won!" to the tourists on the canal leading to the Aerial Lift Bridge.  We firmly held the belief that winning is a state of mind, of course.  In reality, we learned that we actually HAD won our class, as the other two J&M boats in our class had been obligated to drop out during the race.  Hey, we're never too proud to take a win by default.