Captain Nowak has written extensively about his sailing experiences and, on another topic, has published a book titled "Forty Cars That Owned Me" which can be examined at www.fortycars.com.
On the more immediate subject of sailing, here are several articles for your reading pleasure. Let's begin with the most recent, "The Summer of 94 Daysails," a timely article that was published in the March 2009 issue of Sailing Magazine.
The Summer of 94 Daysails
As I walked about the Yacht Basin Marina in Holland, Michigan this season, I noticed that there were just a few sailboats that actually got out on the weekend and even fewer that made it to some of the Wednesday night races.
Most of the boats, particularly the larger cruising boats, sat there week after week, waiting patiently for their owners to rescue them from terminal boredom. It kind of reminded me of horses I have seen in stables that never got exercised. I felt bad for the horses and for the boats, not to mention the owners who have invested a sizable amount of time and money in them.
On the other hand, there were a few fortunate guys like me who did get out on Lake Michigan a lot, probably more than we deserved. I kept a ship’s log with the details of each trip: miles traveled, highest observed wind, highest speed reached, specific hours of the day out on the water and any other noteworthy happening.
At season’s end I was reviewing miles traveled and found it was 1120 nautical miles, which is in line with the miles traveled in each of the previous two years. Those miles were accumulated in part on twenty Wednesday night races and in the Anchorage Cup that runs from Grand Haven to Holland, a distance of about 20 miles. Most of the Wednesday night races put about 15 miles on the boat, accounting for about 300 of the 1100 miles. So where did the other 800 miles come from?
Day sailing, friend. Day sailing. I’m of the opinion that the essence of the pure sailing experience is that two to four hour day sail that takes place in the early afternoon for we retirees or just after work for the gainfully employed. You slip your lines, in my case usually alone, or with a few friends and you’re away. You can hoist sails 100 yards away from your berth or wait until you’re out on Lake Michigan but in either case you’re away and moving on the water.
Here in Holland we have a choice of lakes, so I can sail on Lake Macatawa, a six-mile long lake that connects to the big lake, or I can get out to Lake Michigan and enjoy all that it offers. Often the smaller lake has better wind, particularly late in the day.
Imagine being out on the big lake in a pretty day sailor, winds out of the southwest at about ten to twelve knots, with just the beginning of whitecaps here and there. The English liked to describe those first whitecaps as “seeing a few sheep in the meadow.” You’re close hauled, hearing the thup, thup of waves against the sides and notice that your boat speed is about half the apparent wind, confirming your opinion that the sail trim is pretty good at the moment.
Of all the places on the planet you could be, this is one of the best. No, this is the best. I have often wished that anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to be sailing were on board right then. The experience is just too sweet. You’re drinking from the golden cup of day sailing and you can never get enough. Never enough.
So, how many times would you think I could do that in a summer’s season? Ninety-four times.
You went sailing ninety-four times in one season? Eleven hundred miles of sailing from mid-April through mid-October, mostly day sailing? Isn’t that overdoing it a bit? I plead guilty, your honor, guilty as charged.
On the other hand, the actuarial tables don’t offer much comfort once you reach retirement age. If you live twenty years past your last day at work, you’ve only got 7300 days to go. Take about half of those away because of the cold weather seasons and the frailties of old age, and you might have 3650 days or ten years of sailing left, if you’re lucky. I’m going to try and do more next season because the more I think about it, I’m probably not over doing it at all.
When I was thinking about ordering this boat back in late 2005, the better half objected to my selling my four year old Colgate 26 in favor of the new boat. She called an old friend, Alan Ware, hoping to get his support to talk me out of the new Alerion. He thought about it for a few minutes, then said, “Nancy, we are dead a long time. Let him have his boat.”
Sailors, here’s my New Years resolution for you. Say after me, “In 2009, I resolve to sail my boat at least fifty times.” Try to over do it.
To View the Article as Published on Sailing Magazine's Website please see: http://www.sailingmagazine.net/news/features/671-the-summer-of-94-daysails
Here's another tale, set in Marblehead, Massachusetts. This took place at the NOOD Regatta back about 2002 on a Colgate 26, racing in a one design series. NOOD stands for National Offshore One Design.
There he was, looking prosperous, standing on the wharf at the Boston Yacht Club. He had asked me to come out to the Marblehead races to crew on his boat, a new Colgate 26, purchased just a week before. With tousled hair and an infectious grin, he reminded me of John Kennedy. We hailed a motor launch to take us across the bay to the regatta headquarters at the Eastern Yacht Club.
The new owner had persuaded the sales lady from the Long Island marina where he bought the boat to come up to Marblehead to show him how to race it, and she decided to bring one of her guys along to help. I was recruited through a mutual friend to fill out the crew. I raced a Colgate 26 back in Michigan with some success and was willing to spend a few bucks to see what it was like to race against other Colgates out on the Atlantic.
We took the new boat out for a practice sail and sorted out who would do what during the races. The lady was kind of cute, probably in her early thirties. I must have set off her lecher detector because she mentioned that her boyfriend would be arriving later.
Three races were to be held on Friday, three on Saturday, and at least one on Sunday. There were only four Colgates in our fleet, while some of the larger fleets had as many as twenty-five sailboats.
On Friday we placed third, third, and fourth. One of those thirds missed out being a second place by less than half of a boat length. It was a heartbreaker, as we were overtaken right at the finish line.
That night we returned to the Eastern Yacht Club for dinner. I met a crewman from another Colgate that had taken three first places on the first day, and he was only too happy to tell me how well they were doing, and what we were doing wrong. He concluded with, “After we rounded the windward mark and headed for the finish for our first win, you guys were still at least a hundred yards from the mark and you tacked twice between there and the turn. How many times did you tack on the first leg?”
“I can’t say for certain but I guess it was eight or ten times.”
“That’s what I thought. We only tacked four times. Every one of your tacks cost you at least a boat length.”
“Another thing,” he continued, “Your boat is heeled way over. That’s slow. Put your traveler down, get more weight on the rail, so the heel is no more than 12 to 15 degrees.” I didn’t believe they tacked only four times, but he was right about our excessive heeling.
Saturday’s results were no better, and actually worse - three fourth place finishes. After we got back, I ran into the guy from the previous night, whose team had taken three more firsts, and he rubbed some salt in the wounds.
“I don’t think you were listening last night. I watched you guys today, and you’re worse than yesterday.”
“I’m not running the show,” I countered.
“Doesn’t look to me like anyone is. Let me give you a little more unasked-for advice. Your sails are over-trimmed. Bear off; build speed, and then trim. You’ll never beat us but you shouldn’t be finishing last either. And you’re still tacking too often.”
Later that evening I had dinner with the owner and shared that intelligence with him. He had sailed on cruising boats for at least ten years but had never raced. He was tired, disappointed, and might have been having second thoughts about this racing deal. His only comment was, “I sure don’t like getting beat this badly.”
On Sunday morning he brought a magnum of rather expensive champagne on board, saying it was for our victory celebration. We should think positive, but this was clearly the triumph of hope over experience.
A good start in a sailboat race is a combination of tactics, luck and precision timing. You want clear air, meaning no one is to windward, or upwind, from you, blocking your wind. You want room to leeward, or downwind, to be able to bear off for speed and to move parallel to the starting line in case you’re early. You want to be on starboard tack to have the right of way over boats on port tack, and at the favored end of the line, if there is a favored one. So does everyone else.
The other three boats were trying to put each other at a disadvantage and ignoring us. We were off at the far end of the starting line. We were in clear air, and we were making good speed. I was sure we were going to be over the line early. It was going to be close. We sailed parallel to the starting line, almost on top of it. I looked at my stopwatch, counting loudly, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. Go! Head up! Trim!”
We had made a great start, crossing the starting line at top speed, just a half second after the starter’s gun. We had a lead of about four boat lengths, almost unheard of in sailboat racing starts. Our competitors quickly recovered, however. All three were closing fast.
I looked over at the owner. His face was flushed. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. Suddenly, he exploded in anger. “Damn it, I’m tired of the way this boat is being handled. We’re going to do this my way. I want the jib sheet eased two inches, the traveler all the way down, the main sheet trimmed about four inches, the boat kept at 15 degrees of heel, and do not, I repeat, do not tack unless I give the OK.”
Hey, what happened to our soft-spoken, gracious host? He must have been listening to my purloined advice after all, and decided to assume the roles of Master and Commander.
We gained a little speed and kept our lead of about two boat lengths over the closest boat, the undefeated boat. We were tempted to tack when the wind shifted a bit to the right but footed off instead, trading greater distance for speed. Resisting the temptation to tack every time the wind shifted a little was paying off. We still had to tack three or four times, and after each tack we footed off with eased sails, building speed, and then we trimmed hard and pointed higher, keeping the speed up. I wondered what my buddy on the other boat was thinking.
We beat them to the windward mark, but not by much. Now everything depended on how quickly we got the big spinnaker up and how we managed the jibes, the downwind turns, on the way back.
The spinnaker and its pole are controlled by five lines: the halyard to hoist and lower it, a sheet and a guy to trim and ease it, and a downhaul and topping lift to keep the pole horizontal. Lots of things can go wrong launching it or dousing it, and often do. And during a jibe, the spinnaker is rotated from one side of the boat to the other and everything except the halyard is unhooked or adjusted and then reattached, often under daunting conditions.
We came through with a great spinnaker launch that just snapped into place, with the big multicolored kite filling immediately. The boat nearest to us seemed to be gaining though, as they made no mistakes with their spinnaker. They were now just a boat length or two back, sitting right behind us, taking our clear air away, and slowing us down. We could hear their bow wave.
We needed to change the direction of our boat somewhat to clear our air so the spinnaker and its pole had to be moved to the other side. The wind was increasing to over twenty knots so we only wanted to do this once. The other boat was nearly along side. Our new Master gave the order to jibe. The other boat would jibe as well but if we were quick enough, we might get away and clear our air.
Our jibe caught them by surprise and we got some breathing room. The boat speed increased to 9 or 10 knots, almost surfing. We could still hear the bow wave of the boat behind us, as they were flying too.
We were starting to hope, grins beginning to show.
We remained ahead, by just a little, with a quarter mile to go. If we didn’t hit a lobster pot, which were floating everywhere, we could win this race. As we crossed the finish line, the committee boat’s big cannon boomed, declaring our victory.
The Ghost Ships Will Have To Wait
I didn’t think we would make it. Nor did my crew Curt VanDuren.
Neither of us said as much as there wasn’t much point in stating the obvious.
Here we were, in pitch-black darkness, out in the center of Lake Michigan, in the middle of a raging gale, using up the last of our rapidly diminishing physical strength and mental powers trying to keep the boat upright and afloat.
How and why we placed ourselves in such precarious circumstances is something Curt and I will talk about and think about for a long time.
A little background, if you please----
I hadn’t crossed the big lake before and hoped to do so with Curt sometime this season. When Rod Leonard of Bayshore Yacht Club in Holland, MI suggested we participate in this year's Clipper Cup, a daytime race from Muskegon, MI to Port Washington, WI, we decided this was our chance to cross in the company of other sailboats, do some racing with our Alerion Express 28, and perhaps do well. We had been racing the boat in the Bayshore Yacht Club Wednesday Races and were on a bit of a roll having finished first and second in our Jib & Main fleet over the last two weeks of Wednesday Night racing.
I brought the boat up to Muskegon on Thursday, August 9 and parked it overnight at the Harbour Towne Yacht Club, race headquarters. Curt arrived early Friday morning having been driven up by there by his wife Sue who wished us well and headed back to Holland to go to work.
The Jib and Main fleet started at 9:15 AM with light air out of the northeast. We moved up through the fleet and found ourselves in second place, closing in on the Open Class boats that had started 10 minutes ahead of us. Our AE 28, Nancy Anne, was moving smartly and getting admiring glances and hollered compliments on the boat’s good looks.
The rhumb line between Muskegon and Port Washington is a few degrees north of due west so we were all hoping for a consistent wind out of the north or south to carry us across the 70 miles to the other side. The wind switched around to the southwest early on and we, along with all the spinnaker boats that started behind us, were on port tack heading northwest above the rhumb line, guessing that eventually the wind would clock around to west and we would have to sail south again and tack our way back and forth across the rhumb line. What we didn’t count on were the mid lake lulls that cost us hours of little or no forward motion. There was a 24 hour time limit to the race but that certainly seemed like ample time to cover 70 miles, adverse winds or not.
One of the things you notice out in the middle of the lake is a special smell, different from anywhere else, except way up in the mountains. It is a sweet, clean smell that you can almost taste. You also notice that it’s a long way down, seeing depths in excess of 400 feet on the depth display.
By about 9 PM on Friday, a good number of the skippers involved began to conclude that with the extended periods of no wind, they weren’t going to make it in on time, and the calls of abandonment to the Clipper Cup race committee were starting to come in. In retrospect, these boats were making the right call. Only 24 of the 47 starters did make it over to Port Washington in the 24 hour period allowed. We were making slow steady progress so we forged on, never really discussing abandonment, particularly after we were more than halfway over. The shooting stars were almost worth the price of admission.
We sailed on, fatigue beginning to put in an appearance. Curt had been digging out footings for a new porch at his home until 10:30 PM the prior night and needed to get some sleep. I was getting kind of pooped out myself so we began to take turns of short naps. The naps kept getting shorter as it took both of us to constantly work the sails and keep the boat moving in very light air.
Around midnight we sighted the lights of Port Washington. As many sailors have found out, seeing the lights at your destination is a good and bad thing. The good is that you’re in the right neighborhood and the bad is that you’re still a long way away.
By 3 AM we were considerably closer, perhaps 6 miles out, yet becalmed again for another hour. The clock was running, of course, but we still had hope of covering the last six miles in the remaining six hours as the wind freshened slightly. By 6 AM, we were just 2 miles out and the wind disappeared. When the wind returned around 8:30, we made our final push, crossing the finish line at 9:46 AM, 24 hours and 21 minutes after our 9:15 start the prior day. We were late but held out the hope that 24 hours plus our PHRF rating of 168 would buy us enough time. The scoring office said that wasn’t the case and while they admired our perseverance, we were late and that was that.
We had exhausted our battery during the night so we had to call the marina office to get a rescue boat to come and take us to an open dock. The marina lent us a battery-charging machine to restart the engine, both at no charge. Rod had said it was a hospitable crowd in Port Washington. He was right.
By the time we got the motor running, and ourselves cleaned up it was time for the awards ceremony and raffle. I won a $25 gift certificate from Ghezzi’s Market in Muskegon so that was nice.
I checked on the weather at the marina office and the display said there were thunderstorms predicted for the immediate area. There was hardly a cloud in the sky so we figured we would be long gone before they arrived. I’m an “old lady” about the weather, usually checking the Weather Channel’s “Local On The Eights” radar several times before I leave Holland for a day sail. If the wind is above 20 knots, I’ll pass. Most of the time I’m single handing the boat on Lake Macatawa or Lake Michigan and 1800 miles of day sailing and Wednesday night racing since I got the boat new in 2006 attest to the fact that I love this boat.
Curt is a conservative sailor too, with his 16-foot day sailor, usually checking with three different weather sources before putting the boat in the water. Our error was sailing to a schedule and that is always a chancy deal. On the other hand, the other Michigan boats looked at the same weather data and almost all were preparing to leave, providing some company part of the way back.
We had planned on getting some sleep Saturday morning, presuming our arrival would have been sometime late Friday or early Saturday. When we arrived midmorning Saturday and worked on getting our battery restored, the time for sleeping had passed. The new plan was to leave Port Washington at 4 PM, alternating watches every hour, getting our sleep in small amounts.
We left about 4:15, hoisted the sails, and motor sailed south east on a warm beautiful day, exhausted but happy to be heading home.
About 7 PM we started to see the storm clouds gathering in the west. They also began to appear to the north, and then suddenly in front of us. The sails came down, rain suits put on, and the hatch was closed. The rain and wind arrived along with lightning, lots of lightning close by.
As the night wore on the rain never let up, with winds building to 20-25 knots. Our pretty Alerion Express 28 has a freeboard of about two feet so we were more than a little worried about wave height. These big waves would roll up to the boat, often quite a bit higher than our cockpit coaming, and the boat would be lifted up slightly before rolling hard to leeward and then violently back to windward. Around 4 AM, the winds increased to 30-40 knots. We couldn’t see the waves very well in the darkness, which probably was a good thing as we weren’t seeing the “cliffs we were close to driving over.” We might have been even more frightened than we were. Curt saw a really big one coming in the light of the stern light, probably 10 feet higher than the boat that broke over the covered rear deck. That covering probably kept a great deal of water from flooding our cockpit. From then on, Curt would call the waves out, “My quarter, your quarter, astern,” trying to make him self heard above the wind.
We were trying to keep the boat heading toward Holland, a bearing of 110-120 degrees. Every so often we could see big breaking waves in the glow from the steaming light or hear the roar of the big ones coming at us. Our defense was turn up 15-20 degrees into the wave to keep from getting rolled. This went on for most of the night, until it got worse.
The wind began to build above 40 knots and there were three separate 15-minute episodes of extremely high winds. I checked the instruments later in the night for maximum wind speed observed and it said 78 knots. I don’t know how high the wind actually got as instruments can be affected by the extreme conditions. During the first episode of very high winds, with the waves threatening to roll us, we decided that our only hope from getting rolled or knocked off the boat was to keep the boat headed dead down wind, relying on the wind instrument to tell us the direction of the true wind. Later on, Curt said he would never forget the sound of the wind blowing through the rigging. Even with the engine speed down to 1400 rpms, we were still moving at 6-7 knots.
I stared at that wind gauge for 15 minutes straight, seeing double, sometimes seeing nothing as my sight was failing, the consequence of being up for almost 48 hours with a just few minutes of sleep here and there. The wind dropped back to 25 knots and we thought we were in the clear but then it started up again, somewhere above 40 knots. One of us noticed a lake freighter approaching from our right, seemingly on a collision course with us. I told Curt we had to go in the direction where the wind was sending us and had few options to avoid a collision. The big boat seemed to slow down, take our stern, and turn slowly away to the south.
We kept checking our six-gallon diesel fuel tank as we sure didn’t want to run out and lose the engine at a critical moment. It was full when we left Muskegon, burning very little getting to the starting line the day before. We had another full six-gallon portable tank on board but I can’t imagine how we would transfer fuel through a funnel on that rolling deck.
The wind let up a bit and then returned stronger than ever. We had survived the first two blows but had very little left in our bank of survival skills. Now the wind was getting much stronger and probably was the wind that registered 78 knots. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
I started to see things that weren’t there, hallucinating really. I began to see masts of sailing ships but there were no boats at the bottom of the masts. These seemed like rigs of ghost ships that had risen from the bottom to see if we going to join them. The significance of no boats below the masts was not lost on me.
My brain was fried, reflexes shot, just barely hanging on mentally and physically. One mistake on the tiller and we would be rolled or worse. I couldn’t keep it up much longer. I had nothing left. Finally the wind dropped to around 20-25 knots and we settled into a routine of 10-minute shifts as anything longer than that had us seeing double or not seeing anything.
The lightning was still close by but we couldn’t hear the thunder because the wind was so strong. I told Curt that wherever the wind took us we were going, even if it was back to Port Washington. I asked him if he knew any good prayers and he said he was saying every one he knew. He also sang, to himself, every Christian hymn he could remember. I was saying prayers too. We were both frightened, seriously afraid for our lives. Please, God, give us another sunrise.
We were always worried about the rogue waves, the super tall bank of water that would knock us down and out of the boat. We had lines right in front of us to grab if the roll angle increased much over 45 degrees. Rod Leonard told me later on that one of those rogues struck his Hunter Legend 45 during the night and the whole boat shuddered. He thought of us and what one of those rogue waves would do to our little craft.
We made it back to Holland about 11 AM Sunday, absolutely nackered, as the English would say. But we made it. Rod Leonard was there at our berth to greet us, greatly relieved that we were still alive.
The Alerion Express 28 took the blows, the Yanmar diesel ran for 19 hours on one six gallon tank of fuel and didn’t miss a beat. My crew, Curt VanDuren, never wavered. He was the ideal crew: strong, smart, resourceful, and brave.
Thank You, Lord. The ghost ships will have to wait.