Priorities and Niagara

Chasing Tall Ships

This past summer the Tall Ships Challenge, an organized regatta of tall ships from around the world, came to the Great Lakes. Some friends and I were fortunate to tour many of the ships docked at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Just the static tours at Navy Pier was worth a trip, but I really wanted a chance to see them under sail.

One of the races of the Challenge was from Chicago north to Algoma, WI.  A southeast wind in the forecast made it likely much of the fleet would pass near our home port of Milwaukee on a nice broad reach. With a start time of noon in Chicago and very light air the first night, I figured some of the fleet would pass Milwaukee in the daylight hours of the second day of the race.

The chase is on

Getting out of bed at home on the second day of the race, I tracked the fleet on Some of the faster boats, or those which may have started earlier, had already passed Milwaukee in the night. Many were doing around 3 or 4 knots, and though I can motorsail a faster 7 knots, it would have taken all day just to catch up to them.

i-usually-try-to-avoid-ships-rather-than-get-closer-1However, the giant, 198 foot long Brig Niagara from Erie was still lurking 20 miles southeast of Milwaukee doing 3-4 knots north. A friend in a highrise apartment on the south side of town could see the Niagara’s silhouette far on the horizon. If I motorsailed 7.5 knots east northeast and left right away I could catch her. Better yet, with the light winds and the fact this was actually a sailing race, she would have ALL her sails up in a most photogenic configuration.

I grabbed Kristin’s camera, some snacks, and headed down to the boat.

The Niagara

Tall Ship Niagra visible over the horizon
Niagara over the horizon

My first photo was taken just as I left the Milwaukee breakwall, with the Niagara still about 17-18 miles away. Notice how only her rig is visible over the horizon… the hull is over the horizon line.

Figuring out the intercept was a little challenging, especially since I usually try to avoid ships rather than get closer. Since Priorities wasn’t racing, I decided to motorsail in case the winds increased and the Niagara accelerated away too early.

Priorities has AIS, so I’m able to display other AIS equipped vessels positions on my chartplotter, along with their track, speed, and Closest Point of Approach (CPA) in real time.

Going roughly twice as fast as the Niagara meant I needed to steer Priorities such that I kept the Niagara around 35-40 degrees to starboard of my bow. This brought the CPA to nearly zero, confirming my geometry. Steering back a little to port (farther north), meant I’d pass a little in front of her.

Brig Niagara under full sail
Crossing just ahead of the Niagara.

After an hour and a half of motorsailing, I was comfortably in front of her with about a mile between us. I shut the motor off, and continued under full sail. Ten knots of wind, flat water, and clear skies make for a beautiful day!

Crossing her bow with plenty of room, I tightened up and then tacked to port while staying windward of her. I took the third photo as we passed offshore, with Milwaukee about 18 miles in the distance.

Niagara passing Milwaukee.

I felt fortunate the angle of the sun relative to the sails was the way it was for the fourth photo. Even her dinghy (or is it a “launch” on this size of ship?) had her sails up in the light air. I wonder if that was race legal…



Around then I noticed a target somewhat to windward on my radar with no AIS target associated with it. Based on the size of the signature, I figured it was another Tall Ship, so I set up to intercept her as well.


It was the Brigantine Playfair from Toronto, with a cool sailplan.  I’ll have to figure out what the sail poled out to starboard is called. In the next photo, you can see the Niagara in the distance.

Tallship Playfair undersail
Playfair with Niagara far ahead.

El Galeon Andalucia

El Galleon Andelucia, from Seville, Spain
El Galeon Andalucia, from Seville, Spain. Note the crew member climbing the rig.

Many miles behind was the 164 foot El Galeon Andalucia, from Seville, Spain. Not racing, she still participated in the shoreside tours, and was one of the more interesting ships we had toured two days before in Chicago. I was able to get some cool, rare photos of El Galeon under sail about 10 miles offshore and email them to her captain upon his request.

It ended up being a long day, and I ended up going about 50 miles mostly under sail and all singlehanded. The adventure was worth it!

Priorities and El Galeon Andalucia
Priorities and El Galeon Andalucia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s