Eclipse in the Benjamins

After not having any real luck finding a place to anchor in Fox Harbor, where none of us had ever been, we decided to head to the Benjamin Islands for the night. The winds went light, so we motored our way south to the Benjamin Islands Archipelago.

Passing around the southeast side of South Benjamin Island, we approached a navigationally challenging area of rocks known as The Sow and Pigs. Boats coming from the west, like we were, can save a few minutes by cutting through the Sow and Pigs, though hazards exist: some rocks are several feet above the water, while others lurk just below the surface… and they all kinda look alike. With very, VERY careful monitoring of our position with the GPS chartplotter, crosschecked with a radar overlay, and careful reading of the paper chart, we motored amongst them with no issues. Amazingly, we can pass between The Sow and a neighboring rock (Pig?), a gap of just over a boatlength, with depths way over 20 feet. In the narrowest part, depths were way over 50 feet! It’s a little disconcerting how deep it is so close to the rocks… in the space of a fraction of a boatlength, covered in perhaps a second at five knots, depths go from “more than adequate” to a rocky cliff several feet above the water. Monitoring the depth sounder here doesn’t really provide any practical protection against an unintentional grounding.

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Approaching the Sow and Pigs

Despite navigational hazards, The Sow and Pigs are very pretty. Pink granite rocks covered in orange moss, striking out 5 to 15 feet above deep water all around. Some rocks are big enough to be small islets, with dark green bushes or small trees growing out of them, adding to their color. Kristin and Teresa hung out on the foredeck taking pictures, with the occasional glance back at me and a look of, “can we really do this?”

 

 

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The Sow and Pigs

Benjamins04Benjamins05Benjamins06To our north lay our intended anchorage in the Benjamin Islands. Anchoring just east of South Benjamin and just south of North Benjamin gives protection from most directions. Being pretty makes them very popular with other boaters, so sometimes finding a spot to anchor can be challenging. Depths vary, though with water levels high this year we found depths from 15-35 feet within about a boatlength from shore in much of the anchorage. Holding can vary as well… this year we had no issues with holding when backing down on our anchor, but I’ve occasionally had to reset an anchor here in previous years.

Both Benjamins, South in particular, are basically giant rocks of pink granite. There’s definitely vegetation, including plenty of trees, but much of South Benjamin is an almost pavement-like smooth granite that makes exploring fairly easy and fun. It has a ski-slope-looking ramp running from near it’s highest point right down into the anchorage that’s fun to walk up. I probably should have gotten my running shoes and made it a workout. One cottage lies on the north side of South Benjamin in a spectacular location, but otherwise it’s uninhabited.

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The “ski slope” on South Benjamin Island
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Much of South Benjamin is nearly pavement like granite

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View from South Benjamin Island

Some shallow sections of the anchorage were great to explore on the stand up paddleboard, with the unusual rock formations visible just under the surface. Kristin and I took a long dinghy ride close along the east and south shore of South Benjamin, discovering some mini anchorages and hideaways we had never seen before. Some areas looked like perfect anchorages as we motored in the dinghy, but occasionally we’d suddenly bottom out the motor on rocks hiding in unexpected locations, so I might leave those areas to the locals. We saw two boats basically “docked” amongst the rocks, fenders and all, spider webbing themselves so close to shore they could disembark via a plank rather than via a dinghy.

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We saw plenty of wildlife, like this belted kingfisher, while exploring the island

In many of our travels in the North Channel we try to find a beach to sit on and have “happy hour,” even if the “beach” is the tiniest sandy area that can only fit a few chairs. There’s one such tiny beach on North Benjamin, which we found, facing the sunset. On our way back to the boat, we experimented with ways to tow someone on the stand up paddleboard with the dinghy… fun and stupid all at the same time!

Our plan was to spend two nights here weather permitting. In the morning after our first night, we got the weather report for the upcoming 24 hours: sunny skies and light southwest winds through late evening, then a strong wind warning for 25 knot southeast winds around midnight quickly becoming south in the early morning, with strong winds from the west the following day. This was also the day of the big solar eclipse of 2017, and we wanted to take advantage of our pretty location to view it. A strong west wind could be good for us the following day, since it could mean a fast downwind sail back to Little Current to the east.

Our location that morning was a little too exposed if the southeast winds materialized, so we decided to move slightly south, closer to South Benjamin for better protection. Normally I like to have a decent amount of space between Priorities and any other boats or rocks when unsettled weather is forecast, giving us space and time to deal with any anchoring issues in the night. Like so many other things in boating, we’d have to compromise. After about a 30 minute process of squeezing in other anchored boats which had done the same, I was pretty happy with our protection vs. space vs. scope situation.

That second day in the Benjamins, after our first night there, made any weather worries worth staying for. We had excellent conditions for seeing the solar eclipse, made better by Kristin’s good idea of buying a bunch of “Eclipse glasses” on Amazon (the standards-compliant ones, not the recalled ones!). We handed out extras to our neighbors in the anchorage, chatting about the weather forecast, too.

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Checking out the solar eclipse. We used glasses that met goverment standards for observation of the sun.
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We had about 75% coverage this far north
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Obviously, the sunlight got very dim during the eclipse. Our solar panels’ output was reduced a bunch, despite not having any clouds in the sky.

It was a lazy day of warm weather, drinks, swimming, stand up paddling, dinghy-ing, and momentary eclipse viewing. I think our area was about 75-80%, not total darkness but definitely an observable, strange light. We made pizza for lunch, using the grill on deck to keep the heat out of the cabin. Vacation is tough.

That evening, I checked the wind forecast on SailFlow. It downplayed any southeast winds that Environment Canada were forecasting, so we stayed put and had an uneventful last night on the hook before Teresa and Kristin needed to be back in Little Current.

Benjamins17The next morning we awoke to cloudy skies and light southwest winds. Most of our neighbors had left by 8am. Not wanting vacation time to end, we took our time with breakfast (gotta eat up all the food before the crew leaves for home!) before weighing anchor and heading to Little Current.

This sail, however, had a bunch of challenges… but that’s for my next post.

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Electrical Repair in an Exotic Location

By my own admission, Priorities is a complicated cruising boat from a systems perspective. Partly due to her original systems design by Catalina, the work of her two previous owners, and my own doing, there are lots of things to maintain aboard her.

I’ve continued improving Priorities’ systems while considering the type of cruising I do: coastal, wilderness-like cruising on Lake Huron’s North Channel or on Lake Superior. While maintaining more systems takes more work, many systems overlap in their capability so I’m less likely to get stranded somewhere due to a system failure. There are two heads aboard… one manual and the other electric. I’ve got a grill that can heat up almost anything if the galley stove fails. I’ve got a diesel inboard for when the wind dies, and sails that can be used to move the boat if the diesel fails, too. I have separate compressors for the fridge and freezer, so if the fridge dies I can convert the freezer to a refrigerator. I carry two anchors in case one gets jammed under a rock and lost, and so on.

At the heart of most of the systems is the DC electrical system. I can split the battery banks up if an individual battery fails. The engine has it’s own battery in case the house battery bank gets completely discharged. I can charge the batteries with the propulsion motor’s giant alternator,  with solar, or with shore power chargers (either of two!) when plugged into shore power or the diesel generator.

Unfortunately, my diesel generator has been unreliable since I bought the boat, and failed once again during the second week of this year’s North Channel cruise. As I write this it remains unrepaired, though I think it’s a bad oil pressure sensor, among other minor problems.

The day after the generator failed on this trip, we had a wonderful sail from Eagle Harbor, through the McBean Channel, and up through the tiny passage in the rocks known as Little Detroit. The passage is so narrow we lower sails and motor through. We also needed a pumpout after several days away from a marina, so we continued motoring the 30 minutes from Little Detroit to the marina in Spanish, Ontario. After Spanish our plan was to sail on for another hour west to anchor for the night by the old sawmill ruins in Moiles Harbor.

After our pumpout, while motoring in the channel away from the marina, I noticed the engine tachometer indicated zero even though the engine was obviously running.

On my boat, having the tach read zero with the engine running can be indicative of a series of problems ranging from benign to catastrophic. Like on a lot of boats, Priorities’ tachometer gets its signal from the alternator, so a failing tach may be indicative of alternator issues. A bigger concern is the alternator belt… on my Westerbeke 42B Four, the freshwater cooling pump, not the raw water pump like many other engines, is belt driven via the same belt that drives the alternator. Checking that this belt was still driving the freshwater pump was my first order of business… if the freshwater pump wasn’t operating, severe engine damage including total seizure (a >$20k repair!) could happen very, very quickly. After having my crew take the helm, I took a quick glance inside the engine compartment and saw the belt was fine.

Next I checked my battery monitor, which reads amps and volts in or out of the house battery. Amps indicated a slight discharge current similar to being under sail with the motor off, indicating the alternator was NOT charging the battery. Amp hour status showed about 75% of battery remaining, so I wasn’t anywhere close to a dead battery yet. Volts indicated 12.5, confirming a partially charged battery that wasn’t connected to a high charge rate source such as my alternator. While I do have solar panels, it was cloudy at the time so their output was low.

Next I checked the display on my Balmar MC-614, the alternator’s externally mounted voltage regulator. Its display was blank for a few seconds, then showed its normal display pattern for a few seconds, the all 888s before blanking again. This was not normal!

A quick reset of the ignition switch on the engine also reset the regulator, but did not change the problem. I also noticed the “ALT” caution light was not illuminated.

The crew and I assessed our situation and short term options. The battery wasn’t close to being dead, so this was not an urgent situation. If nothing got fixed we still had nearly 24 hours of battery power remaining, much more if the sun came back out. Our only charge sources remaining were solar power (if sunny) or shore power at a dock. Though we could have returned to the marina we just departed from, we elected to continue under reduced electrical consumption and with careful monitoring… our planned anchorage was only about an hour away from a decent marina.

The solar power system on Priorities is only good enough to restore the power consumed by the fridge, the highest consuming item, on sunny days. Concurrently running the freezer, the next highest power hog, could draw the batteries down quite quickly. Fortunately, the freezer was nearly empty, so we shut it off to save our power consumption. Frozen food was moved to the fridge for defrosting.

Next we considered our longer term options if I couldn’t fix things. Allowing the house battery bank to completely discharge until “dead” can damage it, shortening the life of an expensive part of the boat, so I really wanted to avoid running the battery down too far. If necessary, we could spend the next afternoon in a slip recharging at the nearby marina before continuing on to another beautiful anchorage for the night. Two days later we’d be in a marina again while the crew drove home… leaving me alone on the boat with a faltering electrical system. It was Saturday, so I couldn’t order parts and receive them for another three days even with overnight shipping. With refrigeration, I could spend nearly every night in a marina to get the boat home, though doing that up here in the North Channel, with its beautiful anchorages, would be like punishment. I could just refill with ice every other day and go without the fridge operating, too, or survive on non-refrigerated food.

What would happen if I got careless and the house battery bank died completely? I mentally ran through the list of systems on the boat that would lose their power source:

  • The fridge and freezer would fail, requiring ice from marinas or using nonperishable food
  • The anchor light at the top of the mast would fail, requiring me to use a solar lantern
  • The cabin lights would fail, requiring us to use flashlights
  • The aft head wouldn’t flush, though the forward head is manually operated
  • We’d have no freshwater for dishes or hand washing since its pump is electric, so we’d use hand sanitizer, bottled water, and/or lake water in a bucket
  • The navigational electronics, including autopilot, wouldn’t work, though I did have paper charts, a handheld GPS, and compasses that I knew how to use
  • The anchor windlass wouldn’t work, so anchor retrieval would be time consuming and complicated
  • The propane solenoid would fail in the “shutoff” position, so the stove wouldn’t work, leaving us with just the grill
  • The VHF radio, our best way to call for help, wouldn’t work, and our handheld radio has limited range
  • The propulsion engine would start and run with its own battery, though the engine battery would not get recharged and the engine would die after a few hours since it used an electric fuel pump

These were dark thoughts after having cruised in comparative luxury for weeks on a trip I had spent months preparing for. Fortunately, by reducing and monitoring our power consumption, a total electrical failure was still at least a day away. Not wanting to work on a hot engine before bed, the crew and I explored Moiles Harbor in the dinghy, and had a few beers. I reviewed the manuals for the alternator system before going to bed.

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The sawmill ruins in Moiles Harbor

Three years ago, after continued frustration with my unreliable generator, I upgraded Priorities’ alternator to a Balmar AT Series 165A alternator controlled by a Balmar MC-614 external voltage regulator. When it works, it’s a powerful charging system that minimizes my time spent running the motor just to charge the batteries… something this sailor can’t stand doing. It had been a very successful upgrade until now, and of course it happened a mere day after the generator failed yet again.

Balmar’s manuals are excellent, with detailed procedures in the troubleshooting section for isolating issues with the alternator and voltage regulator. I actually had access to the manual on my iPad, where PDF versions of nearly every system’s manual was saved for offline viewing on Google Drive.

If I needed to order parts while far from home, I could ship them to Roy Eaton, who runs the Little Current Cruiser’s Net, and pick them up from him as we passed through Little Current, Ontario. This was a great option if needed… the Cruiser’s Net’s motto is “Boaters Helping Boaters.”

Based on how things failed, I expected a regulator issue rather than an alternator issue, so the next morning with a clear mind I began troubleshooting there first. The regulator wiring in the battery compartment on the battery bus, including voltage sense wires, were in good shape. Moving on to the regulator wires on the alternator itself almost immediately revealed a smoking gun… the regulator power wire, running from the alternator positive post to the regulator, was very loose at the ring terminal on the alternator. Two slight wiggles and it broke off. Small burn marks, signs of past arcing, were visible in the broken section.

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The voltage regulator power wire broke at the alternator post

The loose, but not broken, wire would explain the intermittent operation… a connection existed just long enough to get the regulator to begin displaying info before losing it a few seconds later. I shouldn’t have been surprised it failed here, either… it’s a relatively fragile connection in a high vibration area, so I plan on improving things further during the upcoming winter.

I started fixing the broken ring terminal using spares I keep aboard. Not wanting to make a little problem bigger, I disconnected and isolated the alternator output wire from the battery bus. Any incidental contact between the alternator output cable, including the wire needing repair, and anything metal on the engine or alternator would result in a blown fuse at best. Carefully I removed the nut from the positive post of the alternator. I cut the old ring terminal off, and installed a new one. Then I carefully reattached the alternator output cable to the battery bus.

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On Priorities, the alternator output cable is wired directly to the battery bus in the battery compartment. Here I have disconnected the output cable and wrapped it in tape for safety reasons while working around the alternator.

I checked my work a few times before starting the motor. If I had screwed up and tried running the engine with the alternator powered up, I risked expensive damage to the alternator making our current problem much bigger. Once the engine was running, I checked the battery monitor and confirmed the battery was charging. The tachometer worked, too. Disaster averted!

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Priorities’ battery monitor showing 89.6 amps of current flowing INTO the house battery, meaning the alternator was working again!

Someone smarter than me once said that “cruising” is merely “Boat repair in exotic locations…” I felt like I further confirmed this statement while in Moiles Harbor. What turned out to be a small problem really only “cost” us the freezer for a little while, and it was already nearly empty. I’m thankful that Priorities has a battery monitor to help identify small electrical problems like this before they become big ones… like a dead house battery. I’m also thankful I had the parts, tools, and knowledge to safely fix the problem while still anchored in a pretty spot.

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That day we sailed and motored to the beautiful Benjamin Islands for the night… no marina stopping needed!

Thomas Bay

When reading some of the cruising guides for the North Channel it seems every anchorage is “perfect,” a “must see,” or a “favorite,” and it’s hard to tell which ones are genuinely worth exploring (most are!). I had heard great things about Thomas Bay, but in three previous trips to the North Channel had never even seen it. We had the luxury of time and a good weather forecast, so Kristin and I decided to check it out.

Thomas Bay lies about four miles east of Killarney. The approach to it was well charted, but the actual Bay itself is a “white area,” with no real depth soundings, depth contours, or hazards depicted. I’m assuming it has never been officially sounded for government charting purposes. Armed with a cruising guide that had aerial photographs, I cautiously steered Priorities in while Kristin stood watch on the bow ready to point out any rocks we hoped would be visible ahead of us.

My what a pretty spot! Giant pink… nearly red… granite rocks surround the anchorage, with a giant staircase of them on the north side. A small island on the south side… also pink granite… helps the Bay offer nearly complete protection. The bottom seemed like flat mud, with depths between 8 and 15 feet with water 3 feet above datum. Holding was good, with not too many weeds to foul the anchor.

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Me sounding the anchorage from the dinghy with my portable depth sounder

Other than a cottage in the northeast corner (which might not have been occupied that night), we were the only ones there!

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Kristin took this shot after paddleboarding ashore. That’s me in the dinghy.

 

With flat, warm water, and plenty of sunshine, we spent a day exploring on our stand up paddle boards. The northwest corner of the anchorage had a few deadheads… logs that sank to the bottom during logging operations long ago… visible as we paddled over them.  The islands to the south were fun to walk around.

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Exploring via dinghy brought us to the barrier islands to the south

Just before we left on the second day, a rental J22 from the Killarney Mountain Lodge sailed in and anchored nearby for lunch. They left around the same time we did, and it was a nice sail with them back towards Killarney.

The Collins Inlet

I have taken Priorities to the North Channel four times now. This year Kristin and I felt like we had seen most of the recommended hotspots, and there weren’t really any more “must see” anchorages left. This gave us the luxury of time, since we didn’t have to sail or motor all over the place to see someone else’s favorite spot and allowed us to travel on a more casual schedule based more on the wind and weather… and perhaps find something new.

Somehow, in years past, we hadn’t traveled east of Killarney. Killarney is basically at the east end of the North Channel, and the west end of Georgian Bay. Cruisers traveling from southern Georgian Bay or southern Lake Huron are familiar with much of the scenery along the well charted and marked Small Craft Route east of Killarney. Since our home port lies west of the North Channel, however, heading east of Killarney is somewhat out of the way for us.

This year, we spent two nights in Covered Portage Cove, and had a few days to kill before needing to be back in Little Current for additional crew. Light winds were forecasted, so we would either need to motor somewhere or not travel very far. We also had plenty of provisions, so a remote detour wouldn’t stress boat or crew much… and so we decided to check out the Collins Inlet.

The 10 mile long Collins Inlet begins a mere five miles or so east of Killarney. It’s a very narrow fjord like gap between mainland Ontario and Philip Edward Island, surrounded on both sides by large cliffs that occasionally loom well over 100 feet above the water. The mainland side is mostly in Killarney Provincial Park, and the island side has little development.

We leisurely sailed the five miles from Killarney to the western entrance of the Inlet, and as expected the winds got too light and shifty to continue under sail. With high cliffs on both sides, it would be rare to be able to sail the Collins Inlet… perhaps when the winds are strong from the east or west it might be possible.

Since the Collins Inlet is navigable for its entire length, the “Red Right Return” rule applies when westbound, or “returning” from the ocean. Even though we were leaving the relative open water of Georgian Bay and heading into what looked like a river, green buoys and marks were kept to starboard since we were traveling closer to the ocean.

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Heading into the Collins Inlet

Immediately we noticed a few promising anchorages for future reference… just southwest of Keyhole Island and north of the island at Mile 58. The water temperature was also in the low 70s here, much warmer than the upper 60s we had seen the previous several days in the North Channel.

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Most of the Inlet is only 150-300 feet wide

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Pink granite cliff walls of the Inlet

Looking at the chart reveals few major hazards as long as you stay in the middle of the Inlet, except at the east end. Not wanting to miss out on the scenery from inside our cockpit enclosure, I joined Kristin on the foredeck. This was one of the few times I actually was glad I installed a wireless remote for the autopilot, allowing me to make minor course changes while standing on the foredeck and enjoying the scenery. It wasn’t the safest course of action… if the autopilot freaked out and suddenly turned hard in one direction I might not make it to the cockpit in time before hitting the sides of the Inlet… but the likelihood of a sudden electronics failure was pretty low and had never been an issue in the past.

After about an hour, we arrived in Mill Lake. Mill Lake lies about two thirds of the way into the Inlet when traveling eastbound. There’s not much there, but the scenery is very pretty.

We anchored on Mill Lake for the night just south of Green Island, out of sight from any cottages or boats. It felt very remote. While exploring around in the dinghy we did meet some kayakers who were camped on an adjacent island. They were on a weeklong trip exploring the Island and Inlet via kayak… certainly a great place to kayak or canoe.

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Anchored on Mill Lake
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Water flowing down cliffs

 

The next morning we motored the rest of the way east out the Collins Inlet into Beaverstone Bay. Green buoys and marks were still kept to starboard here. In low water years, the channel at the east end of the Collins Inlet has silted to less than our six feet of draft. This August lakes Michigan and Huron are three feet above datum, so we were able to continue through the very narrow channel at the east end of Collins Inlet without major issue. Our depth sounder recorded a few depths of 5.8 feet, but I think weeds were to blame since it didn’t feel like our keel kissed bottom.

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Narrow and shallow channel on the east end of Collins Inlet. Green to starboard.

After the shallow section, we raised sails are sailed out of Beaverstone with a 15 knot north wind. Beaverstone is pretty as well, with a few cottages built on many of the islands on the Bay. Though we considered sailing farther east to the Bad River or the Bustard Islands, a forecast of west winds the following day led us to merely circumnavigate Philip Edward Island and head west again… to Thomas Bay.

Beardrop Harbor

This year I’m fortunate enough to have enough vacation time to take six weeks off in the summer and bring Priorities to Lake Huron’s North Channel once again. I worked it out so my singlehanded delivery didn’t involve any overnight passages that can be very fatiguing when sailing alone.

A singlehanded delivery is still tough, though, since everything on the boat from sailhandling to washing the dishes is my duty and responsibility. After covering 360 Miles in 8 legs alone, fortunately about ⅔ of which were under sail, I finally dropped anchor in Beardrop Harbor. The “delivery” part of my trip was nearly done, and it was finally time to relax!

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Priorities anchored in Beardrop Harbor in Lake Huron’s North Channel

I needed to be in Little Current by Friday to have enough time to reprovision before my girlfriend Kristin arrived via plane on Saturday. Since it was merely Tuesday, I could afford to spend two nights here… I had a full day to relax, explore the area on the dinghy, and clean up the boat a bit after all the long days spent traveling. I no longer felt pressured to be in a certain place at a certain time since I was nearly there (less than 40 miles) with several days to go.

I have a fondness for Beardrop Harbor partly because it’s one of the first easy wilderness anchorages I get to on the west end of the scenic part of the North Channel. It has protection from all directions, save for a tiny sliver from the west. Holding for the anchor is pretty good in mud (except maybe the south central part), and there don’t seem to be any hidden, uncharted rocks waiting to catch my keel.

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Looking west, there’s a tiny sliver where waves can creep into Beardrop, but otherwise it’s very protected

Though surrounded by cliffs on nearly all sides, and far from civilization, I wasn’t alone… there were plenty of other interesting cruising boats anchored nearby.

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Climbing the cliffs on the south side of the anchorage reveals nice views of the Whalesback Channel

While climbing over some of the rocks and cliffs surrounding the anchorage in the afternoon, I heard an unusual screech… and glimpsed a bald eagle! It circled over the Whalesback Channel to the south, then continued south to soar over John Island.

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For much of my travels up Lake Michigan, across part of Lake Huron, and along the western section of the North Channel, I found water temperatures in the mid 60s, Fahrenheit. Both the water temperature sensor on the boat and my handheld sensor in the dinghy reported a water temperature of 72 at Beardrop. I’m pretty sure many of the anchorages in the North Channel have warmer water in late summer due to their relative shallow depth and protection from wind and waves. The air had been quite warm and calm for a few days, making it easier for the protected spots to warm up quickly. Having warmer water “up north” seems quite ironic to me, though.

After two nights in Beardrop I was rested and ready for more sailing for the last push to Little Current. I got underway early due to forecasted east winds, sailing a beat across the North Channel to Clapperton Harbor for my last stop before Little Current.

Harbor Island Thunderstorm

I’ve always known Mother Nature likes to keep sailors in check every once in a while… I just hadn’t had a reminder from Her recently about who was in charge. Until today.

The last 24 hours had been great. After several hours of motoring from the anchorage at Garden Island on Lake Michigan, I finally had enough wind to sail wing on wing with the whisker pole under the Mackinac Bridge. Passing Mackinac Island on the Round Island Passage was a challenge since I passed in close proximity to the large freighter John G Munson amongst all the ferry traffic, but still got some cool views of The Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac. Shortly after, I was rewarded with a great singlehanded spinnaker run to the Les Cheneaux Islands where I spent the night.

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Easy wing on wing sail under the Big Mac
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I passed the John G Munson just west of Round Island Passage, in front of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

This morning, with a forecast of very light winds and an expectation of having to motor to Drummond Island, I awoke to find winds from the west at 15 knots. This enabled me to have yet another great sail from my anchorage in Government Bay out into Lake Huron and on to Detour Passage. A few well timed jibes of jib and main positioned me well to fit in with the large shipping traffic transiting the passage.

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Sailing out of the Les Cheneaux Islands into the open waters of Lake Huron

Things were going great, and I felt pretty good about myself as I headed north up the Detour Passage only about five miles from my planned anchorage at Harbor Island near Drummond Island, Michigan. Having a “delivery” mentality of getting as many miles in each day gets old after a while, and I was looking forward to relaxing at anchor and drinking a cold beer long before I’d have to make dinner. Also, any further sailing north or east would put me in Canadian waters, so one last evening in the US under my normal cellphone plan was fine with me.

Around then I also noticed a thunderstorm building north of me, but didn’t think much of it since most of the time serious weather moves west to east around here. A check of the radar on my phone showed it was moving SSE, but I would miss the edge of it and still had plenty of time before it hit.

About two miles from Harbor Island, the sky got much darker to the north than expected. I realized this stuff was actually much closer than I originally thought. A quick check of my radar app on my phone showed it rapidly building in intensity, but I still expected I had enough time to anchor at Harbor Island. No weather warnings on the VHF, no cellphone weather alerts, either.

I heard thunder, then noticed some low level scud nearby rolling in from the storm. I decided to be conservative and start the motor, furl the jib, and lower the main. The thunder got louder, much louder than expected. I got the sail cover on as quick as I could, still clipping my tether to the jacklines as I worked.

It would have been faster for me to skip using my tether and jack line system in the name of “getting things done.” When sailing alone like I was, I think being unclipped from the tether when outside the cockpit would be an unacceptably high level of risk, especially considering the proximity of unsettled and rapidly changing weather. It was frustrating, though, since being clipped in hindered my progress a little and probably doubled the time it took to attach the sail cover… just when I was pressed for time.

With the sail cover on and hatches latched closed, the loud bangs of thunder around me told me that even though safe harbor was only a mile away (under 10 minutes), I was still going to get slammed. My plan was to continue under power to the lee of Harbor Island if able, and if the engine quit for some reason I’d drop anchor immediately. I noted my compass heading in case lightning killed the autopilot and chartplotter. I hoped any remaining spinnaker sheets or preventer lines were secure and not overboard where they could foul the prop.

The winds went from west at about 8 knots to north at over 40 knots in less than a minute. Despite no sails up at all, Priorities heeled to 10-15 degrees while motoring east towards the lee of the island. The wind instrument peaked at 48 knots, and it felt like it. The bimini shook and zippers started to part while I wondered if the entire canvas structure would blow off the boat all at once. My new solar panels, installed less than two weeks prior, would surely be lost.

For the last several years I’ve secured the boom by tightening the mainsheet and attaching an additional line to the port side handrail to keep the boom from moving. Whenever the boom moves it can make annoying squeaking sounds that make sleep difficult, and chafes the sail cover on the dodger. Unfortunately, the handrail is not strong enough to hold the boom in position against a 48 knot crosswind from the port side.

In one loud bang, the handrail parted from the cabintop, passing through a dodger window on it’s way across the boat. It brought with it the four screws that had held it place, leaving four holes in the fiberglass cabintop. The mainsheet held the boom in place since it’s far stronger than the handrail. More zippers parted. Rainwater began pelting me, as I still wasn’t wearing any foul weather gear. I later discovered that rainwater poured into the aft head as well, since there were now four holes in the top of the boat.

At this point I was incredibly frustrated, since all the time I had spent taking care of the canvas work and installing the solar panels was about to be swept away in seconds. This was also the beginning of several weeks in the North Channel, and not having a dodger, bimini, or solar panels would be frustrating. I considered heading directly into the wind since I think the dodger may be stronger into the wind, but the apparent wind would increase as well if I headed up.

Lightning struck very close to me, with less than a second between the flash and the thunder. I avoided getting close to the backstay since it reaches skyward to the top of the mast, and minimized my contact with the wheel since it connects earthward to the rudder post via cables. Fortunately, fresh water is not a very good conductor of electricity, so Priorities was not a good enough path to ground for any lightning today. Having a mast above my head, and a metal bimini support structure around me, might have provided some protection from me getting too hurt from a lightning strike. Or so I told myself.

I reached the protection of Harbor Island, motoring to the south side of the island to avoid the north wind. The winds subsided to under 30 knots, and the water was flat. Not wanting to go out on deck with the lightning around and touch a metal chain that actually would be a decent path to ground when the anchor touched bottom, I slowed as much I could and held position with the motor, waiting for the storm to pass.

When it was all done, the damage to Priorities was generally pretty minor. Though the repairs will be annoying, it’s not enough to prevent me from spending another few weeks cruising the beautiful waters of Lake Huron’s North Channel.

With an eye out for Mother Nature, of course.

HRail04
Luckily minor damage after ripping out the port cabintop handrail

 

South Manitou Island

On my northeast-bound trip to Lake Huron’s North Channel this year I got to make a stop at South Manitou Island. South Manitou makes a good stopping point for a bunch of reasons, especially since it’s a large enough anchorage that I feel comfortable arriving there after dark, if needed. The sandy bottom also has good holding. There’s plenty of hiking ashore to be had, too, which gives skipper and crew a break from being on the boat for a few days.  It’s also very close to the most direct route from southern Lake Michigan out to the Mackinac Straits… and Lake Huron, where I was ultimately going.

With a forecast of south winds around 20 knots, I weighed anchor from Portage Lake (another intermediate stop) and set sail for the 42 mile trip. Based on the forecast I figured I’d be dead downwind in decent size waves most of the time, so I set up the whisker pole for the jib and the preventer system for the main. Initial progress was good as I averaged over 7 knots for the first half while sailing wing on wing. When a pair gusty thunderstorms rolled over me I furled the jib to be conservative and not break anything.

The strong south winds increased after the storms moved through to around 25 or so. With a full main and most of the jib still out on the whisker pole on the opposite side, Priorities surged from 6 knots on the backside of the waves to over 10 knots on the front of the waves! The autopilot did a great job, and we made great time.

Low clouds enshrouded the top of the island as we approached, giving it a mystical look. The rusting hulk of a freighter that sank over 50 years ago was visible just off the beach, getting further pounded by the day’s south wind and waves. A jibe of the main just past South Manitou Light brought us west into South Manitou Harbor, and the water flattened and winds diminished as we sailed into the lee of Sandy Point.

Chart of South Manitou Harbor
The 14-22 foot shelf in the WNW corner of the habor is good for anchoring

At first glance of the chart, South Manitou Harbor appears way too deep for pleasure boats to anchor in, since most of it is 80-140 feet deep. However, there is a little shelf of 15-25 foot depths in the WNW corner that is actually big enough for over a dozen boats. I’ve anchored here probably 10 times, and holding has always been excellent in sand. Protection is good from most directions except east through southeast, and even then it’s only about 5 miles of fetch to the mainland. Depths of over 10 feet can be found deceptively close to shore, as well… probably within a boat length.

 

 

Sign of Chicago Road
The east end of Chicago Road (now a footpath) is on the beach by the anchorage

This anchorage is at the end of what is known on the island as Chicago Road. Now merely a hiking trail, it was once used to transport wood that ships would use to refuel here. It’s marked with a sign, visible from the anchorage. There was once a wharf here that is now ruins, so don’t anchor too close to the sign. The sign usually has hiking trail maps in it, as well.

The next morning revealed a very clear sky and warm weather. Seeking some exercise, I rowed ashore rather than attach the motor to the dinghy.

 

Once ashore, I walked a mile to the ranger station in the “Village” near Sandy Point. South Manitou Island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so it’s basically a park. Entrance fees are normally paid in Leland, but that was impractical for me coming from the south. A discussion with a ranger got me a mail-in form that I could pay the fee with later (and yeah, I actually plan on doing that!).

I then set out to hike the island, especially the dunes on the west shore.

Hiking a mud and gravel trail about three miles to the west leads to a smaller trail to an overlook of the wreck of the Francisco Morazan. The Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960. Much of the hulk is still above the water, and definitely visible from shore.

SManitou01ShipwreckFar
The wreck of the Morazan is visible from shore
SManitou02ShipwreckClose
The Francisco Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960

After a lunch break, I set out for my ultimate goal of the day: hiking to the top of the dunes. It’s a somewhat strenuous hike. After three miles slightly uphill to the shipwreck overlook, the trail becomes a steeper climb (in sand) to something like another 200 feet in elevation to the highest point on the island.  The view, and scenery, is pretty awesome, though, with the highest point of the island at something like 420 feet above Lake Michigan.

 

SManitou03Treetop
Climbing the back of the dunes just about treetop level, looking east

 

SManitou04Hikers
Looking east from near the top of the dunes. Note the hikers on the trail I had just been on.

 

SManitou05LookingEast
Still looking east, South Manitou Harbor and Gull Point is just visible past the treetops, then North Manitou Island, then the mainland Leelanau Peninsula in the far distance.
SManitou06Dunes
The top of the dunes

 

SManitou07Dunes
Lots of unmarked trails run over various parts of the top of the dunes
SManitou08Grasses
The dune grasses left some interesting marks in the sand

 

SManitou09Trunks
I wonder how old these tree trunks are

SManitou10Trunks

SManitou11Edge
A view from the edge of the dune, looking southwest. It’s a steep drop off of around 300+ feet to the water.

SManitou12Edge2

Returning the four miles or so to the “Village” area, I got a lighthouse tour from a volunteer ranger. The current lighthouse (the third here) was built in 1871 and decommissioned a while ago, and appears on the chart as “Abandoned,” but it’s in decent shape and worth the climb. The lamp was once whale oil, then kerosene, but now a simple small electric light bulb that probably isn’t over 100 watts. Combined with the magnifying power of the fresnel lens that is still in place, I’ve personally seen it over 15 miles away.

SManitou13Lighthouse
No longer in service as an aid to navigation, tours are available in the South Manitou Light

SManitou14Lighthouse

SManitou15OldLight
Off limits to the public, the old lighthouse home has some serious decay

 

SManitou16HarborView
A view of South Manitou Harbor. Several boats are barely visible on the far side of the harbor where it’s more practical to anchor.

 

SManitou17Bulb
A tiny electric lightbulb, when combined with the fresnel lens, is visible over 15 miles away

 

In all, I spent an entire day exploring South Manitou. My GPS-enabled FitBit recorded over 13 miles of hiking, over 30,000 steps, 281 active minutes of exercise, and quite a bit of elevation change (71 floors). I was tired, but the exercise felt good after being on a sailboat for a few days.

Visitors to the island can arrive via private boat, or via a twice daily ferry service from Leland, Michigan. Hiking all the way to the dunes is a lot to do in a day trip if using the ferry. The ferry is very weather dependent as well due to the island’s remote location. It didn’t run at all on the beautiful day that I was there, which seemed strange to everyone I talked to. There are plenty of rustic campsites on the island.

More information about South Manitou Island can be found on the National Park Service website.