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.

Easy wing on wing sail under the Big Mac
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.

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.

Luckily minor damage after ripping out the port cabintop handrail