It was about 2:30 when Weston, Noah and their mom, Jeri, pulled up in the pick-up we’d been borrowing. Our plan had been for them to pick me up at noon and having been all set to go then, the few extra house left me the opportunity to remember the little things like cleaning out my French press and packing my thermos. It also afforded me the time to realize I was really ready for this new portion of the trip to begin.
When we got down to the boat, Weston and I set about finding homes for the truck bed of gear, additional food and personal belongings while Jeri entertained my mom and Charlie who had arrived as well as the occasional curious passerby and Noah set off in the truck to get diesel. At 7pm we posed for a few photos, made a round of hugs and shoved off from the dock. A new chapter of our trip had begun.
One outside the main gap we set our sails, first raising the staysail then the main. With a nice 10 knot wind from our west, shortly thereafter we raised the jib which got our cruising speed up to about 5 knots, an excellent pace bound to cut a few hours off our 20 hour voyage to Chicago.
After eating some dinner (note to self: never again eat mayonnaise when heading into potentially rough waters) and spending a bit of time above deck with everyone looking at the stars and watching the moon rise on the horizon, I made my way to the v-berth figuring it’d be best to get some rest to better be able to help on the overnight shifts.
A couple of hours later, and just as I was starting to get too cold despite wearing all of my clothes boots included, I heard Weston’s voice, “Hey you” as he climbed in under the sleeping bags next to me. With a forecast of 3 – 5 foot waves, the waves were beginning to build forcing Weston into my side and the leeward side of my body into the vertical rail of the shelf in our bunk. Nonetheless, it felt good to be lying down together and I tried to savor the moment knowing the forecast’s prediction of a rough night.
Sure enough, around midnight Jeri came below to tell us we were needed on deck. We pulled on our foul weather gear, tied our boots and headed up. Like was to be expected, the wind had built and we needed to harness less wind. Weston climbed back below and dug around until re-emerging with safety harnesses and our life jackets. It was the first time we had used harnesses having just installed the jack lines that afternoon and my god am I glad we had them!
With a jack line running the entire length of the boat on both the port and starboard sides, we were able to stay clipped in no matter where we were working, giving us the important confidence that we wouldn’t fall overboard and be left behind. This way at least if we fell overboard, we’d be towed alongside the boat until being pulled back in—a small, but critical piece of security in the turbulent waters.
Climbing onto the foredeck Weston and I executed what would become one of the many sail changes we’d make in the next few hours and struck the staysail.
Once back in the cockpit, it was clear we needed to strike the jib too; the wind was still overpowering us, taking the main sail’s boom skimming across the top of the water with each gust. Back on the foredeck with Weston on the very bow working the inhaul and outhaul to bring the jib stay on deck and myself by the mast working the jib halyard, we gave it a go but the wind was just too strong for only the two of us. With the jib flapping wildly to port, Noah climbed on deck to help us pull it in. With his help, we pulled it down to the port side toerail and Noah climbed back to the tiller as I climbed over the Walker Bay (our life-raft, dinghy) to lash it down, water soaking my left side as I knelt in water spilling over the rail.
It’s hard to remember everything that happened, let alone the order of it all during those next few hours.
We must have raised and lowered the staysail four or five times, followed by reefing in the main or reefing in the staysail itself. Twice Weston had to go below deck where the heaving and plunging through waves becomes instantly nauseating to even weathered sailors and upon emerging the second time, threw-up all of his dinner over the leeward side. Yet there’s no rest for the weary and he and I were immediately right back out on the foredeck taming the sails.
All of the chaos happened between Racine and Kenosha, just a scant forty miles from the home we’d left. When we were due west of Kenosha we could see the red and green lights marking the entrance to the last marina we’d pass before our destination of Chicago.
Looking at his exhausted crew—Weston who had already vomited, their mother who had remained huddled under blankets in the footwell of the cockpit ever since the winds had picked up and myself who had requested to take the helm the past couple of sail changes to rest my tired body—and surely feeling the exhaustion himself, Noah suggested that we might make for Kenosha’s harbor. We could set an anchor there and wait out the weather, the caveat being it wasn’t suppose to lighten up until Friday or Saturday, two to three days out.
Weston was sold—and I can’t blame him for it’s a horrible prospect to be seasick with 16 hours to go in harsh weather. Yet while I was exhausted, I thought of the hell that would take place trying to get to Kenosha. The wind was coming straight out of the west so that meant beating it into the wind for hours at 30-degree angles. Once there, we’d have to navigate within an unknown harbor, hoping to not run aground while looking for a spot to anchor in the dark. And then there would be setting the two anchors, a process in which you ultimately let out more of your primary anchor chain in order to set your second anchor, then haul back in on your primary to center yourself between the two. Our anchor road on our primary is nothing by galvanized 2” chain weighing hundreds of pounds, not counting the additional force of hauling the boat back into the wind. Add to that Noah’s estimation of weathering out the storm until Friday or Saturday and I felt like heading to Kenosha would be even more exhausting and miserable than carrying on to Chicago. Furthermore, we were now motor-sailing—sailing with our staysail reefed once and our 1974,18-horsepower Saab diesel engine in gear—and while the wind and waves were still high, it felt like a manageable way to continue.
I attribute my confidence at this point to the numerous sails we’d taken in unsavory weather over the past few weeks before leaving. I’d seen the Dandelion persevere through bigger waves and winds of the same force, though admittedly, never with sustained wind and waves like this at once. Nevertheless, I never doubted that we’d make it.
That’s not to say I also didn’t anticipate what a tiresome, stressful time we’d have at it—I just felt like we’d make it to Chicago on top.
Yet it was Noah’s decision. He’s the Captain of the Dandelion and we his crew. Honestly, in times like this it’s nice to have someone else making the final call. I’ve got my opinion and perspective yet at the end of the day, I trust his experience to keep us headed in the right direction.
And with his word, we pressed on to Chicago.
I don’t recall how much time passed exactly, or what time it was for that matter, but Weston had just headed down below to try and rest his weary bones when I saw a flare ignite and tapper off to our portside, farther out into the lake. Noah had ducked below for a minute and so I had to call him back up and describe what I had seen: a bright white explosion followed by a bright green flash which fell quickly and disappeared within a couple seconds.
I had never seen a flare before but had just seen a shooting star earlier that night for comparison. What I had just seen was not a shooting star. Noah confirmed that is sounded like a flare; green flares being used to signal distress.
Noah hailed the Coast Guard over the radio and reported the sighting. Having reported the flare as best we could, Noah climbed below to get some rest as I remained at the helm.
For a couple of hours is didn’t seem like the Coast Guard was responding at all but early in the morning when I’d gone to rest, Noah and Jeri heard chatter on the radio between a helicopter and freighter in the vicinity. Thank god they responded, yet hours into an emergency at sea would in many instances be far to late.
It was all just so eerie and surreal.
Before leaving Milwaukee I had been nervous about how Jeri would fair onboard—if the stress and memories of it all would be too much (and rightfully so!), yet she remained calm and played the critical role of standing watch with each of us through the night from her nest in the footwell. As I manned the helm she asked me questions about my life and told me stories about hers to keep me awake. In the morning I asked her when the last time was she’d stayed up all night and she couldn’t remember.
After an hour or so I called Noah up to relieve me. I just needed to lie down for a little while, to let these eyes be able to close, my arms and legs to rest. Heading below, I told Noah to fetch me in a half hour and we’d keep switching on and off. He agreed.
No sooner did I get below than did I come right back up and throw-up over the side. I’d felt nauseous since the same time when Weston had thrown-up but like the occasional bad hangover, had spent hours delaying being sick instead of just getting it over with. Oh well.
I crawled in next to Weston, foulies still on expecting just a half hour’s rest but I guess Noah took sympathy and thought it best for the two pukers to get some rest.
It’s hard to say if I slept or not. I believe I was more in a daze, though I do remember becoming more alert when Weston finally got up to relieve Noah in the early dawn, realizing Noah hadn’t called upon me to swap. As I lay there I could see light start to fill more of the cabin but hesitated getting up not knowing if I’d be more or less nauseous upon rising.
I finally got up around 7am. The sun was out with blue skies and puffy clouds and to my gratefulness, Chicago lay sprawled out to our east. The wind had fallen to about 20 knots during the night but the waves still held, white capping at 3 feet and swelling to 5. But we made it—our destination in sight!
Our last hurdle arose when we raised the mainsail and the rolling waves took the boom and snapped it back into the wind with a crack. I watched as it broke the block from the back of the boom and our mainsail swung freely, sheet dangling into the water until we had hauled them both in. If this would have happened at night it could have easily put us in severe danger of becoming demasted or having the line tangle in the prop leaving us motor-less. Yet, we handled it with ease and laughed as we lashed down the boom with the jib lines.
But that was really the last of our worries. We sailed past the Chicago skyline to the harbor entrance of the Calumet River on the southside and were safely docked at Skyway Yachtworks Marina by 4pm. Jeri’s friend was already on the dock waiting to pick her up and in a matter of minutes upon arriving she had said her goodbyes and left with hopes of meeting us in a month of so in Mobile.
Not having eaten since the day before, we surely ate some dinner, though I have no recollection of what it was. I do remember immediately crawling into bed and promptly falling asleep, the first leg of our journey completed.
Refreshed after 14 hours of sleep, at 8am the next morning we would start our day with coffee, and a breakfast of potatoes and eggs then work to make the Dandelion into a river-going motorboat for our trip south down to warm waters.