From Lake Michigan to the Caribbean

Discussion in 'All Things Boats & Boating' started by gonzo, Oct 4, 2009.

  1. gonzo
    Joined: Aug 2002
    Posts: 15,150
    Likes: 910, Points: 123, Legacy Rep: 2031
    Location: Milwaukee, WI

    gonzo Senior Member

    We left Milwaukee on a Friday, which as every superstitious sailor knows is as much bad luck as carrying a woman on board, but not as much fun. I was finally going to fulfill my lifelong dream of going down the Mississippi. Who has read Huckleberry Finn and not imagined going down the mighty river, unless you were born already old? Since our preparations had gone pretty well up to then I disregarded the old curse, told myself it doesn’t really exist. Everything seemed to be going my way. Earlier that day I started the engine and warmed it up a little to make sure there would be no problems later. The weather was pretty cold, about 20°F, and a diesel without preheaters is usually hard to start. To my satisfaction it fired right away. I let the good old Yanmar run for about half an hour, got it warm enough and shut it off. We had the mast lashed on deck to go under all the bridges and low overpasses, ready to set it back up at the first convenient marina. Our provisions were all stowed, the water and fuel tanks full and the sewage holding tank empty. My boat partner Jon and I spend many evenings that previous summer updating the wiring, plumbing, rigging and anything else that needed it. Nothing we could think of was missing or overlooked. Compared to my typical rather casual arrangements, these preparations were overkill. I usually grab a few cans of food and go. Preplanning, you will see, may be overrated after all. As we backed off the dock, with family and friends waving, the engine stalled when I shifted from reverse to forward. It re-started right away but ran rather rough. I quickly found out that if I revved up the engine and got the gear in fast it wouldn’t die. This situation was what all the overkill planning was supposed to avoid. Nobody seemed to notice, and I was not going to turn back for repairs It wasn’t just pride; these people took time off and were all primed up to see us get under way. I couldn’t make myself disappoint them. At this point I was ready to row to the next port rather than change plans. As soon as we left the dock they all rushed to their cars and drove to the mouth of the river for a last wave goodbye. As we got there, I was looking for my wife, Susan, but couldn’t see her. I put the engine in neutral to slow down, and it died. I kept on using the trick of revving up high before putting it in gear which made loud grinding and clonking noises each time. This problem was really worrying me now, with at least fourteen hundred miles before arriving to open waters where we could sail. While all these thoughts raced through my mind I kept looking anxiously towards the sendoff committee that was waving and shouting at us. I started to wonder if my wife had decided not to come with the rest. At the last moment I saw Susan park her car and run to the breakwater. She was laughing because her brother was racing her. That is my last memory of her: laughing and waving. In the following months, at the worst of weather and exhaustion, that image warmed my heart. I would replay it in my mind many times.
    The first night’s weather was cold but not as bad as it would get later. We arrived to Chicago at about 5:00 AM and tied up by the first lock. The water had a layer of ice about half an inch thick. As we looked at it, my thoughts were full of worries; again. If the temperature dropped much more the river could freeze solid and we would get stuck. The boat went through the ice though, and I claimed GATO was officially an icebreaker; not a bad feat for a twenty-five foot sailboat. We expected that the weather would warm up as we went south; that the cold spell, being unseasonal, would end soon. We were totally wrong; as the days went by it got colder. Luckily, because the river was running it stayed clear of ice in the middle. Only the shores were frozen. As you remember, we left on a Friday and didn’t carry a woman onboard. The goddess of the waters, a confirmed feminist, decided that if we were stupid enough to tempt fate, but not gentlemanly enough to carry a woman, our penalty should be that she show us an unforgettable time... And so she did; we came to know the wrath of a spurned goddess. Six weeks after departure we hadn’t yet had a single full day of pleasant weather or favorable wind. A teaser once in a while would get up our spirit, but the weather would then turn back to the same or worse. In spite of everything, we were having a good time, if a good time can be described as freezing half to death, sleeping little in a cold wet bunk and eating from cans. What can I say; it was satisfying in a twisted way. An adventure, after all, is mostly about the unexpected and the misery that becomes amusing later in the telling. You have to be willing to take what comes. Predictably, romantic notions persuaded us to embark on this enterprise. However, as it often happens, we ended up just trying to survive. As soon as we passed Chicago, the weather turned really cold. The first night brought the first blizzard. There were more to come. At one point, it got so cold the anchor line would freeze before reaching the deck. In the evening we had to first pound on the frozen glob of anchor, chain and line to get it free of the deck, and then dump the whole shebang in the water where it thawed and hopefully held. The boat had about an inch and a half of ice build up on the outside and about half an inch in the inside. The freezing weather and blizzards followed by gales were not in my fantasy. I had envisioned lackadaisical days, enjoying the view, with leisurely stops to fish and rest. Instead we were barely surviving the weather. Eventually it thawed and warmed to a balmy 34°F. Unfortunately the ice inside melted and soaked everything we owned. There wasn’t a single dry thing. Another consequence of the “warm weather” was heavy fog. Visibility got so poor that we couldn’t go on. The tows in the river were coming up too close before we could see and safely dodge them. The fog kept on getting thicker until we could hardly see the bow twenty feet ahead. The only safe solution was to tie up behind an island. We wanted to get South to the warm weather as soon as possible, but stopping was the most sensible choice. In all, we spent about five days waiting for the fog to disappear. Did I already mention this was the longest, worst weather combination I have ever encountered in forty-two years of boating? In spite of the vicissitudes of cold temperatures and rough weather cruising, the allure of travelling by small boat didn’t diminish. We kept on mentioning to each other, as in a litany, how nice it would’ve been in the summer. In the evenings I was re-reading the saga of Shackelton in Antarctica, and maybe it dwarfs our misery. To their advantage though, they were British, therefore born with a stiff upper lip; ours quivered at times. We eventually reached New Orleans, and it snowed. Yeah, that’s right, snow in New Orleans. The prospect of a hot shower, clean clothes and a couple of lazy days overshadowed the continuing lousy weather. From the Mississippi to Lake Ponchantrain where the marinas are, we had to go through a lock and a canal. That short trip is another story in itself.
    New Orleans was fun. My friend Kurt, who is a Jazz musician and a naval architect, was in Milwaukee visiting his family. He left us his car and apartment to use. A set of wheels to go shopping and explore the city made the visit much better. Kurt got back on our third day in port. He took us to the cool clubs where musicians hang out and jam. That is the New Orleans only the locals know about. A couple of days later, with the boat supplied and fueled up it was time to leave. There are two exits on the East side of Lake Ponchantrain to the Gulf of Mexico. We chose the shortest route, the canal that caused the flooding during hurricane Katrina. I called the Corps of Engineers, and they told me that I had another day to get through before it was closed. It was being filled to prevent another disaster. Gato was the last sailboat down the Mississippi river-Gulf Outlet. Finally, by the end of the day we arrived to open water, the Gulf of Mexico opened before us. I was claustrophobic from weeks in the river with little room to maneuver. We thought that after four, you read right, four gales on this trip we would finally catch a break. We were expecting the usual, you know, tropical waters, warm weather, the works. We had frozen our butts for five weeks, fought gales, blizzards, ice storms, sleet, fog, waves breaking over the deck and freezing, not to mention treacherous currents, whirlpools and dodging giant tows. Anybody would agree we earned a break. Lady luck, another feminist, decided to give us the cold shoulder and said no to that. To continue the month and a half of rough weather, that night she sent us more wind on the nose. And not just that, but blowing forty to fifty miles an hour. On top of that, the waves were coming from two directions: South and East. The seas were very steep and the rolling was so violent, we could see under water alternately from the windows on both sides. The boat was swinging more than a hundred degrees. While surviving this, we had to avoid oil rigs which number in the hundreds and many are very close together. Also, there are a many buoys that the Coast Guard doesn’t maintain any more so they are not lit. The first night, overcast and dark, I missed two by no more than three feet. It was a harrowing experience. Luckily, in spite of my thoughts about preplanning being overrated, something I did before leaving arguably saved my skin. Sailors have known from times immemorial that a mermaid tattoo will keep you from drowning. I went to John Hill’s tattoo parlor in Milwaukee, and he adapted a Sailor Jerry design for me. Later on many people admired it when I got to places warm enough to dismiss my clothing. I think the goddess of the waters and her girlfriend Luck appreciated the part of my body dedicated to their tribute and the pain I went through. In the event that was not enough, Jon’s name being close enough to Jonah, I thought about throwing him overboard as a sacrifice. However, in the nick of time, I remembered sacrifices are supposed to be virgins; damn! Today, as I write this, we got the first twenty four hours of pleasant weather and favorable winds. This morning we anchored west of Mujeres Island, across the bay from Cancun. By Jove we earned it!
     
  2. duluthboats
    Joined: Mar 2002
    Posts: 1,585
    Likes: 43, Points: 58, Legacy Rep: 779
    Location: Minneapolis,MN, USA

    duluthboats Senior Dreamer

    LOL!!! Gonzo you are a good stroy teller. But a tale like this needs at least a 100 photos.
     
  3. gonzo
    Joined: Aug 2002
    Posts: 15,150
    Likes: 910, Points: 123, Legacy Rep: 2031
    Location: Milwaukee, WI

    gonzo Senior Member

    I'll post some photos of the ice covered boat
     
  4. gonzo
    Joined: Aug 2002
    Posts: 15,150
    Likes: 910, Points: 123, Legacy Rep: 2031
    Location: Milwaukee, WI

    gonzo Senior Member

    photos
     

    Attached Files:

    • 032.JPG
      032.JPG
      File size:
      1.9 MB
      Views:
      415
    • 043.JPG
      043.JPG
      File size:
      2 MB
      Views:
      430
  5. bntii
    Joined: Jun 2006
    Posts: 731
    Likes: 97, Points: 28, Legacy Rep: 1324
    Location: MD

    bntii Senior Member

    Hey I recognize those ports!

    Is that a Cal?
     

  6. gonzo
    Joined: Aug 2002
    Posts: 15,150
    Likes: 910, Points: 123, Legacy Rep: 2031
    Location: Milwaukee, WI

    gonzo Senior Member

    It a Coronado 25. I believe they were designed and built by the same company
     
Loading...
Similar Threads
  1. eminence front
    Replies:
    3
    Views:
    3,371
  2. StabbyJoe89
    Replies:
    4
    Views:
    1,585
  3. Squidly-Diddly
    Replies:
    12
    Views:
    516
  4. JosephT
    Replies:
    9
    Views:
    970
  5. fnirt
    Replies:
    0
    Views:
    938
  6. sean-nós
    Replies:
    59
    Views:
    6,033
  7. SailorDon
    Replies:
    2
    Views:
    2,213
  8. claydog
    Replies:
    3
    Views:
    2,046
  9. troy2000
    Replies:
    1
    Views:
    1,369
  10. Squidly-Diddly
    Replies:
    0
    Views:
    1,033
Forum posts represent the experience, opinion, and view of individual users. Boat Design Net does not necessarily endorse nor share the view of each individual post.
When making potentially dangerous or financial decisions, always employ and consult appropriate professionals. Your circumstances or experience may be different.