A Lake Superior Sailing Experience, Part Two of Two: In Which I Become a Winch Wench


We sailed in a 32-foot Westsail.

When our sailing captain was hoisting the genoa sail during my recent trip (see Part One), the block for it broke off the top of the mast. A block is a pulley that the line (rope) for the sail goes through. Let’s just say it’s a rather necessary piece of equipment if one wants to use a sail.

We had other sails up, however, so we were able to voyage to our desired destination without the genoa. But the issue needed to be addressed. So after we anchored off Outer Island in the Apostle Islands (the most remote of all the islands), our captain decided on a daring and strenuous plan.

DSC04744.JPGMy friend Russ was to hoist him up to the top of the mast so he could replace the block with a spare he happened to have on board. This feat would involve several ropes and climbing gear, along with the help of a winch. Russ was supposed to pull the rope by hand, which was wrapped around the body of the winch spool several times for support.

My job was to take pictures of the event and pray that our captain did not fall and hurt himself in the process. If that happened, let’s just say we would have a questionable chance of making it back home. So I felt I had a rather important job.

The captain donned his harness and got all the ropes in place. Russ started pulling, I started taking photos, and the operation commenced.

Now, you should understand that masts are tall. I’m not sure exactly how tall, but they seem even taller when you’re on a boat that’s rocking in the water, even if the rocking is gentle.


Captain on his way up the mast…

Russ was able to get Captain about a quarter of the way up the mast when his progress slowed and it became obvious that more person-power was needed. So I pocketed my camera, put the handle in the winch, and hauled away. Between my winching and Russ’s pulling, we were able to get Captain half-way up the mast where he had a different job to do, fixing something else that had broken a while ago.

We rested while he worked, but soon he was ready to go to the top. Man, we winched and pulled as hard as we could, and slowly, steadily hoisted Captain all the way up. Thankfully, the waves and winds remained calm, and he was able to do his work.

Then his legs started going numb from the pressure of his harness. And clambering up a mast is hard work, even if you’re being hoisted. And I suspect it’s a bit scary up there.


All the way to the top!

Before he had the job completed, he wanted to come down. So we lowered him, with me standing behind Russ and holding the rope as a backup in case another set of hands was needed to steady his descent.

When Captain’s feet touched the deck, we all breathed secrets sighs of relief, even if the job was incomplete. We couldn’t sail as fast without the genoa, but suddenly, that seemed all right for now.

And I gained yet another new sailing skill on this trip, that of a Winch Wench.


Outer Island sand spit, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Other things I learned as a Lake Superior sailing newbie:

-You need to be willing to take orders.

-You have to be willing to be taught everything, even how to go to the head (the boat had a compostable toilet).

-Bring your winter clothes, even in the middle of summer.

-Pay attention all the time to everything.

-The captain is the boss of the ship, but the lake and the winds are the boss of the captain.

-Bring along good food, good music, and good scotch. They can go a long way to make up for any uncomfortableness.

Anyone else out there have more to add?


Sunset in Grand Marais Harbor, Minn.

A Lake Superior Sailing Experience, Part One: Chocolate Milk and Biting Flies


I recently meandered out onto Lake Superior on my first extended sailboat trip across it with some friends. We left Duluth, Minnesota, and headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and then traversed the western arm of the lake to Grand Marais Harbor in Minnesota.

Since I am writing this, you know I survived the three-day trip. If fact, I would like to think I thrived, despite turning green with seasickness once (I avoided hurling, though!) and having to wear all my winter gear, plus hand warmers, on the 4th of July.

I learned a lot about sailing, but still have more to know. And I got a firsthand look at conditions on the lake, which is useful for my job, since we fund research projects on Lake Superior.

Two things struck me and my sailing companions. The first was the color of the water. Almost all the way to the Apostles it was the hue of chocolate milk. The large extent and persistence of the coloring was unusual. There were also floating logs to watch out for.

According to a news story I read upon returning home, the condition is due to a series of recent heavy rains that have sent thousands of tons of silt into the lake. Chequamegon Bay, on the other side of the Apostles, is also experiencing heavy sedimentation.

Usually, the chocolate milk dissipates within a few days, but this round of it is lasting longer than usual because we kept having downpours every few days. Most of the sediment comes from the Nemadji River and its red clay banks, along with the St. Louis River.

We also had more than double the amount of usual rainfall for the month of June. Anglers and charter captains are having to travel farther than usual out into the lake to find clear water for fishing.


Stable flies covering jeans during a beach walk. Good thing they can’t bite through denim!

The second notable thing were the flies. Known locally by the name of “ankle-biters” or sand flies, stable flies look like a common housefly but they are meaner because they bite – usually a person’s ankles. I can attest that there are roughly a gazillion of them out on the lake and its shores this summer.

The only thing that saved us from certain insanity on a shore trip to Outer Island was the fact that we were wearing jeans, which they couldn’t bite through.

The flies congregated in seething clusters from our knees down, rarely venturing farther up our legs. Thank goodness they had no interest in our bare arms or we would have had to run screaming back to our dinghy!

According to a story on National Public Radio, researchers have figured out how and why the flies and other biting insects like mosquitos do this. They think these biting bugs target feet and ankles because we are less likely to notice (and therefore kill) them. They hone in on their target by smell, and apparently, the sweat and skin on our ankles smells different from that of the rest of our body.

Besides wearing jeans, we found it helpful to elevate our feet off the ground while we were on the boat. They didn’t seem to be able to find our ankles if they were level with the rest of our legs. Conditions on the boat never got bad enough that we needed to apply repellant, but we were glad we had some along, just in case.

Although the water wasn’t its typical crystal-clear blue, and we had many insect stowaways aboard our sailboat, Lake Superior was still magical. I greatly enjoyed spending time on it, and hope to do so again someday.



A bear got to this beach before we did.