2009 Lake Erie solo challenge

gbowdish - October 24, 2009

Shanti has now successfully completed a solo challenge on four of the five Great Lakes. Next year I'm setting my sights on Lake Ontario to complete the set. Only two people, Wally McMinn on Odyssey and Dan Pavalat on Taz have completed a solo challenge on each of the five Great Lakes. I'm grateful for the opportunity to test myself and my boat, and feel proud to be a member of the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society.

The 2009 Lake Erie Solo Challenge started at 1000 on Saturday August 29 at the North Cape Yacht Club. As the boats were milling around the committee boat before the start, I was turning into the 20 knot west wind to raise the main. Unfortunately the main halyard became fouled around the steaming light and was wedged between the light and the mast. I was not able to free it from the deck, so just 20 minutes before the start I decided to go back to the dock to go up the mast. Fortunately, someone much taller than me was able to stand on the boom with a boat hook and freed the halyard, so I was able to get back out quickly and started just 10 minutes behind the fleet.

Some boats started with spinnakers flying, but I decided to go wing and wing with the genoa poled out.  That turned out to be the correct decision as the wind and the waves kept building until two hours later only the most agressive racer-types still had their spinnakers up. Four hours after the start, boats were reporting autopilot problems. They were having trouble holding a course in the conditions, or the autopilot simply stopped working or actually broke. By 1830 I had reefed the genoa after wrestling the whisker pole onto the deck in 25 knots of wind. One boat in my class had already retired by the 2000 radio call-in and was headed for Sandusky. Shanti was happy, surfing down 4-foot waves at 8.4 knots. By 2200 the wind was 25 knots apparent, the boat speed was 7.5 to 8 knots, and reached 10 knots while surfing. I considered reefing the main, but it's very difficult if not impossible to do that with the mainsail plastered against the spreaders and shrouds, so I reduced sail area by rolling up the genoa. I hand-steered for a few minutes to make sure the helm was not too imbalanced. I didn't have to fight the wheel, so I let the autopilot take over and it never complained.

By midnight the moon was shining brightly into the cabin, making it difficult to fall asleep. When I looked out of the cabin I could see what looked like breaking waves astern, then the stern would lift and Shanti would surf down the front of the wave at 12 knots! By 0800 Yuk Fu II, the leader, had rounded the mark off Buffalo and was on the way to Erie. Three other competitors had retired and were also heading to Erie. They reported problems with the autopilot, accidental jibes, a damaged steering pedestal, a mainsheet block that had exploded, a broken preventer. I was startled by the VHF weather alert followed by a warning of a cold front crossing Lake Erie accompanied by unstable conditions ripe for the formation of waterspouts. I did see several funnel clouds way off to the south, and one was dangerously close to Presto who was headed for Erie. Jeff told me later he altered course to avoid it when he saw the swirling water up ahead.

By 0900 I was sailing with reefed main and reefed genoa then an hour later the wind was abeam at 16 knots so I shook out the reef and was back under full sail on a broad reach. Just before the 1400 radio call-in I tried to sail wing and wing but the waves were still too sloppy so I decided to jibe as I was getting a little too far north of the rhumb line. Unfortunately the lazy sheet got caught under the whisker pole during the jibe and by the time I could go forward to free it, the genoa had wrapped itself around the forestay several times. I tried furling the sail, but that only succeeded in wrapping the jib sheet tightly around the middle of the sail and the other one was wrapped around the outside of the furling drum. I had the main on a preventer before I went forward to wrestle with the sail and fix the problem I had created.

I managed to untie the lazy sheet and get it unwrapped, but meanwhile the wind was whipping the sail around unwrapping the furling line from the drum. I was so focused on the sail that I didn't notice the rain squall which overtook me until the main jibed with the 30 degree wind shift that came with the squall. I returned to the cockpit to deal with the mainsail, tried heaving to but that just increased the apparent wind and the rolling of the boat in the waves. I got Shanti on course for the turning mark just off Buffalo, now just 25 miles away, and headed back to the foredeck to deal with the luffing genoa, working in the lee behind the mainsail. I was finally successful getting the sheets unfouled, and by then the sail was completely out but the apparent wind was down to 10 knots. I tried furling the sail but only half would come in since several wraps had come off the drum. After a short break to consider my options and check in with Serendipity since I was 40 minutes late for the radio call-in, I was back on the foredeck manually wrapping the furling line around the drum while surfing down waves at 7 knots.

 I rounded Seneca Shoal light at 1808, more than an hour behind Taz and Odyssey, the other boats in my class. Memories of the failed jibe were still fresh in my mind, so I did the more conservative maneuver and tacked through 310 degrees, immediately putting a reef in the main with the apparent wind now 20 knots. At 2000 I complained about a 25 knot gust that led me to put the second reef in the main and John from Sola Fide said not to worry since the wind was light once I got past Dunkirk. I managed to keep the wind most of the way to Erie, but by 0100 I was back to full main and genoa. I heard Taz finish a few minutes later, which was good for first place in our division.  Odyssey finished at 0400, then contacted me to check on my position. At that point I was still 3.4 miles away from the finish with light wind, and I wasn't sure I could cross the line within the 1:21 that he owed me. I was looking for the finish mark, R2 which my chart and chartplotter said was lit. At 0508 I nearly collided with the unlit R4, so took my finish time there, a short distance beyond the actual finish line. I was focused on the only flashing red light I could see, which turned out to the the light on the end of the entrance pier into Presque Isle Bay.

Shanti finished the 271 nautical mile course in 43:08 for an average speed of 6.3 knots. Yuk Fu II finished in 29:30 hours, a record that I'm sure will stand for many years. The last boat crossed the line by 0835 for an elapsed time of 46:35. Fourteen boats started, and ten finished, all in less than 48 hours! The early finish gave us plenty of time to share stories and get to know one another. As Dan from Taz said, the objective is to finish the challenge. I'm grateful to have finished without breaking anything on the boat, and I look forward to completing a singlehanded challenge on Lake Ontario in 2010.