Friday, April 18, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 2)



With the St. Barbara stocked and ready to go, we resume our story. Please see Part 1 for an introduction to this adventure, the boat and her crew.

September 15 . . . Lake Michigan pushes back as we launch the St. Barbara from St. James’ pier. Waves roll right for us as a headwind blows the 20-ton boat toward the pilings. The lively talk that preceded our casting off turns to silence as Steve, Niall and Aidan plant their hands on the pier’s posts and push. Pat runs the engine to maneuver the heavy boat while he steadies the tiller with one foot, a cigar in his mouth. With a bit of persistence and help from the 150 horsepower diesel Ford, we are free of the pier, then free of the harbor and heading out into Lake Michigan.

It is nearly five o’clock. The men decide to raise the staysail and jib, which they have brought up on deck, along with cigarettes and coffee. Nicotine and caffeine will be the choice human fuels for this journey. I soon understand why they need the boost.

A Galway hooker relies on rope, wooden pulley blocks the size of cantaloupes and muscle to raise the sails. The mainsail is lashed to the mast – rope sliding over wood – not run through a metal slot or along a track as on more modern boats. The jib must be clipped to the tip of the bowsprit, which extends 18 feet beyond the bow. The boat’s mast and spars (the gaff, bowsprit and boom, which essentially run perpendicular to the mast and help support the sails) are as heavy as tree trunks, because they are red pine logs that Steve purchased in northern Wisconsin and outfitted for the boat. Finally, the boat is carrying more than 1,600 square feet of sails. While they are made from Dacron instead of the weighty cotton calico that would have been used in 19th-century Ireland, their size makes them heavy. The red color is traditional and comes from the boiled tree bark and butter that the Irish boat builders would rub into the cloth to keep rats and mice from devouring it.

Raising the staysail and jib takes Steve, Niall and Aidan fifteen minutes. It is not easy as the boat pitches about while they try to figure out which line is which. They are not yet used to working together, let alone sailing this boat. This is no sleek, hyper-designed racing boat in the America’s Cup! The guys simply take it as it comes, using their weight to haul on the lines. They crank and hoist until the rusty cloth billows and catches the wind. We are sailing.


Steve puts a tape into the stereo, and Irish ballads blast through the built-in speakers on deck. The volume is high to compete with the engine’s growl, but the enormous blue sky, the sunlight and the rhythm of the waves against the hull quiet us. Steve and Aidan look west across the water, while Niall sits at the stern with Patrick, who is still at the tiller. Tom sits beside me on the other side of the tiller; Robert lies on his back on the cabin roof. Their smiles could be from squinting at the sun or from a new sensation: the weight of every worry and responsibility back home in Chicago falling away as we head into open space and water.

Steve hands me an empty plastic bottle. “Write a message and put it in,” he says. I take a page from my notebook and write, Hello from the St. Barbara, an authentic Galway hooker built by Steve Mulkerrins heading home to Ireland from its birthplace in Chicago. Good luck to her crew and the person who finds this message. I draw a crude shamrock, fold up the paper and toss the sealed bottle overboard. It bobs away on the waves.

We catch our first glimpse of the Mackinac Bridge, which spans the five miles of water between lower and upper Michigan. It is barely a sketch on the horizon, but through binoculars, we can see its towers glowing pink in the setting sun. A line of birds snakes up and down above the waves. There are lots of migrating birds now, but the wind is warm.

Niall and Steve take turns at the tiller while Patrick checks the charts below deck. He has decided that after we pass beneath the bridge we’ll take a southerly route through the Straits of Mackinac. The water is shallow and riddled with rocks, but the distance is shorter. The charts mark each known shipwreck with an X. The Stalker, Cedarville, Barnum, Clay and Andrew. In fact, throughout the Straits, there are 41 known shipwrecks, while another 43 are believed to be in the area but have not yet been located. Most are wooden 19th-century schooners. Some are steel-hulled freighters. Fortunately for us, Galway hookers have a shallow draft by design.

“These boats floated on their bellies so they could deliver cargo in water as shallow as nine feet,” Steve tells me of the traditional hookers, which regularly navigated the natural harbors and rocky shores of Connemara to reach isolated villages 100 years ago.

The men lower the sails at Patrick’s request. We do not want to rely on the unevenness of sail power and wind gusts near the bridge and the shallow water to come. The engine drones. It is about 8 p.m. when we finally pass under the Mackinac Bridge. Its deck, 199 feet above us, arches gracefully like a spine. I can see cars and trucks, their headlights tiny points, gliding along like toys on its roadway. Lights dot the girders and great cables arching overhead and sparkle in the dark. It feels like we’re passing beneath a mighty skyscraper sleeping on its side.

Minutes later we have a job to do. Standing at the bow and along the weatherboards that run the boat’s length, we scan the water for rocks and other obstacles. There are dozens of buoys that come at us out of the dark. Each one corresponds to one of those Xs on the chart or some other hazard. Patrick has the tiller. Steve looks nervous. Niall eyes a gauge at the helm, calling out the water’s depth to Aidan, who’s at the chart table below confirming our course. “Sixteen feet!” Niall calls. “Fifteen feet!” “Seventeen!” We churn past a buoy, its white flag flapping to warn us of its charge, a big wreck lying on the Strait’s mucky bottom, just feet of black water and a century between it and us.

By now, the temperature has dropped and spray has made a seat at the stern a wet place to be, but we all gather there, fascinated by the night. Most of the guys have put on their foul weather gear – bulky, waterproof jackets and pants pulled on over their jeans and t-shirts. I wear my ski parka and nylon ski pants to stay dry. Steve still wears his windbreaker, a logo for the bank that provides the financing for his condo projects embroidered on the front. Dinner is deli meat, cheese and bread.

Lake Michigan recedes into blackness while the 206-mile length of Lake Huron stretches in front of us, equally as black. Turning south, we face down a strong headwind and waves that crash over St. Barbara’s bow, once again trying to force her back from whence she came.

I turn in at this point. It is my first night in a narrow berth – one of the benches beside the galley table. It is too rough to try brushing my teeth in the head, so I dive into the berth, clothes still on, and shut my eyes against the tossing cabin and queasiness, my leg braced against the table to keep myself from falling to the floor.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat.”

Photos by Ardis Berghoff.

1 comment:

2KoP said...

Beautiful writing, Ardis. My favorite part of sailing is when you get the sails up and the motor gets shut down. Moving at a steady clip accompanied only by the natural sounds of wind and waves is a completely different experiences than traveling via any kind of motor. I don't believe there is a land-based equivalent. That was quite a first day!