Monday, June 16, 2008

Port Sheldon . . . Safe, Lucky and a Boater's Rite of Passage

They say you aren't really a boater until you've run aground. Well, Bernie and Phil have officially become "boaters"! Looking back on it, we can joke about it now but while it was happening it was truly a scary experience.

Here's the story . . .

We left South Haven Saturday morning a little before noon. Our plan was to make our way up to Port Sheldon, a distance of about 35 miles.

Port Sheldon isn't much of a "destination" harbor . There are no public docks or marinas. It's really just a small lake connected to Lake Michigan by a channel that was built when they constructed a power plant nearby. It is now a Michigan "harbor of refuge" used mostly by local boaters for day outings and by the occasional overnighter looking for a (free) out of the way place to spend the night or escape bad weather. But it's a quiet little lake, perfect for kayaking or dinghying around and, supposedly, well protected from the wind in all directions. And Phil, being the cheapskate that he is, liked the "free" part.

So we planned to arrive there at about 4pm, relax a bit in the afternoon and evening, and maybe do a little kayaking or dinghying. Then more of the kayak the next morning before making our way up to Grand Haven which is only about eleven miles to the north.

Everything was calm and peaceful when we arrived. The anchorage was a bit crowded, so we couldn't anchor exactly where we wanted, and we had to keep the scope a little shorter than we'd have liked. But everything went reasonably well. (We only scared away two boaters with our anchoring technique. That's a new low score for us!) Here's a photo of Meridian peacefully at anchor, with Bernie relaxing on the forward deck snuggled in between our bicycles and the kayak.

Here's another photo of Meridian at anchor. The distances look a bit deceptive. We were about 300 feet from the launch ramps and docks in the left of the picture and about 500 feet from the grassy shore to the right.

Early that evening, the wind started picking up on the lake and there were only two boats left in the anchorage (counting us). We had exceptionally good internet service here, so we checked the weather forecast and the radar and learned that severe thunderstorms were passing to the north and south of us. But not here. It looked like we were safe here.

We were mistaken.

At about 9:30, just as it was getting dark, the worst storm we've ever been in - even at a marina - passed through. Looking out ahead of us, you could see a wall of spray blowing down the main channel from the lake. Lots of spray moving really really fast. But that was 300 yards ahead of us, passing from left to right. It was kind of interesting to watch. We smugly thought, from our nice safe protected anchorage, "Boy, are we glad we aren't out there." But then the unexpected happened. That wall of spray made a hard left turn and came barreling across the lake directly towards us. Apparently, it was following the "cut" of the lake towards the little stream that flowed out behind us. "Kind of interesting to watch" quickly turned into "Oh &$@#!!!" We watched for the few seconds as it approached, bracing for the worst. And feeling like idiots that we hadn't moved the boat, lengthened scope, and dropped a second anchor when we had the chance (A LESSON LEARNED).

And it was pretty bad. When it hit Meridian, the bicycles and kayak on the front deck actually started lifting up into the air as though they wanted to fly away from our unsafe location. The bicycles were tied down pretty securely, but Phil was concerned about the kayak, so he grabbed a life jacket and some lines and went forward to better secure it. Those winds were so strong, he had to hold on to Meridian and brace himself while tying the kayak down better. It was hard to move around out there.

And then as he returned to the "safety" of the enclosed aft deck, everything sort of fell apart. The anchor drag alarm started beeping like crazy. The anchor had let go, and we saw we were being pushed back towards the docks and boat launch area. Apparently, Meridian, being in one of her more finicky moods (she gets that way sometimes), decided she didn't like where we had anchored her. So she went off to pick a better spot.

Not trusting Meridian's judgment, we quickly fired up the engines and stabilized Meridian less than 50 feet from shore. That was tough to do because the winds must have been blowing at 40 to 50 mph. It was hard to keep Meridian pointed into those winds. With just the slightest turn either way, the wind would push her sideways. And this was a very shallow area so we were concerned about running aground. We tried to move Meridian further forward.

As fate would have it, the anchor had grabbed hold again. When we reached a certain point, thinking we were starting to get some breathing room, suddenly we reached the end of the anchor line (the anchor was now behind us I think - hard to tell though because everything was happening so fast) and the bow of Meridian swung right around, placing us broadside to the wind and waves.

At this point, we didn't have any choice but to surrender to Meridian's preferences. The anchor gave way again, and we were pushed back towards the grassy shore in the right of the picture. We quickly found ourselves up against the shore, with the aft starboard corner of Meridian (rear passenger side) wedged against the bottom, and the bow pointing downwind towards the power plant. Oh, and the anchor had set again at an angle that would not allow Meridian to turn to the left - as though we could turn into that wind anyway.

On the plus side, it was a very soft bottom and Meridian was snuggled up safely against the shore, with the anchor set to stop forward drift and not all that much pull on the anchor due to us being "grounded". Apparently, Meridian liked THIS spot. There was nothing to do but wait until morning when we could try to extract ourselves (very early to avoid that embarrassing attention from other boaters!) or call TowBoatUS for help.

So we settled down for a night of (not much) fitful sleep. Phil had to get up every couple of hours because Bernie made him repeatedly check to see that the soft sandy bottom hadn't breached Meridian's bullet proof hull! But the bilges stayed bone dry all night long.

Oh yeah, that whole ordeal probably lasted for about 10 minutes. And the storm ended about 10 minutes later. The night turned calm and peaceful - weather wise, that is. Just a beautiful night in Port Sheldon for all boaters, at anchor or aground!

When we awoke at 5:30 the next morning, here was our situation . . .

We must give Meridian credit: if you ignored the whole anchor drag and wild careening around out of control in 50 mph winds and getting grounded thing, she actually picked a really nice spot to anchor when she decided to move that night! We were about five feet from shore and if we felt like it, we could wade ashore and take a nice morning stroll! We made a pot of coffee and relaxed on the aft deck, enjoying the scenery, prior to our morning "special project".

Project manager check list:

1) Drink coffee
2) Use dinghy to set a second anchor
2.5) Take photos of Meridian aground while out on the dinghy
3) Pull front of Meridian around with second anchor line
4) Lift up first anchor
5) Use second anchor to pull Meridian further out
6) Fire up engines and try to motor to second anchor
6.5) Verify running gear is ok prior to lifting second anchor
7) Raise second anchor
8) Move back to the "official" anchorage
9) Drop anchor and - this is the most important part -> act real nonchalant as though nothing happened.

We faithfully followed the project manager checklist and all ended well. And we actually got some good anchoring and unbeaching practice. Phil took a spare anchor out in the dinghy and set it at a better angle, then he and Bernie grabbed hold of the line and slowly pulled Meridian's bow around so that she pointed straight out. That allowed us to pull up the first anchor, and we then were able to pull Meridian around and out even further so that she began noticeably floating. We fired up the engines and she pulled right out.

We then lifted the anchor, motored out to the middle of the "official' anchorage and set the anchor again. By 6:30 am, to the casual onlooker who missed the show the prior evening, it was as if nothing happened! And if anyone was watching us unground ourselves, it actually looked like we knew what we were doing. In fact, when the folks from the other boat in the anchorage motored over to see that we were ok, we just responded "Hey, doesn't everyone anchor over there during a storm? It looked like a nice safe spot to us." ("Aground? Us? Nah, that must have been some other boaters. Probably some amateurs from the city.")

But we weren't taking any chances. The weather forecast was for a slight chance of thunderstorms. After our ordeal, "slight" was much too risky. Only wild and crazy thrill seekers dare to be out during "slight" risks. We left Port Sheldon as soon as possible, skipping the morning kayak ride, and headed directly to a nice safe slip in Grand Haven, getting there well before noon. Meridian rode the same as before the grounding, so there appears to be no damage to propellers, rudders, shaft, etc.

It was truly an experience - and we learned some valuable lessons on anchoring during potential bad weather that we will definitely put into practice in the future.

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