Sailing in the USA by Craig Middleton.
After Rio, I assisted in the delivery of an American Yacht to Ft. Lauderdale in the USA. On arrival I gave my good friend Bjorn Johansen a call up at Palmer Johnson Boatyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin where he worked as Vice President. He suggested I go up there and sail with them on the Great Lakes and after 2 days, I collected my ticket at Ft. Lauderdale airport and was bound for Green Bay airport, closest to Sturgeon Bay. They were to send one of their small planes to collect me. Well, on arrival at Green Bay Airport it was bitterly cold with snow on the ground and hailing at the same time! I was called to the National Car Rental counter. It turned out that they were unable to send their plane down due to the weather and I was to drive to Sturgeon Bay. This is when the first grip of fear set in. With not much choice I was taken to this huge tank of a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side, given the keys and a map and bade farewell.
Fear now really sunk in as I had never before in my life driven a car like this, on the wrong side of the road, never seen snow, in the dark with sleet pelting down and no idea where to go! Huge 18-wheeler trucks sped past me and hooted for me to get out of their way. After about 4 stressful hours (the trip would normally take about 1.5 hours) I arrived at Palmer Johnson Boatyard in Sturgeon Bay, absolutely exhausted. Meanwhile BJ (Bjorn Johansen) and his buddy had been drinking the time away and decided that I should, on my first night in Sturgeon Bay, be taught how to sail? You can imagine my response, but after a case of beer they were having none of my resistance.
Into his truck we jumped and after a short drive we came to the edge of what I thought was a lake, bearing in mind that it was pitch dark but had fortunately stopped raining. BJ jumped out with his buddy and proceeded to “walk on water” to what looked like a yacht with a raked mast. Now, for the first time I realized that they were walking on the ice and the boat was a type “DN“ iceboat. I had never seen an iceboat before in my life let alone been standing on ice. “Get in and whatever you do DO NOT turn into the wind! If this boat lifts a runner it will fall over” shouted BJ.
“Pull in the main” and with that they gave me a push and I was off at one incredible rate which seemed even faster as I was sitting very close to the ice. And just as BJ had said, as the speed increased, the windward runner started to lift off the ground. Instinct told me to turn up but just before it went over I remembered what BJ had said and I turned downwind. To my amazement (and horror), the boat accelerated faster and faster and I had no idea how to stop! Once again that night, fear set in as I was whizzing over the ice not knowing how to slow down or stop nor had I any idea of where I was nor where they were as it was pitch dark!
Eventually I slowly turned the boat into the wind with the mainsheet fully free and we glided to a halt. I sat there without moving for a good 5 minutes, frozen cold as I was not dressed for these conditions and in the middle of nowhere. After about 10 minutes I heard the sound of the truck driving in my direction. I was rescued and the boat was towed back to the bank. This was my initiation into Ice Boating and Sturgeon Bay. I slept exceedingly well that night!
Without my knowledge BJ had arranged a job for me as Boat Captain on the beautifully designed Sparkman and Stephens yacht named “Bay Bea” belonging to Pat Haggerty, owner of Palmer Johnson and President of Texas Instruments. At this time I was only 24 years old and deeply honored to be appointed to this prestigious position. The boat was undergoing a refit to be ready for the summer sailing season on the Great Lakes. What an experience! We raced all the races in the Green Bay area and then I took the boat down to Chicago Yacht club where I met the likes of the famous Ted Turner and many other wealthy American yacht owners.
In some of the Wednesday evening races, there were in excess of 350 yachts competing. We sailed the entire Great Lakes circuit including the Chicago Mackinac, Huron Mackinac and Trans Superior races. After this circuit, Bay Bea went back into the shed for major modifications by widening the boat by 6” each side and generally improving the rating. Work on Bay Bea became delayed due to other boats being constructed in the yard which required delivery and we only re-launched during November when once again, the snow had arrived.
The crew and I had a very cold delivery down to Chicago and again, for the first time in my life I experienced frozen ice on the foredeck in the morning. On arrival we de-rigged the boat and placed the mast on wooden stands on deck. As soon as possible we departed Chicago and entered the Illinois River and motored down to Grafton where we entered the mighty Mississippi River for our journey down to New Orleans. This was an extremely enlightening, scary at times and educational experience which I shall never forget.
The river runs at 6+ knots in places and marker buoys, the size of our channel markers, are completely submerged most of the time. Once, when we motored to weather of the buoy and stemmed the flow, the buoy came rushing towards the side of our boat at an alarming speed and only quick reaction by the helmsman avoided serious damage. The navigation down river is very tiring as one has to go from transit to transit across the river, constantly watching and adjusting for tidal set and mile long barges who take up the whole river to do their turns – it is not simply a case of going straight down the river.
We would leave the anchorage/marina early in the morning and motor all day in order to achieve the 100 or so miles between stops. There were a few times that the mileage between marinas was in excess of the mileage which we could cover in daylight and this necessitated us tying a bow line around a tree on the river bank with the yacht aground on the sand. It is too dangerous to attempt to navigate the river at night and none of the crew had a peaceful sleep on those occasions. During the night one could hear the sand from the bank collapsing into the river due to the strong current. In the morning when we were ready to leave, we simply released the bow line and turned the wheel and the current between the bank and the yacht dug a hole for us and we were free in next to no time.
One of the interesting things which happened halfway down river was the engine oil becoming contaminated with water due to a seal between the water pump and engine allowing ingress. Although we had a very fine water filter fitted, water still eroded the seal due to the large amount of sand being sucked in. We attempted to have the engine repaired, but it seized two days later. We were stuck and rapidly running out of time to get the boat to Clearwater, Florida in time for the start of the SORC regatta. After three days of frustration, Pat Haggerty sent his Lear Jet down to us with a brand new engine and we were off again two days later.
We arrived in New Orleans after 10 days on the river and re-stepped the mast. Again we were having overheating problems with the new engine, so we decided to sail down the 35 mile channel to the Gulf of Mexico and then sailed across to Clearwater. Once there, we were met by Courtney Ross, who towed us to his boatyard and Bay Bea was once again on the hard. We prepared her for the SORC and ended up coming 2nd overall. After arriving back in Ft. Lauderdale from the Miami Nassau race, she was trucked back to Sturgeon Bay and I departed for my next sailing adventure.