Flies, freezing fog and not another yacht in sight
If we had ever been tempted into thinking that the first leg of this trip through the Great Lakes would be easy, then we were always destined to be dissapointed.
The pilot optimistically suggested that the sailing season extends from mid April to mid October in these parts. However the local yachtsmen don't seem particularly inclined to adhere to this advice. Just as we were apparently one of the last boats left on the water when we sailed into northern Lake Michigan last September, we appeared to be one of the first afloat when we started out from Chicago in early May. In almost every harbour we entered, we were the only boat in the marina and after 800 miles of sailing through Lake Michigan, the North Channel, Georgian Bay, and Lake Huron, we are now slowly beginning to understand why!!
Sailing in this region at this time of the year is not without its "challenges". Although the temperatures on land might have occasionally been climbing into the high twenties and low thirties, on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron the water temperature remained resolutely down at the 2 degrees C level. The moment any sort of a breeze picked up over the water it was like being inside a deep freeze with a blaster fan turned on.
Although it was late May by the time we reached the North Channel we were nonetheless told by the locals that the ice in the channel had only broken up a week or so earlier. The daily marine weather forecasts were still broadcasting pack ice warnings for western Lake Superior and many of the smaller rocks and islets in the north channel remained covered in snow and ice.
The massive discrepancies betweeen sea and land temperatures, together with local land effects, perhaps accounted for the fact that the marine weather forcecasts were a lot less accurate than we are generally accustomed to.
Within a 6 to 12 hour window they usually "got it right" but the extended forecasts from 12 to 48+ hours proved very variable . What was predicted 24+ hours out very rarely made it into the "next 12 hours" forecast. Had we just been day hopping this wouldn't have been a great problem, but when faced with a couple of 200 mile passages having few, if any, harbours of refuge with sufficient depth to accomodate us en route, it would have been nicer to have had a little more confidence in the longer term forecasts. In the end we did not encounter too much heavy wind, but when we did it came quickly and unexpectedly. On a couple of occasions the wind increased from 5 to 40 knots within the space of a few minutes before dying just as quickly.
Fog proved to be another early season "challenge" and over a third of the 800 miles we have sailed on this leg have been in visibility of 10 metres or less. We had deliberately taken the slightly longer route through the North Channel and Georgian Bay so we could take in an area that enjoys a reputation as one of the most beautiful cruising areas in North America. However we were destined not to see any of its beauty. Instead it offered us a testing exercise in blind navigation through rock strewn channels and narrow passages - not altogether a bad thing as it gave us plenty of opportunity to get familiar with and gain confidence in our newly fitted radar - a test it passed with flying colours!
A final challenge came in the form of swarms of black flies which descended on us whenever the wind dropped below 10 knots. Apparently a phenomenon that only occurs for a couple of days in their short breeding season, it is nonetheless throughly unpleasant when it happens. Within minutes of the wind dying the sails and decks were covered in a mat of black flies so thick that they blocked the cockpit drains when we tried to rinse them away. Our once pristine white sails ilook as if they have gone 10 rounds with a muck spreader and we are still trying to rid the decks of the stains left behindby the flies.
All these "challenges" were things we might reasonably have expected to encounter once we reached Greenland, but we weren't counting on it being quite so cold whilst we were still at a latitude only a few degrees further north than the Balearic Islands!! However, its all been "good practice" for the challenges that lie ahead in the Labrador Sea , and one glance at the weather much of Europe has been experiencing this May is enough to leave us feeling that things could be a whole load worse!