The Great Lakes Singlehanded Society Inagural Lake Erie Solo Challenge

From the Log and Lens of Paul Nickerson on Nicknack, a 1979 Tartan 37c.

Since 1995 I have been sailing single-handed, first on my Tartan 30 True Blue and since 2003 on my Tartan 37c Nicknack. In that time I have accumulated almost 3000 miles in LESS events but always in the back of my mind a goal was to do a GLSS Challenge. Time just never allowed me to put one on my calendar. The day I heard about the '07 Inaugural Lake Erie Challenge my plans were made. I had just replaced the 12 volt power and charging system on Nicknack and only some safety gear needed to be updated to meet all the equipment requirements.

The course from North Cape Yacht Club at the west end of Lake Erie, North of Pelee Island to the Seneca Shoal buoy near Buffalo back to Erie, distance of 271 nm.

A summer of preparation included updating my Solas Flare inventory, renting a life raft, purchasing a Watch Commander alarm, ordering new charts, adding more jack lines, updating my hand held VHF and some other safety gear like a new knife while getting in a 120 nm tune-up sail. After lots of anticipation it was finally the week before the start and time to look at the weather in preparation. The forecast: Stationary front with scattered or isolated thunderstorms every day with a Cold Front coming through on Saturday, the day of the start. The weatherman actually turned out accurate on this one but the isolated storms did prove quite interesting.

GLSS member Jim Otton helped me deliver Nicknack from Cleveland and while we enjoyed a fantastic night sail with 10 knots of wind and clear skies overhead to the Lake Erie Islands, we watched lightning through the night to the north. As day broke and we were about to clear South Bass Island it was clear we were sailing into this storm. We slowed down hoping it would pass to the north, and while the rain went north, the wind clocked west right on the nose at 25 knots. On went the motor and crash went the bow for 2 hours. After it cleared the winds switched back to the southwest and we had a wonderful sail into North Cape Yacht Club from West Sister Island. From storms earlier in the week, Lake Erie was filled with debris. Boats making this trip reported seeing numerous trees and branches floating through the area.

The clubhouse at NCYC

At North Cape, Wally McMinn was there to greet us and assign a dock. He had things so organized it was scary, even lent us his van for a trip to Mike's Marine and dinner. Other challengers arrived throughout the day, all with their own weather stories. The fleet continued to arrive on Friday with dinner, skippers meeting and a vicious thunderstorm all part of the evening. I can't say enough about how great a host NCYC and it's members were.

NICKNACK in her slip at NCYC

Part of the fleet docked at North Cape Yacht Club

Mark Gutteridge's Gutsea

Bill Kruger's Jabberwocky and John Ollila's Finnair

Randy Handley's Untamed and John Lubimir's Sabrena

Wally McMinn's Odyssey

Tom Agerter's Jacelyn

Tom Hughes' Split Decision

As the Saturday morning start approached the big question was the weather. After seeing the Friday night storm pass through noone wanted a repeat, yet the forecast was still for a front going through and the winds going from SW to NW. The winds held from the southwest for the start and the dash through the islands. Some aggressively set spinnakers immediately while others took the wait and see approach waiting for the shift.

John Lubrimir in Sabrena thinks about the downwind start and what sails to set.

For now it was the Main and Genoa but later the asymetrical went up for a touch too long.

Bill Tucker in GL Cubed got the spinnaker up early and stayed close to the front of the pack.

Tom Hughes in Split Decision follows Steve Stoll in Bayonet before Steve wrapped his chute.

Phil Rubright in Novation chases down the fleet.

Later he'll try to set his spinnaker.

Randy Handley in Untamed stays with the fleet early but has no spinnaker to confuse his decision making.

Tom Hughes tries to sail wing on wing before eventually going to a spinnaker.

On Nicknack I kept my goal of finishing in mind and played it conservative not setting a chute. First to go was Steve Stoll who wrapped his spinnaker around the headstay and worked over an hour to get it un wrapped. Next, Phil Rubright wrapped his spinnaker, but he could not get it unwrapped so he pulled into Scutter's on Pelee Island hoping to unwrap it after the squall. After, enjoying a beer ashore with other sailors, Phil disqualified himself, finally got the spinnaker unwrapped and sailed home Sunday to drive to the finish.

Phil Rubright concentrates on keeping the sails full while running downwind.

The Toledo shipping channel is long and narrow. Typical depths in that part of Lake Erie are only 20 feet.

As the fleet converged on East Sister Island it was apparent the shift was on it's way with plenty of white caps on the horizon. How hard would it blow and would it stay to the north were the two big questions the fleet gambled on. Some got their spinnakers down, some didn't. I put a cautious reef in my main and easily handled the 25 - 30 knots I got on the south edge.

Wally McMinn got his asymmetrical down but on the way back to the cockpit the main jibed with the preventer on and bent the boom 90 degrees.

Wally cleans up and sets sail after bending his boom.

Bill Kruger saw his chute blow apart, John Lubimir bent his whisker pole 90 degrees while tearing his asymmetrical, John Ollila took a hard knockdown and Dave Evans blew the spinnaker crane apart and ran over his spinnaker causing a hard broach. Everyone was so busy on their own boats that nobody saw Walt Norris get away, never to be seen by the fleet again. With the winds now out of the Northwest, the fleet set down the rhumb line towards Long Point. Wally McMinn sailed on without the use of his mainsail.

The front passes by the fleet leaving a NW wind as the fleet passes Pelee Point.

Tom Agerter in Jacelyn, a Ranger 23 sails alongside.

The skies start to clear after the front.

The first of a series of beautiful sunsets for the fleet.

By sunset the skies were clearing for a beautiful Lake Erie sunset as the winds slowly clocked around to the north.

Night on the shipping lanes proved interesting, but when the tug pulling a barge on a long cable divided the fleet, I got seperated and found myself sailing a knock towards Cleveland while other nearby boats tacked and got north, never to be seen again. Winds proved lighter and shiftier to the south of the rhumb line and once there it was impossible to get back north into the leftover swells.

Sunrise was awesome and by 0800 I was back sailing the rhumb line after a long night. The radio check showed how the fleet had separated into groups overnight. The northerly wind held until 1300 and by 1400 it was gone. While I was becalmed on Nicknack the fleet ahead were reporting 5 knot boat speeds at the 1400 radio check. At 1500 the winds began to fill from the south and up went the spinnaker. The winds never got above 5-6 knots and you could see both the Canadian and US shorelines as evening approached. The middle of the lake did not seem to be the place to be but I was locked in to it.

On the VHF radio we heard from the shore committee in Erie setting up. They had heard from Walt Norris on his Hobie 33 and he was approaching the finish while many of us were only half way through the challenge.

This butterfly I swear never touched a sheet or helped in any way.

Dead downwind the spinnaker added 2 knots of boat speed.

The winds shifted slowly to the west and eventually I jibed to stay on the rhumb line just before dark. A light fog filled in on Lake Erie and eventually the winds died about 0100. One of the hardest parts of sailing solo for me is dealing with the calms. I always work hard trying to get the boat moving again and often would like to be napping at these times. At 0500 my boat speed was just getting up over 2 knots but it was looking like a beat to Buffalo.

0649 Sunrise with not a cloud in the sky.

Enjoying the sunrise below while making breakfast of corned beef hash and coffee.

By 0700 the winds shifted east and started to build. A tack to starboard and the continuing shift had me back on the layline for Seneca Shoal with the wind going to SE by 0800. Meanwhile, during breakfast and an attempt to charge the batteries, smoke (or steam) came out of the engine compartment after 5 minutes of charging. Further investigation showed a failing cooling system water pump dripping antifreeze on the belt sending it all over the engine compartment and steaming off the hot engine. With 400 amp hours of batteries and about 200 used it was time to conserve batteries as possible. By 0930 I had cleared Long Point and enjoyed seeing triple digits on the depth sounder for the first time on Lake Erie. The morning breeze held until 1200 and then disappeared. During one circle the GPS showed .75 knots to the east while the bow was pointed to the west. By 1330 a northerly breeze filled in and again I was laying Seneca Shoal but this time on port tack with speeds playing with 4 knots.

Looking towards the New York shoreline I thought I spotted part of the fleet that had turned the mark at Buffalo and were heading to Erie. Their radios were much clearer at the 1800 check-in. Dave Evans was approaching the finish in Erie.

One of many freighters on the lake goes past Long Point Light.

Another freighter comes out of the Welland Canal and turns into the shipping lane.

I was afraid this guy would ask for my passport but he just checked my back stay tension for about 30 minutes.

The winds held from the north through sunset and then began to clock to the east.

Another picture perfect Sunset.

The full moon rises as the sun sets.
I sailed this knock to shore but what was once on the layline now left me 6 miles on starboard tack to the Seneca Shoal Buoy. Following Dave Evans advice from Ratso who called finding the buoy at night like finding a light on a Christmas Tree, I focused on the GPS and sailed towards the mark. Finally about 1/2 mile from the buoy I actually found it with binoculars. By then the winds were almost gone and the full Moon lit the flat shiny lake. Looking over my shoulder I could see the lights of Steve Stoll on Bayonet approaching the mark. I picked up a puff and got around the mark at 0148 as the offshore breeze filled in. By 0300 the breeze was at 10 knots and I was making good speed towards the finish and getting some much need rest as Nicknack seemed to sail itself effortlessly.

About 0530 Wally McMin came over the VHF to announce that we were about to witness a full lunar eclipse. For the next half hour we were mesmerized as the full Moon slowly got eaten by the Earth's shadow until at 0551 it was gone.

With the new day I wondered what crazy things the wind would do. I sat eating breakfast hoping the winds would back enough to set the spinnaker which is what the weatherman was predicting. But as I worked up the shoreline there was a strange set of waves coming at me as well as those of the offshore breeze. At 0800 as I approached Dunkirk I could see the reason. From the lake Dunkirk is not much more than a power plant which you can see for 20 miles or more. There around Dunkirk was a lake full of white caps and a shift to the south. I sailed through these conditions for 2 hours until they subsided just past Dunkirk.

The six amigos (Finnair, GL-3, Jabberwocky, Sabrena, Gutsea and Split Decision) who always seemed close together ahead were trying to get across the finish line in light and shifty winds. Out east the wind slowly kept shifting to the west and I sailed into the shift and then guessed perfect on when to tack to starboard while the shift continued lifting me to a perfect layline course to the finish. At one point I looked to shore seeing a boat heading east to find out it was Randy on Untamed heading to Seneca. We chatted on the VHF for a few minutes and though behind his spirits and determination were high. In Cleveland an onshore breeze like this would typically last til dusk, but this wasn't Cleveland. The wind filled and then slacked and then by 1600 it all went away while I was just 12 miles from the finish. Never say to the shore committee something like things look great and I'll see ya for dinner when you are more than an hour from the finish. At 1800 I got a short puff offshore pushing me about 2 miles. I had hopes that this would be the offshore gradient or night breeze as predicted. Not yet! At 1930 I got a short puff onshore pushing me another 1.5 miles. Then, becalmed again but another beautiful sunset on a mirrored lake with the finish line in sight. The entire day I could see Bayonet behind me, sometimes gaining and then falling back again.

There's the finish line about 8 miles away at the entrance to Presque Isle Bay.

The sunsets were a little different every night.

By 2100 the cats paws of the offshore breeze were filling in and it was a slow but steady, almost 3 knots, sail to the finish at 2330 when the winds were dying again. I sailed for the entrance to the bay but it was slow as I had minimal motor time available and I wanted to save that for docking. After finally drifting through the entrance the winds picked up again and I sailed at 6 knots across the bay to Erie Yacht Club 2 miles away. I've never sailed the Tartan 37 into a dock and didn't want to make this the first time. I got the main down and then sailed the Genoa right up to the club entrance, rolled it up and fired up the engine for a 150 foot spurt to the gas dock. At this time Steve Stoll was announcing his approach to the finish so Tom Munson and his shore crew tied me up and headed for the shore finish viewing area.

The course Nicknack sailed during the GLSS Solo Lake Erie Challenge.

By 0800 it was time to move Nicknack to the closest available dock where the water pump finally bound up and died. Wally McMinn came in soon after and we all got to admire his bent boom. He showed great determination in finishing without the use of his mainsail but I don't think anything could stop him from finishing this GLSS Inaugural Lake Erie Challenge. He did an unbelievable job organizing this event and that included setting up some press interviews.

Bill Kruger, Paul Nickerson and John Ollila discuss how their Tartans handled the Lake Erie Solo Challenge

The week before the start I got a call from a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, Molly Kavanaugh, who a sailor herself was doing a story on this event. She did phone interviews with Wally, Bill Kruger and John Ollila and came to Nicknack to interview me and take pictures. Having no idea what to expect for the story, and with a week of flooding that made national news, I figured the story would be buried behind all the other hard news. My wife called to say she found the story online Saturday morning and it was rather brief. It turned out to be a teaser for what was to cover half the front page of the Metro Section with another half page inside. What a wonderful surprise to see this event get basically a full page of coverage, including 2 pictures of me. They also did a follow up of the finishes.

Click on image for readable pdf version.

Front Page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer Metro Section Saturday August 25.

At the awards banquet I was happy to receive a red flag for second in the Michigan Division but most of all my goal of a GLSS Burgee and the feeling of accomplishment this challenge brings the first time. I was even more surprised when my name was announced for the Commodore Perry Trophy. For years I have been trying to get solo sailing organized on Lake Erie and now with this Challenge as an ultimate goal hopefully I'll see more success and that is what I see as the focus of the Commodore Perry Award. It was displayed at my home club, Edgewater Yacht Club, over Labor Day with a copy of the Plain Dealer story the club had posted. I can't tell you how many people have sought me out to congratulate me on this event so the word is getting out about the GLSS. When people ask how did I do my reply is simple, "I finished!" with a smile. I know in the back of some of their minds they are thinking they could do this and now they have a venue on Lake Erie to do it.

The sailors tell tales next to the keg of beer before the awards presentation.

I get my GLSS Burgee!

While I had a great time sailing the challenge, yes even while becalmed, even in the squall, the days after the finish were just as great meeting and finally spending time with many of the sailors. To have Jim Otton who was a great inspiration to me come up for the awards, to see Phil Rubright, dispite dropping out come to the finish, to have a few rounds with everyone and talk sailing, this is one hell of a group of sailors. But it wasn't over because the last boat hadn't finished. After an absolutely dead day on Lake Erie Wednesday, (even the club races were cancelled) Randy Handley was still trying to finish the last 20 miles. Thursday promised wind from the NE and Randy finally got the breeze and the last 20 miles to the finish. Because this event is first about finishing, everyone was there to greet Randy at the Gas Dock. If he isn't an inspiration to solo sailing then I guess you're not meant to sail. You see Randy is in just his second year of sailing. He calls himself an adventurer who found sailing. The next time someone tells you they'd love to solo but their boat... look again at the person who calls himself a sailor because it's not about the boat.

Erie Yacht Club was a great host and facility for the finish and my personal thanks for some help getting my water pump. The last thanks goes to Tom Munson and Erik Johnson for all their work with organizing and manning the start and finish. They were there 24 hours a day for the finishers so maybe the sailors got more sleep than them. I can't imagine the hours they put in along with the McMinns for an Inaugural event like this, but I remember meeting with them over Easter weekend while they were traveling through Cleveland to check out Erie. Their reward will be to watch this event grow in future years on their ground work.

My new water pump arrived Thursday and I was ready for the 85 mile trip back to Cleveland on Friday which typical of Lake Erie, included every imaginable wind. From 20 knot winds and 6 foot waves to dead calms with a great night finish in Cleveland.

I hope to see many of you next year at another GLSS Lake Erie Challenge.

Feel free to e-mail me questions and comments.

The 2008 Lake Erie Solo Challenge is scheduled for August 23rd. Visit the GLSS site for more information.