Rockin’ Lake Erie

Compared to the other Great Lakes, Lake Erie is shallow and narrow. Those are undesirable characteristics in people, and not particularly commendable traits in a lake. It makes the lake seem cantankerous, spiteful even—as if it resents being the smallest Great Lake.

It may be the runt of the litter in terms of water volume, but by surface area, Erie is larger than Lake Ontario—the last lake of the chain. Nonetheless, Erie’s average depth is only 63 feet with a maximum depth of 250 feet; the west end of the lake is 25-to-30 feet deep. By comparison, Lake Superior has an average depth of 483 feet and its deepest point if 1,333 feet. But then Superior holds more water than all the other lakes combined.

Lake Erie – The Middle Child

Besides being the smallest of the Great Lakes, Erie is also a middle child in this family of lakes. In fact, Lake Erie exhibits classic symptoms of the so-called “middle child syndrome.” This syndrome is thought to develop among children who are neither first nor last in the lineup of siblings. They tend to suffer from perceived exclusion or even neglect in the classic nuclear family.

Erie throws tantrums like a neglected child seeking attention. Prevailing west winds out of the American Midwest really agitate Erie, but any wind can do the trick. As noted in, “the slightest breeze can kick up lively waves” as high as two to four feet with crests just a few feet across. Locally known as “square waves,” this surface action provides a rough ride from any angle of attack toward or away from the wind. It is particularly uncomfortable trying to cruise or sail across the wind direction—be it from the west, north, east or south. As a rule of thumb, the longer the fetch—the distance upwind to the nearest shore—the bigger the waves and the rougher the ride.

I got a good dose of that petulant Lake Erie attitude on a sunny mid-summer day sailing from Vermilion, Ohio, to Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island. The route included some 25 nautical miles (almost 30 statute miles), across 10-to-15 knot northeast winds on a beam reach. A beam reach is where the wind bears down on you at a right angle to the direction are sailing. That point of sail is called a beam reach, if you don’t know nautical terms.

Boy’s Time on the Water

I was sailing with longtime sailing buddy Kevin C., late of the sailing vessel Legacy, a 40-foot Tartan. Julie and I met Kevin and his wife, Kathy, 20-some years ago at a Minneapolis sailing group meeting. We’ve sailed and socialized together ever since. A couple years ago, they traded Midwest snowstorms for Florida Gulf Coast sunshine. I hung out with Kevin this spring while Julie and Kathy went off sailing with some other women in the Bahamas. While our wives were gone, Kevin and I put together a plan to get him on Gaviidae this summer.

Lake Erie
Kevin sending Julie off on her road trip.

He caught up with us Friday when I retrieved him and his guitar from the Cleveland airport. Our original plan was to meet up in Vermilion, then sail 32 miles north to Cleveland and hit the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame (RnR HoF). The bonus was we would tie up at the marina adjacent to the HoF, popularly known as the Rock ‘n Dock.

Kevin is a die-hard rock ‘n roll aficionado and performer. Besides playing bass and singing in rock bands over the years, he was the music director for many of those bands. In recent years he has focused on guitar and currently performs in a guitar duo in the Fort Myers, Florida area. When we get together, he’ll indulge me with a little rock and blues on one of his guitars. I try to accompany him on the blues harmonicas I noodle around on.

I collected Kevin and the guitar he brought at the Cleveland airport. He crammed his 6 ½-foot frame into the passenger seat of the Mercedes 550 Roadster loaner car we were driving with his guitar between his knees and we drove to Vermilion. Gaviidae was tied to the long city dock wall in the Vermilion River just downstream from the bridge and next to the busy Quaker Steak & Lube restaurant on the waterfront.

Our original plans to hit the RnR HoF were scuttled by adverse weather forecasts. Strong easterly winds were expected that made the cruise east to Cleveland untenable. It came down to a choice of visiting the rock museum or sailing the west end islands of Lake Huron. Kevin had previously been to the HoF and he came to Ohio to sail, so that’s what we did.

Julie left the morning after Kevin arrived. She was driving to a Great Lakes Cruising Club event up on Lake Huron. It was her last hurrah with the Roadster. The car was loaned to us while our Sprinter van exhaust and other systems were undergoing testing by Mercedes Benz–part of a comprehensive testing program, not our RV in particular. The testing facility was along her route to the event and she was permitted to return the car on her way back to Vermilion.

Big Winds on Erie

After changing our sailing plan due to weather, Kevin and I found ourselves stuck in Vermilion after Julie left. We were supposed to cruise out to Put-In-Bay that morning, but the wind outdid its forecast. Under mostly clear skies, 20-to-30 knot winds out of the northeast turned up Friday night. Any activity in a boat of nearly any size on this lake was rendered foolhardy: Really long fetch. Nobody left the Vermilion marina in their boats that day, not even the most die-hard fishermen. Vermilion has a healthy recreational boating population, but fishing is king. In a town of 10,500 people, there are 13 fishing charters! The Vermilion River usually bears a steady parade of fishing boats from first light to after sunset. The river was clear of boats that day. If the fishermen weren’t going out in that wind, we weren’t going out in that wind.

Lake Erie
Gaviidae with the line-up of fishing boats across the channel.

We were already provisioned; water tanks were topped up and the waste tank was pumped out for a week of sailing. Since we were without a car, Kevin and I walked over to the Vermilion farmer’s market expecting to add some fresh vegetables to the produce we had aboard. It seemed prudent to stock up on veggies since Keven is a vegetarian. Unfortunately, only two farmers offered produce at the open-air market, and pickings were slim. All I bought was some sad-looking lettuce for sandwiches and salads. The rest of the stalls offered crafts, honey and other things we didn’t need.

Time to Go

After a day of heavy winds, the winds backed off to a more reasonable 10-to-15 knots overnight. On Sunday morning Kevin and I gambled that the waves would settle down in lighter winds. After watching other boats—including some sailboats–head out of the marina, we cast off from the city dock wall and ventured out.

Kevin is a reliably balls-to-the-wall kind of sailor, so we put up three sails as soon as we cleared the rock and concrete break wall that protects the entrance to Vermilion harbor. With an average of 12 knots of wind out of the northeast we were soon cruising at 5½ knots. We were looking at an easy five-plus hour run to South Bass Island and Put-in-Bay once the waves settled down. We had two-to-three-foot waves still rolling out of the northeast—exactly across our beam as we headed northwest. We figured the waves would settle down before long. They didn’t.

Feeling Green

Despite my years of sailing on all kinds of water in all kinds of weather, I am still subject to seasickness in heavy seas. Normally, three-foot-waves would not bother me, but these waves were hitting our starboard beam in rapid succession. The boat would get picked up on a wave, slide into a trough and get slammed by the next wave before riding up it. We were getting rocked and rolled by Lake Erie’s legendary square waves.

My seasickness doesn’t manifest itself in nausea, I tend to get a debilitating headache. To combat it, I’ll take a 15-minute nap—usually in the cockpit for the fresh air. I always tie myself in place with extra genoa sheets to keep from rolling onto the floor if the boat heels much. Once I’ve had a little lay-down, the headache disappears.

Not this time.

I think I was asleep–or in an achy fog–more than I was awake for most of the afternoon’s sail. That left Kevin at the helm pretty much the whole way. Not that he was complaining about that. I would ask how he was doing and watch his face. He consistently sported a grin as wide as the horizon.

Despite the side-bashing, it was a glorious sail. Gaviidae always performs and responds well on a beam reach. And she is sturdy enough that she shrugged off the square waves as they crashed against her hull and steadfastly surged forward. Our boat always outlasts her crew when it comes to weather issues; it was no different in those waves.

Commodore Perry

Lake Erie
Route across Lake Erie from Vermilion to Put-in-Bay. Kelley’s Island prevents a direct approach.

On passing Kelley’s Island, a formidable obstruction in any straight-line cruising plan from Vermilion to PiB, we adjusted course a little and Kevin tweaked the sails accordingly. This more westerly sail put the wind and the waves slightly behind the beam, making for an easier ride. We spotted the massive column at Put-in-Bay before we adjusted course. The 352-foot monument celebrates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet in the War of 1812. Perry fought the British just west of the Bass Islands, where his fleet was based. The column is also dedicated to peace—a generous gesture considering Perry’s improbable victory. The monument can be seen some from miles away. Put-in-Bay has since become a major recreational boating destination and is party central on weekends during the boating season.

Destination Put-in-Bay

We cruised into Put-in-Bay after enduring nearly six hours of a Lake Erie tantrum. The middle child was acting up, but we persevered. Gliding across the still water in the bay flipped a switch in my head. The headache and fog vanished, and my mind reverted back to a reasonable level of functionality.

July 10, 2022 Vermilion OH to Put-in-Bay OH 27.8 Nautical Miles, 279.65 Total Nautical Miles  41°39.340’N  082°49.269’W  

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