This Challenge Was Extreme

A sudden storm on Lake Huron sends a doublehanded fleet scurrying for cover. One boat didn’t make it.

Five hours into the Lake Huron Doublehanded Challenge, we began hearing occasional thunder and could see the thunderheads building to the northwest. The wind remained southwest, and a little later, at 1757, my friend Guy Hornett on the 40-foot catamaran Great White radioed that they had rounded the first mark at Goderich, Ontario, with Matt Scharl’s F-25C Gamera 10 minutes behind. On my F-31R Stampede, we were still an hour away and could see a storm cell quickly settling in, with plenty of lightning and thunder.

My crew for the 2001 Challenge was Bruce Carter, 52, who’s enthusiastic, fearless, tireless, and a reasonable cook. Along with five other multihulls and 30 monohulls we were sailing the Long Course--196 miles from Sarnia, Ontario, to Rogers City, Mich., via the mark at Goderich. Thirty-two other monohulls were sailing one of two shorter, more direct courses to Rogers City. The pre-race forecast on Saturday, June 30, was for southwest wind, 8 to 12 knots, clocking to the northwest and building, with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. As it turned out, we got thunderstorms and a whole lot more. Bruce and I would carry on to Rogers City through some of the worst weather I’ve experienced at sea. We were the only boat--though we didn’t know it at the time--that didn’t seek safe harbor during the race, at least temporarily. In victory, our emotions ran the gamut, however, as we’d later learn that two friends on Great White, Guy and his teammate Shelly Hind, lost their lives.

Our first wake-up call came at 1830 when Matt radioed the rest of the fleet that Gamera had been hit by a 50-knot gust and he’d sighted a microburst. In Matt’s words:

"Just after the turning mark we were hit by a thunderstorm with a 50-knot gust front -- survived that well by feathering up a little, we saw a microburst coming right at us approximately 50 yards in diameter, it was blasting water 15 feet in the air from the down force. Nowhere to go, when the burst hit, it had a 60-degree windshift and auto-tacked the boat lifting the main hull free of the water, I’m estimating 40 to 50 degrees of heel, it hovered there a moment and rounded up, next we found ourselves going backwards at about 5 knots. I don’t know what was scarier the auto-tack or the potential disaster going backwards presented. I voted for the auto-tack, Mark for backwards."

It was a class act for Matt to warn us, and you could hear the adrenaline pouring through his veins. Shortly after his message we could see a black rolling sausage cloud coming at us. We immediately dropped the spinnaker, put on our foulies, and began heading the boat into the wind. We were smacked with 40 to 50 knots of wind and a 100-degree shift, combined with plenty of lightning, thunder, and rain. Almost as quickly as it hit, it was over, and as usual the system took every lick of wind with it. There we were, 500 yards from the mark and no wind. We finally rounded at 1910, about 20 minutes after Dave Shneider’s High Priority II. Over the next half hour, the southwesterly slowly filled at 10 to 15 knots, and we were off again down the rhumb line as fast as the wind under screecher, jib, and main. There was some radio conversation between Gamera and Great White, which had made it through the system under bare poles. This was the last anyone would hear from Guy and Shelly.

After the squall passed and we rounded the mark, Bruce heated up one of his famous homemade beef stews. Our new course was 330 degrees to Thunder Bay Light, and we were walking right down the line with the wind remaining consistent out of the southwest. So much for the forecast. At about 0200 Sunday we had a radio check-in with Gamera. Everyone except Great White was accounted for, but we weren’t worried, as they’d been seen and heard from after the storm cell and quite possibly could be out of radio range by now, beam reaching being a happy state for the big cat. Shortly after the radio check-in the wind began to die, and we spent the next couple of hours trading positions with High Priority II and a G-32 named Wild Card.

It was now between 0400 and 0430, and we were about 35 miles east-northeast of Oscoda, Mich. After a brief calm I began to feel a light freshening breeze out of the northeast, 0.5 knots, 1 knot, 1.5, then 2.5. I called Bruce up to prepare the spinnaker for a port launch. The morning sunlight was just beginning to light the sky.

Suddenly we had another 90-degree shift to the northwest combined with about a 10-degree temperature drop. I told Bruce to stow the chute and peered to the northwest. There was just enough light to see a wind line ripping toward us--ripples, waves, and whitecaps all in one field of vision. I immediately headed the boat into the wind. We were slammed by 35 to 40 knots of wind at 30 degrees to the bow. The leeward ama submerged about 3 feet, and I threw the tiller down hard, the boat rounded up, and we hove to. We immediately set about reefing the main. This is where sailing with experienced people who are used to working as a team really pays off. We finished the job in under 5 minutes. With a rotating mast, reefing hove to is easy; just release the rotator controls, ease the mainsheet, and the mast and sail happily point into the wind, setting very steady amid the chaos. We were still overpowered, however, so we dropped the blade jib and put up the storm jib.

While the jib was down we were being pushed backward at about 5 knots. Unknown to us, the aft port light had been left open. Water poured in, and onto the cabin sole where our duffel bags were stowed, submerging most of our spare clothing under 8 inches of water. Fighting the effects of hypothermia over the next 21.5 hours would become one of our major undertakings.

With double-reefed main and storm jib and 35 to 40 knots of wind, we began beating on a heading of 258 degrees toward Oscoda. We had to feather into the wind to hold the speed down to 6 to 8 knots and not turn the leeward ama into a submarine. The seas seemed to instantly build to 5 feet and then continued to increase to 10 to 12 feet (trough to top) over the next couple of hours. Once we had the boat dialed in, we set about getting into our anti-exposure suits, putting them on over the T-shirts and shorts we were wearing when the gale hit. We were reasonably warm, but wet inside. Finally at 0730 I took my first post-gale break and turned the helm over to Bruce. I sat in the cockpit with him for about 10 minutes and made sure he was comfortable with the conditions and understood how the boat had to be driven. This became standard operating procedure at each helm change so the new helmsman had an opportunity to shake out the cobwebs and get comfortable.

Enter problem No. 2. I have been an insulin-dependent diabetic for 29 years, and have never been seasick. I can no longer make that claim. I went below to eat some breakfast, test my blood sugar, and take my morning insulin injection. Breakfast went down, then came up (sick sailors don’t buy food, they rent it). I had not yet taken insulin and my blood sugar tested at 179. If it gets down to 80 to 90 I start to get symptomatic (insulin reaction from low blood sugar) and must eat. I had two emergency glucose injection kits (Glucagon) on board and decided that if my blood sugar dropped to 150 I would inject the first kit and we’d head for safe harbor. One Glucagon injection without insulin in my system would sustain me for at least 24 hours, if not more. For the balance of the trip I tested every two hours and my blood sugar climbed to over 200 and stayed between 200 and 300. I never had to inject. Bruce assumed all foredeck duties, which he loves anyhow, in order to preserve my energy.

At 1030 we were about 6 miles from Oscoda. The seas had built to 12 to 14 feet, and the wind was ranging from 30 to 45 knots. Everything seemed under control, so we tacked to a course of 15 degrees and continued on, leaving Oscoda behind. We were now heading up and gradually pulling away from the Michigan shoreline. As we continued north the sea state built. The wave period was about 7 seconds and the waves were breaking. It seemed like we’d hit two in a row every 30 seconds or so, just as they were breaking. One thousand gallons of water would rip down the deck. Some of it would peel under the forward lip of the slider hatch, and recreate Niagara Falls in the companionway. Whatever was left--about 990 gallons--would hit the helmsman in the face.

The slamming and pounding was relentless, and whomever was driving had to constantly adjust to take the waves on the nose or the fore quarter and then drive down the backside and come up a bit so as not to drive the bows into the trough. Over one period of two and a half hours, the wind ranged from 40 to 50 knots, never dropping below 40. During that peak our speed slowed to approximately 5 knots. It was amazing how our reactions would switch into auto-mode on the helm; the slamming and pounding even began to seem normal. I asked Bruce if he thought bungie jumping could get like this.

There was some spectacular beauty in all of this. The sun had thankfully appeared at about 0900. As the winds built to 40 plus, water from the breaking waves would go airborne and vaporize, at times surrounding us in a rainbow halo. The appearance of the lake was surreal, something of a liquid mogul field.

At around 1400 on Sunday, we passed Thunder Bay and headed toward a point about 15 miles northeast of Middle Island, a theoretic turning point I’d put in the GPS to head to Rogers City. We decided not to start tacking toward the finish at this point because we would have been playing along a lee shore. With the fatigue factor, we weren’t up for a bunch of tacks. As we began moving north of the protection of the Lower Peninsula, we now had about 70 miles of fetch staring at us. The wave heights were 18 feet and stayed that way for the next 9 hours. We elected to sail a heading of 15 degrees until we could lay Rogers City on one tack. That took us about 32 miles offshore until just southwest of Great Duck Island at 2130, where we made our long awaited tack toward the finish line, bearing 258 degrees, 38 miles to go. Our long board from Oskoda to Great Duck had covered 68.5 nm in 11 hours. We had been unable to raise or see any of our competitors since 1030, and Bruce thought we were dead last or dead lost. I refused to speculate as I have an anti-prediction rule on the boat, although I did allow Bruce some leeway, under the circumstances (me dry heaving in the cockpit and all).

The first hour and a half after the Great Duck tack was more of the same, 18-foot seas, 35-knot winds, and colder due to nightfall. Then, at last, the winds moderated to 20 to 25 knots and the seas subsided as the wind clocked about 15 degrees to the north. We were now reaching at 10 to 14 knots under a bright moon. It was absolutely beautiful. We were actually able to set the autopilot (allowed under the race rules) and take a break from steering. We closed quickly on Rogers City and about 30 minutes out called the race committee. They were glad to hear from us and said the finish mark was not on station; we should duck the harbor’s outer buoy for our finish. Bruce, the pessimist, said they must have been packing up to go home and was sure we were last. I made no comment.

We crossed the line at 0152 Monday with an elapsed time of 39h:42m. Since the gale hit, we’d covered 136 miles in 21h:21m. We arrived at the dock completely spent and cold. Bruce prepared a heater meal for me while I lay on the sidewalk. It was my first food in nearly 18 hours, and it stayed down. The only way to get rid of the hypothermic shakes would be a long hot shower and a warm, dry bed. The Rogers City harbor staff found a motel room for us and delivered us there when we were ready.

The news from the race committee wasn’t good. Two boats were unaccounted for--Great White and a monohull that had dropped out but hadn’t reported to the committee. Guy and Shelly would’ve called in had they retired, and I couldn’t believe they’d still be on the lake as Great White had nowhere near the pointing ability of our tri in those conditions. There was nothing for us to do but wait.

The next day we waited through a long morning for news from the Coast Guard as they conducted a harbor by harbor inquiry. Shortly after noon the Coast Guard called again and reported that the catamaran had been found capsized about 15 miles off Point Clark near Kincardine, Ontario, and that rescue vessels were en route. There was no reported sign of Guy and Shelly. Several hours later we got the news that we feared. Their drowned bodies were found with the boat.

Two years after I’d started racing multihulls offshore, I met Guy and Great White’s owner, Tony Hammer (who didn’t sail in the Doublehanded Challenge). By telephone, Tony had encouraged me to race in the Bayview-Mackinac, and by the end of the race, the three of us had struck a fast friendship. Over the years I’ve raced with each several times.

Tony had purchased Great White as two partially completed hulls and when finished, he had a 40-foot cat with a 24-foot beam and a 60-foot rotating carbon mast. Its all-up weight was about 8,000 pounds.

Guy had packed more adventure into 59 years than anyone I know. In 1972, he raced in the 2,000-mile Round Britain Race on a 26-footer, then raced it solo across the Atantic in the 1972 OSTAR, correcting to first place of 55 starters. He later completed a second OSTAR on a 42-foot trimaran, and although he never owned a boat, had logged well over 50,000 offshore miles. When Guy wasn’t working as a nuclear engineer near Toronto (he met Tony, a medical officer, in the British Royal Navy serving on Polaris subs), he was off on another sailing adventure or teaching kids to ski, sail, or play soccer.

Guy’s sailing partner for the 2001 Huron Doublehanded Challenge was 42-year-old Shelly Hind, from Windsor, Ontario. I didn’t know Shelly well, but she’d been sailing since her teens, was working hard to build her offshore resume, and had become a regular member of the crew of Great White.

When the gale struck us at 0430, I believe that Great White was probably as far as 20 miles to the northwest. They’d rounded the Goderich mark far ahead of us and probably averaged 2 to 3 knots greater speed in the reaching conditions over the next 7 hours.

The boat was found with the spinnaker up. We had the benefit of some visibility, but Guy and Shelly did not. Even if they sensed the shift and temperature drop as we did, they’d have had less than a minute to get the spinnaker down, as the wind went from 3 to 35 knots in less than 60 seconds. On Stampede, all sheets and halyards are led to the cockpit, but on Great White the halyards are led to the base of the mast. The only action that could’ve saved Great White from going over would have been a very quick release of the sheet, halyard, or tackline. Only the sheet could’ve been reached by the helmsman, leaving the crewman to cover a vast distance to handle everything else--if that individual was even on deck. Ninety-nine percent of the time Guy and Shelly could’ve handled it, but in those extreme, fast-changing conditions, the boat was beyond the physical capabilities of two people.

Their bodies were found inside of one of the hulls and findings report death due to drowning. They were lightly clothed, and I believe they probably spent some time on the hull of the upturned boat, then swam inside to seek shelter. In either location the effects of hypothermia would have been impossible to fight without anti-exposure suits. Although suits were carried aboard Great White, they were not found with the bodies.