When Lake Superior Roars
The Sea Was Angry That Day, My Friends
This is a long read, but there’s no other way to tell the story. And I think it needs telling.
TL;DR - The Lake is Boss. And marine forecasts can be very, very wrong, with serious consequences.
Sunday, September 3rd 2017 started as a perfect, idyllic early autumn day in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, Wisconsin. With a camping permit for Outer Island in our possession, my wife and I, in our boat The Compromise, along with two friends in a boat of their own, set out onto Lake Superior for the Labor Day weekend.
The wind was predicted to turn northwest after midnight that day, and every boat in the Apostles was anchoring up in an eastern lee. With that in mind, we planned to camp along the east coast of Outer Island, some 20+ miles from the mainland.
The boat ride to Outer Island was mesmerizing. Flat seas stretching to the far horizon in front of us and blue, sunny skies above. We soon arrived at our beach. After making camp, the day was spent paddling, swimming, and exploring the coastline in sunshine and 80°F weather.
It was paradise.
Camping on the same ill-fated Outer Island beach , but on a night the Lake was like glass
Then sometime just after dark, a sudden gust of wind blew through our camp.
It quickly turned into a howling eastern gale, from which we had no protection. What we couldn’t know at the time was that a thunderstorm packing 70+ mph winds had just blown off Minnesota’s North Shore and scored a direct hit on Outer Island.
As the squall came up, our anchors began to fail in the face of rapidly building seas. When it became clear we couldn't hold the boats, we then struggled in vain to get them off the beach; only my boat made it. I tried to get my friend to toss a line so I could pull his boat out, but the roar of the wind and sea was deafening. I didn’t realize his boat was already damaged and taking on water. He had no intention of boarding a sinking vessel.
Over the booming seas, I heard him scream for me to get out and find shelter.
As I pulled away from the beach, I looked back just as a flash of lightening illuminated the shoreline. It is a sight that will be seared into my memory forever: My friend, alone on the beach, struggling mightily to hold his boat against the raging seas.
I made this image from our campsite at nautical twilight only an hour before the fury of Lake Superior was unleashed upon us. How calm and deceiving it appears.
I was hoping to find relief from the eastern gale on the northwest, leeward side of the Outer Island spit. As I motored down the coastline, the second part of the squall hit me.
The rain came in blinding sheets, and the seas grew even heavier, 9 feet at least. The rain was so intense I couldn’t see my helm compass, never mind my navigation gear, which had mostly failed by that point anyway. I tried to hold a course just south of Stockton Island, safely away from the Outer Island sand spit.
Blind and disoriented without my navigation gear, I went aground with a sickening "crunch" somewhere on the south end of the bar. My sense of direction was so confused that I had no idea which side of the boat the island was on or which direction the open waters of The Lake were. Before I could gather my senses, a huge swell hit me beam side and flipped my boat vertical to port. Everything that wasn’t secured went overboard, and I launched across the helm and slammed into the side.
The boat righted, but before I could stand up, the next wave hit me square on the starboard side again. The boat went past vertical, nearly capsizing, and again I was slammed violently across the helm.
When it righted yet again, my bow was quartering into the swell, which put me in a much better position. I was able gather myself long enough to put out a Mayday call. Coast Guard station Bayfield responded almost immediately and prepared to launch a boat from Bayfield, but I was certain it was over for me. I remember thinking, “At least they’ll know where to start looking for the body.” I spent the next many minutes (it’s a blur) hammering forward/reverse with my prop buried in sand and rock. Somehow, I came off the bar. My motor was badly damaged, but I still had power.
I was back in the game again.
Now I found myself on the west side of the spit where I had hoped to find a lee from the east gale. Instead, the wind was blowing a gale from the northwest and the seas were 6- to 7-feet. The National Park Service would later describe the winds as “tornadic,” blowing at terrific force from seemingly all directions. Not knowing any of this, I thought the wind had changed from east to northwest, and quickly calculated that IF I could make the crossing to Stockton Island, I’d find shelter in Julian Bay.
Side note: Interestingly, a postmortem analysis of the GPS track from my chart plotter showed my boat actually *crossing* the Outer Island sand spit from SE to NW, but I have doubts as to the accuracy, considering the interference to my nav gear during the storm. Having said that, I can't otherwise explain how I ended up on the other side of the spit.
In the black of the night, I limped across the channel toward Stockton Island on a shredded prop at 7 knots in the heaviest seas I’ve ever been in. The bow would climb until it felt impossibly vertical, then I would drop into the trough of the next swell.
It was incredibly unnerving to see the green monsters – the center heart of a wave – both fore and aft with each flash of lightening. I'd never felt so helpless or alone, blindly clawing through the swell, hoping beyond all hope the engine wouldn't fail me before I reached safe harbor.
As I rounded the southeast tip of Stockton, I felt for the first time I was going to make it. I asked the Coast Guard to stand down.
When I made Julian Bay, I found 5- to 6-foot seas pounding from the east, and a line of sailboats, masthead lights bobbing and thrashing in the swell, trying desperately to escape around Presque Isle Point. That’s when I knew I’d find no shelter in the Apostles that night, and instead made for Bayfield, arriving around 2:30 a.m. after almost four terrifying hours on the Lake.
My mind turned to my wife and friends. I assumed they were safe and dry in our campsite on Outer, but suspected they would need transport back to the mainland. At first light I contacted Tucker at Black Warrior Marine, our local TowBoat U.S. captain to arrange a tow for my friend’s boat. At that early hour, none of us had any idea the scale of the disaster throughout the Apostles, or that eight boats had either gone hard aground or sunk overnight.
Those details would begin to emerge as the day went on.
The Park Service rescued my wife and friends Monday morning. They had spent a sleepless night imagining the worst for me, and listening to the angry seas break my friends’ boat to pieces against the rocky shoreline near our campsite. At daylight when I didn’t return, my friend bushwhacked 2½ hours across Outer Island (no small feat) to the sand spit, assuming I was hurt and in need of help. He later recounted the sinking feeling he had when, upon arriving at the sand spit and not finding my boat, of then trying to decide how he would break the news to my wife. We’d had no communication, and they said the not knowing was the worst.
My friend and I returned to Outer Island the next day in an attempt to retrieve our camping gear that was abandoned during the rescue by the Park Service. What remained of his boat was beached on the rocks and missing most of the midship port side. TowBoat U.S. in Bayfield did the salvage and mitigation the next day.
In the final analysis, nobody died or was even seriously injured. Boats and gear can be replaced. Time has a way of healing all wounds, even the PTSD that for months would wake me from a deep sleep with the sickening sound my boat made as it went aground on the Outer Island spit that night.
Later that week, in an attempt to more fully understand how and why the squall had surprised so many skippers in the Apostles that night, I reached out to the National Weather Service in Duluth, Minnesota. Their analysis of the storm included this fascinating detail: “… the squall spawned strong east-northeast inflow winds just ahead of the storms, which is most likely what caused all the issues.” So the storm cell, moving off the north shore of Minnesota in a NW direction had enough power and atmospheric turbulence to create an opposing gale from the east, which answered the how and why.
To add further perspective to the event, retired Apostle Islands National Lakeshore historian Bob Mackreth wrote:
“Over the weekend, an incident unfolded among the Apostle Islands that will take a place among the most memorable disasters and near-disasters in the archipelago's history."
"On Sunday night, a sudden, extremely severe set of squalls came up without warning, driving seven boats ashore at widely scattered locations- some on Sand Island, some on Rocky Island, and some on Outer Island. My old ranger colleagues, along with the Bayfield Coast Guard detachment, were faced with a set of challenges that surpassed any I can recall in my quarter-century here.”
Personally, I’ve spent countless hours running every second of this episode through my head, wondering what we could have done differently. The answer is “Not much.” As any experienced Lake Superior mariner can tell you, even the best can find themselves at the mercy of the lake's wrath in a moment they never expect. If you spend enough time out there, eventually She'll throw you a curve ball and catch you looking.
We had listened to and studied both the near-shore and open water marine forecasts for Lake Superior throughout the day and had planned accordingly. As had the other skippers whose boats were blown aground that night while anchored in places they expected safe harbor. While I was unashamedly terrified while stuck on the sand bar and near capsize, I otherwise didn’t panic. I kept a clear head. I had a plan.
And I survived.
Finally, I’d be seriously remiss if I failed to mention the U.S. Coast Guard Great Lakes, The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Park Service, and Tucker at Black Warrior Marine /TowBoat U.S. for all their efforts during this event.
I owe you all a beer.
The Compromise at Outer Island on an early summer afternoon
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