Travels with Mystic

by Karen Larson

Excerpts from the logs aboard Mystic, the C&C 30 sailed by Jerry Powlas and Karen Larson. They purchased Mystic in the fall of 1992. Their log began in earnest the summer of 1993. Karen reviewed all the logs while cruising in 2011 and chose the nuggets to share with fellow sailors.

Getting started

Our first full season was memorable in many ways. Jerry was at the top of our mast when a fast-moving storm swept over the hill and a nearby boat was struck by lightning. That was also the year that the prop shaft and propeller fell out of the boat and we took on water at an alarming rate. It was the first and only time (so far) that we broadcast a Mayday alert.

All were not near-death experiences, however, or we wouldn’t still be cruising. There were magic moments. Over the years, my notes have been dotted with exclamations over northern lights, loons, moose, caribou, otters, beaver, and eagles along with the fantastic scenery including sunrises, sunsets, and inky star-filled nights.

We had lots of company aboard that first year and soon learned that we preferred the simplicity of sailing as a couple. My son, Ryan, was 12 years old when we bought the boat and was our most constant companion. But because Ryan also had activities that conflicted with weekend sailing, Jerry grew comfortable sailing solo in those early years.

One of the best chuckles I got from our first year’s log was caused by a quip Jerry made that season following the Mayday call. The loss of our prop and shaft had been caused by our allowing the prop to unscrew itself a few weeks after we’d managed to back over our dinghy painter. After that, Jerry added this pointer to the log: “How to determine the proper length for a dinghy painter: Go to the hardware store. Get some line. Run it through the prop. What gets whacked off was excessive. What is left is just right.”

Baby it’s cold outside

A couple of years later, in 1995, I was ranting about the cold conditions typical during our overnight passages on a lake that never really warms up.

“Right now I’m wearing red, white, navy, purple, rust, off white, pink, and yellow. (Yes, ‘yummy yellow’ — or so we’ve been told — from a shark’s viewpoint. Fortunately, there are no sharks here, and I’m not swimming.)

“I’ve got on long underwear, a T-neck, a fisherman’s wool sweater, hooded sweats, my cross-country skiing pants and down parka, and on top of it all — extraordinarily since I’ve never been considered ‘small’ in my life — I’m wearing an Extra Small foul weather suit. I figure this was designed for extra small male foredeck gorillas. And I’ve got my life jacket on over that! This year we bought new life jackets primarily because my old medium-sized one wasn’t up to that kind of a task. Even now, it’s a bit difficult to inhale and move all those layers. (Yes, that includes two pair of pants with suspenders … with all the hassle that a head call entails. I try to avoid going to the head because the process is so elaborate.) Oh, and I’m tied to the boat like a fat little fishing bobber, in case I should happen to go overboard.”

But later in that log I was also making cheerful noises about nature, specifically the birdcalls at Isle Royale, a marvelous national park in Lake Superior.

“I had forgotten how many birdcalls and other sounds of nature you hear up here. Even before we reached land at Isle Royale, we could hear the high loud notes of the white-throated sparrow singing ‘Pure, Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada’ (kind of a commercial, but it works). The bird is also reported to sing about Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, but I like the Canadian version better. It is amazing that a bird that size can belt it out like that, but it does. Closer to the land, it becomes clear that the sparrow is only the lead vocalist in a chorus of calls we don’t even recognize, but punctuated with loon calls, gull squawks, warbler trills, woodpecker drummings, and other delightful noises all orchestrated by serendipity.”

Porcupine pursuit

The passage in that log that made me laugh was the memory of our pursuit of the wily porcupine on the Ontario shore at Otter Cove.

“It was so warm that we had dinner in the cockpit. While we were eating, an osprey flew by and Jerry saw anther furry critter (probably another porcupine) at the water’s edge. After dinner, we went paddling in the kayak again. This time we definitely saw a porcupine.

“There was some movement by the bank of a small stream, a very small stream, so we paddled in stealthily to get a better look. I had the camera set to ‘capture’ whatever it was and was trying to signal for Jerry, who was providing the ‘go power’ and steering from the back seat, to stop and be quiet because it was right ahead of us, whatever it was, and if we stayed quiet it would come back out again. He thought I meant by pointing ‘right there ahead,’ that he should go ahead, so he shoved us another five feet over a bunch of shallow deadfall and through a thicket of prickly pine branches. The person in the front, naturally, is the first to encounter the prickly pine branches, while the person in the back, the steering person, begins making valiant efforts to free the boat from the deadfall where it is beached and wedged in an awkward position for effective retreat. A two-person kayak, when in a very curvy stream, is suddenly much longer than it would otherwise seem.

“I feared by this time that the creature might be a beaver (and we’ve had close encounters of a somewhat unpleasant kind with beavers in the past) or, worse, a small bear. It was definitely black and rather large and it lumbered when it moved. Finally the creature reappeared. It was a huge black porcupine and, incredibly, it hadn’t noticed us flailing about wildly in the pine branches. By now we were in full shade with my low-speed film, but I shot a few anyway at a 60th, although I knew better. Finally, the porcupine figured it out and climbed slowly up a tree for safety. Then it thought better of it, since we weren’t leaving (wedged there as we were), so it climbed slowly down the tree and lumbered off into the woods. Eventually we did disengage ourselves and left with some dignity.”

No engine, no electronics, no planning

Intervening years included the year we sailed without an engine, the year Mystic was hit by lightning (and we continued that summer season without a depth sounder, a chart plotter, and many other electronic instruments), the year of the 600-miles-in-two-weeks-vacation (my poor planning produced too many grand passages and no time to enjoy the destinations once we’d arrived), the cold year with the malfunctioning cabin heater, the year we sailed to and cruised in the North Channel of Lake Huron, and the following year when we cruised there and then brought Mystic back home to Lake Superior. There was the summer the lake level was a foot low and the year of the unseasonably cold summer.

Mal de mer

In the log of 2007, I made another attempt to describe the cold conditions we face on passages, particularly early in the season.

“It was lunchtime by then, so I went below to make lunch. I had planned to make soup and salad but quickly revised those plans to something less hot and sloppy. Mystic was jolting around rather significantly and the galley was no place for the timid. I began making sandwiches instead. Turns out the galley was no place for the weak of stomach either, because by the time I’d finished making lunch I knew I wanted no part of it. My appetite was gone entirely. I managed three baby carrots and a forkful of ham salad and realized that someone in my condition should not be eating. I haven’t been seasick since before we got married, more than 15 years ago, but I’ve had a few queasy spells. I figured this was a queasy spell.

“As freezing as it was, my place was clearly in the cockpit and at the helm as often as possible. I dressed in all the clothes in my possession. (This included a sweatsuit, the wind outfit, and also two parkas: the winter one and my foul weather gear, not to mention two pair of fleece socks and my sea boots and the overalls that go with my foul weather rig. Oh, and the life jacket too, of course. Did I mention the hat, face mask, and ski goggles?) With all that, it wasn’t too bad out there, but it was going to be a long day.”

Weather watch

There was also a description of a fast-moving storm that overtook us as we approached Thunder Bay, Ontario.

“We had some wind during the night, but nothing significant. We slept like babies. This morning we got going at a leisurely pace. There wasn’t much wind so we motored out of the Flatland area and toward the first patch of wind we could find. We put up the 150 and main and drifted toward Welcome Island. It was a lovely downwind drift in the sun. Not too hot. Not too cold. No stresses or surprises with gradually increasing speed.

“But wait! What’s that cloud formation to the northwest over Thunder Bay? Probably should keep an eye on that. Yep, it’s getting mighty dark over there. It’s clearly raining over there. Meanwhile we saw a ship and decided to turn the AIS receiver on to see what’s what in ‘the shipping news.’ One ship? There were five all around the area! Who knew? But the other four were not under way. Two were outside the seawall, which we thought was a bit unusual, but the other two were in port, as they should be.

“Was that thunder we just heard? Next thing we knew the wind picked up. We decided to get the sails down and did that without delay. Then the rain began. Jerry had just gone below to get his foul weather bottoms. We were already in our coats. While I was at the helm during this brief moment (it was my choice — he gave me first right of refusal to go get my foul weather bibs and boots) all hell broke loose in three stages. First, it began to rain. Then it really began to blow and strong seas began coming at us from abeam. Then all the visibility went to zero and it POURED! That was when I was a bit sorry about having given up my chance to put my pants and boots on. My shorts and socks were soaked immediately. And I needed goggles to see!

“Jerry came back to relieve me. I went below to dry off and suit up. About that time three of the four ships in the area decided to get under way! Visibility returned for him, fortunately, while I changed, sorted out the radar and AIS signals, and realized that one of the ships just outside the seawall was not showing up on AIS (apparently not sending his signal) and he was under way. It was all rather exciting, but it didn’t last long. The rain quit and we arrived at the end of our journey.”

Call of the wild

As compensation for the fortitude one has to have to sail in northern climes, that was the first year we ever heard the wolves of Isle Royale howl.

“The highlight of our day had to be our event of the morning in McCargo Cove. I awoke at 0500 to the sound of wolves howling. It went on long enough for me to figure out where I was, what I must be hearing, and to wake Jerry up so he could hear it too. We have never heard wolves at Isle Royale in all our many trips over the past 15 years. And they seemed pretty close and loud. There must have been at least three singing together. Jerry was surprised at how deep and low-pitched the voices were. I’m not sure what we were expecting, Hollywood’s version of wolves or coyotes baying at the moon perhaps.”

The zoo around us

There were a couple more memorable moments with wildlife. The first of these was in 1998. It was also in McCargo Cove. No wonder that place is so special to us.

“Jerry and I were up by 0530 and went for a pre-breakfast paddle. It was better than a trip to the zoo. A bald eagle flew off in the distance. Then we saw otters, golden eyes, and the heron. Around the bend in the creek was the most magnificent bull moose we’ve ever seen. He stood sedately for photos like the prince that he is. Next we saw a beaver, parts of the loon family again, and finally one otter came and checked us out in some detail, intrigued, it seems, by the clicking of our camera. Once we got to our boat and I was making breakfast, a cow and calf moose swam by. It wasn’t yet 0800 and all this had already happened. How would we ever top it?”

Otters, beavers, and caribou, oh my!

Perhaps we did top that a few years later (2002) in the Slate Islands.

“Several neat surprises on our exploration: a hummingbird that hovered right in front of my face about a foot and a half from me wondering, I suspect, if my life jacket offered any nectar.

“Next we came across a family of otters — a mom and three little ones (three we think; it was a bit hard to count all of them at once). First we saw the adult and were taking photos when we realized that there were three little heads watching from nearby. And as the adult rounded them up, we noticed that a beaver was also in the picture and where the otters had been was the beaver lodge. Jerry noted that the beaver was the humorless sort and was trying to run all of us off and otters were everywhere around the kayak since we were blowing downwind into the fray, clicking photos all the while, of course. The beaver did an impressive tail splash at one point, and the otters retreated. But the next time we looked, they were back at the lodge (or at least some of them anyway). We wore ourselves out shooting photos and figure this was not an uncommon scene. The beaver lodge is there and so are a bunch of otter slides, signaling that they live there too. Anyway, it was fun to see.

“Around the next bend, Jerry noticed a magnificent caribou right on the shore. Wow! A big rack of antlers and not particularly worried about our being nearby shooting photos. He wandered along the shore and eventually went into the bush, but not until after we’d taken lots of pictures.”

What else can go wrong?

I got a last chuckle at our lack of preparation for our vacation cruise in the log of 2008. This one only tops the year that we headed out on vacation and made several miles before we realized that we had had forgotten our dinghy (the loyal kayak).

“The nice thing about a 17-mile run in those conditions (from Superior, Wisconsin, to Knife River, Minnesota) is that it can’t last forever. We arrived in Knife River sometime after lunch, about 1400 or 1430. The wind continued to build all day and was good for one thing: drying our soaked clothes as well as our towels from morning showers.

“Since there was no time for a test sail or short cruise in advance, we’re referring to this as our breakdown/shakedown cruise. Here is a list of what went wrong:

  • The previous night we discovered that the GPS/NavX/AIS wasn’t working on the Mac PowerBook and that I had accidentally trashed all the U.S. Lake Superior charts. So the navigation software we’re familiar with was not available to us, and I couldn’t get ‘the shipping news.’ But hey! We remember how to navigate the old way and besides we had Tiki Navigator working on the PC.

  • Unfortunately, halfway through the very bumpy voyage, the PC couldn’t see its mouse anymore, and new batteries didn’t help. But hey! There’s always the finger pad on the keyboard. Too bad we didn’t know our way around Tiki Navigator very well (since the program was new to us).

  • Meanwhile on deck, the kayak was swinging in its carrying strap, which we’d raised to take the pressure off the shroud (but too high), the kayak’s rudder wouldn’t stay in its holder due to an accident when we launched it (poor thing), and the depth sounder was almost illegible because of humidity in the readout.

  • Down below, we had major leaks port and starboard now that we were taking gallons of water on deck, and I didn’t like being down below much because I was queasy. But I also didn’t like being on deck and being splashed upon with ice water.

  • And when we arrived at Knife River (where we’ve never been before), we discovered to our utter chagrin that we didn’t have our Superior Way cruising guide aboard. But hey! We had the Great Lakes Cruising Club binder, a working chart plotter (although much of it was a mystery to us), and actual charts. We made it inside safely.

  • When we arrived, we discovered a final calamity we didn’t know about. The sail slide holder that we’d just installed the previous day when we installed the new mainsail, had fallen out and was sitting on the sidedeck waiting for one more slam dunk and big wave to finish its trip overboard. It was like a diver poised on the high dive considering the distance.

    “So we docked, paid for the night, introduced ourselves to a couple of neighbors, and set about drying clothes and repairing equipment.

  • I loaded charts on the Mac, but the rest of the GPS/AIS failure continues to baffle us.

  • Tiki Navigator could see its mouse following a restart. And learning to use it will take time. Knowledge comes with experience.

  • Jerry dried the depth sounder with my hair dryer.

  • We searched the big cabin access ports and tiny access port in the head for leaks. Dry as could be. We removed the Vetus vent on the cabintop near the big hatch. Nothing. Just a bunch of dry spider webs. So we cleaned the mildew that accumulates under it and rebedded it. The mast boot looks OK. Hull-to-deck joint? (It’s probably too low to cause these leaks since water seldom travels uphill.) Chainplates?

  • Jerry replaced the sail slide holder with a more robust version that’s screwed in.

  • We’ll buy Bonnie Dahl’s newest version of Superior Way (4th edition) as soon as we find it. Silver Bay maybe? Isle Royale? Thunder Bay?

    “Clothing and towels dried. Heater works. We have plenty of food. Life is good.”

    Bad with the good

    In reading our logs, I’m reminded that we have our good days and our bad days aboard. There are funny and exciting moments to compensate for the frustrating and anxious ones. We manage to maintain our sanity and sense of humor most of the time. I generally end each log entry on a positive note, as I did on a September day one year.

    “Along with the eagles, there are two other boats in the anchorage with us. It was a beautiful day for a sail. There was a terrific sunset just now. Dinner is over. Life is good. Tomorrow we hope to paddle up the stream here. I like to see the wild rice growing there.”