posted on Oct, 8 2016 @ 01:35 AM
One November night, I was out of town (in Detroit, MI). I went downtown, I was in the city center (down by the river, for those who know it).
There's a big city center park nearby. I'd had a nice dinner in Greek town and decided to go sit out in the park by the fountains and write a bit
about life there. Sadly, Detroit is not a nice city...even in some of the nicer city center areas. I was interested in some of the ships (ore boats)
running up and down the river. The Maritime Cathedral was nearby and I'd been through it earlier in the day (think: Edmund Fitzgerald, among others).
My father had been a senior engineer for Great Lakes Steel, and the Edmund Fitzgerald was bringing ore to the blast furnaces of Great Lakes that
night in November 1975. It was November and it was cold (really 100% humidity cold...40 degrees). I had a lot to write about that night.
(I could tell some serious stories about the Edmund Fitzgerald, and that night of Nov. 10 1975, but this story is about a pencil)
Some dude came up to me and started hassling me about giving him some money. It was endless, they were everywhere after sunset, and it was cold.
Now, I'm not a small guy, nor am I am not one to run from a confrontation, but this particular night I wasn't in the mood. I'm not sure why I did
what I did, but I just held up my pencil and asked the most forward of the dudes that were begging, asked him if he'd like to help me finish the
story I was writing...as it was all I had. I got no response, but for the rest of the evening I was left alone.
I'd gone to pay my respects at the Maritime Cathedral that day (and may have been feeling a little bulletproof, perhaps wrongfully so). No one there
ever heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald, they didn't care. I'd been on the ore boats before, never the EF though. You could ride on them then. I'd
been out on Lake Erie and Huron in the rough and the dark. I'd seen what they called the "black" water. I'd been out in the shallows of Erie and
Huron, but Superior was DEEP! I never thought that water could sink something that big! These boats were HUGE! But, I'd seen the "black" water
they talked about. The water just turns ink black...and it's skeery.
One night I had to ferry one of Dad's boats across lake St. Claire. It was late October. The boat was a 26' Aquasport (virtually unsinkable, self
bailing hull, deep-V hull). The wind was blowing, but no matter the Swordfish would handle it (I thought). I invited a friend of mine to go with me
that night. We got about 2/3rds of the way across the lake in big waves. The water was 20 feet deep, and we were in 15 foot breaking surf. It was
snowing. Never mind, I thought, nothing can take the Swordfish down (I thought). I'd been through some big water in my life and was a qualified
captain...this was nothing (I thought). At one point we even sped up, the waves breaking 10-15 feet over the big V bow. It was awesome. But the
weather was pretty ugly and we were getting near shore, so we were looking for markers coming into the marina. We turned on the big lights...that's
when I saw it. The water was black, just completely black, and unless you've ever seen black water like that you'd never understand. But that
wasn't the worst part! At one point about 2 miles from shore we came over the top of a big breaker, and as we came over the top of the wave I
saw....the BOTTOM!! No kidding!! Told Chris to "HANG ON!!" I figured for sure we would hit bottom. I'd never seen that before, the waves so
big, they exposed the bottom between them. Backwash on the wave kept us from hitting bottom (barely), but all the fun had been let out of my
balloon...now it was life or death. Then I really took notice of that "black" water...it was angry water. As close as we were to the shore, we
were so far that night. If we slammed into the bottom our "unsinkable" boat would have been split into splinters in a second, and we would have
been chewed up by the debris in the surf.
We'd been taking the waves head on (because it was fun) (stupid), but it was clear, it wasn't "fun" anymore. We swung around to the wind and
started quartering (out of the channel). The bottom will still being exposed in every trough (holy crap!!!) The water was completely black! I've
never seen anything like it (but I'd heard about it).
There was no way we could continue toward shore. Had to turn around and find deeper water. I actually turned to Channel 9 that night (Coast Guard)
and made sure the radio was working. As I turned around we were in a following sea. Every wave swamped us! We were in 3' of water on the deck,
every wave. Yeah, it would run out the back, but the water was cold (very cold). I had boots on, under my bibs, but Chris didn't. I was having to
throttle up to stay out of each trough, and sometimes hitting bottom doing so. This was not good. "We're so CLOSE, TURN AROUND!!", Chris said.
It was storming and sleeting so hard we had to scream to even hear each other. As much water as we were taking over the stern I was genuinely worried
we were going to swamp the engine. The Aquasport only had about 2' of freeboard aft, and there was water running over the gunwales (from inside) on
every wave. (Side Note: I remember thinking to myself, I can swim through anything as a diver, so not to worry) (very selfish thought) (Chris wasn't
nearly the same swimmer).
I accelerated out to deeper water and the crests calmed down to just big swells. It was funny, we turned on the deck lights and the whole deck was
just awash, water sloshing over the bow and back to the stern on every swell. Up the swells the water would run out, but the remaining water would
slam forward and splash off the bow and spray everywhere in the wind. The engine was running, and we could maintain course (despite Chris's pleas),
so at least we had things stabilized for the moment. But we still had 2 miles to go, and it was very rough (VERY) near shore. The wind was blowing
(windward) toward shore.
Chris grew up in MT, and I grew up in WY (but spent a lot of time in FL piloting boats), so neither of us were going to give up very easy, but Chris
was wet and cold. I knew we were going to get wet before we left, but I didn't push it enough with him. He was dressed warm, but not for being
I'll just never forget turning around that night. The lights of shore and the channel were right there, but it was just too dangerous. I held off
calling anyone, well, when we turned around I did call mobile maritime dispatch and had them call my Dad and let him know we were "delayed" for the
dock. He was waiting with the big trailer to pull that girl out that night.
Local Sheriff Maritime heard the call and told local US Coast Guard they'd seen us and had two RIBs on standby, but were holding back due to
weather...other boats were in trouble.
Epilogue...had I not turned around that night (and took an ocean of water over the stern), Maritime patrol would have likely dispatched and risked
other boaters in more trouble than us. At least that's what they told Dad (he even said they had a Dophin ready to come get us!...though I'm not
sure I believe that)
We made it back. The wind let up, and after about an hour we were able to make it back into the channel up the slip.
I'll just never forget seeing those lights, and turning away. It was a hard decision.
End Pt I