Big Lake, Alaska
Memorial Day Weekend
This holiday marks the traditional start of summer for many Alaskans. There was the usual holiday frenzy around Anchorage as people hurried about on errands preparing for their own long weekend.
But a sailor’s thoughts turn to water, sun, wind and friends and there’s no better place than the Alaska Sailing Club for all of these things. The green leaves are out and a high pressure area parked over south central Alaska promised sunny skies and warm temperatures. During the drive out from Anchorage, the afternoon of 5/26/06, we noted 82°F in the Big Lake area.
For us, the late afternoon was dedicated to “setting camp” duties to prepare for the summer. Members trickled in and we began to form plans to complete the site setup. The main task was launching and securing the remaining six docks still on shore after spring work party maintenance and floatation barrel fitting. But, the previous loss of the float for the dock mooring at the east end of “B” dock was a major roadblock. We’d have to find the mooring or set a new one.
We located the old “finder cable” that linked back to the shore from the mooring, but it was corroded in half only a few feet from shore. After some effort trying to find the free end of the cable, Harbormaster Chris took command and donned two (yes two) wetsuits and his high tech scuba goggles in preparation for the quest. Clear water and the right lighting conditions helped the search but Chris’s dogged efforts were the key. Finally – success. Chris had spotted the mooring and submerged float, but how would he get it out of 16 feet of ice cold water? Two wet suits help when the water is that cold, but it’s still flippin’ cold! Options were discussed and a small folding grapnel anchor became the tool of choice.
The shore crew triangulated the position while Tom and TL took TL’s boat out to try and snag it. After multiple tries with the anchor they had it. The crowd went wild! Pulling the mooring chain up made Tom and TL wish they had brought work gloves, different clothes and a bucket to put the chain in. The clothes may never be the same and TL’s boat was slimed with rotten lake bottom gunk. Another float was attached and we were set for launching docks on Saturday.
Early Saturday morning had a light haze that soon burned off to reveal more blue skies and a blazing sun. It was going to be a hot one! The first two docks went in easily since they were positioned closest to the hoist pick spot. The others required a 10 to 30 foot carry. We count warm bodies – seven won’t do. We’ve never actually weighed a dock section, but 700 – 1,000 lbs is a good estimate.
We waited for others to awaken and arrive. With a dozen members the remaining dock sections are easily launched and secured into position.
By early afternoon the bulk of the work was done and a nice breeze that started in the morning has gradually filled in across the entire lake. Boats were quickly rigged and launched to take advantage of it. I too hurried to complete all those first sail of the season chores needed to launch and rig the trusty Hobie. But it seemed to be one thing after another going wrong (twisted halyard, fouled roller furling, etc.).
As Jody and I finally left the harbor around 4:00 pm, I thought sailing at Big Lake doesn’t get much better than this – sun, warmth and a nice 10 – 15 mph breeze from the northwest. As whitecaps began to form, we beat to weather to reach the north shore and then close reached all the way to the old Call of the Wild. Along the way there were some puffs with extreme extra pressure – never cleat that main sheet under these conditions. The wind continued to build during this time and by the time we reached the west end of the lake it was downright howling! I had to travel out the mainsail and ease the mainsheet a lot just to keep the boat upright and the leeward bow from submerging, all the while screaming along at top speed. It was a very wet and wild ride for sure.
Burying the leeward bow on a cat is BAD news – the boat can “trip” and flip over forward in a pitch pole movement. Due to the high rate of speed, this usually launches the skipper and crew forward some distance, after you’re strained through the standing rigging.
We tacked and headed back downwind on a broad reach. The boat reached top speed quickly as we began the downhill sled ride where cats really shine. It was exhilarating and truly incredible as we seemed to fly across the lake! We soon decided this was the fastest run ever for our boat. As we screamed past Bird Island we noted the wind had increased even more and both bows were riding very low on the puffs (dipping and bucking like a bull ride). I had eased the mainsail as far as possible and was now relying on only our ability to move about the boat to manage the gusts and waves. (Note – winds over 25 mph make most beach cats, like the Hobie 16, unmanageable without a reefed mainsail.) We gibed and headed back to the club. By running straight downwind we were able to slow the boat and catch our breath for what promised to be a hair-raising docking attempt.
After a few even stronger gusts, the wind direction swung to the northeast and I was able to stop and dock with a great deal of help from Elayne and Bob who rushed to our aid. Man, what a ride!
Waves in the harbor are now 2 feet high. Furl the jib, drop the main, more boat to dock protection. Waves quickly build to 3 ft. The Hobie is now hobby horsing 5 to 6 ft while parked at the dock. Time to pluck it out and set it on shore with the help of a Jeromy, Bob, Jay, TL and others I missed in the confusion and howling wind (thanks to all).
This picture doesn’t do the storm’s fury justice and it was taken after things had calmed down a bit. You can see the birch trees bowed and the yellow Skipjack’s bow in the air. During the worst of it you could not stand on the B dock while it bucked and twisted like a piece of rubber.
But wait, the fun is just beginning. Other boats need to be secured and the newly installed dock bolts begin to shear off, new barrel docks are being smashed against the shoreline rocks. Wow, this sailing club stuff is great fun! After more than an hour (who knows how long) of fighting mother-nature, club members are exhausted and we determine there is nothing more we can do to fight the effects of this storm. We watch as the waves batter the shore making the remaining boats fight their lines and the docks twist back and forth.
With the urgent items secured as best we could for the conditions, we did what all sailors do in desperate times – we prepared for the potluck and had a cocktail or two. Then there were shouts and people running for the shore… Andy was trying to moor his sloop with his family aboard, but had missed the mooring and was in danger of wrecking on the drill pipes and gabion baskets just east of the hoist. All hands pitched in and fended the boat off as we worked it toward the hoist. Suggestions were many: leave the harbor and ride out the storm in lee of an island, dock the boat in the large waves, make another mooring attempt, etc. After another failed mooring try, docking became the only option. We secured the boat and retreated to the clubhouse for good food and good company. Everyone was drained and glad to be inside.
Thus ended the most incredible first sailing day of the season this reporter can recall. What a day!
Sunday was beautiful and much calmer weather wise. More club prep was accomplished with more decking boards installed, the garden planted and general cleanup from the storm’s mayhem. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured and no boats received significant damage.
Monday, time for us to return home, rest up and go back to work. Next weekend, The Icebreaker Regatta race series!