Cruising the Great Lake

Reporter jumps aboard for a sailing experience on Lake Erie

Story by Blake Bacho
Photos by Dana Stiefel

The boom whipped violently across the ship, carving its vicious path just inches above my head.

The 32-foot, 1984 Evelyn sailboat under me was suddenly perpendicular to the water. My toes dangled just a few feet from the waves, and the safety of the portside rail appeared to be miles away from my outstretched fingers.

“Move now!” yelled a crewmember.

I obeyed as quickly as possible, crawling like a spider across the deck. But my big clumsy shoes briefly snagged on the dizzying system of ropes that crisscrossed their way over every inch of the vessel.

I finally yanked myself free and joined two of my shipmates at the low railing and we threw our feet in unison over the side to help stabilize the cramped boat. A big gust of wind cracked the sail back into shape as we resumed a calm cruising speed that cut like a knife through the waves of Lake Erie. The momentary chaos of the tacking maneuver that sent me scurrying across the ship vanished as quickly as it appeared.

“You having fun up there Blake?” skipper Fritz Peterson roared, his voice carrying over the screaming wind that pushed us constantly forward. I tried to smile back, but my adrenaline was pumping too loudly in my ears to think about whether or not I was enjoying myself.

Out of naivety and bravado, I had agreed to accompany the crew of the Heartbreaker on one of its Tuesday night races and write a story about the experience. Greg Braunlich graciously allowed me and photographer Dana Stiefel to tag along with him, Fritz and his son, Scott, and crewmembers Jim Coyne, Nate Darling and John Cullen.

Greg greeted us at the gate of the Monroe Boat Club and guided us down the docks and through a maze of masts. Fritz welcomed us with a short wave, wrapping a mischievous grin around the thin cigar he chewed on as he and the crew prepared to disembark.

“Should be a fun night,” he said before calmly warning us about the dangers we could encounter once we were underway.

The boom loomed large as the biggest threat to our safety. This massive pole runs perpendicular to the mast and allows the main sail to pivot into the wind. During tacking maneuvers – essentially a fancy nautical term for turning – the boom swings across the deck from one side of the ship to the other. And as Fritz warned us of its immense power, I couldn’t help but picture Miguel Cabrera — in his prime at least ­— sending a fastball over the fences at Comerica Park.

My job was to try my hardest not to be the baseball. Dana, with his precious camera equipment in hand, took up a reasonably comfortable spot next to Fritz near the till. But before I could question where I should sit, I was told that I’d be getting the true sailing experience by moving about the ship with the rest of the crew as we all adjusted to the constantly heaving deck.

Within a few minutes of climbing aboard, we were trolling out of the harbor and into the deceptively calm waters of the lake. Our competitors glided by on either side of us, impressive creations of metal and wood with names like Shere Khan and Pink Panther. One by one they turned into the wind and unfurled their sails, allowing the breeze to carry them lazily away from each other as we all waited for the sound of the starting cannon.

The mood on the ship shifted the moment the race started, all laughter muted as the crew focused on the task at hand. Three buoys laid out in a triangular pattern formed our racetrack, and each Tuesday night the officials pick a different course around these buoys for the competitors to tackle. Determining the correct course is part of the challenge, as crews look for an indicator flag hoisted on the officials’ boat and consult a corresponding diagram that reveals the chosen path.

Greg estimated about a dozen ships competed that night. But I hardly noticed them, as I was too focused on what was happening on our boat. During each tack Scott, Nate and I had to move carefully around the boom and make our way to the high side of the deck. Jim guided me through each maneuver from his spot behind the hatch, instructing me on the precise moment to move so that my weight worked with the crew’s actions and not against them.

As we surged through the water, I was overwhelmed with the complexity of what I was seeing. A system of indicator flags attached to the main sail told Fritz and Greg which way to turn the ship to get the most power out of the wind. And somehow Jim, John, Scott and Nate knew just how to manipulate the web of ropes to comply with each change in direction.

I was watching masters at work. Fritz, Greg, Jim and John have all been sailing for decades, and Scott grew up around boats and often tagged along with his father during races. And while Nate has only been sailing with the crew for about a year and a half, he’s apparently a quick learner.

“I guess we all love the water,” Fritz told me. “It’s a competition; it’s just kind of fun to go out there and see if we can do a better job than the other person and come out ahead of them.”

But nobody is perfect. Tricky wind conditions stumped the crew at the start of the race and we struggled to catch up to the pack. And one of the more violent tacks practically threw Greg overboard.

The officials’ boat was already heading towards port by the time we finished. Dana and I weren’t blamed outright, but we both knew we were dead weight for the seasoned crew.

Besides the occasional grimace, our shipmates seemed to take the loss in stride. The wind was strong without being violent, the evening was warm without being muggy and we all enjoyed the long, slow trip back to the Heartbreaker’s dock. Fritz even let me try my hand at the till, and he patiently watched as I clumsily weaved his precious ship towards the channel.

Over the next few days, as I recounted my adventure to family and friends, I heard the same question over and over again.

“Did you have fun?”

It’s an easy answer: Yes, I spent most of the evening terrified I’d feel the merciless weight of the boom on the back of my head. But in between those moments, I became addicted to the rush of the wind and the spray of the waves.

And I’m not the only one.

“Every Tuesday is different,” Braunlich said. “There’s a thrill, (and) it’s a cheap thrill. We get paid by beer and telling a story of how we survived the race.
“It is an amusement park-type of ride when you have everything going for you. And then if you can eke first place out, that’s a thrill.”

Photo by DANA STIEFEL Another crew making praparations for the race.

Photo by DANA STIEFEL Sailboats in another class make their preparations for their race off the shore of Bolles Harbor.

Photo by DANA STIEFEL John Cullen makes a trim adjustment.