The first drops of rain in early afternoon felt like little bombs, cold and heavy, followed by gusts of wind that made my tiny boat shake.
I thought I was ready for mighty Superior — this was not my first dance on the world’s largest freshwater lake — when a monster jumped over the Sawtooth Mountains, gripped my mast, and swung the boat from side to side.
I heard the sound of a wall of wind passing through the shrouds, beginning with a low moan, then to a howl, to a shriek.
My sailboat, Persistence, bucked out of control, slewing to one side as I frantically tried to get her bow downwind — the classic, heavy-weather storm tactic.
Suddenly, my boat nosed down into the waves — bow down, stern up — and stopped. A sharp, stabbing pain hit my side as I slammed into the cabin, headfirst, with feet above my head.
I was lying on my back, looking up. I saw my alarm clock fly from one side of my boat to the other. I shook my head to clear it; the starboard portlight had turned green. A beautiful green.
My starboard side of the cabin was underwater. Water sloshed up through the open centerboard trunk.
Time for action.
Grimly, I forced myself back into the open cockpit. Rain like lead drops pelted my face as I confronted my enemy. The lake was cold and gray, its surface blasted flat by the terrible wind. Long contrails of mist slapped across the water like icy whips.
As I took over the helm, I saw the mainsail come loose from its shock cords. The wind’s icy fingers began to shove it up the mast. The big sail reared a third of the way up, flapping, rattling and catching the wind.
Dangerous. My heart pounded. I could not leave the helm.
Timing the gusts, I shoved the tiller over hard — and hung on. Persistence dipped leeward, hung down on her rail for a moment, and the dark waters rushed up.
We had turned. The sail rattled and whipped on the mast; the boat felt terribly unstable underneath me. The little two-cycle outboard bellowed and dug in. Sometimes the prop was in the water; sometimes out.
Shakily, I wiped my glasses with my fingers. Ahead lay a row of spectacular rocky pinnacles, slashed with waves and spray. In the distance, through the rain, I could make out a gray headland.
It had to be Thompson Island. My safe haven.
We neared a dangerous place — a gap between the land and a small island. On the horizon was something green. We charged — bouncing, careening, splashing — and we were through the gap.
Persistence climbed a wave, teetering at the top. For the first time, I could see what lay ahead.
I had made a big mistake. This was not the hidden harbor.
Now I faced huge, square rollers — the worst waves I’d fought all day. My speeding bow speared into the first oncoming tower. The impact shook the boat. The bow disappeared, but the water kept coming over the cabin top and hit me in the chest.
Desperately, I turned the little boat around. We were flying now, surfing the waves, almost out of control. Ahead, the gap loomed
Rocky slopes rushed close by my speeding boat. On one side was a high outcrop of rock, and on the other, a spruce-covered hill. In between, still, blue water.
It was blessed, beautiful Thomson cove.
I was tying up when I heard my VHF radio boom loudly: “Calling the sailboat Persistence.”
It was the Thunder Bay Coast Guard. I suddenly realized that I was long overdue and they were ready to initiate a search-and-rescue mission.
“Sorry,” I apologized, keying my mic. “But I’ve been a little busy.”
Marlin Bree’s book about his adventure on Lake Superior is “Wake of the Green Storm: A Survivor’s Tale.” His latest book is “Dead on the Wind.” More information at www.marlinbree.com.