Somewhere around 1977, I was sailing on ‘Caprice’, a C&C43 owned by Kurt von Besser and Buddy Schaefer in the Chicago Mackinac Race. I ran the foredeck and keeping track of the halyards to assure they were straight and not tangled took concentration day and night (it is impossible to see them up the mast at night).
We were just smoking that year. Two thirds up the race course are the first islands to sail through, the Manitous. On Sunday afternoon, we were the first boat of the entire fleet to pass both Manitou Islands. This was a record pace for me and many others in the crew. The weather was beautiful with the wind out of the Southwest, and the spinnaker was pulling us quickly.
‘Nike’ (the owner owned Timken Bearings, you see them on every rail car while waiting at train crossings with the gates down), a boat from Ohio, much faster caught us and passed us sailing quite quickly off into the distance up to the North. I’d pick up the long-eyes (binoculars) and watch them get smaller and smaller. With the blue skies, and picturesque weather, it was hard to see, but it looked like I was looking at Nike down a blacktop road on a hot summer day and the light in the picture was all wavy. I reported this to the others, and it didn’t mean anything to them.
Then I looked again, and it looked like their sails were down. I mentioned this as well, while mentioning the light in the picture was still all wavy. With the blue skies, it didn’t get anyone interested.
Behind us, ‘Namis’, a Gary Mull 54 was hauling up behind us, a bunch of our friends were onboard and we both steered for a close passing so we could cajole each other.
A monstrous gust of wind out of nowhere (or at least Nike gave us a hint) blew the dogs off chains. Our boat spun out of control winding up to T-bone Namis right in the middle of the side of their boat. Their crew ran away from the low side of the boat seeing the impact coming where they had just been standing. Fortunately we spun out quickly and u-turned quickly falling behind Namis as she sailed passed.
Suddenly the spinnaker on Caprice blew into a jillion pieces and we took the remnants down. We put up a jib and rode what we called a “dry squall.” No rain, no clouds, nothing but sudden heavy heavy winds and blue skies.
The wind subsided, and the original wind filled back in from the Southwest. As we were putting another spinnaker up, BAM. Again the dry squall was blowing snots off rags. This time, the spinnaker halyard jumped the sheave, jamming the sail half way up, or half way down, depending how you want to look at it.
Again we were out of control. The sails and boat were shaking violently. The boat was heeled over at 45-degrees. No one had a solution on what to do. So I grabbed the bosun’s chair, and had others take me up to the top of the mast, even though it was more like climbing a steep slope and hanging on tight as it shook. Once to the top, I let go of the mast and had them lower me to the shackle at the top of the half way up spinnaker dangling over the water. I popped the shackle open dropping the sail into the water and knew what was coming. The boat and mast was going to stand upright instantly. I spun so my feet would crash land into the side of the mast. It worked out just right with no injury.
Then I had them take me back up to the top of the mast to replace the damaged pulley to be ready to race the remainder of the race.
Fast forward to 2010. Down off Rio de Janeiro, the tall ship Concordia experienced a dry squall as well. However it didn’t turn out as well for them. With 48 college students, eight teachers and eight crew on the 188′ ship, it sank within 20 minutes of being pegged by the unpredictable heavy winds. Fortunately, all hands were saved.
When the report on Concordia was released, a fellow sailor couldn’t quite wrap his head around this unexplainable phenomenon and found it a bit unbelievable. When I shared my experience with him, he was all curious what body of water my experience happened – right here on Lake Michigan.
It was pretty weird sailing through a dry squall witnessing something unexplainable being so unique!
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