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Navigating through the frigid waters of Lake Superior

Posted by Tall Ships America on August 10, 2013


Duluth, Minnesota, July 27th, 2013
By Brian Holmen

Lake Superior is known for being a very cold lake. With an average water temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit it’s not ideal conditions for a casual swim. Unless you live on Lake Superior where a swim in 40 to 50 degree water is casual.  As we left Sault Ste. Marie and made our way through the Soo Locks, we knew we had entered Lake Superior when we started reaching for our wool clothing.

Our voyage through Lake Superior was just a cruise. There wasn’t any racing, we just had to be in Duluth, Minnesota by July 25th. After leaving Sault Ste. Marie the air temperature had dropped down to the 50’s and we were all wearing every bit of clothing we had. To be honest I was much happier with this cold weather. It was a nice break from the 90-degree heat. However, many of the crew hailed from southern states and tropical islands, so they weren’t as thrilled as I was about the cold.

There was also another thing that was haunting many of the crew. Over the course of the summer it has become a goal of many of the crews to not only sail in all the Great Lakes, but to swim in all the Lakes. It has been dubbed the ‘Five Lakes Challenge’. 

Opinions will vary, but I have to say that the coldest lake I have been in so far has been Lake Ontario. However, Lake Ontario was about 60-degrees so the thought of swimming in water that was 10 degrees colder. Between the cold air and the chilly water, some of the crew members were thinking twice about the challenge.

Meanwhile, we motored as fast as we could to the Keweenaw Peninsula to avoid a serious thunderstorm that was coming over the eastern part of Lake Superior. Our plan was to save some time and motor through the Keweenaw Waterway. This meant navigation and navigation on Lynx is a special ceremony that is performed every half-hour. It is customary on Lynx to wear a gold Mardi Gras necklace when navigating. It ensures accuracy when you chart your current position. During my watch I was tasked with navigating, so of course I was wearing the “Nav Beads”.  In the waterway my duty was to mark every buoy on the chart and note the time we passed it. At first it just felt like the crew was making work for me. However, any time one of the officers, asked me what our location was, I was able to give the position.  I realized there was reason for my constant marking -the more frequent you chart you position, the better understanding you will have as to where you are.  I’m sure the Nav Beads helped my accuracy, too.

Out of the Keweenaw we set sail and made our way to the Apostle Islands. Having motored most of the way here, it was nice to be back sailing again. The wind was coming from the north and gave us a beam reach as we sailed west. The steady wind provided for some great sailing.  Even during my off watch I made sure I spent some extra time on deck to enjoy everything. This was the second time I have been sailing around the Apostle Islands and each time has been some of the best sailing conditions I have had.

Swim Call

Swim Call

When I woke up that next morning we were anchored in Bark Bay, which is just west of the Apostle Islands. The plan of the day was for rest and relaxation, and it was also time for the dreaded plunge into Lake Superior. We decided to do the swim call early to get it over with. Everybody lined up on the rail. Then we jumped. The water was so cold it took your breath away. Some of the crewmembers were already climbing back up the ladder as I made my way to the surface. After about a minute in the water your joints started to stiffen and your legs were numb. Some people even got cramps in their muscles. There is another ladder that is actually built into the side of the ship. However, it’s not an easy ladder to get up. Since there was a line at the Jacobs ladder, I opted for the harder route. The cold water gave me an extra incentive to climb up that ladder and get out of the water. Lake Superior can now be checked off the 5 Lakes Challenge and we can look forward to the final lake, Lake Michigan. I hope it is warmer.

Small boat adventures

Small boat adventures

After swimming we spent our time walking around the bay and exploring the little river that flowed into it. It was nice to finally be able to walk straight in one direction for more than one or two hundred feet. After a long walk on the beach it was back to the boat. We decided we would get a head start on tomorrow and leave while the sailing was good. Duluth, Minnesota was only about 30 miles away but the winds were so good that we couldn’t pass them up.

The next day we arrived outside Duluth and were welcomed by an entourage of boaters and the giant steel lift bridge that acts as a gate to the harbor. We were all ready for some hot showers and a little bit of rest.



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