Lake Erie Solo Challenge

I am absolutely amazed and touched by the interest and support I got during the Lake Erie Solo Challenge. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  I was expecting it to be difficult; it is supposed to be difficult, and not everyone is expected to complete it.  One sailor was making his third attempt. The physical, mental, and psychological challenges pushed every limit I had.  However, the rewards were commensurate.  I’m not exaggerating to say that it was a profound experience and I learned a tremendous amount, about single-handing, sailing in general and about myself.

Several people have asked me about “the loop” on my last night (Monday night).  The simple answer is that I simply couldn’t fight sleep deprivation any further.  My 36 year-old  alternator was not charging batteries sufficiently to allow me to use my autopilot.  As a result, I had to hand steer the last three days of the race and couldn’t take naps.  For the sake of the non-sailors, I’ll explain this a little further.  My sailor friends can skip the explanation.

Steering a sailboat is not like steering a car.  There are constantly shifting forces, wind direction and force, waves that require constant adjustment of the wheel.  It’s more than just moving your arm and turning the wheel.  It requires constant data input from several sources to know what’s going on:  a wind direction arrow at the top of the mast, the forward edge of the sails, the boat speed, the compass.  To maintain maximum speed requires that the helmsman is getting this input continuously.  Your eyes, and even your ears and your balance sense and inborn accelerometer are constantly gathering this information and making adjustments.  It would be unusual for me to go longer than 10 seconds without analyzing this stuff during a race, and it’s usually a continual process.  The autopilot gives you a break.  It gives you the opportunity to make sail changes and adjustments and take care of the dozens of other chores you have to do while sailing.  Most importantly in a sail of this duration, it gives you a chance to rest.  Frequent 15 minute naps can keep you going for a long time. However, the autopilot is a huge battery drain.  

After mid-morning Sunday I didn’t have enough juice in the batteries to use the autopilot except for brief periods when I had to go somewhere else on the boat to do something.  As a result, I was tethered to that steering wheel for the next three days, and my eyes, ears, and other senses were constantly taxed.  I had a spare voltage regulator on board and changed it out, but it didn’t help and actually overheated my chart plotter (a device that displays an electronic “map” and shows you where you are) with the higher voltage output.  That required another fix.  

By Monday night I simply couldn’t fight sleep deprivation any more.  I found myself unable to stay awake no matter what I did.  That “loop” and the periods before and after were the result.  

Around 2 a.m., 39 miles from the finish line, I made a last ditch “regrouping”, got the boat going where I wanted, and called in my position.  That’s the last thing I remember until waking up at 6:15, drifting.  The boat had heaved to on its own, and was drifting at about 1 knot.  I don’t remember falling asleep.

It was like waking up in college realizing that you’ve overslept for a final exam.  I was sure people had noticed what had happened and had summoned the Coast Guard and Search and Rescue which would be sending a cutter or helicopter at any time.

I made a couple of hurried phone calls to the race chairman and Linda to assure them that I was still alive, then headed for the finish line.  That last 30 some miles was a hard sail.  I had dropped from 2nd to 5th place. It wasn’t long, though, before I remembered that my goal in this thing wasn’t a win, t was to finish, and I was going to do that.  It really didn’t take very long before I was feeling good about things again, and glad to be heading home to a wife who I appreciated more than ever, and friends whose support was incredible, well rested, I might add.

After the race, when I explained my situation to the veterans, they all just chuckled and related the times on previous Challenges that they had done the same thing.  They also reminded me that they don’t call this “a race”, but “a challenge.”

Mark Smith of Port Clinton sailed the 312 statute miles of the Lake Erie Solo Challenge on Aug. 17-20. The Challenge began at Monroe, MI, made the turn near Buffalo, NY, and finished near Erie, PA.

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