Out on Grand Portage Bay, cotton-candy fog wrapped a small island. To the north, a wreath of gray stuff hid a historic 18th-century fort. Thick fog hung across the Sawtooth Mountains. Peeking out of the clouds was a burning yellow orb. The sun.
My VHF radio’s NOAA weather broadcast assured me that the day — July 4, 1999 — would be the hottest of the year There would be the possibilities of thunderstorms, but only later in the day. I tapped my barometer. The needle showed fair weather.
I walked past a rusting barge and into the marina office. “Oh, the fog will burn off,” the manager told me. “I’d go.”
On the open waters, my 20-foot homemade boat Persistence and I ducked in and out of spectral fog banks. Entering the fog was like entering a tomb: cold and damp. I was getting chilled despite my layers of thermal underwear, polar fleece, and wool socks.
It was hard to remember it was the Fourth of July.
Persistence’s 5 hp Nissan engine chortled at about a third throttle. This was the start of my latest solo adventure on Lake Superior. For my sailing vacation, I planned to cruise into what would be the world’s largest freshwater conservation area along Superior’s Canadian north shore, an area of 11,000 square kilometers, stretching from Sleeping Giant Mountain to the Slate Islands.
I dogged shut all hatches. I uncovered my sails but kept them tied down, ready for use. All the gear, extra water, food cans, and sleeping bags were out of the boat’s end, fore and aft, and lashed securely to the centerboard trunk. This was not my first rodeo on the world’s largest freshwater lake.
I expected an easy run across the Canada-U.S. border, but it paid to be prepared.. My destination ahead: a small island guarding the mouth of Thunder Bay.
Out of nowhere, a monster jumped over the mountains, gripped my mast, and swung the boat from side to side. A wall of wind slammed through the shrouds, beginning with a low moan; then it moved to a howl and to a high-pitched shriek. My boat bucked out of control, slewing to one side. The wind had us in its grip, shoving Persistence faster and faster. My boat nosed into a wave. Her bow went down as she caught blue water, her stern rose. And she stopped, abruptly.
Lofted into the air, I was tossed through the hatch and down into the cabin. A sharp, stabbing pain hit my right side and my head as I hit a bulkhead. I shook my head to clear it; eerily, my starboard portlight had turned green. A beautiful green. I admired the color only for a moment. My boat’s side was underwater.
Persistence teetered for a small eternity. If we turned over. I could be trapped below, splashing about in icy waters. Something fell on me — a duffle of foul weather clothing — followed by bags of groceries. The port side dumped its contents on me.
Water sloshed up through the open centerboard case. From behind, my engine was howling, almost screeching, its propeller out of the water.
I was in a world of hurt, with no place to run to, no place to hide, and nobody to help me.
In the cockpit, rain like lead drops pelted my face. I scrunched my long-billed sailing cap down harder on my head. Wind tore at me as I faced my old enemy. Long contrails of mist snaked across the water like icy whips.
Persistence reeled with every gust. The starboard mast spreader dipped into the water, rose a little. Then it hung a few feet above the water. Alarmingly, it did not come back up.
Another tremendous gust tore into us. I felt us going down further.
No! I threw myself overboard. I ended up hanging over the windward lifelines, using my weight to lever the boat down. But my weight made no difference. We moved downwind until, with a mighty splash, the hull righted itself and the mast soared upright. The wind had let up just a little.
With a growling noise, the propeller bit into solid water and the engine’s racing stopped. My hands gripped the tiller: I could feel the rudder bite beneath the waves. I had control again. In a classic heavy weather survival maneuver, I headed downwind. Persistence took the gusts on the transom instead of on its vulnerable beam.
A violent gust flattened us. The boat laid over in its beam ends and I heard a “ping” noise. Something had snapped. The wind’s icy fingers shoved the mainsail up the mast. The big sail reared a third of the way up, flapping, rattling, and catching the wind.
But I could not leave the helm. I just let the sail billow, and I steered the boat deeper into the raging lake. When I felt the wind letting up, I shoved the tiller over hard — and hung on. Persistence did a dangerous dip to leeward and lunged down on her rail. Black waters rushed up. The sail whipped on the mast, making a noisy racket. But we turned.
One hand on the tiller, I gave the engine full throttle and locked it there. Power. I had to have more power in the teeth of the storm. Bellowing, the little outboard dug in. Sometimes the prop was in the water; sometimes out. The engine screamed.
But we were gaining.
Ahead lay a row of rocky pinnacles, slashed with waves and spray. They stretched from the northeastern edge of Spar Island into the lake. In the distance, through the rain, I could make out a gray blob. It had to be Thompson Island. My haven.
I edged my upper body over the port side, my leg locked around the traveler beam, one arm around a winch, and I leaned out. Small, rocky islets — spray everywhere — flew by. But where was the harbor?
I saw a dark blue line etched on the water, rushing toward me. That much blue on the water meant only one thing: more wind. Tons of it. The tiller twisted in my hand as my boat bucked and took a dive to starboard. We were down on our side, cabin side going under, mast spreaders dipping in the water. Icy waves climbed aboard, splashing into the cockpit.
We neared a dangerous place, a gap between the land and a small island. A wave flung spray high into the air. I saw what lay beneath: reefs. enough to rip open the bottom.
On the horizon appeared something green. The island? I took a deep breath. Adrenalin surging, I charged the gap with the engine cranked up to full maximum.
I lost control. In a heart-stopping moment, we careened toward the islet’s foam-lashed reefs. I swore, prayed, steered, and shifted my weight. We turned back, but I had to try again. I steered further east, letting the tiny islet take the blast of the waves and wind. Bracing myself, engine roaring, we charged, bouncing, careening, splashing. We were through the gap.
Now I was facing huge, square rollers — the worst waves I’d seen 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. I groaned at the chill. We climbed the wave, teetering at the top. But I could see what lay ahead.
I had made a big mistake.
That distinctive island ahead of me was none other than Pie Island. This was not Thompson Island’s harbor. I timed the waves. On the back of a steep charger, I turned the little boat around. We were flying. Rocky slopes rushed by my speeding boat. Beyond one crag, I saw something shining. Up high, above the trees. They were the tips of sailboat masts.
Roaring closer, a blue water channel opened up. It was blessed, beautiful Thomson Cove. Shakily, I was tying up when I heard my VHF boom: “Calling the sailboat Persistence.”
It was the Thunder Bay Coast Guard. I was long overdue on my schedule. They were ready to start a search-and-rescue mission. I had not heard them calling when I was in the cockpit, surrounded by the noise of the storm, flapping sail, and engine.
“Sorry,” I keyed my mike. “But I’ve been a little busy.”
After I returned with my boat on its trailer to my home in Shoreview, Minnesota, I got the details of the full fury of the storm. I knew it was an odd storm; I just didn’t realize how odd. Winds had torn up half a million acres of northern forests. About 25 million trees, including old-growth northern pines, had been snapped like so many matchsticks, or turned over, their roots sticking up in the air. It was one of the largest North American forest disturbances in recorded history.
On Superior, it was dubbed “the storm of the century.” NOAA identified it as a rare, progressive derecho, a violent, big superstorm produced by long-lived thunderstorm complexes. Derechos barnstorm with straight-line winds of 60 mph to 100 mph., which also produce downbursts and microbursts of heavy, chilly air. These winds slam downward, blasting anything in their path. NOAA reported that downburst winds were “well in excess and perhaps as much as double the gust front speed.” Meteorologist Paul Douglas said that the derecho that hit the northern area where I was sailing had winds as high as 134 mph. It was also noted that the winds speed up on the water since there is nothing to obstruct them, such as hills and forests.
Deadly storms can come out of the sky anywhere over water or land and with very little warning. I had received a recorded warning noise on my VHF radio just minutes before the storm hit. I heard in Thunder Bay a sailboat with three persons had overturned in the high winds. I later learned that someone at Voyageur’s Marina, in Grand Portage, had tried to reach me via VHF to warn that “something big was coming at me” and advised me to “find a nice island.” I did not get that message.
NOAA interviewed me on my survival in its About Derechos internet pages, subtitled, “The Boundary Waters-Canadian Derecho.” NOAA said it was one of farthest north "progressive" derechos to have been recorded. The rare superstorm traveled through a large part of the boreal forests of North America, uprooting and destroying millions of trees, and then made it to the Atlantic Ocean — and back again. It killed three people and injured 70.
In Canada, the July 4, 1999, storm was dubbed, “The Green Storm,” since the sky had turned an emerald green.
It was the wildest Fourth of July on Lake Superior — and for me, a nearly fatal federal holiday. After the storm was over, I rested up two days on Thompson and finished my voyage into the new Canadian freshwater conservation area along Superior’s Canadian north shore.
Marlin Bree of Shoreview, Minnesota, is a veteran Lake Superior sailor. This story was excerpted from his book, “Bold Sea Stories: 21 Inspiring Adventures,” and offered to the News Tribune for publication.