Fears and Worries, First Cruise/First passage

Adventures of a once reluctant sailor

Ready to go

In 2007, my husband Wayne and I traveled from Bayfield, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior to Punta Gorda, Florida, on our Island Packet 445 sailboat. We chose the long route, which took us through the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Canadian Maritime provinces, a trip of about five thousand miles.

I had absolutely no intention of making the trip

it was waaayy outside my comfort zone.

Wayne had often expressed his wish to take a long sailing trip. I once accompanied him on a trip of about one hundred miles and it caused me great anxiety, so a journey of five thousand miles was out of the question! Why? Fear. Fear of being on open water, fear of storms, fear of loneliness, fear of too much togetherness—but mostly just fear of the unknown. Besides, I’m a landlubber from Minnesota, which is about the farthest point from the coast of any state in the US. It seemed like such a radical idea.

Our purchase of a home in Punta Gorda in February 2004 gave Wayne a purpose and a destination for that long sailing trip. I agreed that we needed to get the boat down to Florida, but had my own ideas on how to get her there. My first choice: truck it down. My second choice: take it down the Mississippi. Wayne’s first choice: the East Coast by way of the Erie Canal and Hudson River; Wayne’s second choice: to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Chicago, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile, Alabama.

I wasn’t trying to squelch his dream. It’s just that Wayne wasn’t retired and I thought three or four months was far too long for him to be away from the business. It seemed to me that expedience was the wiser, albeit less adventurous, way to go.

Obviously, we needed to hash out a compromise. So how did our compromise result in a trip that was approximately fifteen hundred miles longer than the longest route we had considered? Furthermore, how did I end up making a trip I wanted little or no part of a few months earlier?

In the spring of 2006, Wayne had an unexpected opportunity to sell the business. Negotiations moved along quickly, and by the middle of the summer they had an agreement. With my blessing and encouragement, since he would now be retired, Wayne started making plans to sail the boat down the East Coast through the Erie Canal and Hudson River. I intended to meet up with him and do a week here or there, but mostly he would be accompanied by other friends and sailors, who were eagerly lining up for the trip.

Aboard LENA BEA - photographing whales

Both of the routes Wayne was considering would require taking down the mast and rigging to pass under low bridges and putting it all back up again. When he saw the scope of what would be involved with our sixty-three foot mast and fifteen hundred pounds of mast and stays, he began to have second thoughts. Stepping down the mast is done routinely for boats that make the trip (you can hire people to do it for you), but most masts are ten or more feet shorter and much lighter than ours.

There was one route, however, that didn’t require stepping down the mast: the Saint Lawrence River. It would have been Wayne’s first choice, but he hadn’t really considered it because it was so much longer than the Erie Canal/Hudson River route. After talking to other sailors and doing more research, Wayne began to see it as a more attractive option. He mentioned the possibility to me, and to his surprise—and mine—I was excited about taking the Saint Lawrence because it meant more wilderness to travel through and more adventure. The possibility of seeing whales hadn’t even crossed our minds at that point.

That’s all it took to get me on board.

Well, okay—that and a new boat, our Island Packet 445, Lena Bea.

So less than two months before departure, we finally chose our route and tacked fifteen hundred miles (and a First Mate) onto the voyage. We set sail from Bayfield on July 27.

First night out on Lake Superior

Fast forward one month to August 27. We are in anchored in a small town on the Saint Lawrence, Tadoussac, Québec, and traveling with Claus and Rachael, a couple from our marina whom we met up with in Québec City.

Wayne and I are sitting in the cockpit sipping our morning coffee, preparing to start our day. The rising sun glistens on the water and whales blow in the harbor. A lone seal swims by occasionally and glances at us warily without changing course. “We get to do this!” as Claus would say. And our adventure today raised the bar on “this” to an all new level.

I’ll try to skip all the superlatives, as they are trite and inadequate, and let the whale photos speak for themselves. The photos don’t do them justice either, because they don’t capture the essence, experience, and emotions of being there. We didn’t see any whales breaching and their bodies are mostly submerged, so it’s impossible to fully appreciate their massive size.

I did some research on whales in the Saint Lawrence and here are a few facts I gleaned: The blue whale is the largest animal known to have ever lived on Earth. They can grow up to one hundred feet long, weigh up to two hundred tons, and eat four tons or more of food per day! They are protected and endangered; the Saint Lawrence population is estimated at sixty to one hundred and the entire North Atlantic population is probably less than one thousand.

The beluga or white whale is also protected and endangered. Their numbers in the Saint Lawrence are estimated at around one thousand and declining due to environmental toxins.

See the beluga

Heading out into the bay this morning we observed the commercial whale watching boats, and when they stopped and congregated, we knew to look for whales if they had not already made their presence known to us. We watched blue whales surfacing and blowing, heard them breathing and moaning. Rachael and I stood in our bowsprits, cameras clicking wildly, while Wayne and Claus kept busy trying to aim the boats to where we pointed.

The blue whales had disappeared and we were sitting back, relishing the experience. All of a sudden the water surface seemed covered with whitecaps and my immediate thought was, Belugas. Then I laughed and thought to myself, Now I’m imagining that every little thing is a whale. Except they were belugas and we were surrounded by them . . . over one hundred for sure.

Rachael photographing belugas

They swam past the boat, swam up to the boat, swam under the boat, and I couldn’t shoot my camera fast enough. Wayne immediately put the engine in neutral, as we understood the protocol to be. We realized we were in a marine park sanctuary when the park patrol pulled up alongside of us and set us straight: If you find yourself in a pod of belugas while in the marine park, you are supposed to leave the area immediately and stay at least four hundred meters away (two hundred meters from blue whales). While the park rangers kindly educated Wayne about whale etiquette, I kept taking photos, including some of Kyanna with Rachael taking photos of the belugas.

We cruised alongside other species of whales too, including minke and fin whales (according to Claus, who knows more about them than we do, which is absolutely nothing). Were we afraid, knowing that some of these whales were possibly twice the length and ten times the weight of our boat? The awe we felt obliterated any possibility of fearfulness.

All day long the thought kept crossing my mind: this experience is beyond anything I had ever even dreamed of.

Dinner this evening with Claus and Rachael anchored off Île du Bic was a grand celebration. We bubbled with conversation about our shared experience, one of the most breathtaking of our lives. We had “show and tell,” reliving the day while sharing our photos, oohing and ahhing as over a pile of precious gems.

I am so grateful for the strength I was given to put aside my fear and step out of my comfort zone.

Many times since then I’ve thought back on that experience and many others we had, so grateful for the strength I was given to put aside my fear and step out of my comfort zone. I would have missed out on so much! It was a turning point and a major life lesson for me. Of course, I also acquired confidence and skills as a sailor, which has served us well in later cruising adventures.

This quote, which is attributed to Mark Twain, says it all: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

About Michele McClintock Sharp

Michele grew up in New Brighton, Minnesota, and raised two sons with her husband, Wayne. She calls herself a retired stay-at-home mom who also kept busy with volunteer work. Michele worked for a photography studio for a few years, mostly as a wedding photographer, and later did some freelance portrait work. She gave up professional photography when she realized she was losing the joy of taking pictures; Michele wanted to be able to photograph their children without it feeling like a job. She finds the most joy while photographing nature.

In 1998, Wayne bought Wind Dancer, a 1995 Island Packet 37. He kept her docked at Port Superior Marina in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and sailed her in the Apostle Islands. With two teenagers at home who had better things to do than go sailing with their parents, Michele joined him only occasionally. The couple bought Lena Bea, an Island Packet 445, in 2006 and have enjoyed many great times and adventures on board.

Wayne and Michele live in Punta Gorda, Florida, for most of the year, and spend their summers close to family in Plymouth, Minnesota.

They have written a book based on the blog from their first journey in 2007 – Adventures of a Once Reluctant Sailor: A Journey of Guts, Growth, and Grace. It is available online from their website, and from Copperfish Books, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

See also:

More on this website
  • Chance encounters between ships and whales, by Daria Blackwell: Part 1 and Part 2

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