“Aisling”: Adventures in Sailing through the Manitou Passage, 2017

by Stewart A. McFerran, reporting from the deck of the Aisling

I found the old boat at a boatyard in Northport. The cradle had broken and the boat had fallen on its side. The hole in the hull had been patched but the rudder was still bent. I bought the C&C 29’ named Aisling for a song.

Headed toward points unknown. Image of the view of Lake Michigan from the deck of the “Aisling.” Image courtesy of the author, June 2017.

Aisling is a Scottish word meaning dream or vision. Ace Welding was able to straighten the bent rudder shaft and we launched the Aisling in Northport. Andy Rockwood and Mark Graham were onboard for the inaugural trip from Northport to the South end of the West Grand Traverse Bay.

The pirate mooring I had near the Grand Traverse Yacht Club (GTYC) was ready. The anchors I place on the Bay bottom were attached to a float that could be picked up and tied to Aisling’s bow. All the boats in the mooring field would swing about to face the wind with Aisling. Only a few of those boats were tied to moorings that were surveyed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

With the Aisling at mooring we were ready to do battle with the fleet each Wednesday night. The GTYC has Wednesday night sailboat races. Boats are handicapped with a Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) rating. Large boats can race against small boats. GTYC sets up the buoys at the corners of the Bay and sets a starting line.  The start and first leg of the race is always upwind. I had a small sailboat as a youth but had never raced, it was a dream come true. (Ed. Note: For more on sailing in Northwest Michigan, read McFerran’s article on the Pabst Cup.)

Ned Lockwood helped me tune the Aisling’s sail rig and told me lots of stories. He had sailed in Connecticut as a youth. One day he was sailing with his brother and they came upon a guy in the water with his dog. His sailboat had tipped over due to the large sail he had. They righted his boat and taught him how to reef his sail. That was Albert Einstein with his dog. (True, as confirmed by Ned’s ex-wife).

With the help of Mike McDuffy, Ned and many others we sailed around the triangle course on West Bay and won some plaques in those races sponsored by the GTYC. I still have them.

I made the decision not to launch the Aisling and the boat sat under a tree for ten years, until this Spring. The tiller was delaminated and there was lichen growing in the cockpit. I used epoxy on the tiller, ammonia in the cabin and bleach on the deck.

The “Aisling” being lowered in the water, ready to set sail. Image courtesy of the author, June 2017.

At the Irish Boat Shop in Charlevoix the Atomic 4 engine turned over and Peter Johnson, an Englishman with vast mechanical experience, agreed to crew. A crane lifted the mast in place and we loaded our gear on board and were off at 4:00 p.m, on a late weekend in June 2017. The Atomic overheated and we stopped before leaving Charlevoix.

I started the engine at 5:30 a.m. the next day and Pete popped his head out of the cabin and indicated his concerns about the engine. I explained that the Aisling was a sailboat and we only needed the Atomic to get under the draw bridge. He agreed to indulge my vision.

We winched up the mainsail and motored out the channel and turned off the engine. A fine breeze took us all the way to Leelanau. We passed the Cathead point and the Whaleback. There was a lull in the wind near Pyramid Point as the Crib Lighthouse appeared. We made a tack straight West toward South Manitou Island.

It was nice to be back in the Manitou Passage. I had spent a year there in the company of Ross Lang on the Joy fishing for whitefish as well as chubs. As I turned my head toward Port Oneida I had a vision of Lanie Burfeind passing with her skiff full of Coregonus nigrapinus.

South Manitou Island Lighthouse, from the deck of the “Aisling.” Image courtesy of the author, June 2017.

We passed the South Manitou Lighthouse as the Aisling headed West straight for Point Betsie. With Platte Bay on our left the wind died at sunset. Pete tinkered with the Atomic. It was dark when we passed the Point Betsie Lighthouse and 1:00 a.m. when we were near the Frankfort harbor.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, from the deck of the “Aisling.” Image courtesy of the author, June 2017.

Like Albert Einstein I had too much sail up when the squall hit, but I had no dog. The Aisling was knocked down and skidded across the water with Pete and I hanging on. Aisling spun about a few times after righting herself.  We got the sails down and the Atomic would not start. With the sails back up the wind  shifted 180 degrees and was now coming from the East. Aisling tacked through the channel and we lowered the sails and drifted into the dock at 2:30 a.m.

I plan to live on the Aisling this Summer. No telling when the dream will be complete.

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