Black River to Portage Canal on the Keweenaw Peninsula


Through the trees

 April 23, 2009  The trek to the waterfalls and the walk in the woods refresh my limbs and spirit.  The waterfall was spectacular, the whole river cascading in to the crevasse and then rushed on.  Where is everyone!  They are missing it.  When I come back to just sail Gitche Gummee it will be in April.  Sure, I’ll have to wait on weather and ice but the solitude of the lake is worth it.

I stick the dagger board in the mud leaving Black River in a bit of a blow.  The wind is off shore out of the south and building.  I hug the right side of the bank knowing there is shoal water but feel that is better than the rocks on the left side.  No margin there.  But I catch the shoal and come to a quick stop.  It’s an easy fix, just release the dagger board until the vessel starts to move again.  I also unseat the rudder to allow it to swing up not wanting it to stick in the mud.  This will be a problem later when I neglect to reseat it home before raising the sails.

I pick my way carefully out past the breakwaters avoiding the shoals that have build from the muddy river.  To be named the Black River it was one of the reddest rivers I’ve ever seen, a dark brick red.  As the depth increases I make prep to raise sail. 

A reef is in order this morning, and off we go but something is not right with the steering.  I have to hand steer and man, is it hard.  When I try the autopilot again I’m swung around and into irons.  Wind building 20+ knots.  Underway in the wrong direction, back to hand steer, set auto pilot, into irons again.  Then I see it.  The casing holding the hard mount of the autopilot is broken. The rudder overpowered the autopilot and broke the mounting.   My heart sinks; it’ll be a long day hand steering to the Keweenaw.  The wind is abaft the beam and stiff, boat sailing 12.5 and steering is hard, must need the head sail for balance.   Try to set the rudder home as it dawns on me why I’m having difficulty.   The rudder is a “balanced rudder” which means in the proper position it uses the waters force to help provide the power to move the rudder.  That’s why it steers so easily with the auto pilot. 

Dang it, another hard lesson to learn.  Too much pressure to bring the rudder where it belongs, to busy just maintaining a course and sorting out lines to get things done.  This all would have been so easy with the sails down and the rudder in place.  Why do I only remember those lessons that cost me time, money, headache or heartache?  I catch just the right moment to head down wind without jibbing and get the rudder seated home.  Life is getting better by the minute, but still I have to hand steer which at these speeds is fun, well fun for about 15 minutes, then I’m cold and wishing for my hot cup of coffee just two feet out of reach. 

Think tommy think.  I dig out bungee cord and make a makeshift auto pilot just good enough to let me get my coffee and another jacket.  Think tommy think.  I retrieve the autopilot off the stern, broken for sure.  But how can it be repaired, epoxy, maybe, but that’s with Tiny in the motor home.  14 kts!  16kts!  At least the sun is shining and the wind is steady and coming from off shore, there is no swell and little chop!  17.5!  It’s just as well I am at the helm.  Adjusting course for to clear the point of land ahead, the speed drops its top ends but raises the average over the ground.  The GPS averages the speed over the ground from fix to fix but the speed log is on the bottom of the boat and measures the water sweeping past the hull.  My bungee cord autopilot is doing ok.  It buys me a few free minutes to examine the auto pilot again and the idea hits…of course, duct tape!  The handyman’s friend.  Thank you, Red Green!  Except in my case I’ll be using 3M high dollar green masking tape.  The old Coast Guard adage comes back to me, “if you can’t tie a knot, just tie a lot!”  Well, I use a lot of tape.   My auto pilot looks more like a pressgangs billy-club than an auto pilot but I test it out.  And, it works.  Life gets real good, real quick.  Oh, to not have an auto pilot, then to have an auto pilot, is a rush of joy the likes of no landsmen will ever know. 

And the day!  Sun and clear horizon and the almost warm wind so steady in the perfect direction.  The CAP’N LEM sings a song of speed and spray as we wobble our way toward the Keweenaw Peninsula and the Portage waterway.  Wobble I say because the autopilot is not a perfect helmsman.  Then, once, just once, and just for a second, on the through-the-water speed log, 21.5kts!   The line from the old sea shanty becomes reality.    “No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea!”

Right at sunset, the anchor is down just inside the west entrance to Portage Ship Canal at Lat 47® 13.828’W ~ Long 088® 37.948’W in 16 feet of water, having traveled 70 nm in 10 hours from Black River and 453 nm form Two Harbors.  

So ends this day.  So ends this good day.


13 Responses to “Black River to Portage Canal on the Keweenaw Peninsula”

  1. Jack Culley says:

    Capt. Cook,

    Arctic Solo Sail is exciting and wonderfully written. I’m biased, a bit, having introduced the Corsair line of boats in the mid west in 1991…the 27. We had an Australian built F-31 in 1993. In 1999 we campaigned Desperado, an F-31, on the same waters you are sailing. We set a record for the Around the Islands (Apostles) that still stands….66nm in 7 hours. After 10 years and selling about 20 of these wonderful trimarans we gave up the dealership and, fortunately, have been out of the new boat sales business for three years.

    I started Sailboats Inc. in 1970. 79 years old and semi-retired in St. Petersburg Oct-May but will be back at Barker’s Island in June for the summer.

    Best of luck to you on your great adventure….I love the line, “I’m never going to younger than I am today.”

  2. Kevin Moran says:

    Greetings! I am a Michigan Tech Student and I grew up on the great lakes. I could not help but take a look at your awesome vessel today; beautiful boat. I am a huge fan of sailing, mostly windsurfing and waiting for big blows to take the sunfish out in some huge rollers! I’m hoping to plan a small trip from Saginaw Bay to the bridge this summer in a 25″ Pearson. Just wanted to wish you luck I will be keeping track of your progress.

    Kevin Moran

  3. Mark from Two Harbors says:

    Hey Captain Tommy,

    I have been enjoying the heck out of the blog. I’ll have to figure out how to get the boat in earlier next year! You have made more crossings in the last two weeks than most of us around here do in years. I’m with you every day so keep the entries coming!

    Fair winds,

    Mark from Two Harbors, s/v Amicus

  4. tommy says:

    Thanks for stopping by. My first boat was a “minni-fish”, 11′ of pure fun! I’m leaving today but if you come by we’ll have a chat about boats and sailing. tommy

  5. tommy says:

    Hello Mark and family,

    For a guy who has sailed 463 miles I sure haven’t gotten far but I think it will start to streighten out soon. Tiny is traveling in the motorhome and meeting me along the way. I’ve sure gotten a lot of use out of the Bonny Dahl book. Stay in touch and enjoy the ride with me. t.

  6. Matthew Parker says:

    Still checking in on you. Will you be able to make a permanent repair on your autopilot along the way.

  7. tommy says:

    Repairing the auto pilot is easily accomplished with a little more goo and duct tape! Glad to hear from ya. thanks for your prayers and well wishes. Tell my “fake” grandkids I still have their bottle with note and will set it free way up north. love grandpa Tommy

  8. Bill Williston says:

    Wow! Great Sailing, Tommy~21.5 knots. Another great read.

  9. Bo Hedqvist says:

    Thanks for a wonderful site and for sharing your adventure with the rest of us. I live in Sweden and has just got the boat back in the water after an overhaul. We had the boat in the water this winter, for the first time. Lovely experience! Lots of lonely cruising around the archipelago… There is a very special ambience about winter sailing. And you really capture it in your writings! Very much looking forward to the rest of your journey!

  10. Bruce Milne says:


    My family is originaly from Duluth but has spread out over the entire country. I’m in Pensacola Florida and have been since 2002. I moved down here, bought a 1974 27′ O’Day and lived and sailed on it weekely until 2007. I married and my wife and I bought a 1980 48′ Soverel that was in destress from a charilty in Tampa. We trucked it up here and have been trying to get her up and in the water. We have been working on it for one and a half years.

    Today I’m hoping to finish priming the misc. mast parts; I’ve been trying to get this done but the weather has not been cooperating. See ketchwind dot com for details of us and the boat though the site is behind. My wife and I and three dogs hope to circumnavigate. I’ll be monitoring your progress. Thanks for being out there – you’re an inspiration

  11. John Stewart says:

    Captain Tommy;
    What a great web site and stupendous idea for a trip. It is great to see Hancock Houghton, and Black River , sans all the summer visitors and transient boats. I will definitely be following along with you and offering hopes and prayers. I’m located in St Paul Mn and made the trip out through the St Lawrence in 1995. It was a blast and like you i found the folks along the way to be extremely helpful and friendly. Let me know if there is any thing that i can to to help you in your quest. Good Luck; kind winds and seas….

  12. tommy says:

    Thank you for coming along. I am by myself but I am not ALONE!


  13. Informative and enlightening. I