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post #1 of 9 Old 07-24-2007 Thread Starter
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Great Lakes Sinking

Those of you from the Great Lakes might find this interesting.
Interesting is probably not the proper word, maybe disheartening is better.

An experienced Captain and crew lost thier vessel.
Sorry, I have it only in a word document, I just copied and pasted it here.

By: Holland C. Capper
Onekama, MI

When a mariner sails between two piers marking the entrance to a harbor he does not expect his life to be placed in jeopardy by an unmarked and uncharted shallow sand bar. But that is the very situation in the entrance to Portage Lake, Michigan and it caused the tragic sinking of the Sail Yacht "Barracuda" out of Chicago, IL.

Barracuda is (or rather, was) a 40-foot sail yacht owned by Steve Pelke, a member of Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago. Mr. Pelke has sailed most of his life and is an experienced yachtsman. He and his crew raced in the 99th running of the Chicago to Mackinac Race (the MAC). They were one of 305 boats in this year's race.

After the race Pelke and two of his MAC crewmembers, Mary Aspegren and Don Desimone, began to sail the boat back to Chicago. On Wednesday July 18 they sailed to Charlevoix and on Thursday, July 19 they headed for Frankfort, MI. The weather that day was cloudy with a stiff wind out of the northwest. If was a good day for making time going south and many MAC racers were doing so. As the day wore on the wind and waves increased to the extent that by 4 PM it was blowing 30 to 40 mph and the waves were building to 8 feet and occasionally more.

By the time Barracuda got near Frankfort they had come a long way, they were tired and wanted a safe place to spend the night. But Frankfort has a rule that forbids rafting (i.e., tying one boat alongside another) and they were turned away. Given the wind and weather conditions it is not known why Frankfort did not relax its no rafting rule and permit Barracuda to spend the night in a safe harbor.

Next, Barracuda tried to get into Arcadia, However, they touched bottom attempting to do so but were able to return to deeper water and thus keep going.

The next port was Portage Lake. There is no warning that the entrance between the two piers to Portage Lake has not been dredged for several years and is now only three or four feet on the edges and about six feet in the middle. Recent Charts show a depth of 12 feet across the entire entrance and there are no notices to mariners about the shallow condition that has existed for more than two years.

The crew of Barracuda was anxious to find a safe harbor before dark. It was now about 8:00 PM; they had sailed all day under difficult conditions and it was time

Page Two

to get off the Lake. They consulted their Cruising Guide and found no warning there. They called a local Inn Keeper and he told them to stick closer to the North pier and "they would be fine."

About two miles off the Portage Lake entrance Barracuda's main sail ripped and so the crew took the sail down and from then on they were under power alone. As Pelke approached the entrance the wind was around 35 knots from the northwest and the waves in the Lake were 6 to 8 feet and in the channel between the two piers, as high as 6 feet. (Some witnesses thought the waves in the channel were 8 feet). Barracuda grounded in the sand just inside the entrance and almost immediately was turned broadside to the wind and waves. A horrible pounding ensued which lasted nearly two hours as the boat and crew were lifted by the pounding waves and then dropped with crashing force to the bottom of the channel. Pelke attempted to motor his yacht to safety but no force on earth could move Barracuda from its grave in the shallow bottom.

Immediately after grounding a mayday emergency radio call was made to the Manistee Coast Guard. They sent four young men in their rubber rescue boat but given the dangerous condition in the channel there was little or nothing they could do.

Throughout their ordeal the crew of Barracuda was frightened to death. The wind and waves were so severe that they could not be rescued from their boat. If they had attempted to jump off into the water there was considerable danger that they would be smashed to death by the boat; their situation was horrible. Mary Aspegren called her children on her cell phone. After a brief introduction to their plight she said: "I do not know if I am going to make it. I love you. Get up here as soon as you can." They arrived at 3 A.M.

Meanwhile, rescue efforts by volunteers were launched. Jim Mrozinski, owner of Onekama Marine and his son-in-law, Ted Bromley risked their lives in a valiant effort to save Barracuda and her crew. Mr. Mrozinski had just come home from a meeting when a fellow Committee member pounded on this door and told him of the emergency in the channel. Mrozinski immediately drove out to the north point to determine first hand the situation. He then drove to Ted Bromley's house, gave him a quick briefing, and the two of them hurried to the Marina and set sail in their 26 foot tug for the entrance. Conditions on Portage Lake were relatively calm but the Channel entrance was a different matter. During their rescue efforts the Tug almost turned over three times and Bromley was nearly swept overboard two times. Ultimately they were able to pull Barracuda into deeper water, where the battered keel fell off enabling the three crew to be safely taken aboard the Coast Guard rubber boat without injury.

Page Three

The Corps of Engineers and the United States' Congress have failed to provide adequate funding to dredge Portage Lake Channel and many other channels on Lake Michigan. All of these channels will become dangerously shallow if not dredged on at least an every
other year basis. These unmarked shallow channels put innocent mariners at risk, and also Coast Guard personnel and equipment is at risk. Heroic volunteers are at risk And finally, the entire Manistee County community is suffering economic loss because the Channel between Lake Michigan and Portage Lake is not being dredged as required by law and is not safe for visiting yachtsmen or fishermen.

(This article was written by Holland C. Capper, MHS 1950. A retired Naval Officer and attorney, he is a 40 year sail yacht racing veteran. Capper has raced 39 Chicago to Mackinac races. He keeps his 33-foot boat in Portage Lake. His boat draws 6 feet. Getting in and out of the channel is a concern. Capper lives with his wife Bee at 9603 Herkelrath Rd. Onekama, MI 49675 phone 231 889 7212 e-mail:

Courtney is My Hero

If a man is to be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most - E.B. White

Last edited by sailortjk1; 07-24-2007 at 11:36 AM.
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post #2 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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Interesting article. I'm assuming a 40 footer has a draft of at least five feet (mine is 5'8"). Charts showed a depth of 12 feet, and the waves were 6 to 8 feet. I'm still learning, but wouldn't that mean that the potential exists for depths of 4-6 feet (or lower) in the wave troughs?

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post #3 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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Originally Posted by labatt View Post
I'm still learning, but wouldn't that mean that the potential exists for depths of 4-6 feet (or lower) in the wave troughs?
Ah...yeah, it does.
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post #4 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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I was on my sailboat in the next harbor South of Portage Lake (Manistee). I listened to most of the exchange between the Coast Guard and the Barracuda.

The Barracuda (Mary), said their vessel draws 7 feet, 9 inches. My recent chart shows that the very center of the channel is 12 feet. Note that the chart says this is based on 1997 data. The lack of funding for harbor dredging has been in the news. Also note that the chart shows 12 feet in the center of the narrow channel with 4 to 8 feet at edges (again, 1997 data). Chart shows 12 feet off the entrance to the harbor (1997).

Previous poster's comment that actual depth in wave troughs should be considered and I would agree. Given the wind and waves, and the depths according to the chart, this is already some very skinny math.

Given the math, and the decade old data, is it prudent to trust the opinion of an Innkeeper? Would it make sense to radio the Coast Guard for an update on channel depth?

If the Barracuda "touched bottom" at the entrance to the Arcadia channel, would that act as a reminder to the skipper that actual depth and chart depth can be two different things? One good storm can significantly affect the depth because of shifting sand.

I drew two conclusions from the radio exchange between the Barracuda and the Coast Guard. 1. Mary, who was on the radio all or most of the time did a questionable job of advising the coast guard on the particulars of their situation. 2. The Coast Guard did an inadequate job of asking her questions to determine their conditions. Example: Mary told the Coast Guard that they had "water coming in". From the hatches? Through the companionway? The hull? Additional description may have been useful, such as, "we draw almost 8 feet, we believe we're in 6 feet of water, we're directly between the pier heads in 8 foot waves, we're listing at 25 degrees, we're pounding incessantly on the bottom, we currently have x amount of water on the cabin sole, and the water appears to be coming in through the bottom where the bolt-on keel attaches, and our electric and manual bilge pumps are failing to keep up. We are sinking, and unable to abandon our vessel for fear of being slammed into our boat or the pier".

It was clear that Mary was not the skipper and had limited experience. I don't know why the skipper didn't communicate or why the Coast Guard didn't ask for the skipper. At that point, I suspect there was little else the skipper could do for the boat.

We were on a week-long cruise from Muskegon, visiting Pentwater and Manistee. We were aware that dredging was unfunded and not performed. We learned that straight off the Pentwater pier (two ports to the South of Portage Lake) the depth was down to 6 feet and that the prudent approach was to avoid going straight in, but to come in at 90 degrees to the pier and turn to enter (we stayed in 8 feet + water with our 4.5 foot keel). Point is, this information was available.

Weather: We were anxious to go back South the same day that Barracuda sank. We looked at the weather forecast and decided, "why mess with it?". I'm not saying that the weather made the trip un-doable, but there was certainly risk that needed to be considered and accounted for.

I agree with the poster that warning should be provided at the un-dredged harbors. But, our inland sea can be a violent place requiring the prudent skipper to take everything into consideration.

I would like to know: Did the skipper know in advance that dredging was not being performed at some of the harbors? It begs credulity that an experienced skipper would not be aware of this and take the proper precautions. It's been in the papers, it's a topic of conversation in the marinas, and it's been written about extensively in the free publications (like Scuttlebut) that are available at the marinas. The prudent skipper has to be knowledgeable about the conditions where he expects to operate.

I dread the day when I make a decision that puts me in conditions I shouldn't be in, and that dread makes me extremely sympathetic toward the skipper of the Barracuda. Still, the safety of the Barracuda and its crew are on the skipper's shoulders, and this was an avoidable sinking.
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post #5 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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I'm just an ocasional sailor as I have not been able to afford my own boat yet. I work and sail out of Manistee on a friends boat. For a couple of years here we've heard the complaints about portage lake and the channel. The last reports I heard just before the sinking was that the better part of the lake itself isn't even 2 feet deep and no one here that draws more than 4 feet wants to attempt it. The owner of the boat I sail on said he hasn't been in there in 3 years because his boat draws better than 6 feet and he doesn't want to take the chance.
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I left Charlevoix that same morning heading for Traverse City.NOAA Forcast was for N winds 15-20, some thunderstorms possible until noon, and then laying down somewhat. We, and Barracuda, and at least the other 10 MAC boats that went out the 8:30 Charlevoix bridge and headed south got more than that. Gusts over 30 happened at least till we pulled into TC at 2:30, and very rarely did we see anything under 20. We were in the Bay, out in the big lake it was obviously worse.

By the time they had reached Frankfort they had sailed over 100 miles down wind. They had to be beat. I know that I was and we covered less than 50. Myself, I probably would have gone into Frankfort, dropped anchor, and said to hell with the locals. Leland has been dredged, but is still not deep. With that draft it would have been a difficult, if not impossible, entrance in those conditions. South Manitou would not have been a good option on that day in those winds. He was running out of options.

The captain is responsible for his ship and crew. We will probably never know the balance of events in this case. I only hope that I am never put into a position where I have to be second guessed on my decision.
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post #7 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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Originally Posted by Siamese View Post
I dread the day when I make a decision that puts me in conditions I shouldn't be in, and that dread makes me extremely sympathetic toward the skipper of the Barracuda. Still, the safety of the Barracuda and its crew are on the skipper's shoulders, and this was an avoidable sinking.
Very wise post, Siamese. The time to bitch about dredging is not in a storm with a marginal passage. While regrettable, someone who draws seven feet nine inches on the Great Lakes has to already know that makes entry into many of the usual pleasure boat harbours problematic, and in the trough of an eight-foot wave, it becomes nearly impossible.

Seven foot nine inches is the exception; six foot draft is the high side of average. I've run aground twice, once because of end of season mean low water levels (Lake Ontario is "emptied" in the fall to lessen shore damage from winter storms and to give maximum depth for the last cargo ships in the St. Lawrence), and once because a sand bar drifted right in front of a club's entrance...which was common knowledge to the members, and explains all that waving they were doing at me from the bar's balcony...

I wasn't there, but criticisms of the crap radio etiquette aside, I think these people should've kept going all night or simply hove to several miles out. This is a case where fatigue and the fact that the skipper likely had no skilled relief likely fouled their judgment.
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post #8 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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UGH... not a great situation, and seems to be getting more common, like along the ICW. Funds for dredging seem to be lacking all around. That's one reason I'm glad I have a fairly shallow draft boat... gives you far more room in such situations.


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post #9 of 9 Old 07-24-2007
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Quite so, Val. Quite so.

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