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Cruising: Pier to Peers

A family learns that remote cruising can make dockside fast friendships even more important.
When your boat is suddenly dead in the water in a remote location with foul weather approaching, there’s only one course of action: Break out the manuals, roll up your sleeves and hope some help arrives before the storm does.

When your boat is suddenly dead in the water in a remote location with foul weather approaching, there’s only one course of action: Break out the manuals, roll up your sleeves and hope some help arrives before the storm does.

Boaters have moments as close to heaven on earth as we will ever get. Waking up at the perfect anchorage after a peaceful night’s sleep, brewing real coffee and watching the sunrise over a calm horizon, fixing a problem on the first try with only one trip to the hardware store, the day we finally “finish” the teak.

And then there are the “oh, shit” moments. They’re fun to tell, later. Much later.

Since it’s later, I’ll tell you about one.

The story starts on a calm summer afternoon as we guide our 38-foot Marine Trader Mazurka toward the dock at Malone Bay. It’s one of the more isolated parts of Isle Royale National Park in northern Lake Superior where the borders of Michigan, Minnesota and Canada converge. The crew of the Bayliner Jaded greeted our crew: my husband, myself and our three kids, ages 7 to 11.

“If I’d known we’d see neighbors out here…” Jaded Capt. Mark Bruzek called to us as we threw him our lines. It was our first time meeting him and his crew of two friends, although we soon realized that Jaded docks just across the channel from us in our home port in Knife River, Minnesota.

It was surprising to run into them at Malone Bay, one of the more isolated spots on an already isolated island. It’s not a main entry point, sitting on a spur from the main hiking trail, so the only folks who go out there are anglers with a purpose. And us: introverted boaters looking to get away from everybody. We had come to Malone Bay in previous years and not seen another soul.

Lake Superior is a big lake but a small world of boaters, especially those avid anglers who go to Isle Royale for the lake trout.

For all of its beauty as a cruising destination, Isle Royale National Park’s remoteness also makes it a stretch as a waypoint for a rescue tow.

For all of its beauty as a cruising destination, Isle Royale National Park’s remoteness also makes it a stretch as a waypoint for a rescue tow.

“Usually people on this dock are pretty friendly,” Bruzek told me. “If they’re going to make the effort to come all this way, they’re not a-holes.”

And it is a long way. A lot of recreational fishing boats, like Jaded, trailer up to Grand Portage, Minnesota, and launch for a two-hour cruise over to the island. Those of us going 6 knots, without the luxury of a trailer, make the 24-hour trip from Knife River over several days. An important stopping point is the idyllic town of Grand Marais, Minnesota, where dockside conversations over the years have given us the invaluable friendship of harbormaster Dave Tersteeg. We joke that he’s the unofficial mayor of Western Lake Superior, renowned among boaters for his gracious hospitality and love of boating. He sails with his family aboard the Falcon, and over time, our dockside friendship has extended to our families with kids the same age and rafting up in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands.

At Malone, we were surprised later that night as five more fishing boats trickled in, crowding the dock. The crews were elated with the day’s catch and the chance to swap increasingly unrealistic stories. The fishing community at Isle Royale is tight-knit; these crews return each year and know one another well. We tend to be more shy, more introverted, the family boat—but how can you resist a fun party and the lure of fresh-caught lake trout? It was a smorgasbord with everybody showing off their special recipes. My husband brought out his fresh-baked bread (a sweet benefit of a trawler’s galley in remote locales), and we ate and listened.

Eventually, of course, talk comes around to the “oh, shit” moments.

Jaded’s crew told of their fuel incident a few years earlier. They always bring extra fuel with them because from Malone, it’s about 25 miles in either direction to get more fuel. That day, they had left one tank of fuel on the island, kept 30 extra gallons strapped to the bow, and went out fishing. It was windy as they fished the area around Siskiwit, Wisconsin, and they decided to stay there for the night because of the weather. The next morning, they fished outside the gap at the Houghton Point passage.

 The young crew of Mazurka explores the remote pleasures of Malone Bay, one of the more isolated spots on an already isolated island.

 The young crew of Mazurka explores the remote pleasures of Malone Bay, one of the more isolated spots on an already isolated island.

“We were fishing, fishing—all of a sudden, the boat stops a couple hours into the day,” Bruzek said. They were out of fuel. “We burned way more than we had anticipated. I wasn’t watching the gauge. Going into the wind to refish the spot burned way more fuel than we had thought.”

Not a problem, as they had extra fuel on board, but he had accidentally left his fuel siphon with the fuel tank on land. They didn’t have a way to transfer their extra fuel into the tank.

He did have a large funnel, but the rolling waves were too heavy to avoid spilling fuel. “We brainstormed for a while, and I decided to use our washdown hose for our siphon hose,” he said. They transferred fuel into the boat, the boat started, they fished for about five minutes, and then it shut off. “It’d run for a minute, shut off, run for a minute, shut off.”

They were out in Lake Superior, dead in the water, with some big wind pushing them toward rocks. They called for help on their VHF radio. “Your radio is your lifeline,” he said. “It may not be you that needs help; it may be someone else.”

Within five minutes, he added, “We had friends around us.”

The first to arrive was a boater they’d met just the night before. “We had had a great day fishing and they hadn’t, so we shared info with them,” he said. “We were actually in radio contact with them earlier in the morning. He had followed us and limited out just before we called them.”

They rafted onto that boat and it held their position, making sure they didn’t get pushed into the rocks. A ranger was second on the scene. The third to arrive was a friend from another dock, who also had extra fuel on board and dropped off a small can that came in handy to their repair.

Small Craft Advisories on Lake Superior are best avoided, especially on a 38-foot Marine Trader with kids ages 7 to 11 aboard.

Small Craft Advisories on Lake Superior are best avoided, especially on a 38-foot Marine Trader with kids ages 7 to 11 aboard.

“It’s the little connections you make the night before. You never know who’s going to rescue you,” he said.

They borrowed a fuel line and tracked the problem down to a fuel-delivery issue. “We ended up transferring fuel from a big can into a little can, then the motor could suck it up with a fuel pump from there,” he said. They had only used one of the two 15-gallon fuel containers on board, “so we used the other one to keep the boat running. We knew it was a fuel issue. We knew it was the main tank. Had we dug a little deeper, we would have figured it out on the spot.”

Later, problem-solving back at Malone, they discovered that the end of the pickup tube in the boat was plugged with water slime. When they used the washdown hose as the siphon hose, the gasoline dissolved the water slime that coated the inside, causing it to lose its hold and sending it right into the gas tank. “It slipped my mind to check for a filter,” he said. “Totally my fault.”

Lesson learned: Don’t forget your siphon hose at the dock.

For us at Malone, we awoke to predictions of fierce east winds that would whip right into the bay and slam us into the dock. We all needed to leave. Most of the anglers left early. We were still lingering around 9 a.m., as the family boat takes its time getting going in the mornings. Finally, my husband turned the key.

Click.

Oh, shit.

(You knew it was coming, right?)

My husband started pulling out manuals. He theorized that the alternator was not charging the batteries. He hadn’t isolated the batteries, either. “I guess this is why the tachometer wasn’t working,” he said, referring to an issue that had been bugging him since we’d left home.

Just one fishing boat remained, its crew packing up their campsite. They agreed to try to jump-start our Ford Lehman diesel engine. Nobody seemed to think this would work. I watched my husband and the other boaters string jumper cables across the dock, and then move their boat across the dock for a better reach. Our kids played in the V-berth with stuffed animals. I thought of a moment in Jaded’s story, at the height of the drama, when their third crew member—who was not mechanically inclined—came up with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in one hand, a bottle of Coke in the other, and said, “Guys, I don’t know anything about this, so call me if you need me, but I’m staying out of your way.” It was the best possible thing he could have done, so that’s what the kids and I were doing, only instead of Jack and Coke, they had stuffies and I had my journal.

Grand Marais harbor, where dockside conversations over the years have cultivated invaluable friendships for the author’s family

Grand Marais harbor, where dockside conversations over the years have cultivated invaluable friendships for the author’s family

“The voltmeter is going up,” my husband said. “Idle her faster. Nope, engine not turning over. Worse than it was before.”

Sick to my stomach, I tried to remain calm. This was my worst-case scenario, or close to it. Dead in the water at a remote location with weather moving in and three kids on board. But at least we were at a dock, and there were rangers on the island. Did TowBoatUS come all the way out to Isle Royale?

The anglers headed out as my husband radioed the park service for help. They replied that they would be out sometime that day. My mind raced trying to figure out how I was going to get our kids home.

Our youngest son, Anton, emerged from the V-berth and climbed out on deck. “Wait,” he said, “everybody left!”

Twenty minutes after my husband radioed for help, a boat appeared on the horizon, heading toward us. That was fast, I thought, but it wasn’t the park service. Our kids saw it and started jumping up and down. “It’s Jaded!”

Within minutes, the Jaded crew were tied up and aboard Mazurka. They had heard our call for help, hauled up their lines and headed our way. They stood with my husband in the salon, four mechanically minded problem-solvers at work. The Jaded crew was prepped for disaster: They had the equipment, the experience and the sense of humor necessary to work together and solve the problem.

“Are you guys brothers?” Anton asked them.

“Like brothers,” Bruzek answered. “I’d trust these guys with my life.” He later told me they called themselves the A-Team. “A shop teacher, a machinist and a cop. There’s nothing we can’t get out of. We just look at each other and know what the other is thinking.”

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One of them had a jump pack—a Noco Boost HD GB70 2,000-amp, 12-volt jump-starter pack—specifically for these situations. “This’ll jump-start a diesel truck,” he said. “I bought it to help somebody out.”

It bypassed the whole system and started the engine right up.

“It’s better than bad fuel,” Bruzek said.

Our generator, which could have charged the batteries, was out of commission. We had been relying on shore power at our home port; we had not had shore power for five days and would not have it again until we got back to the mainland. So, Bruzek left his portable generator with us, along with extra fuel for it, to power the batteries in place of the alternator if we needed it. The generator would run for 10 hours at idle, or for five hours charging. We could return it when we got home.

Later, I asked him how it felt to leave his thousand-dollar generator with people he barely knew. “I knew you guys were from the marina,” he said. “I’ve helped people before and haven’t been burned.”

This is why you make friends at the dock.

There was a Small Craft Advisory coming. After we were up and running, Jaded took off for Grand Portage. We headed over to Windigo, Michigan, which seemed like Grand Central Terminal with ferries and smaller boats coming and going.

Isle-Royale-Nat-Park

I had heard on the Windigo dock that permits for boaters and backpackers were up by a whopping 40 percent. Later, I talked to Liz Valencia, manager of Isle Royale’s interpretation and cultural resources division, who said that while the final numbers hadn’t been verified yet, in June 2021 boater permits were up. But more boaters coming to Isle Royale doesn’t equal more rangers; they have five or six protection rangers each year, Valencia said.

What this means—to me, at least—is that more people are coming to the remote locale. They may or may not be prepared for the fast-changing weather systems, the rugged terrain beneath the waterline and the other demands of boating in this rigorous environment. We need to rely on one another, and be ready to help.

Sometimes, I wonder if these “oh, shit” moments happen just to prove that point.

The morning after Jaded came to our rescue, I poured some coffee and took a stroll. I overheard a conversation between a couple in their 60s sitting on a bench, chatting with a backpacker in her 30s. The backpacker said, “Well, I’m going to go get some coffee.”

“Where do you get that?” the man asked in earnest.

“Oh, just instant, at my campsite.”

The couple laughed. “We’ve been having instant for days,” he said. “I thought you knew where the Starbucks was. We’d all be following you!”

I headed back to Mazurka and, in a few minutes, returned with a large, steaming cup of French roast. They gaped at me in disbelief as I handed it to them, like children who just received the gift they never thought possible from Santa.

“It makes me want to cry,” the woman said.

“That’s how it is out here,” I said. “People help each other out.”

They had no idea just how much.

Back in Grand Marais, the harbormaster and his wife greeted us in their Boston Whaler with a big box of Cheez-Its for our kids, who were in serious withdrawal.

That’s why you make friends at the dock.

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