SI Vault
Hugh D. Whall
August 11, 1969
The wind wasn't up to much and storms stayed away—but when 22 ocean-going sailboats headed into Lake Superior, they established the clearest, cleanest race of them all
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August 11, 1969

Across A Big Drink Of Water

The wind wasn't up to much and storms stayed away—but when 22 ocean-going sailboats headed into Lake Superior, they established the clearest, cleanest race of them all

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There is Bob and Mark and—let's see, now—Jim and Bill. Bill is the one who is off in the Army. Then there is Gordon and John and Dave. There also is Martha, one girl in there among the seven sons—but Martha, like Bill, was not aboard the 40-foot sloop Snark for the inaugural of the Trans-Superior Race, the longest freshwater "ocean" race ever held.

Heading this homemade crew of sons whose ages range from 16 to 29 is the skipper, and father, Dr. John Pierpont of White Pine, Mich., who confesses to a bit of confusion about the team lineup. "Now, let me see," he says. "First came Dave. Then John, Bill,, wait a minute, that's wrong. It's Jim, then Martha and...." No matter. What was even more confusing to an outsider who sailed aboard the Snark was that most of the sons also carry nicknames. Like, "Crock." And, "Satch" and "Gob."

But apart from fathering a one-family crew—perhaps the only one of its size from Sydney to Newport—Dr. Pierpont also is responsible for establishing what could become a classic in long-distance sailing: the 380-odd mile haul from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. to Duluth, Minn. It had a classic look from the start—and it was not surprising that a fleet of 22 ocean racers of one brand or another turned out for the event last week.

Ranging in length from the wash basin-sized 24-foot Cygnus to the 52-foot scratch boat Tamara, the boats hailed from inland ports such as Sheboygan, Duluth, Marquette, Mich., and Port Arthur, Ontario—strange sounding places to sailors unaccustomed to freshwater.

What drew all of them was a course that proposed to be as unusual as it promised to be tough (above). First of all, the boats would start from the Lake Huron side of the famous Soo Locks, where an endless train of freighters pass up and down going to or coming from Lake Superior. The fleet of yachts would then lock up to the St. Mary's River, which itself forms a mouth into Superior. Starting the actual race at Point Iroquois—providing they followed the most direct routes to Duluth—the boats would then bend around Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, roughly the halfway mark, before leaving for the Apostle Islands. The finish lay approximately 80 miles beyond, up a forefingerlike bight in the lake. Prevailing westerlies—in fact as irregular as they are regular—theoretically would mean a beat against the wind to test stamina and stomachs. And finally, capes, bays and islands would strongly challenge the navigators.

But most of all the weather, in all its famous moodiness, fascinated the crews. As every sailor who'd ever crossed Superior's frigid waters was willing to attest before the race began, the event was a natural—at least for men bent on proving they had won their seaboots the hard way. "The water is so cold," explained Dr. Pierpont (who, like others from Superior, refers scornfully to Michigan, Erie and Huron as "those lower lakes"), "that it is said whenever anyone drowns here the body never comes up. The lake refuses to give up its dead, so to speak."

Indeed, to combat the cold, the sea-bag of a typical Lake Superior hand contains a wet suit—as well as several items of ski togs, almost down to the boots. "The weather is liable to blow in so suddenly and so ferociously," said Dr. Pierpont, "that even ore carriers hundreds of feet long have been known to snap in two like dry spaghetti." It was enough to make an East Coaster anxious.

Still, contrary to such mournful tidings, the weather preceding the race had been warm and fair. Not that anyone was lulled into believing the balmy days were there to stay. An hour or so before leaving for the locks a portly and sadistically cheerful weatherman came to each boat and delivered the latest forecast. "Synopsis," it read. "A vigorous low-pressure system will move into...." And, "This storm will...."

"Well," declared Dr. Pierpont, sounding satisfied that his buildup for the race was apparently about to be verified, "like I say: the only thing you've got to be prepared for on Superior is the unexpected. Despite the forecast, it will probably be calm the whole way."

Unfortunately, for Dr. Pierpont at any rate, his diagnosis was correct. Not only did the vigorous low rush vigorously through far ahead of the fleet—showing only a flash or two of lightning as it went—but a monumental high-pressure system behind it settled in on Lake Superior, turning it pacific to a fault. But if it disappointed freshwater sailors with its calmness, the lake went a long way to make amends by offering saltwater sailors the novel experience of racing over water pure enough to drink.

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