Great Lakes Adventure

Thomas Alley


Sunday afternoon, July 3

The deep blue sky had just a few picturesque fluffy white clouds. A cold front had brought down the temperature and humidity to comfortable levels. With winds blowing from the west at about 15 to 18 knots and 3 to 4 feet waves slowly building throughout the day, it was a near-perfect day on Lake Ontario for our Alberg 35 and its Seneca Junior Sailing crew.

After tacking to starboard to clear the shoals on the southern end of Grenadier Island, we heard a loud “bang.” The backstay went slack and nearly laid down in the cockpit. Our foresail, furler and forestay went off to leeward, still attached to the masthead but not to anything else. Oh, no! We’re going to lose the mast!

A week earlier: Sunday morning, June 26

Anticipation crackled as our two-vessel fleet readied to depart on a grand adventure, leaving Seneca Lake’s sheltered waters and traveling through the canals to Lake Ontario, where our more experienced Seneca Junior Sailing participants would get a taste of voyaging on bigger water.

My boat, Tomfoolery, a 1965 Alberg 35, had spent most of its 51 years sailing on Lake Ontario and among the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, so this was a homecoming of sorts. Accompanying us, Seek Ye 1st, a 1973 Islander 36, was also a veteran of those same waters.

With masts stepped and secured and both vessels laden with as many provisions as we could store, we set off midmorning with the goal of reaching Oswego, New York, in two days. With good weather and light traffic, our students experienced canal travel, including a pair of tandem locks in Seneca Falls with a total drop of nearly 50 feet, and miles of motoring through the Montezuma Swamp in central New York. By late evening, we were ready to bed down for the night at Lock 24 of the Erie Canal in Baldwinsville, New York.

Monday, June 27

Dawn broke with a drizzly gray sky, which would make for reasonably comfortable motoring through the canal. After lunch, the skies began to clear, and the sun shone brightly as we traversed the last few locks in Oswego, as if to say, “Welcome to Lake Ontario!”

Tuesday, June 28

Seek Ye 1st and Tomfoolery got our masts stepped first thing Tuesday morning, much to the disdain of our teenage sailing students who considered any activity before noon to be an obscene undertaking.
Afterward, we set out for Sodus Bay, a 25-mile westerly trip along Lake Ontario’s southern shore. With steady winds out of the west-southwest at about 10 to 15 knots, we headed north for about 5 miles to reach the bay entrance on a single tack. Waves started at 3 feet and slowly built to 6 during the late afternoon. Conditions provided an exhilarating sail for all but a few of the junior crew and an unlucky jar of salsa, which impaled itself on Tomfoolery’s galley sink spigot, raining salsa and glass shards all over the main saloon.

By early evening, we watched a nice sunset while anchored snugly in the lee of Newark Island on Sodus Bay’s calm waters.

Wednesday, June 29

After three long days of pushing through the canals, stepping masts, and sailing hard against the prevailing winds, our crews had earned a relaxing “down day.” In reality, we spent the day cleaning up the boats and fixing the many little things that demanded attention.

Tomfoolery’s toilet bowl had developed a particularly fragrant and over-powering leak. After removing the unit for a thorough inspection, we found that a drain plug on the backside had worked loose—a simple fix. After a good cleaning, the stout sloop regained its rightful dignity.

The crew of Seek Ye 1st spent the day dealing with issues caused by a slipping alternator belt. After finishing the repair by late afternoon, the crew celebrated with a sail on a breezy and nearly waveless Lake Ontario before heading back into the harbor for the evening.

After walking into town to grab a few supplies (more salsa), we motored back out to our anchorage between Eagle and Newark islands to fix dinner, enjoy another beautiful sunset, and prepare for our longest leg of the trip the next morning.

Thursday, June 30

Starting the day early, we roused the crews for a 5 a.m. departure to get to Cape Vincent, New York, with enough daylight for an easy landfall. At a conservative 5-knot cruising speed, we would arrive around dinner time after 12 hours underway.

We had a good forecast: a 10- to 15-knot west-southwest breeze and waves under 3 feet. On this downwind run, the passage promised to be far less boisterous than the trip from Oswego to Sodus Bay.

With the Sodus Bay Light receding in our wake, dawn broke ahead of us as we sailed into the open lake. The junior sailors aboard Tomfoolery took turns napping through the morning to make up for their lost beauty rest. As the sun rose higher in the sky, its warmth started stirring up the air and filling in the breeze, making our sails more effective.

Seek Ye 1st could not resist the allure of the steady breeze and deployed its spinnaker, starting an all-day run with a speed touching 9 knots at times. Not to be left behind, Tomfoolery deployed a large “drifter” and enjoyed a similar broad reach down the lake toward the St. Lawrence Seaway. Although cruising at a steady 6-plus knots, Tomfoolery sailed a more direct course, arriving only 45 minutes behind the faster Seek Ye 1st.

That evening, both crews tied up at the New York Fisheries building in Cape Vincent, which has free 48-hour public docking. Commandeering a couple of picnic tables in a small park next to the building, we cooked a simple but filling dinner for both crews before enjoying showers and a good night’s rest. The only downside to Cape Vincent was the plentiful, voracious mosquitoes.

Friday, July 1

Although we’d planned for a down day in Cape Vincent, forecasts called for a cold front to swing through the area over the next 36 hours, bringing strong winds and waves over 7 feet. While these conditions make for exhilarating short runs, slogging through them for the better part of a day can become tedious.

With this in mind, we continued downstream to Clayton, New York, our jumping-off point for Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands. While waiting for better sailing conditions, we’d tour the Singer and Boldt castles.

By late evening, winds hit the low- to mid-20 knot range, causing flags to stand out straight and snap to attention. Waves blown up the St. Lawrence River found their way into our harbor, making for a bit of a bouncy night. After having been on the lake for several days, however, this was of little concern to the two crews who, for the most part, slept soundly that night.

Saturday, July 2

Making use of Coach Andrea’s vehicle, we drove 15 miles to Alexandria Bay (rather than taking two hours to motor sail) and spent most of the day pretending to be tourists. We visited Singer Castle on Dark Island, a “summer cottage” owned by Frederick Bourne, a Singer sewing machine company CEO
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Next, we took a ferry to the much more famous Boldt Castle on Heart Island, just across the river from Alexandria Bay.

Back on the boats in Clayton that evening, we had winds in the upper teens with the odd passing shower. Before the rains cleared, a full rainbow gave us hope for a peaceful passage to Henderson Bay and Sackets Harbor the next day.

Sunday morning, July 3

Leaving Clayton at 9 a.m., we motored southwest on the St. Lawrence toward Lake Ontario. We planned to sail south and stop in Sackets Harbor before continuing to Oswego and the New York Canal System the following day. Taking wind on the nose, we motored up the river toward the lake. Near the mouth, the waves increased, making for some dramatic photo opportunities.

Tomfoolery and Seek Ye 1st both flew only under jib to reduce pitching and rolling from the waves. In just a few hours, we would clear Grenadier Island shoal and be able to enjoy a nice reach into Henderson Bay. Or so we thought.

Sunday afternoon, July 3, cont.

The loud bang motivated Tomfoolery’s crew into action. We threw over the helm, pointing the boat downwind to reduce wave and wind-induced stresses on the rigging forward. Next, we slacked the jib sheets to further reduce stress on the mast. The crew went to the foredeck to perform damage-control and secure the flogging sail and flailing furler and forestay.

Informing Seek Ye 1st of our plight, we requested that they stand by to assist. As training kicked in, the junior sailors sprang into action without question or hesitation.

First, we had to secure the mast to prevent it from falling over. Halyards on the mast’s forward side had become fouled during the gyrations of the forestay and foresail, so we ran the main halyard and its spare forward. Next, we tied them to the anchor platform and tensioned them to minimize the mast “pumping” in the now 4-foot waves. Working on the narrow foredeck proved challenging, as the short wave period caused the bow to bury into every third wave.

Once we’d secured the mast, we had the challenging task of snuffing the foresail. The furler had been seriously damaged and the sail, partially reefed at the time, had become so tangled that it could neither be furled, unfurled or lowered. Manually attempting to rotate the entire furler assembly also proved futile as the fouled jib halyard had effectively locked the top of the furler in place. In the end, we freed up the main halyard and led it forward. (After all, we weren’t going to be doing much sailing at this point.) Working in time with the waves, the crew attempted to wrap the halyard around the still flogging sail to snuff it to the remains of the forestay and furler. Although it was marginally effective, the boat’s pitching and narrow foredeck made it impossible to get a good enough angle to snare all the sail.

After nearly an hour of this, Tomfoolery’s exhausted crew radioed Seek Ye 1st to see if it could spare a crew member to provide some relief. The sailboat came alongside and used its dinghy as a “floating bridge” to transfer Coach Andrea aboard.

For over an hour, Tomfoolery had been drifting down onto a lee shore of Grenadier Island, and the depth sounder was showing less than 40 feet. An attempt to motor to windward proved ineffective, and the wave action placed unacceptable stresses on the jury rig holding up the mast, so we decided to retreat to the closest leeward harbor with shelter: Cape Vincent.

Three hours later, both Tomfoolery and Seek Ye 1st arrived safely in Cape Vincent’s sheltered harbor. The crew (and captains) could breathe again!

Sunday evening, July 3

With a few hours of daylight left, both crews started cleaning up the hastily made jury-rigging aboard Tomfoolery to see if the boat could be secured sufficiently to make the trip back on its own keel.

It took almost an hour to unwrap the sail from the furler. Not one section of the furler foils had escaped damage. Each one had a twist, kink or bend. At least one joint had sheared, resulting in the sail being wrapped not just in unequal amounts at different levels of the stay, but also in opposite directions. The sail had ripped in several places and had been seriously stretched out in others.

With the sail unwrapped, we had to figure out how to get it down. The foil’s upper section had a sharp bend at the upper swivel. It wasn’t going to move without a lot of persuasion, so I climbed into my harness.

With the foredeck partially cleared off, we freed the spinnaker halyard to use as the mast’s primary forestay, with the main halyard being used as a secondary forestay and cinched tight. We removed the boom from the mast to further reduce any force that would tend to pull the mast aft. (The 15-foot-long solid spruce beam weighs about 130 pounds.) This freed up the spare main halyard and the boom topping lift, which could be used as a safety line. At this point, I ascended the mast.

Once at the top, I detached the foresail from the furler swivel and started helping it down the damaged furler foils. Retrieving the jib halyard from the swivel, we pulled it back down to deck level where it could be used to help secure the mast. After I made it safely back down, we got a better look at the damage to the forestay and fuller.

With the foredeck cleared of debris, the crew used the jib and spinnaker halyards as temporary forestays. The temporary forestays were attached to the anchor platform, which is solidly bolted to the hull and deck. Next, we secured the furler/forestay using a short line to the bow stem chainplate so it would not flail around excessively during the trip home.

The next day’s forecast called for light variable winds and waves under 2 feet, making for a reasonably comfortable trip back to Oswego. In Oswego, we would have had to take down the mast anyway for our trip back to Watkins Glen through the New York canals.

What happened?

During the cleanup, we found a curious piece of debris on deck: the end of the bronze clevis pin, which holds the forestay to the bow stem chainplate. It appears to have fractured just behind the cotter pin, probably due to fatigue. The wind and wave stresses propagated the crack (note the different shades of darkening along the fractured surface) until the compromised pin finally came apart, allowing the forestay to separate from the boat.

With the bottom of the forestay free, the sail flew leeward until it was held back by the furling line, which was still attached to the boat. By this time, the slack of the furling line had been used up, and the furler and sail had gained sufficient momentum to really jerk on the furling line. The sudden load on the furler is what probably sheared the lower joint in the furler extrusion (see photo on p. 42). At this point, the lower part of the sail started to furl while the rest of the sail tried to unfurl, causing stresses in both the furler and sail. The torsional loads on the extrusion, combined with the sail whipping in the wind and the lack of support from a taut forestay likely caused the damage observed in the furler foil sections.

The “I-survived-Lake-Ontario” crew: Capt. Tom Alley holding damaged furler; Coach Andrea Johnson; Capt. Mike Crouse; and Junior Sailors Henry, Katie, Isaac, and Maggie. The furling unit turned out to be totally destroyed. The genoa (lying on the dock) is in the critical care unit of a local sailmaker.


What I find truly frightening is that the rigging was inspected when the mast was unstepped for the outbound trip in the canals the week before. At that time, the shrouds and pins all appeared to be in good condition. The photo of the shorn clevis pin, however, tells a different story. The pin had failed some time before, long enough for the crack to propagate and show signs of corrosion before it failed.
Ultimately, the problem wasn’t the clevis pin; it was complacency. Our brethren who boat in saltwater or in areas with year-round boating have learned hard lessons about corrosion and metal fatigue. As a result, they are vigilant about ensuring their rigging’s reliability. Living further north, in fresh water and with low duty cycles on our boats, we easily become complacent with these inspections.

Although I drop the mast at least once every five years to inspect all the rigging and perform opportunistic inspections whenever the mast is taken down, it’s easy to overlook details and put off some things until “later.”

I’ve read numerous accounts of boat owners replacing their standing rigging every five to 10 years to offset the effects of saltwater and to prevent the incident we just experienced. It stands to reason that freshwater sailors should do the same, but perhaps on a more appropriate schedule, say, every 10 to 15 years?

Our family purchased Tomfoolery in 1996—20 years ago. While we have replaced a few of the clevis pins (usually after the original was dropped overboard during maintenance), we’ve never deliberately retired any component of the standing rigging. This means everything is at least 20 years old. As a result of this incident, we replaced all clevis and cotter pins on Tomfoolery when we got back to our home port of Watkins Glen, New York. The shrouds and stays will see a similar renewal in the coming year, with the old ones being kept as spares.

Will I take an extended trip with our junior sailors to Lake Ontario again? Absolutely. (In fact, they’re already talking about where to go next summer.)

Thomas Alley

Tom Alley has been a United States Power Squadrons member since the late ’80s when he got serious about sailing and having fun on the water. He was squadron educational officer for the Niagara squadron and later for the Seneca Sail & Power Squadron/6. He manages the squadron website and edits both his squadron and district newsletters. Active racers and cruisers, Tom and his family sail a 1965 Alberg 35 sloop, Tomfoolery, with the Finger Lakes Yacht Club in Watkins Glen, New York. When Tom’s not sailing, thinking about sailing, or tinkering with his boat, he’s either scuba diving, hanging out with fellow amateur radio operators, or (as a last resort) working as an engineer to support his sailing addiction.

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