Message Received!

Ready to Throw!Our Message in a Bottle was found!

As some of you may remember, during our sail back from Door County during our cruise this summer, Claire, Aaron and I spent a few days putting together a message in a bottle. (Read the original blog post here.) We drew pictures and wrote a note, Claire made a special bead necklace, we corked it, and Claire tossed it overboard on a chilly and overcast afternoon, somewhere offshore between Kewaunee and Sheboygan, Wisc.

Knowing that it would likely never be found, I viewed it more as a fun exercise with Claire and an offering to the mighty Lake Michigan that had taken such good care of us.

But yesterday morning, just shy of six months later, I booted up my computer to check my email and was greeted with a wonderful note from Pat, from Belgium, Wisc. It seems that he and his wife took advantage of an exceptionally warm late-February weekend to take a stroll along the beach for the first time in months, and lo and behold, his wife spotted our repurposed Door County wine bottle sitting on the beach.

What are the chances?! I tried to do some research on this. A quick Google search for these time capsules found in the Great Lakes yielded quite a few results, and some captivating stories of artifacts preserved for more than 75 years. But 10, even 15 accounts (at least, covered in newspaper articles) in the grand scheme of things is almost nothing. The truth, also, is that fewer people are doing this, for two reasons. First, writing actual letters with pen and paper is a forgotten art. Second, throwing anything into the water is considered littering and a non-starter, both in and out of the boating community. It’s definitely something we take very seriously on Clarity, though I was willing to make this one exception.

In all accounts, though, finding a message in a bottle was a momentous and fascinating occasion.

Our bottle’s journey was determined by a combination of waves, winds, weather and current. We also never ventured more than 10 nautical miles offshore during those sails back south to Chicago, and in Lake Michigan, it’s not as though tides or the gulf stream can further influence the trajectory.

Calculating the distance from where we likely tossed the bottle, to the shoreline just east of Belgium, our little care package traveled 40-50 nautical miles. The true miracle is that the bottle happened to wash ashore and be preserved (albeit a short time) long enough to be found, and in a location that just happened to be visited by a couple on a random afternoon walk.

Pat and I exchanged a lovely email correspondence, and it warms my heart to know that he and his wife treasured receiving our bottle as much as we treasured making it those cloudy, foggy days back in September. All the best to you, Pat! I hope the beaded necklace is just your size :).

Off to the Races!

Family Shot

And he’s off! Aaron and the crew of Turning Point are just a few hours into the Race to Mackinac. It’s the 107th year for the race, and Aaron’s 10th running.

After toasting with some Champagne last night at the dock party at Chicago Yacht Club, one of the sponsors of the race, we headed back to Clarity so Aaron could get some solid sleep before managing shifts for two or three days with a crew of nine. Claire and I said our goodbyes this morning and dropped him off at the boat in a flurry of last-minute prep before they cast lines.

In addition to putting Aaron at a decade of Mac Race experience, this year is also a special one because, for the first time with Turning Point, he’s part of the driving team, which means he’ll be at the helm during his shifts. It’s a great honor, and one he’s worked hard for.

You can track the Turning Point crew throughout the race from your computer, or you can download the free YB Tracking app to your phone or tablet. Aaron’s boat is in the Beneteau 40.7 division, and the maps often load faster if you de-select most or all of the other divisions.

As he makes is way to a well-deserved rum drink at the Pink Pony on the island, Claire and I will be holding down the fort(s) here. I’m sure we will find plenty of our own trouble to get into :).

Sail fast, Turning Point!

Home and Away

The Downey Family aboard s/v Clarity, sail from Muskegon to Ludington, August 28, 2014

The Downey Family aboard s/v Clarity, sail from Muskegon to Ludington, August 28, 2014

Four weeks ago today, we were making final preparations for our trip, getting the condo in order for a month away and provisioning the boat accordingly.

Three weeks ago today, we sailed from Ludington to Frankfort. Two weeks ago, we dug around Beaver Island in a GeoTracker before an evening sail to Charlevoix. And a week ago, we made it to Pentwater just before the rain descended again.

Aaron sailed Clarity back to Chicago on a 14-hour solo crossing from Holland this past Wednesday, and I drove the three-and-a-half hours back with Claire. We will be here next week. And the next. And the next. I am already mourning the end of our trip.

I remember when we returned to Chicago last year after our month-long cruise, it was an odd transition back to our “normal” routine. But after some challenging times out on Lake Michigan, it was partially a welcome one, if only to recharge. And we still had the rest of summer in Chicago to look forward to, which is pretty amazing in itself.

We started this year’s journey two months later than last year’s. A polar vortex descended on us halfway through, not to mention that a lot of shops and restaurants in the port towns reduced their hours or shut down completely after Labor Day. It all made this feel like the end of the sailing season, not just the end of our trip, though the Chicago marinas stay open through Halloween.

This year, I truly didn’t want the trip to end. Sure, the weather wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t experience any of the boat issues we had last year, and since this wasn’t our first rodeo, we worked even better as a team.

One of the things I try and explain when people ask, “So how was the trip?” is, when you’re gone for three to four weeks, it almost ceases to be a trip and just becomes your lifestyle. The Downey family settled into life at sea fairly early on in our travels. Aaron worked, I worked, we traveled from one place to the next, Claire was a learning sponge as we explored new places as a family.

And that’s the other part that I miss dearly when these trips come to a close – the time together as a family that isn’t relegated to just weekday evenings and weekends. It’s an absolute luxury – not just because I know Claire benefits greatly from interacting with both of us, but because Aaron and I get to show her even more how we respect each other, depend on each other, work together, and cherish our family.

We still have quite a few more weeks to live part-time on Clarity at 31st Street Harbor, but I know the only thing that will get me through another brutal Chicago winter is planning for next year’s adventures: getting a dinghy so we can anchor out rather than always docking in marinas; getting solar panels to generate our own power; cleaning out our water tanks, which we have yet to use because I’ve been spoiled with on-shore water; putting in a swim platform with an outdoor shower; and many other projects that may come to fruition and may not, depending on budget and priorities.

We’ve talked about starting earlier next year and going longer, exploring the Wisconsin coast instead, sailing up to Door County and digging around the peninsula, crossing over to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula….

When you get a taste of something extraordinary, it’s never enough.


**Many thanks to our dear friends, Dawn and Jack Draper, who took this and other amazing photos of Clarity as they sailed alongside us on their boat, 9-to-5, from Muskegon to Ludington.

See Ya Later, Chicago!

ClaireSunglassesFinally this boating season, stars and schedules have aligned! Tomorrow, we cast lines and head to Michigan for three or four weeks.

The plan? Live on our boat full-time, make our way north and see as much as possible before throwing the trip in reverse. We are so excited and blessed to be able to do this. Also, the decision to pull the trigger and go was not one we took lightly.

Interested parties can find any number of sailing blogs out there, though I don’t know of any others focused on sailing the Great Lakes with a toddler. But many families are cruising the Caribbean, or even circumnavigating the globe, and documenting their experiences. I’ve actually gotten frustrated reading some of those blogs lately. The pictures are beautiful, and the stories are alluring! But I don’t find them altogether honest. I’ll always be honest here.

Aaron and I had countless conversations about whether or not we should take this trip – not because it wouldn’t be an amazing experience, but in order to make sure we really wanted to take on all of the extra weight that comes with it. Last year, we did a similar trip, and for a similar length of time, so we have a pretty good idea of what we’re in for. With any sailing trip, though, there’re bound to be surprises.

What if weather and waves kick up while we’re sailing? I will likely get seasick, though I’m finding better ways to manage this. Also, if I’m sick, it’s almost a guarantee that Claire is, too. And then the bulk of the responsibility for sailing the boat and getting us safely to shore falls on Aaron. And that’s a heavy burden for him if I’m not at my best as co-skipper.

What if Claire gets a cold while we’re gone? What if she enters another lovely phase of being 2 years old, testing even more boundaries? What if, an hour into a six-hour sail to our destination, she decides she wants off the boat? And then refuses her nap?

What if we’re out and the autopilot quits? Or the steering fails? Or our engine or batteries shut down? Do we have a back-up plan for as many situations as possible? Are we prepared for emergencies?

What if Aaron and I get into a fight while we’re out there? Clarity’s 36 feet can seem pretty cramped in situations like that, and it’s not as if one person can just go for a drive to burn off steam.

(I bring all of these scenarios up because they’ve all happened at one point or another.)

And can we get things organized enough at home to be comfortable leaving for that long? What about work, for both Aaron and me? Oh, and somebody has to stop in on Tink regularly, too!

Then, of course, there’s the financial consideration. Sure, we will be taking our “home” with us wherever we go, but unless we anchor out, we will be paying for slips in every harbor we stop at. These can run anywhere from $35 to $75 per night, sometimes even more, depending on if we stay in a relatively basic municipal marina or a fancy private one with a swimming pool and a hot tub (yes please!).

The truth is, while we’re gone, we will be paying for our condo in Oak Park, paying for our slip at 31st Street Harbor, and paying for our transient slip. G. U. L. P.

I mention all of this to explain that, in order to do this, you really have to want to do it. And you have to accept the inevitable challenges of a trip like this – and embrace them!

Luckily, Aaron and I are both realists, and at the same time, adventurists. With as clear a view as we can have, we are so excited that everything came together and we are able to “take to the sea” once again.

So, here’s the plan:

Aaron will be sailing Clarity over to either South Haven or Holland tomorrow (something he felt was important to do on his own), and I will be driving with Claire to Grand Rapids to visit with his family for a day or two. Then, while Claire and Grandma have some bonding time, I will do my big shopping trip to provision the boat for the next three weeks.

Aaron will likely take the boat one more stop up to Grand Haven and we will rendezvous there as a family on Tuesday, spending a day getting settled before pointing the bow north and seeing where the wind takes us. We will both be working remotely while we’re gone (how fortunate is that?!).

There will be lots of adventures and lots of pictures – I’ll be sure to share them with you! And I’ll be taking notes on each port to create a guide for anyone who hopes to follow in our footsteps, either wet or dry, with their kiddos.

Inevitably, there will be some trying times, and I’m sure we’ll get into some pickles. We always do. I promise to share those moments, too.

See you on the flip side!


Back from the Mac


Aaron and the rest of the Turning Point crew on the podium at Mac Island. They won 2nd out of 11 boats in the Beneteau 40.7 division.

On Wednesday evening, we got our captain back! Aaron made it home safe and sound after sailing up Lake Michigan with 333 boats during the 106th Race to Mackinac.

For those who are unfamiliar, the race is the oldest annual freshwater race in the world, and crews come from all around the country to compete. For Midwest racers, it’s a rite of passage. I’ve talked to enough of them to know that, though the finish line never varies, the course and the experience are completely different from year to year. The wind and the weather can throw some crazy curveballs – even if the curveball is the wind shutting off completely and stranding boats in the Straits with the Island just a handful of miles away. Sometimes, they even have to drop anchor to prevent going backward.

This was Aaron’s ninth Mac Race, and I think it was a special one for our family. It was right after the race three years ago that I found out I was pregnant with Claire. Two years ago, the demands of a colicky infant made Aaron leaving for five days impossible, and last year, we had just returned from a month-long trip on Clarity, so the demands of work took precedence. During the bitterly cold and unrelenting winter, Aaron started talking about getting back to the Mac Race – albeit with some trepidation. Most racers that have done it have cursed it and said they’ll never do another – the biting flies, capricious winds, 10+ crew members in tight quarters that don’t shower for three days. I’ve never raced the Mac and honestly have no interest to, especially because it seems to me that oftentimes, they do it because they can’t not do it. Also, it’s not for the faint of heart, as some might recall what happened three years ago. Overall, though, the race is an opportunity to be part of something truly special, and it means a lot to Aaron.

Aaron races on Turning Point, a Beneteau 40.7 that he’s been with for many years. The week before the race, Aaron went out for practice with the crew, practiced sail peels, and helped with final systems checks. Grandma watched Claire on Friday so Aaron and I could have a date night before he left the next morning. Would you believe it? I made him take Clarity out sailing with me – our first chance to sail it without its namesake this summer. He even surprised me with a man overboard drill. We’re just nutty that way.


A hug on the bow with Claire before we sent him on his way!

Saturday morning, Claire and I dropped Aaron off at the Columbia dock and Turning Point crossed the starting line just a few hours later. We were able to track his boat online for the next two days, and I’ve done this enough now that I have a sense of whether or not things are progressing well. Turning Point rocked it. After light winds made for slow progress on Saturday, they picked up on Sunday and come Monday, the crew rocketed up past the Manitou Islands, through the Straights, under the Mac Bridge and all the way to that blissful cannon fire at the finish line that signifies the Champagne and rum can start flowing.

They finished the race in 47-and-a-half hours, placed second out of 11 boats in the Beneteau 40.7 class and landed 11th out of 134 boats overall in the Mackinac Cup division! What an amazing feat! The rest of Monday and Tuesday, racers celebrated on the island in a heady haze of rum and sleep deprivation. I had a blast joining Aaron for the festivities a few years back, but the seven-plus-hour drive up there with Claire didn’t sound like a great idea and a hotel room for the week will cost you your mortgage. Maybe next year…

In the meantime, Claire and I had a lovely time at home in Oak Park visiting with friends, going to barbecues, taking over the pool; basically gallivanting around town. I was quite relieved, though, when Aaron made it home Wednesday evening. Five days by myself with a rambunctious 2-year-old is no joke.

One thing I truly missed, though, was our family time on Clarity! I can’t wait to get back there in the next day or two, and resume our own adventures.


Race tracking for the 40.7 fleet


Island celebrations! Veuve Clicquot is a sponsor of the race.


Island shenanigans… From what I understand, rum had nothing to do with this!



Michigan City or Bust

Our first Lake Michigan crossing of the season is complete!

We had been tentatively planning our first family trip for this weekend, but there’s a lot to consider when you’re sailing, and it tends to dictate the destination. I looked into heading to New Buffalo, MI – a stop that we skipped during our month-long adventure last year. But our boat draws 6.5 ft., and some Michigan harbors aren’t that deep (one of the tradeoffs of getting a boat with a fin keel rather than a shoal keel, which is only 3 to 4.5 feet.) So, New Buffalo was out.

We also considered sailing up to North Point Marina, right on the border of Wisconsin, or over to St. Joesph, Mich. But those are longer sails, and yesterday morning, the lake was powerless to a bear hug of fog that the sun didn’t burn off until right around noon. Thirty miles away, Michigan City, Ind., seemed like a great alternative and a comfortable 6- to 7-hour sail. Plus, their marinas are plenty deep.

We cast lines at about 12:30, settled into our 100-degree point of sail and more or less followed it all the way here. The winds were 5 to 10 knots out of the southeast, so we couldn’t just sail the whole way, but we were able to motor-sail for a fair portion of it with both the jib and the main flying.

Aside from a pesky swarm of biting flies that set up camp in our cockpit, the trip was lovely. Claire ate her weight in crackers, took a two-hour nap and played with some of her animals up on the bow.

Cracker break!

Cracker break!

Claire shows her hippo who's boss while Aaron checks our course.

Claire shows her hippo who’s boss while Aaron checks our course.

We also made friends with a passing freighter.

Getting pretty close!

Wanna race?!

These longer sails are also great opportunities to shake off the cobwebs a bit, and we realized that we have a potentially failing battery in our house battery bank. It wasn’t a problem during the crossing, as we switched to our other battery and always have an emergency starting battery on board. But, it’s another project for Aaron to add to his list. The boat does a great job at keeping that full.

Clarity pulled into her slip for the weekend in the Michigan City Port Authority Marina at around 6:30 and I made a chicken stir fry dinner while Aaron took Claire for a walk to scope out the sights. With full bellies and a sleeping toddler, Aaron and I collapsed on the deck with margaritas to watch the sun set over Lake Michigan.

Today, we’ve been exploring our haven right by the marina – a playground, splash pad, zoo and the beach, all a short walk. Details about our on-land adventures to come. For now, it’s time to explore!

A Sailor Prone to Seasickness

It was five hours into our crossing from Chicago to South Haven, Mich., last summer when I knew things were going to go downhill.

The sail started out great. Minimal waves, good breeze and a nice but non-threatening overcast that prevented the sun from beating down on us. Then two or three hours in came the swarm of biting flies, so thick that you couldn’t see white on the deck and so hungry for a place to land that all three of us had to put on pants and long-sleeve shirts just to maintain sanity (and even then, I don’t mind saying that I lost it a few times).

But finally, all of a sudden, as quickly as the flies had come in, they were gone. We could breathe again, though the wind disappeared and made actual sailing impossible. It was getting to be lunchtime, so I put Claire down below for her nap and Aaron and I grabbed a bite on the bow while our pal Auto drove us through glassy water for awhile.

And then we realized why the flies had left. Slowly but surely, the wind established itself in a new direction and began to build as the storm approached. We had checked the marine forecast fastidiously before we departed in the morning and though there were some storms forecasted, they were supposed to be closer to shore, near New Buffalo and St. Joe – a fair distance southeast of our course. But, as can happen, this one tracked further north than was predicted.


Calm before the storm… I wasn’t really up much for taking photos once the waves kicked up…

The pouring rain wasn’t that bad, really. Aaron and I have sailed in it before and, though a little unpleasant, it’s perfectly manageable if you’re wearing the right gear. The height of the storm only lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and Claire slept through the whole thing – a miracle!

But what the storm lacked in length, it made up for in shifting winds, kicking up the waves and making Lake Michigan a washing machine. And it stayed that way, after the storm passed, after the sun came out. Also, by that point in the day, we just wanted to get to South Haven as quickly as possible. This required sailing in the ditch – the absolute worst approach to the waves.

When I felt that first pang of seasickness, I knew it was just a matter of time, and I perched over the side of the boat, fingers and toes clenched, and waited. And it came. Again, and again, and again.

I’ve had bad motion sickness for most of my childhood and all of my adult life. Those twirly rides at carnivals, simulation games, tiny planes, and yes, big waves – these are my nemeses, to be avoided at all costs. But as soon as Aaron and I started dating, I was out on sailboats more and more and became determined to overcome it (especially after some embarrassing dates early on).

I’ve tried it all – Dramamine, Bonine, motion sickness wrist bands, prescription patches behind my ear, ginger pills, ginger ale, ginger beer. Most have had little or no effect on me – Bonine being the most successful, but even the non-drowsy version made me so loopy that it wasn’t really an option. (Taking care of Claire while we’re sailing is my No. 1 job.)

BUT, contrary to what my doctor told me, it has gotten more and more manageable the more time I spend on the boat. In all of the sailing we did last year, I only got physically ill twice – first, during that South Haven crossing, and then during a sail from Racine, Wis., to Milwaukee – a story for another day.

I even do relatively well in bigger swells now, and I can go down below in most conditions. Heck, I’ll even fix us lunch in the galley while the boat is tossing anything that isn’t secured like popcorn in the microwave. It’s predominantly when the winds and waters are confused and kick the boat around in every direction at the same time that I can’t overcome it. And in most cases, the best medicine for me is just to have a job and stay focused on it, keep my mind off of it as much as possible.

Incidentally, Claire also became seasick on those two occasions, and on that crossing to South Haven, when she came up from her nap, it took her about 15 minutes or so of sitting on my lap in the cockpit before she got sick on me as I was sick over the side. I have never appreciated solid ground and a hot shower more than when we finally docked at South Haven that night. Unlike for me, though, who stays sick for the rest of the day once it’s set in, she was smiling and singing songs again as soon as it had passed.

You can’t foresee everything, but the marine forecasts are pretty reliable. And that’s why, on some perfectly sunny, warm days – such as this past Sunday – we’re docked at the harbor. These same days sometimes bring winds of 15-20 knots and 6-to-8-foot waves. Not my prescription for a pleasure cruise.

I don’t think I’ll ever fully shake the seasickness, but life on the water is worth it to me. And if it means we’re a little more conservative with when we go out than other boats, so be it. I must keep remembering – we’re cruisers! Having fun sailing isn’t just desirable – it’s required.