Boat sinks after 2007 Mac


Junior Viking
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:eek:0 PM; they had sailed all day under difficult conditions and it was time 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.

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: )

Sean Engle

Your Friendly Administrator
...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.
Geeze - just like the Fitzgerald...without the loss of life (thank goodness). What kind of boat was this?



Sustaining Member
First I'll admit that it's real easy to play monday am Q-back on these sorts of things, and the reality is, there but for the grace of Poseidon goes any of us. This guy was clearly a respected sailor, and apparently knew what he was doing. It's a really shame about the boat, and fortunate that there were no injuries or deaths.

Now, on to the shameless monday morning quarterbacking . . .

I'm not sure what to believe from all these reports. Reports of wave height vary from 3 feet to 10 feet at the mouth of the harbor. The depth is reported between "a few feet" and 10 feet. Even if the charted 10' depth is accurate, and we take the lowest estimate of wave height, a boat with 8' draft isn't likely to make it through that without bouncing off the bottom.

If wave heights were actually in the middle of the reports - 6 or 7 feet - and the depth was in fact 10 feet, then the waves would have been breaking, and I can't see any boat trying to enter a 10' deep channel through breaking seas.

The only conclusion I can come to is that either the crew's good judgement, or the sea conditions are being greatly exagerated. I tend to think that the conditions can't possibly have been that bad if this crew attempted to enter a shallow harbor. I hope not, anyways.

Well, the lesson I take from this is: Even when I'm tired, and in desperate need of a rest, a hot meal, and a cold beer, I shouldn't let my desires convince me that I'll be safer in an unknown harbor when the weather has already gotten horrible. Although I could see myself making some of the mistakes this crew made, there's no doubt this able boat would have been safer spending the night off, riding out the gale, than trying to shoot that channel.

Again, there but for smile of Neptune go I, and this unfortunate captain is quite certainly a better sailor than I (quite obviously a MUCH better racer than I :p), but even so, I hope you'll forgive me this indulgence of my hindsight. I'd be interested to know what others make of this event.



Junior Viking
Couple weeks ago I was sailing into, Saugatuck, and Grand Haven, about 30-40 miles south of Portage Lake. We did a crossing from Racine.

Looking at the pictures that we taken when the boat was still fighting to get in the channel, the lake doesn't look that bad, maybe 3-4 footers at most.

My thoughts are the skipper looked at the mouth before going in, made calls to get the depth and thought; I'll motor in quick, yeah, I might bounce off the bottom once or twice, but once I'm into the channel, I'm set. I don't think he planned on losing his motor to a line. (Side Note: Lake Michigan is not the east coast, very little commercial fishing is left on the great lakes, mainly charter fishing, so consequently nobody here thinks about snaring a underwater line.)

If Barracuda didn't lose here motor, I think we wouldn't be reading about this.


Sustaining Member
That makes a lot more sense.

I just don't get why everyone's local accounts of the conditions are so grossly exagerated in this event. Makes the whole accident pretty difficult to understand.

gareth harris

Sustaining Member
there but for the grace of Poseidon goes any of us.

Again, there but for smile of Neptune go I

Don't forget Njord - we are vikings.

The way I read it, there are many links in this mishap chain:

1. Sailing in harsh weather. Not a problem by itself, but without that link, none of the others would have happened.
2. Being turned away from a port during harsh weather, which, from the sound of the article, was caused by someone brainlessly following a rule book.
3. Failure to properly dredge the channel. No doubt budget constrained.
4. Failure to properly chart the channel. Unexplained, and probably one of the biggest factors in the mishap - even if the budget did not permit an up to date survey, locals must have known about it, yet the information did not make it into official publications.
5. Trying to enter the lake. The writer of the article does not give a clear picture of exactly how that decision was made, as he was clearly aiming the article at failures of the authorities, but possibly get-home-itis was a factor.
6. Fouling of the propeller at just the wrong instant. Pure bad luck.

Thanks for posting this story, it is good good reminder of what can happen to mortals. It also tells me that publications from the richest country on earth can be dangerously out of date, never mind anywhere else on the oceans.

Freyja E35 #241 1972


Member II
I can attest to the local conditions - they were atrocious! The wind was consistently in the 30's, and at one point I saw 38 on my instrument - but I was very focused on steering and didn't look at the instruments too often.

We were returning from Mackinac Island with our E-34 and were able to safely make it to Manistee (the next port South of Portage Lake) that same evening.

The wave height near shore was such that when at the bottom of one wave, the peak of the one ahead of us was well above our boom and nearly to our lower spreaders - certainly more than 8 feet. The following waves were breaking over our transom and were so powerful that they pushed us to surf down the wave slopes at over 8 kts with no sails and the engine at idle. At the bottom, the boat would slow to 3 knots and we'd get hit by the next following wave. I closed the hatches and tethered the crew to the jacklines which were still rigged from the race.

Rogue actually surfed into the channel and it took a lot of steering effort to keep the boat in the center of the channel. I could easily see how Barracuda, which draws nearly 8 feet could hit bottom in a 6 foot channel and not be able to free herself. The waves were pushing almost directly East into the channel.

Also that evening, a Tarten Ten was dismasted and ran out of fuel in the same area. The sailor turned on his EPIRB and the Coast Guard towed him into Frankfort (the port that turned Barracuda away).

I was genuinely concerned - and that rarely happens.



Junior Viking

Thanks for posting a local account of what was happening.

Just out of curiosity, how many days total was the Mac for you this year? Counting the day you left and the day you got back to your home port...

What did you do to pass the time when there was no wind?

I've only been in races that last for the evening. Looking forward to maybe doing the Queens Cup or the Hook in the next few years before I would ever enter a race like the Mac.



Member II

How long total? Seven Days and 12 hours!

The race started at noon on Saturday and we crossed the finish line at 3:20 Tuesday afternoon. This was much longer than usual due to near windless conditions for a big part of the race. We then left Mackinac Island on Wednesday midday and returned to Chicago Harbor Saturday at midnight - with overnight stops in Manistee and Sheboygan.

I say near windless conditions because there is always some wind even tough the instruments and even the windex cannot detect it. During these periods, we work our hardest to keep the boat moving. We throw breadcrumbs overboard and watch them in the water to sense our motion, work the sails to build the apparent wind so that we can move enough to get the instruments to register, and get very creative. At one point, I rolled up most of my asymmetric spinnaker in one hand and grabbed the luff in the other and used the portion of the sail as a wind-seeker to build a flow - as the apparent wind increased, I gradually released more of the sail until it would fill.

Upwind, we executed very coordinated, dingy-style roll tacks to use the keel and rudder to bite the water and propel the boat to windward until we could find enough apparent wind to drive the boat. I have found the key to pointing in very light wind (Thanks to Seth's tutoring) is to crank the backstay tight to get a clean edge for the jib, crank the running back tight to straighten the mast and power up the main, put some water on your face to feel the wind, and watch bubbles in the water to sense the boats motion so you can steer to the wind. Doing all this, we were able to pass new Beneteaus (PHRF 75), A Mumm 36 (PHRF 36), and a Tripp 36 PHRF 74) with our old Ericson (PHRF 144). Note, after the wind returned, they quickly passed us.

From my perspective, having a crew that gets appropriate rest and stays focused for the entire race makes passing the time very easy - by staying totally focused on boat speed and tactics.

I'm looking forward to a storm next year so that we can get there in 40 hours :)



Sustaining Partner
Yeah, but...

Thanks Steve,

Need to make a slight correction:

In very light air, you need quite a bit of sag in the headstay to develop power in the sail, and have a more rounded, forgiving leading edge. If the HS is too tight, the "groove" will be too narrow, and the speed will be off the pace. Imn light air I sail with the HS as loose as it can be without having the HS bounce so much the airflow is disturbed..
In bigger breeze, sag will become excessive, and you need to add BS tension to bring the sag back to an acceptable level.

Atta boy Steve!!



Contributing Partner
Harbor of Refuge?

Just noticed this thread, and boy does it get me mad. Frankfort is one of Michigan's Harbors Of Refuge, meaning that in bad weather they are not supposed to turn away anyone. I've been stuck in one of these harbors during bad weather when we were packing boats in two deep rafted off across our sterns, and no one complained because we all appreciated that it could be us next time who needed to get off the lake. I sure hope someone finds out what dimwitted harbor master said they couldn't come in off the lake and at least sets him straight.


Member II
In Frankfort, there are at least two marinas, possibly more. I would guess that the Municipal Marina is the only safe harbor. I could imagine asking Jacobson's if they have space and them saying "No." They should probably offer the Municipal as an alternative, but they might not.