You climb from your berth and start the stove for coffee, warming the cabin. You check your position, looking out the ports as the sun is about to rise. The pristine forest of an uninhabited island is visible out one port, open water out the other. The great lake, Lake Michigan, is glass.
You open the companionway and take your first sip of coffee as the sun breaks the eastern horizon. No other boats, no other people, no houses, no cars. Your only company is a pair of loons taking their morning tour of the harbor. This is why I gunkhole.
One of my more treasured nautical books is a 1982, self-published softcover with hand-drawn graphics titled A Gunkholer’s Guide to Northern Lake Michigan. Its authors, Patrick and Judy Nerbonne, extol the self-reliance and freedom they discovered gunkholing after growing tired of the marina-cruising lifestyle, sailing from one electrical outlet to the next. This tattered guide was handed down to me when my sailing mentor left the Great Lakes for the Caribbean. Now his ashes bless his favorite gunkhole in these waters, and I try to keep his legacy alive as best I can.
The guide’s authors and my mentor were expert gunkholers. I am not. I have an old boat named Windancer—a 1976 Catalina 30—with a minimum of old equipment. I seldom spend more than four nights at anchor. Still, for over 20 summers I’ve anchored in the harbor of one uninhabited island after another, doing my best to live off the grid, untethered to dry land. While I would not call myself an expert, I have been successful at it. Along the way I’ve also, sometimes painfully, learned a great deal that helps me now gunkhole more effectively than ever.
The words “idiosyncrasy” and “idiot” share the same root, and I’m sure many reading this will raise eyebrows and scoff at my rules for gunkholing. Nonetheless, every “weird” thing I may do comes in the wake of misfortunes and mistakes I have endured and do not wish to endure again. And so I make my own rules. Big shock: Gunkholers tend to be an independent lot.
Rule 1: Two Anchors Down
My mentor always stressed that the best place to store your backup anchor is hooked on the bottom. One of the most gut-wrenching experiences in my two decades of gunkholing was emerging from the woods after an afternoon of exploring to find that a wild wind had come out of nowhere, and my boat was not where I’d left her. She had two anchors down, but one was lost. I’m still not sure how.
Windancer was on the other side of the harbor, half a mile away, bobbing and dragging, but not on the hard, at least not yet. If I’d had only one anchor down, she may have been lost. I was on an uninhabited island; I usually am. Exploring trails less traveled means there’s often no one to help when things get tricky. I drop my best anchor first—a large Bruce that my wife, Angela, and I call “Bruce Almighty”— and set it well. Next, I haul my second hook, an oversized Danforth we call “Big Dan,” out by dinghy in the direction I most expect the wind to shift to, making a 45-degree angle with Bruce. The wind is always going to shift in the northern Great Lakes. Trying to guess that direction is as much luck as meteorology. It’s a bit of work, but I always sleep better knowing both my boys are down there. Naming your anchors is a gunkholer thing.
Rule 2: Boat Bats Off
Another great gut-wrenching experience inspired this second rule, and if I ever have a boat not wired in the ’70s, without 40 years of add-ons, disconnects, and suspect grounds, I might change it.
When I was a much younger man, I would occasionally gunkhole singlehanded. Once, I awoke at another uninhabited island to find my batteries were completely dead. Was it the anchor light? A phantom load? Bad batteries? I was never sure.
Whatever the case, I now had to retrieve both my hooks, sail home, and land without any kind of auxiliary help. Empowering? Well, yes, but not something I ever want to have to do again.
Today, once Angela and I are satisfied with how our anchors are set, we turn both battery switches off. We also keep two jumper packs on board—the strongest and newest of which has enough power to start the motor—just in case. The other is for electronics, phones, etc. Battery lanterns provide our cabin lights, and I haul up a battery-powered anchor light with one of the halyards. Extreme, I admit. But if you’ve ever spent two days on the hook in the middle of nowhere and then turned the key only to hear a click, you might understand why Rule 2 isn’t that unreasonable.
Rule 3: Prepped to Flee
An unpredicted storm on a pitch-black night spins the boat and trips your anchors. Dragging toward the rocks, you start the motor, only to find that all that spinning has fouled your prop with one or both of your rodes. You’re running out of time. You need to cut those lines and sail. This is when you wish you didn’t have your sail cover on, your halyard detached, and your genny tied down—so we don’t.
Along these same lines, what if the boat caught fire in the middle of the night and you had to abandon ship fast? We also leave our dinghy motor on our dinghy at night and the swim ladder down. Every member of the crew beds down with a flashlight and emergency provisions—just in case, just in case, just in case.
Some Additional Guidelines
Augmented first aid: Cuts and sprains are one thing, but if you’re going to gunkhole, you should have splints, clotting agents, sutures, and burn agents. When you’re three horizons from the nearest hospital, you can’t just call 911 and 10 minutes later have a paramedic at your door. Not being quite Rambo enough to put in my own stitches, I have used packaging tape to hold an open wound together. The tape was pretty tough getting off, and the method left an impressive scar. But by the time I got real medical attention, it had healed enough to no longer need stitches, so I guess it worked.
Spare parts and tools: Whenever I have to buy something—a hasp, a hinge, turnbuckle, fuel filter, spark plug—I always get an extra to keep with me for next time. A cheap, in-line fuel filter may be readily available at every auto parts store in town, but what a bummer to need one when you’re a day’s sail away from any dock.
Bug containment plan: We typically gunkhole well above the 45th parallel in northern Lake Michigan. We also sometimes explore Lake Huron’s North Channel. There’s a voracious fly above the 45th parallel we simply refer to as “bitters.” Smaller than a house fly but of similar appearance, these insects will bite hard enough to draw blood, and they sometimes gather in overwhelming swarms. I have enough swatters aboard to leave no one unarmed. The goal is to keep the cabin, at least, a bug-free zone.
Mosquitoes are also pretty thick up north, and while they’re like house pets compared to bitters, a few in the cabin when you’re trying to sleep can be very annoying.
Along these same lines, just because many harbors in the northern islands are deep enough to anchor close to shore, that doesn’t mean that’s where you want to be. A breeze from shore is a bug breeze, and the closer you are, the more of them that will be able find you.
Finally, a few words on repellents. In my home waters of Grand Traverse Bay, mostly below the 45th parallel, we never concern ourselves much with bug sprays. When I sprayed my children, I also preferred using products that were safer for them and the environment. But when I head north to gunkhole, the gloves are off, and I use things like DEET. Granted, it will melt your water shoes and make you gag. But if you’re going to explore and want to come back with any blood left, you’re going to need something stronger than kid-safe Off. Note: a dab of repellent on the screens helps keep them away, but make sure whatever you’re using doesn’t melt the material.
The Rough Anchorage
If you gunkhole long enough and often enough, you’ll eventually get one. Amid the northern waters of Lake Michigan, winds often follow their own rules, and the open, cool waters make their own weather. Inevitably you’ll be in a great spot protected from every direction but one when Mother Nature finds you. The first agonizing question is whether to move, run, or ride it out.
The last one I rode out was the worst in a decade. But there was no better place in the harbor to move to, no better harbor to hide in, and the nearest marina, with a tricky river entrance no less, was hours away. I felt my hooks were good—or at least I had no reason to believe otherwise—and the radar suggested the worst of the storm would miss us. So we rode it out, an experience not for the faint of heart. I had only been in two worse storms in over a decade.
I always get up at least twice a night to check our position, but that night I was up every hour. Even when you “sleep” on nights like that, you don’t really sleep. You lay there listening to the wind, the waves hitting the bow, you feel the pitch, analyzing each element. Is it building? Did we drag? Are we swinging? Are we getting closer to shore? Checking your position can also be a challenge. There are no lights on an uninhabited island, and often no other boats at anchor. The GPS track shows a cat’s cradle of blue lines. You listen, you check the GPS, you look again, listen again, you check again. It’s a bit stressful.
After that night, we weighed anchor just before dawn. Both anchors were still set well; if we’d dragged it had only been a bit. An advantage to setting two anchors at a 45-degree angle is being able to judge drag by whether the angle between them has narrowed. If they ever end up in a straight line, you know the drag is winning.
Angela and I are U.S. Navy veterans. She served as a boatswain mate on a sub tender in the Pacific. I served on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. We both have our sea stories, but that stormy night at South Manitou is an experience neither one of us will forget. I’d like to say surviving that rough anchorage left me feeling more self-reliant than ever, invincible even. But the truth is I still felt plenty “vincible” afterward. Nonetheless, two days later we were back at anchor, and life couldn’t have been better.
Bottom line: Gunkholing is worth it.