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Wake of the Green Storm: A survivor's tale

"The wind screamed like a banshee. I saw water slosh up through the open centerboard case. I could feel an icy chill in my heart. We were turning over, slowly, oh so slowly. I braced myself. We were not coming back up." --from Wake of the Green Storm

In close docking, the skipper prefers to use both the outboard and the tiller to handle the boat.
Persistence with author at helm catches a gust and makes tracks. 
The Minneapolis StarTrib introduced the author's battle with the lake during the infamous "Green Storm" with this information on its front page.

WAKE OF THE GREEN STORM:
A SURVIVOR'S TALE

 

Roaring out of nowhere, a derecho with downbursts estimated at up to 134 mph. tore onto Lake Superior to overtake a lone sailor and his wooden boat. 

 

Caught in a wall of wind, spinning out of control, author Marlin Bree fought to survive "the Storm of the Century" -- Superior's version of The Perfect Storm.

 

Join Marlin Bree in the cockpit of his small sailboat as the monster storm closes in on him and he fights to save himself and his small sailboat. Persistence braves the high winds, bucks monster waves and gets knocked down to her beam ends repeatedly, with the prop spinning wildly --- out of the water -- along with the rudder. It is a voyage from hell which few will ever attempt and which the author himself was very lucky to survive. 

 

After surviving the killer storm, Bree seeks refuge in a remarkable island on Superior, where he meets other Green Storm survivors and he shares experiences and stories with them. Shaken but determined, the author resumes his voyage in his 20-foot home-built sailboat into the island archepelego of the northernmost arc of Lake Superior. 

 

Bree's remarkable adventures range geographically from the old fur fort in Grand Portage, Minn., across the U.S. and Canadian border, and into the northernmost arc of Superior, a wilderness island archipelago that will soon become the world's largest freshwater conservation area. Bree's voyage ends happily in the picturesque Slate Islands, off Ontario's rugged coast.

 

Interspered with the author's own adventures are the stories of other boater's experiences in the July 4, 1999, storm as well as tales of heroism and survival of boaters in other Superior heavy weather. This includes the remarkable tale of the destruction of the excursion boat, the Grampa Woo off Isle Royale (and not far from where the author sailed) and the incredible reconstruction of the survival of a man deserted on a storm-lashed, ice-coated life raft.

 

Here are more remarkable stories of dangerous storms, shipwrecks, seafaring and an island of silver on the notorious waters of the world's largest freswater lake, told by a master sea storyteller. Wake of the Green Storm is the inspiring true tale of seafaring in a last frontier of wind and water.

 

The book was on Amazon.com's regional best-seller list for more than one year.

 

Wake of the Green Storm: A survivor's tale. ISBN 1-892147-04-1 / quality trade paperback / 48 drawings, illustrations & charts / 6 x 9 size, four color laminated cover / 224 pages. $17.99 U.S. Available at most booksellers everywhere. Also available as an e-book ($6.99) and as a downloadable audio book.

More Great Reviews!

 

Follow along with Marlin Bree as he cruises the Great Lakes' most remote shoreline reliving its history, exploring its lore and pondering its mysteries. All this, a personal experience of Lake Superior legends by a man who, by chasing them, became a legend himself.
--Great Lakes Cruiser magazine

 

...the only boater to date to report at length on what happened on Superior during tyhe historic storm. This Bree does with unusually fine craftsmanship.
--Ken Wisneski, Stillwater Gazette

 

Recommended. -- The Library Journal

 

Bree has a delightful voice and his adventures on Lake Superior offer SoCal boaters a rather different slant on sailing. Equals any oceanic adventure. --San Diego Log

 

Recommended for anyone planning a cruise in the area or just looking for a sailing read when confined to the harbor. -- Good Old BoatMagazine

 

A good Great Lakes tale, narrated by a sailor who obviously relishes the telling of a good story.
--Soundings magazine

 

Read Marlin Bree books. They are very fine and well written cruising narratives. Also very good on the history of ports around the lake, especially in terms of maritime history.
--Jerry Levy

 

* * *
THE DAY ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE

 

A lone sailor on Lake Superior
meets the infamous "Green Storm"

 

By Marlin Bree

 

(Excerpted from Wake of the Green Storm)

 

A cold mass of thick, gray fog hung ominously across the Sawtooth Mountains. But here in the small Fiord-like bay, the waters were clear blue down to their icy depths. Peeking out of the clouds was a burning yellow orb. The sun.

 

I was at the helm of my 20-foot sailboat, Persistence, with my 5 h.p. Nissan outboard running easily at about a third throttle, on the beginning of a solo adventure on Lake Superior. I planned to sail through what would someday be the world's largest freshwater conservation area, along Superior's Canadian north shore, an area of nearly 11,000 square kilometers stretching from Sleeping Giant Mountain to the surprising Slate Islands.

 

I felt reasonably confident. Early on, I had switched my vhf radio to NOAA weather, which assured me that today, July 4, 1999, would be the hottest day of the year so far, and that there would be the possibilities of thunderstorms, but only later in the day. So far, so good.

 

I had tapped my on-board barometer, noticing the needle rise just a twitch to indicate fair weather. A rising barometer. Double good.

 

Out on Grand Portage Bay, a small island was still wrapped in the cotton-candy gray stuff; to the north of the bay, where a historic 18th century fort should be thrusting its spiked wooden stockades skyward, was a wreath of fog.

 

I had walked over a plank past a rusting barge and into the marina office. "Oh, the fog'll burn off," a local boater advised me. "I'd go."

 

So I had shoved off, my boat and I seemingly held aloft on the transparent, but glacial inland sea, ducking in and out of the spectral fog, running down my pre-set GPS waypoints. In the fluky, light air, I was running my outboard, with my sails uncovered, ready to hoist.

 

Entering the chill fog banks was like entering a tomb: cold, damp, chilling, despite my layers of wool socks, thermal underwear and polar fleece. It was hard to remember that this was the 4th of July – and would soon be hot.


Though I expected an easy run across the Canadian border, to an island guarding the mouth of Thunder Bay, my boat was prepared for the open waters of Superior. I had closed all hatches and took pains to be certain my boat's weight was centered. For that, I had taken my sleeping bag, duffle bags of gear, food, provisions, and anything else I could get out of the boat's ends, and lashed them alongside the centerboard trunk. I had carefully gone over the boat to be certain that there were no loose lines, and, that the rigging was taut. I had carefully buckled into my safety harness, and, laid out my GPS, chart, and a cruising guide to the area.

 

My VHF radio was tuned to Channel 16. Right now I was in range of Grand Portage, and its marina, but as soon as I crossed the border, I'd be in range of the Canadian Coast Guard stationed at Thunder Bay, Ontario.

 

When I emerged from the fog bank, my heavy weather precautions seemed unnecessary. The sun was high and bright. Below me, clear waters sparkled down to glacier-carved blue depths, and, off to my port were beautiful little islands, lifting out of the waterline, green with small trees. I began to enjoy myself.

 

Soon I was across the U.S. / Canada border and I began to rue my layers of fleece and thermal gear. Perspiration lined my brow; my glasses began to wear a little haze of overheating.


Lifting my long-billed baseball cap, I brushed my brow with the back of my gloved hand and looked up at the shoreline's high crests. That layer of fog hadn't burned off. In fact, it looked denser, heavier – and slightly sinister.

 

My VHF radio was crackly, but its speaker blared an unmistakable klaxon. It was Thunder Bay's Coast Guard's storm warning.

 

I looked around: I was out on the open waters, an inhospitable shoreline to port, and lot of reefs in between.

 

Ahead lay a small island, with a tiny cove – but that was twenty minutes away. An eternity.

 

I cranked up the engine to three-quarters power. Over the outboard's racket, I heard the dread words, "Mayday, Mayday!" Somewhere a sailboat had overturned. Three people were in the water.

 

I looked around. There was no place to run to, no place to hide, and no one to help me. I was alone.

 

The Green Storm: actually a rare Derecheo!

 

NOAA web pages, with expert comments and radar imaging, show details on the July 4, 1999 "Green Storm" that engulfed the author on Lake Superior. Click on the Quick Link below. The text tells about the storm and graphics as well as charts show the heavy weather going through the area. In particular, the author Bob Johns points out that a derecho is not a single straight line wind but is composed of a family of downburst clusters. The July 4 "Green Storm" was a very long-lived derecho and one of the farthest north progressive derechos to have been recorded. To see the specific storm described in Wake of the Green Storm, click on the hotlink below (in blue type). Scroll down to NOTEWORTHY EVENTS. Scroll down to HOLIDAY WEEKEND EVENTS. Scroll down to July 4-5, 1999 The Boundary Waters-Canadian Derecho: ND, MN, ON, QB, NY, TV, NE. You'll see specific links showing radar imaging, maps, pix, and a description of the rare progressive derecho. (Note that NOAA plays it safe on its reporting, refering only to recorded wind speeds where they had instrumentation; however, elsewhere, NOAA also says that derecho downburst windspeeds may be twice that of the speed of the derecho. The ground speed of the derecho was recorded at 80 mph. Minneapolis Star-Tribune weathercaster Paul Douglas, in his book Restless Skies, estimated that the downburst going through the area was upwards of 134 mph.

The "storm of the century"

 

The first winds to hit you will make their strength felt on your mast, and, your boat will heel alarmingly, and, if you are so unfortunate as to still have sails up, your main probably will have a chance of either being stretched badly or even ripped. Winds are often initially in the 60 to 80 mph range, which is an insane amount of wind to expect a small sailboat to stand up to.

But there's worse: Out of the clouds will come downbursts of cold, heavy winds that will be at even greater speed than the straight-line winds. Thus is a derecho (pronounced Day - Ray -Cho) and it is a Spanish word meaning, straight ahead, as opposed to tornados, which means turning.

 

However you pronounce it, the Big D derecho is a nasty business - nature's apocalypse -- as I came to know from first-hand experience. I am one of the few boaters ever to have been caught in a progressive derecho, one of the worst kinds that are now in the record books, and, I managed not only to sail through one, but also to write record its effects on my small sloop on Lake Superior. In fact, "my derecho" is detailed in the new NOAA web pages, "About derechos," which tells of my boating experience as well as others caught in the decade's worst derechos.

 

I learned about the NOAA site when I first heard from Bob Johns, a veteran of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, who had a special interest in the superstorms called derechos and did several studies about them. He invited me to take an advance look at the test site, "About derechos," before NOAA published it officially in July. The web site is found at www.spc.noaa.gov/misc/AbtDerechos. Developed by Johns and fellow forecaster Jeff Evans, the web pages define derechos, tell what causes the superstorms, gives strength and variation of winds, and, presents some information on historic derechos. It includes satellite and radar images.

 

The July 4, 1999 derecho was a huge superstorm that lasted farther and longer than many news reports have indicated. Beginning on the western border of Minnesota, the storm accelerated to become a derecho in the proximity of the BWCAW and northern Lake Superior. It did not end in the BWCAW but instead blasted eastward in a path of destruction for several days all the way to Maine.

 

For boaters, it can be fascinating viewing, but you can surmise through the pages that although forecasting is improving, it's still not easy to identify a derecho until it has formed. That means a derecho can pose a particular danger to boaters. As I found out, a derecho can move so quickly that its fast winds can catch a boater off guard. A derecho has severe wind gusts greater than 57 mph., and, straight-line winds that can travel long distances at 60 to 80 mph., but that's not the worst.

 

Embodied in a derecho is a family of downburst clusters. The derecho is a "worst first" storm, with the strongest winds coming during the opening minutes of the storm, with a sustained series of downbursts can blast the surface below with cold, heavy air. Downbursts can have speeds of more than 100 mph., and, over open water, speed up. Unlike many common thunderstorms, which can be over in an hour, a derecho can last for ten hours or more as it moves through various areas.

 

• Derechos are a unique danger to boaters because the superstorms can't be predicted in advance, and, they can arise quickly with little or no warning. Boaters may not be able to get to a place of shelter, and, they can be caught out with their boats unprepared for a superstorm. The worst form of derechos, the progressive derecho, often occurs most during prime boating months.

 

• The chief danger is not the derecho's straight-line winds, which can be in the severe wind range, but its many downburst clusters with intense winds of more than 100 mph. that rush downward and bowl over anything in their path

 

• Derechos last for long periods of time, and, cover huge areas.

 

• Preceding a derecho, the atmosphere may appear dead or still, followed by a quick rising storm pushed along by 60 to 80 mph winds. Onrushing dark clouds may be confused with a thunderstorm, or, a tornado.

 

• Despite advances in meteorology over the last decade, derechos are still somewhat of a scientific mystery.

 

An example of one is found in NOAA's Noteworthy Events, which gives information on significant derecho events causing severe damage and casualties in the last several decades. Among them are Holiday Weekend Events and here you can click on the July 4-5, 1999, "The Boundary Waters - Canadian Derecho," which lasted far longer than local news reports indicated and which caused huge damage not only in Minnesota's BWCA but also all the way east into Maine, a track of destruction of about 1,500 miles. This was the derecho I encountered while sailing my 20-foot ultra-lightweight centerboard sloop, Persistence, solo out of Grand Portage, MN., to Thompson Island, located at the mouth of Thunder Bay. I was overtaken by high winds that set my sailboat on its beam ends, out of control. With winds estimated in excess of 100 mph., this extraordinary derecho tore down huge amounts of trees in the BWCA, injured 70 people and killed two persons before it ultimately ended in Maine.

 

In the BWCA storm, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on its EarthBulletin Storm Tracking web pages had an interesting comment that as the storm passed to their north, meteorologists in Duluth saw the wind signature diminish on the screen. Meteorologists could view a bow-echo reflection of raindrops, so they still had a rough idea that the gust front was located, though they could not longer determine actual speeds at ground level. "It was precisely the moment when (the storm) evolved into a full-blow derecho," AMNH reported. It added, "As fate would have it, however, Duluth was the last radar station along the path to northern Minnesota - and the last radar to see the storm before it turned into a derecho."

 

During that onrushing storm, little advance warning was given boaters, including myself. I heard a Canadian VHF warning only minutes before the derecho swept onto Superior. The Thunder Bay Coast Guard had issued a Mayday for a sailboat that had overturned, with three persons in the water. Part of the difficulty was that the storm had knocked out electricity as it hit the Ontario city, and, one fireman I talked to reported having about the ten minutes warning, "Something big is coming through." They saw a blackness rolling across the Sawtooth Mountains, and, watched the sky turn green. In the fire tower, the rain was blowing so hard it shot through the top door's seals, with water pouring down steps "like somebody was up there with a fire hose."

 

Though the July 4, 1999 "Green Storm" tore up 477,000 acres in the BWCAW, in what was one of the largest North American forest disturbances in recorded history with its wind gusts "in excess of 100 mph.," that derecho was not the strongest to come through the northern area. On July 4, 1977, a derecho that pounded across northern Wisconsin had measured speeds of 115 mph., and another one, on May 31, 1998, a derecho with wind gusts at 128 mph and gusts estimated at 130 mph., hit Lower Michigan.

 

Though the derecho has only begun to be understood and recognized - as well as remaining difficult to forecast until it has actually formed - it probably should be in the lexicon of most boaters. It is a rare, but not infrequent storm, sometimes preceded by only minutes of advance warning of heavy weather on the VHF, or identified visually by heavy, black clouds quickly rising on the horizon, with a distinct lowering. Boaters should be aware that a derecho is a large, dangerous storm, and skippers should be wary, exercise caution, put heavy weather sailing techniques into practice, and not be lulled into a false sense of security or caught off guard.

 

Marlin Bree (web site: www.marlinbree.com) contributed to NOAA's "About Derechos" web site and his nonfiction book, Wake of the Green Storm: A Survivor's Tale, tells of his and other boater's adventures during the July 4, 1999 "Green Storm" record progressive derecho that devastated the BWCA and surrounding areas.