This story is dedicated to JC Wing. It is 100% true.
It was early June. I remember because the nights weren’t too cold and the days weren’t too hot. Michigan in the early summer is stunning and there’s something about the sunlight in June that makes the world feel open to possibilities.
We had a wedding to plan, one taking place late the next month. My soon to be husband and I had chosen to have an in-state destination wedding. We had selfish reasons. We knew we were expected to have a larger wedding due to the size of our families, but we wanted to keep it small.
To have it on Beaver Island, Michigan. Most of our family and friends were in Michigan already, so it doesn’t seem like this should be a destination thing, unless you know Michigan. It’s not a huge state, but there are areas that are not easily accessible. Beaver Island was one of them.
Located 32 (non-nautical) miles northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan, it was a small island that only had 500 year round residents, if there were even that many. You see, Beaver Island was a bitch to get on or off. As hardy as Michiganders are, the winters are rough. It’s hard to get supplies, power is iffy and the roads are mostly dirt and enclosed by woods.
There are two ways to get onto the island. There’s by lake and by air. By lake was the long route, of course. One could take their own boat if it were large enough, or take the ferry.
The ferry was a guaranteed 4 1/2 hour trip. The ride was pleasant, I suppose, as long as one had brought along things to do, like books to read or cards to play. This was before cell phones with unlimited or high limit data plans were around. We couldn’t even text without it costing a dime per.
Side note: There’s a reason people around 40 years of age and up do not text bomb people (send multiple three word texts within 10 seconds of each other). When texting first came out it was insanely expensive. One’s best bet was to encompass as much information as possible into one text, or to simply call the person instead, and calls weren’t cheap either. I know some of you will have a hard time grasping this, but it explains some of our dilemma later on in the story. End note.
By air was less boring and more life threatening. People had to ride in one of those tiny four-seater planes that flew and landed sideways. Due to the high winds on Lake Michigan, this was true 80% of the time.
The pilot looked exactly like the hick-a-billy you would expect to be the pilot on a commuter flight for mostly hunters in the northern Michigan woods. He was highly educated and had a great sense of humor, but upon first glance did not inspire much confidence.
One guest described it to me as, “the most sphincter clenching hop I’ve ever done.” This person flew between two mid-size towns on a weekly basis. They had had some scary flights but Beaver Island has topped them all to this day, and that guest came in on a calm day instead of windy.
Admittedly the trip took about twenty minutes, but oh what a twenty minutes they were. I always chose to embrace the boredom of the ferry rather than adrenaline, and those are decisions I do not regret to this day. Well, okay, almost – considering the story I am telling you.
At the end of all of this I’ll have to ask myself if I prefer the story that happened or twenty minutes of me chanting, “I don’t want to die on a plane, I don’t want to die on a plane, I don’t want to die on a plane.”
The Captain in this journey, my soon to be husband, owned property on the island when I met him. He had ten acres in the middle of it. No electricity, no bathrooms, the bare bones of a cabin. He used it each year to host a deer party for a week around opening day of gun season.
That’s basically a holiday in Michigan. Once upon a time the Big Three automakers simply closed down on opening day rather than deal with all of the vacation requests and sick days used. I remember those days fondly.
We figured some of the guests might be inclined to stay on the property for the wedding. That and we didn’t want to use hotels for the two weeks he and I would be there as that would be expensive.
Our goal on this journey was to scout what we needed, deliver some building supplies to the property, and get hammered with our Best Man and Matron of Honor for four days. They were a married couple we were quite fond of and didn’t want to kill. I think.
Captain owned a 19 foot Crownline speed boat. It had a sleeping cabin underneath, with the usual other amenities. The boat was purple. He told me all the time that stripe was maroon but I’m telling you here and now it was purple. PURPLE!
On a Thursday morning three of us started the long weekend. We had a six hour drive from our house to the boat launch in Charlevoix to start, and then the ferry. This grouping was MH (Maid of Honor. I protect people’s names as much as possible) and BM (Best Man) and myself.
Captain had gone over the Monday before with our two dogs and the boat. I want to believe that journey went well as I heard no horror stories from it. There had been lumber and nails and some pole barn siding on the (purple) Crownline with him.
The dogs were Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, so larger dogs, but not mastiffs or anything like that. They did take up a lot of room, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t their fault. They’re cute doggies. Or were. RIP Male.
MH, BM, and I had a fantastic time on the ferry. They didn’t sell liquor or beer on it, but they had no problem whatsoever with us bringing our own cooler. I don’t think I ever did that journey sober.
We laid in the sun, chatted, and put away most of a fifth of Captain Morgan’s rum and a 30-pack of beer.
Four and a half hours goes by much faster if you’re hammered.
Captain picked us up from the ferry and the ultimate Beaver Island weekend – surpassed only by the actual wedding itself – began.
By the end of it, we had built an outhouse and named it after MH. We created a sign and everything.
We had discovered a very large, very hollow tree. It became the Morgan tree and was the depository for all of our empty rum bottles, of which there were many.
We haphazardly placed pole barn siding around the temporary cabin and pretended we didn’t hear the bears at night.
We heard bears at night.
By early Monday morning we were all ready to go home. Solar showers are fun and all, but not when the tarp shower curtain doesn’t want to stay in place. I had long hair then, and that weekend was the first time I vowed to hack it off after the wedding. No one believed me.
Extremely dirty, hungover, and exhausted, the six of us (don’t forget the dogs) made a decision that in hindsight was straight up idiotic.
“Let’s all save some money and ride with Captain in the (purple) Crownline! It’s sunny out, we have another cooler full of ice, rum, Coke, and beer, why not? We’ll beat the ferry by two hours and be home in time to watch the nightly news!”
We checked the bay, it looked smooth with no waves. We checked the weather, sunny, soon to be partly cloudy, with wind. We failed to check the marine forecast. We failed to leave the CB radio thing on so when the announcements started pouring out, we never heard them. No, we went to breakfast instead.
With luggage loaded on the boat, we set off.
Now, all four of us grew up on lakes. Actually the same lake. We had all been on speed boats all of our lives. We had driven them in every kind of condition, and were confident in our abilities.
That being said, Captain had a phobia of lakes and oceans when he couldn’t see shore. As long as he could see it, he was fine. He tended to panic when he could not.
Beaver Island is 32 non-nautical miles from Charlevoix. There is a large portion where one cannot see shore.
Our journey begins with the dogs happily bouncing from the front to the back of the boat. They loved riding the waves. Retrievers have to be kept close at hand or they will dive in at the smallest provocation. One of the dogs was tied to my wrist, the other to MH’s.
We left shortly after the ferry. As we caught up to it the four of us waved gaily. O Captain, My Captain gunned the engine and we zipped past, slowed down and let them pass us, and then zipped past again, still waving like the idiots we didn’t yet know we were.
We settled into speed and relaxed into position. I sat in the passenger seat with my feet up on the dash. MH was strewn across the back seats, nursing a hangover and working on her tan. BM was constantly in motion as bartender, ashtray emptier, and general fetch all. Captain stood cocky behind the wheel, a cigarette in one hand, beer in the other.
As we exited the bay and reached Lake Michigan proper, the clouds began thickening, going from that gorgeous puffy white to a vaguely potentially ominous grey. Less puffy now, more of a blanket. The wind began picking up as well.
People familiar with boats knows this means waves. Lots of them usually.
We had been expecting an up and down ride with waves maybe maxing out at 6 feet. This isn’t bad in a 19 foot (purple) Crownline. Those are the kinds of waves that rock me to sleep.
Those are not the waves we got. No, oh no, they were not.
We were at high cruising speed when the first launch occurred. And by launch, I mean MH who had been laying across the back seats was suddenly three feet in the air and flailing wildly.
I bounced out of the passenger seat and landed on the floor next to MH. The dogs that were attached to us? Yeah, they landed on top of us.
It was an actual dog pile.
What does our fearless Captain do?
O Captain, My Captain stops the boat. We tie the dogs off to the seat posts instead of people. We lock up all important belongings in the glove compartment.
Why are there gloves compartments in boats? Shouldn’t they be called something different? I can’t remember the last time I was wearing gloves on a boat, but maybe I’m the odd one here.
This is our time to shine, our moment to look each other in the eye and admit we’re going to turn around right now. We weren’t far from the bay. MH and BM, who had to work the next day, could catch a death flight while Captain, the dogs, and I would delay our journey until the seas were calm.
This was our time to do that, but we didn’t.
We had passed the ferry. Twice. To turn back now was a beating none of our egos were willing to take.
I had mentioned the cooler full of ice, beer, rum, and coke, right? Just checking. It was a little bit lighter than it had started out.
Honestly, I don’t think we ever considered turning around.
The waves were easily 12 feet high. 12 feet. That’s four yards. Four yards is a decent distance for a running back in the NFL. What it is not, is a safe height for a 19 foot (purple) Crownline to take on.
O Captain, My Captain pushes the throttle forward. The boat, responsive as ever, tries to leap. I don’t know how he did it, but the timing was perfect. We may as well have been launching one of Wile E. Coyote’s rockets.
When we landed, a random piece of boat flew off. To this day I don’t know what that piece was, or what it went to, or how much more likely we were to die without it, and I’m glad. That might be the detail that broke the camels back.
We immediately launched up the next wave. Slammed down. Launch. Slam. Launch. Slam.
O Captain, My Captain looks around and suddenly realizes two somethings. We’re making no progress and, because of the size of the waves, he can no longer see shore.
This makes him push the throttle as far as it will go. We crest a wave, skip one, slam down in the valley between two waves and all hell breaks loose.
It took me a few years, but now I understand the theory.
If you’ve ever lived or traveled extensively on dirt roads, you’ll know what chatter bumps are. They’re sections of road that look kind of like a cheese grater, but with lines instead of holes. Many people drive very quickly over them, essentially using their rubber tires to bounce across the tops and, hopefully, save their suspension for another day.
It’s not the greatest way to deal, but it gets the job done.
O Captain, My Captain decided this was how to deal with 12-14 foot waves.
“WE’LL JUST SKIP ALONG THE TOPS!” he yells, and keeps the throttle at full bore. We crest a wave, skip one, and land in the valley once more.
The door comes off of the glove compartment and it’s all I can do to catch wallets while papers fly every which way. This is while I am also mid-air and hoping I land in the boat. In my mind now I see it filmed Matrix style with the super slo-mo and awesome CGI.
I make eye contact with dog Female. I’m pretty sure she said, “oh shit,” right before we landed only to launch again.
BM had been straddling the aisle with one hand on my seat back, one hand on Captain’s. Somehow he ended up in Captain’s lap.
“STOP THE BOAT!” I don’t know who screamed it, or if we all did.
MH was clinging to the back seat edge with a very large, very frightened dog Male in her lap. She, too, ended up on the floor before she didn’t.
I look up in time to see the heavy – and therefore more steady – ferry pass us. Their captain honked their very loud ferry horn. I assume that was his jaunty wave.
BM grabs the throttle and stops the boat. He looks at Captain.
“What the ever loving fuck were you doing?”
O Captain, My Captain cannot see shore, he can’t hear us. His mouth is moving, but no words are escaping.
We less than gently decide on mutiny.
A group conference is held. O Captain, My Captain is no longer allowed to speak. He cannot be trusted. We considered locking him in the brig, but no one wanted to risk having to clean up vomit.
The decision was made to continue on. Halfway home, neither direction sounded appealing. We would use the wake of the ferry in our favor. We had to get to that wake first, which was not going to be fun, nor would it be quick.
We had to go diagonally with many, many course corrections.
This works for a while and eventually the ferry has gone far enough ahead of us that we cannot use its wake. By this time, however, full dark has fallen and the waves, as is their habit, have calmed so it doesn’t matter anyway.
The ferry beat us by three hours. That means it took us more than seven hours to get across the 32 non-nautical miles in our (purple) Crownline.
We still had six hour car rides to get home.
Have you ever ridden in a car with someone who hates your ever loving guts and is reconsidering their decision to marry you? Me either, but I bet the Captain could fill you in.
One day I will have to tell you about the time we held a minor mutiny on the ferry and piloted it in a loop … it was the weekend of the wedding we had been planning on this potential Journey of Death …