University of Michigan Biological Station: The Squall

Carl watched the colors passing smoothly by the white hull of the boat. Ugly brown turned to green, and suddenly to brilliant aquamarine. Farther out, it became deep and dark.

Once you get to the blue, he thought, you’ve made it.


An hour before, the water of White Lake had been flat. The instrument panel above the helm had displayed a series of zeros since they had left the marina. No sense in running out the sails. Instead, the diesel engine rumbled beneath the non-skid floor of the cockpit as Carl and his dad passed by the green pier-head light.

The sound of the motor made Carl feel uncomfortable. Being on Lake Michigan just wasn’t the same with that noise in the background. He stepped down the four narrow wooden steps into the boat’s cabin, and clicked on the weather radio. The familiar, computerized voice crackled from the white receiver in his hand:

…the NOAA Weather Radio Station broadcasting on the frequency…

He waited for the marine forecast.

small craft advisory in effect for waters north of Little Sable Point…

Carl went back up into the cockpit. The sky did seem a little darker on that part of the horizon.

“Sounds like there’s a storm passing over to the north,” he said.

His dad switched off the motor, and it grumbled into silence. The boat drifted and slowed to a stop, bobbing gently.

“Well, let’s get some lunch stuff out and wait to see if any afternoon breeze picks up,” his dad said.

It was starting to get hot, but it wasn’t bad sitting there. Carl never got tired of looking at the dunes along the shoreline. The air, although still, smelled clean and he breathed deeply as he cracked open a can of Vernors.

After an hour or two (time always melts on the water), the small flywheel at the top of the mast began to rotate slowly.

“Wind gauge is reading .3,” his dad said through a mouthful of sandwich. “Not much, but we could at least let the sails out.”

Carl wound the mainsail furling line around the silver drum-like winch and pulled. The rapid metallic click-click-click of the gears brought the white sail out and up, up, up. It cast a shadow on the port deck. Locking down the line, he uncoiled another rope—this one thick, blue and white, and brought out the headsail. It unraveled easily. The sails flapped lazily as his dad turned the steering wheel, trying to catch the light breeze.

Carl looked to the horizon. There were no gulls in the air. Far off to the south however, a grey haze had formed—its edges made sharp angles from the sky to the water.

“Looks like rain down by Muskegon” Carl said, pointing.

As they watched, a low, long cloud formed, connecting the southern storm with the dark sky to the north. The cloud grew into an enormous, white, horizontal tube stretching across the sky.

“Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Carl said. “Looks like it’s moving this way.”

“Yeah, we’d better get this stuff below. Put on some rain gear,” his dad replied.


Carl had just come back into the cockpit when he felt the change. The cold came first. Then the wind. The first blast ripped over the water and hit the sails broadside. The lines were instantly pulled taught, straining. The boat, having no forward momentum, heeled hard in the onslaught. Coolers, pans, books, and equipment crashed to the floor below.

“Winds have jumped to fifteen!” His dad yelled as the boat raced forward. The rigging had started to whistle.

Seconds later the sound became a low hum in the shrouds. Excitement vanished. The rain pelted. The waves built.

“30!” His dad shouted over the din.

The railings were in the water.

 “I can’t hold her!”

The rain became confused with the spray blowing off the tops of churning waves. Carl jammed a winch-handle into one of the steel drums and started to crank. Back. Forth. Back. Forth. But the pressure was too great. The sails wouldn’t furl. He clambered back to the helm, his footing uneven on the steep deck.

He grabbed hold of the wheel with his father, and tried to hold it steady. He could feel the rudder below them being overpowered. The boat broached, turning hard into the wind. The hull heeled dangerously farther into the water as the bow swung round into the waves.

Carl looked down. The water had changed color—it was now foaming white.

The sails flapped wildly as the two men cranked the wheel downwind. The boom swung and crashed forward. The sail pressed hard against the mast’s wire shrouds as the cockpit rose on the crest of a wave.

“Head for the channel! Don’t miss it or we’ll go aground!” His dad shouted as he moved forward. “I’ll keep point on the markers!”

The boat broached again. Carl pulled the wheel around, urging the boat to hold its course. The shoreline passed in and out of his vision as he steered up and down the waves. The stern lifted again and again, threatening to turn the boat upwind. Left. Hard Right. Left.

Carl took a hand from the wheel and quickly wiped water from the instrument panel. It read 9.8 knots.

 Waves continued to rush past the hull. Lifting them. Dropping them. A long seam in the headsail was torn through. The orange life ring was gone.


But the green light of the northern pier was there. From atop the crest of a wave Carl could see the light blue of the shallows, and the green of the channel.

Once you get to the brown, he thought, you’ve made it.



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