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Survival suits, torrents and other climate consequences

2022 October 1

Golf course greens turning tan. Ski jumping off of artificial turf towers. Scuba diving on monochromatic reefs where rainbow coral once grew. Mountaineering to peer into one last crevasse. Climate change is changing our fun.

So how is climate change affecting sailing? To start; where I live, the sailing season is longer, if not stranger. Fifty years ago the only sailors on our part of the Great Lakes in January were in iceboats. In recent years, an intrepid team of friends have been trying to better their own speed record aboard a multihull wearing survival suits on New Year’s Day, because abnormal near-shore open water allows it.

But the summer season we have came to expect is different too. Benign high pressure once dominated the upper Midwest between about May and September. But when the jet stream dove off course a few years ago and the Arctic air mass wobbled out of control as the North Pole melted, we found ourselves in a neverending extreme weather watch.

This May almost half of our local fleet couldn’t be launched since there had been no April days — not a single one — warm enough for bottom preparation and painting. And then May came and it rained and blew and rained and blew. In June the rain stopped but it blew some more. July was like standing in a blast furnace. A rare day between May and July registered under Force 6. For reference, Force 6 is characterized by “large branches moving and wires whistling” on shore and “large waves 8 to 13 feet, whitecaps common and more spray.” Newbie sailors in learn-to-sail classes were taught that reefing is the norm, not the exception.

Sustained big air won’t be a barrier for many area sailors, but it has some rethinking the locations and timing of their sailing. I have a friend who used to travel cross-country to the Columbia Gorge for his annual extreme windsurfing fix. Now he drives a few blocks to Milwaukee Bay once a week to catch a heat-driven 28-knot southeaster whipping up the surf. Just a few years ago, 14 knots was a big southeaster and back then we lovingly called it a cooling shore breeze. Now it’s a “warning to mariners,” the source of a dangerous riptide, and a staycation for adventure seekers like my friend.

But a new pattern of behemoth storms has local sailors concerned. A typical Great Lakes summer squall used to be like having a cavity filled. You’d fret as it came on and clench during the first few minutes in the chair and the whole thing would be over in an hour. Today’s storms are metastasizing as they cross the Northern plains turbocharged by hotter, more humid air and that wonky jet stream. This summer a “mesoscale convection” revved up in the Dakotas and pummeled the fleet on the first night of the 2022 Race to Mackinac. The first of three 100 mile-long gust fronts took two hours to blow out, but not before knocking out 10% of the fleet with blown mainsails and electronics fried by lightning. We saw two more giant rolling arcus clouds during the night but other sailors reported more. And my God, the rain. The torrent lasted almost 10 hours while creating its own turbulent winds. 

Nobody on the lake reported the same conditions, apart from agreeing on the chaos. I’ve sailed the race on the same boat with the same team most of the last 32 years and have never seen a reef in the mainsail. This year we reefed twice and had the main down and lashed to the boom another two times. We stopped counting at 25 sail changes overnight.

Sailors are fortunate to have a deep library of sailing literature to study as we adapt to a volatile new climate and the crazy weather it is bringing. Many of our boats are overbuilt and can take great punishment. We have the Netherlands for lessons on how to build better dykes and docks. Weather models are catching up with the speed of change. Our battle with climate may be nothing compared with the trouble facing farmers in the Southwest or cities down under or forests in Alaska. Indeed, this article will probably be filed in the “first-world problems” folder.

But I worry that something more sinister lurks in the years ahead. There’s not much sailing happening on Lake Mead.