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Annals of wild and woolly days on the sailing frontier

2009 January 2
SAILING's hometown is as pretty a seaport as you're likely to see. Port Washington, on the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan, is a small city (population 11,000) of many hills. The highest of them is topped by two historical icons, a church whose soaring steeple looms over the downtown in Gothic splendor and a lighthouse, out of service but restored, that in the age of sail guided freight-carrying schooners to the port.

The views from this and the other hills are extraordinary, owing not only to the dramatic elevations, but to the city's intimacy with the lake, which reaches into the very heart of its downtown. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, this proximity was treated as merely an aid to commerce, and industrial buildings cluttered the harbor area, but then, with the factories razed, the town remade its waterfront into a place to play rather than work and built a splendid marina.

Last fall, the idea of setting up a do-it-yourself boatyard on the marina parking lot, renting space to boat owners to store their vessels and work on them during the off-season, was floated, and nearly approved by the city council. Those who liked the idea, whose romantic notions about sailing were commendable if not grounded in reality, said it would be an aesthetically appealing addition that would add to the town's nautical character.

Others who knew something about boatyards pointed out that, while they might have character, they are messy affairs that don't belong in the public sea views. An editorial in the local newspaper predicted that the boatyard would inflict on the lakefront "a sea of blue tarps, jerry-built boat shelters, a clutter of ladders and spars and paint spills on the tarmac."

I was glad to see that the idea was in due course shot down. Nonetheless, the proposal struck a nostalgic chord with me, for I have fond memories of a boatyard that existed for some time on a site not far from where this one was to go. It functioned as a cooperative, with member boat owners sharing the cost of renting the site and hiring a crane and the labor of derigging, hauling out and moving boats.

It fit the grubby image suggested by that editorial, and I will admit that when it came to jerry-built boat shelters, I was one of the worst offenders. The cockeyed structures I hammered together to cover my 30-foot boat left no doubt they were created by a journalist, not a carpenter or architect. Still, the yard was not really an eyesore because it was actually an improvement over its surroundings in what was then a blighted area.

The makeshift boatyard filled a need by providing a place for us to store our boats over the winter, but it was probably more important as a source of camaraderie and support for sailors trying to survive in a hostile environment.

Those were pioneering days for recreational boating in our port, which was cursed by a harbor whose reputation was so bad it inspired an adage prudent mariners adhered to scrupulously: "Any port in a storm-except Port Washington." Even the commercial vessels for which the harbor was designed, coal freighters and oil tankers, stayed away in foul weather.

One of the highest ranking projects on the Army Corps of Engineers' all-time mistake list, the harbor functioned like a giant funnel, with wide open breakwater arms that collected waves and funneled them into an inner harbor from which there no was escape. The disastrous physics of the design were exacerbated by the steel sheet piling used to make the harbor walls. Waves would crash into the steel, and instead of expending energy, would generate more of it and ricochet into another wall with renewed fury. I have a photo, an 8-by-10 black-and-white print I made myself as a high school student, of a storm sea breaking against a harbor wall. The wave appears to be 20 feet high from trough to crest.

We all love sailing, but few of us have had to demonstrate that love as did the hardy pioneers of sailing here. A number of us adapted a mooring system commercial fishermen had invented to secure their tugs. Heavy chains were stretched across the harbor bottom into which pennants were shackled. With these our boats could be held off the dock yet be allowed to rise and fall with the mountainous seas as the chain was lifted off the bottom. Others moored their boats to enormous blocks of concrete they sunk in the breakwater basin.

Such was the funnel effect of the harbor that it was almost never calm. Even on fine days, the surge rolled boats madly. But the hardy band of sailors in this outpost persevered and by the mid-1970s, the port was home to more than 20 sailboats, an eclectic fleet that included several vintage wood boats, a home-built Thunderbird, a steel lifeboat made into a seaworthy sloop and a mix of fiberglass production boats.

On an October day that lives in infamy, the day before the boatyard cooperative's annual haulout, a powerful low pressure system that should have waited for winter but came early to the Great Lakes produced a ferocious gale. The fleet didn't have a chance. The seas rendered the breakwaters not just impotent, but invisible under the storm surge. Ranks of white-topped gray waves assaulted the harbor and in a few hours the hulls and pieces of hulls of 22 sailboats were heaped on the shore like so much flotsam regurgitated by the sea.

You would think the catastrophe would have snuffed the life out of the effort to establish a sailing community here, but it had the opposite effect. Boats were replaced or rebuilt and, energized by the vision of those wrecked boats, a movement to build a safe small boat harbor got traction, leading to development of a marina complex too pretty to have a boatyard.

When owners of some of the hundreds of fine yachts now moored in the Port Washington marina complain about the piers being too high or the lack of cable television service to the docks or give voice to some other minor irritation, those of us who survived the wild and woolly frontier days of sailing here just roll our eyes.