The Battle of Gitche Gumee

Four men, four women, one boat, and an arsenal of water guns in the Apostle Islands

On the last night, the women turned feral. We had just finished dinner, four seemingly happy couples squeezed around the table in the salon of a 39-foot sailing sloop anchored snugly in Raspberry Bay, which is on the Wisconsin mainland and not to be confused with the anchorage off Raspberry Island about two miles to the north in the Apostle chain. Jean excused herself and disappeared toward the aft head. A minute later she was back—with a yellow squirt gun the size of a .45-caliber semiautomatic. She opened fire on the men. Then she produced squirt guns for the other women. The situation deteriorated faster than a line squall can hit you off Devil’s Island.

The attack was occasioned by some remark from one of the males that strayed from the prevailing theme of joy and astonishment at Bev’s having engineered a gourmet meal of jerk chicken with fresh mango salsa. I don’t recall what the remark was. Maybe, once too often, someone reprised the subject of the nautical nudie bar that ought to exist in the nearby town of Bayfield to entertain husbands while their wives shopped—the one in which dancers would perform seamanlike maneuvers (jibe, come about, heave to) and run little pennants up and down halyards. Or it could have been something else entirely. Whatever the offense was, Jean had been waiting for it. That’s why she smuggled the squirt guns aboard.

Eight years had passed since this group last chartered a sailboat on Lake Superior. For all we knew going in, the dynamics might be entirely different. But Jean never doubted that the time would come when the dogs of war must be unleashed. Sure enough, nothing whatsoever had changed. She could have chosen 50 moments before this one to pull her guns.

After the initial skirmish, the women repaired to the cockpit, still armed, snarling and giggling and sassy with mutinous, wine-fueled trash talk, while the soggy men did the dishes.

“Where’s our dessert?” Joe bellowed up through the hatch.

“Maybe we should rethink the concept of Joe as our spokesman,” Randy suggested.

It had finally, officially, come to this: us against them.

Before long, the women began calling us up to the cockpit to witness a display of the northern lights on the horizon.

“Maybe there really are northern lights,” whispered Bones, the ship’s physician.

“This is a test in natural selection,” I said. “If you stick your head up there, you’re too stupid to live.”

The women had the gall to feel genuinely wounded by our distrust. The northern lights really were shooting white beams into the night sky, and eventually we did go up to see them, and nobody got squirted. How could we have been so insensitive as to suspect a ruse?

ON A SAILBOAT, the natural state of affairs between husbands and wives is knocked catawampus. A vessel on which you eat, sleep, snore, use the head, and tow your garbage in a trailing dingy becomes a household. On shore, women make most household decisions and do far more bossing than men do. Are we free to have dinner with the Bickersons two weeks from Friday? I have to ask my wife. Where is practically any object I’m looking for? She knows, I don’t. Oh, we’re going to clean the house now? News to me. Well, I’ll just grab the vacuum and start upstairs…. No? I’ll start in the basement by reorganizing those shelves? But what difference does it make where I start? Oh, I see: You’re going to do X, Y, and Z, and if I do B before A, that will screw up the organizational house-cleaning flow chart that you evidently have been devising since Tuesday. When do I go to the grocery store again?

This is true of every married couple I know. Somewhere out there, domineering, controlling wife beaters are on the prowl, but they must travel in different circles. In the universe I inhabit, women take charge of domestic affairs mainly because they think about this stuff and men don’t. They are therefore prepared to win an argument about any of it with their disengaged husbands. Left to their own devices, as the comedian Rita Rudner said, men would live like bears with furniture. So for the most part, women run the show.

Put men on a sailboat, however, and they become deeply engaged with absolutely everything. Boats under sail demand minute-by-minute engagement in a way that households (and powerboats) don’t. But it isn’t just the sail settings, the placement of the jib blocks, and the significance of wind lines on the water half a mile away. Men also develop passionate convictions about how often to check for marine-weather updates on the ship’s radio, which switches on the electrical panel should remain on when the engine is turned off and the batteries aren’t charging, the maximum amount of water that should be used to flush the head, where the foul weather gear should go, whether the dingy oars should be stowed in the same cockpit lazarette as the bucket and the boat hook, and on, and on, and on.

On a sailboat, a woman who ventures an opinion about where a flashlight or a pair of rubber boots might be stowed will hear from her husband, and maybe three other men, that her suggestion would screw up the organizational flow chart that each evidently has been devising since Tuesday.

Men argue with one another about all of these minutiae, too, and it’s a miracle when four males with roughly comparable sailing experience can end even a three-day charter as friends, no matter who serves as the nominal captain, as I did for this trip. But for women, this male focus on details is more disorienting. They are unaccustomed to dealing with men who care where a bucket is or who have plans for the next hour that do not involve a nap they won’t be allowed to take.

From a woman’s perspective, men on a sailboat turn into space aliens. None of our wives has ever quite said so, but I suspect this was the real reason we hadn’t undertaken so much as a day charter in the Apostle Islands for eight years, never mind the sort of longer voyages we once made, in various groups of six, up and around the Keweenaw Peninsula to Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan. Happily, by last August the women finally had forgotten just how aggravating we become to them. Except, obviously, for Jean.

THE APOSTLE ISLANDS offer some of the most scenic and highly regarded cruising waters on earth. Bayfield, Wisconsin, a few miles northeast of Port Superior, our charter base, offers what the women referred to in the trip’s planning phase as “cute shops.”

Planning was complicated by these shops in that our arrival and boarding on Friday afternoon had to be timed to accommodate an expedition into Bayfield to explore them before, God forbid, they might close. Here arose the first sign that priorities regarding this nautical experience differed radically by gender. The women hit the cute shops like barracuda. The men stood on the sidewalks complaining.

“Tourist booklets always talk about ‘exploring’ shops, as if you’re on some breathless voyage of discovery up the Congo River,” I groused. “You’re not a standard-issue American consumer wandering from store to store, you’re Stanley and Livingston. You’re on a mission to bag the wily wildebeest with your credit card before a bull elephant charges you from behind a dress rack. Women actually think that way about shopping. The booklet people know it and prey on them.”

Randy had stopped listening. He was holding out his hat to passersby in front of a store that Marty had walked into. “Please help,” he implored. “My wife is in there shopping. Anything you can spare. God bless.”

Jean drew first blood in a clothing store. Joe, her husband, had wandered in after her, and we were appalled to learn that he had actually encouraged her to buy a skirt. This was just the sort of erratic, unpredictable behavior we feared Joe might display on the boat—tossing a fender overboard for an impromptu man-overboard drill, or disassembling a marine toilet to see why the pump handle squeaked, or who knew what? For half an hour, we snubbed him.

Bev scored next with a pair of earrings. “How are you doing?” we asked Bones.

“Just a flesh wound,” he said. But then Bev entered an art store, and Bones turned ashen. She cut him up pretty good.

Dismayed at having been outshopped by two competitors, my wife, Beth, charged back into a jewelry store whose merchandise she earlier had spurned and put a spear clean through my chest.

Semi-officially, I suppose, it was us against them long before the squirt guns came out.


SUMMER OR NOT, Lake Superior can throw just about anything at you weather-wise. Along with shorts and a swimming suit, you pack clothing suitable for cross-country skiing in December. Then you go up there and take what you get.

But the forecast for our long weekend proved accurate: three days of glorious blue skies, highs around 80, winds light and variable, water often glassy calm—heaven on earth for kayakers and power boaters. From a sailing enthusiast’s point of view, however, the best thing to be said about the light air was that the absence of cold, driving rain left the women with no moral standing to demand that we put the boat into a marina at Bayfield or Madeline Island for more shopping.

This would be one of those voyages where, instead of choosing a destination, you turn on the engine and go looking for wind lines on the water, hoping for a shore breeze to gain some force via the slot effect between islands.

On Saturday morning we left the harbor at Port Superior and motored up past Bayfield to find a surprisingly nice northwest breeze blowing at up to 12 knots between Basswood and Hermit islands. We turned off the engine, yanked out the furling jib, and began to sail.

The boat disappointed us. With this air we should have been able to make 6 knots easily, but the digital speedometer showed no better than 4.5 no matter which point of sail we chose, from a beat to a beam reach. Only a handful of boats in the charter fleet will sleep eight people, and we had selected this one simply because it did, asking no questions about its sailing characteristics. Bitter comparisons were made to the last eight-person boat we had chartered, a Morgan we remembered as so responsive that it would have made four knots on a calm sea if the crew simply stood on deck and exhaled.

“This thing should be named the Wallowing Sow,” I said in disgust. The women rolled their eyes, tired already of the men’s whining and of the endless analysis that accompanied it. Was it just that the heavy, high-sided tub was built strictly for comfort and not for speed? Was it the undersized genoa? Was it the fact that the boat had not only a furling jib but also a mainsail that rolled up into the mast, a convenience new to us and one that might entail God-knew-what sacrifice in performance?

Or was it, as we finally realized, that we had forgotten to slack the topping lift that holds up the boom, denying the mainsail its proper shape? (We did, at last, but there was very little slack. So no, that wasn’t the problem.)

In less than an hour our breeze died, and we motored northwest around Oak Island, subsisting only on sandwiches, snacks, and beer, maneuvering for a clear shot at what the marine forecast said would be westerly winds. We found nothing of the sort, but around four in the afternoon a fine southeast cocktail breeze began to blow, and for more than three hours we sailed happily back and forth between Raspberry Bay and Bear Island. That is, as happily as a crew can sail when it believes the speedometer should show 7 knots while the tub stubbornly refuses to exceed 4.5.

The women also much prefer sailing to motoring, though some have been known to complain that the genoa shades them when they are sunning on deck. But having grown weary of the men’s endless theorizing about why the barky was so sluggish, they were relieved to drop anchor that first evening in Raspberry Bay and watch the men jump into the frigid water. They were even more pleased when Bones swam about 60 yards towards shore, allowing them to taunt the rest of us for our quick, gasping scampers back up the swim ladder.

We shunned Bones for a while, but then he began to describe the distinction between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, and everyone found this far more interesting than they would have eight years ago. So it wasn’t quite as if nothing had changed after all.

SUNDAY MORNING’S marine forecast said that in the course of the day, light winds would clock from northwest to northeast to east to south. This meant that finding a good anchorage that night could be tricky. But more than that, it meant there was little point in consulting the marine forecast again until it was updated late in the afternoon.

A feeble northwest breeze was blowing as we weighed anchor, however, and it lasted about an hour before petering out as we tried to beat on a starboard tack between Bear and Raspberry islands. We furled the jib, turned on the engine, and motored north for a close look at the delighted kayakers poking into the shoreline caves on Devil’s Island.

The women settled into the cockpit and opened their books. The men embarked on a long and perhaps tedious conversation about where a breeze might spring up in the coming hours, and where the jib blocks and main traveler might best be set if we did find one. The women said we were boring them out of their minds and threatened to talk about shoe-shopping if we didn’t stop.

Joe hunkered down in the navigation station below to figure out how to put the GPS system through its various paces. Eventually he solved the mystery of the boat’s slow-pokiness, which was peculiar even under power.

“What’s our speed?” he called over the engine noise.

“About 4.2 knots,” the helmsman said.

“According to the GPS, we’re making 6 knots over the ground,” Joe said.

“Feels more like four to me,” I said.

“The GPS can’t lie,” he said.

When another southeast shore breeze began to blow in the afternoon, however, we were far more satisfied with our craft as we sailed back and forth once more past Raspberry Island, between Bear and the mainland. The GPS said we were making 6.5 knots, and Joe now claimed he could tell from the passing water that we were traveling at about six, certainly not four. The boat still seemed slow and heavy to some of us, but we willingly chalked this up to the thing having so much freeboard that we sat farther above the water than usual. We sailed cheerfully almost until sunset before dropping the hook again in Raspberry Bay.

So we were a very contented group that night as the Milky Way appeared and the mango salsa disappeared down hungry throats. At least, the men were contented. Until the guns came out.

MONDAY MORNING we motored back toward Port Superior until we reached the West Channel between Basswood Island and the mainland. There we picked up a meager south breeze—just enough to sail on, given that we had plenty of time to spare before we were due back. Once more it was off with the engine and out with the jib. We began tacking gently south.

Marty took the wheel, and her eight years away from it soon showed, as she intended to come about and began to jibe instead, swinging the boat’s stern through the wind rather than its nose. She was instantly corrected, of course, by at least six people; sailing with our crew is nothing if not an opportunity for learning and guidance.

I blessed her for it, as the incident took away some of the sting from having forgotten to slack the topping lift on the first day. I continued to feel pretty salty until our return to the marina, when I took the wheel, misjudged the turn into the slip, swung the stern in the wrong direction as I backed up for another try, and transformed what should have been a simple, graceful docking maneuver into a hideous, humiliating, lubberly clown show, right in front of the charter office.

After we offloaded our gear, I slunk into the office to check out. The woman behind the counter greeted me with a manner that couldn’t be called sneering, exactly, and she didn’t quite laugh in my face. Still, it was hard to believe she wasn’t one of the enemy.

Jack Gordon is a writer who lives in Eden Prairie.