High lake levels vex docking for Mackinac sailboat race

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinac Island

Two years ago, large sailboats with deep keels in the annual Mackinac sailing races were moved from the state harbor to the old island coal docks because of low water conditions.

How things have changed.

As sailors get ready to shove off for this weekend's annual Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island, sailboat race committee officials issued a warning that some docking facilities may not be available on the island because of higher water levels.

The floating dock, which was installed to help sailors safely exit their boats during low water levels, is now awash with water, making it slippery and treacherous to traverse. Wooden pallets have been stacked on the structure at the old island coal docks to let sailors access their boats.

Up to 20 boats were tied together after the race along the nearly 50-foot dock, half of which is at or below the water level.

Dave Smith of Raleigh, North Carolina, was a crew member on Sorcerer, which was tied up at the submerged end of the coal dock after the Chicago to Mackinac Island race. He said Tuesday had his boat done better than placing seventh in its class, the 36-foot sloop would have been tied up in a dry area of the dock.

Smith had to gingerly climb off his boat onto wooden shipping pallets and then traverse a raised plastic platform built on top of the wet, wooden deck to get to shore.

Smith eyes the floating dock installed previously to allow safe exits from boats in low levels, which now is slippery to use.

Race officials have said some boats will have to dock at Straits State Harbor in Mackinaw City after the race. That means sailors who expected to have easy access to the island and their boats will have to take a ferry to and from the island, which can take 16-25 minutes.

Harbormaster Derrick Horn, of the Mackinac Island State Harbor, has been on the island 15 years.

"I haven't seen it this high since I started working here," Horn said. "It's nuts. We measure the water levels each spring, and it has risen three to five feet over the past couple of years. It's up 10-12 inches since last year."

"It's an amazing recovery," Mark Veenstra of Racine, Wisconsin, said when asked about lake levels. His 33-foot sloop, Monitor, was docked at the island's State Harbor, where none of the docks were underwater.

Water levels on the Great Lakes have risen substantially from record lows in just two years. Lakes Huron and Michigan rose three feet or more between January 2013 and December 2014, ending what researchers have called an unprecedented 15-year stretch when lake levels fell below long-term averages.

The State Harbor on the picturesque island can handle 170 boats, but the numbers increase to more than 300 when the race fleets arrive each July. Bell's Beer Bayview organizers say they expect the largest number of boats in the race in recent years. This past weekend the marina was packed with sailors and boats from the Chicago-to-Mackinac Island race.

The rate at which the lakes has risen is remarkable, said Andrew Gronewold, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. The Great Lakes system saw unusually high increases last September and October.

Researchers point to the last two bitterly cold winters, which caused early ice cover that reduced evaporation rates, and increased snow cover and substantial rainfall over the Great Lakes basin.

John L. Russell is a freelance writer and photographer in Traverse City.