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Great Lakes Single-handed sailing is a perfect solo

Paul Nickerson (L) and John Ollila (R) from the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society talk to Grand River Sailing Club about solo sailing.
Paul Nickerson (L) and John Ollila (R) from the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society talk to Grand River Sailing Club about solo sailing.
Sandy Woodthorpe

"Lake Erie is just a puddle."

That comment is familiar to Paul Nickerson and John Ollila, two Great Lakes Singlehanded Society members who spoke to the Grand River Sailing Club recently.

Lake Erie is a more or less a puddle when compared to the far bigger and deeper Great Lakes: Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. Even Lake Ontario is deeper. The way Lake Erie quickly responds to air and water depth changes actually makes it the perfect training ground for sailors, particularly solo sailors. Every Lake Erie sailor knows "puddle" hardly describes the sometimes challenging (ok, harrowing) conditions out there. Our often choppy, shallow lake (average depth 62') can be temperamental, if not downright angry.

Nickerson, a WOIO Channel 19 cameraman, and Ollila, a retired Berea High School diving coach, related their own experiences of singlehanded sailing on Lake Erie and other great lakes and answered questions about sleep (15 to 25-minute catnaps), freighters (they stay on course - charts tell where the lanes are-stay out of their way!), safety gear (invest in updated equipment, bring a life raft and keep yourself harnessed), food (Ollila swears by a boilable zip lock bag for delicious omelets), what do you do in a thunderstorm (stay away from the rigging!) and qualifications (submit a sailing resume and application along with the fee, complete a qualifier race.)

Their presentation was accompanied by stunning photographs - from benign sunrises and sunsets to whirling waterspouts - and a tableful of gear they pack for GLSS' non-stop, singlehanded races, officially called "solo challenges."

In one 24-hour period a sailor can experience sunshine and perfect sailing conditions, fog, thunderstorms and high winds, no wind, a drastic temperature shift, hail, "gear-busting" waves, and whatever else a large body of fresh water can serve up. Safety devices and systems, such as AIS and SPOT tracking, harnesses, and a life raft are among the required equipment that must be in good working order for all GLSS solo challenges.

The Great Lakes Singlehanded Society, established in 1979, is an exclusive group, with only about 300 members. It takes a special brand of sailor to want to become a member. As the GLSS home page says, "[It] is one of the few organizations where no amount of money will purchase a membership - only by successfully completing a Port Huron to Mackinac, Chicago to Mackinac, Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth, the Lake Erie Solo Challenge, or the Lake Ontario 300 Solo Challenge is lifetime membership conveyed by the Society."

Both Nickerson and Ollila convey the exhilaration and self-confidence derived from singlehanded sailing. Both have received distinctive GLSS bronze medallions for finishing various races (check back here again for more articles about their experiences.)

Reasons vary for becoming a solo sailor.

"I got started singlehanding when I found nobody was available to go sailing with me after I got off work," Nickerson says.

Ollila, a historian with the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse, enjoys the challenge of finishing a race, but also likes the travel component.

"We actually get to do lots of other things - from tours to meeting interesting people," he says.

More infomation about GLSS, membership qualifications and applications can be found at the website.


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