Brit Eaton holds a photo of the infamous sailboat that flipped over in West Bay on one stormy day in 1964 | Jane Boursaw Photo
Brit Eaton holds a photo of the infamous sailboat that flipped over in West Bay on one stormy day in 1964 | Jane Boursaw Photo
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(Editor’s Note: This story comes to us from Brit Eaton, an amazing chef whose family goes back generations on the Neahtawanta Resort. His mom, Fran Eaton, and my mom, Mary Johnson, were friends, and I remember going over to Fran’s house when I was a kid and seeing her big dog Spooky, who had the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen on a dog. Below, Brit recalls one day 60 years ago where if one thing had gone differently, he would not have survived past that day. Ever since I first heard this story a few years ago on Interlochen Public Radio, I’ve been keen to share it here on the Gazette. Big thanks to Brit for making that happen. Do you have an Old Mission Story to share? Could be 60 years ago or last week. Send it to me, [email protected]. -jb)

On the afternoon of August 25, 1964, Margaret “Moggie” Stewart, 22, Carl “Haggie” Hilker, 29, Alaskan Husky dog Suchin, and myself, Brit Eaton, 23, started for a late afternoon sail around Marion Island in the Stewart family’s 22’ gaff-rigged sailboat, Wee Mac. We started around 4 to 5 p.m. in the afternoon with clear skies, hoping for a pleasant Tuesday afternoon sail and no concerns about the weather.

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Sailing out of Bowers Harbor around Neahtawanta Point past the Black Spar into West Grand Traverse Bay, we headed north. Everything appeared to be going well until we felt a cold wind coming out of the south at our backs. Turning around, we saw a massive black cloudbank approaching us, quickly moving up from Traverse City. Then, the rain and wind hit us with such force that it tore the jib sheet from the manila rigging.

Haggie, the most experienced sailor and captain, devised a plan that he would stand up and hang onto the mast and lean out to grab the jib sheet while I was to point the boat up into the wind. That way, the jib would return to the mast so he could re-attach it.

Unfortunately, the maneuver failed to work because without the jib sheet, I had no control of the bow of the boat, the gunnels of the boat being low in the water, and Haggie’s weight leaning into the wind. The wind caught us broadside and over we went, dog and all.

The "Wee Mac," the sailboat that flipped over in West Bay on one fateful day in 1964 | Jane Boursaw Photo
The “Wee Mac,” the sailboat that flipped over in West Bay on one fateful day in 1964. The boat is now housed in Building C at the Maritime Heritage Museum in Greilickville | Jane Boursaw Photo

To add to our troubles, we had foolishly left the beach without any life preservers, leaving us treading water and hanging onto the side of the boat. Sadly, I couldn’t hold onto 140-lb. Suchin very long, and he swam away into the night, only to be found drowned, washed up on shore the next day.

The waves were crashing over the boat, and the rain was coming straight across as we struggled to work ourselves around and stand on the keel to right the sailboat. Our first attempt failed as the heavy canvas mainsail was still up and came right back down over us in the strong wind. Haggie then reffed the mainsail, and we tried maneuvering the boat around to point it up in the wind. As we stood on the keel again to right the ship, the waves and wind pushed us back over again. On the third attempt to right the boat, we ended up causing the vessel to turn turtle with the mast pointing straight down into the water.

While this provided a better way to hold onto the boat, we were still being washed over by waves and rain. Hypothermia was rapidly setting in for all of us. Moggie was exhausted, and I tried to hold onto her, but she was fading fast. I started thinking it might be easier to let go and sink to the bottom, where it might be warmer. Things looked hopeless at that point.

THAT’S WHEN THE MIRACLE HAPPENED! It was pitch black out, around 10 p.m., with torrents of gusting rain, 2- to 3-foot waves, shivering cold winds, and no hope in sight … but wait…

Out of nowhere, suddenly, we saw a shaft of light in the middle of the darkness! Where was that light coming from? Under the boat? We could see it clearly, beaming down from underneath the Wee Mac into the depths of Lake Michigan below.

The floorboards at the bottom of the Wee Mac are wooden slats held in place by toggle pieces that create a small space between the floorboards and the hull itself. Unbeknownst to us, someone had left an Eveready flashlight at the bottom of the boat, which had banged around enough to turn itself on and was now streaming into the lake below.

Haggie, our hero, dove underneath the boat, retrieved the flashlight, emptied the water, and signaled SOS to the blue Sheriff’s patrol car lights that we could see on the shore were looking for us. The flashlight lasted at least two hours, even as soaked as it was. We were rescued by the Sheriff’s Patrol at 11 p.m. that night and taken to Munson Hospital Emergency.

At the time, I was a know-it-all sophomore in college and very much a non-believer and agnostic, even though I was raised in a good Episcopalian home. So the thought of praying and asking for God’s help didn’t occur to me right then.

So, at the end of the story, I believe Jesus spoke to us that night and said, “You want a sign? Here is the light, and I will show you the way.”

Having aimlessly meandered around numerous religious pursuits over my lifetime, I finally came to believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit that was revealed that night.

Article about the sailboat accident published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle; August 26, 1964
Article about the boating accident published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle; August 26, 1964

A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper.

Because Old Mission Gazette is a "Reader Supported Newspaper" -- meaning it exists because of your financial support -- I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks our way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the OMP. In a time when local news is becoming a thing of the past, supporting an independent community newspaper is more important now than ever.

To keep the Gazette going, click here to make a donation. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Wow Brit; I am very glad the Spirit was looking out for you three that night. Otherwise I wouldn’t have met you and I am glad I have! What a lesson for all of us! And this former Coast Guard Officer wants to remind everyone to never leave shore without your life preservers, period. And in the spring, if you are going to be on the water, especially in a kayak or on a paddle board, a wet suit is also a very good idea. Hypothermia happens really, really fast in cold, spring time waters. Thank you for sharing this story with us all.

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