Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer Presentations

by Frank Boles

This summer, the Clarke Library sponsored two very different and both very interesting talks. The first, on June 20, was given by Al Declercq, a professional sail-maker and sailboat racer who told the story of Bernida, the first ship to win the Port Huron to Mackinac Island race. The second presentation, given July 14 by Professor Nancy Auer, shared with the audience the fascinating story of one of the Great Lakes natural treasures: the lake sturgeon.

Bernida was built in 1921 to race on salt water. It was originally named Rueida III. In 1925, the ship was purchased by Russ Pouliot, given his wife’s maiden name, Bernida, and shipped on a flatbed railroad car to the Great Lakes. Bernida found a new home at Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club. Pouliot liked to race, and when the first Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race was announced in 1925, he planned to be in it. Twelve boats sailed in the inaugural race. Bernida led the fleet upon the arrival at Mackinac Island. Two years later, sailed by a new owner, Bernida again won the Port Huron to Mackinac race.

Ships like the Bernida are specialized, expensive, and not really built for day cruising or family outings. The vessel went through many owners and eventually fell on hard times. In 2000, the badly decayed boat was discovered at The Old Junk Shoppe (you can’t make up names like that!) in Pentwater, Michigan. A group of enthusiasts saw something other than a deteriorating boat never likely to sail again. They saw a legacy that could be restored, and set about doing just that.

With the financial help of a generous donor, in 2004, the Mackinac Island Boating Heritage Association bought the ship for $10,000. In 2008, restoration began. The Foundation was perpetually short of money, but eventually an estimated $220,000 was spent on the project, much of it in kind donations of material and approximately 4,000 hours of labor.

Al Declercq was long aware of the project. He served as an unpaid consultant and also made a gift-in-kind of sails for the ship. In 2010, he was surprised to learn that the ship was for sale, listed on Ebay for $10,000. Restoring an old racing boat may be a first class historic endeavor, but it is anything but a first class financial investment. Consider it charity work. Al purchased the ship, and brought it back to Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club. Even more work went into the boat, this time volunteered by Mr. Declercq and his friends. Finally, in 2012, he entered it into the Port Huron to Mackinac race. Three fathers, including Mr. Declercq, and their sons, crewed the vessel.

The boat had a tough go of it. The weather turned nasty and part of the mast broke. But the crew improvised a fix and kept in the race. The deck cracked and for awhile there was concern that the stern might literally break off. But after deploying smaller sails the stress on the hull lessened, the cracks became manageable, and the ship pressed on toward Mackinac.

Despite the bad weather, in one respect nature was kind. Bernida sails best in a particular kind of wind. With the right breeze in its sails, Bernida remains a very fast boat. That hoped-for wind was blowing almost continuously throughout the race. When it finally entered the Island’s harbor, a cannon was fired – the traditional salute given to the first ship across the finish line. Eighty-seven years after the boat had won the first Port Huron to Mackinac Race, the battered old ship had done it again.

In 2013, Mr. Declercq donated the vessel to the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan. The gift did have one string attached — if he wishes, Al can sail the ship one more time to compete in the Port Huron to Mackinac race. Mr. Declercq is uncertain if he will do it, but the idea of the boat which won the first Port Huron to Mackinac race running in the 100th competition in 2025 is one he can’t quite put aside.

The story of the Bernida is told in a charming children’s book, Bernida: A Michigan Sailing Legend, written by Al Declercq and Tom Ervin, with Gloria Whelan (Ann Arbor: Sleeping Bear Press, 2014). An adult version of the story, Bernida: A True Story That Can’t Be True, also written by Mr. Declercq and Mr. Ervin, was self-published by the authors in 2012.

Professor Nancy Auer is one of the nation’s leading experts on the Great Lakes sturgeon. Her talk centered on efforts to ensure that this struggling fish continues to survive in the Great Lakes.

Sturgeon are relics of prehistoric times. They are closely related, and similar in size and shape, to sharks. Unlike sharks, however, they lack teeth. Sturgeon use a vacuum-like mouth to suck up organic material from lake and river bottoms. The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is long lived and large sized. A lake sturgeon can live for 150 years and can grow over seven feet in length. The largest recorded sturgeon, found in Lake Superior in 1922, weighed 310 pounds. Sturgeon weighing 100 to 150 pounds are today still fairly common.

The sturgeon, however, has often been considered a “nuisance species” and as such has suffered from neglect and unintended habitat destruction. Most troublesome to sturgeon are the many small hydro-electric power dams placed on Great Lakes rivers in the early years of the twentieth century. The dams had two effects. Sturgeon spawn inland in rivers and lakes and are very specific about their spawning territory. Prof. Auer made the point by telling the story of the sturgeon she has caught repeatedly when doing studies in the same river, in the same location, and on the same date. The dams created impenetrable barriers keeping the fish from their spawning grounds.

The way hydro-electric dams were operated also created problems. Because these small dams wanted to ensure sufficient water for power generation when it was most needed, it became customary to close the dam and stop all water flow in the river during periods when electric demand was less. This usually occurred during the evening hours. Although the practice guaranteed a good flow of water the next morning to make electricity, the impact on the fish population, including sturgeon, of literally turning the river off at 9:00 at night was devastating.

Professor Auer was one of the first biologists to participate in longitudinal studies of lake sturgeon. She and other pioneers began tagging sturgeon so that their movements could be studied. Her first efforts, however, were a little less organized than today’s radio-transmitting micro-chips that are implanted into the animal’s skin. Her first small grant to tag sturgeon involved external tags attached to the fish. As she planned for her first tagging experiments, Professor Auer ran into a problem that can occur when nature and bureaucracies come into contact. The money she had been given to buy the tags had not appeared when the fish began to swim upstream.

Being resourceful, Professor Auer made a trip to a local cattle coop and obtained a supply of the small plastic tags used to identify cows. The tags are relatively tough, designed to be inserted through the animal’s flesh, and include the name and contact information of the cow’s owner. All that said, using cattle tags to identify sturgeon led to some very strange phone calls. She still remembers the day a commercial fisherman from Munising called her to report he had pulled up one of the tags in his net and commented, “I don’t know what you do lady, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have any cows down there.”

Although Great Lakes sturgeon today number only about one percent of their historic population size, they are not legally an endangered species. Fishing for sturgeon, however, is usually prohibited and if one is accidentally caught legally, it is to be returned to the water. With the help of people like Nancy Auer, these great fish will hopefully continue to inhabit the Great Lakes.

To learn more about sturgeon, read The Great Lake Sturgeon edited by Nancy Auer and Dave Dempsey (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013)