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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Sailing of the Royale kind

Ely adventurer takes his 14-foot Sunfish to Isle Royale and back

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/16/20

ISLE ROYALE – Why sail a 14-foot Sunfish boat across 23 miles of Lake Superior to Isle Royale? That question was recently posed to Ely resident Matt Graves who accomplished the treacherous …

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Sailing of the Royale kind

Ely adventurer takes his 14-foot Sunfish to Isle Royale and back


ISLE ROYALE – Why sail a 14-foot Sunfish boat across 23 miles of Lake Superior to Isle Royale? That question was recently posed to Ely resident Matt Graves who accomplished the treacherous journey last month.
It turns out that the obvious answer was, “because it’s there.”
The Sunfish is one of the most iconic recreational sailboats ever made. It’s still the boat a lot of adults remember having their first sailing experiences on. The Sunfish hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, and remains a staple in the sailing world.
Described as not much more than a surf board, Graves’s craft is not even four-foot wide and about 14-feet long. A small, shallow cockpit allows for a solo sailor to sit. “It is meant for one or two people. With two people, it is kind of tight,” he said.
Back in his college days, Graves kayaked across the 23-mile expanse of the greatest of the Great Lakes from Grand Portage to Isle Royale for a backpacking trip. He and a companion made it as far as the first campsite on the southwest side of the island chain
“I have always wanted to make it around to the northeast part of the island where all these little islands and landforms are located,” he said. “I have a Sunfish, experience, knowledge equipment to make the trip so I went about making a plan.”
Graves started to seriously think about the adventure several months earlier. In mid-summer, he started gathering his equipment and making serious plans. “I thought long and hard about all the ‘what-if’ scenarios and what I could actually encounter during the trip.”
To be honest, Graves is not just some fly-by-night adventurer who likes taking chances. Well, he is that too. When he is not working for Range Mental Health Center, he has been involved in search and rescue for several years and is a member of the, St. Louis County Rescue Squad and is currently one of their safety trainers. He has considerable training in rescue, survival, outdoor leadership, equipment use.
“My brain kind of thinks about what could go wrong and how to deal with that. To be safe, you need the skill, knowledge, and equipment to pull it off,” he said.
Besides the survival knowledge, experience and confidence, Graves had an emergency beacon strapped to his arm at all times and wore a wet suit to protect him against the frigid waters. In addition, he had enough gear and food for a week-long camping and hiking adventure once he got to the island.
What was his biggest concern? “I had the cold covered with the dry suit. I had enough food. I guess the biggest fear was running out of time,” Graves said. He planned for an eight-day trip and had 13 days available away from work. “But I wasn’t going to head back if the weather was unsafe. I really didn’t have much worry.”
He left Grand Portage Harbor on the morning of Aug. 24 and began the trek. “It took more than six hours to get across, but the big problem was that the wind died for at least an hour right in the middle,” he said. “It was just dead calm. I wasn’t going anywhere, I was just bobbing around.”
He had a kayak paddle on board so he could have provided his own power. “I was at least 11 miles from land so I could have paddled if I needed to,” he added.
During his exploring around the island, he did experience two and three foot waves every day that actually swamped his boat. “A Sunfish won’t sink because of the enclosed foam and air so it can still be sailed or paddled when it is full of water,” he said. Going around the point on the northeast end the waves were big enough that the wind was blocked from my sails. The waves were probably ten-footers.”
He sailed, camped and hiked around the island for six nights. He met other sailors who were impressed with his adventurous spirit. “I wanted to do more exploring than I did. I checked out the lighthouse and a lookout tower,” he said. “I never did find the Native American copper mines on the island. I saw signs and heard what were likely moose, but I didn’t see any.”
He said he kept his ear to the weather radio the whole time it became clear that his window of opportunity to get back was closing fast. “They were forecasting waves of 14 to 17 feet,” so I decided to leave when it was safer, otherwise I would have been there another a week.”
Since his return home, Graves has been editing his videos and photographs to post to his You Tube Channel, called “Adventure in Reach.”
“I hope to encourage people to get out there and do it safely,” he said. “Through my work with the Adapt program at Range Mental Health I hope I can help people to build their confidence in the outdoors, and to think outside the box. I talk to people who want to have an adventure but don’t know how or don’t think they can. An adventure can come in all shapes and sizes, and all intensities and levels.”
Graves’s next sailing adventure is to explore the Slate Islands off the Canadian Lake Superior shore. “I heard that there is a ring of islands there, supposedly formed from a meteor,” he said. “There are caribou there. It is very scenic.”
The Atlantic Ocean’s Outer Banks, off the Carolinas, and Baja, Mexico, are also on his bucket list. “We’ll see where life takes me.”
Closer to home, Graves and his wife, Elizabeth, were planning to do a local canoeing and camping trip last weekend with their five dogs. “We’re soon getting a new puppy and we may try backpacking with all six dogs.” That could be an adventure.


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