Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Midnight encounter on Lake Minnetonka

I spent most of 1981 in a small cabin JB and his boat sunshine on Minnetonkaon Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka a few miles west of Minneapolis. Sunshine, my 1966 Boston Whaler Sakonnet, sat at a small dock about 15 steps from my door. If needed she had a full canvas enclosure so I could go boating in a deluge and stay dry.

The nature of my work at the time, independent Management and Training Consultant, gave me a lot of time to spend on the water, and I took advantage of it. I sometimes even took my typewriter out on the lake and did some writing while basking in the glories of a Minnesota Spring and Summer.

That year and a few years in Dania, Florida are the only times in my life that I went boating just to be boating or as a way to get to a specific destination. I often did my grocery shopping and other shopping at Wayzata, on the NE corner of the lake. One of my favorite trips was to the Mai Tai Restaurant on the lake in Excelsior, MN. More about the Mai Tai to come. Most of my life boating has been a way to go fishing and not much else.

If you have never experienced Spring in the upper Midwest put it on your bucket list. It is as though the Earth heaves a great sigh and life just explodes around you. Living on a large lake offers the best of the best. Fat crappies wait in line to grab a small jig or a minnow at a hundred favorite spots, day or night.aerial view of lake minnetonka

Old men and their grand-buddies lined the canals in the warm and calm evenings, sitting in their canvas easy chairs, gas lanterns hissing and LED bobbers sprinkled on the water winking like tiny red stars as they educated eager youngsters about life’s great adventures and truths. As I idled by in Sunshine, everything seemed to be right with the world. Moving out of the canal into one of the large bays (formerly separate lakes) the sky dominated with great swarms of stars and occasional meteors. I would sometimes drop anchor and lie on my back counting meteors.

Number three daughter lived and worked in Minneapolis and had a friend with a sailboat. They often sailed on Lake Minnetonka. One afternoon I arrived home after a week away doing a Seminar. I looked out across the lake and beheld a great black wall cloud rushing up from the south. I also saw a sailboat making for shelter. I didn’t think they had a prayer.

I went in and took a quick shower, intending to sit on my porch with a bit of scotch to watch the storm arrive. The squall hit while I was in the shower. I had just dried off when there was a frantic banging on my lakeside door.

There was Heidi, drenched to the skin, with eyes as big as saucers. It was her friend’s boat I had seen and they had been knocked down. The wind was screaming and the poor guy was standing shoulder deep in the lake trying to keep the boat off the rocks. I was going to jump into Sunshine, but my neighbor was already out there with his big I/O boat getting a line on her, so I just joined them in the water, keeping the boat clear of the rocks.

It seemed like forever before we had the sailboat safely anchored off my dock, pumped out and ready to do battle. The squall that had caused all the trouble had passed on, the sun was out but dropping toward the western horizon and the lake was flat.

It was too far to Excelsior, where their car was, to try to sail it before dark and the wind was down anyway, so I suggested that we all climb aboard Sunshine and go to the Mai Tai for dinner. They could come get the sailboat tomorrow.

The Mai Tai was a wonderful big restaurant, on the water, with very Polynesian/Hawaiian architecture and a South Pacific cuisine. We docked Sunshine and went in for a grand dinner. My very favorite dish was called the “Flaming Hawaiian Feast”. It was a wok dish with lobster, crab, shrimp, beef, pork, chicken, pineapple, celery, and other veggies and fruits that I don’t remember. They poured brandy over it and served it flaming. It was offered as a dinner for two but it was easily enough for three of us. They also offered the very best skorpion I ever drank, but you had to drink it when you got there so you would be sober enough to drive when you left. It breaks my heart that the Mai Tai was demolished to make room for condos.

I had such a wonderful time with them and finally didn’t fire up Sunshine for the voyage home until about midnight. It had clouded up, so there was no starlight or moonlight to help me navigate, but I was quite familiar with the lake and the aids to navigation were easy to see and follow. There was very little traffic on the lake so I was cruising at around 25mph.

I was on course in the middle of a large bay to a red nav beacon when the nav beacon blinked . . . just once. . .then resumed constant guidance. A minute or so later the hair on my neck stood up. There was something out there in the blackness. I couldn’t see it but I could sense it. I turned about 15 degrees to starboard and SWOOSH!! A Cigarette with no lights and apparently with no pilot shot by my stern at about 50mph. It missed me by less than a foot.

I was too startled to be angry or even frightened, but I counted luck among my blessings that night.

(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)

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