High winds and wicked waves rock New Buffalo, strand $1.2 million yacht

The big story this week has been Hurricane Sandy and while New York City is 731 miles away from New Buffalo, Mich., the massive system is being felt along Lake Michigan.

Around 12 p.m. Tuesday, wind gusts reached 50 mph in St. Joseph and 60 mph in New Buffalo, with white capped waves topping 18 feet in St. Joseph and 22 feet in New Buffalo.

In anticipation for dangerous and chaotic conditions, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a warning to the general public. The notice urged onlookers to stay off rocky terrain, piers and jetties as waves and wind could cause them to slip and get washed into Lake Michigan’s bitter 33 degree water.

The same notice advised marine enthusiasts, like traditional surfers and wind surfers, to resist the temptation of riding the surf for recreation.

“We urge everyone to use extreme caution due to unsafe forecasted lake conditions. Our first priority is to keep people out of dangerous situations,” said Cmdr.Erik Leuenberger with U.S. Coast Guard - Sector Lake Michigan Search and Rescue.

Despite the notification, surfers in St. Joseph donned wetsuits and spent the afternoon gliding through the choppy conditions. Greater risks were taken in New Buffalo where officers had to chase a group of kids off the city harbor’s shale and jagged rock wall.

“They were out there actually trying to run on the rocks. With what are we looking at, 15-to-18 foot waves right now, it’s mind boggling,” New Buffalo Police Chief Larry Pitchford said.

"I would never do that, no, no, no, no! I always warned my kids and all of their friends to be careful of those piers because the waves will come up and sweep you off before you know it,” Mishawaka resident Jenny Dunville added as a massive wave of water cascaded down the coastline.

Right across the harbor, a lone boat owner and a team of nautical towers were tasked with a cumbersome quandary; a $1.2 million beached yacht.

"The individual came out of the harbor here Sunday afternoon and continued toward Michigan City, but got caught-up on a sandbar about 100 yards offshore,” Chief Pitchford said.

By Monday morning, TowBoat U.S. had managed to thrust the 60,000 lb. luxury liner to its current resting spot, near the Lake Michigan Yacht Club.

"There's absolutely no way you could get anybody out there right now to try to get it off the beach. So they're just trying to protect it the best they can and let it ride out the storm,” Chief Pitchford added.

The recovery process is a delicate one as the 56-footer holds 400 gallons of fuel and 60 gallons of oil on-board; a mini Costa Concordia along the shores of Southwest Michigan.

"I’m sick for the owner, but maybe somebody can pick it up for pretty cheap after this,” fellow New Buffalo boat owner Dale Agonis joked. “But no, it's really a terrible thing."

If dressed accordingly and safely removed from the water’s edge, fun could be had along the shores of the world’s third largest freshwater lake.

"I went to school, got there and then my mom texted me, “You want to go to the lake today?” I agreed and she got me out of school, we took a two hour car ride here and it was all worth it,” North Webster resident Randy Ricci said with a laugh and partially frozen face.

"I haven't had this much sand in me since I was a little kid playing in a sandbox. With 50 mph winds and gusts nearly 70 mph, this is incredible, absolutely incredible, something you should see,” Mishawaka resident Joe Leniski added.

"I see this lake when it's smooth as glass and completely quiet too, so I know the extremes can be huge on Lake Michigan. Today we've kind of got our own hurricane going here in the Midwest and I'm not going to miss it,” Jenny Dunville said during an impromptu trip to Berrien County to check on her family’s lake cottage.

Although power outages, downed trees and snapped limbs were not widespread, beach erosion is expected to be a major concern across the LaPorte and Berrien County coastlines.

"By tomorrow morning, I'm going to be really concerned here because looking at NOAA weather; they're talking 22-to-30 foot waves. I've been here with this department for over 30 years and I have never seen weather advisories like that,” Chief Pitchford concluded.

Tuesday’s nightfall masked the bulk of the erosion, with results to be witnessed at sunrise Wednesday. Barring no pop-up storm systems, NOAA predicts waves on Lake Michigan to be relatively mild by this Friday.


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