Alexandra Yacht Club
Founded 1906

Indefatigable on the Great Lakes (August, 2012)

Every five years or so, it seems, I wistfully say to Mary “Maybe we could go back to the North Channel again this summer”.

That happened last winter, and to my delight, again, the game response was “We could do that.” And so we did.

The North Channel is where I got the sailing bug, years ago, when Waterloo friends Moe and Anne Marie, who had just learned to sail, rented a boat, and invite me along for a week.

As I wrote to them last summer, while in the midst of the Wabuno Channel, west of Manitoulin’s Little Current:

My love for this marvellous piece of the world was, of course, kindled by your generous invitation to join you for that amazing week back in, was it 1985?

Moe responded, in part:

And then there's sailing east out of Clapperton toward Little Current while following a classic cumulonimbus along the North Channel throwing off waterspouts in severe winds complete with damaging hail and hearing my friend Brian ask "What do you think Moe, can we raise the sails now that it has gone on ahead of us?" I'm sure while you were aboard I sailed with an adventurous and daring boy in a man's body.

This was Mary’s and my third trip on Indefatigable to the North Channel. The first time we’d trucked the boat both ways to and from southern Georgian Bay. Then, in 2007, we sailed up– with a ten-day delay in Sarnia while the boat was repaired from damage from an unfortunate lee shore we got caught in, and trucked back.

This time, a bit wiser, we opted to truck up – to Parry Sound – and sail back, the theory being that we could hopefully catch the prevailing southwesterlies on Lake Erie. Starting out from Parry Sound allowed us to avoid the too busy Small Craft Passage to the south, and to get into the North Channel with just a few days’ sailing.

The plan – spend all of August on the water, allowing ten days or so for the return trip, arriving back in time to get back to work after the Labour Day weekend.

Thanks to Kevin Tapping and his bevy of contacts, the trucking was trouble-free: we unstepped the afternoon before the truck was to arrive at Kevin’s yard on the east side of Toronto’s harbour, and when we arrived at Sound Boatworks, there Indefatigable was, in the water, ready for stepping. Their friendly and experienced staff smoothly got the mast up and in.

Enough time was left that day that we opted to check out a PowWow on nearby Parry Island, which is Wasauksing First Nation, where we found some amazing aboriginal crafts and clothing, and drumming and round dances that we’re now seeing nightly on the news, with Idle no More. We were moved by the obvious pride with which participants shared their heritage with us.

We were excited about the trip north to Killarney – we’d never sailed it before. And we were prepared for the navigational challenges – with Richardson’s chart-book, Navionics echarts on Fugawi software on a laptop – with a GPS “puck”, and a handheld Garmin GPS with another set of echarts. And Ben Koldyk’s friend Bob Mosher gladly loaned us his Great Lakes Cruising Club Guides.

We found ourselves using all of them simultaneously, whenever things got uncertain, as they often do, the first time through. The result – a far greater assurance of safety than I’ve ever felt before, and far fewer groundings: we hit bottom only once, as we anchored in the Bustards, where the two e-charts disagreed, and I didn't listen to Mary. Here are some highlights from the trip:

Parry Sound to Killarney

Perfect weather, save for the 15 knots on our bow. We are passing Parry Island, on a westerly course, until we pick up the buoy to turn north on:
Parry Sound has a big Coast Guard station, so it wasn’t a surprise to have one of their cutters pass us on our way out:
The Small Craft Passage running north is very carefully buoyed, and fun to work through. Here’s our track up to Pointe au Baril, on the Navionics chart:
And with some zoom, the last stretch out onto Georgian Bay:
We considered staying inside, but two things gave us pause: we really wanted to get into the North Channel, and the Small Craft Passage is far slower than a straight rhumb line out on the open water. Plus the water was low – only two cm above chart datum, and there were a couple of spots after Pointe au Baril that were possibly only at the five foot promised controlling depth. Not good, as we draw 6’4”. So out we went – here’s the Pointe au Baril lighthouse, as we headed out.
And we had one of those perfect sailing days – 15 knot on the beam allowing us to reach the Bustard Islands by late afternoon – perfect for Mary, who hates still being underway much after four o’clock.

Interesting entrance to the anchorage – as you can see from our course on the chart, you head straight east until you can see down The Gun Barrel, and then you head straight down it, into a great anchorage:

Another day’s great sailing brought us into Killarney Bay, the eastern end of the North Channel. We put the anchor down for the night just outside of Covered Portage Cove, which was far too full of anchored boats for us to squeeze in. That was the only time we’d experience a crowded anchorage – most boats head home by the first week of August, and we were left with virtually deserted anchorages for the rest of the trip.

We had reserved a berth for the next few days at Killarney Mountain Lodge, and settled in very nicely the next morning. Here we are:

Sadly, a friend had died suddenly, and we had to return to Toronto. We’d already arranged with friends Dora and Les Tabobandung, from Wasausink First Nation, to ferry our car from Parry Sound up to Killarney, and they were more than happy to join us for Killarney’s justly famous fish and chips when they arrived. Over the next few weeks, we‘d have three more scrumptious meals there.

Exploring the town, we wondered what a substantial new brick building that looked like a Keg Restaurant was doing in Killarney. As I peered into the window, a friendly face appeared, and we were quickly invited in to tour the town’s new water filtration plant. To be sure, I was far more fascinated than Mary.

Returning, we were pleased that the strong winds that had blown through while we were in Toronto did no damage, and thanked our dockmates who’d kept an eye on our lines for us.

The North Channel

We’d brought friends Bill and Paulette back with us. After cruising with us, they’ll take our car back to Toronto, and my nephew Fraser (part of our Thursday race crew) will drive it back up a week later with our friends Eddie and Edie, coming in from Victoria to join us for the sail back to Toronto. Fraser then will get the car back to park at AYC, in time for our arrival Labour Day weekend. Transportation IS an issue on the North Channel, as there’s just no public transportation for guests – or in the event of an urgent return to the city.

For the next few weeks we cruise, back and forth between our pickup point, Killarney, to Little Current for supplies and great pickerel suppers in the Anchor Inn, and west to the Benjamin Islands, the North Channel’s jewels. Here are those trips as recorded by Fugawi:

Great weather, great sailing, fabulous scenery, and great company.

Soon enough, it was time to head home. The plan is to round the west end of Manitoulin and head down the west coast of Lake Huron – something I’d not done before. We opt to head west through the channel north of the Benjamins – it’s incredibly gorgeous and we have yet another fine sailing day, anchoring for the night near the northwest end of Mary Island.

Speaking of Mary, here she is on the helm that day, with the white Killarney Mountains fading away on the stern (and, as the flag shows, yet another beam reach day):

Here’s pinkgranited Fox Island as we pass it:
One last stop in the North Channel – the remote settlement of Meldrum Bay on the western tip of Manitoulin Island – we manage to just get in and tie up before an ominouslooking cold front storms through – that’s our Edie by our boat – Eddie and I are helping another boat who also got in in time, tie up.

South on Lake Huron

Good sailing the next day – right down to Rogers City, on the tip of Michigan’s index finger, where we arrived midafternoon, and checked into the US, by phone.

Supper at a local restaurant, for a treat, was doubly so – we were pleased to have the recently crowned Miss Rogers City, as our server.

Looking at the number of days we have left, I start talking up at least one overnight to give us some flexibility, but no one else aboard will have any of it. Oh, well. It’ll mean some long days, but we’ll get back in time – if the weather holds.

If not an overnight, then the next day will be short – the only possible stop is Presque Isle Harbor, only four hours away. We anchor just as a line squall hits hard – we heel over hard, but the Delta is well buried, and we’re secure. We watch, though, as another sailboat in the anchorage wasn’t so lucky – they drag right by us, and suddenly they’re scurrying in the driving wind and rain to get the anchor up and secure again.

Next day is one of those long days – lots of motoring, and the only choice for a stop is Harbour Beach, which, notwithstanding its name, is an industrial port, and so far away that we feel our way in in the pitchdark, with my eyes glued to the echarts, as Eddie steers.

An easy jog the next day got us into Port Huron Yacht Club, just across the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia. A chance to do some shopping, fuel up, pump out, and sample beer for a buck in the Clubhouse. I look up the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, written mostly by Tom Hayden, who was, in her radical days, Jane Fonda’s husband. It inspired me back in the 60s, and is still an inspiring document, to my mind. I read some of it out loud, and would have read more if there had been more expressions of interest from my crewmates.

Port Huron to Pelee Island

Heading down the St. Clair River, we hit 9–10 knots over ground, as the current whisks us along.

We’re now in the midst of big ships – the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River are teeming with them, and we hug the edges of the buoyed channels to keep well clear. At least we avoided the five short blasts we got years ago on a similar trip up the Detroit River.

Finding a stop the next night proves a problem. While we could have stopped at the Windsor Yacht Club, it’s still in Lake St. Clair, and we thought we could put a few more hours in and get down past Windsor and Detroit by early evening. We choose the Wyandot Yacht Club, on the Michigan side. But there’s no Ports Guide down here, and to be safe, we call – to ensure they have room and depth for us. A volunteer club, I reach the Commodore at work, and she assures me there’s no problem.

But – what’s this? As it gets dark, we find the Wyandot marked on the charts is abandoned, with some bikers in an empty lot, and not much depth – at all. We call the Club again, to discover the charts are out-of-date, and they’ve moved – north – several miles. We backtrack, and, with the help of a few more calls, find them waving us in. But we can’t – we hit bottom – mud, thankfully. And they’re embarrassed – all powerboaters, they just didn’t think there’s be a problem for us. We tie up on their outer wall, which is fine, as there’ll be no wind tonight.

As we make our way down the Detroit River, I tell of my relatives who fled the US War of Independence in 1788, but ended up renting a farm on Grosse Isle, in the River, for twenty years. They finally get some land in Upper Canada, and sneaked across the frozen Detroit River on a dark night in the winter of 1808. My dad was born in the Iler Settlement they founded – on the shore of Lake Erie, some twenty miles east.

Pelee Island – just off the tip of Point Pelee, was an easy destination, and we’re in, checked back into Canada by phone, and settled by midafternoon. It’s not that big an island, I said, and we opt to hike off to the northeast tip to see a restored lighthouse. After several steamy hours walking down dusty roads, a local senses our distress, pulls up, and we all pile into his car for a welcome ride to the lighthouse. Heading back, we stick to the shoreline, which is cooler, a lot more interesting – and more direct.

Lake Erie

Still no interest from crew in an overnight. But time’s running out, and we have no choice but to get up before dawn, and head for Port Stanley.

It’s blowing hard – well over 20 knots, thankfully out of the southwest. But it’s going to be a very difficult day: the waves behind us are building, particularly after we clear Pelee Island and the Point, and we can’t sail the rhumb line – we need to steer at least 20 degrees off the wind to keep the jib full (no one volunteered to go forward and pole the jib out).

Eddie and agree on one hour on, one hour off, as the work of keeping the boat on course as the waves slew it sideways is strenuous. Mary’s keeping us good company, and Edie’s not keen on being in the cockpit at all – she stays below, in the Vberth for the day. We see huge waves, and occasional gusts up to 28 knots or so. It does not abate – all day.

It is 9:30 by the time we tie up in Port Stanley. But like Wyandot Yacht Club, there are no pumpout facilities in Port Stanley that we can reach, and strict measures are indicated to ensure the holding tank has room for when it is really needed.

Again, though, we’ re up and away before dawn, because the weather is about to change, and we must get out of Lake Erie before it does. Turns out to be a great day, with winds out of the north, making for flat water, and a good sail. The sun sets, gloriously, as we approach Port Colborne. This doesn’t quite do it justice:

It is Saturday night of the Labour Day weekend in Port Colborne. At least three bands are playing simultaneously at the Marina, as we pull in. All we want is a relaxing beer, and bed, as we want to get in line for the Welland Canal as early as possible Sunday morning. The bands finally shut down, and sleep comes pretty quickly.

Welland Canal and Home

The problem with the Welland is that pleasure craft are a nuisance for the controllers – or that’s certainly the impression they give. We’ve waited for a whole day before, even though there seem to be very few big ships traversing the Canal. So we decide to get into position to enter the Canal as early as we can Sunday morning, hoping they’ll slot us in early. That means, though, that we still can’t pump out, or fuel up, as the Marina in Port Colborne won’t be open for hours yet. There is a bit of room in the holding tank, and somewhat less than a quarter tank of diesel. We can manage.

Calling into Seaway Control on the dedicated phone, I’m told to stand by on Channel 14, and they’ll call soon.

We wait. And wait. By noon, in frustration, I call again, to be told we’re scheduled to enter in half an hour. Nice.

There are eight locks on the Welland – the one in Port Colborne has little drop – by the time you’ve entered the lock, with the gates closing behind, and motor to the other end, the gates are opening into the canal proper.. We’re all alone this time – previously, we’ve shared the trip with several other pleasure craft.

It’s fifteen miles of motoring to the next locks, all of which are in St. Catharines.

They become routine – friendly lockkeepers toss us lines and chat for a bit, the water level drops us down and down, the gates open, we wave goodbye as we let go of the lines to the keepers who are now 50 feet above us, and we motor out and into the next lock. We’re just leaving Lock 7 here:

But as we approach Lock 3, the red light stays on, so we hover for a few minutes, waiting for the green light to proceed into the lock. A few minutes more, and we finally call up Seaway Control on the VHF. “Oh, you’ll have an hour wait or so, while we bring a ship up. Better tie up.” Strange. They certainly could have let us know.

Eventually, we’re out and into Lake Ontario. It’s dark (again), and the fuel gauge reads empty. We need fuel, badly. What’s close? I recall there’s a marina just on the east side of the canal entrance, so we motor slowly around. Ed says “You’ve been in here before?” I say, “No” and realize we need to check the charts for depth. Oops. Another powerboat marina – no way we’ll get in there.

We turn around, and head for Port Dalhousie instead. It’s a warm quiet night. Will we make it? We’re all a bit tense. But make it we do. Tie up just opposite the Yacht Club, for the night.

Fuelling up next morning, we have a pleasant surprise – the tank holds 75 litres, and it only took 64 to fill it. There’s lots of fuel left even though the gauge reads empty. Good to know.

One last story to tell: as we motored in calm air across to Toronto, we hear a “pan-pan” from the Coast Guard on the VHF – a boat has run out of fuel on its way from Port Dalhousie to Toronto – our course.

We see the Coast Guard ship Cape Storm fly by us, but a few minutes later see it turn, and head towards a power boat just ahead off our starboard bow. If it’s gas they need, we do have lots in our dinghy motor tank, I say – we could offer it, if that would help.

On the radio, the skipper of the Cape Storm is appreciative, and as we gently come up to hand our gas tank over, the sheepish folks on the powerboat express thanks.

They tell us we can pick up the tank, at the Marine Police station. I do, several weeks later. It is empty.

And we’re home, back at AYC. Given the past week, we’re in need of a serious rest.

Timing is always a problem cruising – if you have other commitments. We did linger in the North Channel, of course, and we could have had to leave the boat somewhere in Lake Erie if the weather had not co-operated the way it did.

But the fun of exploring new places, and relying on one’s wits to meet the challenges the elements toss at you, always seems to entice us back year after year to sailing vacations that tend to the vigorous, rather than the relaxing. So be it.