Friday, May 29, 2015

Bella Blue heads for Sarnia - Put-in-Bay to Detroit

Though the plan had been to get up at 3am and set sail, the previous night’s festivities resulted in a heavily fogged crew and none of us woke up until 7.  I was up first and got to work prepping the boat.  By the time I had filled up the water tank Dad was awake so gave me a hand cleaning the boat, re-inflating the dingy, sorting out the lines and making the all important first round of coffee.

We pushed off around 8, headed north west and found decent wind, though it was heavily overcast and there was lots of debris in the lake, as if there had been a storm somewhere.  Typically in Lake Erie, heavy storms result in all sorts of junk being washed down the rivers and into the waters.  Fortunately in a sailboat you aren’t moving too fast so it’s easy to avoid such objects, and even if you do run into something big like a log or board, the keel tends to gently push everything away from the propeller and rudder under the stern of the boat.

Today’s destination was the Motor City, which was located at the start of the Detroit River, which joins Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.  We sailed for a couple hours across the west end of Lake Erie, then fired up the engine as the winds started to die.  We stayed within the commercial shipping channel and kept a good lookout for freighters, though surprisingly didn’t see any.  We soon reached the mouth of the Detroit River and bid farewell to Lake Erie.

I popped a giant lasagna in the oven and soon the delicious pasta smells started to overpower the terrible hangover smells in the belly of the boat.  We put the boat on autopilot and sat down to enjoy a lovely meal of lasagna, bread, and uncle Michael’s peppers and pickles.  Dad had purchased a three litre box of red wine back in Put-in-Bay for 8 bucks so we filled up our cups and killed off the rest of the hangover.

The Detroit River is very wide and has a current of 2 to 3 knots, depending on the width with the narrower stretches having the faster current.  So though we were motoring at 7 knots we were really only moving at 4 to 5 so our progress for this leg of the trip would be much slower.  Though this is regularly a very busy shipping channel with freighters loaded with everything from coal to iron ore to wood to merchandise, we passed only one or two of them.  And though these are massive boats, they threw a barely noticeable wake.

As we throttled up the river we were quite amazed with the number and magnificence of houses along the US side.  It seemed that every possible space along the river had been built on, and many were true mansions, though there was the occasional small cottage.  By contrast, the riverbank on the Canadian side was populated mainly with ducks, cattails, grass and the odd house.

By mid afternoon the rain was really coming down so we alternated turns at the helm with turns in the bunk catching up on sleep.  While Marty and Curtis were at the helm we passed beneath the Bluewater bridge which connects Detroit to Windsor, and they snapped some fantastic photos, some through the lens of the binoculars!

I called ahead to a place called Kean’s Marina and booked us a slip for the night.  To get to the marina we actually had to go around Belle Island and then back downstream for a mile so enjoyed the full force of the current and wound Bella Blue up to 10 knots – the fastest she has ever moved!  We managed to find our assigned slip and dock with no problems besides navigating the rushing current.  The marina looked very old and I noticed immediately that the docks had overhead power lines and each of the slips was metered – something I had never seen before.  We were back in range of the Canadian towers so we all made calls home to the family then shuffled up the cards for a game of Kaiser and a round of wine for happy hour.

As this would be the only city stop on our trip, we wanted to find a great place for dinner so Curt did some research online and came up with Slow’s BBQ in the Corktown district of Detroit.  Meat, meat and more meat.

We called a taxi and he appeared at the main gate of the marina in minutes.  This is the first marina I’ve traveled to where the entire area was not just gated, but it had a security guard 24 hours a day.  We jumped in the car, told the taxi driver where we were going and  began our trip through iconic Detroit.  The driver was full of all sorts of information, nearly all of which was completely fabricated, and directed to me as I was in the front seat.  Pointing at an abandoned apartment building he said, “That’s the Ford building.  Headquarters.”

“That’s the Ford headquarters??  You mean the Ford motor company?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” he replied confidently.

We then passed a shoddy office building and he said, “Parliament.”

“Pardon?” I said.

“Parliament building, for Michigan,” he explained.

“Is that right,” I replied.  I wasn’t going to dig further, this guy either took me for a complete idiot, or perhaps he was a complete idiot.  Deflecting conversation, I mentioned how much more expensive gas was in Canada compared to here.

“Gas here is priced in gallons,” he informed me.  “2.5 litres to one gallon.”

“No it’s not,” I said.  “It’s closer to 4 litres to one US gallon.”  He was starting to annoy me.

“2.5 liters.” He stated flatly.  This conversation was over.

We arrived at our destination, paid the taxi dude, and then shuffled over to the lovely neon Slow’s BBQ sign.  The only problem was that Slow’s didn’t seem to have a door.  We pushed our faces up against the window and saw the restaurant was packed full of people, but how they actually got in was a mystery.  Curt eventually found the entrance, which was hidden in plain sight – a oversized wooden panel structure without a handle that just looked like part of the building facade.  Fortunately they didn’t ask us for a password to get in, but they did ask for a US cell number so they could text us when our table was ready, which was going to be at least 45 minutes.  The delicious smoky meat smells were driving my stomach wild.

“We don’t have one,” Curt said.  “Can’t we just stand here and you can tell us when the table is ready?”

“Nope,” the host replied.  “Need a cell number otherwise I can’t put you in the system.”  We looked at each other and weren’t sure how to proceed.  So we went to the bar to get a beer.  Within 5 minutes the host came over, told us a table was ready and guided us there.  I guess we found a loophole in the system.

Slow’s was packed full of bearded hipsters and their dates.  Most of the wait staff sported fancy mustaches and plaid shirts except the beer slinger behind the bar who simply looked like a biker with giant ear holes.  The beer list written on the chalkboard that covered an entire wall was expansive and featured beers with funky names like Oddside Bean Flicker and Green Flash.  I hadn’t heard of any of them, but they all sounded divine, in a hoppy kind of way.

Our cool dude server helped us order, ensuring that we covered all the main meat groups (smoked turkey, pulled pork, chicken wings, beef, ribs, brisket) and a respectable sampling of the available sides (mac & cheese, corn bread, chili cheese fries).  He brought out the bucket of chili cheese fries first and they were outrageously delicious – imagine crispy fries buried under a pile of beef chili then lathered with gravy and cream cheese.  We gobbled those down like ravenous wolves, sending a strong signal to our stomachs to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of food.  The rest of the dishes came out shortly after that and we dove in, stopping only to breathe or to request beer refreshes from our fine server.  Each dish was extraordinary, especially the sides, which are too often an afterthought in BBQ joints, but here they stood up well on their own.   In fact the mac & cheese was probably the best I have ever eaten.

We staggered out of Slow’s under the weight of many kilos of food and drink and flagged down a taxi.  This taxi driver had no idea where the marina was so we just told him to drive downtown and keep going in that direction.  He had no GPS, no working cell phone and no meter, but did have a great story about nearly getting shot by an armed rider who decided not to pay his $15 fare.

We eventually found the marina and were soon standing beside Bella Blue enjoying a free dock piss, most commonly done after 11 o’clock and 11 beers.  The boat’s holding tank is 25 gallons, but it fills up quickly with four people on board, so any time you can grab a free leak you take it.

Back inside the boat we started setting up the Settlers of Catan game but Marty wordlessly piled into the v-berth and we didn’t hear from him again.  So Dad, Curt and I enjoyed a game and a few more drinks, and then retired for the evening, looking forward to a solid rest before our planned early morning departure.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bella Blue heads for Sarnia - Erieau to Put-in-Bay

As we watched Erieau disappear into the distance I gave the crew a briefing on our projected route.  We would take a south-west heading and pass across the open lake then through the commercial shipping channel, across the US border and then into the islands of western Lake Erie.  By this time the boys had familiarized themselves with the electronic navigation equipment and had all taken a couple turns at the helm, getting a feel for the wind and the functioning of the lines and sails.  Yes, they were becoming sailors.

With Curtis looking fresh from his power nap and Marty somehow looking equally alert, Dad and I decided to head down for a sleep.  Bella Blue has two closed cabins – a queen sized berth at the back of the boat, right beside the engine compartment which houses the 29 HP diesel.  The other cabin is called the “V-berth” and is located at the front.  The rear bed is especially good while underway as the running engine keeps it warm and generates a lovely, monotonous white noise.  Dad grabbed this cabin and as far as I know he was asleep in seconds.  I jumped in the V-berth, fully clothed as it was very chilly, expecting to fall asleep instantly.  But the trick with the front cabin is that you can hear everything happening above on deck, and the sounds are amplified.  Every wave splashing against the side of the boat sounds like a tsunami.  Slight wind gusts feel like a tornado bearing down on the boat.  And all the creaks and groans of the mast, head sail furler and lines make it sound as if the boat is about to split apart at any moment.  So I lay there, trying to go to sleep, but quite sure the boys in the cockpit were in terrible trouble and the boat was about to go down, or maybe be slammed by a freighter.  Of course I knew everything was fine but just couldn’t shake it, so I tried my best for an hour, then finally gave up and went outside to check up on things.  As expected, the lads were doing just fine so with mind at ease, I went back down and sleep came instantly.

I awoke hours later to the deafening sound of a horn and a terrible crashing as the Bella Blue piled into the side of a freighter.  The boat was instantly pulverized, and the four of us and the mangled wreckage was forced down beneath the water by the mighty bulk of the ship.  All of us somehow managed to escape from the sinking ship, just in time to avoid being dragged to our watery graves at the bottom of the lake.  At least that’s what happened in my dream.  When I woke up for real it was Marty batting at me with a leather glove saying, “Wake up shithead, time for your shift.”
Before taking over control of the boat I whipped up a stupendous coffee with the ultra-cool coffee system Curtis brought along.  As a prairie hipster and coffee connoisseur of the toppest notch, I had put him in charge of crew caffeination, and he did not let us down.  The system consisted of two parts.  First was a manual grinder where you poured whole beans into a metal capsule then did about 300 revolutions on the detachable hand crank to grind them up.  Second was a French press where you inserted a thin filter then dumped in the coffee and poured in a cup’s worth of boiling water.  The resulting beverage was spectacular.

The boys went to sleep and I took over the helm.  It was another cool, yet beautiful night, and the wind had picked up to a level where I was able to cut the engine and go with sail power only.  I did not immediately wake up Dad, choosing instead to do some solo sailing for a while and enjoy the solitude of the overnight crossing.  The moon was at its fullest this night and the resulting sky show was mesmerizing as the moon was completely encircled by clouds and the beams punctured through them and extended down to disappear into the lake and light the way for the fishes and turtles.
After a while Dad woke up, geared up, coffee’d up and joined me in the cockpit.  We enjoyed the breaking of the dawn as we passed into US territory and could make out our destination in the distance. We had yet another feathered visitor who trailed the boat for a while then landed on one of the railings in the cockpit and had a rest.   We couldn’t cajole him into sitting in our hands, but he did seem quite content with the railing and even had a little snooze.

We passed to the south of the tiny Middle Island – the southernmost point in Canada and populated only by a massive colony of cormorants.  During the Prohibition years in the US this island was owned by a gangster who used it as a base for rum running.  He even built a nice clubhouse, a brothel and a runway so his buddies could come out to party.

We arrived in Put-in-Bay and pulled up to the gas dock at the Boardwalk restaurant/bar/marina.  While the attendant was filling up the diesel and pumping out the holding tank we walked over to the main office and checked ourselves in with immigration.  This is an interesting time to visit Put-in-Bay as it was still very early in the season – there were only a few places were open and just a handful of people walking around.  Arriving here on a holiday weekend during the peak of the summer is completely different as the small island is heaving with tourists, boats and golf carts, and ferries are constantly shuttling people to and from the other nearby locations such as Kelley’s Island, Pelee Island and Sandusky.  There are eight marinas with hundreds of boat slips available and dozens of bars and restaurants.  With the clear, clean water and the many attractions you would be forgiven for thinking you had just arrived in the Caribbean.

We took Bella Blue over to Miller’s Marina and grabbed our favourite slip, which was pretty easy as we were the only boat there.  As we were getting tied up we saw two Lake Erie water snakes (found only on these small islands) slithering through the water and Dad tried to catch one with a stick but the serpent was too quick for him and quickly disappeared beneath the dock.  As a result of our second consecutive overnight run we were all feeling a little ragged so we had a quick nap, then got showered up and walked into town

We stopped at one of the shops selling tourist kitsch then moved onto something more interesting – the liquor store – and stocked up on beer and wine.  We even grabbed a round of Buzz Balls, which are these horrible drinks made of 50% alcohol and 50% sugar and they always have a huge icy tank with a hundred of these things floating around in there.  How can you say no?

We went for lunch/dinner at the bar that actually had a few people inside and had a decent enough meal and many cheap, cold beers served in plastic cups.  Put-in-Bay is the kind of place where they have built the drinking establishments to withstand the heartiest of partiers – no sharp edges, plastic bottles for condiments, bouncy wood floors, televisions well out of reach, trough styled urinals in the washroom and single use plates and cups.  In fact, the only thing you could possibly use as a weapon in the midst of a drunken melee is a dinner fork, which was actually constructed of metal.  And I’m sure there have been more than a few fork stabbings here.  Actually, now that I think about it, the bar was reminiscent of most small town Saskatchewan town bars.

It had somehow turned from day to night as we sat chatting, laughing and drinking so we decided to return to the boat.  Beside the boat slip was a nifty gazebo with a few picnic tables beneath it so we set up shop with our wine and beer and Marty’s brand new Bose sound system and continued our festivities, but now to the sweet sounds of heavy metal.  Marty whipped out a package of Red Man chewing tobacco he had picked up in town and we all had a dip.  I hadn’t enjoyed that particular tobacco product for many years and had lost the ability to isolate the generous volumes of tobacco juice being produced in my mouth from the beer being poured into it, and as a result ended up swallowing most of the foul liquid and gagging every few seconds.  But Marty was doing it too so I didn't feel too bad.

We relocated to Bella Blue’s cabin and cracked out the spectacular board game Settlers of Catan.  Marty had some initial luck with his dice rolls and cards and quickly established a stronghold and looked to be on his way to winning.  So we ganged up on him.  He complained that we were ganging up on him, which we all forcefully denied, then ganged up on him again until he was cornered.  It was Curtis’ first time playing the game so we threw the game and let him win.  We are such nice guys.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bella Blue heads for Sarnia - Long Point to Erieau

Sailing at night demands a few special protocols, especially when you are alone at the helm.  First, you always wear a lifejacket.  But if you were to drop off the back of the boat into the 6 degree water, then that would only prolong your agonizing end, which is why you always tie a line from yourself to the boat to avoid such a disaster.  Third, you must always keep a vigilant watch.  Distances at night are hard to judge and objects on the water are deceptively difficult to identify.  Giant lake freighters travel fast and can sneak up on your quickly so you must always be alert.  This brings us to the last rule – under no circumstances do you play any of the following bands during nighttime watch: Primus, Morphine, Enya, Pink Floyd, or any other type of similar hypnotic, dreamy, lo-fi  tunes.  Because if you fall asleep, you may find yourself rudely awaken two hours later with the crunching of your boat striking a fellow boater, a sandbank, or perhaps just a massive steel buoy if you are lucky.

But on this night, there were two of us on watch at all times, which opened the door to all sorts of banned activities such as peeing off the back of the boat, standing at the bow watching the boat slice through the calm waters, not wearing lifejackets and playing musical selections from the “Daytime Only” playlists.  In fact, Curt and I decided we would try to induce terrifying nightmares in our two companions, just for fun.  So we hit them with the better part of the newly released “Primus and the Chocolate Factory” album which is about as creepy and bizarre as the title would suggest.  Curt then played an entire album from an amazing band called “A Tribe Called Red” which is aboriginal chanting overlaid on a down tempo techno beat.  By the end of that set list there were still no screams coming from down below and, worse yet, we had accidentally lulled ourselves into a hypnotic trance.  When Curt turned to me with one eye completely closed and the other one only half-open and fluttering and asked me, “Where did that guy with the coffee cup and green sweat pants go?” I knew it was time for a shift change.  So we woke up Dad and Marty and then took over shuteye duty.

I woke up at 7am, made a coffee, and then joined Dad and Marty in the cockpit and was shocked to find that there was still not a whisper of wind and Bella Blue continued to slide through the glassy surface of the lake.  By this time we were as close to the center of the lake as we would get and neither the Canadian now US shorelines were visible.  The biggest news of their shift was that they spotted one boat, far off in the distance, and not much else.

It was very cold so we were all bundled up with jackets, gloves, toques and even raingear to help cut the apparent wind created by our 6.5 knot motoring speed.  As we sat visiting, one of us spotted a little bird that had flown up behind the boat and was trailing us closely.  Then he flew onto the boat and perched up on one of the two seats that hang over the stern of the boat.  Marty slid across the cockpit bench, getting closer and closer to it, then put out his hand and used his other hand to scoop him up.  He then sat back, opened up his hand, and that little birdie just sat there looking at us.  After ten minutes the bird tucked his head under his wing and went to sleep!  Seems he was tuckered out after his big flight across the lake and we were a perfect rest stop.  After a brief nap the bird launched out of Marty’s hand…and flew over to me?  I put him in my hand and he had another ten minute nap.  After he was rested up he took off and continued his journey.

By this time, Curt was awake so we had boat breakfast of cereal and scorched toast then set out the sails as the wind had finally picked up.  It strengthened steadily until we had a beautiful, 12 knot breeze coming at us from 60 degrees, which is the sweet spot for Bella Blue, so we cut the motor and she flew into action.

One of the goals of the trip was to properly celebrate Marty’s 40th birthday, which had not been properly executed back on February 5th due to school and travel demands.  So today was the day and we were planning a birthday dinner at a restaurant in Erieau.  But what we had not planned for was what happened next.

As we sailed along at a wonderfully terrifying speed (at least for a sailboat) Dad spied something in the water through the binoculars.  As we were making great time, we decided to investigate.  We had to get quite close before we could make out what the object was – a balloon!

Now balloons are very nice, especially when filled with helium.  And it’s so exciting to let them go and watch them float away.  Most people think that these liberated balloons float right up to heaven, or maybe even all the way into space, or maybe the Gulf Stream catches them and whisks them off to Disneyworld.  But that’s all bullshit.  Released helium balloons all end up on Lake Erie.  Over the years we have found balloons floating on the lake dozens of times.  We usually ignore them, but today was different because today was Marty’s birthday and birthdays are not complete without balloons.

Curt grabbed the boat hook and perched at the bow, appearing much like Queequeg with his harpoon, ready to launch the missile at Moby Dick.  I piloted the boat directly towards the balloon, which we could now see was purple and quite lovely.  As we reached the balloon Curtis took a mighty swing at it, then another, but there was simply nothing to grab onto.  So we tacked back and took another run at it, and missed.  Then another.  And another.  After the fifth attempt we gave up and headed back towards Erieau.  But it wasn’t long before another floating object was spotted, but this one looked metallic.  So we put some Metallica on the stereo and zeroed in on the target.  What did we find?  On the first swipe with the boat hook we captured a whole damn party’s worth of shiny, aluminum balloons!  And the best thing was that several of them were inscribed with “Happy Birthday!” and one beautiful pink one had “Princess”.  So we presented the soggy, happy birthday balloon bouquet to Princess Marty and lit up cigars and cracked some beers.  He tied them to the back of the cockpit arch like a war trophy.

We took a short reprieve from the fun to refuel our systems.  I heated up the chili left over from the previous night’s dinner, and to that we added a bunch of Portuguese Red Pepper Sauce (PRPS) and half a sealer of the picked hot peppers that Michael had left for us.  We would later learn that this particular combination of foods would produce the most noxious, human gas ever released on Lake Erie, or perhaps even planet Earth.

As we closed in on Erieau, the sounds of Anthrax’s “Persistence of Time” album flooded the cockpit, the beer was flowing freely and we were having a great time reminiscing about when we were kids, and the hundreds – nay – thousands of hours we spent huddled around the dining room table working on “cables” listening to Billy Idol, Motley Crue, Colin James, then usually some more Billy Idol.  Back in the day we had a home business producing samples of fibre optic cable for Northern Telecom, which they used for trade shows and marketing.  My dad basically ran the neighbourhood sweat shop and we offered paid employment to any kid on the block who had a steady hand and didn’t mind inhaling toxic fumes, slicing off your fingerprints with Exacto knives, getting burned by melted black poly, and being slathered in the stickiest, nastiest cable lubricant you could imagine, which could only be removed with a full body Varsol bath at the end of your shift.  The four of us spent half an hour discussing the intricacies of cable design, somehow remembering each detailed step of the process, and wondering how we made it through without massive scarring or contracting some horrible lung disease.  As we looked back fondly, eagle eye Pete spotted yet another balloon far in the distance.

“There’s another one!” said Dad. “Do you think we have enough?”

Looking at the ten balloons flaying wildly in the wind I replied, “What colour is it?”

“Looks like it might be green.”

“Hot damn, we don’t have a green one yet!  Helms-a-lee, let’s get the bastard!” I cried and cranked the wheel of the boat.  The boys rallied and prepared the boat hook.  Once again, we scooped it on the first pass.  Curtis raised the balloon, in wonder, and displayed to the rest of the crew that fateful word that was emblazoned on its side - KIYA.

“Kieeeee Yah! he screamed.

We screamed back, “Kieeeee Yah!”

He leveled at Marty, “Happy Birthday Princess…. Kieeeee Yah!”

“Kieeeee Yah!” we all shrieked and let loose with a flurry of karate chops, slaps, kicks, blocks and jumps.  It was a goddamn ninja show on the Bella Blue, the first of its kind to have ever happened on this fine sailing vessel.

With that, Curtis disappeared into the cabin of the boat, handed up four icy beers, then reappeared with Marty’s birthday present from all of us – a Bose Bluetooth speaker.  He loved it!

With less than an hour remaining on this our first leg, we settled back in the cockpit and planned out the details of the reality tv series that we would be pitching to the networks – Lake Erie Balloon Rescuers.  We were pretty sure that genre could support one last, really stupid idea.

We pulled up to the gas dock at the Erieau marina after 20 hours on the water but found that they were not yet open for the season so we couldn’t fill up with diesel.  Instead we walked over to the most incredible one-stop-shop boater’s store in Ontario – the combination Liquor/Beer/Chandlery supply shop and picked up a bag o’beer.  Meanwhile back at the boat Curtis had fallen asleep on the bench seat in the cabin wearing his full sailing gear and had one gloved hand firmly planted on his own face, perhaps to avoid detection.  We unloaded the beer in the fridge, noticing the temperature had skyrocketed fifteen degrees since hitting land and the cabin was quickly becoming an oven.  We left Curt to boil in his own juices and we head into town to find the brew pub.

The lads settled into a nice patio table at the Bayside Brewing Company and ordered up a round of fresh beer.  The beer was delicious and the sun was hot but the energy levels had been drained away by the day’s adventures on the water.  We ordered up perch rolls then Marty went back to the boat to fetch what was left of Curt, and soon we were together again chowing down on some fine perchy goodness.  We did a toast to Marty’s birthday, paid the bill and then wandered back to the boat to plan our next move.

Turns out, our next move was another round of beer and a game of Kaiser in the cockpit of the Bella Blue.  We got a sweet whistle from fishermen in a boat passing by as they noticed our lovely balloon display.  Marty gave them the finger and we kept on rolling while they kept on trolling.

The early evening chill out in the cockpit seemed to re-invigorate us so we made the bold decision to get back on the water and tackle the second leg of the journey - to the legendary Put-in-Bay - which would be another overnight run.  But before leaving, I presented Marty with his final birthday present – the Olson Vase!  This is a retched family heirloom that can only be passed to another Olson via subterfuge  or on the occasion of a notable event, such as a birthday.  He loved the vase, and even did a joyful leap into the air while holding his precious gift and the lovely balloon bouquet.  Then he crammed the balloons into the dumpster, untied our dock lines, gave us a push and the Bella Blue was back in action.