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.