Tuesday, August 4, 2015

North Channel 2015 - Home safe in Sarnia!

We made it!

After over 650 miles of sailing (which translates into well over 100 hours on the water) and 16 days we arrive back in our home marina in Sarnia.   We are tanned, tired and anxious to get home.  Ana did all the packing and most of the cleaning during the sail from Grand Bend this morning so in no time we have the boat unloaded, the van packed and we are on the highway driving at 125 kph back to Paris.  Life seems very different traveling at this speed, covering distances so rapidly, seeing the blur of cars whizzing by you, watching the clock.  It always takes a while to acclimatize ourselves back to the speed of life on land.

It feels as if we have been gone for months.  These sailing trips have a way of warping space and time, but in a good way.  And it feels like you have to earn every single mile you travel, unlike cars and planes where the miles whiz by quickly and effortlessly.

Our dear Bella Blue performed magnificently the whole way through and I feel like she is a member of our family.  Once again, she brought us home safely, and asked for nothing in return except perhaps the occasional clearing of spiderwebs in the rigging and sticky bugs on the transom.

Doing these sailing trips always leaves me with a real sense of accomplishment, especially as a father.  It is my opinion that any family who can survive in 150 square feet of space for 24 hours a day over two weeks without anybody suffering a black eye or being hurled overboard may be onto something.

We are now more than halfway through the boating season with August and September remaining.  We may do another one or two long weekend trips, but overall I am pretty happy with what we have managed to cover this season - especially considering the boat started the year in Port Dover and the weekend weather for most of May and June was terrible.  By the end of the season I expect we will have seen as much or more of Lake Huron than 90% of the local boaters.  But that was the reason we moved the boat here - to see and do as much as possible in one season.  At the moment we are not certain what we will do with the boat next year, but we are leaning towards taking her back to Lake Erie and doing a season in Port Colborne at the east end of the lake.  We would certainly like to explore more here, such as Georgian Bay, Lake Michigan and even Lake Superior, but it is such a large area that we simply need longer than a two week stretch to cover it properly.  So I think the next time we are here it will be a full summer trip when we can do the Trent-Severn waterway and fully explore all there is to see and do.

I created a Google map with the entire track of our trip, so if anybody is interested in seeing our exact route, please have a look at https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zCCq-j9b3euQ.klk-Y-BDgpNk&usp=sharing

So that's about it.  Now, back to a different reality...

North Channel 2015 - Grand Bend

We motor out of the harbour at 6:30, bid farewell to the salt mine and point the boat towards Grand Bend, which is 30 miles south.  The waves are big but coming from slightly behind the boat, making for a much smoother ride than the pounding you get when you are sailing directly into them.

We approach the main beach just after noon and sail by to see the massive crowd that has already formed.  I was hoping to be able to anchor out here and dingy into the beach, but it is much too choppy for that so we proceed into the marina and get tied up to a dock with the help of the dock master.  Once on shore the sun feels twice as hot so we slap on a touch of sunscreen and walk into town.

There is nowhere else like Grand Bend on a sunny Saturday of a summer long weekend.  In fact, if you had never been there, and were taken there blindfolded, plopped down on a beach chair, and then had the blindfold removed, you would not think you were in Canada.  The expansive beach with its soft, clean, light brown sand and the incredible turquoise water would leave no doubt that you were in the Caribbean.  But then you go for a swim and notice that the water is cold and there is no salt in it.  The beach is lined with sunbathers, people playing volleyball, kids playing in the sand, and large tent structures where multi generational Indian, Portuguese and Chinese families have set out full buffets of delicious smelling food and are laughing and eating.  So you follow the crowd and walk up the main street to find every stereotypical beach shop you imagine - vendors selling flip flops, inflatable beach toys, wake boards, t-shirts that say things like “I’m with Stupid”, hot dogs, candy floss, hats and sunglasses.  There are wild looking bars selling buckets of Corona beer for $25.  There are guys trying to talk you into taking a parasail ride, or renting a Sea Doo.  And the crowd, whoah boy.  There are scary looking bikers with their scarier looking wives riding pristine Harleys.  There are muscled, tattooed shirtless dudes with washboard stomachs everywhere you look.  There are hot chicks in bikinis strutting down the street, proudly displaying their ample assets.  There are Asian tourists taking photographs of everything.  There are Italian grandmas and grandpas holding hands and eating ice cream.  There are beer gutted, hairy dudes wearing Budweiser hats, and packs of lads with pencil thin beard lines, expensive sunglasses and flashy smiles looking to score.  There are families with kids and babies in strollers.  There are groups of bachelorette girls, already drunk, with Sharpie marker writing on their bellies.  There are fishermen carrying their rods and bait buckets.  There are posers on sport bikes winding up the engines.  There is a steady line of cars, from monster trucks to Lamborghinis to roadsters to souped-up Honda Civics to station wagons, some cruising the strip, others looking for impossible to find parking spots.

Then you notice your first clue - Poutine vendors.  French fries slathered in cheese curds and gravy, sold nowhere else but in the Great White North.  Oh yes, and the Canadian flag tattoos.  Everywhere you look you see them – they are on biceps, backs, stomachs, necks, calves, thighs, breasts and asses.  You are in Canada.

We walk down main street, stopping to browse at every second shop.  We work our way down to the beach complex where there is a huge kids play area and soaker pad.  The kids horse around in there for a while and we find a shady place to sit and do some people watching.  We try to go for a beach walk, but once we get down to the water’s edge, there are just so many people to weave through that we call it off, and instead go for lunch at the beach-side Gators restaurant.  For such an over-the-top tourist place, the food is better than you would expect, and the prices are very reasonable.

After lunch we continue browsing the shops, but this time we walk up the other side of main street.  Ana finds me a pair of sunglasses, nearly identical to the scratched ones I have for ten bucks.  The kids each buy a bag of mixed candy.  Ana buys a couple of small things.  I am shopped out nearly before I began, so I just loiter in front of the stores and look around.  When there are no more stores to explore, we walk back to the marina.

As we are crossing the main street we are passed by a young girl wearing skimpy, black lingerie bottoms and a top, but the top isn’t actually hooked on; she is just holding it over her chest.  There’s a skinny dude walking with her.  They both look high on something other than life.  The kids see them but it barely registers as they are more focused on scoping out an ice cream shop.

We do find an ice cream shop along the way and buy some cones and enjoy them during the walk.  Back at the boat we chill out for a while in the cockpit, enjoying the hot sun, but watching the threatening looking black clouds on the horizon, inching closer.  As the clouds approach, this causes a mass exodus of people from the main beach, and from the marina where we are docked we can see people packing up their gear, getting into their cars and queuing up to leave.  Soon those violent, cold wind gusts  arrive and start smashing the boats around.  But then, inexplicably, the black clouds circle around a bit, and then move south and all of a sudden the blue sky and hot sun return and we are back to where we left off!  Ana and the kids decide to go down to the small beach that is just a short walk from the marina, and I mix up a rum and coke and Cuban cigar and am left solo in the cockpit with a lovely setlist of music playing in the background.  All is good in the world.

Nearly one Cuban later, Ana and the kids return and as they are washing off their feet with the tap on the dock I see a big snake cruising on top of the water heading in their direction.  I call Ana and motion to the snake, hoping she will see it and distract the kids so that Magnus doesn’t notice it.  But she is further away and thinks it is a turtle so she calls the kids over to see it.  Magnus is temporarily paralyzed, but snaps out of it and doesn’t get nearly as riled up as I was expecting, although he does make a weak-hearted pledge to never swim in Lake Huron again.

There has been a steady stream of people returning to the beach, but the storm cloud once again appear on the horizon, then there is a mass exodus from the beach back to the cars.  Then the clouds  break up.  Everyone marches back to the beach.  This happens several times, and it’s hilarious!  In fact, it seems that we could sit here in our slip all day and keep ourselves easily entertained by watching all the activity going on around us.

It is soon time for the highlight of the day – sunset.  We walk down to the beach, stand together and are mesmerized by nature’s show.  There are many people there and there’s something inspiring about so many strangers being drawn together, on the beach, in this place, at this exact moment, to enjoy something so simple, and yet so dramatic.  The blazing red sun eventually drops into Lake Huron with a small flash and the show is over, but nobody is in a rush to leave.

We finish up the final evening of our sailing vacation by attempting to watch a full movie, but of course we just can’t keep awake.  Movies and sailing somehow don’t seem to fit together very well.

North Channel 2015 - Goderich

The day begins early for me at 4:30am as we push off the dock.  The water is still choppy from the previous day’s wind, but there is a bright full moon that leads the way.  This morning I have to keep on close watch as there are many fishing boats out in the lake – I see at least 20 of them in the first 15 miles which is a stark contrast to most of the days we have sailed, surely because we are now much closer to shore.
The wind is blowing at an average of 15 knots which is pretty good for sailing, but the wind is shifting around making a confused mess of the waves and providing for a very rough ride.  I have both the main and head sails out and the boat is heeling like crazy with the edge rail coming close to dipping into the water.  This is always fun for the guy at the wheel but wreaks havoc for the crew down below who get pelted from side to side and rammed around.  It’s pretty hard to eat a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios on a 45 degree angle.
We arrive in Goderich around 1:30 pm.  It is very easy to spot because it has the largest salt mine in the world on its shores located in a deep water harbour,  and there are huge buildings there that serve as a useful navigational aid.  We get a slip at the Maitland Valley Marina, which is located right beside the commercial marina.  It is small, a bit run down, but very homey place, and they have a pool.
The young man working the marina is quite different than the standard issue dock hand.  He is well spoken, articulate, cheerful and competent.  After helping us dock he demonstrates to Magnus how to properly secure a line to a cleat.  We spend some time talking with him and find out he has been here for three summers, works 70 hour weeks, already has an engineering degree, and is enrolled in a law program.  I would have stopped at the engineering.
He gives us a ride into the town centre and a guided tour along the way.  We have been to Goderich once or twice before on day trips years ago, but this was before the tornado of 2011 that ripped their iconic downtown to shreds.  It was an F3 tornado and caused in the neighbourhood of $150 million in damage to the town.  The town centre in this planned community is a unique giant octagonal roundabout and unlike any other in Canada.  You can walk around and around all day long and never have any clue what direction you are facing or how many times you have completed the circuit.  One time I paced the octagon while Ana was shopping and reported back to her that I found at least three cool Irish pubs.  But it turns out it was just the one, and I have the memory of a goldfish.
We have lunch at the one and only Paddy O’Neils.  Magnus and I grease it up with burgers and fries while the ladies go for pasta dishes.  We then take our newly acquired calories and expend a few of them walking the octagon.  The kids and I hang at a book/toy store while Ana scours the clothing shops for deals.  The town centre looks great as nearly all of the shops have installed fancy new street side signs and awnings.  Though the century old trees are all gone from the central park, which used to provide such lovely shade in the summer, it has been replanted and the new trees are growing quickly.
We enjoy a nice walk back to the marina.  Back at the boat I realize it’s 4:30 – quitting time – so I crack a beer and enjoy a nice end to the work week I didn’t participate in.  But I do think about my colleagues back at the office slamming shut their laptops, overturning their inboxes, gathering up their lunch kits, and racing out the office door and out to their cars without looking back, anxious to kick back and enjoy the long weekend.
I am actually mentally prepared for the trip to be over.  We are in the home stretch now and Sarnia is no longer so far away as we’ve been doing some long sailing days and making the miles.  Ana and discuss our vacation and agree that one week away from work is not long enough to have a real break.  Two weeks gives you enough time to clear your head, stop counting the days, and really get away and feel what life is like without the cloud of work hanging over your head.  The single week trips we normally do to a resort in the Caribbean during the winter months are certainly a lot of fun, but it always seems like we are in a race to relax.  I think about my colleagues and most of the people we know and I really can’t think of many who ever take two consecutive weeks of vacation.  An obvious reason is that many people only get two weeks of vacation a year (damn you Ontario!) so that is completely understandable as half of those days are easily taken up by time you need just to get personal things done.  That leaves one measly week.  But then you also have people who have worked with the same company for years, and therefore get four weeks plus or school teachers who count their time off in intervals of months instead of days.  Why not take longer trips?  Maybe people are simply broke and leave no budget for vacation, or maybe most just don’t like being away from home for that long.  It certainly works for us.  In fact, it makes our family thrive.
The rest of the evening is spent chilling on the boat and we all retire early, ready for the last full day of our trip tomorrow sailing to Grand Bend.

North Channel 2015 - Port Elgin and Southampton

OK, let’s have a look at Port Elgin with a clear head.  The marina is very large and well protected.  There is a long beach to the south of the marina that looks very well utilized.  There are at least two lakefront restaurants, both look to be heavy on the carnival food and light on nutrition so we may have to search elsewhere for lunch.  Behind the marina is big park that is surrounded by railroad tracks and a mini steam train that travels by every thirty minutes or so and is filled with people.
We have breakfast in the boat and are all relieved that today is not a sailing day as there is a twenty knot west wind blowing that has kicked up some very large waves.  We get ourselves checked in and paid up with the marina staff and decide that we will actually remain at the gas dock because the heavy wind will make it difficult to get docked anywhere else.
We lock up the boat and begin our walk into town.  We pass a steady succession of tree-lined residential streets with houses ranging from small cottages to multi-unit rentals to century homes to large new builds.  In somebody’s yard is a beautiful 1962 Plymouth for sale that is baby blue and has an immaculate interior.  I tell the kids this would be a perfect first car for them, but then that leads to a discussion on driving rules, high school, getting jobs, girlfriends, boyfriends, and I just have to cut it off there because the whole conversation is making me anxious.  Those problems can wait, let the kids be kids while there is still time.
The town center is 11 blocks away and is full of shops and very busy with slow moving traffic.  We check out a few shops and find a sushi restaurant, so stop in for lunch.  We are all big sushi fans so we order up a sizeable meal and consume all that nice raw fish and rice.  This trip has been good for food and we have been eating quite healthy fare.  We’ve stayed away from the fast food and have actually eaten out a lot less then we usually do during our boat trips.  But one thing that really suffers on these trips is the amount of exercise we get, which is minimal.  All of those hours spent sailing and confined to the 150 square feet of living and sleeping space does wonders for muscle atrophy so we try to at least get some walking in during our shore breaks.
After lunch we explore the other side of the street and find something brand new – an automated French fry vending machine.  So much for the healthy eating, let’s follow up that sushi with a French fry chaser!  Ana puts $2.50 in the machine and it leaps into action.  Through the glass front we can see a collection of cut potatoes drop into a small vat of hot oil, where they bubble away for several minutes.  A wire basket then scoops up the fries and launches them into the stainless steel slide.  While this is happening another arm has knocked a paper tray below the chute and it slides into place just in time to catch the golden delicious fries coming down the slide.  Magnus opens the plastic window, reaches in and retrieves the perfect French fries!  There is even a tray inside the machine with packs of ketchup, salt and pepper, so we squirt on a bit of ketchup and start eating.  The fries are delicious and we stand in wonder at this marvellous invention.  “No,” I tell the kids, “You cannot get one for your birthday.”
During one of the clothing store stops I had called our friend Andrew’s mom Carol, who lives with her husband Tom in Southampton, which is located only a few miles north of Port Elgin.  She offered to pick us up at 4:30 and bring us back to their place for a drink.  We make a final stop at the small grocery store and pick up a few supplies and then walk back down to the boat.  The kids and Ana walk over to the beach for a swim while I remain at Bella Blue with a cold beer and a few sailing magazines I’ve been meaning to read.
At 4:30 sharp Carol is at the dock.  She gives us a long, slow tour of the area in and around Southampton.  Her family has deep connections here and she has owned a cottage steps from the lake for over 25 years.  We arrive at her house – a beautiful, giant, newly constructed house in a subdivision just outside of town – and meet up with Tom her husband.  We have met then both several times at our friend Andrew’s place, but it has definitely been a while.  We have a great time with them having drinking on their deck and enjoying appetizers while the kids explore the yard and forest nearby.  Carol is one funny lady and has an endless stream of stories, while Tom mainly sits, listens, and throws in the odd hilarious comment.  Carol even shows us her collection of Andrew pictures, which I capture with my camera to be used as future blackmail material.
At the end of the night we are sitting in Carol’s car in the driveway getting ready to leave.  A creature wobbles out of the bush and slowly walks between us and the neighbour’s house.  “Is that a racoon?” Ana asks.
“I don’t think so.  I can’t tell what it is, maybe a big skunk?” I reply.
“It doesn’t have a stripe.  Must be a raccoon.”
“Wait, I think it’s a porcupine!” I finally decide.
I have not seen a live porcupine for 20 years, and Ana and the kids have never seen one.  What a strange looking creature!  I open the door of the car to run over and take a picture of it, but he disappears around the far side of the house next door.
Carol shout out to Tom, who is standing at the front door, and tells him about the porcupine.  Tom slowly turns, returns inside and closes the door.
“Where’s he going?” I ask.
“Probably to get his shotgun,” replies Carol.
We leave before the porcupine hunting expedition gets underway and are soon back at the boat.  We bid goodbye to Carol, thank her for the lovely evening, and call it a night.

North Channel 2015 - Port Elgin


We glide out of Killarney shortly after 4am under a clear, starry night.  The marina looks beautiful with the LED lights outlining each of the docks.  Once we are clear of the harbour Ana goes back to bed after I get my lifejacket on and tie myself into the cockpit.  This is something we always do when only one of us is on watch.
I have a course set for Tobermory and I don’t see any other boats for hours.  Though the day started out completely calm, the wind slowly starts to build and by the time we are approaching Tobermory there are three foot waves and the wind is right in our face.  Our original plan was to stop in Tobermory for a pump-out, diesel and groceries, but we decide instead to skip it and head directly for Port Elgin, which is down the east coast of Lake Huron and the first major stop from Tobermory.  The entire trip will be approximately 104 miles so it is going to be a long sailing day, especially with the choppy seas.
Though the boat is getting belted by waves, the kids sleep in until 9:30.  Magnus is in the aft cabin with his head next to the straining diesel engine and Stella is in the v-berth slumbering right through the rising and crashing of the bow into the waves.  That’s the advantage of starting kids when they are young – it all just seems normal to them.  It makes our lives much easier.
I am able to keep a cell signal most of the time and there has been a wind warning and squall warning issued until 6:30 pm.  Hopefully we don’t catch it, but if we do then we’ll just reduce sail and ride it out.  Magnus starts feeling a little seasick so he pops a Dramamine pill and it sends him almost immediately back to sleep.
The day lumbers on, the wind continues to blow, and the darkening skies to the south start to threaten.  We have a faint cell phone signal so I take the opportunity to upload a bunch of journals to the blog site.  That eats up a few hours, but time still seems to drag by and the kids are getting restless and bored.  Those dark skies finally meet us head on and we are hit with a big rain storm and strong, gusty winds.  Some of the waves are getting to the two meter level so the boat is getting rocked about, and since we are heading into them there is a fair bit of pounding as the boat rises up one wave and smashes down into the next.
It is 7pm and Stella is asking me every ten minutes how much longer it is to Port Elgin.  She is driving me crazy.  I decide it’s time to shake things up so I put on “Uptown Funk” – the latest pop music juggernaut – and challenge the kids to a dance competition to try and break their Great Lakes Funk.  Well, their sour mood has poisoned their sense of fun, so as the only participant in the challenge I give it my best.  Most of my regular moves are hard to pull off because of the boat heeling and rocking, so I look even more awkward and rhythmically challenged than normal.  But I do manage to get a couple smiles out of Stella while Magnus keeps his eyes glued to the video playing on his pc and is silently thankful none of his friends are around to see this.
After dancing for what seems like an hour, but was sadly only five minutes, I abandon that line of entertainment and get back to my position at the helm, leaving the rest of the crew to mellow down below in their stew of discontent.
We are finally within visual distance of Port Elgin and those last four miles are a killer.  The closer we get, the further away it appears, and I swear the trip log and clock are running in reverse.  I grit my teeth, concentrate on the task at hand, and muscle through those last few miles as the sun is beginning to set behind me.  We finally reach the harbour and motor slowly into the gas dock where we are shocked to find about a hundred people sitting in lawn chairs and on benches or walking around eating hot dogs and ice cream.  They are all there for the nightly Port Elgin show – the sunset.  Now normally when there is a sizeable crowd on the dock, it’s when you flub every part of the landing process and make a complete fool of yourself.  I feared for this today because it was a long, hard sail and we were all tired and cranky, and this is never a good recipe for a successful docking.  But you know what?  It was fine.  No problems.  And we were completely ignored by every single person on that dock, almost as if we didn’t exist at all.
We get the boat tied up then eject the kids and tell them to go explore the beach while we make supper.  I take a few snaps of the setting sun, which is sensational with the backdrop of storm clouds.  Ana cooks up a delicious meal of Mahi, corn, beans and salad and we eat with conviction.  This highly anticipated feeding knocks my lights out and I am sleeping by 10pm.  I don’t know what happened to the rest of them, but as I was heading to bed Magnus was getting the Pictionary board set up...