Monday, July 4, 2016

Sailing from Sarnia to Port Dover - Day 1

With a tank full of diesel, crew full of vigour, winds from the north, and boat fully provisioned we sail Bella Blue out of the Sarnia Bridgeview marina harbour and into the St. Clair river to begin the first leg of our 275 mile voyage to Port Dover. It is just after noon hour on Friday, May 20 and our journey has begun.  

One year ago my two brothers and father joined me in sailing our boat Bella Blue from Port Dover to Sarnia, where my family and I wanted to experience one season of sailing on Lake Huron. Now, it was time to bring her back and I recruited my brother Marty and friends Tony Henrique and David Leng to crew the boat. As the weekend approached I watched the weather nervously, hoping for just the right mix of favourable winds and reasonable temperatures. We only had four days to get her home so any bad weather could threaten the prospects of a timely return. Fortunately, departure day arrived and it was warm, sunny and only slightly breezy.

The St. Clair river is the artery through which all of the water in mighty Lake Huron channels its way to Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls, into Lake Ontario and eventually through the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the Atlantic Ocean. There is a strong and steady two to three knot current and its relentless force either slows your progress to a crawl or, in our case, gives you a turbo boost that allows you to sail 50% faster than you would otherwise. After experiencing the painfully slow journey up this river last year, I relish our current speed and gleefully watch the US town of Port Huron to my right and the Canadian town of Sarnia to my left pass by quickly, although I do feel a bit sad as I expect it will be several years before we will return to this amazing lake.

I survey the fine crew who surround me. Marty is my younger brother and is an experienced sailor as he spent five straight days sailing with me last year and knows her systems inside and out. When I began recruiting crew for this trip I expected that he may pass, after having done the initial journey, but to my surprise he jumped at the chance and committed immediately to the trip. He and his family made the grueling drive from Ottawa yesterday so the wives and kiddies will be hanging out in and around Paris for the weekend while we make the return journey. Last year Marty was in the final throes of an MBA degree (Master of Being Awesome) where he learned all sorts of useless stuff that he probably can't even remember now. He was so devoted to the program that he brought homework along on the boat trip and spent two to three hours per day typing essays or whatever while the rest of us got loaded in the cockpit and made up pirate songs. He would have never tried that sort of stunt on us in his younger days, but we’re now all a little older and wiser and we’re just happy that his brain still functions after all the booze and drugs he pounded back in the “Party Marty” days.

Tony Henrique is a great friend from Brantford and his wife Angela is on the Board of Directors of Glenhyrst Art Gallery where Ana works. We have all become close friends over the past several years as we share a love of travel and have many common interests, especially in the fine food, wine, and craft beer departments. Tony has plenty of experience on the water but he’s one of those dirty, environmentally damaging power boaters, although I’d never say that to his face because I love going for rides on his boat. For this trip Tony’s role will be the chief navigator. As a licensed pilot he has an excellent sense of direction and timing. One time when I was flying with him over Lake Erie in his airplane he reached into his jacket and pulled out a big package of dog poo – courtesy of his pooch Zoey. He lined up a sailboat cruising blissfully over the waters, tossed the payload out of the window, and despite the strong winds and our altitude of 6,000 feet, that pouch of turds exploded right onto the main sail and splattered the deck and its occupants. It was at that moment I knew he would be the right man for the trip.

David Leng is also on the board of Glenhyrst and when Ana mentioned this upcoming sailing trip to him several months ago he jumped at the chance. Now I’ve gotten to know David and his partner Chris quite well over the last little while and I even invited Ana and myself over to their house late one night after a Glenhyrst function to drink up whatever booze they had. Their house is full of antiques, book collections, and incredible art that gives the impression it has been professionally curated. They also have several gramophones and an outstanding selection of records that any 85 year old would give their left ventricle for. Anyway, David and I usually end up hanging out at the many Glenhyrst functions that are held throughout the year.  As husband of the director I’m obliged to volunteer at pretty much every event. David actually volunteers of his own free will so I can only guess he’s either already read the thousand books he owns, or is maybe trying to regain some karma lost in previous decades of misdeeds, or maybe he is just totally bored. He has two outstanding qualities that I felt made him perfect for the crew. First, he’s a non drinker so he will be there to take over the helm duties when the rest of us get too wasted. Second, in the event we forget who’s supposed to be on watch and smash into the shoreline David, as a professional geologist, will be able to identify the exact type of rock we impale ourselves on, which may be helpful for insurance purposes.

I had originally recruited another crew member - Michael Swanson, but unforeseen circumstances had forced him to relinquish his spot on the boat. I was sad to lose him as I was counting on his diesel engine skills to save us in case the 29 horse blew up. But more importantly, he is a professional artist so he was going to paint up a masterful group selfie of the five of us adventurers sailing boldly across the freshwater ocean of Lake Erie. But since he bailed, I had to pull out my brushes, put on my painter’s beret, and perfectly capture the moment.  I think it came out pretty good.

As we move rapidly down the river I give the lads a briefing on the use of the GPS chart plotter and the autopilot. Though it’s fun to have the wheel in your hands, it’s oh so easy to use the autopilot to lock in the heading you want and let the invisible helmsman do the rest. Each of the boys takes a turn at the helm to get a feel for the controls. Back at the dock Ana had given the crew a briefing on the rest of the boat, such as how to tie on the fenders, where the lifejackets are stowed, how to use the toilet and water systems, the refrigerators, the beds and the electrical panel. The only thing missing was instruction on the lines and sails, but that would have to wait as the winds were minimal and the winding river required the manoeuvrability of engine power. Oh yes, and I showed them the proper technique for taking a piss off the back of the boat and not falling off.

Soon, a giant freighter appears downstream in the distance, and within minutes he is passing us. The awesome size of these freighters is even more appreciable when you are in a boat close to them on the water. As the freighter pushes relentlessly through the current it creates a six foot wall of water directly in front of the boat that moves along with it. Surprisingly, the wake thrown by most of these boats is minimal and by the time it reaches us it is nearly unnoticeable. Freighter traffic in this river can be very heavy as this is the only waterway that links the many mines around Lake Superior to the plants around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario that consume the coal and other resources.

After enjoying a couple of tall boys with the crew I duck down below to whip us up a snack. My most important job on this trip is to keep the crew well fed and well watered so as to avoid any mutinous behavior. The last thing I need is to be thrown off the ship in the middle of the night while the scurvy dogs I used to consider friends sail my boat over to Cleveland to party. Minutes later I return to the cockpit with a platter of herrings, onions and peppers balanced delicately on pumpernickel bread, and the lads gobble them up ravenously.

After snack-time Marty heads down below for a nap while the rest of us continue tracing the invisible Canada/US border with the boat. The border runs right down the middle of the river, but there are really no restrictions on entering the US space, just as long as you don’t pull up to a dock or tie up to an American vessel, in which case we would be obliged to report into US immigration and pick up a bunch of cheap beer.

We spot another freighter headed our way, but this one has a strangely shaped bow, much different than the rest, and seems to be pushing an awful lot of water.  As the freighter passes by us Tony points over to enormous wake trailing behind it and gives us a warning. David hands the helm back to me and I point us at a 45 degree angle into the oncoming waves. Bella Blue rides up the giant swell and smashes down into the trough of the next, causing the entire boat to shudder. It smashes up and down at least three more times and stuff is flying all over the place in the cabin below. Once we make it through to calm water, I hand the helm back to David and go down to survey the damage.  Besides a few items lying on the floor, all is good so I check on Marty and find him sleeping soundly, seemingly unaware of the punishing we took from the Hawaiian sized waves.

The river starts to widen and the water completes its transformation from the aqua-marine blue of Lake Huron to the greyish hues of Lake St. Clair. This lake is very shallow but there is a 35 foot deep commercial shipping channel dredged directly through the middle of it. You need to be careful in this channel because if you stop paying attention and stray outside the channel markers you could find yourself coming to an instant stop as your keel grinds into five feet of soft lake mud.

The long trip across the lake goes fast as David, Tony and I chat about this and that and enjoy the smooth ride across the incredibly calm water. Marty’s lengthy nap continues all the way across the lake and he wakes up just as we are entering the Detroit River. Here, we find the iconic American city of Detroit to the north and the Canadian city of Windsor to the south, a most unusual geographical oddity for our two countries. Earlier in the day I had called a marina in Windsor and arranged for a slip for the night, so as we begin our approach and start prepping the boat for docking, I clumsily drop a fender off the back of the boat which forces us into our first “man overboard” live drill.

“Tony, grab the boat hook!  David, watch those lines. Marty, wake up for God’s sake!” I shout to the crew as I crank the boat around to double back on our fender, which is now floating rapidly downstream. I spin the boat around and ease up to the fender and the boys easily snag it with the hook and haul it back aboard.

“Well done gentlemen,” I say. “You have passed your first test!”

We find the Lakeview Park marina and pull up to the gas dock. I go into the office to get registered while the lads give their legs a stretch and help the attendant to fill up the diesel tank. After six hours of motoring and 44 miles she takes a measly five gallons of gas which brings a nice smile to my face.

The attendant pushes us off and we motor over to our slip. The marina is very nice with well placed docks, though there are few boats here as it is still very early in the season. Our assigned dock is steps away from the marina pub and restaurant, but since I already have a big pot of homemade chili heating up on the stove, we simply pour ourselves some big happy hour drinks and lounge on the boat until the chili hits a rolling boil. I toss the giant bag of Costco buns on the table, crack open the mason jar of Uncle Michael’s hot peppers, and we all dig in and enjoy our first big meal on the boat. The crew must approve of the menu as we hammer through the entire pot of chili and most of the peppers. We barely put a dent in the buns, and as we are cleaning up Marty spots Tony looking for a place to stow them, and then attempts to coax a cubic meter of buns into a space large enough to hold a small loaf of bread. Now Tony is a fine looking Portuguese man so I’m sure he’s handled more than his fair share of buns over the years, but his skills fail him and he’s left with nearly the entire bag dangling perilously over the counter, while the few buns that did fit into the space have been mashed into unrecognizable dough balls. Defeated, he removes the bag and plops it on the counter.

After dinner I float the idea of going out to explore Windsor, but it seems we are all quite comfortable where we are, so instead we get out the Settlers of Catan board game that I brought along. This particular game was a major hit on last year’s trip so Marty and I explain the rules to David and Tony until their eyes glass over. But once we start playing, it all makes sense and soon we are in the midst of a gripping game, ferociously dealing back and forth, looking to conquer the island of Catan. During the game Marty introduces the boys to one of the Olson family favourite musical selections – Dread Zeppelin, and crew loves it. But who wouldn’t like Zeppelin covers in a reggae style sung by an Elvis impersonator?

Marty eventually wins the game, but it’s a long one, and by the end of it Tony is sleeping with his eyes open. He had no chance to slip away because the table we are playing actually doubles as a bed – his bed. So we pack up the game, convert the dining room into a bedroom, and take our respective bunks. David has the front berth while Marty and I share the aft cabin. Now Marty is an Olympic snorer but fortunately the quantity of beer I consumed helps me to pass out within five seconds so I am sleeping soundly before the chainsaw starts to roar.

And thus ends the first day of our journey.

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