Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018 - The State of the Olson Family

This has been the slowest, quietest, and least eventful Christmas season in recent memory. A succession of slow starts, early finishes, and days devoid of action have melded into each other resulting in a bluish haze of memories - most which involve Netflix, reheated turkey, unbrushed teeth, sweat pants, and herbal tea. I'm not complaining - far from it - but it has been an atypical season for us as we usually meet up with my brother Marty in Ottawa, or he and his family come here for the holidays, but this year they opted for a ski trip to switch things up a bit.

Since I've been awake at least three hours before the rest of my crew, it's opened up a lot of free time. These are normally my high productivity hours, but this year they have been anything but, and mostly filled with ridiculous web searches, re-watching movies I slept through the night before (this is why I'm able to wake up so early), pacing throughout the house, checking the fridge four times per hour for any spontaneously generated, ready-to-eat food items, and listening for signs of activity from upstairs like footsteps, farts, nose blowing, or running water.

The one task I did manage to finish was putting together my annual "State of the Olson Family" report. Every year I create a Powerpoint presentation and set of Excel spreadsheets for the four of us to review our finances and progress against goals we set for ourselves the year before.

Why do I do this? Well, since there's zero chance of any sort of meaningful career progression with my current employer, and since Ana and I shut down our own property management company years ago, I need some other way to channel my grand CEO and leadership aspirations, and who better to push around than your kids? They are like employees in many ways; they are entirely dependent on me for their income, they put in the least amount of effort possible, they goof around and shirk their responsibilities every chance they get, and must be continually monitored to achieve mediocre results at best.

In case you aspire to become a sad finance and planning nerd like myself, I'll tell you how I do it.

First, I track every dollar we earn and spend throughout the year. Incredibly, I use the program MS Money 2006, which has been basically dead for over 10 years, but still somehow functions. I've searched for a good replacement (Quicken, Mint, YNAB, Personal Capital, etc) and tried a few, but none of them are able to do what Money does. Ana and I keep all the receipts for everything we spend and toss them into the home office in-box. Once the pile is 14 inches high, I sit down and match them up with all the bank and credit card transactions I download from our internet banking into MS Money. This includes grouping them all into a relatively small number of income and expense categories.

I also store all of our investments in MS Money. Before the product was de-supported it used to automatically import all of the investment transactions from our bank, but since that stopped working I now do this manually, and periodically update the stock prices. I do this as infrequently as possible because I do not like knowing what the stock market is doing and I don't care. Because I primarily use ETF index funds that simply track the market, then monitoring the ups and downs in prices is pointless and unnecessarily painful. I only buy and sell stocks once per year at rebalancing time, at whatever price they are at that day, and get it over as quickly as possible so I don't have to think about it for another 12 months.

Lastly, I record all of our assets such as the house, vehicles and sailboat and depreciate or revalue them each year as required, which gives me an accurate estimate of what they are worth. The program also allows me to track expenses against these assets so we can see how much these "assets" are costing us. I quote this because the true definitions of asset is something that generates money for you; items like houses, cars and boats are actually liabilities because they consume money. A lot of money. But like my buddy Andrew always says, "It's just not possible to put a value for fun on the spreadsheet". And god knows I've tried.

With this data I'm able to easily calculate a current total net worth, and since I've been doing this for nearly 15 years, I have an awesome "Net Worth Over Time" graph that sends chills down my spine every time I look at it, thinking of the hundreds of hours slumped over a keyboard I've put into collecting all the data, and the chronic lower back pain that has resulted from it. I also generate a simple income statement that shows what we earned, what we spent, and most importantly, what we saved. In fact, the most important number to me is the total percentage of earned income that we save in a year. Personal finance gurus say this should be 10% which, in my opinion, is far too low. Mr. Money Mustache (google him, very inspiring) says it should be more like 70%, but he's a frugality fanatic who only showers once a week and doesn't love exotic vacations as much as us, so we try to end up somewhere between these.

For our investments I create a simple one pager that shows the targets we have for each asset class (Canadian stocks, US stocks, Int'l stocks, Fixed income, Cash) and what the actual percentage is. This is what I use for rebalancing our investments, which happens once per year at the start of January when we can put new money into registered investment accounts like TFSAs and RESPs.

With all this data in hand, I create the Powerpoint presentation. The first slide is always on safety and we talk about any accidents we had this year, any preventative maintenance we did on our vehicles or house, and that sort of thing. If working in the oil industry for ten years taught me one thing, it is the importance of safety, and how that must be the most first consideration of anything you do. Like Metallica said, if you wind up dead, then Nothing Else Matters.

Next, we look at the goals we set for ourselves at the start of the year and judge whether or not we achieved them. Each year these are different - we can have fitness goals (two workouts a week), learning goals (improve French skills), financial goals (save $5/week), project goals (sew new boat cushions instead of buying them), life goals (learn how to cook two delicious vegetarian meals), travel goals (visit Detroit) and so on. Sometimes we achieve them, sometimes we don't. If the goals languish on the list unfulfilled for two or three years, we get rid of them, because they are obviously not that important.

We then move onto financials and review our earning and spending categories line by line, comparing each to previous years, and look for areas where we can improve. Common topics that come up during this discussion are car pooling to work, how often we dine out, how much we are giving to charity, and how much we spend on travel. By far, our largest indulgences are sailing and travel, and we try to scrimp on everything else in order to free up as much funds as possible for these, because that is what we love to do.

At the end, we set new goals for ourselves for the upcoming year and then usually go out for lunch to celebrate. For me, it is a fun exercise, and forces us constantly evaluate what we do, why we are doing it, and where we are going. The kids are usually getting quite squirmy by the end of it (and think I'm a dork), but I'm hoping they will remember this exercise and hopefully make planning a part of their lives once they are on their own.

Merry Christmas and have a super bueno 2019!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Detroit - You Rock!

Despite living in southwestern Ontario for nearly 15 years, we never run out of new places to visit and explore. There is a seemingly endless abundance of villages, towns, and cities that are easily within reach of a weekend trip.

To celebrate Ana's birthday we decided to visit Detroit - a place we've never properly been to, besides driving through it (or sailing by it) a few times. We were familiar with the story of Detroit's decades long decay and eventual bankruptcy in 2013 where billions of dollars of debt were written off and thousands of homes were left abandoned and worthless.

Well since then, Detroit has been making its comeback. In five years the jobless rate has plummeted, the economy has rocketed forward, and many new people and businesses have set up shop in Detroit. It was definitely time for us to visit.

We pulled into Plymouth's downtown and found an elaborately decorated Christmas theme and a string of cool shops, restaurants and taverns, with people everywhere enjoying the evening. We scored princess parking directly in front of the Pizza e Vino Cellar 849 restaurant where we were to meet some old American friends - Tom and Linda Bondy and their two lovely daughters Lauren and Taylor. We walked in and found them and shared a round of big hugs. Shockingly, 15 years had passed since we last saw them but it sure didn't feel like that long, as they both looked virtually the same. The kids hit it off immediately and soon we were all lost in conversation, trying to catch up on so many years of life. Meeting Tom and Linda was one of those magical moments that happen when you are traveling. Ana and I were sitting in Bob's Banana Bar, located on the island of St. Maarten, circa 2001, when a stocky, clean cut dude sitting at the bar turned to me with outstretched hand and said, "Tom Bondy. Nice to meet you." To say the four of us hit it off immediately is an understatement; we spent the entire weekend together and topped it off with an all-nighter where we ended up drinking and partying all night long and then finally fell asleep on beach chairs at 10 am the following morning. Good times.

We woke up early Saturday, had a quick breakfast at our hotel which was near the Deerborn region, and then took off to explore downtown Detroit. Under the cover of darkness there wasn't much to see, but with the ruthless light we were able to see a massive industrial area that we drove through on the way there. Oil refineries, steel plants, and god knows what else combined to produce an elaborate web of buildings, pipes, chimneys, tanks, condensers, platforms, structures and other metallic monstrosities, some releasing smoke, some releasing fire, but all leading you to think it might be a good idea to plug your nose and breathe in a shallow fashion.

We soon broke through the industrial wasteland and entered the downtown area which looked much like any other big American city - lots of buildings, cars and people. No gangs, no fighting, no street lurkers, no shady dudes with jacks and tire irons waiting for you to park your car, and no Robocops blowing away criminals. In fact, we didn't even see a single police car. The mental map of Detroit was far, far from reality and all the tips my friends had given me on how to avoid getting mugged there were going to be of no use at all.

Our first destination was the Detroit Institute of Art, housed in a glorious and grand old building, one of many we saw that were undoubtedly the result of the massive amounts of wealth generated in this city during its heyday, and the philanthropic barons who channeled their money into worthy causes. The gallery was simply amazing, and in two hours we were able to get through only a fraction of it. One of the highlights was definitely the Detroit Industry Murals, a series of massive frescoes painted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera in the 30's. Another was the self-portrait done by Vincent Van Gogh, a painting nearly anybody would recognize. Ana remembered that during the depth of the financial crisis when Detroit was at its worst, the city was planning on selling off a substantial portion of their art collection, to fund the massive budget shortfalls. Fortunately, groups of philanthropists stepped in and saved the city from this cultural heart punch.

We next visited the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, which is located directly across the street in another grandiose building. We had a quick look around, but everybody was getting hungry, so we returned to our vehicle for a snack from the cooler (leftover pizza from the night before), but I remembered passing a Slow's to Go BBQ restaurant so  we stopped by there and ordered a Triple Threat sandwich (pulled pork, ham, bacon) and a big side of mac and cheese and shared it while we watched a bit of the football game between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State University Buckeyes, one of the greatest rivalries in college sports in the US. Well over a hundred thousand people regularly attend these games, proving the most popular religion in the US is the Church of Football. In my college days the football games were attended by a sprinkling of people, bundled up in clothes and blankets, freezing to death, watching the players running around in snow up to their ankles.

The afternoon was spent simply walking around downtown - checking out the shops, people watching, taking photographs. On one street corner was a group of 7 or 8 black men, all holding bibles and taking turns reading passages to each other and to any passersby who wanted to stop and listen. Nearby, we found a large public area which had been transformed into a Christmas wonderland. There was a large skating rink full of adults and kids, all bundled up and having fun zipping around on the ice. Across the street from this was a village of small, glassed-in shops resembling mini-greenhouses, each which held a single vendor selling some sort of knick-knackery. The entire area was decorated with Christmas trees and outdoor seating. The village led to another greenhouse style building, and is what I would call "Cozyland". It looked like a series of family living rooms, complete with big comfy couches, leather recliners, area carpets, coffee tables, and within each section was a game - giant playing cards, Jenga, Monopoly, Connect-Four, and a dozen others. In the centre was a counter where you could buy alcoholic drinks, hot chocolate, tea or coffee. Gentle Christmas music streamed as people crammed the couches, playing games, laughing, and having a great time. The whole scene was very jolly indeed, but unfortunately it was so packed we couldn't find a place for us all to sit so we just wandered around for a while and then returned to our car to head to the malls.

Yes, there is really no way getting around it - when you go to the US you have to shop. This is why I always keep reading material in the car. When the wife and kids go bargain hunting, I choose to remain in the van, listening to tunes and catching up on reading, which is most enjoyable. I did go into Target though, to pick up a cheap case of beer - the only type of shopping I actually enjoy.

We had a lovely meal at the Olive Garden restaurant and gave Ana her birthday cards and what could possibly be the worst gift ever: two $25 gift cards for the Olive Garden, purchased only minutes before, which took care of most of the dinner bill. It's a good thing my wife has an outstanding sense of humour.

It was still early in the night so we returned to the Greektown area of the city centre and found ourselves a window seat at one of the many bars. Since arriving we'd noticed a proliferation of electric scooters zipping around the city and as we enjoyed our drinks we saw many more passing by, now mostly piloted by intoxicated people. Magnus was determined to rent one to try it out, but we persuaded him to wait until the next day as the idea of him going head to head with drunks on fast moving scooters was unsettling.

Sunday morning arrived, we wished Ana a happy birthday, had breakfast, and then took off for Aldi to do some grocery shopping. This is one of our standard stops on trips to the US as we can stock up on items that are outrageously cheap, such as gallon jugs of milk for a dollar, cartons of eggs for 50 cents, and blocks of cheese for a third of what we pay at home.

Like magnets, we were drawn back downtown, but this time we drove directly to the Detroit International Riverfront area which is a 9 kilometer stretch of pathways, shops, parks, and docks right along the Detroit River. Here we found a giant amphitheatre, a carousel, a lovely pathway featuring weather-proof works of art (Ana's taking this idea home with her), and the massive General Motors Renaissance Center - a series of seven interconnected skyscrapers that serves as the world headquarters for General Motors, as well as a Marriot hotel and who knows what else. GM has an amazing car display inside the building, which is publicly accessible and features vehicles both old and new. It was eerily quiet inside the giant building, but I've read there are over 10,000 people who work in these building so I'm sure it's a much different scene during the week.

In front of the Renaissance Center was a massive flat concourse perfect for scootering, so Ana downloaded the app and rented one of the electric scooters parked outside. There are actually three companies that provide scooters in Detroit. You download their app, scan the bar code on the scooter you want, which turns it on and then charges you a buck for every 30 minutes you use it. When you are done, you simply park it on a sidewalk anywhere you want. Magnus jumped on the scooter and in a flash he was off! They motor along at an impressive clip and each of us took a turn on it, which was great fun.

It was lunch time so we took my brother-in-law Mark's recommendation and ate at the American Coney Island Chili Dog restaurant (A Family Owned Detroit Original Since 1917). A round of chili dogs and chili cheese fries for the team sorted out the hunger issue. From here we explored a few more of the shops downtown and then walked over to the nearest stop of the People Mover - a fully automated and driverless train that encircles the core downtown area. The full route is only about three miles long and we rode the entire circuit which took just over 20 minutes. The train runs along a raised bridge, giving you a terrific view over all the streets and buildings, and is a great way to get your bearings and understand out the downtown layout. I imaging this comes in very handy on those -20 January days when it gets uncomfortably cold to walk.

To finish off our weekend trip to Detroit we picked up another scooter and took turns racing it around an empty parking lot, performing high speed stunts and bombastic maneuvers of all sorts. Even Stella, the most cautious of drivers, wound it up to full speed for a brief moment, but terrified herself so hit the brakes and slowed it down to granny pace.

With that, we jumped in the van and drove back to Canada through the tunnel which runs beneath the Detroit River and pops out in downtown Windsor - yet another city we have never properly explored. So many options, so few weekends!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bella Blue goes to bed

After a full and wonderful sailing season on Lake Erie, our sailboat Bella Blue is back on land and being prepared for the long winter's nap. This time of year is always such a significant transition for us as the days get shorter, the nights lengthen, and our automatic weekend plan of rushing home after work on Friday, packing the van, and heading straight to the marina at Port Dover come to an end and our weekends plans no longer run on auto-pilot.

Although I am always sad to put her away, at least it leads to an autumn season in southern Ontario that can stretch right into December and offer lovely, pleasant weather. It also gives us a chance to reconnect with our non-boater friends, who are almost completely ignored from May to September, just like our boater buddies fall off the radar between October and April! Yes, us boaters live a sort of dual existence, much like anybody with summer weekend assets that include trailers or cottages must do as well.

We enjoyed an excellent sailing season this year. It got off to a bit of a slow start in May and June with lovely weather from Monday to Thursday, but then as the weekend approached the clouds would typically gather, temperatures would plummet, and the weather would turn sour until Sunday evening when the skies would clear and temperatures rocket back up. This causes what's known as "incessant boater weather anxiety" and the clearest diagnoses of the condition is when you notice a boater friend checking weather forecasts on their smartphone every 15 minutes throughout the week. Yes, we did get the occasional hot weekend, but there's just never enough of them.

Our two week sailing trip to Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands area in July coincided with the hottest and sunniest two weeks of summer, and we took full advantage of it, sailing about 350 miles during that time and covering a great swath of that Great Lake. I am lobbying Ana and the kids to spend a full sailing season there at some point as there is so much more to explore, but it is hard to leave our dock family at Port Dover.

Let me tell you more about our dock family. We have always likened the dock life to living in a  Brazilian favela. Otherwise know as shantytowns, ghettos, slums, or projects, these are grindingly poor, densely populated areas of ramshackle housing, usually located on the outskirts of heavily urbanized area. In the favela everybody knows your name because you are practically living on top of each other. There is little privacy, no modesty and very little sense of personal space as you could be living in a cardboard box or, if you are lucky, actual wooden walls with rusty, corrugated metal roofing, all held together by discarded rope and luck.

Well the dock is just like that, except that everybody is rich, or at least rich enough to own a gas guzzling boat. But the privacy issues are very much the same as the boat slips are configured such that you can reach out of your cockpit and easily snag a high-five from your buddy in the slip beside you, or maybe he will even hand you a beer. Doors, windows and hatches are left open, people hop on and off each others boats (with permission), and friends from neighbouring docks arrive at all hours of the day, unannounced, but always welcome. Dock rats (also known as children) have free run of the place, and at any time of the day you might find as many as a dozen of them overtaking your boat, looking for snacks or fishing rods or supplies for some sort of marina project, like building a treehouse or trying to rip off the vending machines or constructing the ultimate carp trapping device.

The sense of community and comradery around the docks is outstanding, especially when partaking in illegal activities, just like the favela, except that boaters do things like drinking in public and smoking weed instead of robbery, extortion, and murdering people. But we still have a lot of fun with it. And whether you like it or not, people really get to know a lot about you. Time is plentiful and the days are long, so boaters spend a lot of it talking with each other, passing on news and gossip, and speculating about who's thinking of selling their boat, who wants to buy a boat, and who's boat has cost them the most in repairs this year. And some boaters have an incredible eye for detail - nearly uncanny in some cases. Early in the season Ana and I were on our boat and a fellow sailor stopped by to chat. I remember meeting him briefly several years before, but since we didn't even put our boat in the water last year, he hadn't seen it for a long time. He looked down into the water and said, "I see you guys changed the type of bottom paint you use - this one is a much brighter blue colour." What?? How could he remember the exact shade of blue of our bottom paint from two years ago and I couldn't even remember his name. Sailors in particular love nothing better than to huddle in each others cramped cockpits and talk about sailing. They discuss rig tuning, high performance sail material, anchor types, rudder repair, boat electronics, fuel densities, oil viscosity, wind conditions, spinnaker configuration, and so on. In fact, many of them are so committed to talking about sailing, that they never seem to get out to do any actual sailing.
The best weekend of the summer was the August long weekend. It started out like most others, driving directly to Dover after work, transferring gear and food from the van to the boat, making Ana a nice Caesar (you may want to check this if unfamiliar with the legendary and uniquely Canadian Caesar cocktail) and a gin and tonic for myself, and then gathering with our buddies on dock 2. Dock 2 is where the legendary Doerr brothers reside, along with a motley crew of seafaring guys and gals, and this is where weekend plans are hatched. As the weather forecast was looking particularly sweet, it was suggested that a Saturday overnight trip to the lighthouse at the end of Long Point was in order. At that I said, "Oh, that's great, we've never been to the lighthouse before." This brought everybody on the dock to a standstill, and they all became silent and looked at us. Somebody finally spoke. "Are you serious? You guys have taken that damn boat to every marina and bay on Lake Erie, to Lake Huron and the North Channel, and you just came back from a return trip to Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands and you're trying to tell us you've never been to the lighthouse??"

"That is correct," I said. "But we are going to fix that tomorrow!" This awkward and embarrassing moment was followed up with several house of drinking which soothed out the situation and allowed us to regain our confidence.

By 10:30 the next morning we were off, and had swapped Stella for Jaxsen (one of the Doerr dock rats) so that Magnus and him could play Magic the Gathering during the 2.5 hour sail there. Of course the powerboats get there much faster (and nearly all of our friends at the dock have powerboats), and Stella prefers high speeds, so her and Jaxsen's sister Jaime were happy to take the express boat like little power divas.

We finally arrived, got anchored in 8 feet of water and then rode the dingy into shore where the powerboats were anchored. The scene before us was idyllic; a beautiful clean beach, gentle breeze, kids running around everywhere having fun, and all of our friends lounging around on the beach and in the water, The peninsula that leads out to the lighthouse is nearly 40 kilometers long so the only way to get there is either by boat or by ATV as there are no roads. In fact, besides the final kilometer or two, the entirely of Long Point is owned by a private company (there is a long, strange history here...) and the public are not allowed on the land. This makes the Long Point beach and anchorage a most exclusive place indeed.

The day we spent there was magical, and an important source of the magic was the absence of any cell phone signals which meant there were no screen zombies to be seen anywhere, and our full attention was spent talking to each other. The kids were transported back in time to the 1960's, before video games, before childhood anxiety, before all the modern bullshit they have to deal with, and they spent the day beachcombing, racing toads, looking for (and finding) snakes, playing frisbee, snorkeling, entertaining the toddlers, and exploring freely, with little interference from their parents, which was just fine by us.

By dusk, everybody in our posse had decided to spend the night, so we had the kids gather firewood and dig a firepit in the sand. We all congregated on the beach after dinner and happy hour drinks on the boats. A few of the kids were just too exhausted to stay awake for the fire, but most of them were there, enjoying stoking up the fire and poking at it with sticks. The adults all had their Yeti cups filled with cold drinks and we stayed up around that fire until the early hours, under a canopy of stars.

A new day broke, and most of the gang planned to leave mid afternoon, but as the day developed into the most perfect summer Ontario day you can imagine, what enthusiasm for leaving there may have been in the morning dissipated, and by evening we were all back around the fire, built even larger this time by the enterprising children who were gathering firewood all day. The day was packed full of adventure - dingy rides, tubing, more beachcombing, drone flying, fishing, snorkeling, long walks on the peninsula, and many hours spent in the glorious, warm water. A better day spent on Lake Erie, I cannot imagine.

Sometime around noon on the Monday holiday, the boats all pulled anchor and headed back to Port Dover. By this time, the boat batteries were drained, cooler ice was melted, alcohol supplies were low, food supplies were gone, skin was blissfully over-sunned, and worst of all, we were all out of paper plates.

During one of the campfire sessions we were discussing cool boat names and Geoff mentioned one he had seen called "Smiles Per Gallon", so on the way home after the cell signal had returned, Ana set up a Facebook group by that name, and we all posted and shared photos of the best weekend of the summer, one which I will never forget.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

2018 Sailing Trip - Anatomy of the Voyage

We did our 2018 sailing trip in two phases. First, my dad Peter and brothers Marty and Curtis joined me for four days in the middle of June to sail Bella Blue from Port Dover to the east end of Lake Erie, through the Welland, and then straight across the middle of Lake Ontario to arrive in Kingston. There, we left the boat docked at my friend Andrew’s place. We covered a total of 214 nautical miles, which is nearly 400 kilometres. The idea was to get the boat in place to allow us to explore the maximum amount of ground during our two-week vacation in July. Plus, the four of us did a similar trip three years ago and had an amazing time so everybody was up for another go!

Ana, Magnus, Stella and I then travelled by car up to Kingston and started our trip from there, heading east down the St. Lawrence River to explore the Thousand Islands. We then turned back west and worked our way all the way across the top of Lake Ontario, eventually reaching Toronto and then sailing directly south to the Welland Canal and then back west across Lake Erie to our home port of Port Dover. For the phase of the trip we covered 348 nautical miles which converts to nearly 650 kilometres.

In total, we sailed 562 nautical miles over a total of 20 days making an average of 28 miles per day.

Our friends Tony and Angela, bought their boat Cabin Fever from a man in Midland, which is located on Georgian Bay. The seller sailed the boat halfway down the Trent-Severn waterway and then Tony and Angela picked it up there, and sailed it the rest of the way through the canal, which emerges in Trenton, and onward to Kingston where they left it at my friend Andrew’s place until we all met up two weeks later to begin the combined trip.

Because of the nature of this trip, there were a lot of logistical details required to have everything snap into place. But fortunately, as is usually the case, everything came together in the end.

I put together a Google map of the voyage, it can be accessed here.

With that, ends the Olson 2018 sailing adventure.

Lake Erie - The Ride Home

At exactly 6 am Bella Blue leaves the dock on her way home to Port Dover. The marina is quiet, with many boaters sleeping off the excesses of last night. The air is humid, muggy, and saturated with strong lake smells – fish, birds, weeds, and muck. Ana helps me to get launched and underway and then she goes back to sleep for a while. I take Bella Blue out into the open lake and find a glassy surface with not a breath of wind, which has become a bit of a trend on this trip. The only fantastic sailing we had was the first day with my dad and brothers when we sailed from Port Dover to Port Colborne – the reverse route of today.

I lock in the auto pilot and sit back to survey the view. On the lake are dozens of small fishing boats and also many marked fishing nets to be avoided so as to not foul the sailboat’s prop…or the net. I can see a giant lake freighter far out in the lake, headed toward the Welland Canal. Wind turbines are scattered along the shoreline as far as the eye can see. Only a few years ago there was just a handful of these, and a few years before that there were none, but they have multiplied like forest bunnies. Some people do not like this change, but I wish there were ten times as many of these clean power generators on the lake, and it could easily handle that.

And…the bugs. I know I am back on Lake Erie because the boat is covered in bugs. I went into great detail on the Lake Erie bug ecosystem in a previous post, so let’s just say that all of my little friends are back today. We didn’t seem to get much bug action on Lake Ontario or in the Thousand Islands, besides the ravenous mozzies that came out for an hour at dusk, but at least they didn’t kamikaze themselves onto the boat and make a huge mess.

Once everybody is up, and there are no longer any boats in sight, I let Bella Blue glide to a halt and we go for a morning bath and swim. There is simply nothing more invigorating than whipping off your clothes and having a refreshing and chilly morning bath in a Great Lake. Any Great Lake will do. It’s especially satisfying when you have a hundred bugs mashed into your hair.

Cabin Fever roars past us around 10 am on their way back to their home base of Turkey Point. I switch to channel 14 and give a giant “Oh Yeah!” which is a rallying cry the Henriques invented years ago, but there’s no reply so I give him one on text instead which is instantly returned. We continue with our slower pace of 7 knots and inch ever closer to Port Dover.

As the sun heats up, Ana and I grab drinks and sit on the front of Bella Blue while the kids remain down below reading, and the auto pilot guides us home, straight and true. Despite being on vacation for two weeks, Ana and I haven’t had that much time alone together, but now we finally do, and it’s a nice way to finish up the trip. We’ve both loved traveling with Cabin Fever – the morning swims, the amazing meals we shared, happy hours on the upper deck, route planning, exploring new towns, joining forces in fixing boat problems, getting through the Welland Canal, and so many laughs along the way. It is not easy finding people you can travel with, so we feel extremely fortunate. We are sad that our friends Andrew and Victoria we not able to join us out on the lake (major problems at work), especially since they helped us out so much with the logistics of this trip.

We also talk about our overall impressions of Lake Ontario. Our plan for this trip was to get a feel for the lake and decide if we’d like to spend a season there. Two of the stumbling blocks are the cost of renting a seasonal slip, which is quite a bit higher than what we pay currently, and secondly the lake temperature, as it’s known to be much colder than Lake Erie, and Ana’s number for swimming (as we discovered during this trip) is 26 degrees. Surprisingly, we found parts of the lake that were indeed 26 degrees and warmer – even right in the middle of the lake, while other parts were as low as 19 degrees.

The one big advantage of Lake Ontario is the sheer number of destinations that are within reach on a weekend trip. From Port Dover, there simply isn’t anywhere to travel to that is reachable within a normal weekend. A long weekend, sure – you can travel to Dunnville, Port Colborne, Dunkirk, or Erie, but that’s about it. So for people like us that get a kick out of exploring new places, I think we could cover a great deal of ground (water) with one season on Lake Ontario. We would probably do another trip to the Thousand Islands but go up the US side this time to explore Rochester, Oswego and other towns along the way, and then find a whole new set of anchorages, and maybe even progress a little further down the St. Lawrence to Brockville. During this trip, we didn’t cover anything in the west end of the lake - Port Credit, Oakville, Hamilton, Burlington. We have only scratched the surface.

Another big region for us to explore is Georgian Bay. Several years ago we spent a season in Sarnia on Lake Huron and did a two week trip up to the North Channel, which was simply incredible, and definitely one of the highlights of our boating experiences. But we didn’t have enough time to get to Georgian Bay, which is practically a Great Lake in itself. We might consider spending a season in Bayfield, which is further north than Sarnia, and then do a two week adventure to Georgian Bay. And we haven’t even talked about the two giants – Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, which we haven’t even touched.

We’ve been at it for eight years now and have probably covered more of the Great Lakes than 95% of boaters, but we still have much to see. By the time we leave Ontario for the next phase of our lives, I want to be able to say that we’ve truly sailed the Great Lakes.

We cruise into Port Dover under a cloud of bugs that we dragged in with us from the lake, giving us the look of Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoons. Only after a hundred buckets of water do we get the cockpit clean and the topsides in presentable shape. Ana and the kids have already cleaned up the boat down below, so she is looking great on the inside. We dock into our slip with ease and we are home! The kids are very happy to be here but all of our friends are out on the lake in their boats enjoying the gorgeous afternoon, so we simply get packed up and wait for Ana’s folks to arrive, which they do nearly an hour early, and we are all happy to see them.

By 3:30 pm we are back home, giving us plenty of time to get the van unloaded, put away our gear, get laundry going, do a bit of yard work, and get some thick sirloin steaks thawing for dinner.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Lake Ontario - The Welland Canal

Cabin Fever called the traffic officer again last night and the crew were given every indication that we would be allowed into the Welland Canal with the shift change at 7 this morning. Ana and I wake up shortly after 5 to get the boat ready for departure and make a coffee before taking off. The entrance reporting station is only about 3 miles away, but we want to give ourselves plenty of time in case there are any issues.

We make a wrong turn into what looks like a pleasure craft reporting center, but it is not, so we exit and motor a little further up and see the blue telephone booth and wall to tie to, which already has one other sailboat there waiting. I go over an introduce myself and during our conversation I learn that he’s done the Welland Canal at least 20 times and is also a larger boat so I’m hoping he will be the guy on the wall and we can get the better rafted position. Soon after this, my main man Adam arrives, looking surprisingly fresh after all the high-powered craft beer we consumed last night. I hope he’s thinking the same about me.

Another sailboat arrives, as well as Cabin Fever. Tony has been called by the traffic officer and told we have to wait for another power boat in the marina that’s running late. The straggler, in a boat called “Sea U Sooner” arrives and after speaking with him we find out they are late because he went for a bike ride this morning and his wife went for a walk to McDonalds to get morning coffee. The other boats are not too impressed.

The green lights on the gate finally flash on and we sail into lock number 1. There are eight locks in total on the Welland and I’m very happy to be doing this return journey during the daylight hours. What I learned on the downward journey with my dad and brothers is that after a day full of walking in the sun, drinking, goofing around and eating huge meals, the last thing you feel like doing is traversing the Welland Canal. And since we’ve been told the upward run is many times more treacherous than the downward one, I’m feeling a little bit anxious, but at least better prepared with a bit of experience under my belt.

I luck out and get positioned off the wall and rafted against the larger sailboat. The two powerboats are together, with Sea U Sooner on the wall and Cabin Fever in the rafted position and the third sailboat is on his own. The first three locks are surprisingly easy – the water comes in quite slowly so the resulting current and churn is minimal. We are told by the lock operator that they have installed electronics in these that slow down the fill for pleasure crafts. We are held up for a while at lock 2 waiting for a gigantic freighter to be dropped down, so we tie the boats up on the wall, get off, and throw the Frisbee around with the kids, while many of the other boaters make coffee and wander from boat to boat meeting each other. When the freighter comes out of the gate it sends a series of waves down the channel which start to rock the boats. Ana notices that the swim platform of Sea U Sooner is getting caught on a rubber bumper on the concrete and she runs over there to tell them, but the crew isn’t paying attention. As their boat gets rocked by the waves the swim platform gets caught and there’s a sickening crunch as it gets mashed up on the wall. We finally enter the lock and there we find a viewing platform, and we look up to see Adam’s whole family up there waving down at us!

Locks 4, 5, and 6 are what is known as “Flight Locks” and are twinned and consecutive so that boats can be going up and down at the same time. We begin to enter but have to wait for a family of geese swimming around in the water to decide if they are coming up with us or not. Once in, we are directed to raft all three sailboats together, and we get the easiest third position. These locks are much more turbulent and some of the crew from the outside boats climb over to the boat on the wall to push against the wall and keep the boat from being mashed into the concreate from the current driving us into it. We make it through these three and then lock 7 is a relatively easy one again.
One of the most interesting aspects of this canal is the level of collaboration that is required between the pleasure crafts. When I was doing my research on the Welland Canal before this trip I got a copy of the St. Lawrence Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide, which is meant to tell you everything you need to know to transit the canal. I also searched the web for everything I could find on this topic from fellow boaters – blogs, chatroom postings, articles – but I simply could not find that much. The cooperation between boats was the most critical element in safeguarding the people and vessels, and it was not even mentioned anywhere. I am planning to write a detailed article on the experience to help others who are planning to do it, so I expect collaboration to be a key focus of the article.

After lock 7 is a long, leisurely passage of 16 miles over flat, calm water. Adam and I crack a cold beer to celebrate making it through the toughest part of the crossing unscathed. For the first time in 14 days it begins to rain, and the temperature drops, but in truth, it feels refreshing and good. Adam, Ana and I have a lively chat, like old friends, and there is no gap in the conversation.

The engineering achievements of this canal extend beyond the locks, as this part of the trip takes us over two vehicle tunnels and the Welland River, which somehow drops 30 feet to flow beneath the canal, only to emerge and continue on the other side. This is the fourth version of the canal to be built - over time is has been enlarged, expanded, and had its route changed. We also pass beneath several lift bridges and Adam tells us about an incident in 2001 when an intoxicated bridge operator accidentally dropped the bridge onto an incoming ship, which ripped off the wheelhouse and smoke stack and caused it to catch fire. It took two days to extinguish the blaze and the ship was destroyed. Here is a link to an amazing video of the incident.

We reach the eighth and final lock, which is very different from the rest as it has a vertical rise of only about 4 feet (as opposed to 45 to 48 in the others) but is extremely long. Here, a worker walks along the concrete lock wall with a long handled net and we are asked to drop in our proof of payment (it costs $200 one way if you pay in advance, or $240 if you pay at the reporting station when you arrive) and a completed form that was given to us back in lock 1 to record the boat information, passengers on board, and so on.

With that, we sail out and the upward passage of the Welland Canal is complete! It took us a total of 10 hours to make the 23 mile trip. The exit is right in the heart of downtown Port Colborne and we sail the short distance over to the Sugarloaf marina to get a slip for the night. Adam’s dad Tim arrives and we have a beer together and then say goodbye to them and thank Adam for helping us out.

The two crews meet to discuss dinner plans and decide to eat on board and then go for a short walk. Magnus and Stella are happy to be on solid ground, so they disappear for half an hour while Ana and I make a modest dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches and salad. Sugarloaf marina is always full of excitement and tonight is no exception as there’s a wedding happening at the pavilion. We all walk over to the wedding to see if we can crash it, but our weary faces and canal stained clothing really makes us stand out from the well-dressed and enthusiastic wedding guests, so we just loiter around for a song or two and then continue on our way. We wander through the park and grounds near the marina and find a great place for a phot, so Angela lends Stella her phone and she snaps a nice picture of everybody.

We finish up the evening with a nightcap on Cabin Fever and then Ken and Sheila head back to Brantford while the rest of us head directly to bed.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Lake Ontario - Toronto to Port Weller

Goodbye Toronto! Hope to see you again soon.

Earlier this morning Tony and Angela’s friend Ken arrived, to help with the Welland Canal passage tomorrow. The newly expanded crew of Cabin Fever is still getting ready to go when we toss the lines and head out into the harbour. After suffering the indignity of being beaten by a sailboat multiple times, Tony is determined to leave me in his liquid dust today, so we won’t be in the lead for long.

We leave through what is called the Western Gap, which is immediately west of the marina and takes us straight out into the lake. As we’re passing the abandoned malting plant beside the marina, I see an ultra-tanned, shirtless homeless guy totally laid out on a big hunk of concrete catching maximum sunshine. I point him out to Ana, she takes a look and says, “That’s not a man. I see boobs.” Sure enough, it was a topless lady sunbather, doing exactly what everybody else stuck in an office on this fine day wished they were doing.

Surprisingly, Port Weller (which is the entrance of the Welland Canal) is a mere 28 miles away, which seems impossible considering how damn long it takes to drive there from Toronto. But since we’re going in a straight line, and have only bird traffic to deal with, it makes for an easy run. Halfway across Ana spots something floating in the water in the distance. We alter course to check it out and find…balloons! These are the first balloons we’ve found on Lake Ontario and they are just lovely (especially the one that says “Princess”), and even have a bit of helium left inside. You may want to refer to a previous posting on the preponderance of foil balloons on the Great Lakes and the birth of the Lake Erie Balloon Hunters reality TV series.

Stella is thrilled to see a reading of 28 degree water temperature, so we glide to a halt and jump in for a refreshing early afternoon swim and soapy bath for some of us. We follow this up with cracking open a bag of ripple chips, which has been taking up a lot of valuable space in the storage locker for far too long. Back when my dad was in town and we were shopping to provision the boat for the trip down the Welland, my dad bought this enormous bag of no name ripple chips, and it is still on the boat. It is the size of a kindergarten kid. It could supply a whole weed smoking class of philosophy majors with dope munchies for a year. It may even be visible from space. The only reason I let him buy it is because I thought the four of us could use it as a life raft in case the boat sank.
As we’ve been sailing, Cabin Fever has arrived at the Welland Canal check-in point and spoken with the traffic control officer who tells them it’s very busy and we won’t likely be getting through tonight. Strangely, I also call and speak with a different person who tells me things are looking quite good and we probably should be able to begin our passage around 7 pm. A Saturday morning departure works better for us, but if they allow us to go through tonight, we will go through.

The St. Catherine’s marina dock man welcomes us in and fills us up with diesel and sucks out our holding tank, and then guides us to our slip, which is directly beside Cabin Fever. Ken’s wife Sheila has arrived to complete their crew and my cousin Megan’s partner Adam also arrives to deliver the burlap straw fenders we left with him on the down-bound journey. He reports that one of them is giving off a punishing aroma of manure, which he was forced to inhale the whole way here. We rip open the black garbage bag it is stored in and are hit with a waft of rot. I remember that two of the fenders got ripped off the boat and fell into the water, so this one must have been the one that got soaked the worst.

The family and I jump into Adam’s truck and we stop at the grocery store to pick up a few boat supplies, and a few beer supplies for tonight’s dinner at Megan and Adam’s house, which is right in St. Catherines. We arrive and I’m happy to see my aunt Linda there too, so we all have a great visit. Adam and Megan have a two-year-old named Teo and the kids have a fun time entertaining (and being entertained by) him.

The evening goes by far too quickly (as it always does with them) and at 11pm Megan drives us back to the marina as she is pregnant, and pregnant ladies are automatically awarded the prestigious “Designated Driver” prize by their husbands, who require large quantities of alcohol to get through a pregnancy.

Team Cabin Fever are still partying hard and show no signs of stopping (except Tony brushing his teeth) as we say goodnight and retire to the innards of Bella Blue.