Friday, June 29, 2018

Thousand Islands June 16 - The Welland Canal and Beyond

All of the research I did before embarking on this trip suggested that boats need to be well protected when going through the Welland. And what protects boats are fenders. Now I suppose "fender" is a nautical term, except that most powerboaters call them bumpers, but these refer to the same thing – a large object you hang off the side of the boat to absorb impact with other objects. Most fenders are inflatable and made of hard rubber, but they could also be wooden boards, thick pool noodles, or anything else you care about a lot less than your boat. One style of fender that is said to work particularly well in the Welland is guinea sacks filled with straw. I expect the reason is because the materials are cheap and you can throw them away when you are finished with them, as opposed to buying large fenders which are over a hundred bucks each and are not particularly fun to clean after a messy canal passage.

Dad traveled to Ontario a week before the start of the voyage, which gave us ample time to tie up all the loose ends, including the loose ends of burlap bags filled with straw. Dad, Magnus and I went down to my buddy Tony's shop as he had picked up two bales of straw from a farmer buddy and we had bought the burlap bags from the Lens Mill store in Port Dover the previous weekend (it is a lot harder to find burlap bags than one might expect..). We tested several different configurations of straw packing technique, fender inserts, ropes, stick anchors, tie wraps, and super knots, then settled on the best design and made six of them – three for Tony's boat and three for Bella Blue. Tony and his wife Angela are joining us on the Thousand Island trip and their boat is already in Kingston so they will only need to do the return trip through the Welland.

We left the burlap fenders there for Tony to transport, but he ended up liking them so much he started hanging them off his truck in parking lots to fend off unwanted door strikes from careless fellow shoppers. An excellent use for our product – might be a market opportunity here to exploit. Sure, I will admit it doesn't look too cool, but you know what really doesn't look cool? Scratches in your friggin car door – that's what.

The boys had expertly hung the straw fenders around the boat and as I drove Bella Blue into the first lock (which was actually lock 8 as the numbering begins from the Lake Ontario side). I was feeling confident and protected, just like in the maxi-pad commercials. Lock 8 is the longest in the world at nearly 1,400 feet, but has the shortest gain/drop at only about 4 feet and is known as a control lock as it is there to maintain a constant water level in the canal despite the large variations in water levels that happen in Lake Erie.

We enter the lock and motor right to the end where a man carrying an incredibly long net passed over a form we had to complete, and then did the same for the other seven boats. He returns and we pass back the form plus the paper receipt from the lock passage payment I had made the week before. He also told us that at the next lock he wanted us to go on the wall and the other two sailboats would raft onto us. Each lock can only handle three sets of boats so if there are more than three boats you have to link up.

Before we know it, we can see the water beginning to drain silently. We slowly drop four feet and then the gate in front of us opens and we motor out of the canal. Wow, this is going to be easy, I'm thinking.   The next challenge will be staying awake for the 25 kilometers run to Lock 7. Dad and Curtis head down for a nap while Marty and I take turns at the wheel. The beauty of the night is mesmerizing and hypnotic. The channel is well lit, well-marked and consistently 27 feet deep, even close to the edges, which I approach several times as I’m dozing off while standing at the wheel. Marty performs a saving move and cranks up the Death Metal setlist he's been waiting to unleash, and then takes the helm while slouch in the cockpit and sleep with my eyes partially open.

After what seems like all night, we arrive at Lock 7 and wait just outside the gate waiting for the lights to change from red to green. When they do, we inch in slowly and notice these giant suction cups on either side of the lock which we learn later are used for the giant lake freighters and are equipped with web cameras, controlled remotely ny an off-site operator. Once the freighter is in place, the suction cups move out on an arm, make contact with the ship, and then decompress to make an incredibly tight bond which holds the entire ship in place for the downward or upward repositioning.

We motor to the end of the lock where there are three men waiting with ropes. I ease Bella Blue up to the wall on the starboard (right) side and the crew (including Dad and Curt who are back in action) grab the ropes and adjust the fenders. One of the other sailboats is a big, bulky 43' Benneteau and as he pulls up to us we catch him and latch him onto our boat. They have six people on board, all of whom are wearing matching foul weather gear and expensive inflatable PFDs and appear to be quite ready for action. The other sailboat is being driven by whom would be soon known as "Captain Dipshit" (thanks Marty!). I don’t if this is his first boat, or an unfamiliar boat, or if he just doesn't know what he's doing, but he is simply out of control. The Beneteau team eventually wrangle him in and raft him up to their port side. There is current in the lock so Curtis and Marty have to keep the ropes tight while Dad stands at the ready with a boat hook or 2x4 to keep us pushed off the wall.
One of the staff asks us if we are ready and then says the water's going out. A giant mechanical arm drops down in front of us and latches onto a thick metal cable crossing the lock, and then picks it up and out of the way. The water then starts to flow, and we sit and look around as we drop further, and further, and further. This is a big lock and as we drop it seems as if the brown concrete walls are closing in on us. The men above continue feeding out the rope which Curt and Marty hold tight and try to keep the boat steady. All of the boats are running their engines and the smell of gas and diesel vapour is sickening. The water finally levels off and the giant gate slowly opens. The ropes are lifted back up by the staff and we untie the boats from each other, straighten out and then slowly motor into the next lock, which we can see directly ahead of us.

We repeat the same routine, except that this time as the Benneteau approaches the current pushes him away and one of the crew reaches across to Curtis with a boat hook, which he grabs, and then they engage in what would be a hilarious game of tug of war, except that if one of them fell in, they would probably get mashed up by the boat and current. The hardest working crew on the Benneteau are two women, who we find out are German, which comes as no surprise, as they prefer to keep the Canadian men in the cockpit where they can do less damage.

Captain Dipshit again has a tough time getting his boat into rafting position and is saved by the Germans. The lock worker tells us that this is the start of three locks in a row and often boats will actually stay rafted and motor together as a group to the next lock, which saves the trouble of having to re-raft all the boats again. Seems like a great idea.

We drop down again and eventually reach the bottom, struggling to keep all the boats in position. We ask the other boats if they want to try staying rafted and we agree that I will use my boat's motor and the others can help as required. We let loose and start moving ahead, but there is a much stronger current this time that is both pushing the boats forward but also twisting them clockwise. I turn to port and give it a bit of throttle to try and straighten out, but all that does is increase our speed and we inch closer and closer to the wall on the right. I'm starting to panic now as I can see us approaching the wall way too fast so I yell at Captain Dipshit to hammer it in reverse to try and slow us down and straighten us out. But we're too late and the full weight of all three vessels mashes the starboard side of Bella Blue into the concrete wall and I can hear a sickening crunch as I watch two of the burlap fenders get ripped right off the boat. Everybody on board is pushing against the wall with all our strength and we do manage to get some clearance. I'm scared to look at the side of the boat, but I can't because I’m trying to straighten this mess of boats out and get into position. As I'm doing that Marty somehow manages to fish the lost fenders out of the churning waters with the boat hook and the crew gets them patched up and retied before we reach the end.

We get into position and start to drop. In anguish, I peek over the side of the boat to survey the damage, but to my amazement I can't see any damage beyond some scratches on the rub rail. I simply cannot believe it. We agree with the other vessels that we will not attempt that maneuver a second time.

For the next lock we untie the boats and continue on, but find the current is insanely fast here and is causing all three of the sailboats to do loop-de-loops as it is impossible to keep straight. The powerboats are okay as they all have twin engines which make it much easier to control, but with sailboats you're limited to a single prop and a large rudder that doesn't always respond well. After a very long time circling around we finally get all the boats into position and rafted and continue down to the bottom of the last of the three linked locks. I look back to see a giant wall of steel behind us, rising up nearly 150 feet. It is an awe-inspiring engineering marvel and something that cannot be easily described. At this moment, I feel exhausted and spent, but yet there is also a feeling of exhilaration at being able to experience such an amazing thing, that so few people in the world will get to do.
The final three locks go well and the three sailboats are now functioning expertly as a single unit. We will probably never see these people again in our lives, yet I feel a strong bond has developed between us as we've worked with each other to get through safely. The sun is fully up in the sky as we exit the final lock and Bella Blue gets her first taste of Lake Ontario.

It feels like it should be the end of the day and time to celebrate the passage so we crack beers and say cheers at 8 am! What an epic overnighter. But alas, there is no time to rest, as we have to motor over to the St. Catherine's marina to meet up with Tim, who is the father of my cousin Megan's partner Adam, and has volunteered to pick up our burlap fenders and 2x4's. We motor into the gas dock and Tim is there to meet up, all smiles, and we quickly unload the fenders, pack them back into garbage bags, load them in his car, and he's gone. After a quick break to fill up the boat's water tank and empty the holding tank, we are back on the water, pointed directly into the middle of Lake Ontario.
Curt finds the Iceland soccer game on the radio so fires that up while we motor across the glass-like surface of the lake. There is not a breath of wind, nor a ripple on the water, nor scarcely a boat in sight. We decide it's time to freshen up so we stop the boat, get the swimsuits on, and dive off the metal cockpit arch into the icy cold water which ignites the nerves and sends the testicles burrowing for cover. The bottle of shampoo is passed around and we enjoy the first (and only) bath of the trip in the crystal clear, and mighty chilly waters of this fine, fine lake.
The auto pilot is set to the appropriate heading so the only job is to watch the depth gauge (which flaked out at 575 feet) and keep an eye out for boats, which is easy to do with clear visibility and four crew members. We take turns grabbing naps throughout the day and by late afternoon we are feasting together on a piping hot lasagna, washed down with two bottles of my father-in-law's homemade red wine. Being together with my brothers and dad is simply the greatest, and moments like these are ones I think back to often. Many families, for many different reasons, are not able to do this, so I feel very fortunate that we can.

Thousands Islands June 15 - Port Colborne


My iPhone alarm rings at 5 am and my eyes snap open immediately. I get some coffee water on the bubble as Dad and Curtis awake and start sorting things out in the cabin. We disconnect the power cord, throw off the lines and are back on the water. The entrance to the Welland Canal is literally around the corner from Sugarloaf marina so we motor over and start looking for the public docks where we can tie up and put the call into the canal operator to request passage. Somehow Marty remains sleeping throughout, so we dub him "Snorri Snorleffson" because of the ear-splitting chain saw racket coming from the back berth.

We spot the docks and ease her gently into a spot and get tied up. The docks are located right in the heart of downtown Port Colborne, and on the sidewalk is the telephone booth from which you can call the operator, so I hustle up there and put in the call.  It is answered almost immediately, but the news is not good – because of a large backlog of commercial freighters, we are not getting out of here until this evening at the earliest.

I break the news to the boys, and we are a little bummed out, until we realize that gives us an entire day to goof around in Port Colborne – a town as fine as any on Lake Erie. Plus, the Portugal – Spain World Cup match is on this afternoon, so I feel a trip to the Royal Canadian Legion may be in order.

I cook up a giant breakfast on the boat – corn meal back bacon, eggs, campfire toast (black on the outside, soft and gooey in the middle), hot peppers, and juice. After the stomach stretching exercise last night, the guts are aching for more nutrition, so we eat in an unhinged manner as the sun slowly rises in the sky and the day begins for the fine people of Port Colborne.

There is another boat beside us and it’s not until after we’ve finished our meal, washed up, and enjoyed coffees in the cockpit that an older fellow emerges and comes over to say hi. “Are you going through the Welland?” my dad asks him.

“Well, we’re trying to,” he says, frustrated.

“What do you mean? How long have you been here?”

“Three days.”

“Three days?? You’re kidding!”

“No, we arrived Tuesday and have been calling the Seaway folks every 12 hours, and every time they tell us to call back in another 12 hours. We’re glad to see you guys - maybe if more boats show up they will finally let us go through.”

Now this is a surprise. All the research I had done indicated that the longest any pleasure boat ever waits to get in the canal is six to ten hours. The Welland canal is a busy commercial shipping channel so the first priority is getting the giant freighters through. I’ve read that the big boats pay something in the neighbourhood of $25,000 for passage, while small pleasure craft like mine pays a paltry $200, so you can guess where the priority lies.

As we’re standing on the dock, pondering the likely consequences of being stuck here for days, we see a small motor-sailor boat heading for the lift bridge. There is a signalling system to alert boats when it is safe to pass through the bridges and locks, and the signal was a lively, bright red, indicating stay back. Well this guy charges right through and keeps on going even when the workers jump out of the office and start yelling at him, telling him to stop. He squeaks through just before the bridge lowers and we wait for the sound of machine gun fire. 30 minutes later the bridge opens again and the boat sheepishly winds its way back and zeroes in on our dock. As the vessel approaches to within earshot, a ragged and weary looking man staggers out of the cockpit, points at us and yells, "Hey, is this Buffalo?"

"Buffalo?? Wrong country dude – you're in Canada."

"Canada?? Damn. Hey, do you guys mind if I pull up and dock beside you?"

"They are public docks, no problem, we'll give you a hand."

We help him get docked and tie up his lines and then stand back to survey what's in front of us. The boat is a disaster – ropes laying everywhere, mast strapped sloppily to the top of the cabin, gas cans and junk piled up in the center cockpit, fenders that are black with grime, and so much crap lying around that he can barely move. Our new friend, let's call him Captain Buffalo, is sailing solo and looks thoroughly exhausted, like he hasn't slept for a while, which is confirmed when he tells us he left from Leamington two days before and hadn't taken a break because the lake got wild and he was beaten to hell by the wind. I remember that we had taken the leftovers from breakfast and made a triple decker bacon sandwich, now foil-wrapped, and waiting patiently the refrigerator. Well, I've never seen a man more in need of a bacon sandwich in my life, so I disappear into the cabin below, grab the bacon sammie and a few of the delicious blueberry muffins Anna had given us the night before, and offer it to Captain Buffalo. He looks so hungry I fear he's going to eat right through the foil. As we watch the wild-eyed skipper, he still seems to think he is in Buffalo, and maybe suspects he is just the victim of an unkind prank by the locals, so we tell him he should grab some sleep and we can talk later about which way he should go to find Buffalo.

Next up, two giant powerboats arrive, one brand new 60' Carver and another slightly smaller. We walk over to help them dock and are hoping to get an invitation aboard to watch the 75" tv and wash the caviar blinis down with expensive champagne. But that doesn't happen so perhaps it will take longer for our friendship to gel.
Well there's just non-stop action at this marina – yet another boat pulls up to the dock and three older fellers pile out and march down the gangway. The leader, let's call him Captain Bulldog, introduces himself as....Captain Bulldog. He's about 65, authoritative, brash, loud, and is wearing a white skipper hat and freshly ironed khaki flood pants with a US Coast Guard shirt tucked in further than it seems possible. He has a rich American accent and immediately dives into this story that involves him as the hero, and something about egg salad sandwiches and something else about him demanding all the women off another guy's boat as payment for some sort of marine infraction. None of it makes much sense, so we get out of there before we get hoisted aloft by all the stifling, hot air.
Port Colborne has always been one of my favourite towns. It is a water town, and the downtown centre is squared in by Lake Erie to the south and the Welland Canal to the east making it a perfect walking venue. The lads and I take a stroll and find ourselves at the weekly farmers market and see a great deal of fresh food we’d like to buy, but since we are fully provisioned there is little room left on the boat for more supplies. Curt and I are approached by one of the town ambassadors, a lovely older lady who tells us all about Port Colborne and suggests two or three places of interest. We notice she has a strangely swollen arm, right from the shoulder down, almost like she’s been bitten by a bee.

Our next stop is the barbershop, to belt out some enticing harmonies and let brother Curt get his hipster side shave, long on top all freshened up. While he’s having a great chat with the barber, the rest of us are rifling through the Sports Illustrated magazines, but since none of us like sports (except soccer every four years…), the only issues worth reviewing are the swimsuit editions, which seems to be the most worn ones, to nobody’s surprise.
On the way out of the barbershop, we see another lady with a hugely swollen arm, and it’s not the same lady. What is this, some sort of local affliction? The feared Port Colborne swell arm? We survey the locals as we walk and notice that many women have swollen asses too. Hugely swollen asses. We decide right then and there that under no circumstances we will drink the Port Colborne water.

Fishing runs deep in the Olson family, so we scout out the local bait shop to get some worms for an anticipated afternoon dock fishing expedition. Beside the bait shop is a French fry truck, so we order a large French fries and gravy, douse it in vinegar and salt, and then gather round the picnic table to mange les pommes frites. Stoking the hunger organs, we return to the boat for a giant feed of egg salad sandwiches, assembled tenderly in the galley by Dad while the rest of us throw a few casts and catch absolutely nothing.

Next up, the World Cup Portugal versus Spain match! And what better place to watch a game than at the Royal Canadian Legion. We walk in and inhale that unmistakable odour of 60 years of spilled beer, old worn carpet, cigarette smoke stank that has somehow endured 20 years of no smoking rules, and old man aftershave. There’s hardly anybody there so we grab prime seating and Marty heads up to the bar to check out the beer choices. But being the Legion, we know there really is no beer choice at all. The Legion constitution states, “No beer shall be served that offers any discernable character, taste or colour. Any brand of beer served must end with the word “Light” and any attempts to serve beer that could be described with any adjectives other than “sad” or “pissy” will result in the revocation of liquor license.” They make the added mistake of serving in clear pitchers, so when Marty plops down the jug of Coors Light, the rest of us eye it curiously. It is weak lemonade? Is it water that somebody has pissed half a shot of urine into? Or maybe it is actually water, but with some remnants of yellow dish washing liquid. In any case, it tastes just like it looks, but who cares? The game is on, it's Friday and we're not at work!

The game winds up a tie at three goals each, which is as good a soccer match at you can ever hope to expect, as opposed to a nil-nil boredom fest. We head back to the dock, and as we are getting close we see Captain Bulldog going head to head with a local cop. It's hard to tell what's going on, but Marty thinks the cop is giving him a citation for talking too much and trying to be the boss. Or it could be a fashion infraction for tucking his shirt in too tight. Captain Bulldog spots us and hurries over, looks us over, motions to Marty and then says to me, "Hey, you better watch your brother's ears."

"What? Why?"

"Look at them, they are all sunburned. They are scorched red. You gotta watch that," he says as he pokes and prods at Marty's ears, gently flipping the tips back and forth with his pudgy index finger.
I look at Marty's ears and they seem just fine to me. Marty simply looks confused, and perhaps irritated as I did see him lathering up the sunscreen all over his bald head and face and ears this morning. Before Marty winds up and punches the Bulldog in the snout, he scurries off to go and talk to somebody else he recognizes, saving us the embarrassment of whaling on a Yankee southerner right in front of a cop, who likely would have stood back and watched. Actually, I lie. The Olson boys are lovers, not fighters. But still, you don't go flicking somebody's ear and expect to get away with it.

Back to the boat yet again, for more afternoon fishing and a nap for some of us. Dad actually manages to do both at the same time and I grab a picture of him sitting on the dock, fishing rod out, sound asleep. Them retirees sure do develop some fabulous napping skills.

It's time to walk the dock to catch up on the latest gossip. Now there are seven boats, all waiting to get into the canal, and no doubt many of them have been calling for updates. We devise a plan. We will take the huge bag of brownies that Anna sent us home with last night, arrange them beautifully on my non-skid Hunter boat plates, and offer brownies to the sailors in exchange for information. Marty and I head out on our mission and the conversations go like this:

"Hey, how are you doing? Care for a home-made brownie"

"Oooh, they look great. Is there weed in them? That would be awesome!"

"Uhhh, no. But they were made by a famous pastry chef."

"Great, we'll try them.  Mmmmmm, delicious."

It's amazing how people can be so paranoid about everything these days – vaccines, super viruses, airplane travel, deer ticks, terrorist attacks –the list goes on, and yet a stranger offers you a brownie, and everybody partakes, but not before expressing hope that there will be some sort of illegal drug baked in. Goddamn, I love the dock life!

We discover that everybody's been told a slightly different story from the Seaway canal operator. Some were told we will be leaving at 9pm, some were told 3am, and yet others were told to call back in 12 hours. Since there's nothing we can do that will make a whiff of difference, we gather at the boat for a round of gin and tonics, and then two rounds of amazing girlie drinks that Marty makes using Ana's Malibu rum and juice. We are feeling very pretty.

At around 7pm we decide we need to top up the cooler ice supply, which is an excellent excuse to go for a walk before we get too sauced and are unable to operate the vessel in a safe and responsible manner. The temperature has dropped, so I put on my grey bunny hug (that's a "hooded sweatshirt with a pocket in front" for those of you not familiar with Saskatchewanese vernacular), grab my Bluetooth speaker, and carry it on my shoulder like a ghetto blaster so we have some tunes en route. Well, Curt suggests that looks a little too ghetto, so instead he puts it in the bunny hug hood – an excellent idea. What is the best song to play for a walk? How about "Walk" by Pantera. The four of us put on our badass faces, crank up the metal, and walk right by the cop and a bunch of weak bystanders, who were uniformly in awe of our coolness. We strut our shit and simply blow everybody away.

Now what song does one select next? How about "Walk This Way" by Run DMC and Aerosmith? Well that goes down like a fat kid on a see-saw and the whole town is talking about us. Dad and I come up with a synchronized walk that mesmerizes all the fine folk hanging out on the patio of the bar we pass, rendering them all speechless. Port Colborne has simply never seen anything like this.

We reach the Sev and I cue up some gangsta rap, that fills the store with foul language and bitchin beats. The scene is so damn hot that half the ice has melted by the time we reach the counter, but we don’t care because we're so fly.

Back at the dock, new information has surfaced. Departure time has been confirmed for either 10:30 pm or 3:00 am! We're not sure which we prefer, but we do know that we better eat and throttle back on the bevvies. I use the boat oven to heat up a magnificent shepherd's pie that Ana made for us, and after topping the steaming pan with hot peppers and my father-in-law's PRPS (Portuguese Red Pepper Sauce), we devour it ravenously. We eat it all except one sizeable slab, which we put on a paper plate, foil it up, and pass it over to Captain Buffalo, who has just woken up and still isn't sure exactly where he is, but he happily accepts the food offering.


 

The phone call from the Seaway controller comes at 10:45 pm and he tells that they will be ready for us at 11:15. We are finally off! We finish up the current game of Kaiser and get the boat prepped with all the fenders and protection we will need for the passage. We push off at exactly 11:15 pm and float around in the channel for a while, waiting for the lift bridge to rise. Finally, it does and the green light welcomes us in. Passing the base of the bridge is eerie, as you look up to see the lifted bridge far above, held up there by giant gears and massive chains, that look just like a bicycle chain, but on an industrial scale.

As the clock strikes midnight we are entering the first lock.

A Thousand Islands Sailing Adventure - June 14


Sometimes in today’s world we forget what it means to adventure. And by adventure, I mean Buck Rogers, Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Lara Croft and James Bond sort of adventures where the main character pursues an outrageous, impossible goal, and after many trials and tribulations, when everything seems to be lost, eventually succeeds. An adventure is where you have a goal in sight, but you don’t know exactly how you are going to achieve it, nor what you may encounter along the way. It’s not about meticulously planning out each step and executing the plan until you reach the goal. No, on an adventure, you don’t know exactly what steps you will need to reach your goal and can’t anticipate the obstacles you may hit along the way, nor how you will overcome them. Real adventures these days are scarce, and it takes a great deal of imagination, a bit of gumption, a dose of confidence, and a peppering of lunacy to embark on one.

It is Thursday, June 14th and as we pull up to the Port Dover municipal marina in our Honda Odyssey van, I am feeling excited, nervous, proud, and exhilarated as the adventure has finally arrived. My dad Peter and brothers Marty and Curtis will be joining me to sail our boat Bella Blue from Port Dover on Lake Erie all the way to the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario, a total distance of 245 statute miles. This will include transiting the Welland Canal, which is a commercial lock system that allows you to get to Lake Ontario without having to pass over Niagara Falls, which is, admittedly, the faster route, but can be damaging to the boat and crew.
We spent a great deal of time this year getting Bella Blue in fine shape. She has brand new sails, new seat cushions, and over several weekends in April and May we cleaned, polished and waxed every centimeter of the boat’s surface, sanded off the old bottom paint and applied two coats of new stuff, replaced much of the lettering and lines on the sides, and did many small and overdue maintenance jobs. She looks magnificent.

We transfer our gear from the van to the boat, along the way noticing the great many carp making love in the water, beneath the docks and boats, and sometimes right out in the open, splashing and squirming around like mad, causing quite a commotion. It is a beautiful day, as have been most weekdays thus far this year, with the weekend weather always turning to utter crap. So far, the weather forecast looks good, and this coming weekend could be the best of the year, so perhaps we have turned a corner. We will dump a bit of beer into the lake for Neptune just in case.

Ana says goodbye to the crew and gives me a big kiss before taking off back to Paris to pick up the kids and take them to school. As for us, well, within minutes we are on board Bella Blue and sailing out of the harbour. I usually like to play Ravel's "Bolero" at the start of any epic sailing journey with my father, but in the rush to get launched I forgot to queue it up. He noticed.

We motor out to the second marker buoy, which is the point at which we make the turn east to head down the lake towards Port Colborne, which lies at the start of the Welland Canal. We raise the sails, cut the motor and enjoy the sounds of the light wind rustling the fabric and the gentle waves lapping at the sides of the boat. We are only doing 2.5 knots initially but before long the winds pick up and bump us up to 4.5, and they continue to rise until we are screaming down the lake at a steady 6.5 knots. We are sailing on what is called a broad reach – this is when the wind is coming at you from behind, but just off to the side. This is a very fast point of sail, but it is tricky because if the wind shifts slightly, or you steer incorrectly, the wind can cause the sails and boom to whip violently to the other side of the boat.
Curt makes us a round of mud using his ultra-fancy coffee beans, the manual grounder he brought along, and the Aeropress system we have on board which is simply the best coffee press on the market. It is delicious and helps to lubricate the conversation which wanders between alternative energy, retirement, vacation plans, wives and kids, money, food, and even a little bit of work talk. It is great to have my brothers and dad here and we get along like best friends.


We are just passing the area where the Grand River dumps into Lake Erie when a giant gust kicks up and overpowers the sails. Sailboats are designed with what’s called “weather helm” and in the case of strong wind or a loss of steering the boat will automatically turn to windward. On a downward tack, this is a problem because it causes the boat to do a sudden 180 turn while shifting upwind, exposing the sails to the full force of the wind which, in turn, heels the boat dangerously. Marty is at the helm when this happens and a round of frantic scrambling and “Holy Shits!” ensue, as the crew doesn’t have a clue what’s going on and it feels like the boat is going over. The boat leans far to the starboard side and the rails dip into the water as I can hear gear in the cabin being tossed around.

“East up the jib line!” I yell.

Dad uncleats the line, which reduces pressure on the sail and allows it to flop violently, as the boat slowly comes back into an upright position. We tighten up the traveler which stabilizes the main sail and the boat is now fully upright and pointed directly into the wind.

“Anybody need a few minutes to scrape their shorts?” I ask. There is no reply.
We get back onto our heading, deploy the sails again, but only partially in case we get another gust, and we are back up to cruising speed. After a while we unfurl the sails fully as there has been no gusts and the winds are steady and strong. Around 1pm we engage the autopilot and head downstairs for lunch - a magnificent pot of chili prepared for us by my sweet wife, accompanied by a jar of hot peppers, sponsored by Uncle Mikey.

Marty opts for a mid-afternoon nap in the v-berth while the rest of us crack a beer in the cockpit and continue our awesome sail down the lake, noticing the ever-increasing size of the waves being fueled by the strong and steady wind. Suddenly, another giant gust blows up and again overpowers the boat, but this time the gust is stronger and even though I have the wheel turned as far as it will go to starboard, the relentless wind overpowers the rudder and turns the boat upwind, heeling it over dangerously, to the point where the water spills over the rails and starts to lap up menacingly against the side windows. For a few punishing seconds, I am sure the boat is going to tip and throw us all overboard, and I feel totally out of control. Fortunately, physics is our friend and the heeled boat allows the wind to spill out of the sails and then slowly work its way back upright. Marty would tell me later that he woke up and was basically standing upright and seeing water outside of the top hatch, where he should have been seeing sky.

We furl in the sails, clean up all the spilled gear below in the cabin, sit down to let the heart rate ease up, and then fire up the motor for the remaining short distance into the Sugarloaf marina in Port Colborne. While it was a bit cool on the water, it is blazing hot in the marina. We pull up first to the gas dock for a pump and dump (pump out the sewage and dump in some fresh diesel) and while there we strike up a conversation with a young hippie couple who are doing some maintenance work on their old Hunter sailboat.

The gas dock attendant assigns us a slip and then we motor over and get tied up for the night. Last week Dad and I had built some custom fenders for trip, and my friend Tony had dropped them off at the marina here, so we walk down to the marina office to collect them. Because the Welland Canal passage can get a little rough, the recommendation is to hang as many large fenders off the sides of your boat as possible. Instead of buying a bunch of expensive, new fenders, we instead made six of them by stuffing straw into large burlap bags, and then tied them shut and attached a rope to secure them to the boat. Tony had packaged them up into black garbage bags, so after we carried them back down the dock and threw them on the deck of Bella Blue, it looked like we were transporting bags of severed body parts, or perhaps bundles of marijuana. Good thing we weren't crossing into the US.

My uncle Michael and aunt Anna live in the nearby town of Welland and Dad had arranged for us to stop in for supper, so we call a cab and are soon lounging on Mikey's front deck with beers in hand enjoying the mouth-watering smells coming from the smoker. Mike calls me over to have a look under the hood of the Traeger grill, and after the smoke clears I see chicken, pork, a vegetable and cheese casserole, grilled cauliflower, sausage, and a pasta dish. I give him the nod of approval. He nods back. I nod again. He then smiles and eases open the top of the Big Green Egg to expose a big pile of mini-brains, otherwise known as sweetbreads, which are thymus throat glands from veal or lamb. I have never tried sweetbreads before so I'm excited to tuck into them. I give him a final nod.

The dinner is simply amazing. We eat, and laugh, eat some more, and along the way enjoy an extensive history lesson on the origins of port and madeira wines. Both Michael and Anna are walking encyclopedias on food and you can just tell that they love what they do so much. After we are stuffed to capacity, Anna leads us all into the kitchen where we find a giant chocolate cake and a cream cheese fruit torte. There is always room for dessert. Anna had also prepared us a takeaway party bag with desserts left over from yesterday's recipe testing. It is a welcome addition to the boat provisions.

We say our goodbyes and cab it back to the boat to get a decent sleep before tomorrow's early morning departure.