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, or what you may encounter along the way. It’s not about planning out each step of the way 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 surface of the boat, 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 overboard 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 were 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 sails 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 – when the wind is coming at you from behind, but not straight behind, 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 move 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 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 we motor over and get tied up for the night and then walk down to the marina office to collect the custom fenders that Dad and I had constructed back at home and then had my friend Tony drive them down here. Because the Welland Canal passage can get a little rough, the recommendation is to hang as many large fenders from 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 tie 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, and when the smoke cleared I saw 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 cranks 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, along the way enjoying 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. Turns out we do have a bit of room left, so we all indulge. Anna had also prepared us a takeaway party bag with desserts left over from yesterday's recipe testing. It will make a fine addition to the boat provisions.