As we rounded the end of Lake Erie’s Long Point and turned Bella Blue into the wind and waves it became clear we were in for a rough ride. I asked the crew if they were up for the 130 mile trip to Pelee Island, because we could still throw in the towel and sail back to Turkey Point, but Marty and Adam were eager to continue, despite the greenish hue overcoming their facial complexions.
We were now officially one day behind an already tight schedule to sail Bella Blue all the way to Sarnia over a three day period so it was unlikely we were going to make it all the way at this point, but we could at least take her part of the way there. We arrived at the boat one day before, on Friday, to torrential rain, strong winds, and lightning storms with weather warnings on the whole of Lake Erie so I jumped into my favourite hobby (fixing broken stuff on the boat) while the lads helped where they could, did some fishing off the dock with gigantic rubber rat and duck lures, and drank a couple of beers with the dock master Tony, whose boat slip we were currently squatting in. By late evening the weather forecast had not improved, making even tomorrow’s departure uncertain, so we focused our attention on drinking beer and found a deck of giant oversized playing cards, which were tough to hold and sort, but easy to see with blurred vision so we enjoyed round after round of “Asshole” late into the night as the ideas began to flow. As Marty is from Ottawa there was mention of him bringing Justin Trudeau along for the trip, but in retrospect it is good that he didn’t because we probably would have just been embarrassed by whatever dandy sailor outfit he surely would have worn.
I awoke to parched insides and a horrible smell of diesel, which made the grinding headache even worse. I discovered the source of the smell was a leaking fuel filter so the boys and I got to work troubleshooting it, getting soaked in diesel throughout the process which really supercharged the migraine. We had breakfast then enjoyed a hot coffee with Angela and Tony in their cabin before making the decision to sail out to the end of Long Point despite the bad weather and small craft advisory on the lake. The initial sail was excellent with a strong wind at our back and achieving speeds over 8 knots surfing down the large waves, and we reached the lighthouse at the end of Long Point in just a few hours.
The afternoon sail westward across the open lake was rough, stomach turning, wet, and very lonely as we were seemingly the only boat out there. The wind was coming directly from where we wanted to go, so we had to motor instead of sail, resulting in the boat smashing into the 6 foot waves over and over, rocking the vessels and its passengers. At one point I offered the boys a can of iced tea, but Marty replied that he was getting plenty to drink in the cockpit as yet another rogue wave hit the boat and splashed right into his face. The rough seas and turned stomachs resulted in a little vomit spilled and our icy cold beers were left undrunk but not forgotten.
By evening the weather had markedly improved, and before long the sky was clear and winds manageable. In fact everybody was feeling good enough to have a bit of food so I heated up the shepherd’s pie I had made and frozen the week before, and we even dipped into my father-in-law’s Portuguese hot pepper sauce to give it a bit of heat. Things were back on track, morale was sky high, and we were on course for Pelee Island.
With a cloudless night and under a blanket of stars we took shifts minding the helm, seeing no other boats, and having an easy and peaceful passage with a shifted north wind that allowed us to get the full sails out and pick up the pace. Dawn broke, and to start off the sunny and warm day (so much for the dreadful weather forecast) we whipped up a huge breakfast of eggs, ham, re-imagined shepherd’s pie, toast, and coffee and enjoyed a big meal in the cabin while the autopilot did its job and held our course. The original plan was to have arrived at Pelee Island the evening before, spent the night, then left early in the morning for our next stop, but we actually arrived at 11am, and decided to just stop to fill up with diesel then continue on. As we were pulling up to the gas dock I radioed into the marina:
“Scudder marina, Scudder marina, this is sailing vessel Bella Blue looking for a diesel fill.”
“This is Scudder marina, we don’t sell diesel.”
“Uhhhhhhhhhh. Ok. Uhhhhhh, do you know anybody that does?”
“The closest place is Leamington.”
“Ok, uhhh thanks. Bella Blue out, I guess.”
It was the shortest visit to Pelee Island ever. It may not even count as a visit as we didn’t touch the dock. I was so dumbfounded by this information that I forgot what I was doing and nearly drove the boat into the lighthouse. I had called here weeks before and spoke to a nice lady who told me transient dock reservations were not necessary and they did in fact sell diesel. So much for my project planning skills.
We were faced with a decision: backtrack to Leamington, which would burn up at least four hours, and put us into the heart of COVID-19 country, or push ahead and hope we had enough diesel to get to Windsor or find some place along the way that would sell us some. Of course, we took the more daring option, and the three of us sent off a flurry of texts and phone calls to identify a diesel seller as Bella Blue turned westward towards the mouth of the Detroit River. We eventually connected with the Amherstburg Yacht Club who confirmed they did sell diesel and would be open until 5pm. I did some calculations using the GPS chartplotter and figured that if we moved as fast as possible we just might be able to make it. Sadly, that left no time to stop for a swim in the 29 degree water, nor to throw out a fishing line, so to avoid a possible mutiny I made sure there was at least a bunch of cold beer available to make it feel a bit less like Mission Impossible and more like a party weekend with the boys.
The water current in the Detroit River was around 2 – 3 knots and with the engine chugging away and the sails up we averaged a speed of around 4 – 5 knots. Steaming up the river is an interesting ride as the Canada/US border runs right up the middle of it and you can compare the towering mansions on the US side with the cottages (or sometimes just ducks and weeds) on the Canadian side. After the peace and quiet of the Lake Erie crossing it is a jarring return to civilization with the constant buzz of activity on the river and boats everywhere. We motor hard, hour after hour, watching the estimated arrival time on the GPS chartplotter inch closer and closer to 5pm. At 4:30 we were within 3 miles. At 4:45 we could finally see the marina and gas dock in the distance. I put the throttle down to maximum and the Yanmar diesel worked even harder, and took us right into the gas dock, but the young fella at the gas dock didn’t seem to have a clue what he was doing and screwed up our lines on the first pass, so we did a loop around and stuck the landing on the second attempt. As the dock hand finished tying our lines with crude granny knots I checked the time - 4:59:40. Nothing like making it to your destination with 20 seconds to spare! I gassed up the boat, flipped the dock hand my credit card, and gave him a ten dollar tip, which Marty suggested (in range of our ears only) he use to buy a book on knots. We pulled out at 5:08, setting another record for the fastest boat fueling ever, and were on our way back up the river headed for Windsor.
Remember that fuel issue we fixed on the first day? Well it turned out our fix wasn’t that good because it was still leaking fuel into the engine compartment, which then drained into the bilge causing an awful smell and a real mess so we spent a hell of a long time dumping buckets of water into the bilge, then draining it to try and clean it up and get rid of the smell. I think I got some diesel in my nose, because I kept smelling diesel when nobody else did, but Adam proposed a solution. I should assign specific fingers for specific tasks to keep them separated. For example, the left index finger is for dipping into the bilge to test for diesel, while the right index finger is reserved for picking my nose. The left middle finger is for butt scratching, while the right middle finger is for greeting the marine police boats on the water. He also told me to use another finger for spreading mayonnaise on the sandwiches, and then another one for picking my teeth, but then I got them all confused and the sandwiches tasted like shit, mayonnaise clogged the bilge pump, I got diesel fingerprint stains on the bum of my shorts, and I started giving the pinky finger to the cops and they couldn’t figure what the hell that was all about.
After passing right by Detroit and Windsor and all the smoke belching factories, blackened industrial sites void of life, giant lake freighters, tourist sightseeing boats on the US side full of unmasked people all jammed together, the impressive General Motors head office, and the empty Caesar’s Casino on the Windsor side, we arrived at the Windsor Yacht Club and did a magnificent docking despite the swirling current, wind, and lack of light, capping off a lengthy 35 straight hours on the water. But with that, we were firmly back on schedule! We celebrated with a big steak dinner, a few beers, and then capped off the evening by hanging up a shower curtain in the cabin and using my new projector to watch the first 20 minutes of Blazing Saddles, a movie whose crude satire has matured into something even more wicked over the years.
By 6 the next morning we were up and back on the water. We had an amazing sail across Lake St Clair as the strong, steady wind pushed Bella Blue’s rails nearly into the water and left us with that special feeling of being slightly out of control – an exhilarating feeling on a sailboat. For brekkie I whipped out the two frozen quiches that Stella and I made the week before, tossed them into the oven for 30 minutes, then we enjoyed a classy breakfast in the cockpit, and discussed the merits of real hardcore men like us eating egg pastry and agreed that it was A-OK.
The end of Lake St Clair led us into the St Clair River, and the colour transformation from the greyish brown water to the beautiful blue hue of the Lake Huron water was striking. Adam and Marty spent most of the time at the helm while I goofed around cleaning bilges, mopping up the boat, and tried to keep my finger functions straight. I also produced a mind blowing lunch for the lads by taking all the leftover food and crafting it into a proper English tea. We had a dazzling arrangement of double fried pierogies infiltrated with carrots, mature ham slices with cheese greased into damp hot dog buns with mustard and mayo, and of course the leftover cold quiche. Plus some cans of Mill Street Organic Lager to wash it all down. Shockingly, we ate everything, but that’s what good sailors do.
We spent a lovely day on the river, slowly winding our way up closer and closer to Sarnia, with the miles steadily dropping away, enjoying the sites from both countries. As usual, we arrived right on time – 15 minutes before the closing of the gas dock and office at the Bridgeview Marina at 4:45, and Ana and the kids were there to cheer us in. We filled up with diesel, pumped out the waste tank, paid for dockage, and then motored over to our assigned slip and got tied up. Within half an hour we had the boat cleaned, everything unloaded and packed into the van, and were on our way back to Paris headed for a final meal together and a few laughs at the Camp-31 Barbeque restaurant.
Cheers to another successful boat move with an amazing crew and a few unexpected surprises along the way. Thanks boys!
Next stop – the North Channel.