Monday, July 27, 2020

Little Current to McNeill Cove

Waking up connected to shore power with Dan pumping out the A/C was a real pleasure. The weather has been good and the longer range forecast looks excellent with highs in the mid 20s and a mix of sun and cloud. The sun is full in the sky and the sky is clear as the rest of my crew got mobile and we soon had Tony and Angela over for quiche and fruit in the cockpit of Bella Blue. The ladies then went for coffee while I got things organized on the boat and the kids threw a few casts.

We pull Bella Blue out of the slip and motored over to the busy gas dock. There is a shack at the gas dock called “Wally’s” with handprinted GAS and DIESEL signs and two lads on staff who looked no older than 12, and seemed to spend most of their time being screamed at by Wally, who lost his sense of patience about 75 years ago. The gas dock is a bustling place, the busiest we’ve seen by far, and there are a string of massive boats including a 52 Carver and at least a 50 Sea Ray, complete with a Sea Doo on the powered swim platform, crabby wife, three little rat-like dogs, and a mean husband yelling at the dock hands and his wife and the dogs, all at the same time.

We filled the fuel tank and pumped the sewage then pulled out of that chaotic scene. As we were leaving we had to take a wide berth around three sailboats who were motoring around, following each other in a tight circle, apparently waiting for an available space at the gas dock. It is surprisingly hilarious for some reason.

Our destination for the day was McNeill Cove, a scant 12 miles away, and Magnus and Stella took the helm for a while with the help of Ana while I did some writing. When we reached a deep water channel I got the trolling rod out and tried my luck catching a lake trout, but there was no such luck to be had, even after trying many different depths and speeds. We soon arrived at Sturgeon Bay and made a turn east through a tight channel into McNeill Cove, a lovely and secluded anchorage, with the water temperature at a pleasing 27 degrees. What’s not so pleasing were all the biting deer flies buzzing around taking stabs at our ankles and the crew is nearly ready to pull anchor and go elsewhere, but I convinced them to go on a kill mission and we wiped most of them out.

Tony and Angela arrived, rafted up to us, and we spent the afternoon swimming, snorkeling, rope swinging, paddle boarding, and then got the bright idea of towing the paddle board behind a dinghy, which was loads of fun. As we were enjoying a lovely happy hour on the bows of the boats, the kids got out a Costco-sized bag of jube-jubes and started tossing them at us to catch in our mouths, like show seals at MarineLand. Magnus fires a black one at Tony and he discovers the black ones are three times as hard as the rest and it pings off his sunglasses and nearly knocks him off the boat.

We enjoyed a nice dinner then assembled in the cockpits for some fishing (Stella caught a perch), a sundowner, and to listen to all the animal sounds coming from the forest. Ana is convinced there are moose calling to each other, so the kids pull up a moose call from the trusty internet and it’s quite unlike anything we are hearing, so we assume it must be frogs. The mosquitos make their appearance right on schedule so we lathered on some repellant, continued our conversations for a while, then retired to our respective boats for a nice northern sleep.

Heywood Island to Little Current

Waking up in a quiet Northern anchorage was what we had been waiting for, and why we travelled all this way. The North Channel has probably the best fresh water anchorages in the world so the cruisers here typically stay in anchorage as much as possible and just head into the marinas to stock up on supplies, fuel, water, and get pump outs. HQ2 was rafted up with us and there were two other sailboats rafted up together across the bay. We began the day with a swim in the surprisingly warm water then I put on a mask and fins to see if I could find the shackle that one of the kids dropped off the boat yesterday, which I did after Stella spotted it from stand-up paddle board as Magnus was propelling them with his feet and hands while she leaned off the front wearing a mask scanning the bottom. While I was snorkeling I found two discarded beer cans on the bottom, and when I brought the second one up and started emptying the water the can began shaking; something was thrashing around inside. Magnus used a can opener to pop the top and out dropped a gigantic goby…or some sort of fish like that, which was much too big to fit through he hole so I imagine he’s been in there since he was a guppy.

After goofing around in the water I hopped on HQ2 to give Tony a hand with a boat problem. Using my sail boater yoga techniques, I squirmed into the dark depths of the engine compartment with my multi meter to test the alternator and do my best engine gremlin impression. The alternator was putting out 12 volts as expected so we went up to the fly bridge and disassembled the panel. As we were taking the panel out, the port engine stopped running. We put it back in and it started again. Then it quit when we took it out. It turns out the engine problem a marine mechanic would have thrown three thousand bucks of parts and labour at was just a loose wire from the ignition. Same problem with the alternator gauge. So we tightened up the screws, did a happy chappy dance, and carried on like nothing had happened.

After striking gold with the boat fix, we detached ourselves from HQ2 and started the 10 mile run for the town of Little Current, with Magnus at the helm doing the navigation and piloting. A swing bridge is the only road access onto Manitoulin Island, and they open it for 15 minutes at the top of every hour to allow boats to pass. By sheer luck we arrived right at the top of the hour and the bridge opened for us, then we passed through the strong current and then just a short way into the Little Current marina, where we had a rather awful docking and made every mistake in the book - didn’t test the current, didn’t have fenders ready, didn’t have all lines attached, came in too hot. Fortunately we just banged into the dock but didn’t damage anything.

We all went for a walk downtown and checked out a few of the shops. I got taking to a lovely lady working at Turners (the oldest marine chart dealer in Canada) and she pointed out an area of the North Channel called McGregor Bay we hadn’t considered visiting, but she rated it to be one of the best cruising grounds. While walking around Ana received a text from Tony asking if we could stop at Napa Auto parts if we were in the neighbourhood to pick up an engine coil he had ordered. I had seen a Napa store right across from the marina, but I noticed another one just up the street, so I went in and asked for the part. Joe Mechanic told me they just fixed vehicles so I had to go to the parts store which was near the arena.

“Marina?” I asked.

“No, arena,” he confirmed. “Just go up highway 6, you can’t miss it.”

Thinking I still heard him wrong, I walked back to the Napa store by the marina and found it to be empty, so walked up a big headed out of town and spotted an auto parts sign indeed on highway 6. But it was called North Auto Parts. Wondering how many damn auto parts stores a town of a couple thousand people needs, I walked in and asked if this was Napa Auto Parts. The guy I asked looked at the North Auto Parts signs everywhere in the store and said, “Uh no. This is not Napa. You need to go further up highway 6.” I thanked him and started walking. And walked. And walked a bit more, far enough to doubt myself again so I stopped at the Shell station and asked again and was pointed to keep on going. But I did find it, right before the area, a big brand new Napa Auto Parts store. They had Tony’s part ready to go and I picked up a tube of silicone for a small window repair we needed to do. Fortunately the path back to the marina led me right by the Manitoulin Brewing Company so I stopped and grabbed a dozen tall cans of several varieties for an extra special happy hour tonight.

I returned to the boat and met up with the ladies after their shopping excursion downtown where Stella found herself a fine new hooded sweatshirt at a consignment shop. Ana, Magnus and I went grocery shopping to stock up on food, then it was time for dockside happy hour. We cracked the craft beers, sat down on Tony’s deck chairs, and fired up some stogies while the kids put fishing lines in the water and started bringing up one bass after the other. Small ones, but when you are catching, it’s all good! We spent a good long while on that dock having drinks, fishing, and chatting and decided that this town of Little Current is a fine place indeed.

To make the trip more interesting, Tony and Angela have also decided to sell their boat; in fact they were considering this even before we were. So we thought it would be fun to make a contest of it - whoever sells their boat first has to treat the other to a fine meal out! So could somebody please buy our so we can score free steaks?

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Bella Blue is For Sale!

At 5:30 am Tobermory strikes an impressive pose. Flat water reflecting boats and trees, streets void of humanity, sounds only of toads and birds, and a refreshingly cool nip in the air. The weather looks to be unsettled today until about 3pm so we decide on an early start to Heywood Island, which will be our entry point into the North Channel. After today’s run, our daily routine will switch from trying to gain as many miles a possible, to doing as few and spending a lot of time exploring hidden anchorages, islands and bays, fishing, and generally goofing around and enjoying ourselves to the max.

One evening last week I was awakened at 1am by this little blue light beside me. I turned to see Ana’s face aglow and her fingers swiping across the screen of her phone. I said, “What the hell are you doing? Go to sleep!”

“I’m looking at boats,” she replied.

The next morning at dinnertime she announced to the family, “I have a new plan to propose. I think we should sell Bella Blue and buy a Gemini catamaran.”

“OK,” I said, after briefly exchanging glances with the kids.

We have now owned Bella Blue for over ten years, and what a time it’s been! She has taken us throughout three of the five Great Lakes and we’ve had so many amazing experiences on her that it’s almost hard to believe. In fact, I never thought that buying a sailboat could have had such an impact on our lives. Because of sailing we’ve made so many lifelong friends and our gang at Port Dover are like family to us. Stella was just 2 years old when we bought this boat so both the kids have been raised as dock rats, and that’s tough to get out of your system! Every penny we have spent on this boat has been worth it (although dropping $300 every time I walk into a marine store never gets less painful) and though there’s admittedly been some challenging times like boat breakdowns and storms, even those have given us a chance to become more self-reliant, more resilient, and better prepared for next time. I’ve learned more about boat systems and diesel engines than I thought I ever could, which is something you simply have to do if you want to own a boat.

Simply put, I think we have outgrown Bella Blue. With Magnus now as big as me, and Stella catching up fast, our once luxurious space is becoming cramped, and while the kids used to sleep together in one of the closed cabins, now Magnus sleeps on the dinette table and in the early morning while I’m making coffee I’m treated to the sight of a long, white, gangly mess of knees, elbows, and hair in strange places. Stella is a different story - she just leaves a trail of personal items wherever she goes - long black hairs, hair ties, books, cords, clothes. Ana and I pick up after both of them constantly, but the fact is they don’t have any decent space to store any of their things, and certainly no privacy.

The idea is to try and find a Gemini catamaran. We’ve had our eye on these boats for a long time and they check off many of the things we are looking for in a boat - three closed cabins, two engines instead of one, flat sailing, more space, suitability for installing dinghy davits and solar panels, and best of all these catamarans only have a 14 foot beam, which means they can fit into the standard marina boat slips, which is not the case for larger catamarans. This is the sort of boat we could use to cruise to the Caribbean and live aboard for long stretches of time. Our ultimate goal is to have a large catamaran, but for the current stage of life the Gemini Legacy seems like the right transition boat for us that will serve our purposes on the Great Lakes for the next five years, and allow us to expand our reach more comfortably than we could with Bella Blue.

So that’s our big plan. Ana just posted Bella Blue for sale on a few websites yesterday so we will see what sort of interest we get. If we don’t sell it, that’s perfectly okay and we’d be happy to use her for another season next year in Sarnia. If we do sell her quickly, and it takes us a while to find a replacement, that’s fine too - we will know the right boat when we see it. So for now we are enjoying this beautiful boat while we can, and look forward to being able to sell it to somebody who will have as much fun on her as we did.

After an eight hour sail we made it 59 miles to a beautiful, secluded anchorage on Heywood Island and got ourselves anchored then went for a swim. The water was surprisingly warm at 25 degrees and the plunge felt glorious. HQ2 showed up a few hours later just in time for happy hour, then we joined forces and cooked an amazing meal of beef medallion steaks, port tenderloin, spinach salad, roasted carrots and potatoes, and grilled broccoli. The full bellies and full day put us to bed early and we fully enjoyed our first night in the North Channel.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Exploring Tobermory

The faintest hint of light began to appear around 4am after a dark, moonless and eventful night sailing Lake Huron. By this point I was into my fourth podcast - an excellent interview with Huey Lewis, a second musical one with Tame Impala, then two from Economist Radio, but I was struggling to keep awake and at one point I think I momentarily fell asleep standing up - not good on a boat. So I splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth, then immediately spoiled the brushing by eating half a dozen sour gummy worms and some fuzzy peaches in the hopes that a sugar rush would bring me back to life, but it just made me feel sick. So I made a peanut butter and jam sandwich, which brought some peace back to my stomach.

Ana had recovered and took over from me at the helm around 6am which gave me an hour of sweet coma-like sleep, before rejoining her to bring Bella Blue into dock in Tobermory, arriving shortly before 8am, making it an 11 hour,  71 mile trip and one of our roughest ever. Stella popped her head out just as we finished tying up and looked refreshed and ready to take on the world, blissfully unaware of the goings on the previous night after the end of her shift. I whipped up a mess of bacon, eggs and toast and we all ate a big breakfast, did some boat cleanup, and then I retired for an overdue nap while the rest of my gang went out to explore Tobermory.

HQ2 arrived shortly after noon and Tony and I cracked a beer to celebrate our second big run of the trip, then enjoyed a classic Canadian lunch of Kraft Dinner and hot dogs. They also presented the crew of Bella Blue with a fancy, macrame, swinging chair that Magnus immediately hooked up to the spinnaker halyard and tested out, followed swiftly by Stella. It was certainly a step above the bosun’s chair, with a fancy back and arm rests, and was so interesting that several of the tourists across the harbour waiting in line for the glass bottom boat tour started snapping photos.

We all went for a walk around downtown Tobermory, which is really just the harbour with a bunch of restaurants and tourist shops ringed around it, but an absolutely lovely spot. A huge Haterus power boat, maybe 60 feet long, pulled into the harbour and I was pleased to see the missus, after tossing out the fenders and tying lines while the husband maneuvered the boat into position from the soaring flybridge with a handheld remote control, jump off the multi-million dollar vessel and beeline across to the public washroom for a free pee. See, it doesn’t matter what sort of boat you travel in; paying for holding tank pump-outs sucks so you take the free pees when you can, even if your yacht burns twenty bucks of gas idling while you’re taking a squirt.

After returning to our boats, nearly everybody headed down for a nap, but I was feeling quite fresh after my earlier snooze, so I inflated the paddle board and went out for a lovely paddle into the adjacent bay. Even in the harbour the water is incredibly clear and I could easily see the bottom 25 feet down. Tony had mentioned that he may have some weeds wrapped up in his prop as the boat was dragging a bit, so when I returned I put on a mask and fins and jumped in to investigate, but found no weeds at all on his boat or mine. Since I was in the water anyway, I went for a little snorkeling trip and tried to find the full bottle of Corona beer I accidentally dropped into the water the last time we were docked here, four years ago, but somebody else must have got to it before me.

It wasn’t until about 6:30 that I saw some stirring on HQ2 so I went over and Angela offered me the drink she had just made for Tony, as he was just waking up, so we chatted until Tony appeared.

“Tony,” I said excitedly. “I inspected your shaft and found it to be completely clean with no sign of bush or undergrowth.”

He looked down at his crotch and said, “I’ve got to stop sleeping so soundly.”

While on the dock we saw the most amazing thing. A loon appeared and dove down into the water, then the water started to boil in one spot and he shot up through a school of minnows and broke through the surface with one wiggling around in his mouth! Every time he dove we could easily see him rocketing through the clear water and herding up the minnows before launching in for the attack. It is usually very hard to get close to loons on the water, so we were very lucky to see this.

Earlier in the day Stella had proposed we dine at a fish and chips restaurant she spotted, so we rallied the troops and had a delicious meal accompanied by a pitcher of their finest mediocre ale. It was a hopping place and I was simply shocked at how many tourists and visitors were in Tobermory during COVID time. But everybody wore masks inside shops and many outside too while walking around and people tried to keep their distance. If this is the new normal, I think we are on the right track.

After a stop for ice cream, we retired to our respective boats and called it a night. Tomorrow was going to be another big sailing day so a good sleep was in order.

Eggplant Parmigiana Tastes Better Going Down Than Coming Up

I am up at 5am to check the weather and make the call as to whether we will sail today. I pop my head out of the hatch and see treetops bent over sideways and waves crashing into the harbour entrance, although it is bright and sunny and the humidity is much lower than yesterday. I check the weather map and there are still wind warnings on northern Lake Huron and six foot waves. We decide to hunker down and leave tonight in the hopes that the weather settles. This is an easy decision as we really enjoyed Kincardine yesterday and have more to explore.

The teenagers are still sleeping and dead to the world so Ana and I ditch them and take a lovely walk, this time south along the trail system and we pass by beaches, parks, rock gardens, fancy lakefront mansions, and a hippy van with Quebec license plates and a purple moose painted on one side, paddle boards strapped on top, and no doubt a thick cloud of marijiuana smoke inside from the “wake and bake” session.

We have been tracking the movements of our friends Angela and Tony who will be joining us on this sailing trip in their 36 foot Mainship powerboat, and are currently on their way catching up to us. Yes, we know that power boats and sailboats do not typically travel together, but it seems to be something we’ve always done. It’s probably because deep down we are powerboaters, but just too cheap to spend outrageous amounts of money on fuel. But for those of you who may not be familiar with the stereotypes, let me explain. Powerboaters are all rednecks who love nothing better than filling up a Yeti 250 cooler with 181 cans of the shittiest beer available (Coors Light, Busch, PBR, Miller Light, take yer pick) then driving their boat out to the first available place to drop anchor (which is usually just outside the marina because going any further would require them to blow all their grocery money for the next two weeks on gas). They are usually towing a Sea Doo, a dinghy with oversized engine, giant inflatable pool toys, and a small gas barge with extra fuel, usually leaking a beautiful rainbow sheen of gasoline spillage in their wake. As they leave the harbour they rev their engines up to maximum power to create the largest wake possible in the hopes of swamping any nearby sailboats, canoes, paddleboarders, or even smaller powerboats and they all point and laugh hysterically if they manage to flip somebody. But these are the real adventurous powerboaters - the majority of them never leave the marina, either because their engines are perpetually broken, or because they wouldn’t have a clue where to go since they’ve never left the marina. Where powerboats really shine is on the dock and their dock parties are legendary. They live their lives in a Kid Rock video with buxom bikinied babes everywhere doing the twerk, loud country music blaring from their concert quality stereo system, gasoline powered blenders churning out margaritas, laser light shows, and everybody drinking to the point of unconsciousness. They subsist on hamburgers, hot dogs, and Doritos. They really are a fun bunch.

Sailboaters are a little different. Because they hate people, these weirdos rarely pop their heads out of their 1970’s era junk boats that their grandpa built by himself in his garage. They usually smell, never change their clothes, and when they do socialize it’s only with other sailors and they talk about their favourite knots, try to impress each other by using fancy nautical terms like port, starboard, winch, shackle, athwartship, halyard, and never tire of reliving every breathtaking second of last week’s big sailboat race where the faintest of breeze was pushing them along at 1 knot. They spend all of their time doing patchy repair jobs to their boats using the cheapest materials they can find because function always trumps beauty. Where sail boaters really shine is on race night. They get dressed up in identical sailor outfits, put on fancy gloves, and scream and yell at each other as they race other crappy boats circling pointlessly around buoys. They are sure to remove any amenities from their boats like cooking facilities, toilets, beds, or soft surfaces of any type just to make sure the experience is miserable for everybody. They subsist on dry noodles, black licorice, and warm water. They really are a fun bunch. But you can see how these two groups may not get along so well.

We are surprised to find that Angela and Tony took off early this morning from Sarnia and are due to arrive just after lunch, so we have a late breakfast and hang around the boat until they arrive, cheering them in at the harbour entrance. It is very good to see the again and they are a bit tired out from the trip, so we put on a big pot of chili and serve up a nice hot lunch on the Bella Blue and catch up on our travel stories over the past few days.

The afternoon is spent going for another big walk on the beach collecting rocks and driftwood and Magnus finds a perfect stick and rock to make a formidable tomahawk - an essential tool for sail boating. While walking downtown Stella spots a mouse on the sidewalk, but strangely it only slowly walks away, so upon closer inspection we discover it is actually a gerbil. A free-range wild Kincardine gerbil in fact, and we are tempted to pick it up and bring him along as a new crew member, but then we remember Ana hates rodents so would probably just chuck him overboard once we hit the deep water.

Angela make an amazing eggplant parmigiana for dinner for all of us and we devour it aboard their lovely boat, called “HQ2”. Ten minutes before sunset the bagpiper appears atop the lighthouse and the pipes ring out their mournful tunes. Angela’s folks are from Scotland so she calls her mom on Facetime and she participates in the sundowner with us - it’s all very cool.

But with that, we decide the time has come to make the 71 mile overnight run to Tobermory. The winds have died but the lake is still choppy although the forecast calls for the waves to diminish by midnight and calm down after that. So Bella Blue pushes off at 9pm and we are underway. Once we get out into the lake we find the waves are still five to six feet and it is much rougher than we expected. I head down for a sleep at 10, and when I wake up at 12 it is pitch black outside and the boat is getting tossed around mercilessly and the crew is barely holding on. We send Stella and Magnus down to sleep and I take the helm while Ana lays down prone on the cabin floor to try and get the seasickness under control. But under control is it not, and soon the eggplant parmigiana makes a surprise encore appearance as Ana loses her stomach contents into the toilet, floor, her hair, and her clothes and suffers a full body meltdown. She is a miserable mess and says she has never ever felt so sick on a boat in her life. But being Ana, she miraculously shampoos her hair, cleans up her clothes, and brushes her teeth as the boat continues its ruthless beating at the hands of Lake Huron. While all this is happening the converted table bed Magnus is sleeping on collapses and he falls to the ground. I manage to pry it back into place, secure it properly, then just ten minutes later as Ana is laying there it again crashes down and she rolls across the floor. So instead she puts a cushion on the floor and suffers through the brutal boat ride from there.

I slow the boat down to try and reduce the smashing and it helps a bit but will prolong our journey. I keep watch and by 2 or 3 am the water finally begins to calm down and the only punishment left is simply trying to keep awake.

Exploring Kincardine

It’s 9 o’clock and time to get up after a few hours of sleep. We get dockage sorted with the office and move into a slip that has power so we can fire up Dan the air conditioner to combat the humidity and heat building in the cabin. Once that chilly air starts to flow Magnus proclaims Dan to be the coolest crew member…followed closely by him in second place. We have toast and cereal for breakfast and as we’re eating Stella hits us with some trivia. “See this cereal I’m eating,” she asks. “How do you spell it?”

“F-R-U-I-T  L-O-O-P-S, “ I spell out.

“Nope, it’s F-R-O-O-T  L-O-O-P-S. You lose!” Stella says triumphantly.

“Wow. Not only do they poison your kids, they also teach them to spell incorrectly,” adds Ana.

This is the first time any of us have ever been to Kincardine - a place known for its Scottish heritage. The marina is a little beaten up, but it is in a very nice location with easy access to downtown and the public beaches. It is a warm and muggy day and we depart for a walking tour of the town to see what we can find. The downtown area is nice but there is not much open, although we do find a couple of shops to browse in and a mobile food wagon where we order a poutine and deep fried pickles for a snack. The poutine is excellent but the second item really should have been called “Deep Fried Pickle” as five bucks bought us a single pickle sliced into quarters - nice margin on that one buddy.

We walk north of the marina across a public beach and then along a beautiful shoreline trail that had quant cottages, many of which looked to be original. There are also a number of cute painted rock gardens and then a larger community garden area that lead into another path called “Lover’s Lane”, and I immediately fall in love with my wife all over again because she is DA BOMBA PORTUGUESA! During the walk we did see many other couples in love and people walking and biking, many wearing masks and all keeping their distance.

Dinner is served back on Bella Blue then we all mix up drinks and walk down to the beach to enjoy a sundowner. The sunsets all along the Lake Huron shoreline are incredible and there are often hundreds of people there to enjoy it. Along the way we hear the sounds of a bagpiper and would learn that a bagpiper appears and plays at the top of the lighthouse every evening to bring down the sun and chase out any accordion players. Along the beach we find some giant oversized metal beach chars which we climb and settle into to watch the sun dip into the lake and disappear for another day. Shortly after that, we too disappear for another day, hoping for an early start tomorrow up to Tobermory. We had thought we may leave tonight but the winds are simply too high and we aren’t that keen to face an angry lake after yesterday’s trip.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Sarnia to Tobermory…Not Quite

The crew awakes to a clear, hot, and sunny morning in Sarnia with Dan pumping out delicious cold air into the cabin. Rick had been out to Timmy’s and set up morning breakfast on the dock with coffee, muffins, doughnuts, and Bailey’s for good measure. After enjoying a leisurely coffee on the dock, I took my leaking fuel filter out of the boat, disassembled it, and discovered that two of the fittings were the wrong size and had shredded the threads, which was the obvious culprit for the leak. I took it over to the chandlery shop at the marina and they hooked me up with new fittings and a few other spare parts for the boat and I was able to reassemble the filter, prime it, run the engine for a while and confirm it was finally fixed. Great joy!

We pulled away from the dock around 1:30 and motored out into the raging water of the St. Clair River. As we passed under the Bluewater Bridge, the current was charging through at 5 to 6 knots, stopping our progress to a slow crawl, but we eventually made it through and out into the big lake. And Lake Huron is a big lake indeed and behaves and looks much more like an ocean. We are so incredibly fortunate to live near these amazing Great Lakes and I often think about how many Canadians have only ever experienced them by seeing them on a map. I really think they are our country’s greatest asset and one of the best places in the world to sail and explore.

21 degrees is our heading on the compass as we lock in the autopilot and kick back to enjoy the ride 150 miles northward to Tobermory. After an hour or two of sailing we pull in the sails, slowly glide to a halt, and jump in for the morning shower. The water is a surprisingly warm 26 degrees and with a mask I’m able to see the bottom fifty feet down. As we’re swimming Stella says, “Magnus, what’s that black thing floating around by you?” I see it and swim over as Magnus is craning his neck around trying to figure out what she’s talking about. It looks like a piece of fabric so I reach out and grab it. It’s a ladies’ g-string! And it looks to have floated up from Magnus’ shorts. I lift it up out of the water and say, “Magnus, is there something you want to tell us? Have you met somebody special?” Then I realize they are Ana’s and must have gotten tangled up in his shorts during the dry cycle. I fling them up onto the boat and Ana pins them onto the lifeline to dry, happy to have not lost a pair of fine undies.

We goof around in the water for quite a while then get back underway. The wind is blowing directly from the south, which is pretty good for sailing, but leaves us with very little apparent wind on the boat, making it hot and sticky. I pull out the heavy-duty trolling rod that my buddy Pat loaned to me and drop a line. To make it feel more like fishing I crack a beer and a cigar and prop myself on one of the stern overhang seats and enjoy that beautiful sun. I’m not even too bothered when I don’t get a bite after an hour.

VHF radios have channels for continuous marine weather broadcasts so we monitor that as the hours pass by and we make our way north. There are wind and squall warnings on northern Lake Huron but we hope they will pass by the time we get there. As darkness falls the seas get rougher and rougher and the forecast deteriorates. I head down below for a sleep and when I wake up for my shift just after midnight, there are sheet lightning flashes around us and the crew has seen some lightening hits towards the shoreline. Ana and I listen to the weather and make the decision to cut northeast to find shelter at Kincardine, the closest harbour, but still four hours away. Once we are on course and the sails are set, Ana heads down below to sleep and I stay on watch. It is a moonless night and completely dark except for the stars peeking out from the increasing density of cloud. The winds are strong, but not overpowering, and we still have a bumpy ride and everything gets tossed around inside the boat, including the people.

The last few miles are a killer (they always are in bad weather) but we finally arrive at the entrance to the Kincardine channel and it is small, dark and rough as hell as the river pouring out collides with the waves being pushed in, creating big standing waves. Ana perches on the bow of the boat and helps guide me into the boiling water and we get through it okay and find a dock inside the nicely protected harbour and get the boat securely tied. The 5 am sunlight is starting to pour in, so we jump into bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

The 2020 Sailing Trip Begins

By 5:30 pm we were cruising westward down the 403 highway with Subway sandwiches in hand heading to join Bella Blue in Sarnia - the kick off point for our four week sailing trip to the North Channel and Georgian Bay regions of Lake Huron. We were supposed to be going the other direction towards Pearson airport for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this very evening, but 2020 hasn’t turned out quite the way we expected it to. As Magnus said a few weeks ago, 2020 is the year of abandoned plans. But in the wake of abandoned plans, new plans are hatched, and we find a different way to carry on - and our way is sailing.

We arrive in Sarnia and are greeted by the Bridgeview Marina dock 400 welcoming committee Rick and Patty Kingswood, our old friends from years back when we spent an entire season docked here, and spent many a late evening around a fire with them solving all the problems of the world. We are overjoyed to see them again and they are astounded to see how much our kids have grown.

We immediately get to work on prepping the boat, and one of these jobs is installing the new portable air conditioner unit Ana just bought yesterday. Our onboard a/c unit was giving us some problems and simply stopped working last weekend so we spent all week trying to find replacement parts or a replacement unit, but due to the COVID situation, the Canadian supply had been cut down to nothing and the thought of spending 30 degree days in marinas being slow cooked like pork loins in our boat was unbearable. Ana struggled to even find a portable unit, but she prevailed with a beefy 12,000 BTU Danby model (henceforth to be known as crew member “Dan”), but we had no idea if it was going to fit or how exactly we were going to install it. After 30 minutes Magnus and I had built a venting hatch and we had Dan installed and blowing freezing air into the smoking hot cabin. Incredibly, the unit fit in perfectly, almost like the damn thing was custom built and it became so cold in the boat that we were thinking of hanging up prosciuttos, stocking up on German salamis, pickles, and fancy cheeses and opening “Ana’s Floating Deli”.

While Ana was packing unimaginable quantities of food and drinks into the nooks and crannies of the boat I was squashed into the rear cabin doing advanced yoga moves to access the still leaking primary fuel filter in the engine compartment (see last blog for details on this one). You know, when you look at boats for sale listings, the one photo they never show you is the heroic bodily contortions required to access the engine compartment. Ask any sailboater if they can touch their toes and they will bend over, grab their ankles, then reach all the way back up and give themselves an ass massage with one hand while using the other hand to replace the 1/2" bit on the socket wrench they are holding to a 9/16”.

At the end of my repairs I was left with fuel soaked hands and a aluminum collection cup of diesel I wanted to put back into the tank, so I asked Magnus to grab the engine key, which also holds a little device used to unscrew the cap from the diesel tank, and open up the tank inlet for me, which is located at the stern of the boat. He grabbed the key and began wrestling with the cap, but it was stuck on tight and he couldn’t get it. All important boat things that cannot be lost will be attached to a floating device, but the one attached to the engine key was very old and as far as I knew had never been tested for successful buoyancy. So I said to Magnus, “Be super careful you don’t drop that key because it might not float. If we lose that key we are screwed because I don’t have a spare.” Now a good captain would have stopped the operation right there and tied a string onto it, or attached an extra floatie, or implemented some other sort of failsafe, but I left it in his capable hands. And seconds later those capable hands slipped and the engine key plopped into the water and slowly began its decent down, down, down into the depths.

“Aaaaaggggghhhh!!!!” Magnus screamed and leaped over to the dock, fell to his belly and started clutching at the water, but it was too late - the key was gone. I looked at him sternly, but kept cool and didn’t say anything. Poor Magnus had gone white, no doubt thinking he had just ruined the trip for everybody and had a panicked and sick look on his face. I told him, “Don’t worry buddy, we’ll get it,” and I knew we’d get it because I’d seen this movie before. Years ago when my dad and brothers helped me sail Bella Blue to Sarnia, my dad dropped his phone into the water and I was able to retrieve it so I knew it was a sandy bottom and the water here is crystal clear. So I put on a mask, donned the fins, jumped in, swam right to the bottom and in12 feet of water was my engine key in the sand with the flimsy floatie standing erect, yearning to return to the surface. I grabbed the key, launched myself to the surface, and was met with a chorus of cheering and applause from my children. My reputation as the village diver remains intact.

We didn’t finish our boat jobs until after 11, so were finally able to join Patty and Rick for a visit, and we had a lovely time catching up on several years' worth of news. Earlier this week Ana had suggested we consider leaving the boat in Sarnia for the winter and spending next season there, which would save us the long haul back to Port Dover at the end of our trip, but also give us another chance to further explore Lake Huron. After our visit with our buds, we were decided. And we knew our Port Dover buddies were used to us coming and going every few years. Ana was full of ideas this week, and she came up with another big idea that could potentially change things a lot. But I’ll get back to that one later.

We returned to the boat well after midnight and Ana and I spent another hour flushing out the engine compartment and bilge with fresh water, then collapsed into bed, looking forward to what just may be our last good sleep for a few days.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Boat Repositioning 2020 - From Turkey Point to Sarnia

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.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Are We Going Sailing? 100%!

The other day I was on a work call and somebody asked me if we should take a particular course of action. I said, “100%!” Then I stopped and thought, why the hell did I just say that? I don’t know if it’s just around here, or maybe all over Ontario, or maybe it’s country or continent-wide, but in the past six months or so people have replaced the words “Yes”, “For Sure”, “Absolutely” and “OK” with the term “100%”. And it’s always delivered with the utmost confidence, so that it actually means more than yes. It is an absolutely unwavering yes. It is like a blood pledge. If you say 100% then later it turns out to be wrong, I think it would really damage your reputation, whereas being wrong after a regular yes is no big Hollywood movie. I have yet to hear somebody to say 110%, but if they do then the profundity of that statement would be hard to comprehend.

Where on earth did this come from? And how has it leeched into our everyday speech without anybody noticing it? Are Americans saying it? How about the Aussies? I hope the Brits aren’t. I suppose it is the natural growth of the language, and the English language is known to be rather promiscuous, and not too concerned with the quality or sense of its evolution, unlike the French who police their language with assault rifles and tanks. I admit to being one of those people who gets a little picky about language. For example, earlier this year while visiting our friends down in Ellicottville, NY, Ana and I were browsing through the shops and I found what I believe to be the greatest shirt ever created. It was a white t-shirt with black letters on the front that said, “THERE. THEIR. THEY’RE.” I was ready to buy it until I realized it was nearly thirty bucks, which gets me almost exactly thirty t-shirts from Value Village so I sadly put it back on the rack. But I still dream about that inspiring product and hope they’re thinking of selling their shirts both there and here.

I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with saying 100% instead of yes, I would just like to know who thought it up and started spreading it around. Probably Kevin Bacon.

In other non-grammar related news, today Bella Blue departs for the first leg of her journey, with my brother Marty, my cousin-in-law Adam, and myself completing the crew. The weather in south-western Ontario has been hot and dry and beautiful for three weeks. The next four days (the expected duration of the sail from here to Sarnia) is expected to the thunderstormy, overcast, and wet. Then it goes back to sunny and hot. This is the story of sailing, and life really.

We’ve had our boat docked at our friends Tony and Angela’s cabin at Turkey Point for the past couple of weeks and have been busy with boat maintenance projects – fixing the wind instrument, tightening keel bolts, fixing leaks, changing hoses, replacing filters, refinishing wood, and so on. I had to climb up to the top of the mast twice – a terrifying job if there ever was one – but fortunately it stayed upright and I did not die. We installed a new spinnaker line which has opened up all sorts of possibilities for new fun and injuries on the boat. We tied an empty yellow Prestone antifreeze bottle to the end of it and used it as a fantastic rope swing. We used it to hoist the kids up in the boson’s chair while underway, allowing them to float around and get a lovely ride. In more practical terms, we’ll be able to use it to winch up our dingy onto the boat deck instead of how we used to do it, which usually resulted in crippling back spasms, scratches in the fiberglass, stretched life lines, and a lot of yelling and screaming.

So after all that work the Bella Blue is ready to sail. Marty has been with me on two previous boat moves and just last year Adam helped us sail her through the Welland Canal so I have no doubt this crew will take us through to our destination in fine form. We are looking at a few very long sailing days (traveling 450 kilometres over about 50 hours), but hopefully the winds are favourable, temperatures are good, boat performs well, beer stays cold, and we don’t get forked by lightning along the way.

Let's sail!