“Would you like a cup of tea?” I called up through the companionway over the thrum of the diesel. “Please!” replied Hans, and I passed him the mug. I saw him warm his hands on its sides before he drank. It was October 20, the brittle sun gave no heat, and we were setting off for a 3-day cruise amongst the Georgian Bay Islands north of Midland.
Fall cruising has its pluses and minuses but the greatest plus was quite obvious: there wasn’t a soul on the lake! The southeast corner of Georgian Bay is home to over 3000 slips, but at that moment you wouldn’t know it. Gazing south down the channel towards the Wye river, east to Beausoleil with its usually busy south shore, west into Penetang’s Outer Harbour, or north into the open lake, we could see only one boat: a commercial “turtle-back” fisherman surrounded by a cloud of sea gulls. We owned the whole place. We were Admirals of All the Waters. The summer crowds – crowds that normally make that channel resemble Highway 400 North on a Friday night – were a distant memory.
“Can you pass me my gloves, please?” Hans asked. The steel wheel was obviously cold on the hands.
Back at Bay Moorings, eyebrows had been raised when we pulled in to go cruising. As I bought ice at the Office, Mary, behind the desk, said, “I bet I won’t sell much more of that this year!” In fact the yard crew had been busy all week lifting boats onto cradles. We were bucking the trend. Yet Drake III, our old ketch, is planked with cypress-on-oak, and I always leave it in until the very end of the season to prevent (as much as possible) its planks drying out over the winter. We had the time off, the boat was in the water, the forecast was acceptable, the fall colours were calling, so why rush to the cradle?
Besides – we had a secret weapon to keep warm. More about that later.
The long lean hull of Drake (35ft on the waterline, 40ft LOD, 46ft LOA, 10ft beam) parted the waters as we motored to Sawlog Point. We were supposed to be sailing. The forecast had called for rising easterly winds all afternoon followed by a gale warning for overnight. We were supposed to be running free, wind on the quarter – contemplating setting up the spinnaker. That’s why we’d planned to spend the cruise around Beckwith, Hope and Christian Islands. That Easterly wind was supposed to take us out there, provide fast and thrilling sailing on the next day, then move north and soften to allow us an easy return passage. The bulk of the Islands would provide us with shelter at night and a breakwater during the day. That was Plan A.
But reality was different. We motored in a calm.
Passing Beausoleil Island we admired the colours. The maples had turned, and the fiery leaves were about to drop. Great swathes of orange and red punctuated the forests. The air was chilly – no more than 9C or so – but the sun was bright and cheery. We both savoured the feeling of “starting out”, that delicious sensation of an Adventure beginning! We were a pair of enthusiastic sailors with a distinctive and serviceable vessel, 3 days off, and the entire lake at our command, waiting to be claimed.
I live for moments like that.
A few cat’s paws disturbed the surface. I went to raise the sails – more out of hope than for any other reason. The main halyard winch-handle was cold in my hand as I stood at the mainmast, cranking away. The sail went up stiffly. After I slacked off the topping lift and coiled the fall down onto its belaying pin (nothing is modern on Drake), I went aft for gloves before raising the jib. And pulled on a toque as well.
Gentle puffs from the south nudged us along, but the little diesel kept thrumming away. Under the 3 lowers we made our lonely way towards Beckwith. That, and nearby Christian and Hope Islands are the home of the Beausoleil First Nation. Their community is on Christian Island. They have left Beckwith and Hope undeveloped, with the pleasant result that a wild, reasonably-protected set of anchorages lie within an easy day-sail of busy Midland and Penetang. The shores of these islands are undisturbed, and natural stands of maple and hemlock and pine stretch down to wide and picturesque beaches. Nothing like this exists at the west end of Lake Ontario. I wonder sometimes if the boaters using these islands realize how lucky they are. Sometimes the BFN charges a fee for camping on shore – and this is only reasonable, since they often go to the effort of clearing the poison ivy and setting up picnic tables and portable toilets and so on – but they do not begrudge people the opportunity to walk under the trees and get the sand of the beautiful beach in between their toes.
“Better make for the other side,” I remarked. An easterly gale in the forecast would make Beckwith East untenable.
“Sounds good,” replied Hans, and he steered to round the north end of the island.
It was pleasant to have nothing to do for a few moments. This season had seen us on-the-hard until mid-July while I stripped the old canvas off the cabin roof (did I mention this boat was not modern?) and replaced it with a new covering. Since then we’d been trying to pack as much sailing as possible into what time remained. There hadn’t been much time for just sitting. I wandered up to the bowsprit and perched on the thick oak planks. I dangled my feet over and watched the cutwater open a passage for her long, slim form. Drake, leaner than modern designs, moved through the water like a canoe. It was a most pleasant, efficient motion. I knew this was the last cruise of the year. I tried to memorize the moment.
Rounding Beckwith, Hans called for the sails to be brought down, and I got to work. I blessed the newly-rigged lazyjacks that prevented the mizzen from falling onto the helmsman’s head, and wondered why I hadn’t installed some on the main. It felt odd to be wearing rubber boots on deck when my feet were far more accustomed to sandals, but there was no warmth in the early-setting sun. Wool socks were welcome.
Thinking of the gale warning, I inspected the anchor closely. (Problems with anchors always manifest themselves at 02:30. In a howling wind. In the blackest part of the night. In driving rain.) I checked the splice, the lock-wire on the shackle-pins, and looked for chafe and corrosion. Beckwith West is sand over hard clay, so the anchor I chose (Drake has 4, all different – I take anchoring seriously) was an old modified fisherman-style type called a Northill. Its sharp flukes are perfectly pointed for getting into weed and clay. It came to me as an heirloom from my grandfather’s brother and is the only one on board that has never dragged. I left it hanging from its roller on the side of the bowsprit as we idled into the anchorage. I also readied the spare, a heavy plough, set to drop at a moment’s notice from its roller on the other side.
As the water shallowed I signaled Hans to slow. It was so clear that depth was hard to judge. I’d cranked up the steel-plate centerboard so we only drew 3ft 4in, but with the zebra mussels cleaning up the water, 6ft looks like 16, so I deployed my “Stone Age Depth Gauge”. (Now, I realize that every boat on Lake Huron has a depth sounder, but when Drake’s antique whirl-a-gig model failed, I did not replace it. Most of the hard rock on Georgian Bay’s east shore is so steeply-rising that the bow can easily be crunched while the transducer in the stern still indicates 20ft. So I have reverted to an older technology – I stand on the bowsprit and feel for the bottom with the 16ft-long spruce mast of my sailing dinghy. This source of information is always deadly accurate and in a pinch I can push the bow around quickly if we are going where we shouldn’t.)
“Twelve feet – sand,” I called to Hans. “Eight feet…” I motioned him to put the engine into neutral. “Six…” Enough wind had risen that we stopped in a couple of boat lengths. I lowered the Northill hand-over-hand to the bottom. As Drake began to drift astern I payed out the chain and then the nylon. I wanted a perfect set. As the 60ft marker went through my hands I snubbed the line on the big galvanized cleat. We had no other boats to worry about swinging into and I let out another 10ft for luck.
“Idle reverse,” I signaled. Then, a minute later, all holding, “Faster RPM.”
She held, as I knew she would, but to make sure I felt the bottom with the pole. At ¾ throttle, in reverse, she was motionless. I signaled “Neutral.” Hans let her idle for a few minutes to let the motor cool and then hit the cut-off. The rattle stopped and we were done.
The feeling of solitude immediately struck us. We were far more accustomed to seeing dozens of boats in here – on the east side, perhaps 50 or more – but on this evening, not a soul; not a boat anywhere within sight.
We hopped in the dinghy to go on shore. The varnished pine of the 10 ft pram gleamed in the softening light. A few strokes on the oars carried us away, and then I stopped. The setting sun was just over the trees of Christian Island, and filled the anchorage with a warm, yellow-gold radiance. Drake positively glowed. Her bright-finished spars, her rich green trim, the deep mahogany of her transom and coamings soaked up the light like sunflowers after a long rain. She was luminous in the way that only a well-cared-for yacht can be.
We rowed back, got our cameras and tried as best we could to capture the moment.
On shore we strolled up the dunes and across the narrow neck of land that forms the waist of the island. It was already darkening under the maples and oaks. Beckwith East was also deserted. We walked along the waterline in our rubber boots, noticing that the wind was indeed starting to rise out of the east, pushing wavelets onto the sand at our feet.
“Could’ve used that a few hours ago,” Hans remarked wryly.
“I’ll bet we have plenty for tomorrow.”
Going back, we paused at the top of the dunes and looked out over the anchorage. The last of the sunset made Drake look all the more isolated – no boats, not a trace of anything man-made anywhere in sight. She rode to her anchor serene, alone, untroubled. We paused, enjoying the scene, exposing more film.
Then we launched the dinghy and went for a pull around the anchorage. It’s a pleasure to row a well-designed little boat (which must have 2 sets of oarlocks so that it can be trimmed to ride flat with 2 people on board, and it must have long enough oars – 7-footers at least, in the case of this 10 ft pram). The “10-Spot” (my own design) carried her way well and slipped easily over the water. The long, even strokes felt sinuously pleasant in the muscles of the back and shoulders. (Why is it that people row an inflatable once and condemn such activity forever? It’s like tasting vinegar and condemning fine wine.) I enjoyed the lift and pull of the boat with each stroke. I often “row down the sun” while cruising, and valued this one all the more for knowing it was nearly the last one. I would’ve derived neither use nor pleasure from a motor on such a night.
Back on board we sat in the cockpit, our backs to the cabin bulkhead and feet pulled up, watching the light fade in the western sky. I brought out a bottle of single-malt, a gift from friends from an earlier cruise. I poured us each a healthy tot.
“The wind is rising,” said Hans. Drake was starting to tack very gently.
“Late, but as-forecast. It’ll be a cold night.” Sure enough the temperature was dropping as the wind picked up. “Good thing we’ve got the heater.”
I glanced below. There, perched securely on the centerboard trunk, was our Secret Weapon – the wood stove. I have a long history of wilderness camping, particularly in winter, and have learned to value these small, northern, sheet-metal stoves. I’ve made many in my little shop at home (improvising metal-bending breaks and pop-riveting the units together). They work well, and I’d made one for Drake. It was a simple box, 9 x 9 x 21, with a door in the front and draft-control, and a stovepipe outlet from its upper back corner. Drake’s centerboard trunk has an inspection slot at its forward end. This lends itself to a bayonet-style mount for the tray that holds the stove. Several spaced layers of thin sheet-metal baffle the heat from spoiling the varnished surface of the table, and right overhead is the skylight. It was no trouble at all to make a simple thimble to fit the skylight opening, so the stovepipe went straight up through and terminated in a small “Charlie-Noble”.
“About time to light it.”
I agreed and went down below. Our supplies for this trip included a sack of carefully selected pieces from my woodpile, bone-dry and split fine, as well as kindling and tinder. It was the work of only a few moments to light the fire. Soon the pleasant smell of burning birchbark and spruce drifted aft.
“Smells like ‘Up North’!” joked Hans.
“It’ll probably feel like ‘Up North’ here later!” I replied.
Cold weather cruising is no fun without a source of heat in the cabin. If the boat has nothing other than a cooking stove that burns alcohol or fossil fuels, its use generates moisture, which then condenses on the cold walls and runs down in endless drips. It gathers on the overhead surfaces and drops on you. There is no way to dry wet gloves and socks. Endurable, but unpleasant.
A wood-stove, or some other form of vented heater transforms a cold, damp little kennel into a cheery haven. Its pervading, lovely heat permeates the cabin, drying clothing and bedding and restoring cold flesh and weakened spirits. There’s nothing cozier than a well-drawing wood stove on a cold, windy night. Comfort is a function of contrasts.
I set a kettle on the flat top of the stove for later and set about heating dinner on the kerosene cooker.
Later, well-stuffed, we went on deck. The wind had risen to 10-15 kts. Drake has good manners at anchor. Her long keel and mizzenmast help to steady her. She tacked very gently in the breeze. The last light faded from the western sky and stars appeared overhead. It was cold, and the drifting smoke from the stovepipe was not unwelcome. I lit a cigar and Hans said he wished he’d brought his pipe. We chatted amicably, talking about past trips and future plans and other things. Our separation from the everyday world seemed complete. We could see a few lights on the distant mainland from the ferry landing opposite Christian Island, but other than that our anchor light was the only spark to be seen.
It had been a long day, so we turned in early. I was tired and had no trouble drifting off. Neither did Hans. His gentle snoring started before I even had my blankets adjusted.
At 03:00 a rising level of noise brought me out of sleep. The east wind, as forecast, had strengthened. I got up to have a look around. It was frigid on deck – no more than 5 C and blowing 25 kts. I zipped my down-parka all the way up. Before I switched on a light I let my dark-adjusted eyes search the shoreline for signs of drift. The dim silhouette of the trees against the stars appeared not to have changed. Neither had the wind direction, so we were well protected. I snapped on my headlamp and inspected the foredeck – anchor rode ran at a gentle angle over the roller; no chafe. Good. Overhead, a rhythmic slapping advertised a loose halyard, and I flipped it back into its hook on the spreader, tightening the fall on the belaying pin. One last look around… all secure, back to bed, shivering.
In daylight, a gusty 25kts swooped upon us from the waist of Beckwith Island, raising hard ripples on the shallow water. The Marine Forecast promised up to 30. The sun shone from an unblemished sky, but delivered no warmth. Out beyond the island, in the open channel to Hope Island, we could see the white-topped swells charging by. Blustery day… parka, gloves, toque – full winter kit.
After a bacon-eggs-toast-juice-and-coffee breakfast (damn the cholesterol, full calories ahead!), we prepared for the day’s sailing. I rigged the storm jib on its inner forestay, put 2 reefs in the main and one in the mizzen. Several bitter experiences have taught me how much easier this is in the anchorage than in an over-pressed, wildly lurching, steeply-heeled vessel. Why sail at all on such a windy, cold day? Because if you can arrange it to be done in protected waters, it’s fun, that’s why! As long as you aren’t fighting steep 8-footers, why not? We’d picked this route specifically to give us this tempestuous day in the lee of Beckwith and Christian Islands, and for once the forecast was matching the Plan. Beside, the ketch rig allows easy shortening of sail, while retaining a balanced helm.
The anchor rope was cold even through the fisherman rubber gloves I was wearing. Normally we’d sail off the hook in a wide-open spot like this, but today the drag of the wind in the rigging encouraged us to motor up to the anchor. I snubbed the line short as we passed overhead and let our momentum break it out. “Aweigh!” I called to Hans. He killed the engine. I cleated the chain with the anchor slightly awash (it was covered with hunks of clay – our passage would clean it) and stepped to the mast to raise the main before we turned downwind. The winch moved the shortened sail up easily. I nodded to Hans as we drifted astern. In rapid sequence he spun the wheel, the boat pivoted, the wind came abeam, the mainsail filled hard, he let the sheet well out, Drake started moving forward, and he completed the turn downwind.
I stepped onto the bowsprit and looked over the side. A cloud of clay and sand streamed off the anchor. I hauled on the chain to splash it a few times, and it came up clean. By the time I’d raised it the rest of the way, coiled down and made all secure, Beckwith was well astern.
“Five knots already!” exclaimed Hans. “With just that little main!”
A hard wind indeed… I went down below to make double-certain that our things were well stowed for sea.
We steered to round the north end of Christian Island with a “soldier’s wind” right behind us. Soon we were running down the big swells which funneled between the islands. I went forward and raised the little storm jib so we could run “wing and wing”. Running is not Drake’s favourite point of sail, but with the jib poled out she balanced and eased Hans’ job at the wheel. This was delightful! A wind of 30kts doesn’t seem nearly as strong when you’re running with it! Too bad it had to end. In less than an hour we’d passed the narrows between Hope and Christian, crossed the open bight of Sandy Bay, and left behind Christian’s NW spit. I stowed the whisker-pole, jibed the little jib, and we turned to port for a beam reach southward along Christian Island’s west shore.
I raised the reefed mizzen to balance her. She heeled a bit more and laid her course nicely. The wind was more fitful now, coming off the land; sometimes easing, sometimes striking us in concentrated gusts over 30kts. Drake’s long keel and spread-out sail plan came into her own. She bore the gusts easily, now laying over to 30 degrees, now rolling back nearly upright, all the while speeding along at 6-7kts with no great effort at the helm.
“How about a bite?” asked Hans.
“Sounds good!” I disappeared below to make lunch on the old Shipmate stove. It’s Primus burners can be difficult to maintain, but its weight and gimbals are perfect for cooking while the boat rolls. Hot food and hot drinks keep a helmsman happy! (Have you ever seen the way a cold crewmen eats a hot, hard-boiled egg? They hold it first in one hand, then the other, warming frigid fingers; then rub it over cold cheeks, and only later, as the heat fades, do they crack and eat it.)
As we sped along the coast, mid-day came and went, and the wind veered gradually ahead. What had started as a broad reach eventually became a close-haul. Drake bore it well. She’s not the most efficient boat to windward, but she gets by. It was pleasurable, as always, to play with the wheel, taking advantage of gusts and sudden shifts to work her upwind. To play in a strong wind and a moderate sea is great fun. The spray from the bow flew in sparkling arcs, landing on the cabin roof well in front of us. The drops glistened in the afternoon sun.
By the south end of Christian we could no longer hold our course along the shore and made several tacks, heading almost straight at the land on one board and not-quite-parallel on the other. The island ends in a long, low, south-protruding spit, and as we brought it abeam the full strength of the wind struck. Drake laid over, gunwale-dipping from time to time in the heavy gusts, but kept her manners and showed no tendency to “round-up” out of control when pressed. (There is something to be said for balance in a hull, as well as sail plan, and the graceful, overhanging stern that adds to her waterline when heeled.) Still in protected water, she raced along. When we turned the corner, rounding Christian and heading back to Beckwith, we continued to tack upwind, now working into 4-footers. A few hard slaps and we were through, back in the passage between the islands to our anchorage of the previous night. We held one long, close tack all the way there. We even anchored under sail back in our old spot, dousing the jib at the last minute and letting the mizzen weather-cock us into the wind as the anchor rode ran out.
Sail covers on (we planned on making lots of wood smoke this night), lines coiled and stowed, I went below to put the kettle on and discovered a breakdown: the stove was leaking kerosene from a connection at the base of one of the burners. I tried tightening it (owners of old wooden boats carry large tool boxes) but no luck – stripped! I tried packing the fitting with Teflon tape – same leak. I was scuppered! There was no way to isolate that burner from the rest of the pressurized fuel system. I searched my trays of parts for a plug – nope, nothing with that thread or diameter.
No matter. While I was swearing at the plumbing, Hans had lit the wood stove, and he was already ensconced in the starboard berth, feet up, tin mug of scotch in hand, soaking up the heat radiating from the sheet-metal box. The stove ticked and creaked occasionally as the wood inside flared. One side of Hans’ face was tinged red from its warmth.
“Why not just use this?” He gestured at the stove.
“We’ve got a meat pie, a tortiere. I was going to use the oven.”
“How about one frying pan upside down over another?”
“The pie will burn in a frying pan.”
“Have you got anything to use as a spacer?”
I immediately thought of the toast-rack, and that’s what we used. It lay on the stove-top, the pie was in a frying-pan on that, and another inverted on top served as a lid.
We lit the lamps, played the first hand of cribbage of the night, sipped the fine single-malt, and in time the lovely smell of heating pie-crust permeated the boat. Our moths watered. Our stomachs rumbled.
We ate it to the very last crumb.
Before bed we went on deck for another anchor-check. Again we were struck by the contrast. It was still blowing 20 knots. The temperature was just above freezing. The chill bit hard into exposed skin. The night was dark as pitch – no stars, no moon, and no lights on any shore. The smell of the wood-smoke on deck was completely foreign to our normal summer, warm-weather sailing. We checked the lines for the dinghy and the anchor, then hustled down below to the warmth and the cheerful yellow glow of the lamp-lit, cozy cabin.
There are forecasts and forecasts, and all of them are just educated guesses, and the weather we faced next morning was not according to Plan A. It was supposed to have backed into the north. It did not. I still blew out of the east, right in our teeth. (I have a memory – which I cherish – of a friend who called the weather office once, after just such a change, demanding “some sort of accountability!”) But 15-20 knots is no big deal for a well-found vessel, and so we set off under working jib and full mizzen. There was no trace of the sun anymore, just a gray windy day, low cloud, and occasional showers of cold rain.
It was a trick, a lure, a deception. Once we worked our way out in the clear, tacking eastward from Beckwith Island, the wind rose to 30kts again. Occasionally it would gust harder, and the cold, dense air would strike the yacht like a physical blow. She’d quiver with the impact. She needed less sail, and I had the cold, wet job of changing to the storm jib. The foredeck was awash at times, plunging heavily and unpredictably, and the old sail had to be physically removed so the new one could be hanked-on. (Roller furling? Did I mention….?) It was strictly a job for a person with a good grip, a harness, a PFD, and a healthy concern for one’s future prospects. The wind howled, the boat bucked and plunged and rolled, the spray flew, but strangely, it was fun! Out on the bowsprit (which on Drake is a wide affair made of thick oak planks), caged by a well-secured pulpit, I was ahead of the flying water, and the up-and-down roller-coaster was exhilarating. Once, as the sprit dropped so suddenly I floated free for a second, I gave a great hoot! and grinned back at the wheel. Hans looked concerned, but seeing the glint of my teeth hollered, “Get back to work!”
I returned wet and a bit bruised, but the boat’s motion eased, and we aided her further by taking a reef in Drake’s rather large mizzen. This was simplicity itself, being done from the security of the cockpit. I marveled at the contrast.
Drake is a lovely vessel, and no skipper likes to be disloyal, but the dark truth of the matter is that in 30-plus kt winds, and 6 ft seas, she has to reduce sail to the point that her upwind progress (long shallow keel, centerboard, ketch rig) is seriously reduced. Hans had an appointment to keep in the evening, but he was gracious enough to decide to cancel, rather than drive the boat so hard. He suggested that we tack under the lee of Methodist Point and wait for the wind to ease. (He’s a fine adventure-companion, Hans: sensible, cheerful and strong.) So we changed the plan and worked up in the protected water, under the shelter of the maples and pines, and dropped the hook.
There is always such a lovely contrast in moments like that. One minute you’re in a maelstrom – the next in an oasis of peace.
The quickest way to restore the body and refresh the mind is through food, so I dragged-up an old single-burner camp stove that was on board and made a 1-pot-special soup, thick with meat and egg and cheese and vegetables, and a stack of bread and butter to go with it, followed by several cups of hot sweet tea. We went back on deck with the tea. To the north, beyond the Point, the tall angry horses charged past, full of fury and power.
“A couple of hours yet, I imagine.”
Then, to be honest, we each took a nap. Some might consider this a negligent disregard of schedule and progress. I prefer to think of it as vital preparation. The wind in the rigging moaned, the boat tacked gently in the gusts, the showers came and went, and down below we snoozed away the gale….
By late afternoon there were breaks in the gray sky, the wind in the rigging sang a lower note, and we upped-anchor and carried on. The gusts were now 20-30 rather than 30-40, and the beat upwind (knowing a snug berth lay at the end of the route) was pure fun – a bit wet, a bit cold in the face, but exhilarating. Rounding Sawlog Point I raised the reefed main, and the final broad reach down Penetang’s outer harbour was at hull-speed in protected water, showing 8 kts at times, with the dinghy (hauled up close with the tow-line running over the rail) water-skiing along on its flat after-section, and tossing it’s wake freely to each side.
As always, putting the boat away was strictly an anti-climax. Last cruise of the season…. We cleaned and packed up without talking much. The events of the cruise still ran strongly though our minds. There was no more of that this year – only the work of laying-up for winter.
On the dock Hans and I shook hands, vowed to get on the water early next year, and went our separate ways. I stopped and looked back at the boat one last time. As always, her lovely sheer and fine lines impressed me. She’d come through the hard sailing without a scratch. I felt proud to be her skipper.
Most of her dock-mates were already on the hard and she looked lonely in her slip, but clean and serviceable. Ready for another adventure.
I vowed not to disappoint her.