On Canada’s Great Lakes, there’s usually either too much or not enough wind.
But when the weather is perfect, it’s really wonderful. When we tell friends in England that we sail on a lake, they imagine something like Windemere in the Lake District, or a pond like the local gravel pit near Oundle, Northamptonshire, where as a schoolboy I learned to sail dinghies. Hardly.
The Great Lakes, consisting of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario form the Earth’s largest group of fresh water lakes, with 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water at 94,250 square miles (almost a quarter million square kilometres). Our own Lake Ontario is one of the smallest at merely 7,340 square miles (19,000 square k.) Its about 190 miles long (311 k.) and 50 miles wide (85 k.) and is about one third the size of the English Channel, so there’s plenty of opportunities for cruising.
Like the English Channel, the lakes can throw up some mighty storms. and the waters abound with shipwrecks. Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in song. It disappeared in a November storm in 1975, on Lake Superior, the last major freighter to be lost with all hands on the lakes.
Peccavi, my 27 foot sloop, is a tough and seaworthy boat and I would trust her in the vilest weather, though we don’t venture out later than September. This trust is based on experience, for she has seen out a few storms on the lake. On one occasion, returning from Wilson, NY, a nasty line of black appeared on the horizon to the west. Nothing serious had been forecast, but little line squalls can pop up any time when the weather is hot and humid. I had time to take down my jib and stow it below – in those days I had not yet invested in a roller furling affair which does the job in seconds – and put a couple of reefs in the main sail. I asked the crew to go below and pass up first, my foul weather gear and second, my life jacket, but before I could get anything on, the squall had hit.
To put things into perspective: we had been sailing along in what the Beaufort Scale describes as a moderate breeze, or about 15 knots, when in seconds the wind speed grew to about 30 knots, or a near gale. I had two options, run into the wind, fighting the waves that were sure to arise, and rely on my tiny eight-horsepower single-cylinder diesel engine. Or change course before things got worse, run before the storm, and hope it blew past me. As I was turning the boat, still on a relatively flat lake, the wind speed picked up again. Now it was blowing at more than 35 knots, described as gale force winds.
The definition of a gale on the scale, invented by and named after a Royal Navy Admiral a couple of centuries ago, is as follows: moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift; well-marked streaks of foam blown along the wind direction; considerable airborne spray. Not to mention the driving rain hitting my face and stinging like hail. With our handkerchief of sail let right out, we roared along, quite surpassing our normal top boat speed as we surfed down the waves. For about half an hour we just hung on and toughed it out. My boat has a tiller rather than a wheel and the pressure on it from the following waves was immense, but I dare not let go, for to do so would allow the boat to turn sideways to the wind and broach. Sounds better than capsize, but that would be the result if the wind blew full strength on the side of the hull.
Eventually the squall passed, the sun broke out, I put on dry clothes, and checked the GPS for our position. We had been blown nearly 30 miles off course. We resumed our journey to the Ontario side, eventually found land as the afternoon wore on and then on engine power alone, slogged into the much disturbed lake for what seemed like hours, to get back to safe haven in Toronto harbour.
The facilities on Peccavi are well organized, but a tight fit. In the bow (pointy end) there is a V-berth arrangement, which sleeps two in a very cosy manner. Under the bunk is a fresh water tank and a sewage holding tank. Nothing gets pumped into the lake, which has improved water quality enormously over the years. Then there is a little space with a head and wash basin to port (left) and a hanging locker to starboard (right). To get some privacy the locker door folds out one way and the head door folds out the other. Then coming aft again, there is the main cabin. A bench down the port side makes up into a decent single bunk, and a bench on the starboard side works for small people in an emergency. One of the cushions comes off and they have to sleep with their feet in the base of the hanging locker.
A complex folding table is fastened up against the bulkhead, but comes down and provides a decent eating space for four. The main cabin is tall enough to walk around if one is under six feet. The aperture between cabins is much lower and has a brass sign on it: ‘No bloody swearing.’ My Dad gave it to me when I was about 20. He said I would need it one day. Aft (towards the back) of the bunks there is a small galley with a two-burner gimballed alcohol stove, much safer than propane, where one can make a cup of tea or heat up some hot soup on a long watch. On the other side there’s a deep ice-box, that keeps things cool the old fashioned way, with a new block of ice every couple of days. Everywhere one looks, behind, below and underneath, there is storage, wonderfully arranged to stow everything we need for a short overnight trip.
Of course, we have the full complement of life jackets, our own and extra foul weather gear for guests, spare dry clothes, towels, safety flares, a full tool bag, spare GPS, spare VHF radios and much more. In the cockpit at the stern (back) there’s not much room when we are sailing. Sometimes the boat tips at an angle of more than 25 degrees and the leeward rail touches the water. That’s when things get interesting. We sit with our feet propped on the opposite locker so we don’t slide off the benches, though Diane finds this a struggle as she’s not very tall. In the four lockers we’re sitting on, there are more supplies, spare sails, mooring lines, fenders and bailing equipment. We feel confidently equipped and we have never, touch wood, had to use any of our safety gear.
I’m passionate about sailing. Even now, when I get on the boat, the indications of age magically melt away. I plan to keep going until the funeral pyres are burning.
Have a look at my You Tube video: you’ll see a man really enjoying himself sailing in Toronto Harbour.
CREDITS: Many thanks to Ron Shaw of Magnacom, who did the fine camera work, David Barkworth who skippered the chase boat Dab Hand, and Amy McConnell of Femme Cachée Productions, who re-edited the original footage down to a minute and found the ideal piece of music on the Forrest Gump soundtrack.
This article was originally posted on July 30, 2013. The video was originally shot in 2009.