Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Not A Sailboat At All – Navigating the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario, Canada

"Kuan Yin" at anchor in a bay on Lake simcoe, Ontario, Canada.

It’s what no sailor with a sailboat wants to do voluntarily —  taking down our masts to make a journey.  If we did. we wouldn’t have sailboats.

Yet after a spectacular journey this summer with both masts down, I can heartily recommend a transit through the Trent Severn Waterway – from Trenton, on Lake Ontario, up through the backwoods of a southern Ontario to Port Severn, on the south-eastern corner of Georgian Bay.  A distance of 386 kilometres (241 miles).

The waterway itself is worth the journey but if you don’t want to go all that way only to turn around and come back, consider the promise of sailing in Georgian Bay.  The character of the water is quite different on Lake Huron on Lake Ontario.  The landscape is wilder, with only a few cottages in sight and plenty of rocks and trees.  If your boat is trailerable, then a trip up the Trent-Severn, a turn round Georgian Bay and home again would make an excellent excursion in 2008.

The only restriction that concerns sailboats is the depth of the water.  Boats drawing under six feet should be able to make it through even the shallow parts, depending on the seasonal level of the water.  After reaching a high point in July, the level of the waterway gradually falls as summer itself fades.  The challenge is not so much the declared depth as the narrowness – in places  – of the channel.  Vigilance is definitely necessary.  My ketch “Kuan Yin” draws only four feet five inches yet I went aground twice and on another occasion the stern was sucked down and I’m sure we were ploughing the bottom.

Throughout the waterway, the channel is well marked with buoys, lots of buoys, but wander out of the centre of the channel and in some places you’ll come to a serene stop or get tangled in the weeds.  And lacking a tide to get you off, you might be there a while.

I went aground twice on the first day.  Both times were entirely my own fault, and let them be a cautionary tale of others.  I told the friend travelling with me, who knew nothing about boats, to make a circle inside the green buoys  as we approached the first lock and had to wait.  Obediently he steered to the other side of the buoys and as he began to turn…the inevitable.  (I was preoccupied laying out dock lines.)  With a fast rearranging of weight on the deck, we got off quickly.

Later that same day we were not so lucky.  I asked at the first lock for charts and was told by the helpful lockkeeper I could buy them at the 4th lock and that, anyway, the channel was well marked.  So I broke a cardinal rule and went on without charts.  Two hours later, unsure exactly where was the channel, we ran aground.  This time no running the anchor chain aft or half a dozen other tricks did the job.

Miraculously, two men arrived in a speed boat.  They were out reading in the quiet corner of the lake and offered, first to tow and when that didn’t work, to take me to the local boatman with a barge.  The boatman promised to come next morning and our genial helpers invited us back to their cottage for wine and cheese.  Not such a bad episode after all.

The boatman came in the morning.  “Kuan Yin”, a lady of steel, had to be lifted with a crane off the bottom and pulled free.  Cost: $300.  Ouch!  But it could have been worse.  Imagine if the boatman had had to come five miles through some of the locks to reach us.  I learned my lesson.

Fortunately the financial pain was soon forgotten in the beauty of the rugged wilderness.  Yes, a lot of the lakes are ringed with so many cottages it’s like driving very, very slowly passed houses in the suburbs.  But the variety of cottages is endlessly fascinating.

Preparing to enter the lift that takes boats up and over the hill on railway tracks.

There are 44 locks on the Trent Severn and the mere thought of going through them was, at first, quite daunting.  Going off into the open lake and coming home to a swing mooring does not give much practice for the manoevring with the water sometimes bubbling under the boat.  However, the lock keepers were unfailingly helpful, though it was noticeable – and not just by me – that the staff nearer Georgian Bay took a lot more interest in the people and the boats than the people near Lake Ontario.  There’s all the difference in the world between, “Let me take your line for you,” said with a cheery smile, and a call of, “Do you need help?” uttered from a distance.  I‘m not complaining, just pointing out something that several boaters, Canadian and American, remarked upon.

One think I do complain about – and wrote to Parks Canada about also, is the fee for mooring at night at the locks.  To transit the entire waterway one way cost $4.45/foot this year.  A bargain.  But that is spoiled by the charge of more than $30 a night (depending on the length of the vessel) for the privilege of waiting to pass through a lock in the morning.  There are no facilities at the locks. (There are toilets, but these are free during the day.)  There’s not even a shower to soften the blow of the extortionate pricing.

Unless you know the waterway and know where you can safely anchor and not get tangled in the weeds, anchoring is not to be recommended.  The walls of a few disused bridges provides some unofficial mooring sites but no-one (including the pilot guide) likes to say where they are.  The focus is on getting boaters into marinas, where the pricing can be steep.

If you do go, you will need a minimum of four strong dock lines and at least three, preferably four or five, stout fenders.  The pressure of water entering one lock was so great that one fender was squashed completely flat against the stone wall.  There’s a knack to handling the lines that is hard to explain but easy to learn when you see it.  I travelled half the waterway singlehanded and had no problems.

Tootling along on a lazy summer's afternoon.

Three delights of the trip stand out in my mind, in addition to the wonderful company and food I enjoyed.
The first delight – really – was getting caught in a storm on Lake Simcoe.  When I got up at dawn I noticed the needle on the barometer was off the bottom of the scale.  Time to stay put or get going to our destination, a friend’s cottage on the shore of Lake Simcoe.  I decided to press on.  The sky was clear, the day super calm so I reckoned there might be a three or four hours before bad weather arrived.  I didn’t want to be in the confines of the waterway, with weeds on both sides, if a nasty crosswind pushed the boat sideways.  Better to be bouncing in open water on the lake, I decided.

Weather warnings were repeated on the Environment Canada radio station.  At about 11 am these changed to an urgent severe thunderstorm warning and small craft advisory for Lake Simcoe.  We were just coming into the entrance to the lake.  Time to stay or time to go.  I decided to keep going.  Kuan Yin is a Tahitiana 32, the grand-daughter of Colin Archer’s famous design of lifeboats for the Norwegian fishing fleet who stayed out in the North Atlantic gales for weeks.

As the sky to the north turned completely black, I prepared the boat and explained to my non-sailing friend that we were probably going to get hit pretty hard.  Not to worry, I told him.  We’ll either be anchored before it hits or I’ll turn out into the lake and we’ll go round and round in circles away from land until the storm passes.

Inevitably, the storm struck us just after I’d committed the boat to turning between the shore and an island, into a bay on the west shoreline.  All of a sudden, rain and hail were coming down so hard and so thickly that I couldn’t see in front of the bow of the boat.  I slowed right down, intending that we make no progress towards any land (which we might hit).

About 20 minutes later the storm passed over us and soon we were anchored in delightful sunshine and hailing out friends.  The same storm dumped several inches of rain on Toronto.

The second wonder was coming down the world’s highest hydraulic lift.  The Peterborough lift lock has a fall of 19.8 metres (65 feet) – and that’s exactly how it felt when I motored very, very slowly into the raised tank.  I was alone on board.  No-one came out to take a line.  All I could see was the end of the tank of water and the infinite sky.  All I could imagine was someone pressing the wrong button, the gate at the end opening and Kuan Yin and skipper shooting out the end in a flood of water.  Of course, it didn’t happen.  The lift lock is truly an engineering marvel and a gentle ride to the bottom.

The third wonder of the waterway was the Otonabee River from  Peterborough south to Rice.  Leaving at dawn, with mist still on the river, the boat glided through the mirror calm water flanked on both sides by the high trees.  No cottage, no people, except for a very few early fishermen.  It seemed like a land that time had forgotten.  And hard to believe there could be such a place so close to the city of Peterborough and the metropolis of Toronto.

The masts went up at CFB Trenton Yacht Club with the held of four or five extremely helpful volunteers.  Kuan Yin regained her dignity as a sailboat again.  But this did not bring the wind.  There was not a puff of wind all the way from Trenton to Toronto and the journey of 85 miles took exactly 24 hours.

I learned a lot about handling the boat during the 10 day trip from Georgian Bay that I might never have learned so quickly in open water.  She was new to me last summer and now she feels like a trusted friend.  If I do my part, I know she will do her’s.

© 2007  Dennison Berwick. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2010 by in Kuan Yin, Sailing, Voyages and tagged , , , , , , .
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