Our first overseas adventure was in 1991. It was a working holiday to Canada. In those days we were budget backpackers, hitchhiking and travelling around by thumb, buses and ferries. Canada was where we learned to really appreciate outdoor adventure. In fact in Vancouver I bought my first hiking boots and I still own a Sierra Designs polar fleece bought in Dawson City (It’s still in good nick).
Back then in the west, we hiked the famous Chilkoot Trail of the Klondike Gold Rush, canoed 700km from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the Yukon, used our thumbs to hitchhike to Anchorage, and worked as ski-lift operators at Sunshine Village in Banff. Due to lack of time and funds, we never made it to the east coast of Canada but we always said we’d come back. Little did I know that we would return after so many years in our own yacht to sail the Great Lakes!
Checking into Canada was easy. Filled with diesel and some groceries we left Port Huron in the U.S. and motored across the St Clair River to the Bridgeview Marina at Sarnia, a port-of-call for Canada. We tied to their fuel dock and Wayne went to the office to arrange for customs to come and clear us in. He came back shortly and said “All done!”. All that was done was a quick over-the-phone check and we were quoted a customs registration number which we refer to when we return to the U.S. My hand-stitched Canadian courtesy flag, complete with the partial remains of a dead fly, was raised on the starboard side and began to flutter nicely in the light breeze.
Living life on the edge we left port on a Friday, a sailor’s no-no. But that night with a Blue Moon it was worth the risk (besides, I don’t think Neptune’s jurisdiction covers the Great Lakes anyway). Our destination was 150nm across Lake Huron to the entrance to Georgian Bay. Westerly winds were forecast so we sailed for most of the day until the winds shifted northwesterly. Dodging a few squalls we motor-sailed through the evening into the night. By 9.30pm the sky cleared and our familiar white-faced companion popped up on the eastern horizon above a dark squall which had passed us earlier. We settled in for the night and resumed three hourly watches.
By lunchtime Saturday we could see the low lying land and islands at the entrance to Georgian Bay and arrived at Big Tub Bay, near Tobermory at the northern end of the Bruce Peninsula by mid-afternoon. Big Tub Bay is narrow with little swing room, but with a 15kn westerly Blue Heeler managed to stay in one position overnight.
The next morning we motored out of Big Tub Bay for a three hour 16nm sail to the north-east corner of the Bruce Peninsula National Park, Wingfield Bay. The wind was from behind at around 25knots. At this point I remarked to Wayne about the odd colour of the following sky – no obvious clouds just a strange purple from the northwest. The entrance to Wingfield Bay is very narrow but it’s deep enough and clearly marked with red and green markers and leads on the other side of the small bay. A thunderstorm warning was in place for that afternoon as we dropped anchor amongst eight other yachts. I kept glancing at the strange sky approaching us. Strange.
This weekend was a long weekend in Canada and this particular Sunday had a lot of boat traffic and people sunning themselves. The VHF was busy with Coast Guard and Securité messages. On our short trip to Wingfield Bay, the Coast Guard would announce regular storm warnings and the WX (weather) channel gave a continuous forecast of thunderstorms approaching from the northwest. At one point the word ‘tornado’ was broadcast which made my ears prick up. Say what? As boaters scurried into safe anchorages, some were caught out. Then the Pan-Pans started – one was a motor boat who, for some odd reason, was heading into the bad weather and was almost out of fuel and couldn’t reach land. Ironically his boat name was ‘Not Enough’! This was to be the first of many pan-pans this day.
One hour after we dropped anchor in Wingfield Bay, the ominous purple sky dramatically morphed into a single wave of cloud extending from the west horizon right across the sky to the east, unlike any sky I’ve ever seen before. It looked just like a watercolour painting. The photos I’ve posted haven’t been touched up at all.
As the awesome surge of cloud approached I kept snapping photos and recording it on video. I really didn’t know what to expect and was mesmerised by the view. Other yachts around us, all locals and no doubt familiar with storms in this area, suddenly began to let out more scope on their rope rodes, while stowing canvas covers and biminis. The side curtains of our cockpit were dropped and fixed. I continued filming. Wayne was worried about the electronics as thunder and lightning were soon flashing and rumbling around us. The bluish flood of cloud rolled over us while to the south the sky remained clear and blue. The sky darkened. A crack of lightening followed by a loud drum roll of thunder. The front was directly overhead now and the air cooled considerably. All anchored boats tugged on their anchors and pointed directly at the approaching front like kangaroos caught in headlights.
Then it hit. A strong gust knocked Blue Heeler sideways dipping the starboard gunwale in the wind-whipped water. The wind generator whizzed out of control and I raced below to switch it off before it exploded, filming all the time. Water sprayed across the bay while boats lurched, testing their anchors and ropes. Our wind instrument display was switched off but we reckon the blow was well over 50knots. It continued to blow hard before settling down. Dangerous fork lighting and incessant thunder kept us anxious until the worst of the storm had blown over. Over the course of the afternoon VHF distress calls kept the Coast Guard busy.
For the rest of the afternoon and night the storm abated but showers persisted. We tucked ourselves inside the saloon warmed from an oven cooking homemade pizza.
Next morning. News on the radio this morning confirmed that a tornado had in fact hit the night before south of us and southwest of Toronto (apparently winds of around 220km/h). Further news reports confirmed there were two tornados.
The day after the storm was clear and sunny with a hint of pine in the brisk air. Rather than sail south we decided to stay another day and get a few things done around the boat and go ashore for a walk.
There is a lighthouse on the eastern point of the peninsula including a gift shop; this is Cabot Point. Tourists were out for the final day of the long weekend; some went swimming in the cold water which looked positively chilly. Back aboard though, I too decided to go for a swim; the water wasn’t ‘brain-freeze’ cold, and actually quite refreshing after a while.
Tuesday, sailing in 15kn northeast winds from Wingfield Bay, we travelled 22nm south to Sydney Bay in Melville Sound where we dropped the pick for the evening. Although we’ve travelled only three degrees north (now we are almost at 45degrees north), the climate is noticeably cooler. We haven’t had the steamy weather that we experienced down Lake Erie and up through Detroit. Daytime temps are around 22degrees, while nights are a snuggly 9-12degrees.
From Sydney Bay we sailed across to Hope Island with 20kn northwesterly winds and 1m seas. Sandy Bay on Hope Island was our home for the night. Next morning we awoke to silence. The water was flat and a slight air from the north. Our trip to the bottom of Penetanguishene Bay was 15nm south and with little wind we motored the distance.
We had read on ActiveCaptain that Beacon Bay Marina had berths available for $1 per foot of boat – many of the other marinas charged upwards of $1.50 per foot, so this was a substantial saving. By lunchtime we anchored just off the marina and took the dinghy into the office to book a berth. This marina is really nice! It has a pool, basketball court (not that we plan on using that), free wifi and everything else for a cruiser.
Once in our berth we decided to stretch our muscles and ride 10kms to nearby Midland. Our plan was to hire a car and get a simcard for the iPhone. No problems right? Our plans were somewhat stymied though. Seems that Bell, or any other phone provider in Canada, doesn’t sell Prepaid simcards to anyone without Canadian I.D. That means us! Canada is the first country we’re unable to buy a simcard – oddly frustrating as even Madagascar had simcards for tourists! Second plan, hire a car. Now, I had a feeling that during high season it would be unlikely we’d get a car immediately and that is the case. We may have to wait a few days for a car to be available but with time against as the summer season is running out, we may have to visit Quebec City another time. I looked at train travel from Toronto to Quebec but the best price was an unrealistic $700 for two of us! Might have to dust of the ‘thumb’ and hitchhike!
So here we are at the bottom of Georgian Bay for a week. The small village of Penetanguishene is charming and Midland is only 10kms away. With our bikes we can ride further afield and make the use of our time on land. We also have some people to catch up with before we sail further north. Until next time…