Ottawa Small Boat Messabout

Rite of Passage

by Burton Blais and John Partington
Two miles off the South Western tip of Amherst Island, on a heading of 156° M, the tiny yawl beat into a strong Sou’Westerly. Ahead was the wide expanse of an inland sea showing numerous whitecaps, with no land visible on the horizon. The little boat rose to the oncoming swells averaging four feet in height, with the occasional five footer, plunging into troughs with spray flying over the gunwhales. On board were two intrepid sailors, determined to reach Main Duck Island at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
Main Duck Island
The leading character in this drama-comedy is Gail O’ Wind, a Drascombe Lugger. Although this 18 foot dinghy yawl has a world-wide reputation for seaworthiness, most published accounts have been about Lugger cruises taken by extraordinary sailors. The question remained, even if an experienced sailor like Webb Chiles in his Lugger, Chidiock, crossed the Pacific Ocean, could a Lugger crewed by novices reach and return from Main Duck Island?

Burton and John considered this question time and again during class breaks while studying a Piloting course offered by the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron. Burton, who sails a Tanzer 22 on the St. Lawrence River, was enthusiastic. However, John, who sails Gail O’ Wind on Ottawa’s Lac Deschenes, had some reservations. Although he had made a return crossing of New Brunswick’s Baie des Chaleurs, his later attempt to reach Main Duck had been unsuccessful. But discussion with Burton lead to a detailed reconstruction of that cruise which revealed three failure factors: no chart; no compass; and a sadly hung-over captain and crew. John then became enthusiastic. He was keen to learn how his modified sail plan would work in open, wind-swept waters. The modified rig included a bowsprit with jib and staysail, a much larger gunther-rigged boomed main with one set of reef points, plus the original mizzen held out astern by a bumpkin. The fact that she could be easily trailered from her home port in the Ottawa area to any suitable departure point on Lake Ontario further buoyed the proposition. Thus, after passing their Piloting course, the dynamic duo decided on the last week-end in July as the date for their crossing.

Plans for the cruise were straightforward: depart early in the morning from Loyalist Cove Marina in Bath, sail to Main Duck Island and camp ashore overnight, returning to Bath the next day. Burton prepared the camping and cooking gear, while John checked the boat, trailer, safety equipment, and obtained eight gallons of fuel for the Honda 7.5 four stroke, as well as five gallons of fresh water. Each had purchased Canadian Hydrographic Chart 2064 to plot potential courses. Bath Point was chosen as their departure point for several reasons: most importantly, Carol Anne Cavers (“C.A.”), a lady loaded with local knowledge, had agreed to provide partial escort in her Kirby 25 Snafu, which is moored at Loyalist Cove; also, the North Channel would provide a sheltered four mile shake-down sail before turning out through the Upper Gap into the Lake; finally, this departure point led to an obvious, unobstructed course which could be plotted between two helpful landmarks, the big chimneys (678 feet above chart datum) of the power plant on the mainland west of Bath, and the lighthouse (77 feet above chart datum) on the western tip of Main Duck.
The night before launching, the robust pair purchased enough groceries to feed four. At the cashier counter the two began to chat excitedly about their upcoming adventure. After the bill was paid the cashier said, “gee, hope to see you guys again”. “What did she mean?”, wondered the now subdued sailors.
Additional omens were encountered the next morning. After masts were stepped and Gail O’ Wind rigged, John began to back boat and trailer toward the launch ramp. At this point the marina man materialized and stopped the action. Without speaking he gazed upward. Two other pairs of eyes rolled skyward revealing the top of the mainmast inches from deadly overhanging wires. With much zigging and zagging the boat was finally launched, and all gear stowed (they thought). Burton and John then drove into Bath for a hearty farewell breakfast. However, their spirits were once again dampened when they saw the restaurant sign, Last Chance Cafe.
At mid-day, Gail O’ Wind cleared the marina breakwater, somewhat behind schedule, and hoisted all sail, heading West in the North Channel to round Amherst Island and enter the main body of the Lake through the Upper Gap. The lugger was not long out of the marina before our intrepid sailors got a foretaste of things to come. The wind, which had hitherto been very light and variable, began gusting to speeds which seemed to exceed the forecast. Notwithstanding, the boat was set on the port tack with her full sail up, then John handed the tiller to Burton. Now, Burton, who normally likes to sail his Tanzer 22 on her ear, allowed Gail O’ Wind to nearly bury her leeward rail before John jumped up on the windward gunwhale, hollering all manner of seamanlike oaths, and insisting that she be rounded up into the wind. The main was quickly reefed and the jib taken in, whereupon she sailed much more comfortably in the gusty wind.
As the boat approached the Upper Gap she began to feel the full brunt of the strong wind coming off the main body of the lake. On the landless horizon large waves were forming whitecaps, and it was now plain that the wind was not only much stronger than originally forecast, but that it was coming from the South West rather than from the East (it was later learned that the winds that afternoon had averaged 20 knots with gusts to 25). Somewhat daunted by this spectacle of wind and waves, the men were now loath to bring her up into the Lake, and held their westward course to Adolphus Reach, where Cressy Point would afford some protection, and allow for some calmer reflection on the situation. It was at this point that the escort bid farewell. After consulting the chart it was decided that Waupoos Island might be an acceptable alternative to Main Duck, since the former destination would not require a foray into the wide open lake. Thus, a new course was steered to round Cressy Point into Prince Edward Bay. This entailed entering the Upper Gap and beating for a distance into the heavy weather coming off the lake. As the boat progressed through the Gap the men’s confidence in her capabilities and themselves gradually increased, and they began musing about getting back onto a heading for Main Duck. There, standing about three miles out into the lake, could be seen one of the spar buoys off the South Western tip of Amherst Island which was a waypoint on the original course to Main Duck. Perhaps they could venture at least that far into the lake before making their final choice of destinations. They reasoned that the conditions toward mid-lake could be no worse than those they were now encountering, since they were already at the receiving end of the wind’s fetch and would be experiencing wind and waves at their worst.
By about 14:30 they were abeam of the spar buoy, with about two miles between themselves and Amherst Island astern. While the large swells and multitudinous whitecaps were intimidating, with some spray coming over the gunwhales, the boat seemed well behaved and felt secure. Therefore, the course to Main Duck, which was not yet visible, was set, and the lugger progressed toward her objective on a starboard close reach. Burton had the tiller, and displayed his greatest feat of seamanship by positioning himself to leeward of John, who took the full brunt of any spray coming over the side. Periodically, John, the navigator (and captain), verified the course using a sighting compass and his GPS to determine the distance remaining. In addition, when ordered by Burton, he bent down in the cockpit to pump the bailer (strange doings for a “captain”!).
As the hours progressed the small boat continued to beat toward its invisible objective, the wind and waves wild as ever, the only encouragement stemming from the decreasing distance indicated by the GPS. The bow rose as she met each wave, one moment the bowsprit jabbing at the sky, then charging at the base of the next oncoming swell. When she encountered one train of particularly large waves, her bow planted so deeply into the trough that she sank to her gunwhales, the men speechless, awaiting the outcome. Fortunately, the bow’s buoyancy reasserted itself at the critical moment, and she began to rise to the next crest. These large waves were either “rogues”, or had come from the wash of an out-of-sight freighter. In any event, John was soaked again. Burton may have gained the impression from John’s stiffly set lips and furrowed eyebrows that the captain wanted to take the helm after this near-swamping. However, when the helm was released John wasn’t fully aware of Burton’s intentions (never is), and the untended helm swung to leeward. The Lugger turned into the wind and seemed to hold her breath. John leapt forward with a handy paddle to bring her bows around, but was thrown unceremoniously backward into Burton’s generous lap. Cussing and snorting like a wet walrus, John slithered onto the floorboards. Burton meanwhile was sprawled back against the pitching mizzen mast, paralyzed by mirth. In spite of all this, tough little Gail O’ Wind somehow escaped from “irons” and slid gracefully down into the next trough. Perhaps a loosely set mizzen allowed this to happen.
Soon after, faint vertical features began to emerge on the South Western horizon. Could these be the False Ducks? John kept scanning South and was finally rewarded by the sight of a tiny smudge on the horizon. This gradually grew into a row of black dots, which merged and materialized into a dark line with a white dot at the western tip. Soon, high cliffs, trees, a large house and lighthouse were born from Gail O’ Wind’s labours. Metamorphosis complete - Main Duck Island at last! A humbling, happy moment for the two friends.
As the island loomed closer ahead, the decision was made to head several points to windward, in order to ensure a downwind approach. Six and a half hours after departing the Bath marina, Gail O’ Wind rounded the North West point of Main Duck, ran parallel to the rugged cliffs, entered a quiet cove in the lee of the island, and finally coasted onto the pebbly strand.
After landing camping gear on the beach, the two men exhilarated yet exhausted, erected their tent high on a bluff overlooking the cove. This would have been the time to prepare dinner, but the stove and some fixings had been left behind. Hence, after munching hunks of dry bagette and quaffing water, John and Burton explored the island, which was tinder dry and strangely quiet. No small animals or birds were seen or heard inland. Later that evening, the day’s adventure was recounted over a few beer provided by “C.A.” and her friend Bert, who had thoughtfully motored out to verify the safe arrival of Gail O’ Wind.
About 05:30 the next morning, the sound of cliff-pounding waves jet-propelled the two sailors from their sacks. Was there a storm brewing? Had Gail O’ Wind’s ground tackle held? Relax. It was only the wash from a distant freighter. But what a sight! Against the rosy pink of dawn the freighter appeared suspended above the mirror-like horizon. The two then broke camp, dragged everything down from the bluff and repacked the Lugger. Then a delightful cup of java was provided by “C.A.” and Bert, as well as a quick tour of the island by motor cruiser.
The return journey was uneventful in light and variable winds. Navigation was greatly facilitated by the presence on the horizon of the two giant chimneys from the power generating plant on the mainland just West of Bath. Sometime early that afternoon, the Lugger once again passed Loyalist Cove Marina breakwater. Thus, Gail O’ Wind contributed in a small but significant way to a swelling archive of successful sea crossings by Drascombe Luggers. The trio’s landing also meant that Burton and John had completed a sailor’s rite of passage in traversing a large expanse of water and returning safely to tell their tale.