A Harrowing End-of-Season Trip
by Burton W. Blais
Autumn in the north-eastern part of the continent is a golden time of year. Gone is the summer mugginess and drab green scenery, now replaced by crisp air and brightly coloured shorelines. And gone too is the sailing season, with winter’s rapid approach, cold nights and blustery days, signalling the time for haulout. Early October, and nigh time to bring Mahseer, our Alberg 30, from her summer mooring in Prinyer’s Cove, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, to her haulout place in Iroquois, Ontario, 100 miles down the St. Lawrence River. This last journey of the season would see her travel down the North Channel between the Ontario mainland and enormous Amherst Island, across the exposed Lower Gap off the Kingston waterfront, and into the Thousand Islands to wend her way through myriad islands, rocks and shallows.
The first day out was attended by a clammy departure from Prinyer's under overcast skies, slipping quietly over steely grey waters with my unshakable shipmate Amalia, who was suffering from a cold. The forecast was for a strong westerly building to 25-knots by mid-day, which would serve our downwind purpose nicely. A 30-knot forecast was in it for the afternoon, but we hoped to be well clear of the exposed Kingston waterfront and into the islands by then. Reaching the Lower Gap just shy of noon, the wind piped up on cue and the following seas began to build uncomfortably as we raced past the ominous facade of the Kingston Penitentiary, making the helming difficult and prompting a sail reduction to just the main with the first reef. Running down the length of Wolfe Island we hoped for some moderation in the sea state upon reaching the immense basin to leeward of the island.
The wind lost none of its strength as we were chased down the five mile stretch of relatively open water toward the entrance of the so-called Canadian Middle Channel at the eastern end, and thence into the heart of the Thousand Islands, with its many granite-bound islands at close quarters. Transiting the easternmost buoy in the basin known locally as the “forty acres” we were washed into the channel by one monstrous swell in whose crest the hull seemed to bury itself before starting her charge down the face. By now the wind had apparently reached its full strength of 30-knots. Long past the time to take in the second reef, the boat was difficult to manage, with the wind trying to bring her head up one moment and the seas kicking her stern the opposite way the next. Yet I durst not turn head to wind in those seas! Once in the channel, off Leek Island, the wind seemed to strengthen further, and with the seas diminished in this relatively sheltered area Amalia held Mahseer’s head to wind while I scrambled onto the cabin top and wrested the main down, lashing it securely to the boom. While up there I was overawed by the raw strength of the unwavering blast. With things now under control, we continued our run under a scrap of genoa (with the engine ticking) for Mulcaster Island, a few miles downwind, and a familiar anchorage we thought best under the circumstances.
Ensconced in a protected notch created by Mulcaster and some neighbouring islands, we lowered the anchor using the electric windlass to pay out the heavy chain rode, and then set the hook by backing the engine. This anchor is an undersized claw which came with the boat purchased earlier in the season. Elated from having reached safety after so many exertions, we settled in the cockpit, hiding from Aeolus’ searching fingers under the dodger, lighting a good Jimenez cigar (I puffed on Amalia's half since her irritated lungs could not abide the smoke), and downing a bottle of red wine, with Otis in the background urging us to "try a little tenderness". Wine and a hectic day’s run make for a weary head, and so at eight o’ clock we called it a day, figuring to get up early for a good start on the next leg of the trip. It had been blowing continuously throughout the evening, but we felt secure nestled in Mulcaster’s bosom. I had checked our position relative to some familiar landmarks, including the brightly lit Glen Resort located on the mainland shore less than half a mile to the north, and some islands in the distance to the east, and all seemed well. In fact, I had been thinking that with the strong wind pushing her so hard we would have a devil of a time breaking the anchor out in the morning. The air outside was positively chill as I slipped under several layers of polar fleece blankets and buried my head in a soft pillow. What a delight to be inside one's cozy little shell on such a night. Snug in my berth I tried in vain to read Willis Metcalfe's history of seafaring disasters on Lake Ontario. The muffled sounds of rapping halyards conspired with Mahseer's gentle rocking to bring on slumbers.
Just as my consciousness was about to turn the corner, I was jarred by a sudden gust eliciting a low moan from the rigging and causing Mahseer to veer on her rode, which rattled briefly against the hull. "Glad I'm snug in here" thought I, and would have dozed off again, except for the budding of a nagging feeling that something was not quite right. With the heightened flow of wind Mahseer resumed her former rocking attitude, but now I could hear the sound of intermittent rushes of water outside the hull. Odd, I thought, the wind must have shifted to the south and is now sending white caps into the anchorage. Long experience has taught me not to ignore feelings of unease. Reluctantly, I left the warmth of my berth to have a look outside. I grabbed a flashlight, and sleepily slid open the companionway hatch. The sound of crashing waves was now very present as I shined my light into the offing. My blood froze. I shall long remember that awful sight of my boat's stern bobbing up and down in a mess of waves falling on a horrifyingly close rocky shore, less than a boat length away.
It took a while for my reeling mind to comprehend the scene. At first I thought that perhaps there had been a wind shift and I had paid out too much scope, and we were now being pushed into the northeastern point of Mulcaster Island. But then my beam caught the reflection of a small outbuilding perched above me on the bank, and I knew none existed on Mulcaster. In any event, the boat did not appear to be pounding on the bottom, and perhaps disaster could still be averted. I called to Amalia, now sitting up on her bunk, for help, "My God, we're on a lee shore, no idea where we are. We've got to get her off. Bring me my pants", something like that...My first action was to start the engine (God bless the Atomic 4!), and then to go forward and activate the switch on the electric windlass to bring in the chain, in the hopes of drawing us toward wherever the anchor was (presumably in deeper water). The boat drew away a short distance, then suddenly stopped. Peering into the water with my flashlight I could see a huge bail of weeds dangling on the chain, and pulling mightily I drew the lot up to the water's surface (scared man's strength, you know!), reached down with my hand and started to tear away at the weeds in an attempt to uncover the anchor. Meanwhile I called out to Amalia to put the engine in forward gear and get us into deeper water (or so I hoped - I really had no idea where we were, and could only assume the water would be deeper away from the island). She did so, but the boat barely moved. I ran back to the cockpit to see what the matter was, and opened the throttle wide, but she still wouldn't budge, only twisted and tugged as though she were tethered. I immediately returned to the foredeck, thinking it best to continue working on the weeds. When I finally did claw my way through the knotted mass down to the anchor I could feel something snagged there, like a cable. A quick look with my light, and by God, it was a cable! An electrical cable, probably supplying power to the island, caught in my fluke. The compound nature of this sailor’s nightmare did not escape me, and I am quite certain that few noble utterances passed through my lips at that moment. No sloping Titanic deck declarations of meeting fate with dignity to be passed on to posterity here. Just sheer terror and a frantic effort to save my little ship. With the strain of the boat it was impossible to pull the wire off the anchor, and because the windlass' "down" switch on the foredeck is defective, I could not lower the anchor from my position, so I yelled for Amalia to toggle the cockpit switch: "lower the goddam anchor NOW", or something gracious like that. With the strain slackened, I managed to slip the cable off the fluke and we were immediately released. We motored a short distance away from the island, glad to still be afloat and un-electrocuted, hearts pounding, heads dazed and bearings lost in the darkness.
Cold and terrified, with the wind still howling, we made a few tight circles under slow power to ensure that we stayed in what appeared to be safe water until we could gather our wits. Of course, we had no way of knowing where exactly safe water was located, and all we knew is that we were quite literally “between a rock and a hard place”, surrounded by barely visible land masses on all sides in waters we knew to be strewn with rocks and shallows. And which of these vague outlines was Mulcaster, whose environs we knew well enough that we could brave going back to reset the anchor? In truth, nothing was familiar, the lights of the Glen Resort were nowhere to be seen and we could not recognize any of the near islands. We could see the occasional car lights on one of the near shores, and guessed this was the mainland along which Highway no. 2 runs. Totally disoriented, we discussed what was best to do. What a blessing to have a partner with sangfroid at such a time. Amalia quickly connected the depth sounder so that we could at least "see" the bottom, and we were relieved to find ourselves in 30-feet of water. This of course gave us a bit of a clue where we might be, but in such a vulnerable position one needs to deal with certainties, not mere conjectures. We decided that our best course for now was to avoid wandering about in the dark, which would only add to our confusion and perhaps even lead us back to the fate we had just narrowly escaped.
Seeing a nearby shoreline with a few house lights to windward, we cautiously approached, keeping a worried eye on the depth sounder, and deployed the anchor in eight feet of water, the landmass ahead offering a lee from wind and seas. Then, resorting to the GPS, we were able to plot a fix, and found that we were behind a point jutting from the mainland in an area of good water (with general depths of 8 to10-feet). It was just before nine o’ clock, less than one hour since we had said our first “goodnights” of the evening. Deciding to stay put for the night, I retrieved our secondary anchor from the lazarette, a danforth type, and set off in the dinghy into the darkness ahead to deploy this anchor at a 20 degree angle to the first. I wouldn't say that we had a restful night, but we did manage to stay put until morning. In any event, both anchors found a mud bottom this time, so we were quite secure.
The rest of the trip was rather uneventful, involving a long slog motoring down river to Iroquois over the course of the next day, light and fluky winds, swirling cold in the exposed cockpit - the usual sailor’s regimented routine. By the time we made harbour Amalia's cold had worsened, and we were both a bit sore from the previous night's exertions, but Mahseer is none the worse for wear from her adventures.
Tracing a line on the chart from our transposed location of that awful night back to Mulcaster, and taking the wind direction into account, it was plain that we had been blown in a straight line by that one strong gust. But what remains incomprehensible to me is that we had dragged half a mile without any sensation of movement. The island on whose shore Mahseer had been cast has a depth of ten or more feet right at its rocky edge. The other shorelines in the vicinity tend to have rocky shallows upon which Mahseer’s keel would have surely pounded. We were lucky on many scores that night, and in the course of things some of our reactions were appropriate and others wanting. The matter of our questionable claw anchor is the first consideration. Earlier in the season we had dragged on this very hook in the anchorage on the north side of Main Duck Island, in Lake Ontario, a place I have anchored many times in various boats with different ground tackle and never a hint of trouble. The blast that hit us at Mulcaster must have been a strong one indeed - we later heard of 30-knot gusts for that night on the VHF radio. It is a wise skipper who attends to his ground tackle, anticipating any eventuality, and I was sadly deficient in this duty. Some readers might also attribute questionable judgement on my part in the matter of the electric cable. In my defence, I always verify the chart for the presence of submerged cables, and none were indicated as a concern for our situation. Besides, we obviously caught this cable at some distance away from our original anchorage, likely near Popham Island where we fetched up. Ironically, it was probably this very cable which ultimately kept us from knocking into that rocky lee shore. I believe that the manner in which we dealt with our disoriented state once off the lee shore was correct. We exercised the first priority, which was to get to deeper water, made every attempt to avoid wandering too far, and then utilized the available instruments to find a relatively safe place to drop the anchor and fix our position. Going upwind toward shallow water was the best choice under the circumstances, since once anchored we would be swinging back toward the (safe) ground over which we had come. After ascertaining that we were in a safe place, we deployed a second anchor to hedge our bets against a repeat event. Oh, and whatever did happen to the Glen Resort’s brilliant light display? Had we interrupted its source of power? No, it had simply disappeared behind that point of land around which we had drifted.