Jim Upfold was sailing Illusion V home down the length of the Great Lakes when he put together this article. He began from the Queen City Yacht Club, Toronto.
Sailing from Toronto to Vancouver
There are three ways to sail a boat to Toronto from Vancouver. The long way down the Pacific Coast to the Panama Canal and up the Atlantic side of North America. The hard way through the Northwest Passage and hope you make it within the four weeks per year that it isn’t frozen. The third and by far the easiest way is to have the boat shipped across the country, launch in Thunder Bay and sail the Great Lakes. In June the third way is spectacular. Illusion V, a Mirage 33, was loaded on a flatbed tractor-trailer truck and, with my wife, we began the drive eastward from Vancouver. We had planned to stay with the boat, but we stopped to visit friends in Kelowna, BC, and lost track of the boat on the first day. Five days later we were stopped for gas about eighty kilometres from Thunder Bay, Ontario, when we saw the boat going down the highway! It was a good sign to begin my adventure by catching up with the boat after driving three thousand kilometres and five days across Canada.
We arrived at the Thunder Bay Yacht Club at the same time as the boat. The delivery company was to arrange launching but was unable to do so on a Saturday. However, members of the local yacht club offered to assist. With their help, the boat was off loaded from the trailer, the mast stepped and she in the water in less than two hours. Once again the comradery of belonging to a yacht club came through and the Thunder Bay Yacht Club was exceptional in assisting me. Not only did they help with the boat, but provided invaluable local advice for sailing on Lake Superior and many of the anchorages that they indicated to me on the charts were spectacular. The rest of the day was spent tuning the boat and on Sunday provisions were loaded for the journey. Goodbyes were exchanged with my wife and the good people in Thunder Bay and then I tried to get some sleep for an early start on Monday. My wife was already getting an early start on the drive to Toronto.
Sleeping sporadically, I arose at 6:00a.m. , slipped my mooring at seven a.m. and motored out into the bay that the city was named after. A light westerly was blowing around five to six knots giving me a good run under spinnaker. I planned on heading northeast to explore the islands and also to stop in Rossport, one hundred nautical miles away, for fuel. The fuel docks in Thunder Bay were closed because of a strike action. I took out the spinnaker and began the task of raising it on my own. In light air I was cruising along between five and six knots enjoying a beautiful sunny June day. I passed the Sleeping Giant peninsula named for its unusual topography and was in awe of the huge amount of water before me in this, the largest of the Great Lakes.
At five p.m. I looked at the chart for an anchorage among the many that were indicated by my new friends from the Thunder Bay Yacht Club. I chose Loon Harbour, which is surrounded by three islands, Lasher, Spain and Borden and has a very narrow channel to the east. Surrounded by high rock bluffs and rich forest on all sides, it was extremely secluded. I set the anchor at around six p.m. and started to prepare my dinner in the quietest place I had ever been in on earth. I put some chicken on the barbeque and began to cut some fresh vegetables for a stir-fry. It is always nice at the beginning of a voyage to still have fresh vegetables and not have to begin eating out of cans. Sitting in the cockpit, I poured myself a glass of wine and began to eat my dinner. This is the most alone I have ever been in the world and I wondered if I would see a bear or a moose come down to the water’s edge to keep me company.
Sleep comes early after a long day in the fresh air and by ten p.m. I was struggling to stay awake. The next morning I pulled up the anchor and covered fifty more miles towards Rossport and fuel. After only thirty-six hours alone I welcomed the few people who live in this remote fuel stop on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The owner of the little marina had been fishing and had brought in some fresh Whitefish. For a nominal charge he invited me to share in this local delicacy. It was spectacular! I went for a long walk unhindered by traffic lights and settled in for the night with Jack Kerouac’s:” The Dharma Bums” which seemed like a fitting book for this kind of trip.
Into Lake Superior
The next morning, June 17th., I awoke early and was on my way by six a.m., motoring out of Rossport Bay down the Schreiber Channel that leads out to the open water of Lake Superior. I was heading in an east-southeast direction when the wind came up from the west and I hoisted the spinnaker once again and headed for the eastern shore of the lake. Cruising at six to seven knots under fair winds and a bright sunny day I left the Slate Islands to starboard at around noon and begin to prepare my lunch. Under auto helm I continue easterly and enjoyed the summer day. The winds were steady at around 10 knots from the west although some clouds in the east began to look threatening. After checking the weather report I was advised that no adverse weather was being reported.
At around six p.m. I decided to head south towards Whitefish Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, continuing to sail all night. I doused the spinnaker and hoisted my number two and made six to seven knots. Looking west for almost three hundred miles to a watery horizon, the sunset was spectacular and being one of the longest periods of daylight in the year at this latitude it seemed to last forever. I passed between Michipcoten Island and Caribou Island at midnight and there was still a glow on the horizon. I noted that I still had eighty-seven nautical miles to go. Twelve hours later I entered Whitefish Bay when the wind died and I began to motor the last twenty-five miles to the Sault. After locking down through on the American side locks I arrived in the Roberta Bondar Marina at seven fifteen p.m. after a passage of thirty seven hours in which I had covered over one hundred and fifty nautical miles.
The Immense Lakers
Although I didn’t have the music to Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Edmund Fitzgerald”, the words played in my mind several times as I crossed Lake Superior and I gave thanks for fair weather and calm seas. I spent two days in Sault Ste. Marie exploring and also getting my cell phone replaced as it had stopped working. I visited the main town museum and looked over the memorabilia that has been saved from the early days in this town. Much of the contents were about hockey here, where I am sure there is no shortage of ice in the winter. An old ship had been moored permanently to the wharf in the corner of the marina and was a being outfitted as a museum and tribute to the Great Lakes shipping, with much information on types and sizes of the ships that have plied these waters for years. Information on the locks and the uses and agreements with the U.S. were evident everywhere. Of course there was much information on the shipwrecks of Lake Superior and the perceived causes. There were great photographs of ships that were wrecked and those of ships locking down covered with ice prior to Canadian Thanksgiving appeared like giant icebergs. The life in those early days was certainly hardier than today. However, it is a credit to the development of shipping that allows these vessels to keep going until the ice comes in December to the ice going out in March. Some of the new “Lakers” are up to 1,000 feet in length and are immense beside my small sailboat.
Once again I rose early Sunday morning and headed south down the St Mary River towards the North Channel of Georgian Bay. With a north-westerly behind me I sail along at four to five knots with the current and enjoy the fabulous scenery of northern Ontario on one side and northern Michigan on the other. I left St. Joseph Island to port as the shorter passage on the north side was restricted by a bridge with only 35 feet clearance. This puts an extra 15 miles on the passage but hurry is not part of my vocabulary and relaxing was paramount. As I reached the end of the island and began to head northeast the wind picked up to 15 knots in the open water and I had a fast sail for 12 miles across to Bruce Mines, my anticipated stop for the evening. By the time I reached the channel to the harbour the wind had increased and I was reaching under a single reefed main and a number three. Great sailing and I had put the best of 50 miles behind me today. Regretfully I had to drop the sails as I entered the channel, turn the motor on and proceed to the harbour at Bruce Mines.
This is a small harbour with a close-knit group of sailors who stay here in order to have access to the beautiful North Channel every weekend. Many live in Toronto and do the commute of over 300 kilometres on the weekends. They claim that the travel is worth it to have access to one of the world’s greatest cruising grounds. Walking around the little northern community is quite nice with a quaint “Bavarian” style motel and restaurant catering to the travellers that use the Trans Canada Highway. I went in search of ice cream again on this beautiful summer evening and managed to locate some. In the morning the air was light and the sky clear with barely a cloud to be found. I hoisted the sails and motor sailed along at about 6 knots down the North Channel. My breakfast en route consisted of cereal, some fruit and a coffee as I sat in the cockpit with the auto helm steering. Life doesn’t get much better than this and my all my worries seemed small and disappeared with my pre-occupation of the surroundings. At the end of the day I reached Serpent River and the new Marina there.
Ah! Pickerel for Dinner
The wind was blowing around 20 knots now and I had several hours of vigorous sailing. As I entered the harbour I docked up at the fuel docks with the wind so it appeared pretty easy. I knew an old friend who had grown up here and I stopped to see what the town was like and to put together some of the things that had been told to me about the place. I had a dinner of fresh Pickerel at the local tavern and met the nicest people who seemed genuinely interested in my journey and me. There were windmills of a modern design like ones that I had seen in California. These windmills were powering the Marina along with the traditional methods of electricity. With the wind blowing pretty hard the large blades made an eerie sound as they turned at high speeds. This renewable source of energy seemed like a good investment and at the same time a boon to the environment.
Sailing away in the morning from Serpent River I faced my largest challenge thus far: navigation through the Whalesback Channel and in and out of many very small islands. The Whalesback got its name, I presume, from the rocks and small islands that look like the backs of large whales. It was paramount that the chart stayed in the cockpit and a close watch kept on the GPS to verify my position. I found myself crossing off navigation buoys on my charts as I saw their numbers and followed the narrow channel between the rocks. Although it was challenging, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world with so many small, secluded anchorages and places to go exploring ashore. I was so close to land that I could see the blueberry bushes and the early buds starting to peak through. I looked for a suitable cove and drop my anchor for the night.
It was still and calm and once again I am able to relax and make something to eat. I poured myself a glass of wine and reveled in the serenity of the scene, trying to think of words that would describe this and found none. After dinner I rowed to shore for some exploring among the islands. Morning came again and was calm and beautiful as I slid into the water for an early morning wake up of my senses. It was brisk and I didn’t stay in long as I splashed around in the crystal clear water. Back onboard I raised the anchor and set out under motor on a calm morning bound for Little Current on the tip of Manitoulin Island.
Mid morning the wind came up from the west again at around seven to ten knots and I sailed amongst the remaining islands for open water. I had been looking at charts steadily for two days and as I came up on the last stretch of water to head towards Little Current I almost forgot and began to pass too close to an island where there appeared to be lots of water and a shorter distance to my destination. I followed prudent navigation and forestalled the short cut and when I looked back with the sun behind me I could see the rocks that awaited me on that short cut! My newfound confidence received a heavy dose of reality and a wake up call to pay closer attention.
At Little Current I went to the marina and inquired if they could change the oil and filter in my engine as this was due. I decided to stay the night and explore the town while the work was being done. The mechanic was very efficient and had the work done while I was getting ready to go exploring. I walked around town and began my constant land search for ice cream, and finding a little shop that makes it homemade, I decided that it was worth the stop.
Into Georgian Bay
At 8:00 a.m., I sail under the swing bridge that opens on the hour and half hour and I proceeded to the open waters where Georgian Bay meets the string of islands that separate it from Lake Huron. The winds were light under blue skies with a few fluffy white clouds and I motor sailed for the first several hours. The wind picked up to a steady ten plus knots and for the first two hours everything was perfect. Large grey clouds began to form in the south and east as I sailed in that direction and I decided that an update on the weather would be prudent. I turned on the VHF and the local weather was calling for some thunderstorms with lightning and strong winds including a small craft warning. I was planning on sailing down into Georgian Bay and possibly through the night but the weather prompted me to look for a snug harbour.
At the top of the Bruce Peninsula on the east side is a small anchorage listed in the cruising guide, “Ports”, that looked like a good place to get out of the storm. I altered my course for Wingfield basin, about 11 miles from my current position and kept a sharp lookout for the weather as well as for the entrance to this harbour. Sailing was good but the weather was beginning to deteriorate and some rain had begun to fall. The harbour entrance cannot be seen from no more than a mile or so and has a very narrow navigable opening. The red and green markers are no more than twenty feet apart and dissect a small bay of about half a mile in each direction. The eastern part has very little water and is only one metre at the deepest, so the western end, which has about 3 metres, is the preferred anchorage for most sailboats. As I eased into the inner harbour I spotted four more sailboats that seemed to be seeking shelter from the storm as well. I put down the anchor and kept a watchful eye out to make sure that I was not drifting as the wind began to build. This is the end of the Niagara Escarpment and the wind comes off the end of the high ground, picking up speed and then drops into this basin. Although the boat was turning the anchor was holding and I maintained a good distance from the other yachts. We seemed to be turning together. I settled in and made some dinner while keeping a watch on the other boats and my relationship to them and the shore. It was raining pretty steadily and everyone had their interior lights on and the scene, although windy and cool, was as cozy as an evening beside a fireplace.
Around 2 a.m. everything was making noises: the halyards clanging on the mast and the boat rocking considerably while the wind whistled outside. Although I was snuggled in, I couldn’t sleep until I made sure that the boat was okay. I peered out of the hatches but the rain was coming down so hard that I couldn’t see anything, which meant going out on deck in the cold, wind and rain and inspecting everything. I took out the drop boards and wen6 outside in my underwear, knowing I was going to get wet and didn’t see the need to get all my clothes wet as well. The wind was blowing over the 30-knot mark and there were small waves and white foam with the tops blowing off them. Lightning was flashing everywhere and I was concerned about being struck. Even though the boat is well grounded, I didn’t need to test it just then! It was like daylight, with the grey, cloudy sky and the lightning flashes every few minutes in the summer storm. The boat was oscillating on the anchor from side to side. However, it was not dragging and I appeared to be in a safe position. I decided on deploying the second anchor and rode and so I waited for the boat to veer all the way to one side and dropped the anchor out the other side just before the boat started its swing back. I wondered why I didn’t do this in the first place. I stood in the rain and wind and waited to see how the boat would react to the second anchor. As it appeared to be steadying the boat significantly, I went below and towelled off and tried to get some sleep. The motion below had calmed considerably and I was able to sleep until morning.
Morning came and I dressed and went outside to see how things were doing. My worst fear was that the anchors would cross and pull themselves out. They did cross once, however they held up and I was in the same position as the night before. The wind was still blowing hard at over twenty knots with a steady rain and I decided that the best place for me was out on the open water and away from the “hard bits” of land. I started the motor, left the other boats behind and proceeded to lift the anchors on to the deck. I left them on deck to untangle later and motored out of Wingfield Basin to the open water. I hoisted the sails with a double reef and a number three, set the auto helm and headed west. I went forward to untangle the anchors and clean the mud off them and make sure they were ready to deploy. Along with the wind and the bow wave coming over periodically I was getting wet. However, coming from the west coast, “wet” was fairly common and with lots of foul weather gear I persevered.
I pick up crew
I arrived in the “Little Tub” harbour at Tobermory about 16 miles west of last night’s anchorage where I was to pick up crew. The sun came out just as I arrived and with all my foul weather gear on I looked a sight as I pulled up to the fuel dock where everyone was in tee shirts and enjoying the summer day. I was staying for two days to await crew and I topped up the tanks and motored to my assigned dock. After changing my clothes I went exploring the small summer resort town. That night the weather repeated the previous day’s conditions, with high winds, very hard rain and lightning everywhere. I was happy to have the shelter of the Marina and a dock. The next day I met a nice couple from London, Ontario, who were on their power boat and waiting for more favourable weather to head to the route I had just left. They said they liked sailing but had never done very much and thought many times about buying a sailboat. One of my crew arrived and we took the nice couple out for a day sail around the islands and shipwrecks that can be seen in the crystal clear water. It was suddenly odd to have people that wanted to help, as I was so used to being on my own and I didn’t know what to tell them to do.
The next day I set out with my new crew, southbound down Lake Huron. The weather was clear but winds were around 15 knots from the south and we motored into the wind. The crew was not holding up well in the waves and we decided to pull into Kincardine, Ontario, for the night and not make the first day on the water too long. The next day we headed towards Goderich in calm seas and no wind.
Exploring Goderich is fun as the city has a lot of history and interesting things going on. The beach area is nice and maintained by the city. You can watch the sunset on the beach and then climb up the bluffs behind and see the sunset once again. The locals claim it is the only place on earth where you can see the sunset twice. Sailing towards Sarnia was exciting. We started off in fair winds but they quickly built to 15 knots from the northwest and we reached across the lake at 6 to 7 knots of boat speed. Three squalls blew through during the fifty-mile trip but only the one with lightning looked really dangerous. We donned our survival gear just to be on the safe side and arrived in Point Edward where the sun came out once again as we entered the Port Edward Yacht Club for the night. Motoring up to the dock master, another summer downfall arrived in a torrent to clean us up in time for dinner after we had just removed our rain gear. Once again the two of us went exploring and we came across a fine little Italian restaurant that makes it’s own pasta. Dinnerwas superb and very reasonably priced. The headwaiter is the owner and the place was jammed with regulars who all seemed to be known on a first name basis by our host. We did a little more exploring and then headed back to the boat for the night.
Early the next morning, we pass under the Blue Water fixed bridge that separates Port Huron on the U.S. side from Sarnia on the Canadian side, travelling at nine knots, with the strong current and northerly winds down the St. Clair River. The scenery here is of old summer homes and reminded us of lazy summer cottage days of another time. We sailed across Lake St. Clair and into the Detroit River that separates the monolith of Detroit from the small industrial town of Windsor, Ontario. This came as a heavy dose of civilization after the wilderness of the past several weeks. Detroit is spectacular all the same, with the Renaissance Center dominating the waterfront. We stayed the night in one of the many marinas there, as anchorages are non-existent. It was now the first of July and the heat in the most southern area of Canada is over 30degrees C each day and not much cooler at night. No breeze existed as we motored towards the south shore of Lake Erie and go into Sandusky, Ohio to moor at the Cedar Point Marina with it’s carnival and rides.
First time up the mast!
We have to repair the topping lift and my young crew had his first trip up the mast. It was a little nerve racking the first time, however, the repair was made and he was grateful for his return to the deck. We took a ride on a high-powered Catamaran across Sandusky Bay to do some exploring in the small town. It must have been closed ready for the 4th of July celebrations the next day, as it was very quiet. Cleveland was our next port of call, for the 4th of July celebrations and to take a day to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We once again stayed in a Marina that offered “reciprocal” Yacht Club privileges that for them meant that, because I was a Yacht Club member, they would let me stay for $1.75 U.S. per foot. This came to $171.00 Canadian for two nights in a 33-foot boat! I wondered what the Holiday Inn would cost! We did some exploring including the Hall of Fame and arrived back at the Marina for dinner and prepared to anchor out for the 4th of July celebrations and fireworks. We sailed out of the club at around 7:30p.m., and went to the south end of the harbour to get a good viewing spot for the fireworks.
The wind was blowing over twenty-five knots now but we were behind the large concrete breakwater that was being bombarded by the southerly winds and large waves. It was a little rocky and there was plenty of traffic looking for anchorages as well. Lots of boats with light tackle didn’t seem able to get a grip on the muddy bottom and slid towards us and seemed to veer away just in time to drift by. The sunset was spectacular and at around 10:00p.m. the fire works began. We had the local radio station on listening to the commentator describing each display and telling us to await the grand finale. The wind was still strong from the south and blew the fireworks over the city. The organizers came over the radio after fifteen minutes and announced that it had become a fire hazard and was too dangerous to continue. The show was terminated. Up came the anchor and we headed back to the marina in very rough seas caused by both the wind and the wakes of all the powerboats that were ploughing home as well.
We arrived in Menton harbour the next afternoon after motoring into Easterlies at 15 to 20 knots on the nose and we decided that this was enough for one day. We went into the local yacht club and got the same reciprocal deal as Cleveland, only for $1:25 U.S. per foot. It is a beautiful club with lots of history and the clubhouse was worth exploring with club pictures from a long and historic past. We walked the grounds and looked at all the fine yachts that are moored here.
Motor sailing eastward the following day, under cloudy skies and calm seas, we turn on the VHF and get the first weather report from Toronto and Lake Ontario. It felt good to be getting towards home but a little sad that the trip would soon end. My crew hadn’t faired as well, having succumbed several times to “mal de mer” over the past week and was sleeping a lot to keep his mind focussed. He had mastered dominoes and when he was awake we played endless games on the cockpit table. The fiddles work well for holding the tiles on both tacks. Erie, PA., was the next port of call, then on to Dunkirk, NY., before the crossing to Port Colborne and the entrance to the Welland Canal.
Into the Welland Canal
Weather had been overcast for the past three days and some rain had fallen with much fog on Lake Erie. Once again it began to pour rain as we entered the Marina to await more crew for the traversing of the Welland Canal early the following day. Our crew arrived and we had dinner together and shared some stories from the adventure behind us. The crew consisted of a couple that belong to the Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club in Toronto, that we have become friends with while cruising Lake Ontario. It was raining once again when we snuggled into our berths for an early start in the morning.
We lined up at the wharf and called the Canal officials at 8:00 a.m. awaiting the signal to proceed down the canal. There was some difficulty with lock five on the upward bound part but we are downward bound and hoped that this wouldn’t affect us. The problem at lock 5 seemed to have become a larger problem than first assessed and we were not given the go ahead until around two p.m. This enabled us to make a little exploration of the town of Port Colborne and the donation of some cash to the local economy. We motored through lock 8 followed by the 15 miles of canal to lock 7 and on down towards lock 6 just below Thorold, Ontario. We arrived at lock 6 at around 5:00p.m. and were asked to wait as lock 5 was still down for repairs. Locks 6,5,4 are all simultaneous and once you are into lock 6 you immediately come out into lock 5 and then once again into lock 4. Although the up bound lock was broken and we are down bound, the commercial shipping was using lock 5 to go up bound and down bound making the transit for us extremely slow.
We tied up at around 5:30p.m. and after a brief walk around the area we decided to make dinner and await the signal to continue. After dinner I decided to get some sleep in case we didn’t get through until late. Although we were only 6.8 miles from Lake Ontario, it turned out to be the longest 6.8 miles of the whole trip. At 10:30 p.m. we were finally given the signal, along with the other six pleasure craft that had been traversing with us, to move into lock six for the trip down. Things were going very smoothly and we traversed locks 6,5,4, and were on our way to lock 3. It was getting pretty late by this point and two of our crew decided to get some sleep as we were rafted off another boat and it was very uneventful for the locking down. At lock two the traffic was backed up once again and we had to await the larger commercial vessels going down before us. The wind was very strong from the west and made docking on our port side difficult. As the docks are large and designed for commercial vessels with many large pieces of concrete missing along with bollards that are 30 feet from the water’s edge, tying up is difficult. We decided not to tie up and circled until we get the signal to go. We finally cleared lock one at 4:30 a.m. and headed out into the waters of Lake Ontario ,with a strong current of around 4 knots behind us and the wind now from the north at 18 knots. The waves are substantial and on the nose for our last 26 miles across to Toronto. I was glad of the little sleep I took after dinner. One crew becomes sick immediately, one looked very uncomfortable and the other two were very tired. Although I was grateful for the little sleep after dinner we decided to pull into Port Dalhousie for the balance of the night.
The was no need for the sails as the wind and waves were pushing us along at hull speed and causing several waves to crash over us keeping us alert. When we arrived we went into the southern most part of the Yacht Club and tied up. There was a large schooner on the break wall that was thrashing around with its stern clearing the water and its propeller visible on each wave. The waves inside the breakwater were almost as big as out on the lake, as they roll from the north down the old canal entrance. We were snuggled into our mooring at around 5:30 a.m. and headed straight to our bunks.
Across the lake to Toronto
The next morning we met a couple and their two children vacationing on Lake Ontario who spent the night at the gas docks near the clubhouse. This is usually a well-protected place from the weather but they were all a little green and had moved to the south end of the yacht club along with us to get some protection from the north wind. We went to the small village and had some breakfast and waited for more favourable winds that were predicted for the afternoon. Around 1:30 p.m. we started out for the sail across to Toronto and the last leg of the trip. We were sailing under 10 to 15 knots of wind with beautiful sunny skies heading just slightly east of our course, close hauled. One tack and we will be home. This is the reward for my crew who helped me through the Welland Canal and, in bathing suits, we enjoyed the beautiful summer’s day.
After 26 days on the water and 33 days after leaving Vancouver I finally arrived at the Toronto Harbourfront at Queen’s Quay where my crew disembark and once again my wife joined me. I bade farewell to my crew and motored across the harbour for the last mile into the Queen City Yacht Club on the Toronto Islands, my home port. Several friends were there to greet me and listen to the stories of my excursion. After being away for the past 18 months living in Vancouver, the conversation is fast and furious and I had trouble keeping up. I must really have been relaxed at that point!
It was bittersweet for this to come to an end but I was filled with memories of beautiful anchorages and spectacular scenery. To sail four of the five great lakes in one summer is a pleasure and I had come to realize what a special place on earth this area is. After almost 900 miles I had sailed both in confined areas and in the open waters of Lake Superior and it whets the appetite for more and longer cruises. Who knows maybe next year and the Great Lake I missed.