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Hey, Who Shut the River Off?!
April 23rd, 2014 @ 02:36 PM EST by admin

They say that if you wait for good weather you never go.

But who are they? I Googled the word “they” but Mr. Google did not give me the answer – only a definition. But as it turned out they were right! It was a big deal! So when you read anything about what they say, perhaps best to take their word for it and oblige. Lest yee be bitten and smitten and get a hitten by the hand of Neptune or Poseidon or  whoever’s in charge these days out there.

It was the Friday of Labour Day weekend last year and the wind was from True North – no, not from Craig and Nell’s boat, but actually from the direction of the magnetic course of “true north”. True magnetic north is a very uncommon wind around these parts to say the least and also a very uncommon direction.And it’s a contradiction suggesting that a true and a magnetic north are one and the same. Well, whatever. The wind was about 25 knots and increasing by the minute!

So off we went heading towards NOTL (Niagara-on-the-Lake),  mostly True South, magnetically speaking of course. With the wind directly, and I “means” directly behind us, no quartering or “eigthering” in the least and no easy way to sail it. Wing and wing (and not wing on wing – that was for tipping Buzz Bombs in WWII by Spits and their ilk) was the only way but the tough way “fer sure.”  With this north wind, magnetic or true (still not sure yet), there were virtually no waves for the first 100’ or so but after that, look out Miss Bowsprit ‘cause ‘yer gonna get a wet face!

For crew I had a newbie first mate that did not have any, let alone some experience with sailing. Oh my, just kayaking? But a boat’s a boat, right?! This north wind would just not leave us alone no matter what I yelled and gestured at it. Fortunately SoundScape was up to this cruising for a bruising as she is a solid sloop made in the era of true quality yachts.

The course to NOTL was simply not working as to sail that distance “wing and wing” and straight downwind required just too much helming and more work than I wanted to do on a Friday afternoon after a busy work week. I was glad that I put the “big wheel” on (more leverage) and even so needed two hands to drive and I like at least one free to hold the binnacle at times, give position reports on the radio – as I always file a Sail Plan with Prescott Radio – as every good sailor should – and periodically add some emotion to what I am talking about. My first mate could not hold a course for more than about twenty feet so having her drive for a spell was simply out of the question. I barely could either as the waves grew to monumental size the further south we went. So after about an hour of wrestling with the wheel, the new course was set – Port Dalhousie or bust. Arrrrgh! And bust almost won.

Now with a small angle of a quartering tailwind we could keep the sails on the same side, more or less, and almost sail in a straight line – almost. Surfing was more like it, actually achieving a recorded maximum (GPS) speed of 12.7 knots – likely sliding down one of the big fifteen footers that occasionally came to visit. The GPS’s breadcrumb trail looked like a drunken sailor’s “too much to drink” trail – and I was not the drunken sailor. Never have been and never will be.  I save that for when the boat’s safely secured to a dock, anchor or mooring can.

By mid-lake the wind had picked up to 30+ knots and the waves were averaging about 12’ and building and crashing everywhere. By the time we hit the “Southside Shuffle” of Post Glacial Lake Iroquois – or Lake Ontario as they call it now – the waves were about 14’ – and that ain’t no exaggeration. The bow was well and truly buried with each and every wave. The wind was up to 35 knots now, or more, and still from the magnetically true north – as per radio and instruments and wetted index finger (well everything was a bit wet by this point) – and blowing right down the Dalhousie Approach Corridor, and so the job of furling and dropping the sails was barely “do-able.” An experienced crew would have had some issues getting the sails down and furled but with just me and my inexperienced mate it was borderline impossible and that’s putting it mildly. The wind sounded and felt like a freight train going by. I found out later that another sailboat was smashed to pieces at the Jordan Harbour Bridge that same day – fortunately no loss of life or injuries in that one. And I wanted to put up the Gennaker when leaving the NYC’s basin to take full advantage of our tailwind forté. Hmmm…. What was I thinking?!

But down came the sails and up the semi-protected Dalhousie channel we motored to attempt the docking procedure in front of the Dalhousie Yacht Club. (Why did they leave out the “Port” bit in their name by the way?! Hmmm….) Several nice DYC folks came out to lend a hand – as they always do there. (Or perhaps they were just curious to see who in their right mind would take a boat out in a Lake Ontario typhoon.) But what they didn’t’ tell me or more correctly “yell me” – as the wind was still howling even that far up the channel so it was hard to hear anyone – was that the river was shut off that day – hence no current. (Closed for repairs was the story that I was fed.) When you dock there you anticipate and allow for the strong current coming at you but when it is not there – as it was not that almost fateful day – you tend to crash into anything and everything in front of you if you don’t know and if you are not quick on the draw and apply the “power” brakes when you should.

Well, I was busy driving the ship to its roost so I asked my mate to toss the stern line to one of the able-bodied long shore-men but she, being a newbie, messed up the throw and it went into the drink and under the boat, towards the spinning prop that I had in full reverse to stop the forward movement of the boat due to the lack of the expected and anticipated strong river current. Anyone could have done that and I don’t blame her one bit. What a mess! But, no time to fret just yet. It was time to react, act and not miss a beat and not hit a boat – no time to even think, that’s for sure. Git ‘er dun as they say in good ‘ole West Virginia!
I had to shut the engine down – so as to not get the line wrapped around the prop rendering it and the boat as non-operational, pull up the wet line, coil it quickly and re-throw it – and not miss, start the engine back up and then put it into hard reverse so it wouldn’t do this “crash” thing due to the lack of stopping current and all in 2.4 seconds. With a 35 knot wind pushing the boat forward still with the Dodger and transom acting like a sail and no stopping current its 13,000 pounds wasn’t going to stop in time and that was for sure. Well, if that doesn’t wake up a tired sailor from four hours of tough downwind sailing in a gale in twelve foot waves nothing will!

We were told that due to the wind we could stay there for the night but I said “heck no, we’d like to be on the Far Side – the Gary Larson side.” So, we tempted fate once again and moved – but that is another story – again with a happy ending but not without its fair share of drama as well.

Sure, there is a lot to learn here – there always is when a near-crash experience happens after a four-hour slog across our Great Lake in a hurricane . But that’s half the fun of a sailing adventure – mixing the known with the unknown and throwing in some extra unexpected ingredients for flavour. It’s called an adventure and what many of us live (and yes, sometimes unfortunately die) for.

So whenever you hear a warning phrase that starts off with “They say…” you might want to think twice or perhaps three times as sometimes, actually often, they know what they are talking about. But on the other hand, what fun is it sitting at the dock when the magnetic true north knocks loudly on your back door on the last long weekend of the sailing season saying “come out and play!!!”

by Don Williams – SoundScape