Chapter one: we were cold
Oh, the Susan Hood! We were warned. It would be cold. Of course it would be cold. We brought clothes. We were ready. I mean, how cold can it be?
(Note to self: bring twice as many clothes next time!)
Seriously, I was double-socked, double-gloved, three pairs of pants, five layers on top and still seriously cold. Seriously.
(Note to crew: buy every hot-pocket you can next winter and bring them next time)
The root causes of all this cold were manifold:
- The water was 7C
- We were sitting less than one meter above this water
- We were sitting
- There was wind
- There was no sun
- It was night
- There was foggy, dampy kinda clammy air
- The water was 7C
- We were sitting less than one meter above this water
- We were sitting
You know when you go skiing and the chair lift stops in a breezy part? Imagine going skiing, but spending the entire day and night on the ski lift, stuck in that same breezy spot. That’s the Susan Hood!!
This is us before the cold seeped into our bones.
Chapter Two: We had a barrel of laughs
All that talk about cold makes it sound as if we were suffering humourlessly through our 21 hour wrestling match with mother nature. Not so! Of course there were moments when the cold tried our patience, but most of the time, we combated the temperature with warm hearts, tall tales and the kind of camaraderie that you only get when half a dozen fools decide to sail 75 nautical miles overnight 30 cm above water colder than a gin & tonic.
We would have sang songs, but it was hard to play guitar with two pairs of gloves on!
And that G&T? Not a drop in sight.
Chapter Three: The start
We were not the only group on this Quixotic quest. Oh no, there were 97 boats at the start line! In the late light of a “Spring” day, on calm water with a moist sky, all these craft ghosting along was a thing of beauty. Just imagine, 97 chair lifts stuck in the breezy part! Each with its own set of lunatics having a barrel of laughs!
Here’s a glimpse at just a portion of the boats readying for the start.
Chapter Four: Night
A great part of the appeal of this adventure is the chance to sail at night, out on the lake. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it was. First the sunset behind us, and the softening edges as twilight began. Around this time, midway across the lake the wind grew faint, all the boats slowed, and the world turned pastel and sepia. I found it haunting and unforgettable.
An hour later it was dark, and a new beauty emerged. We couldn’t see our sails or the sails of the other boats. Just their navigation lights and our instruments. Like green & white beads on a string, our competitors to leeward stretched out in a line toward Niagara. And above, here and there among the partially clouded sky, stars twinkled at us as if they knew just how cold we were.
Surprisingly, even though we couldn’t see our sails or tell-tales, that didn’t make it hard to steer or trim the boat. Our instruments told us we were performing well — usually around 90% efficiency, which is hard to beat in broad daylight. Occasionally, we’d feel the boat speed sagging, and use a flashlight to check the sail trim, but for the most part we just carried on and steered to the compass heading. Steering to the compass was difficult. I found myself off course by ten degrees from time to time. David seemed to have a more steady hand.
Another hour and we were approaching the Niagara shore, whose presence was made known to us first by a very welcome increase in temperature as the wind that reached us passed over only a few miles of water. The second sign of the Niagara shoreline came from a growing and surprising amount of light from the cities and towns on the peninsula.
Cheered by the slightly warmer breeze, we began hunting for a particular red flashing light still a few hours away. We had taken note of some decoy lights that might trick us — at least all the ones on the nautical chart. But we had not anticipated that there are dozens of red lights on land, and there is no way to tell when water ends and land begins. Eventually, Gil spotted our light and we held a course toward it, tracking our progress on the iPad. As we approached, our light did not seem to grow, and then we spotted the real light, much nearer, but 30 degrees off our course. It was there all the time, hiding in plane sight among myriad other lights (and behind our genoa). No problem, a small adjustment of course and we were around our mark.
And on that final approach, boats ahead that had rounded passed in front of us like the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean: silent with just the barest hint of sails silhouetted by the distant glow of civilization. A red & white necklace stretching along. It was 1am and all was well.
Chapter Five: Sleep
None of us got enough. Most got a couple hours, David didn’t get any. Even though we planned a watch system, we didn’t really follow it. Eventually, one or two at a time, we each went below decks to warm up, rest and maybe snooze a bit. We were excited and stimulated by the experience, and still in a frame of mind to sail the boat as well as possible. We had been warned not to try to be heroes, but I found it difficult to relinquish control on deck even though the wind was modest and the crew had things well in hand. But eventually, even that sense of responsibility gave way to the need for some shut eye and down I went.
Sleep came quickly. The gentle rocking of the waves and the lullaby sound of the wavelets overcame the discomfort of a thin mattress on a slope.
But from down below in the dead of night, the sound of the boat tacking is like a freight train running through your head!
Sleep came deeply. It wasn’t the wind that woke me, it was the lack of it that crept into my subconscious and nudged me to take a look above decks.
Chapter Six: Squalls
Sure enough, that calm was the eerie calm before a squall hits. This one had no rain, but a sudden surge of wind that threatened to overpower the boat. By the time I popped my head out of the hatch it was on us, and Les and I furled the jib (me helping from the companionway ladder). It wasn’t so strong, and it didn’t last long, so we unfurled the jib once I was suited up and on deck. Another one hit us, softer this time and then the sky ahead showed the edge of cloud cover and more peaceful steady (and stronger) wind.
Chapter Seven: Navigation in the night
Oops, we made a boo boo.
Away from shore in fresh breeze, a quick check of the navigation app on the iPad gave us a bearing to the next waypoint of 331 degrees. None of us stopped to consider this direction. We altered course, trimmed the sails and enjoyed the solid wind and great sense of progress that comes from nice boat speed.
An hour and a half later, another check of our position, this time using the chart, and we realized that we were not heading toward Burlington, but were already half way back to Port Credit!
Somehow, the app had advanced to the next waypoint or gotten stuck directing us to PCYC. You can see our track (dark dashed line) on the image below. Clearly we sailed a lot of extra distance in a not-so-helpful direction!
Now a comment about psychology. While we were heading the clearly wrong direction, another boat crossed our path nearby heading in a very different direction with their spinnaker flying. We noticed they were flying a quite deep angle, and discussed amongst ourselves how surprising it was that they didn’t change course closer to ours, take a hotter angle and therefore a lot of speed in the ‘right’ direction. We talked about their bad decisions, never once reconsidering that perhaps they were going the right direction. And of course, they were!
Chapter Eight: Spinnaker at Night
One of the particular thrills of our errant course was the chance to set the spinnaker at night and sail fast on the open lake. By the time we did this, the darkest part of night had passed, and we hoisted in the predawn charcoal gray sky that leant everything a monochromatic hue. Flying along around 7 knots, we were being towed by a greyscale two-tone spinnaker, first in the wrong direction but then after a jibe and some shifty wind onto a great straight line to the Burlington Spider. This is an image that returns to me every time I blink.
Chapter Nine: The first of three holes
In the vernacular, a ‘hole’ is an area of light wind where progress slows to a painful pace. In the worst of these, the wind dies altogether.
As we approached the spider the wind began to slacken. The navigation software predicted 22 minutes to reach the spider. We sailed on. After about 20 minutes, we asked Lazy Sheet how long until the spider. The answer? 22 minutes. The wind slowed some more and so did our progress. Another long interval passed, and the same question was asked. How long until the spider? 22 minutes! I started to ponder the mathematical joke where you progress half the remaining distance to your destination in each interval of time. How long does it take to get there? Forever!
The only good thing about this slackening breeze was the chance to make coffee. Gil brewed up a pot of fresh Joe on Bert’s magnificent gimbaled campstove contraption. That morning, I would have put a value on that stove at “A THOUSAND BUCKS!”
But thankfully our progress to the spider did not take forever. A couple of jibes in the light wind to sail hotter angles, a slightly fresher breeze returning, and we were finally dousing at the spider, turning back upwind toward Port Credit (the correct destination this time). It was 8am, and all was well.
Chapter Ten: Renewed Purpose
Of course the wrong turn in the night was a bit hard to accept, and the light wind approach the spider compounded our sense that we had fallen behind our fleet. Rationally, we could imagine a scenario where all of them had fallen into a big hole off the shore somewhere (Grimsby?) while we were trucking along at 7 knots, but we only gave that a 10% probability. Most likely, our fleet was well ahead.
But our energy shifted when we rounded the spider for several reasons, not least of which was another boat just behind us. We thought we read J109 on the hull, and that would mean that we were ahead of at least someone in our fleet. Game on!
We rounded ahead of them, felt the fresh (cold) air of the upwind breeze, a keen eye on the sail trim, all the lads hiking hard, a breakfast of licorice and M&Ms, and a sound track of classic rock framed the perfect kickstart to our day. And sure enough, with over six knots of boat speed and this renewed sense of competitive purpose, we were wide awake with the joy of sailing.
Gil took the helm and we gradually pulled well ahead of our newfound rival.
(and we gradually realized it was a J105, a slower machine from a different fleet that started after us.)
Chapter Eleven: A test of resolve
In a display of classic pathetic fallacy, right around the time we realized that we had indeed given up a lot of time to our fleet, the breeze began to shut down again. This time we were between Oakville and the Clarkson pier, with less than ten miles to go. The stronger breeze had built up a modest swell so that even though there were a few knots of wind, we could make very little progress on port tack (heading into the waves). On starboard, we could do okay, so we held that tack close into shore. Every time we tried to come away from land, the same fate would befall us, and we would tack once again toward shore.
Eventually, we just stopped moving.
By now we had quenched all the enthusiasm rediscovered at the spider: we were cold, we were tired and we were starting to wonder why we were doing this.
Gil preempted any thoughts of quitting with something like “Anyone even thinks about starting the engine, I’m cutting the battery cables!”
The sails flapped terribly in the swell so we furled the jib, hardened the main, and I leaned back and closed my eyes, saying something to the effect of “relax boys, have a rest. The wind will come back eventually.” Now, I’m no prophet, but this time I was right.
Chapter Twelve: We could have walked faster
Through some mechanism I cannot perfectly recall, I transitioned from napping at the helm to asleep down below. When I woke up, there was a consistent light breeze. Les was at the helm, Dinghy was obsessed with overtaking a new rival (Renaissance), and we were making forward progress toward the finish line. About 4 knots of boat speed, or 8km/hr, tacking upwind, so net progress just over 5km/hr. Yes we were moving infinitely faster than we had been, but it was more tortoise than hare.
We had eyes on the finish line, watching two boats ahead as they approached the end of their journeys. And we watched them stop completely.
Chapter Twelve: Four Hands takes a nap on the foredeck
You guessed it. We approached, and then slowed and slowed. Lazy Sheet and Four hands went to the foredeck to shift our weight forward, to help preserve the momentum we had. We tacked while we still had way on us. Renaissance tried hoisting a code zero but ended up facing the wrong way, and we overtook them at a speed of 0.02 knots. And then? Nothing.
The distance to the finish line is debatable. Was it 200m? 500m? somewhere in between? The point is that after twenty hours on board, and nearly 75 nautical miles traveled we were now stopped completely within site of the finish line. The whispers of moving air came from every which direction and there was no hope of moving. Give’r was the name of the boat ahead of us, and together we bobbed going nowhere.
If there was any silver lining to be had in this park-up, at least it was warmer!
Somehow in the middle of all this drama, Les closed his eyes and went to a much happier place. Was it an hour? More? I don’t know. Time seemed to dilate. Time seemed to stand still. The boat certainly seemed to stand still.
Finally, eventually, the whispers of wind consolidated to a consistent direction and we hoisted the spinnaker (waking Les from his reverie) to travel the last 100m or so across the line.
And so ran the Quixotic odyssey of six adventurers on the frigid inland sea. In near silence we put the gear away, stowed the sails, docked the ship and unloaded our personal effects and brought them to the car. Just as we entered the car, thunder rolled nearby. As the doors closed, raindrops fell. As we exited the parking lot, the sky opened with a rich deluge.
We had finished just in time. For although we had been cold for 21 hours, we had been dry. We can be thankful for that!
David summed it up as we walked to the car: “Well that was quite a learning experience.”