A tale of derring-do

We laugh at storms.

I know that many of you follow this blog hoping for swashbuckling stories of life on the high seas, and there have been precious few of those of late. I can’t remember the last time we braved a storm, or wrestled with a shark, or made dinner with only one onion, a cup of rice, and a leftover chicken breast.

But have I got a tale for you.

I recently drove to downtown Owen Sound.

Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I was scheduled to appear on an early morning radio program and the studio is right in the heart of the city.

Downtown Owen Sound on a Thursday morning

Now Owen Sound is pretty quiet at 8:30 on a Thursday morning so I had no trouble finding the radio station. Well, little trouble. I found what I thought was the station but it was actually the local newspaper office. Fortunately a disheveled man pushing a shopping cart came by and I was able to ask him for directions. Unfortunately he just eyed me suspiciously and shambled off.

But after driving around a bit I found the station, parked in front of it (did I mention the downtown was pretty much deserted?), bravely walked through the front door, and was directed to a studio on the second floor.

Now I’ve never been interviewed on air before (who am I kidding… I’ve been interviewed by the media exactly once, over the phone) so I was quite nervous. Lucky for me, one of the other authors taking part in the show was an old hand at radio and I just did everything he did. When he put his headphones on, I put mine on. When he took them off, I took mine off. When it was my turn to talk, I leaned into the mike, made eye contact with host, and tried not to think about all the people listening.

My first on-air appearance

Actually, once I relaxed, it was a lot of fun. You can listen a recording of the interview here, if you had the misfortune to miss it. It should work on your mobile phone.

This tale of derring-do pales in comparison to the adventure we’re about to embark on. Today we head out on a whirlwind tour—three cities in three days (well, four if you count the fact that we visit Kingston twice.) You can find details on my events page. We’ll be at the Island Yacht Club in Toronto tomorrow, at the Novel Idea bookstore in Kingston at noon on Monday then at the Naval Marine Archive in Picton Monday evening. Tuesday I’m giving a travel writing workshop at the library in Kingston, then we’ll head back to Meadowlark with a trunkfull of plunder—boxes of blueberries from Waupoos.

But don’t give up on us—we’ll be back on the high seas soon enough, with tales that will shiver your timbers. (Sorry—couldn’t resist.) In the fall, we’re sailing to Cuba for the winter then next spring, we’re thinking of sailing to Europe again. So we’ll have lots of adventure stories to share with you.

But for now, I’m making blueberry jam.

The gales of November

You could say I’m from these parts. I was born at the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, founded in 1887 as an eight-bed facility which, despite the fear of communicable diseases, was one of the few hospitals on the Great Lakes that would admit sailors. I was pretty young at the time so don’t remember meeting any sailors, but perhaps that’s where I was infected with my fascination with these waters.

So of course, on a recent visit to Bearly Used Books in Parry Sound, my eye was drawn to a copy of Into the Blue: Family secrets and the search for a great lakes shipwreck, by Andrea Curtis. Now I like family secrets as much as the next person, but it was the story of the shipwreck itself that I found most compelling..

On November 22, 1906 the J.H. Jones set out on its final journey.

On November 22, 1906, the packet steamer J.H. Jones sets out from Owen Sound on its last run of the season. It’s calm enough in the harbour, but out in the open waters of Georgian Bay, the gales of November are blowing up waves steep enough to capsize a steamer the size of the J.H. Jones. Somewhere between Cape Croker and Lion’s head, the ship disappears, claiming the lives of all on board.

Those are the bare facts. But Curtis weaves together fact and fiction to recreate the last journey of her great grandfather James Victor Crawford, who was captain of the steamer and who made the decision to set out into the gales. Here’s her imagining of how the story begins.

“Jim Crawford strokes the soft whiskers of his moustache with one hand, and grips the door frame of the wheelhouse with the other. The dull light of midday makes the long fingers of land on either side of the Jones look naked and sharp. The sky is low and there are reports of big waves out in the open, but the storm should be passing. Jim tugs his hat down over his ears and goes back inside.”

The wreck of the J.H. Jones off Cape Crocker.

It’s a fascinating read and a compassionate portrait of a man who made his living on the unpredictable waters of the Great Lakes and paid the ultimate price.

Chris and I have often sailed past the place where the J.H. Jones went down and have experienced firsthand how changeable these waters can be. On my first journey up the coast of the Bruce Peninsula, we set out on a calm, foggy morning, listening to the mournful sound of a foghorn somewhere offshore, a laker, no doubt, making its way to Tobermory.. But in the night, the winds came up and the seas built until we were forced to run for shelter into Wingfield Basin, through breaking surf across the narrow opening. I was terrified and did the only sensible thing: once we were safely anchored inside: I threw up on the deck.

After reading Into the Blue I was hungry for more. Fortunately, I’ve discovered the Ginger Press Bookstore and Café In Owen Sound which carries—and indeed publishes—a large selection of local books. A grim-looking book called Weather Bomb 1913: Life and death on the Great Lakes immediately caught my eye. As a sailor, I have more than a passing interest in anything called a weather bomb.

The SS Regina had a crew of 32 men. None survived the white hurricane of 1913.

I will confess to having read and re-read the 50-page prologue several times now. In it, author Bruce Kemp uses his skills as a fiction writer to recreate the last days of the SS Regina, a steel freighter out of Montreal, fully loaded and on its way to the head of the Great Lakes. Small by today’s standards at 250 feet in length, the Regina was top-heavy with a load of sewage pipe lashed on the deck—not ideal for heading out into the storm of the century.

Over the course of four days in November of 1913, the seas raged, the winds blew, and heavy snow fell on the Great Lakes as two storms joined to bring about the greatest natural disaster ever suffered on the lakes. A dozen big ships were lost with all hands and dozens more suffered serious damage. The death toll as a result of “the white hurricane” was estimated at 256, but that only included those aboard the big ships. The final count was probably much higher.

Here’s a description of conditions on board the Regina at the height of the storm:

“Just before ten the first wave struck. It came out of the night roaring above the wind like a freight train beyond control. No one on the bridge could see it. The first indication that this wave was different was when the crew felt the boat start to lift its forefoot. They rose straight up, like they were riding an elevator. Then the wave slammed into their port bow. It rocked the boat far over to starboard and washed across everything with solid green water.”

In Kemp’s imagining of events, that wave was the first of “three sisters” to hit the ship. The second blew out the windows in the wheelhouse and again rolled the boat over on its starboard side, but it managed to right itself. The third wave submerged the ship completely then dropped it on its side in the trough. It was over in a minute. “The Regina fluttered like and autumn leaf to the bottom of the lake and came to rest on her starboard side.”

Thanks to Gordon Lightfoot, there’s probably not a Canadian born who doesn’t know how fierce the gales of November can be. These two books, both available on Amazon, will bring them to life for you.

Not a bad way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon.

I’ll fight you!

“He’s at it again,” Chris calls from the porch.

It’s the male bluebird, doing battle with his reflection in the window of our car. I reach for the keys, press the alarm button. The horn used to scare him off, but he just keeps fluttering against the window, pecking furiously at what he thinks is another male bluebird. In his meadow!

Guess we’re going to have to move the car till nesting season is over. I trot out with the keys, move the car into the field at the bottom of the hill, behind the treeline. He’ll never find it there. I hope.

This will be our longest summer ever at Meadowlark. We arrived at the end of April and have been here to watch the long, slow unfolding of spring in the meadow. And it’s been seriously long and slow this year—today is the first day it’s been warm enough for me to write at my desk in the treehouse. This morning, the cows are moving slowly past in the meadow below me and a male wren is perched on the bird box at the edge of the cow pasture, singing loudly.

My nesting box. Mine. Is he worried about the cows?

No, the wren is probably worried about the male bluebird, but he’s busy fighting with our shiny chimney right now. We put strips of blue masking tape on it to discourage him but he can still catch glimpses of a male bluebird between the strips. Come out of there you coward! I’ll fight you!

I’m starting to understand where the term “bird brain” comes from. They can be a little single-minded.

There is a small pine tree just outside our back door and every year a pair of chipping sparrows makes a nest there. They build it no more than a foot off the ground, not exactly a recipe for success. Last year, they laid four perfect eggs, which were promptly devoured by something. A snake, we think—Chris had seen one lurking in the fenceline, and when we clean the bluebird boxes each spring, it’s not unusual to find a discarded snake skin inside. Clearly they can climb fenceposts, so slithering up the trunk of a tree would be no problem.

This year the chipping sparrows did a little better. Four eggs, just like last time, but this time they hatched! We watched hopefully as the nestlings went from balls of fluff with weird bulgy eyes to something more recognizable as birds. They were just starting to develop actual feathers when suddenly one morning they were gone, the nest torn to pieces. A skunk maybe? We’ve seen a few of them this year.

If the ability to stake out territory and defend it is any indication, the bluebirds should do just fine. He’s fighting with the Argo now. Really. He’s that tough.

Oh yeah? Oh yeah? He glowers at the bird inside the Argo. Come on. You can’t even drive that. It’s a skid steer. Come out, you coward

Then hurls himself at the windscreen.

I’ll fight you!

 

Watch the video Bluebird vs Argo, below.

 

I found Owen Sound!

I found Owen Sound! Not that it was ever lost. I’d just lost track of it over the years, somehow. When I was in my twenties, I used to drive to Owen Sound from the farm at Bright, watch the big ships come and go, gaze out on the waters of Georgian Bay, never imagining that some day I would sail there. But I never really got to know Owen Sound very well. Until now.

We’re spending the summer on our family property just south of Owen Sound. Which has become my new favourite place. Every Saturday, I drive to the market there, which not too big, not too small—just right! I pick up a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, fresh asparagus right now, a pound of coffee from a local micro-roastery (who knew there was such a thing!) And maybe a bar of lovely handmade chocolate. Oh and that gorgeous pottery bowl. And some microgreens. And a pie. And I really can’t carry anything else. Oops. I forgot the tomato plants I came for.

I’m looking forward to exploring the downtown more, the cafés and shops, maybe taking a historic walking tour. For sure I’m going to check out the Tom Thomson art gallery. And who could resist the Saints and Sinners: Corkscrew City Tour, “featuring the saints and sinners of yesterday and the brew masters of today in Owen Sound, the birthplace of the prohibition movement and the last dry city in Canada.” I think I might even be able to talk Chris into that.

But right now what I’m really looking forward to is Thursday night, when I’ll be reading from Sea Over Bow and signing books at the Ginger Press Bookshop and Café, the cultural hub of Owen Sound, I’ve been told. It’s at 848 Second Avenue East and the fun starts at 7pm.

I wonder if Owen Sound is still dry…

Gale-force winds!

I’m awakened from a sound sleep by a mighty crash.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Chris said, leaping out of bed. “But it doesn’t sound good.”

The wind had come up suddenly in the night. Nothing had been forecast, but by midnight gale-force winds were howling around the boat. The land boat, fortunately. We are back at Meadowlark now, the boat we’ve built in a field on the family farm south of Owen Sound. No danger of dragging anchor, but clearly something was going on out there.

We jumped into our clothes, bundled up—coats, mitts, hats (spring still hasn’t come to this part of Ontario)—grabbed a flashlight and headed out into the night.

“I think it’s the garage,” Chris said. We’ve put up one of those curved plastic shelters meant for cars which we’re using as a temporary workshop while we’re finishing the trim work on Meadowlark.

“Or at least it was the garage. It’s gone.”

Sure enough, the garage has disappeared, and the sawhorses piled with baseboards have blown over—hence the loud crash. Chris shone the flashlight around the meadow, then up into the sky, thinking perhaps of the Wizard of Oz. Nothing.

“Come on,” he said, heading out into the meadow, scanning for any sign of it.

We found it wedged in the treeline just over the crest of the hill, flapping wildly in the wind. It was intact, surprisingly. It must have just come loose and rolled across the grass. Though we both pulled with all our strength, we couldn’t dislodge it.

“I’ll go get the Argo. You hang onto it in case it suddenly works itself free.”

Now this sounded like a good plan… until Chris disappeared over the hill with the flashlight. It was some black out there, on the edge of the thick cedar swamp where… uh oh… the coyotes have their dens. We haven’t heard them yet this year, they’re probably busy with their pups, but I peered around nervously.

Then I realized that no self-respecting creature would come anywhere near this loud flapping. I relaxed a little, at least as much as you can when you’re struggling to keep a garage from getting away from you, looked up at the stars. There’s the big dipper, and other constellations I keep meaning to learn the names of.

Before long the lights of the Argo appeared over the crest of the hill and the rescue operation resumed. We tied a big rope around the two front legs of the garage, secured it to the Argo, and while I tried to keep the thing more or less upside down so the feet wouldn’t dig in, Chris backed slowly across the field.

An hour later we had it right-side-up and secured again, this time tied to a couple of trees for good measure, with all the wood re-stacked on sawhorses inside. It was three in the morning by the time we trudged back to the boat, tired but glad to have our shed back.

“Geez I wish I’d installed those anchors,” Chris admitted.

As we snuggled back into bed, I thought how much worse the night would have been on our other boat, pounding through the waves or hove-to while we waited it out, wondering how much worse things were going to get.

Give me a gale on land over a gale at sea any time.

Landsick

 

Oh I went for a walk and I walked around the block
And I walked right into a donut shop…

Oh no. Already? It’s the ice cream truck, with its endless, scratchy loop of a song my dad used to sing to us when we were little. Of course there are no words—the truck just blares the melody out on its tinny loudspeaker. Over and over again. All day. But I can’t stop the words from running through my head.

There’s a park beside the boat yard here in Titusville where we’re getting Monark ready to leave for the summer. Sometimes, the ice cream van comes hopefully into the boat yard—surely boaters are just big kids. It passes directly below the bow of our boat—

I picked a donut out of the grease
And I handed the lady a five-cent piece.

We get a brief respite from the song as the truck backs up to turn around. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Then it picks up where it left off.

People often ask about seasickness, but they never ask about landsickness, which is almost as bad. After three months on the boat, our bodies are completely used to the constant motion, we adjust to every little roll without even thinking about it. We can carry a cup of hot coffee up to the cockpit and never spill a drop. Well, except when the going gets really rough.

So the stillness of being up on stands in the boat yard is hard to get used to. It makes us feel dizzy and confused. As does the frenetic pace of life on land.

Our first day on the hard was a nightmare. As soon as the boat was out of the travel lift, we had to drive to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Port Canaveral to clear in.

“Holy cow this thing goes fast.” Chris was clutching the steering wheel of the car with both hands. “And no autopilot!”

Cars and trucks whizzed by us on the interstate at impossibly high speeds.

“Here! Get off here!” I said, too late. We’d missed the exit. We never miss our exit in the boat.

My head was spinning by the time we reached customs. I had to sit down while Chris waited patiently for the armed officer to decide to admit us to the country. He kept disappearing to do checks. Or have his lunch. We weren’t sure which.

Then we made the mistake of trying to do too many errands. We went to the bank, and the hardware store. By the time we got to the grocery store I just wanted to cry. We grabbed a couple of things and headed back to the boat.

A good night’s sleep, I thought. That’s all I need.

But I didn’t get it. The bed was eerily still. I kept waking and listening for a change in the wind, wondering if the tide had turned us yet, if the anchor had held. Then I couldn’t get back to sleep. So many sirens in Titusville. It must be the calamity capital of Florida. And cars. There’s a highway outside the boat yard gate, and all night, cars would race by, a sudden blare of music, then gone.

And then there are the trains. There’s a major railway track maybe half a kilometre away, and through the night, long freight trains come through. You can hear their whistle in the distance, then closer, then a low rumble, then louder. The boat actually shakes on its stands as the train passes by.

Like seasickness, landsickness only lasts a few days. We’re pretty much used to all the activity and the noise now. Well, maybe not the noise.

Oh no! It’s the ice cream truck again!

Well she looked at the money and she looked at me
And she said,” This money is no good to me.

“There’s a hole in the middle and it goes right through”
Says I, “There’s a hole in the donut too.”

Listen to the tune!

An unexpected guest

An unpromising start to our passage back to Florida

Chris and I figured we’d pretty much have the boat to ourselves for a couple of days when we set off from the Bahamas. We’d been watching the weather for a week, finally saw a window to make the crossing to Florida. So even though it was pouring rain, we slipped our dock lines and set out.

“Nice,” Chris commented, as the rain pelted down. But the wind was behind us, just as predicted, so we put out the jib (which we can do from inside the cockpit, thankfully) and we were on our way, holding about five knots, which for us, is pretty good.

Five hours later the rain started to let up little, then finally stopped. We unzipped the wind screen to get a good look at the clouds, and to our surprise, a big bird swooped out of the sky and made straight for our bow.

“What’s he doing?” I asked Chris.

“Hitching a ride, I think.”

What the heck is that?

Sure enough, the bird hovered over our anchor for a minute then settled onto the curved bar of steel which keeps our mighty Rocna from setting—or not setting—upside down. A perfect perch for a bird. Or it would be for a bird without webbed feet.

“What is that?” Chris asked.

I was at a loss. I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was a big bird, almost two feet tall, dark brown with a lighter brown belly, a long, sharp beak. And bright yellow webbed feet.

I kept expecting him to fall off as he teetered there, the boat rolling in seas that were building as we left the shelter of the Berry Islands and entered the Northwest Providence Channel. But he was unconcerned by the motion, settled into preening. And preening. And preening. With his long beak, he could reach the end of his tail, no problem.

How can he hang on with those feet, I wondered. Then he stood on one foot and scratched the back of his head with the other. Oh.

Only later was I able to look him up online and determine that he was an immature brown booby. These birds are widespread in the waters off Florida and “commute” and forage at low heights all seasons of the year.

This one gave a whole new meaning to “commute.” When he’d finished preening, I thought he’d fly off, but instead he sat there, looking around. He was fascinated by the jib, watched it closely.

What I couldn’t do with wings like that, he may have been thinking, or, two points to starboard and you’ll get much better lift.

Surely he’ll leave at dusk, I thought, but as darkness fell, we were too busy paying attention to all the ships heading in and out of Freeport to keep an eye on him. And it was overcast and dark all night. We could hardly see the sails, never mind something perched on the bow.

Sunrise at sea

I was on watch when the sun began to rise the next morning, and I couldn’t wait to see if he was still with us. No, I thought, then maybe. As it got lighter, I could make out something on the anchor, but it wasn’t the same shape as our bird. It looked much fatter, and it didn’t have a head. Then I realized that he was sleeping, with his head tucked under his wing, fluffed up against the cold night air.

He woke when the sun reached him, looked around, preened a little more, spread his wings wide—I mean really wide: he had a wingspan of at least three feet. And then he just stepped off the anchor and skimmed away over the water.

Where am I, I imagined him thinking. What am I doing here?

I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder the same thing.