THURSDAY: The Black Clouds


Copyright is held by the author. 

Thursday, July 24, 2008 — Prinyers Cove, Prince Edward County, Ontario
IT’S A perfect summer day. Like a kid, I jump off the stern of my boat and do a cannonball into the almost warm water of Prinyers Cove. I splutter and slip on my mask and snorkel and dive under the boat to check the prop, rudder, and hull. Everything’s fine below the water-line, but there’s serious scratches and dents on the upper hull from mishaps on the trip down from Ottawa. Next, I follow the anchor line as far as I can and dive down towards the anchor, but it’s too deep. I snorkel back to the stern boarding ladder, climb into the cockpit, and grab lunch, two granola bars and a warm beer.

Sitting on a cushion in the cockpit of my sailboat, sipping my beer, I look straight up and watch stark white gulls with black wing tips glide past a backdrop of darkening clouds. My mind wanders with the birds.

In 1909, just shy of 66 years of age, the extraordinary sailor, Joshua Slocum, sailed off into the Atlantic on his last voyage and disappeared. His adventure book, Sailing Alone Around the World, had been published a decade earlier and had made him famous and well-off. My ambition is considerably more modest than Captain Slocum’s, but I just turned sixty-six and I feel a kinship with the old man’s need to feel free and alive before he withered away.

 I imagine I look the part of a seasoned sailor. My untrimmed grey hair and beard are much too long, and I’ve been wearing the same faded, blue t-shirt and frayed cargo shorts for a week. I’m barefoot though I wear scruffy boating shoes when I need to. I don’t use suntan lotion or wear a hat, and I have a really dark tan.

 An impressive wall of black clouds rises over the western horizon, boils in slow motion, and edges towards us. Soon, it’s unnaturally dark for early afternoon, and I feel a few drops of rain. I walk over to the hatch that leads down to the cabin, stand under a framed canvas top, and zipper in its acrylic windows.

The rain mounts quickly, beats across the water, batters the canvas, and rattles the fibreglass hull. Individual rain drops explode against the white floor of the cockpit like a mini water-cannon barrage. The shore’s hidden behind an opaque curtain of cascading water. Intermittent breezes relieve the humidity and send small ripples scurrying in random directions across the bay.

The sun’s back in less than an hour, and I look for new entertainment. My binoculars swing over my neighbouring sailing yachts and powerboats. A man and a woman relax in the cockpit of their large sailboat and share a bottle of wine in long stemmed glasses. I can’t hear them, but I see them smile, talk, and laugh. The man’s head turns in my direction, and I look away. It’s good they have company, I guess, but I like being on my own. I think I got that from my dad. He left home to travel the world when he was fourteen. But that was a long time ago.

This lone traveller business for me started early. When I was four or something, I packed a few items in a paper bag and left home to explore the world. After a few blocks, a policeman found me and convinced me I should go back. There’s no policeman now, and my boat’s my home.

A few large stationary houses dot the south shore, like castles seen through a haze, and there’s a pocket of barely visible residential houses to the west. The rest of the horizon is an edge of trees bordering flat farm land. There’s a small marina on the south shore that shows on my chart, but I can’t see it. I’d prefer a village with a pub where I could have a burger and cold beer and then walk around licking a chocolate ice cream cone.

For dinner, I heat a he-man sized can of Chunky Beef Stew in a pot on a sluggish alcohol stove. Then I down this gastronomic delight with margarine-covered stale bread and another warm beer. Dessert is “healthy-snack” apple sauce in a small plastic tub. It should calm my tummy.

As the sun settles, mosquitoes begin their nightly attack, and I retreat to my cabin, install the bug screens, and hunker down on my bunk. The night’s quiet, and I listen to music, swat a few remnant mosquitoes, read a paperback, and easily fall asleep.

Prinyers Cove is a big, safe anchorage at the east end of Prince Edward County, which is a large pastoral peninsula that juts south into Lake Ontario, about a quarter way along the Lake from the east end. A boating channel, the Bay of Quinte, separates Prince Edward County from mainland Ontario to the north. The Bay’s fifty kilometres long in a zigzag shape and ends near the small city of Trenton. It’s my destination for tomorrow, weather permitting.

From Trenton, I’ll follow the locks and channels of the Trent-Severn waterway to Georgian Bay, tour around, and return. The whole trip, from Ottawa back to Ottawa, will take about three months.

My boat’s a Bayfield-25 sloop, a coastal cruiser small enough to skipper single-handed and big enough to live aboard for months at a time. So far, my boat and I have been subjected to a series of annoying incidents, starting with the grind down the Rideau Canal when gushing currents grabbed the keel, swung us around, and bashed us into the stone walls of the locks a few times. One time, we ran out of fuel, and there was the time we ran aground. One of my boating rules is that my next dumb miscue will be one I haven’t done before. I can’t wait.

Your normal sailboat looks beautiful from a distance, with sails billowing as it glides across the water. But sailboats were never meant to travel our canal systems with their bridges and hydro lines. So, like many sail boaters before me, I lowered the mast, and now it lies along the length of the boat, held up, fore and aft, in homemade wooden cradles and cinched down with a spider web of ropes. My beautiful boat’s been transformed into an ugly barge.

Since I can’t use my sails, I rely on an inboard eight horsepower, one-cylinder, diesel engine. It doesn’t have much of a muffler, so it’s very loud and shakes everything like it’s chugging molasses. If I open the throttle too far, black smoke pours out the exhaust pipe. Every morning, when I check its oil level, I ask myself how wise I am to be so dependent on a machine that’s never been serviced and is well over thirty years old?

As I make coffee this morning, I listen to Environment Canada’s weather forecast on the VHF radio. The robot voice predicts light rain beginning at noon with heavy localized rain after that. There’s a silver nugget. Winds will be light all day, zero to five knots from the west. A little rain never hurt anyone, so it’s a good forecast for a motor trip to Trenton.

After two weeks, I have departures down pat — put sleeping bag away, lay out rain gear, fill water bottles, check air horn and spot light, lay out charts and log book, and set up the GPS. Then I check the fuel and oil levels, open or close the through-hull water feeds, switch on the batteries, running lights, autotiller, and instruments. Finally, we’re ready to go, and I clamber up the ladder to the cockpit and put on my self-inflating life jacket.

Just after eight, I start the engine and make my way to the bow, stepping cautiously over the ropes that keep the mast lashed down. I slip on work gloves and haul on the anchor line. Three tons of fibreglass and aluminum, creeps forward until we’re right over the anchor, but it’s stuck hard in the muck. So, I return to the cockpit, kick the engine into forward then reverse a few times until the anchor’s free, and we’re on our way to Trenton. At a speed of five knots and counting in a 30-minute lunch break, we should be there by three.

It’s easy going at first. The Bay of Quinte’s a couple of kilometres wide and has a well-marked channel, but as we chug along, the black rain clouds mount ahead of us. Around one p.m. I feel the first drops and put on my rain gear. The rain’s light when we pass under the Highway 62 overpass at Belleville, but soon it’s a deluge, and I can’t see the red and green channel buoys any more. I’m desperate, so I shift the engine into neutral and scurry below to check the GPS and charts. In a few minutes, I’m back at the tiller with a bearing and locate the channel through my binoculars. Soon, I’m lost again.

Dark shapes, trees on a shoreline, emerge through the downpour. They’re only one or two hundred meters away, and the depth meter shows one foot of clearance below the keel. This is a nasty situation, but thank God there’s no wind. I shove the tiller right over so we inch around in a tight circle, and I calm down.

The first flash of lightening shatters the shoreline and the last vestiges of my nerves. On and on it goes, cracks and booms like an artillery bombardment, fabulous jagged streaks, incandescent white, slash through the sky to the ground in a semi-circle around me.

Except for the certainty I’m about to die, it would be a splendid sound and light show. With each flash, individual trees momentarily stand out like dark sinister creatures, arms askew, coming to carry me to Hades.

The thunder and lightning probably lasts ten minutes, then the rain peters out, and I easily spot the channel to Trenton. My arms and legs are shaky loose, and my mind’s running on automatic as we pass under some bridges and reach the entrance to the first lock of the Trent-Severn system. I dock clumsily, just as my self-inflating life jacket self-inflates. Then, I try the VHF, and it doesn’t work. But it’s only a blown fuse. It could be worse.

I need to walk and find a restaurant, so I lock up and stagger to the path that leads about a kilometre into the deserted town. There’s a little Scottish pub in the downtown core, and I order a burger and fries with a pint of cold ale. I ask my waiter about the storm.

“It was wicked crazy,” he says. “Sirens everywhere.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Crazy.”

After dinner, I stop at a store and wander back to my little boat licking a chocolate ice cream cone.

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