Winter in the meadow


Since we’ve been back in Ontario, we’ve been spending as much time as we can at the boat—no, not the one in Florida, the other boat, Meadowlark, the one we’re building on our family property up north, I’d really rather not say exactly where…

We have 50 acres of land, 60 now that we’ve purchased the adjoining property with access to a three-season road. Before that, we depended on the good graces of our neighbours to get in and out of our place. In winter we have to hike in a couple miles on a snowmobile trail then hop a fence and snowshoe across a farmer’s field to get in.


But the isolation of the property is much of its appeal. It’s on a lake in the middle of the concession block, surrounded by farm land. There’s an old log cabin down by the lake, where my sister Brenda stays, built long before the township decided that because we are on a three-season road, we can’t build any more dwellings on our property.

So we’re not. Chris and I are building a boat up in the meadow.

Now Meadowlark is no ordinary boat. Sturdy post and beam construction, tongue and groove oak on the hull, an oak deck. Skylights. Discreet eavestroughs along the scuppers. You starting to get the picture?

Chris designed Meadowlark during long winter nights in our townhouse in Waterloo. He produced a set of working drawings that are themselves a work of art, then we set to work building round windows in our garage in Waterloo.

Once we broke ground in the spring, many hands helped build the boat. Our friend Rick, a carpenter by trade, helped us with the finer details, such as fitting the posts and beams—painstaking, exacting work. But the finished result is worth it. (Rick may have a different opinion on this…)

The outside is complete now, but there’s lots of finishing still to be done on the interior. Chris spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s building kitchen counters out of ash to match the dining room table we also built in our garage in Waterloo. (The neighbours at the townhouse hardly minded the sound of the table saw and the router, the smell of varnish late into the night. Really they didn’t.)

Sure, living in Meadowlark is a bit like living in a construction site—plywood floors, most but not all of the drywall installed but still bare, vapour barrier ceilings. But the boat is well insulated, and we have a full-size woodstove, so even on the coldest of winter days, it’s as cosy as can be.

And living in a meadow in the middle of winter, miles from the nearest road, is absolutely magical. The moon was full when we were up there between Christmas and New Years, and each night we’d look out across the snow, hoping to see a deer, or a coyote, or even a rabbit. But we didn’t see another creature the whole time we were up there, not even a mouse, though every morning we’d wake to fresh tracks in the snow all around us.

The silence in the meadow is profound, just the gentle sound of the wind chime from time to time. And the roar of the Argo.

Yes, we have a new addition to the fleet up at the farm—a sturdy tracked vehicle that laughs at snow. Once we’ve hiked in, we can zip back out to the car in the Argo to haul all our gear in rather than pulling it in on a sled. And we know that in an emergency, we can get out in a hurry.

Plus it’s just plain fun to drive around in! I’m still getting used to the skid steer—I often end out quite a ways away from where I thought I was going—but (surprise) Chris has mastered it completely. He can even do a perfect spin stop, braking hard on one side and doing a 180 before coming to rest. Very fancy. And a little hair raising.

We can’t think of a nicer place to be in winter. Except possibly on our other boat, somewhere warm. We try not to look at the weather in Florida—oops, just did. Twenty-five degrees, and sunny, light winds. Same as yesterday. And the day before. How boring.

Hmm. I could do with a little of that kind of boring.


What’s that white stuff?


As I write this, I’m sitting at Brenda’s kitchen table looking out over her back yard. The maple tree is bare, the last of its leaves long fallen, the bird house in its branches long empty. The ivy trailing along the fence is still green but everything else is grey. Or brown. Or grey. And… what is that white stuff on the ground?

We’re back in Ontario, at my sister’s place in Guelph, after a month of unrelenting travel. We’ve been on delivery, moving the boat from New York to Florida in stages as the weather has allowed.

After an easy summer in the peaceful Bras d’Or Lakes, the Atlantic seaboard of the United States was a bit of a shock. First and foremost, there’s the ship traffic. If possible, these waters are busier than they were when we travelled through them 13 years ago. At one point, as we were sailing at night past Atlantic City, we were tracking three tug boats, half a dozen big fishing boats dragging nets, several cargo ships making their way to and from New York City, a Coast Guard boat, and a handful of other sailboats trying to make their way south through all of this.

One thing that has changed, and it has made sailing in busy waters much less hair-raising, is the advent of AIS—Automatic Identification System, which is now the main way to avoid collisions. We still run our radar regularly—not all boats have AIS—but we now have all kinds of information on the ones that do. By clicking on the little triangle that shows up on our chart plotter, we can find out the name of the boat—very useful if you have to hail them—the type of boat, its direction and speed, and sometimes its destination. So you know if that white light on the horizon is a 648-foot cargo boat, a cruise ship, a fishing boat, or a tug boat pulling a train, as they call a series of barges. The system even tells you if the train is on a short or long line—sometimes the barges are as much as a mile behind the tug boat.


Curiously, Coast Guard boats don’t show up on AIS, but I guess if they’re looking for illegal activity, they don’t really want to announce their presence. It’s funny, in Canada, members of the Coast Guard seem like friendly, helpful people who are there to assist if you get into trouble. In the States, they seem to take border patrol more seriously. We often hear Coast Guard helicopters hailing boats and questioning them, and once we had to skirt an area where Coast Guard boats were engaging in firing practice. Do Canadian Coast Guard boats even have guns? I’m not sure.

But the Coast Guard’s bold presence is nothing compared to the many fighter jets that screamed over our heads on this journey. Sorry—we have lots of pictures of where they were two seconds ago but only one actual glimpse of a jet to share with you. Those things are fast! We spent two memorable nights at anchor in the Alligator River waiting out weather, which is one of the places these jets practice manoeuvres. They would streak out over our boat then shoot straight up in the air and disappear in the clouds. A minute later, they’d come screaming back. It was pretty neat—our own private air show. Okay, it was neat during the day time…

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The further south we travelled, the quieter the coastal waters became. On the last leg of our journey—a five day passage from Beaufort, North Carolina to Florida—there were very few other boats around. We had a peaceful sail—warm, sunny days, star-filled nights, with the full moon to light our way. Oh yeah. That’s why we do this.

We made landfall at Ponce de Leon Inlet and spent a leisurely Saturday motoring along the Intracoastal Waterway to Titusville, where we are keeping the boat while we’re home for Christmas. All along the way we could see evidence of the havoc wrought by this year’s hurricanes. Smashed up docks, sunken boats with just their masts sticking out of the water, boats washed up on shore, most of them abandoned now. It’s a very sad sight.


It was sunny and 80 degrees when we left Florida just a week ago, with a nice cool breeze blowing in from the ocean. It took us three days of driving to cover the 2,000 miles it had taken us a month to travel by boat. We still wake up in the night and wonder where we are. On passage? Is it time for my watch? Are we at anchor? Why is the boat so still? Wait, we’re in a bed. What motel is this? What city are we in?

Oh yeah. We’re in Guelph. And that white stuff on the ground is a skiff of snow. Sure it’s cold here, but we’re getting used to it. And to tell the truth, I’m okay with sitting still for a while.

River run

IMG_2807We had it all worked out. If we left the anchorage at the southern tip of Long Island Sound at 8am, we’d slip under Throgs Neck Bridge and start our run down the East River with the current in our favour. Our aim was to hit the aptly named Hell Gate at 10:30am, which would give us enough time to get out of the river before the tide turned against us.

Now the East River is not really a river. It’s a 14-mile tidal strait that begins in Long Island Sound and ends in New York Harbor. Eight bridges span it—all high enough for a sailboat to pass under. They’re not the problem. It’s the current, which can run as high as 5 knots. That’s our top speed under motor, so running against the current was not an option. Even running with it would require expert helmsmanship. Fortunately we have some of that on board.

We weren’t the only sailboat running the river—half a dozen of us entered the river at the same time, which was reassuring: clearly we had the timing right. We were moving along smartly at six knots, seven. In no time we were under the first two bridges, the waterway still nice and wide and more or less straight.


This part of the run was anything but scenic—old industrial buildings and abandoned piers, rows of rotting wooden posts jutting out into the water. Power plants, low-rise apartment buildings, a road running along the shore teeming with traffic. The odd ferry or water taxi crossed from one side to the other. A charter boat passed us, heading out to the sound, bristling with people and fishing rods.

The river doglegged to the left, ran straight again for a while. By now we were travelling at a heady 8 knots, buffeted by the current, but there was lots of room and little other boat traffic.

Then Hell Gate Bridge appeared.

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Now the bridge itself is lovely, an arched steel structure with stone towers at each end, built in the early 1900s. And travelling at 8.5 knots now, we were under it in no time.

Then a sharp dogleg to the right and we were in Hell Gate itself, where the Harlem River pours into the East River. It was a boiling, foaming mess. Chris wrestled with the wheel to keep us more or less in the centre of the narrow channel, while I watched the shore whizzing by, and then we were through the gate and into another long, straight stretch.


Whew. That wasn’t so bad. Chris was able to let the autopilot take it and we both relaxed a little. It was a grey, foggy day so we could barely see the Manhattan skyline emerging from the gloom.

“Look, Chris—I think thats the Empire State Building.”

But Chris was looking at the traffic ahead of us. Suddenly the river was thick with ferries, tug boats pushing huge barges, little fishing boats drifting with the current, all kinds of pleasure craft. A helicopter took off from a pad beside the river. There was a sailing regatta underway out in the harbour. Spinnakers bloomed as the boats rounded the mark for the downwind leg.

“Have you got that ferry?”

“Which one,” Chris said grimly. “The small one zipping in around the tip of Manhattan Island, the fast ferry coming up behind us, or the huge orange ferry approaching our bow?”

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The big orange ferry—the Staten Island Ferry—passed within thirty feet of us, people smiling and waving at the little sailboat beside them. Little. That’s not how we usually think of ourselves. Whoa. A huge oil barge, painted red and tan, being pushed by a matching tug boat. More fishing boats to dodge. Then the open water of New York Harbor at last.

The Statue of Liberty saluted our successful passage as we sailed by, such a nice lady. We made our way easily through the many cargo ships anchored in front of her, waiting for clearance to go to dock.

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Under the bridge at the narrows—oops, one more surprise for us: we were overtaken by about the biggest cruise ship we’ve ever seen—and then we were in the wide open bay beyond, the Atlantic Ocean not far in the distance, nothing but water between us and the Azores.

But that’s not where we’re headed right now. It’s too late in the season to think about crossing, so we’re back where it all started 13 years ago, almost to the day, tucked behind Sandy Hook waiting for the right winds to make our way south to the Bahamas, where we’ll spend the winter.


It feels so different this time. Last time, we had never been in the ocean in our boat, were both feeling a little daunted by the prospect. (Well I was. I’m not sure Chris is daunted by anything.)

We now have 10,000 miles of ocean sailing under our belts, but that doesn’t make us cocky. If anything, our respect for the seas is even greater. But then so is our confidence.

By the way? We hit the Hell Gate Bridge at exactly 10:30am.


Wild ride


It all started out so well. We left Shelburne at noon last Saturday, motoring into a gentle east wind as we made our way out the 10-mile-long inlet to the ocean. It was sunny and warm, the seas had calmed, the waves were less than a foot, and when we rounded the headland and turned to the south, the wind filled our sails. This is as nice as it gets.

But then (why is there always a but then?) as we sailed around Cape Sable Island at the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia, giving it a wide berth—sailing friends had warned us about the currents there as huge amounts of water flow into and out of the Bay of Fundy—the wind picked up sharply and went west. In no time, the seas kicked up and we were taking three-foot waves on the beam. Then four. Five. Six. Our only options were to turn and run with the seas, which would have taken us far off course, or just tough it out. We chose the latter.

It was a long, rolly night. Fortunately there was an almost full moon, so we could see the waves coming towards us, brace for impact, relax for a minute, oh, here comes the next one. It was exhausting. At one point, I didn’t brace myself in time and was thrown across the cockpit, bruising my knee when I landed. And my dignity.


We went on short watches—two hours—but neither of us really slept that night. Waves slamming into the side of a steel boat make a lot of noise. By morning the seas had calmed some—not much, but some. The wind was still coming from the west, the direction we needed to go. We knew that if it didn’t start going north soon, we would miss Cape Cod and end out in New York.

Around nightfall, the wind finally began clocking to the north, and we followed it, staying as tight on the wind as we could, trying make as much westing as possible. The problem is, seas take longer to shift than the wind does. We pounded into huge waves all night, spray crashing over the bow and drenching the cockpit windows. And worse—dislodging our anchor. We heard, but couldn’t see, it smashing against the bow of the boat.

“We’re going to have to heave to,” Chris said.

Which was easy enough. We just turned the boat into the wind until the foresail backwinded, then cranked the rudder so the boat stalled. Suddenly, all was quiet. We were just bobbing up and down. Chris snapped on the spreader lights then clipped himself to the lifeline and went forward.

The anchor chain had popped out of the roller so he couldn’t just bring it up with the winch. He had to wrestle it back on board. Which was no small feat. It took him several tries, but finally he had it secured on deck.

Reluctantly, we went back to sailing, this time just a little less hard on the wind.

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By morning the wind had gone fully north and the seas had calmed. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny fall day. You know that scene in The Perfect Storm, a movie I probably watch too much, when the fishing boats who weren’t lost in the storm motor peacefully back into harbour? It was just like that.

I sent Chris down for some much-needed sleep, made myself a cup of coffee, fetched my book, curled up on the cockpit bench. This is nice, I thought.

But there was one more surprise in store. A smudge appeared on the horizon, quickly resolved itself into container ship, heading our way. I put my book down, checked the chart plotter. We have AIS now—Automatic Identification System—so I could see the name of the vessel, its size, and its course and speed. I forget its name, but it was 900 feet long and moving towards us at 11 knots. Exactly perpendicular to us, actually. We were on a collision course.

Now vessels under sail have the right of way over ships under motor, but we never count on that. I went down and woke Chris (he had just fallen into a sound sleep) and he came up and confirmed my assessment of the situation. We had to tack out of his way. So we did.

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We watched as the ship passed at a safe distance behind us. It was sitting low in the water, its deck piled high with colourful containers, looking for all the world like something our granddaughter would build with Lego.

We resumed our original course, I went back to reading, Chris went back to napping.

By late afternoon, we had curved around Cape Cod and were sailing along its western shore, heading for the sheltered harbour inside. I had always thought that Cape Cod was, well, just a cape, a bump of land sticking out from the mainland, but it’s not. It’s a long sandy hook curling way out into the ocean, miles and miles of golden sand backed by low dunes topped with beach grass. We rounded the lighthouse at the tip of the cape and headed into the quiet anchorage off Provincetown, dropping anchor just as the sun set.

“Cruising has two pleasures,” the saying goes. “One is to go out in wider waters from a sheltered place. The other is to go into a sheltered place from wider waters.”

We certainly enjoyed both pleasures in our race from cape to cape.

Cone of uncertainty


It’s not a term I’d heard before, but I’m certainly familiar with now. We’ve never sailed in the ocean during hurricane season, so studying forecasts from the National Hurricane Centre has never been a morning ritual. But it is now. Actually, I check the forecast several times a day. And in the middle of the night. I’ll admit that it’s turning into an unhealthy obsession. Sometimes Chris hides the iPad.

Hurricane forecasts are based on computer models, satellite data, and the actual movement of a particular storm. The cone of uncertainty, which represents the probable track of a storm, is designed to show that the further out the forecast is projected, the less sure anyone is about a storm’s track.

A couple weeks ago, some long-range computer models had Jose making landfall exactly where we were, in Lunenburg. So we left our comfortable mooring ball there and scooted ten miles up a nearby river to wait it out.

As we rounded the final bend in the river, a wall of derelict fishing boats and a huge old navy vessel loomed out of the fog.

“This can’t be right,” Chris said.

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We double-checked the chart. Sure enough, we had reached the public wharf in Bridgewater, at the head of the La Have River. Ample room for visiting sailboats to tie up, our guide said. But there wasn’t. We circled a couple of times, then finally squeezed in front of the navy ship. Its grey hull rose high above our stern. I climbed onto the rough concrete dock and secured our lines around a couple of huge, rusty bollards. A flight of pigeons settled on the bow of the ship behind us, peered down through the gathering gloom. On the wharf beside us was an old steel sailboat, waiting for the cutting torch. Nearby were the remains of another boat, Just a transom and a couple of winches. It was a sad sight.


We spent a week in Bridgewater, in the fog and the rain, waiting for Jose—which never did hit Nova Scotia—to be downgraded to a tropical storm and head off to sea. Which he finally did.

But Maria was hard on his heels, with a massive cone of uncertainty that blossomed out into the North Atlantic. Forecasters were saying that Maria would miss New York and Boston, but might brush the tip of Nova Scotia and merge with the remnants of Jose before heading out across the Atlantic.

Might brush the tip of Nova Scotia. It’s the uncertainty that gets me.

Chris is pretty Zen about it all. He works on the boat, reads his book, flies his drone when the fog lifts. What’s for dinner, he asks. Another day has slipped by.


After Jose headed offshore and before Maria moved our way, we managed to sneak along the coast to Shelburne, a pretty little town near the southeastern tip of Nova Scotia. We’ve been waiting here for Maria to make up her mind, which she finally did. The night before last she passed well offshore of us and headed out to sea. But the wind in the night was unbelievable. I sat in the cockpit wrapped in a blanket and watched waves breaking around the boat in the anchorage, even though we’re a good ten miles from the ocean here. Then the rain came.

But this morning has dawned sunny—and sharply colder. It will take a couple days for the seas to settle down enough for us to make the three-day passage to Cape Cod, but it looks like we’ll be able to start heading south over the weekend. I’ll just check the forecast…

Wait a minute. Where’s the iPad?

Hurricane hole

at anchorEleven and counting. That’s where we are today. There have been eleven named storms so far this year—you’ve probably been watching the devastation caused by Irma on the news, Jose is coming across the ocean on much the same path, and Katia is rambling around in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s early September. We don’t expect things to completely quiet down until the first of November.

Irma was a big question mark. At first it looked like Irma might make landfall halfway up the coast of the United States, too close for comfort. So Sunday we took cover five miles up a river on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, along with several other sensible sailboats.

We learned an important lesson on the way here: a storm doesn’t have to have a name to cause trouble. We left the shelter of the Bras d’Or Lakes just after an unnamed storm which had come up the coast had moved off to sea. Fine, we thought. The winds had settled (if you call 25 knots settled) and were in our favour, so we set off. It was a lively ride across the Canso Strait, waves breaking over the bow and showering the boat with salt water, and we were making good time. Until we rounded the northwestern tip of Nova Scotia and encountered the swell left by the unnamed storm.

There’s still debate among those of us sheltered here in this hurricane hole as to how big the swell was. Some say six feet, some say more like nine. It sure looked like nine feet of water to me when it loomed in front of the boat (yes, of course we were pounding into it.) But there was a long interval between waves so for the most part, the swell just lifted us up then set us down again more or less gently, except of course when we crashed into the next wave.

We’ve decided that if an unnamed storm can wreak this kind of havoc with the seas, we’re going to wait here until Irma wears herself out before we continue our journey south.


But this is not such a bad place to be. We’re at the head of the Liscomb River, anchored off an old fishing lodge—it’s been here since the 1950’s, upgraded over the years, to include a swimming pool and hot tub which boaters are welcome to use. Very civilized. Showers. Laundry. And a restaurant specializing in cedar-planked salmon. I’m okay with being holed up here.

Yesterday we amused ourselves by going on a 10-kilometer hike to the waterfalls and fish ladder at the head of the river. It was a rugged hike—“Master’s Level,” the map cautioned—but we had all day, and anyway, how hard could it be?

Hard, is the answer. It started out okay, but as we got further up the river, the trail started to climb and we had to scramble up slippery rocks and teeter along logs laid across little streams. Two hours it took us to get to the suspension bridge over the falls, but it was worth it (I think): the view was spectacular, and the fish ladder was quite something, a major piece of infrastructure. We had expected a narrow wooden, well, ladder. This was a superhighway for spawning salmon.


Truly one of the best things about this place, though, is the other sailors. A couple of the boats holed up here are on their way back from Newfoundland. The stories they tell make our sail here seem like a Sunday outing. The people on one boat are professional documentary filmmakers, and after watching their videos and seeing what they’ve sailed through, we feel reassured about our decision to stay here for a bit. Even they aren’t willing to venture out in this.

How many more days will we be here, you might wonder?

So do we.

Sailing with MacGyver

I wasn’t the first person to call him MacGyver. It was Neville, a single-hander we met just after we made landfall in the Azores. He limped into harbour a couple of days after us, having gone through the same gale we did but having fared much worse. His engine was seized, his boom was broken, and his batteries were dead. He’d been hand steering for four days and he was exhausted. Chris helped him put his boat back together as best he could using the sparse materials at hand, and ever after Neville called him MacGyver.


We set out for Newfoundland on Monday, under sunny skies. The wind was at our back, the seas lively but on our stern quarter so we were moving right along. We’d been out for about three hours when Chris gave me the wheel and went below to check something in the engine room. He was gone a long time. I heard the auxiliary bilge pump come on. Not a good sign.

“There’s water in the bilge,” he said.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“I don’t know but I’ve pumped it all out. I can’t see any obvious problems. Let’s just see what happens.”

We sailed along for a bit, going over all the possibilities we could think of. Then I went down below to see how we were doing.

“The bilge in the engine room is full,” I reported.

“Take the helm.”

He pumped the bilge out again, then came above deck.

“I’m just going to have a look in the garage.”

I’ve mentioned the garage before—remember? The enormous locker at the stern of the boat big enough to park a small car in? Well to our horror, it was almost full of water. Something had gone seriously wrong back there and the new bilge pump we had installed wasn’t keeping ahead of it.

“Turn around,” Chris said. “We’re going back.”

Now we were sailing into the wind and the seas, and it was impossible to point the boat back towards the Great Bras d’Or inlet without the help of the engine. Chris kept checking the garage—we weren’t winning.

“There’s a sandy bay over there,” I said pointing to a spot on the chart just outside the inlet. “We could drop anchor there.”

“Good idea,” Chris said. “It’s shallow enough there that we can ground the boat if we have to.”

I didn’t find this very reassuring.

We dropped the hook and while I kept an eye on the anchor, Chris hauled everything out of the garage—no small feat—stripped off his pants, stepped in, and started bailing with a bucket. The water was up to his thighs.

“There’s the problem,” he said, once the bottom of the garage had emerged. The engine exhaust hose, which unlike a car carries cooling water, not just exhaust, had split in two. We had been pumping the ocean into the garage as we motored out the inlet. And as we made our way back to relative safety.

He went down to his workshop, came back up with a can of glue, a roll of self amalgamating tape, and some shrink wrap—the kind we use to cover the boat in winter. Before long he had a temporary fix in place.

“Let’s get moving.”


We motored into the inlet, against the current but we didn’t really have much choice. We had to get out of the ocean. At one point, we were moving at one knot—about one mile per hour. It was after dark when we finally dropped anchor in the shelter of Otter Island. It had been a long day.

But a good day, in some ways. It reminded me that I’m sailing with MacGyver. We could have sailed across the ocean, if we had to, with the exhaust hose taped together so securely. Chris can fix anything but a broken heart.

Wait a minute—I’ve seen him fix one of those, too.