Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Surfin' USA

Today we crossed a bay on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, traveling from Mexico, NY, to Sacket's Harbor.

Yesterday, while we were docked in Mexico, NY, we met Fran Talaber of Oswego. He's done lots of boating and (Brotherhood of the Boaters) gave us loads of information about the next stage of our trip (up the Trent-Severn Waterway) and a bit of good advice: “Get going early.”

We’re talkin’ 5:30 AM here. The water is almost always calm then, Fran said. Leave early, and get where you are going before the weather changes, which it often does later in the day.

It’s possible that the first mate had previously suggested this strategy to the skipper! . . . but no doubt, independent confirmation was a useful thing.

We left Mexico at 0600 today. (We are far enough north now that the sun had been up for half an hour already). As we cruised up the calm bends of the Little Salmon River, the sky looked threatening.
The forecast was for favorable winds (out of the south, pushing us toward our destination) and just small waves early, then showers and thunderstorms with bigger wind and waves. Out on the lake we could see lighter skies ahead, but a dark storm cloud boiled just above our heads. I kept watching it as we went, trying to estimate which of us was traveling the faster.

We had debated hugging the shore (closer to dry land if anything goes wrong) or making a straight shot across the bay (shortest distance between two points is a straight line). We went with a compromise path, and with a system of checking the bilges for water (which is a sign of a leak around the propeller shaft) every 15 minutes.

For the first hour the water was quite calm. Then we could feel the wind pick up and see the waves start to build. The water was gunmetal gray and gleamed like crinkled silk.

And though the outdoor thermometer read 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and though I was wearing 1) a long-sleeved shirt, 2) a fleece vest, 3) a hooded sweatshirt, 4) a fleece jacket, 5) a windbreaker and 6) a coated canvas raincoat, I was shivering. The wind over water will do that to you.

We saw just one lone fishing boat in our first few hours of travel. I imagine we were a startling sight to local salmon fishermen!

Every now and then a gull, winging purposefully overhead, would pull up and hover on our stern for a bit, quite overtly checking us out, I assume to see if we were doing any fishing. When no chum was forthcoming, the bird would do a wing roll and soar off in search of a better boat.

So much of our boat knowledge is “book learnin’,” and years ago, we read all 18 of Patrick O'Brien's historical novels (the "Aubrey–Maturin” books), about a captain in the British Royal Navy and his square-rigged “ship of the line” during the Napoleonic wars. We'd read descriptions of how the ship would “sink the lighthouse” (meaning the lighthouse appeared to sink below the horizon as you sailed away from it, due to the curvature of the earth), and now we could see what that expression meant in practice, as we watched the huge tower of the nuclear plant at Nine Mile Point on our stern, slowly appearing to sink into the lake.

Meanwhile, also on our stern, the waves were holding steady, and Dragonfly seemed to surf along, just like a kayak . . . a big, enormous, unweildy 14-ton kayak made of steel.

The east coast of Lake Ontario has sand dunes, and if you squint you might think you were cruising off Cape Cod. The dunes give way to low cliffs of dark sedimentary rock that has slumped away in places.

The approach to Sacket’s Harbor took us past several islands and the Stony Point Lighthouse. In the lee of the islands the water was much calmer. Bill did most of the steering but when I took my turn, I got a vivid demonstration of the expression “firm hand on the tiller.” In these conditions the tiller feels almost live, and it’s a lot of work to hold it steady and stay on course; I had to plant my feet AND push off the railing with my free hand.

More book learnin’—before we left on this journey, we took an online class in powerboating (through the U.S. Power Squadron—don’t you love the name? I would really like to know what the uniforms look like . . . )

Anyway, one chapter was on boating safety, and there was rather a long discussion of how tiring boating is—because you are using your muscles without really realizing it, to stay steady on a lurching deck, etc. etc. At the time I rolled my eyes. C'mon, you're on a boat! The engine is doing the work! How tiring can it possibly be? (Now kayaking, THAT’s tiring.)

Well, at the end of the six-hour trip, I can report that riding on a boat is extremely tiring! Feels-like-someone-slugged-me tiring.

Just as we pulled up at the public dock in Sacket’s Harbor, the rain began in earnest.


  1. The Power Squadron Uniforms vary depending on what the function is. At formal events, such as the district, state or national meetings, the uniform is a "yacht club" type outfit with various insignias denoting different elected offices and levels of courses taken.

    Instructors wear a "Certified Instructor" polo shirt and Vessel Safety Examiners, like myself, wear a red USPS Vessel Examiner shirt (or windbreaker depending on the temperature) with tan pants or shorts. Instructors and examiners are also required to wear a Mustang Inflatable PFD while we are engaged in official USPS activities.

  2. Scott, thanks so much for filling me in!

  3. You're very welcome! Thanks for the mention in your blog! Members of Bald Eagle Power Squadron are really enjoying reading about your adventure! We wish you a safe journey and look forward to your safe return!

  4. Thanks for your good wishes, Scott. Folks ask what our previous experience is and we always explain how our "book learnin" with Power Squadron has already helped us in so many ways on this trip.