By Jeff Carter
We had an opportunity to rent a cottage in Shrewsbury, the little hamlet on Rondeau Bay in Chatham-Kent, in early September. There is a canal at the back and a launch nearby, a convenient location for the small wooden sailboat I built some 20-odd years ago.
We took it across the bay twice that week, taking advantage of the breeze that blows more often than not from the southwest, landing on the narrow sand spit, the bay to one side and Lake Erie on the other.
It is the prevailing wind of that place that determined, at least in part, the location of Shrewsbury more than 200 years ago. From the entrance of the bay, wind-powered vessels can move back and forward to the hamlet with little fuss most days.
Alas, Shrewsbury didn’t become the safe harbour envisioned by its early surveyors, the waters of the bay being far too shallow for larger vessels.
I was on the bay a few years ago when the water level was low, a torturous experience even with little Radagast that can navigate a body of water not much larger than a puddle. The issue is not so much the depth of the water but the abundance of aquatic vegetation. This year, there wasn’t an issue. Water levels are high and it appears the farmers within the bay’s watershed are keeping more of their agricultural nutrients on their land than once was the case.
On our first trip, we traversed the first leg of the trip, a matter of a mile or two, in about an hour, sailing as close to the wind as possible. There were three boaters already there, including a little boy and his grandfather, a fellow, we learned that has worked as a fisherman on Erie and Huron since the age of 15, a span of nearly 50 years.
The two had arrived in a welded, steel boat. In the harbour at Erieau, across the entrance to the bay, lay the commercial fishing boat on which he is currently employed. The circumstance shouted, this fellow loves being on the water, whether at work or play.
We seemed to share a certain derision for pleasure boats with big motors and a respect for the power of the Great Lakes and, for that matter, smaller bodies of water as well. He told me of spending a night on Huron, caught in the ice of winter with no sign of shore, darkness encompassing the small haven of light and warmth.
Radagast is less than 16 feet in length, with a beam of four feet and eight inches. Flat-bottomed in the American tradition and designed by a boatbuilder for the Finger Lakes in New York State, she draws a few inches with the centerboard up. Rows easily. Sails adequately with her standing lug rig but doesn’t point – sail into the wind – particularly well.
I took Radagast solo under oar down the Thames, from Delaware to Lighthouse Cove, over the course of four days and three nights, camping along the bank. I saw eagles, a great-horned owl, heard the splashes of spiny softshell turtles, learned that muskrats and beaver cooperate under certain circumstances, and at the Moraviantown rapids near Thamesville saw traditional fishing traps extended from poles from the bank.
In Lake Opeongo in Algonquian Park, we took Radagast to a little island in the East Arm with little in the way of rowing, a matter of 15 miles or so, camped for a few days, and sailed all the way back as the breeze was favourable once again. That doesn’t happen often in an inland lake surrounded by hills.
Within the isles of Georgian Bay, my son and I scudded along in a strong breeze, sail reefed, Russell bailing constantly. Approaching us on the other “tack” was a two-masted vessel, the master of which offered us a salute as we passed. Then we turned, the wind behind, surfing the swells, jibing violently at one point and at another Radagast’s bow in a slanting downward rush coming close to being overwhelmed. Minutes later we made it to the point at Killbear to calmer waters.
With a small boat free of motor, every trip is an adventure. ◊