What is the Ultimate Sailboat for Canada’s Sailing Mecca?

What is the Ultimate Sailboat for Canada’s Sailing Mecca?

Among factors that make Nova Scotia “Canada’s Ocean Playground” is the Village of Chester, which effectively serves as eastern Canada’s Mecca of sailing. Not only is Chester perfectly positioned at the head of Mahone Bay with sweeping views and access to its beautiful waters and 365 islands, but is host of Chester Race Week, the largest keelboat regatta in Canada, and second-largest in all of North America. Recreational sailing has been a primary component of Chester’s heritage for well over 100 years, and many full-time and seasonal residents call Chester home distinctly because of the sailing.    

Given this focus on sailing, a fair question to ask is what is the ultimate Chester sailboat? A question that could serve as an apt topic for debate among Chester sailors during the long sailing-free months ahead. Little doubt that every sailor has an opinion, so I’ll get the debate rolling by rendering my own experiences with various contenders for the title of “ultimate Chester sailboat.”

I’m fairly certain that my first sail ever was made on my parent’s Bluenose, hull number 46 and named Kaila. I was five or six years old at the time and can report that I did not enjoy the experience at all. She leaked heartily, had to be bailed constantly, and totally freaked me out despite forewarning from my parents when she went atilt to heel—I just knew that we were gonna flip over and sink! I did eventually get over my fear of flipping, but can’t say that I took to sailing during those early years. The water was cold, the directions regarding what to do next confusing, and the heat and passion of the few races I went on a bit too much for my sensitive nature at that young age.

Which is too bad, as the Bluenose is definitely in the running as the “ultimate Chester sailboat.” Designed in 1946 by William J. Roué, the same guy who designed and built the iconic Bluenose schooner as featured on Canada’s dime, the first dozen or so 23-foot one-design class sloops were built at the Barkhouse Boatyard in East Chester. Other local builders, including the Stevens Boatyard in Chester, also began producing Bluenoses, with a total of 77 wooden versions of the boat produced in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1968, Roué granted rights to produce a fibreglass version of the boat to McVay Yachts out of Mahone Bay, and since then another 100 or so fibreglass versions have been produced, first by McVay, and then by other builders such as Herring Cove Marine, and two other boat builders in Ontario.

The Bluenose is a great daysailer, but is primarily known for its racing pedigree, which has been a staple in both Chester and Halifax since 1949. In fact, the Chester Bluenose fleet is the largest one-design keelboat fleet in Atlantic Canada, and the Chester Yacht Club hosts an active racing schedule from June to September, and alternates with Halifax the hosting of the annual Maritime Bluenose Championship. With such a large fleet, and an exceptionally robust Chester community of Bluenose sailors, the Bluenose would undoubtedly be named the “ultimate Chester sailboat” if the designation was based strictly on local sailor polling.

Many Chester old-timers might argue that the Chester C-Class sloops represent the “ultimate Chester sailboat.” Built starting in the mid-1930s in Heisler’s Boat Yard in Chester’s Back Harbour, these sleek, beautiful racer-cruisers—Eclipse, Ripple, Ohop, Mistral, Restless and Whim—quickly joined Chester’s other Universal Class wooden sailboats such as Hayseed and High Tide in winning numerous races for their owners. Even with the rise of faster plastic boats in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Chester C Class boats were considered the grande dames of Chester’s sailing season, and would continue to bring home the glory well into the first years of this century.

While Ben Heisler famously said that “if God had wanted fibreglass boats, he would have made fibreglass trees,” none of Chester’s iconic C Class boats were on the water this year. Fibreglass boats have definitely been dominating the waters of Chester of late, though there is a small fleet of “Classics,” along with the wooden Bluenoses, and a half dozen IODs (International One Design class), all of which continue to stir the souls of the old timers and anyone else who appreciates the beautiful lines and craftsmanship of these old wooden boats.

My own personal experience with Chester C Class racing was short lived. I was probably eight or nine years old when my parents decided to expose me to the joys of big boat racing and offered my services to Danny Blain, skipper of the Eclipse. Danny, who wrongly assumed that I must know something about sailing, put me on foredeck duty where not only was I scared to death that I’d be swept overboard—Eclipse had no lifelines—but I promptly screwed up every command given. I did not last long on foredeck, and wasn’t much better at following commands anywhere else he put me, either. While I didn’t gain any new appreciation for sailing during my short-lived apprenticeship, I pretty much learned every curse word in the book that I hadn’t already known, being the recipient or cause of the many he expressed that day. I did sail on Eclipse on rare occasions in subsequent seasons, though only as a last resort when Danny couldn’t find anyone else.

Despite the early setbacks in my sailing career, I did eventually garner a love and passion for sailing. I also found what for me is the “ultimate Chester sailboat.” That is an Ontario 32. Built starting in 1977 as a collaboration between Ontario Yachts and C&C Yachts, the Ontario 32 was designed as a rugged yet comfortable performance cruiser, and adopted many design elements considered novel for that time. With 11 feet of beam, she was one of the beamiest production cruising sailboats being built in her size. Combined with six feet and four inches of headroom, this gave her an expansive amount of below-deck space, and allowed for exceptional comfort down below that is enhanced by an inordinate amount of teak in the joinery work, as well as a cozy miniature wood stove.

The boat yard built 158 Ontario 32s between 1977 and 1986, and, up until a couple of years ago, there were four of them in the Chester area. Not sure where the others went, but I still love mine. With four and a half feet of shoal draft I can enjoy up-close and personal exploration of the coastline. And all that space and comfort means I can share the beauty of Nova Scotia’s coastline for extended periods with my family and friends, something I do on a regular basis. Perhaps the most notable expedition was marked by a week in the Bras d’Or Lakes with another couple and three kids in total, during which the kids managed to play hide-and-seek on board for hours one rainy day. 

My boat is no slouch on the race course, either, with a half dozen third place finishes in various races, and a third overall in the Cruising Class for one Race Week. And, in what I consider an important bonus feature not available with many larger sailboats, she is easy to handle, which allows me to take her out solo without the need for crew.

All in all, she is my ultimate Chester sailboat. And sure, the Bluenose class truly deserves the designation, and the Chester C Class honorary mention, but I wouldn’t trade my Ontario 32 for either of them.       

—Originally Published in the MacDonald Notebook   

The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

—October 14, 2016

I have long been enamoured of nautical charts, by far my favorite navigational tool. And sure, I enjoy the convenience of navigating by GPS chart plotter, but there is no art or romance in it. A chart plotter is all push button and cursor with any resultant specific details available in whatever scale or format you desire. In this age of computerized instant gratification, the paper chart takes a bit of work, but you get to look and touch an artistic canvas, discern subtle details by your own eyes, and use the chart as a backdrop to mentally visualize the transit from point A to B.    

Give me a paper chart, compass, parallel rules, close approximation of the starting point and average speed, and I canChester Harbour guide a boat via dead reckoning (DR) to just about any point on a chart’s navigable waters, even in the face of a thick blanket of fog or shroud of night. To those unfamiliar with the art of traditional navigation methods it can seem like necromancy, and perhaps to some extent it is.

My friends were certainly amazed the first time I navigated a complete voyage by dead reckoning, taking them almost 40 nautical miles through thick fog via an unseen narrow channel and then over open ocean to meet up with another narrow channel at voyage’s end. It was wondrous enough that I got us to our destination without ever seeing land except at departure and arrival, but I was also able to successfully gain visual sight of all five sea buoys on the route. Mind you, I must confess to being lucky, or under Poseidon’s watch, because that navigation was just too perfect, and I’ve yet to make another DR voyage that perfectly on course.

Charts are magical. GPS chart plotters are just plastic viewing screens with a bunch of interior computer chips and a need for electricity. Charts might get inconveniently wet (or worse, blown overboard should you bring one topsides), but chart plotters can just quit working. My nine-year-old Raymarine chart plotter gave up the ghost the other day. A bit annoying, but no big deal cause I’ve always got the paper charts in reserve. I’m not so sure that such an event would be “no big deal” with the rest of the world’s recreational boating public.

My grandfather and stepfather, both of whom contributed to the evolution of my nautical skills, used to joke about the pandemonium on the water that would ensue should a GPS satellite or two go on the blink. That was back during the emergence of GPS chart plotters when most mariners—professional and recreational—still learned traditional navigation. Now it seems that few up-and-coming recreational mariners even bother with the traditional methods. Woe be unto them should a satellite, or even just their individual ship-borne GPS unit, give out on a cold, dark, stormy night.   

Cape Cod to Nova Scotia ChartBut enough of any such “doom and gloom” scenarios, as I was vying to speak of the “beauty” and “artistry” of nautical paper charts. And the subject matter of “nautical paper charts” only came to me earlier this week, when I opened a box containing a treasure trove of nautical charts.

They were my above-mentioned step-father’s charts—collected, I assume, over the past 60 years or so, and representing all of his voyages, both those actually travelled and those only dreamt of.

The former, covering the seas bounding Nova Scotia, Maine, Massachusetts, Belize, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey, are obvious. I long heard his sea tales, and his handwriting lightly adorns these charts, giving me visual representation of his thought process as he navigated from each Point A to Point B.

The latter—Newfoundland, West Indies, Venezuela, Brazil, and quite a few places I have yet to identify—are notable for their lack of written adornment.

I can only assume that they are places he longed to navigate and explore. I see this art and want to navigate and explore these places, too. 

—Originally published by Slidemoor.

Complaining About the Weather While Awaiting the Season’s Start

Complaining About the Weather While Awaiting the Season’s Start

—June 7, 2016

It has been a strange and slow-starting season. Already getting deep into June and I’ve only sailed once, one quick sail to bring the boat around from the marina to my dock.

Unheard of…. Well, at least in the fourteen years I’ve been living up here on the coast of Canada’s “Ocean Playground.” Normally I would have been out on the water at least a half-dozen times by now, and some years it was more than a dozen.

Heck, I haven’t even done my annual spring every-inch clean of the cabin’s interior, oiled the teak, washed the cushions or stowed the two truckloads of gear. In short, the boat might as well be up on the hard.

I could blame it on my especially heavy workload, but that would be a stretch as I’ve never let work keep me from slipping out on a fine day for an afternoon’s sail. No, it’s been the elusiveness of any such fine days hitting the shoreline. I think there have been a grand total of two this spring.

One was the day I brought my boat over from the marina, a rather quick and hurried journey due to having to spend most of that day trying to jury rig a fix for the floating dock in the hopes of getting one more season out of it. A jury rig that is now looking doubtful and will undoubtedly require more precious time away from sailing.

The other perfect day was devoted to the yard. Neglected all season due to work and weather—the grass was reaching near knee high. Sailing or yard work? It was a tough call, and yard work won out as the grounds have never looked so unsightly. Good timing as we’ve had nothing but rain and thick fog since, and the yard is already due another mowing.

Rain, fog and high winds. Oh, and cold. Very cold. So cold that the heating oil truck is still making the rounds. So cold that freshly planted annuals have been taken by frost. So cold that some of the hardy sailors who braved the foul weather of the first of the season’s Thursday evening racing series said it was the coldest inshore race they’d ever sailed. It was warmer here on Christmas day, a record-breaker by at least two dozen degrees, and a day truly suggestive of climate change.

But we should be used to the rain, fog and cold temperatures. Nova Scotia is known for them. Nevertheless, Nova Scotia is also known for the expression, “If you don’t like the weather wait five minutes,” because the weather generally changes so frequently. And yes, I’ve heard the expression claimed by New Englanders, too, but the weather here truly changes quite frequently at an instant.

Just not lately….

Seven-day forecast calls for six days of clouds, rain and showers with temperatures warming up a bit with a range between the mid-40s to one day in the low-60s; and one potentially sunny day with a possible high nearing 70 degrees.

Anyhow, don’t listen to me. My wife would tell you that I bitch about the weather every season and always claim that I don’t get enough sailing time.

I’ll admit to complaining about the weather too much, but truly do not get enough sailing time. I mean, there’s no such thing as too much sailing…that is, unless it’s blowing a prolonged cold rainy gale right on the nose. 

—This was supposed to have been published by slidemoor.com, but guess their southern readers didn’t want to hear about cold-weather boating. Oh, and am pleased to report that the weather has now turned beautiful and finally had a great day of sailing.

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

—April 14, 2016

It snowed over the weekend. Only about four inches, but enough to put a damper on the notion that we might have an early spring this year. The forecast for the coming week does not look promising as far as the boatyard doing much launching this week. Not that it really matters given that it’s the unholy tax filing month, and with my dual American-Canadian status I get double filing detail. Sigh….

Nevertheless, I’m itching to get on the water, anxious to feel the wind across my cheek as I hoist up the sails for the first time of the season. Alas, with no boat in the water, the inclement weather, work and taxes it looks like I will not be on the water until May. Oh well, guess I will need to scratch my sailing itch with a bit of virtual reality.

Yep, nothing like a good nautical book to tide me over while I contend with the symptoms of sailing withdrawal. I am not aware of any recent tales of nautical brilliance, but I love my selection of tried and true reads. And if you love a good nautical book as much as me, then I suggest you peruse my library and try out any one of these fantastic reads:

Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World’s Most Dangerous Waters

Derek Lundy

This book tried to keep me up all night, but the sun came up before I finished it—oops, I guess it was an all-nighter! Fantastic read that details just about everything one needs to know about what it is like to participate in the Vendee Globe, the round-the-world, single-handed yacht race considered among the most gruelling competitions of all racing sports. If you want to get the sense of what it’s like to sail in the “Roaring 40s” this book is for you. And yes, it was so good that I have read it again during daylight hours.

Northern Lights

Desmond Holdridge

Good luck finding a copy of this book, as it’s been out of print for decades, though a limited edition of some hundred or so was published a few years ago on behalf of the widow of a member of the Cruising Club of America. Somehow a copy ended up in my hands, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this true story began literally across the harbour from my dock. In short, a young man looking for a last youthful adventure prior to settling down, buys a 30-foot sloop from a local Nova Scotia boat builder, and, with two other adventurers, sets sail with the intention of reaching the top of Labrador. Beautifully written, the tale details the hazards of such a journey, along with the day-to-day difficulties of undertaking such a voyage with the rudimentary gear, supplies and limited nautical knowledge of the crew. Three disparate personalities trapped on such a small space in sometimes dire circumstances plays a role in the tale, too. This book totally needs to be re-published.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Man Against the Sea

Sebastian Junger

Yeah, yeah, you probably saw the movie starring George Clooney. The book, which provides a detailed analysis of a massive storm system and its effects on a small New England-based swordfish longliner, puts the movie to shame. It was a up-half-the-night, one-sitting read the first time I read it, and equally enjoyable the second time.

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum

If you love the idea of casting off from your dock to leave your life as you know it for an extended voyage of life at sea while you explore the world, then why haven’t you read this classic book about the first person to sail around the world solo?

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Arthur Herman

If you love nautical history, along with history in general, this tome perfectly describes how Britain’s Royal Navy helped England become a world power and shape the world as we know it today. Another hard-to-put-down read, it pretty much consists of one-seafaring tale after another, combined with insights on how each of the localized incidents at sea reverberated across the oceans to affect the course of other interactions by man and governments.

As I’ve only read this one once, I think I just found my pick. However, my bookshelves are filled with dozens of other great seafaring reads. Guess I’m going to have to revisit this topic in a future blog. Until then, just grab any of the above books—trust me, you’ll feel like you’re on the water.

—Originally published April 13 by Slidemoor

Kicking Off the Season—Just Me and My Boat!

Kicking Off the Season—Just Me and My Boat!

—March 2, 2016

It is an especially cold mid-winter day. The type day that gave reason to mammalian hibernation, as just trying keep warm in the cold of the open air would rapidly deplete an animal’s fat reserves. So cold that birds are reluctant to fly and the briny water of the harbour has iced over, encasing docks and mooring balls in a steely grip.

Any thoughts of boating quickly turn to thoughts of hypothermia and speculation as to how many minutes—or would that be seconds?—one might survive from an accidental spill overboard into the open waters. Thoughts of boating also quickly bring forth the image of the lonely boatyard, some 300 boats enshrouded in tarps and plastic, that are further covered with a thin layer of crusty snow. The place so still that it seems if the boats have been sitting there for years, like the headstones of a centuries-old cemetery.

But no, life will return to the boatyard, and in just two long months the first of them will be launched and the boating season begin again with the first whisperings of spring.

This idea of a “boating season” is something folks in the deep south and out on the southwest coast don’t have to contend with, as their boating season is year round. And yes, we boaters up here in the cold northern climates are envious. We miss our boats during the long winter season and sometimes wish we lived in a place where it’s possible to jump on one’s boat and take a toot on a warm (what’s that?) February day.

Sometimes….

We relish our short season, and with the annual changing of the seasons get to experience an elation that would be entirely foreign to you deep south and southwest coast boaters. It’s an elation equivalent to that experienced by children on Christmas morning—boundless joy over the promise of all the foreseen and unforeseen boating of the season yet to come.

It happens every year in mid to late April, after I get the call that my boat has been launched, rigged, and is ready to go. As soon as work permits, I load my truck with sails, sheets and the minimum gear needed for safety and comfort, and head to the boatyard. It is always a solo venture, as I like to savour the season’s first outing—that trip from the marina to my dock—alone, just me and my boat.

I am usually just about shaking with excitement by the time I climb onboard. And though the boat always seems quite the mess, what with mold in the cabin and the deck dirty with grit from the rigger’s shoes, discarded tape and broken clevis pins, it doesn’t bother me as my annual cleaning later in the week is just part of the overall spring ritual. I check the rigging and lines and inspect the boat from bow to stern, mentally checking off all the things that will need to be done to prepare for the season’s successful voyaging. The engine and its fluids are checked, and then the starter pushed, which will bring a smile to my face upon hearing the familiar sputter of the Yanmar diesel. The engine tested and ready for action, the sails will be hanked on next, a job much easier with two, but one I do happily alone, just me and my boat.

When all seems ready and I can cast off and head for my harbour, I crack open a beer and pause to enjoy the boat sitting quietly on the mooring. I look around at the few other boats that have been launched, all in various stages of readiness. I try to just relax and enjoy the beer, but the season has begun and I need to feel the boat move. So I cast off and put her into gear and head out of the harbor. If there is a favorable breeze I will unfurl the jib once I’m in open waters, and sail for my harbor, but if not, no bother as I am content to motor with the knowledge that there will be many months of sailing ahead.

It is the best day of the year, and the elation I feel while heading for my harbour—just me and my boat—makes the change of seasons and months-long absence of boating worth it.

—Originally published in February by slidemoor.com.