Marine Concepts, LLC

243 Anclote Road
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Solo to the
North Channel.

by Ron Hoddinott

"June - too soon," the wise sage said, as I inquired about the weather on the North Channel of Lake Huron.

"But that's the time I have to go, I thought. Surely it won't be that bad!"

"Take lots of cold weather clothes, boots, long johns, gloves, hats," they all warned. Would I be sailing to the arctic, I wondered?

Stopping at Hugh Horton's place in Mt. Clemens on Lake St. Claire, I received further warnings of high winds and cold weather from a friend of Hugh's who stopped by to chat. Luckily, Hugh had A Well Favoured Passage, by Marjorie Brazer, and a Richardson Chart Kit of the area, which he was kind enough to loan to me. We poured over the charts, and Hugh agreed that Little Current, on Manitoulin Island, was a great starting point for my trip. It would offer me the option of sailing west into the North Channel, or east into Frazer Bay.

Hugh also suggested a crossing into Canada at Port Huron, and then a short trip north along the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory, whereI could catch the Chi-CheMaun ferry to Manitoulin Island. From there it was only a short drive to Little Current.

The next day I did just that. The yellow flowers blooming in the warm sunshine of the Bruce Peninsula produced a scent that flowed through the open windows of my van like tulip time in the Netherlands. I had a reservation for the next day on the ferry to Manitoulin Island. In camp that night I slept in the van, as the weather was cool and rain threatened.

Early the next morning, Whisper and I were put on the central deck along with the oversized loads aboard the Chi-Chemaun. After an hour and a half of 14 knots to the north, we were off-loaded at South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. I decided to take a site at Batman's Campground just south of Little Current to pack the boat and get my bearings.

On the west side of Little Current I located the Spider Bay Marina and checked with the harbor master about launching Whisper in the morning. The charge was 3.75 and I could leave my van and trailer as long as I liked for free. The marina was almost empty, and I guessed that I was indeed pushing the season. The weather was very nice, though, going into the low 80's during the sunlight hours. Returning to camp, I spent the next few hours carefully packing all the supplies I'd need for a week in the islands into the nooks and crannies of a 21 foot Sea Pearl. That night I fell asleep to the call of the loons in Frazer Bay.

The next morning I left Batman's Campground about 7:30 after making some tea. All the breakfast stuff was packed away in the boat, so I went into Little Current and got a great breakfast at Garry's right across from the Shell station on highway 6. While there, a man came in and asked if I was the owner of the Sea Pearl outside. We struck up a lively conversation centered on my trip to the North Channel, and Shane St. Clair's trip through here in 1988. He told me that his father runs the Strawberry Island lighthouse. After breakfast, we went outside. He "snapped a photo" of Whisper, and I showed him Shane St. Claire's article in The Small Boat Journal. He wished me well, I thanked him, and set out for Spider Bay Marina.

I didn't rush anything getting ready, I just took my time, and made mental lists to be sure I wouldn't forget anything. I set up the masts, attached the electric motor to the bracket, launched the boat, and cast off for the Benjamins.

With all the wind we'd had yesterday, I'd put a reef in both the main and mizzen. But as the day wore on, it became quite apparent that it was going to be a light air day, and the reefs soon came out. Heading west I was delighted to have a northwest wind. By 10:45, Narrow Island light was abeam to port. We were working our way out of the narrow channel that leads all boats to Little Current and Frazer Bay. As the waterway opened up, the wind got lighter and finally stopped altogether. I waited for quite a while, but finally made the decision to start the electric motor to see if we could find some wind up ahead. I only had to motor for 10 minutes before a new wind filled in from the southwest. We jogged along under full sail, the sky was cerulean blue, and the only sound was the gurgle of water passing by Whisper's leeboards. The quiet intensity of this place began to have its effect on me. I was spellbound. I was alone. No other boats punctured my solitude. I felt surrounded by the water, sky, islands, and mountains in the distance. Whisper also seemed happy to be in this pristine waterway.

I knew that up ahead was Clapperton Island, but in the blue haze it was difficult to discern just where one island started and another one ended. I used the GPS to plot a fix and set my course for Logan Bay on the northwest side of Clapperton. It was still early afternoon, and I could have kept going, but I wanted to see what every island along the way had to offer. With an increasing southwest wind, I sailed on a beam reach to the mouth of the bay, turned left and headed in. I selected the southwest corner of the bay, as it was shallow, and I could get out and stretch my legs. Setting the anchor out astern, I eased into shore. I didn't have shorts, or swimming suit on, so I just took off my clothes and jumped out to set the Bruce anchor in the reedy sand shoreline. I mean, there wasn't a soul around for miles, right? I took a short polar plunge to cool off. The water was cool, but not as frigid as my friends had warned me.

While walking along the shore, I noticed that a deer had visited that morning. Fresh tracks are easy to spot, with the sharp outline of the hoof, and the sand kicked out in front of the track by the hoof leaving the print. I fished for about an hour catching a nice small mouth bass, and losing a large northern pike. The weather forecast was for more good weather with light variable winds. The Benjamins and Croker Island lie just to my north. I can get there in one or two hours depending on the wind tomorrow. Then I can fish, explore, climb rocks, or just be lazy and enjoy the scenery. What a life!

Midnight - eerie sounds of flute or high pitched organ float across the stillness of the night wind. I think it is coming across the water from somewhere on the island. It seems to imitate the sounds of the loons, but the notes are long and sustained and change in strange ways. I've never heard anything quite like it. I'm wondering if I'm only hearing part of the music, and the rest isn't reaching me from wherever it is emanating. Could this be an enchanted island? Are there magical ghostly musicians playing old Objibway Indian melodies? I lie in my bunk and these thoughts float through my brain like smoke over water. I strain to listen to see if there is more that I'm not hearing, but all I can make out are the long strange tones keeping company with the loons' cry. The magic of Manitoulin Island and Logan Bay all on my first night in the North Channel.

The next morning, after a coffee and oatmeal breakfast, I noticed the wind starting to pick up out of the east. Logan Bay is open to the east and the bay was starting to get choppy. I made sail and hoisted the anchor. It came up clean. Nice sandy bottom.. good holding ground.

Beating out of the bay and around the Logan Reef Light, I freed my wind on a northwesterly course toward Secretary Island and Croker Island. Keeping Secretary Island close to Starboard heading north is the preferred way to enter the area littered with rocky shoals and small rocky islets. With Robertson's Rock Light abeam, I got my first clear view of the Sow and Pigs. Beyond them were the Boars. Both are huge outcroppings of granite in different shades of gray and pink. They almost fill the channel between South Benjamin and Croker Island. Whisper swept into the area, with the lovely pink granite of the Benjamins to port and the gray granite of Croker Island to starboard. I decided to investigate Croker Island first, as it was the closest, saving the Benjamins for later or even for tomorrow. Heading into the cove at Croker, using the chart and eyeball navigation for my bearings, I spied a yacht coming out from behind a small island in the center of the cove. The Sara's skipper spun her around for a closer look at Whisper. He admired the Sea Pearl and I told him how shippy his little cutter appeared as well. We exchanged greetings and he told me that the flies weren't too bad in the anchorage. Then I turned Whisper to starboard and headed into the anchorage behind the island. With sheer rock walls on all sides, I had no wind. So I turned on the electric motor, and silently glided forward, with seagulls standing on the rock which guards the shallow entrance to the inner harbor. What I didn't know at the time, was that I entered the anchorage from a passage that the guide books say cannot be done, easing over huge rock boulders on both sides of the narrow passage. Much of what is written for boats with 5 foot draft just doesn't apply to Sea Pearls! I circled the harbor under electric power, grateful not to have to start a gas engine and disturb the peacefulness of this incredible place. Again I was alone in the anchorage. I selecting a spot near the eastern end of the cove, I anchored and powered back towards shore. With my bathing suit on, I took a 60 foot line up to a tree where I looped it around and back to the boat. That way I could cast off without going ashore.

I sat back and began to allow the peacefulness of this special place soak into me. Only natural sounds were heard... the lap of water against the rocks, the swooshing of the wind through the tall spruce trees on the hills above, the cry of seagulls, and the eerie wail of loons. The freshness of the pine scented air drifted across on the cool wind. I decided that I might be able to climb up to the top of the hill overlooking the island, but the way was too steep. Pine needles covering smooth granite rocks made for poor footing. I slipped and caught myself from falling. Then after seeing a small snake, I decided that it wasn't that important, and that being alone, I'd better keep myself safe. The flies were getting to be a bother, so I cast off from the shore and drifted out into the center of the cove.A bit later, I decided to mosey on over to the Benjamins for the afternoon and evening. I powered quietly out of the cove, going out the way no one is supposed to go. Seeing the north shore of Croker's main cove, I realized that I was looking at a pink sand beach. I had to see it. I beached Whisper, and was amazed at the coarse pink sand. I suppose it had been formed from tiny rocks being smashed by waves. No one was around. I fished the shoreline for twenty minutes or so, and then cast off for the Benjamins. The winds were east about 10 -12 knots. It was only a short sail across the channel to the main cove between North and South Benjamin. The pink granite of the Benjamins shined in the afternoon sun. In a place of superlatives, this place stood out above all others.

Coming into the cove, I discovered a beautiful beach with pink sand surrounded by high pink boulders in every conceivable organic shape. My heart soared. Again I was the only boat in the anchorage. I nosed into the beach with my stern anchor out to hold me right off the beach. The spit of pink sand my bow anchor bit into was only 4 feet high and 20 feet wide. It connected North Benjamin to a pink granite islet. I walked around the islet amazed at the size, shape and color of the granite. The shape and size of the rocks were every bit as impressive as Acadia National Park in Maine. The Benjamins have the advantage of being on fresh water with a lack of tides. You feel that this place was made just for you, instead of feeling that you are just one of thousands trampling a treasure.

There was plenty of small driftwood just large enough to make a cooking fire. A previously used campfire complete with stones for a fire ring was right on the beach. I soon had a roaring blaze going. I let the sticks burn down to glowing coals, and then put my small camp grill over the coals. The hot dogs were quickly done. I enjoyed a can of fruit cocktail with them and made a cup of instant cappuccino to polish off dinner. Around 6:30, after straightening out the cabin and cockpit, a constant chore, a light rain started to fall. It was over in a half hour or so. Lovely.

The air was very still, but cool. I wondered if I could sail through the rocks that separate North and South Benjamin to the west side? The cruising guides again say it can't be done, but they didn't have a Sea Pearl.

The morning sun woke me early, and I made a delightful breakfast of corned beef hash and a fried egg with bread and butter. I raised anchor. The wind was light out of the west and I wanted to make the most of it to explore South Benjamin from the west side. I squirreled my way through the rocks directly across from my snug cove on North Benjamin. The electric motor was on 2 power and we eased ahead slowly. The sun was behind me, so I could see every rock detail below. A few twists and turns, and long careful looks at the chart, and I was through. I headed south along the coast turning into every cove and cranny along the way. I stayed close along the shoreline, turning in to inspect every indentation in the rocks. At one point we eased into what seemed to be a pink rock "tickle", through the southern end of the island. With boards up we cruised through. No other boats were in view. A few spots featured steel rings in the rock for moorings. It was an awesome sight to be that close to the rocks and yet able to sneak through. I felt like I'd been granted permission to steal diamonds. I located the cove where Tim French and Dick Harrington camped on their cruise with the Wayfarer group last August. Finally through to the other side, and convinced that I'd completely explored South Benjamin, I took bearings to carry me right though the rocky shoals known as the Boars. The Boars stand up 20 feet high and there is deep water right beside them. Soon I was "among The Boars" feeling quite small.

A light south-west wind carried me safely through the Boars and Sows at 4 knots on a course of 135 true. The conditions were hazy but sunny with a cool breeze over the water. Cartwright Point on Clapperton Island was just off my starboard bow. I worked my way out between Amedroz and Clapperton Island on a broad reach with the wind picking up, and the pearl slipping through the waves at 5.5 to 6 knots. With Bear's Back Island off my port bow, I set the sails wing on wing and spent a few minutes trimming the sails to get everything balanced. Then I tied off the helm, with the boards up, and lay back in the cockpit, and watched Whisper work her will with the wind and sea. It was a warm day, and my hat was tipped down to keep the sun out of my eyes. Every so often I'd glance up to check the course and the trim of the sails. Everything was fine. Whisper knew how to run off downwind with little help from me. I almost went to sleep in the lazy morning sun.

Sometime around noon, Elm Island was close aboard to port. I felt the urge for a pit stop, so I put the helm up, tightened the mizzen sheet, and let the main sheet free. Whisper went into her hove-to act, while I took care of urgent business. Elm Island was a bird nesting ground, and thousands of cormorants and seagulls took off as I cruised by. I drifted downwind of the island, regretting my choice of stopping point in the guano-wind.

The wind began to lighten as I sailed past Strawbenzee Reef, leaving it to port The wind suddenly died completely. I turned on the electric motor, just to keep moving, as the sun was getting quite warm overhead. I began to wonder if the sage was correct about the weather. Or was this an anomaly of El Nino. By 1:40 I was 4.5 NM from Picnic Island behind which Spider Bay Marina was located. A shower became my new priority. Finally I took down the cabin, got out the rowing seat and oars, and started rowing for Little Current, 4 NM away. I discovered by watching the GPS that slow steady strokes could get the pearl up to 3.1 knots if I didn't let up. If I took it slower I could still make 2.5 or 2.7. I rowed for a half hour, making over one nautical mile. Finally, at 2:30 PM the wind returned.

By 3:55 I had arrived at Spider Bay Marina. I decided to take a slip, and wash things down for the night. I put away my cold weather clothes, took a shower, had a great hamburger and fries dinner at Garry's, charged the battery, and had a quiet night afloat.

The next morning the wind was blowing 15 to 20 knots out of the east. I thought that a trip to this area wasn't complete without taking in Bay Finn, Killarney, or both. Accordingly, I got everything back on board, and took off for the 9 AM opening of the Little Current swing bridge. All the water of Frazer Bay was trying to pass through this bottleneck misnamed Little Current. It seemed like I could make it with the help of the sails and the electric motor. A Grampian 26 sloop was also in position for the opening. His 15 horse Evinrude had no trouble pushing him through the opening. Whisper went through as well, tacking and using the motor on full power. Once out of the narrow opening the full force of the wind was evident. Whitecaps speckled Frazer Bay as far as one could see. Long tacks toward Strawberry Island were called for to get in her lee. It was necessary to pass between the Strawberry Island Lighthouse and Garden Island to reach open water. Having the Grampian in front of me, gave me some idea of how well I was making progress to windward. I was actually able to close the gap between us taking advantage of some well advised wind shifts and the lee of Haywood Island for smoother water. Clear of Haywood, I tacked across the bay, and took shelter behind East Mary Island about 12:30 for a bit of lunch.

I plotted the opening to Bay Finn on the chart and entered the position as a waypoint in my GPS. It looked like I'd have a close reach from where I was at East Mary Island. I took off going great guns at 5.5 to 6.4 knots on a course of 34 degrees True. Unfortunately I didn't read the fine print on the chart I was using. It was a chart that didn't use the same chart datum that I had programmed into my GPS having been surveyed by Lieut. H.W. Bayfield R.N. in 1822!

I ended up close to where I expected anyway, and soon found myself again beating against a strong breeze and steep choppy seas toward the opening that became Bay Finn. I was amazed that I could look down the fjord and see the mountains on the other end. The cliffs to starboard were the milky white quartz crystal rock of Frazer Bay Hill and the Killarney Ridge. From a distance they looked like snowcapped peaks. I told myself, "I'm sailing to the mountains!" , a unique experience for a Florida sailor. We slowly made our way up the fjord. Finally we were inside, and the wind went very light. I turned on the electric motor, and we silently glided forward passing the deserted resort called Okechobee Camp. I was beginning to wonder how much juice the battery had in it. The motor was starting to slow down even on full power. With the wind dead against me coming right down the fjord, and narrow channels marked intermittently right along sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high, I had to run the motor, or be swept down the channel. I was making for Mary Ann Cove, only a few miles up Bay Finn. Finally the last point was rounded and Whsiper glided into Mary Ann Cove.

I really expected to see one or two yachts anchored here, at the very least. Instead there was no one. I anchored close to the southeastern shore and tied my stern line to a tree. I was feeling quite smug, having made it here mostly under sail in pretty tough conditions. I had a snack and a coke. I waded ashore to take a few pictures of Whisper and her new surroundings. Then I listened to the weather radio to see what kind of conditions to expect the following day. The weather man reported 30 kilometers from the south-west for tomorrow. No! Not the south-west! I'd just spent all day getting to the north-east! I mulled it over. Did I really want to have to slog it out all over again tomorrow? The answer was no. I quickly made ready to depart. It was already 6 PM, and no sane sailor under normal conditions would consider going back out at that hour. But I had trust in my boat and in myself. I would get back to Little Current, or somewhere near there before nightfall at 10 PM. I had a little less than 4 hours to retrace my course of the day. The only difference was that now I would be running and reaching, Whisper's best points of sail. The slow part was getting out of Bay Finn. I had to save the battery for the push under the bridge. I fussed with the sails trying to make more than 2 knots. Finally at 7 PM we sailed out from Frazer Point and into a hatful of wind from the north-east. Whisper got up on the waves and did her best planning imitation. It was like giving a race horse her head in the final stretch. I yelled out loud for no one to hear, just happy to be moving quickly through the seas. We made several miles in the first half hour, but the wind was gradually dying. Now I had to hope it wouldn't stop completely and leave me out in the middle of Frazer Bay with no shelter for the night. East Mary Island finally came into view and was left behind. Iskirted the shoals off West Mary and Stony Point trying to run down on the Strawberry Island Lighthouse. The sun was going down quickly ahead of me.

When the sun reached about ten degrees above the western horizon, I experienced a moment that I'll never forget. It was a visual feast for the eyes. Monet couldn't have painted it better. The sun was peeping through some gray clouds and illuminating Whisper's reddish tanbark sails from behind like stained glass windows in a cathedral. The forest green cabin dodger was in the center of view, while the red-roofed white lighthouse on Strawberry Island filled in the view just ahead. The boat was rolling through the waves as I was urging her onward to the west. I was suddenly filled with a warm knowing that I'd made the right decision to return.

It finally became apparent that we weren't going to make the last opening of the Little Current bridge that only opens during daylight hours. I picked Boat Cove on the east side of Strawberry Island to come to rest for the night. We glided in on a failing southerly wind about 9:30 PM, and dropped anchor in 12 feet of water near the southwest shore. I dropped down into the cabin and went to sleep, exhausted. Later I got up, and made a cold dinner, made up my bunk and slept until morning without interruption.

Every bone and muscle in my body ached as I stretched and looked around in Boat Cove the next morning. I made myself a grand slam breakfast of pancakes with a fried egg on top. Then I raised anchor for Little Current. As I came around the point out into Frazer Bay, The wind veered into the North West. Still a beat, but stronger at 18 - 20 knots. I worked Whisper closer to the bridge and hoped to make the 9 AM opening. It was about the closest shave I've ever had getting to a bridge before it closes. I checked my watch and I was 100 feet from the bridge when the bridge was scheduled to close. Fortunately for me the bridgetender took pity on me and allowed the bridge to stay open long enough for me to get through. The current was from the west now, and it was another struggle to make it through, tacking and using the electric on full power. I was sure the cars waiting in lines were upset with the bridgetender, but he was my hero of the hour. I doffed my hat to him as I cleared the bridge.

Back in Little Current again, I beat slowly up wind and current to Spider Bay Marina, where I took Whisper from her native element. I took my time sorting out the cruising gear and putting her in shape for a return to Florida. I finally pulled out of the Marina about 1:30 PM and headed over to Green's Fisheries for some more delightful fish and chips. This time the owner was working the stand, Mr. Green filled my order and then came over to talk boats. He admired the fine lines of my little ketch, and asked some intelligent questions about her heritage. Also sitting at a table nearby, were two men from Sudbury, who'd been delivering a bicycle to the island. They gave my boat a stern appraisal, and asked if I had two red sails. I looked down at my fish and chips. I had a bad feeling about this. "Yes," I replied, "Did I hold you up at the bridge this morning?" One of them grumbled about the bridgetender holding the bridge open for longer than the proscribed time. I explained what a hard time I had getting through with the strong current. They nodded as if they understood. By the time I left, we were all joking and laughing about bridges and boats, and I felt a lot better about it.
Marine Concepts , 243 Anclote Road, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689, 800.881.1525

The monument is inscribed:
In Loving memory of
Whose Ashes Rest Here
"I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills"
    A tribute to a frequent visitor of the Frazer Bay Hill. His final resting place has a spectacular view... one he obviously enjoyed.