by Mike Nelson and John Clement
Since many newer members of our Association may be considering a North Channel Cruise, we thought sharing some of what we have learned on our many trips might be of interest. Old timers may have fun seeing where they agree or disagree with us.
The North Channel deserves its reputation for being one of the best cruising grounds in North America. It has miles of relatively sheltered waterways and pristine anchorages. However, sailing there can be challenging at times. This article will emphasize safety as well as preparedness. Information about Canadian rules and regulations is available on the Cruise Preparation page of this site and will not be covered here.
This article consists of two sections. The first describes the skills, knowledge, and experience that you should have for this kind of cruising. The second describes the equipment you should have on your boat to support safe and enjoyable cruising in the North Channel.
Part 1-what you should be able to do
Set up and Launch: Most cruises to the North Channel by trailerable boats start from the trailer. Those who sail into Canada can skip this part. After you reach your launch site, you need to be able to set your boat up yourself. Help is usually available from other members, but if your schedule is different, you could find yourself on your own. Past issues of Clipper Snips have tips about making systems for mast raising and launching. At most launch ramps, staff can help you launch or retrieve by handling lines for you. Few ramps have mast-raising cranes, so you should be prepared to raise and lower your mast yourself. If you are not comfortable with the launching process, a few ramps can sling you in. The ramps we use in Little Current and Spanish do not have slings. However, if you plan to join the group at Little Current, nearby Harbor Vue Marina has sling capabilities, as does Boyles Marina next door. The ramps can be gravelly, so, if your boat is heavy, 4-wheel drive is very helpful.
You might want to look at articles that have appeared in past issues of Clipper Snips for suggestions about launching and retrieving boats, trailer tie-downs, trailer bearings and brakes, etc. All back issues have been indexed and are available here for reading or downloading.
After launching, you need to be able to enter and leave a slip, and to tie up at the fuel dock. Again, ramp staff and other trailer sailors are usually on hand to help you, but you should know how to enter or leave a slip or dock if the wind is blowing.
Radio Use: You should also be familiar with VHF radio usage, frequencies, and proper operating procedures. Some hints: Canadian Marinas monitor Channel 68. VHF frequencies are shared by other boaters, so keep your transmissions short. Your transmission can be heard by other boaters up to 15 or 20 miles away if you are on high power, so use low power for local communications.
If you are sailing with our group, the cruise director will have published a float plan. This plan lists only the end points of each day’s sailing. You should be able to navigate between points on your own, even if you plan to sail with the group. Sometimes the group gets separated. That means you should be able to read charts, know which side of buoys to stay on, and know the rules of the road. Members are happy to go over the charts with you the evening or the morning before we leave. In the second half of this article we will discuss the navigation equipment you should have onboard and know how to use.
On the water: En route, the winds can vary from dead calm to an occasional boisterous 20-25 knots. Except on Georgian Bay and in open areas, the waves don’t usually get very high. When the wind pipes up, you should know how to take a reef in your mainsail, and remember the rule; reef as soon as you think it might be prudent. It is handy to know how to heave-to for reefing. You should also be able to perform at least one kind of man overboard maneuver. We generally try to avoid being out in thunderstorms, but you should know how to get all sails down quickly if one strikes.
Anchoring: Once we arrive at a destination, you need to know how to drop and set an anchor, which includes knowing how much rode to let out for a given water depth. In well-protected anchorages, one anchor will usually do, but some put down two anchors in case of an overnight wind shift, or to minimize dancing around. Sometimes people will tie one line ashore in addition to using an anchor or two. This tactic is useful if you want to be near shore or if anchorage space is tight. Usually if we are sailing as a group, there will be others around who will offer help in taking a line ashore and fastening it temporarily. After settling in, it is good practice to go ashore yourself and inspect or retie the line, and add anti-chafe protection for the line (or for the tree to which it may be attached). Regardless of any help you may receive, the responsibility for each boat rests with the skipper.
Planning: You should also know how to plan for your fuel, food, ice, and water needs, and for head pump-out. Our cruise plans usually include a marina stop approximately every 3 days, so your provisioning needs to cover that period, at a minimum. It is advisable to have a day or two reserves in case of bad weather. We usually stay put in our anchorage (or marina) if the weather is bad.
Much of the navigational side of preparing yourself can be learned through courses such as those offered by the Power and Sail Squadron (highly recommended) or various sail training associations.
Part 2-your boat and equipment
Boat: Most trailerable sailboats with cabins are suitable for the North Channel. We have had boats as short as 16 feet on our cruises. If you have a smaller boat, you may need to allow for the fact that you will not be as fast as the bigger boats. For all boats an engine or outboard is necessary if you want to move on calm days. You should be able to carry enough fuel to go 30-40 miles, as marinas can be that far apart.
Your boat’s mainsail should have at least one reef point. Some boats have roller-furling headsails that can be reefed. If you have only a large hanked-on Genoa, you might want to consider adding some kind of reefing system to it, or getting a smaller jib for heavy weather use. On light air days, although not necessary, a drifter or spinnaker is nice to have. A whisker pole can be useful to hold the headsail out on a downwind sail.
You should have at least the basic spares for your engine and rigging, manuals for them, and a small toolkit. A sail repair kit could come in handy
Dinghy: A dinghy or other small auxiliary craft is almost mandatory if you want to go ashore or row out a second anchor. Members of our groups use kayaks, rigid dinghies, or inflatable boats. Some have outboards for them; some do not. Rowing (or paddling) is good exercise, but an outboard is nice for extended exploring. Kayak fans may ignore this advice, of course.
You should have at least two anchors on board. If one of them is the Danforth style, you will find a claw or Bruce type anchor to be the best kind of second anchor, especially for areas with grassy bottoms. We suggest at least 150 feet of rode, as sometimes you need to anchor in deeper water. Rode should also have a good length of chain at the anchor end. It is also a good idea to seize the shackles (e.g., tie them off with a piece of wire) so that they cannot come loose. At least one T/SA boat has lost an anchor through a shackle coming loose. You should also have dock lines, fenders, and a couple of extra heavy-duty 100-foot lines for tying to shore. Theses lines will be easier to use if stored in a bag or bucket, rather than coiled.
Radio: You must have a VHF radio, preferably with a masthead antenna. A handheld radio does not have enough range to contact marinas or the coast guard, although it suffices for the daily nets. If you haven’t replaced the coax to your antenna within the last 5 or 6 years, you should consider replacing it. Old coax reduces the range for both sending and receiving.
Charts and other navigation equipment: You should have paper charts for all the areas you plan to go, even if you have an electronic chart plotter. Electronics can fail, paper rarely does. The Ports guide is also useful, as it shows aerial photos of many of the anchorages. You should have a working compass and a depth sounder. A speed/distance log device is handy, especially if you need to navigate by dead reckoning. A handheld compass is useful to take bearings to see if your anchor is holding. A GPS is handy, as many of the islands look alike. A chart plotter is a luxury, but we admit it is nice to have. But you should be able to cope if it fails.
Bug proofing: During the day, mosquitoes are usually not much of a problem, but after dusk they can come out in droves. They can find the smallest cracks in your defenses. The upshot is that good mosquito netting is very important to enjoyment of your cruise. Designs vary with boat models. If you have an old directory, try e-mailing others who have the same kind of boat as you, and ask about their experience or solutions. If not, try posting a question on the Facebook group page.
Safety: Life jackets are mandatory. A throwing ring is a good thing to have onboard in case someone does manage to fall overboard. Be sure to review the Coast Guard requirements for equipment that must be on your boat as well as your dinghy. Note that a floating throw line and a sound-signaling device are requirements in Canada for each vessel (including your dinghy). Floating throw lines may be made or purchased inexpensively at hardware stores or marine supply shops. A Fox 40 whistle meets the requirements for signaling. A small first aid kit is also good to carry. Jack lines are not usually needed unless you are on Georgian Bay in a blow.
The North Channel is a pleasant and relatively safe place to cruise. By being prepared as we suggest above, you will have fewer things to worry about, and will be able to cope with most common problems. Even if you sail with a group, you should be as prepared as you would be if you were sailing alone.
We look forward to meeting you on one of our cruises.