Are you ready for the North Channel?
The North Channel of Lake Huron deserves its reputation for being one of the best cruising grounds in North America. It has miles of relatively sheltered waterways and pristine anchorages. While the North Channel is a relatively safe place to cruise, sailing there can be challenging at times. By being prepared, 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.
Set up and Launch: Most cruises to the North Channel by trailerable boats start from the trailer. After you reach your launch site, you need to be able to set your boat up yourself. Few ramps have mast-raising cranes, so you should be prepared to raise and lower your mast yourself. Help is usually available from other members, but if your schedule is different, you could find yourself on your own. The ramps we use in Little Current (Spider Bay) and Spanish do not have slings, so you should either be prepared to launch on your own or make arrangements with nearby Harbor Vue Marina or Boyles Marina (next to Spider Bay). The ramps can be gravelly, so, if your boat is heavy, 4-wheel drive is very helpful.
It is strongly recommended that you practice setting up your boat and launching at a location close to where you live so that you can be confident of doing so after driving a long distance to reach our starting point. Your home port is the best place to verify that your trailer, boat, sails, engine and radio are all in good condition.
Docking: Be able to enter and leave a slip, and to tie up at the fuel dock. 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.
Navigation: The cruise director gives out tentative float plans on Day 1 of the cruise. This plan lists only the end points of each day’s sailing, which may change day by day depending on wind and weather. 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, (both paper and electronic), understand what different colored buoys mean, 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 it.
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.
Radio Use: You should also be familiar with VHF radio usage, frequencies, and proper operating procedures. 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. Canadian Marinas monitor Channel 68.
Restricted Radio Telephone Operator’s Certificate (ROC) is required for anyone operating a VHF radio in Canadian waters. They do accept the US version issued by the FCC, which is called a Restricted Radio Telephone Operator’s Permit (RR). Technically, anyone from the US operating a VHF radio outside of the US is supposed to have a ship’s station license, SA, for the boat. We have no idea who, if anyone, might check for these.
Anchoring: Once we arrive at a destination, you need to know how to drop and set an anchor, which includes 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.
In some anchorages, people may 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: Know how to plan for your fuel, food, ice, and water needs, and for head pump-out. Our regular 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.