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A Main Duck Island Passage

by Burton W. Blais
It will interest my saltwater brethren to know that Lake Ontario is a veritable in-land sea, offering sailors a "big water" venue for adventure, without the hassle of tides and their associated currents. Main Duck Island lies far enough offshore in the eastern end of Lake Ontario to be invisible from the mainland. To the northwest juts Prince Edward County, a large peninsula extending far into the lake from the Canadian shore, in one small corner of which can be found Prinyer's cove, as peaceful a rest for a boat as ever was.
Main Duck Island
The Main Duck is a remote island in eastern Lake Ontario, lying about 15 miles from the nearest Canadian shore. In gentle weather it is a serene place, devoid of human occupants and their gaudy establishments, perhaps the last unspoiled refuge on the lake to welcome the wandering soul. And so, with a weather forecast betiding nothing worse than a 10-15 knot southwesterly breeze and clear skies, we set off from Prinyer’s Cove, my wife Lisa and I, accompanied by our two small children, Daniel and Rebecca, bound for an early September week-end adventure. I had oft visited this island with various sailing buddies over the years, having crossed in every kind of summer weather the lake could offer: fine breezes, oily calms and some minor storms. My vessel, Clarissa, a 28 foot sloop of forty years’ vintage, named for my grandmother whose tenacious character saw her weather many of life’s tempests, has borne me well over these waters. On this occasion, I wished to share the treasure that is Main Duck Island with my uninitiated wife and children.
Fine weather attended our entry into the main body of the lake through the Upper Gap, sailing close-hauled on a southerly course toward an island unseen on the watery horizon. Leaving the shores of Amherst Island astern, soon taking on the appearance of a thin smudge where sky meets water as Clarissa progressed through the capping swells, her crew in the joy of family company dreamily contemplating our destination. The passage to Main Duck was a most pleasant affair, the small sloop riding the crests of the oncoming waves with just a bit of heel and an easy motion.
Eventually, the indistinct form of the island emerged over the bows, first as a series of vertical spikes on the horizon, then steadily growing larger, with land features taking shape, such as the lighthouse at the western end, and the North facing limestone bluffs. Now that our objective was in plain sight, my thoughts turned to the choice of an anchorage for the night. There are really only two possibilities for anchoring off Main Duck Island. The first, Schoolhouse Bay, is a narrow, semi-protected shallow indentation nearly cleaving the island in two and features a small dilapidated dock, offering precious little swing space for anchored boats. The other anchorage is an unnamed cove immediately to the West, providing more space but also more exposure to the long northerly fetch of the lake. This latter anchorage I have dubbed “Shipwreck Cove” owing to the presence of the wreck of the John C. Randall, a wooden steamship which foundered there one storm-wracked night early in the last century, and whose remains are scattered in the shallows at the head of the bay.
Now it is a fact that on any given fair weather week-end the available space in Schoolhouse Bay disappears very quickly and latecomers such as Clarissa, arriving in the latter part of the afternoon, must be content to drop the hook in Shipwreck Cove. With this in mind we made our way to the Shipwreck Cove anchorage, taking down sails as we approached under power. Even now there were three other sailboats in the anchorage, but with a bit of poking about we were able to find a spot off the western shore providing sufficient depth and reasonable holding ground (other parts of this bay have a rock-solid bottom), enabling us to swing with plenty of scope. In this position, the shore provided a good lee to protect us from the prevailing southwesterly. Having secured the ship, we were now free to take shore leave, and the entire family piled into the inflatable kayak (which served as Clarissa’s tender) and made for the pebbly beach.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent walking partway along the length of the island, a distance of about one mile, on an old foot path leading through varied terrain, some open meadows and wooded areas, to the western end where the towering lighthouse (now automated) stands alongside the old keepers cottage and an abandoned summer home, vestiges of a time long past when the island was inhabited. We picked our way carefully, avoiding the patches of poison ivy which seem to cover the ground, in places spilling onto the path. At the base of the lighthouse there is a stretch of beach comprised of innumerable bleached shells in various stages of reduction, thrown up over the ages by the action of sea and wind, and crackling underfoot as we made our way toward the southwest point, with its big boulders standing proud on the shallow limestone shelf extending into the lake. There among the boulders, in a few feet of water, is the remnant of a shipwrecked steamer, a boiler cast up by past tempests. The scene inspired me to lecture my family on the history of the place, about the once thriving community of farmer-fishermen who long ago tended cattle on the island, of rum runners in the 1930s, for whom this was a place of refuge as they attempted to ferry their goods across the lake undetected, and the reason for the moniker “graveyard of Lake Ontario” attributed to these waters. As if to underscore the grim nature of past events, particularly those pertaining to lost ships, we noted a number of decomposing carcasses of birds (mostly cormorants) and carp strewn along the shoreline. One large dead carp atop a mound of crushed shells bore a particularly foreboding appearance, the skull still wearing a leathery remnant of skin, with branched cracks extending from eyeless sockets creating the impression of a hideous visage of death.
We returned to the mother ship to find that several more sailboats had entered the anchorage during our absence, bringing the total number to eight, all clustered near the western shore and leaving little swing room for the lot, the largest assemblage of vessels I could recall seeing here. The wind continued to blow at 15-20 knots from the southwest throughout that afternoon. The children were eager to explore the wreck of the John C. Randall, the main portion of which lay a short distance from our anchorage in depths of 6 to 20 feet. Therefore, with masks and snorkels for Daniel and I, and swim goggles for Rebecca (who had not yet learned to breathe through a snorkel), we dinghied over to the wreck site and slipped into the clear water. Here we glided over the length of the wreck, a distance of perhaps 150 feet, seeing many of her timbers lying on the bottom, such as the long keel, planking, jumbles of spars and a section of upright ribs suggesting a giant skeletal claw reaching for the surface. Daniel had the sensation of flying as he moved easily through the water from one end of the wreck to the other, while Rebecca simply delighted in partaking of fellowship with her shipmates, being content to peer through the depths from a safe position in the dinghy.
That evening we enjoyed a fine canned chili supper, with subsequent sono-odiferous consequences (a most unfortunate circumstance for a ships company in the confines of a small cabin). At about 22:00 we listened to the weather forecast, and were surprised to hear that a strong southwesterly would continue throughout the night, building to 20 knots by mid-day on the morrow, then swinging to the northwest, placing the wind right on our nose for the journey back to Prinyer’s Cove. Main Duck Island is no place to be in any significant northerly wind, as there is very little protection to be had here from weather originating in that sector. We therefore resolved to haul the anchor early the following morning, even skipping breakfast, so that we could get an early start on the crossing before the weather intensified.
All night long the southwesterly blew over the western bank of Shipwreck Cove, producing a slight swaying motion as the wind caught Clarissa’s rigging. While not unpleasant, the water surface in the cove remaining flat, the constant wind at times seemed to intensify, causing us some unease as we pondered the next day’s crossing back to the mainland. Occasionally, the little cove would be rocked by the incoming wake of some distant freighter on the westbound track north of the island. At first light - the so-called sailor’s dawn - I went on deck to tie a reef in the main, leaving it furled on the boom, and hanked on the working jib. The sky was grey with the blood-red sun barely risen, the wind rushing across the protecting land, leaving the water’s surface covered in wavelets. Now getting a distant glimpse of the sea state beyond the relative calm in the island’s lee, the lake showing her fangs in the strong southwesterly wind, I determined to attempt the passage under jib alone, deploying the reefed main only if more windward capability was required to make the Upper Gap. In this manner, the sloop would ride more comfortably, exhibiting less heel yet moving swiftly enough in the strong breeze.
The rest of the family awoke and groggily feasted on yogurt and apples, washed down with orange juice. We now made preparation to haul the anchor and get under way. This consisted mostly of the psychological task of steeling our nerve for the rough passage ahead, and working out a strategy for keeping clear of the other boats in the crowded windy anchorage while getting the anchor secured on deck. With the engine started and thoroughly warmed up (the gear shifter remaining in neutral), I went on the foredeck to haul up the anchor, Daniel at the tiller ready to steer the wind-driven hull through the huddle of anchored boats following a pre-determined course to the middle of the cove, where we would have more sea room to fasten the anchor in its bracket on the bow pulpit and raise the jib. A man sat quietly in the cockpit of a nearby boat, a Pearson 26, I think. He waved as I looked up from my work. I wondered how he would fare today. The jib was hoisted, snapping furiously in the wind until the leeward sheet was hauled in tight. The sloop then heeled and quickly began to foot ahead, still in relatively flat water, toward the rough expanse west of the island. The engine was switched off. Approaching the edge of the lee zone, we beheld a very jagged horizon, with large combers rolling across our intended course. However, it was not until we were fully out of the island’s protective zone that we appreciated the true state of the sea.
To the west loomed a range of mountainous seas “with a cap on” (as the saying goes), six-to-eight footers, marching inexorably toward us, with the wind shrieking in the rigging and the iron-taught jib pulling us in to the fray. Meeting the first of those seas, Clarissa started to climb obliquely up their steep faces, and then slid down their backs into the troughs, from whence no land-fringed horizon could be seen. The sloop threaded her way through those seas with a heavy rolling motion, taking the waves on her port beam, shouldering through with a solid purpose. The children were assigned the task of keeping sight of the towering twin chimneys of the Lennox power generating station located on the mainland, near the town of Bath, on the Upper Gap. These towers are an excellent landmark for mariners returning from Main Duck Island, and are readily seen on days with good visibility. On this day they were very dim and easily lost on the jumbled horizon. Lisa’s main pre-occupation was with keeping the children safe in the heaving cockpit, while mine was searching the weather side for the next giant, and picking the best path through the maze of foaming peaks.
While yet in close proximity to the island the younger set of Clarissa’s complement were exhilarated with the amusement park-like conditions, each buck over a sharp stack evincing joyful exclamations, spray flying with every hard slap on the hull’s side. Attitudes were transformed, however, as time wore on and the island fell away astern, taking Clarissa further into the thick of things. The wave heights seemed to increase (some likely topping nine feet) as their relentless onslaught began to wear on the erstwhile happy crew’s nerves. The mainland shore was very far away indeed, almost an abstraction at this point, and we knew that there would be no getting off this ride any time soon. The frequency of encountering steep-faced monsters increased, and surmounting these required deviating from the chimney-bound course to steer into the waves. The boat’s motion became increasingly wild, making it very difficult to move about the cockpit and necessitating a tight grip on any convenient handhold. The children became quieter, seriously contemplating the prospect before them. My concern for their safety grew, and I had Daniel sit next to me while I clutched his PFD with one hand, the other hand firmly on the tiller. Rebecca (who would not sit still) was sent below to prevent her falling overboard. Lisa sat tight on her seat on the low side, carefully monitoring the state of the crew and ensuring that all remained seated and well cradled within the boat. I could only imagine how she felt, especially given that this was her first extensive sailing experience, but her face betrayed no fear, having rather an aspect of steadfast determination to get through this passage.
These were the roughest sustained conditions that I had ever experienced on a passage. This was certainly no storm - none was forecast - simply the result of strong winds blowing over a large expanse of water for a prolonged period of time. In the saltwater oceans of the world seas building to nine feet might be considered unremarkable, easily negotiable mounds with wide shallow bowls between the peaks. On Lake Ontario, strong winds tend to generate large, steep waves with short periods, creating very difficult conditions for small craft. Such was the world into which we had ventured, beyond the expectations of our early morning departure. Yet we were determined to get across as the wind was expected to strengthen toward mid-day, and then to shift right on our nose. And besides, we were already far from Main Duck Island, and nearing the midway point of our crossing, hoping to soon obtain a bit of protection from Long Point several miles to the West.
Several times the sloop slid sideways down the back of particularly large waves, landing in the trough on her beam ends and receiving a hard knock from the next large wave in the train before she could recover, heaving solid sheets of water into the cockpit and thoroughly drenching the occupants. Fortunately, the water was still relatively warm at this season. Such conditions in cold weather would be very difficult indeed. On one or two occasions while steering into large waves I was distracted by the antics of the dinghy which we were towing (and which was showing a tendency to nosedive as we rolled along at about six knots), and over-steered causing the jib to luff, with an attendant loss of speed (the knot meter almost dropping to zero). I desperately wished to pull the bow of the dinghy hard up against the transom, but durst not move from my seat. Moving about in such a wildly rolling boat was nigh impossible. (The thought of having to locate and retrieve an overboard crew member under such conditions chilled my spine.) In those instances when the jib luffed, I feared the possibility of losing way and being forced onto the starboard tack, and therefore, started the engine to continue our passage motor-sailing. This not only gave me better control in coping with the waves, but also increased our speed to a consistent eight knots, hastening our pace on this passage and shortening our exposure to these conditions.
Clarissa’s crew sat quietly, hanging on to the main bulkhead or coaming (attempting to stay fixed to the cockpit by any available means), when Rebecca started to complain from the cabin that her “tummy felt funny”. While I had doubted the wisdom of sending her below in the first place, my determination to keep her in the safest place possible onboard overcame any concern for her developing nausea. However, the tumbling of the boat made the cabin a very uncomfortable place in which she was constantly tossed about, and so we bid her to come up and sit on Lisa’s lap in the cockpit. She sat there, her unhappy little face tinted with seasickness, staring indifferently into a bucket held by her mother, who at the same time managed to keep a secure hold on her precious bundle as well as managing “one hand for the ship”. Daniel, meantime, bore the ordeal bravely, only muttering that he wished we had hired a baby sitter for the kids on this particular week-end! Rebecca, getting into the spirit of things, echoed this sentiment. It was reassuring to see that they retained their senses of humour in spite of circumstances.
The sea and wind conditions remained consistently rough throughout most of the passage to the mainland. Eventually, we began closing with the coast of Amherst Island, with Cressy Point to the northwest and Long Point to windward, offering a lee and taking some of the bite out of those terrible seas. Gradually, we perceived a shift in the wind toward the northwest, creating a bit of confusion in the wave pattern, but also reducing their magnitude to a more manageable level. Onward we proceeded, still shipping spray now and then, and relying more than ever on our faithful mechanical servant, an old Atomic 4, which powered us into the Upper Gap against an opposing wind. Rounding Indian Point into the Adolphous Reach, we had our object in sight, Prinyer’s Cove with its usual cluster of masts from the many anchored boats seeking refuge in that snug place. The strength of wind now screeching down the reach surprised us, and though the waves were small (by comparison with those experienced on the open lake), they showed a vicious fang nonetheless. Whereas our previous battle had to do more with waves than wind, the role of chief oppressor was now switched, and it was the wind which caused me the most grief as I wrestled the flogging jib to the deck.
Soon all was tidied on deck, and we gained the quietude of the harbour, making Clarissa fast to her mooring. Lisa and I sat quietly in the cockpit, resting for a moment from our recent exertions. There was naught but a good breeze overhead now, rippling the water’s surface and evincing a whoosh from the trees on shore. The children had already forgotten the experience, with full childish composure regained and their attention now turned to other important matters: “mommy, can we go for a swim, puh-leeze?”. For the moment we ceased to be hardy mariners, contending with dangerous elements, or bold explorers, seeking out remote islands. We were a family who, having made our safe port at last, were strengthened by yet another bond of common experience.