Sailing Kingston to Montreal: A week of contrasts

Here’s two vessels awaiting transit of a lock, with Tim in the middle, trying to figure out which is ours … a fitting opening photo we thought, for this post where we share the first leg of our voyage. It was a week of contrasts sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway from Kingston to Montreal.

There will be more photos and an attempt at fewer words this time, offering a welcome break, I’m sure for all who slogged through the last couple of lengthy narratives. I admire those with the talent to communicate succinctly – clearly not something I have a knack for! If you want a closer look at any of the images, just click to enlarge. And in case you need any incentive to keep reading, let me offer this: There will be adrenaline-fueled screams at the end of the post.

As we shared last ArioseNote, by the time we set sail, we felt fully drained. There were some small seeds of invigoration, though, leading up to departure. One was the morning we awoke to peak through the porthole, and confirm that we were not dreaming. Indeed, we were no longer looking down upon cars and marina garbage cans. Ariose was off the jack-stands and we were back in the water. Wonderful. The night before we left, we enjoyed another boost. We got our newly-made cockpit canvas up (a winter’s worth of sewing seasoned with bits of frustrated swearing for this novice seamstress), and enjoyed dinner in its shade. Ahh. This was more like it. Even more marvelous, though, was raising a different sort of canvas on our first sailing day. Sweet. And waking at 6:10am after a sound sleep gently rocked at anchor on Lake Ontario, to see dawn breaking and not another boat in sight. The past month of frustrating delays was quickly fading.

Every “first” of this voyage has felt like an accomplishment and another step in the transition from our terrestrial life back to being amphibious creatures once again.

On Day 1, we allowed ourselves a much-needed sleep-in, then started with a simple afternoon sail past the Kingston shoreline to Brakey Bay, on the east end of Wolfe Island. So good to have Ariose where she belongs. Next morning, I enjoyed a row in Poco, our dinghy, having breakfast while exploring the shoreline. There was such a feeling of familiarity. We were slipping back into sailing and the routines of life aboard that we had carved out on our 9 month voyage 5 years ago. There was even a sense of familiarity in these surroundings that reminded us of our home waters. So similar to Dawson Point limestone on Lake Temiskaming in northern Ontario.

Then on through the beautiful Thousand Islands, there were some areas that were also reminiscent of home, of the rock and pine and charming cottages of Temagami, and the landscape we enjoy when we paddle off our dock down the Mattawa River. It’s such a gentle beginning when you get to start from the familiar.

Similar, but different. The contrasts quickly emerged. So many quaint cottages tucked into the Thousand Islands, but also homes, if you can call them that, that ooze obscene wealth. One extreme example is Singer Castle, built in the early 1900s by a CEO of, you guessed it, the sewing machine company. I wonder if those generations of “housewives” creating curtains and clothes for their families, had any inkling of what their hard-earned dollars were funding. The castle, situated on the aptly named Dark Island, was owned by the Bourne family until the 1960s, apparently, one of their two summer homes. Like other mansions in the area, it was open for tours and rentals. We just glided past to gawk at no cost.

We had variable conditions our first days out, bringing lots of opportunities to brush up on the basics, from managing all points of sail to refreshing ourselves on what safety checks to undertake. We figured out the spider web of lines to hold a whisker pole in place when the winds were pushing at good speed. Without the pole to stabilize the foresail, the headwind from the boat’s forward motion would spill out and be wasted rather than push us along. Oh, yes, not just “figuring out”, what array of fore and aft guys work on Ariose, but doing so without the pole hip-checking us overboard in the process. And that experience naturally lead to re-learning how to work on deck while tethered securely. We had heavy enough winds to need to reef the mainsail so we wouldn’t be dangerously overpowered. That first effort to reef was a wrestling match that my aching hands reminded me of for days. Have since finessed that process!

We dropped the hook every night, and quickly re-mastered sailing on and off anchor, going days without ever using the motor. At each day’s end, we were (and still are!) weary. This though, is the healthiest of exhaustion, the kind where you have just enough energy to brush your teeth, then crawl gratefully into the comfy v-berth to be gently rocked to sleep. Very different from the bone-tired weariness I used to feel at the end of work days, with a body fatigued from nothing more than back-to-back meetings broken up with rushed completion of computer tasks in a window-less office. In that life, 3am awakenings that lasted hours, found my mind ruminating about the past day, and planning for the next, ensuring I would need to dig deep to muster the energy to face that day, once again, with insufficient sleep. Living aboard and sleeping at anchor is a world away. A boat usually orients to the breeze ensuring fresh air channels through the cabin. There are no dock noises, no traffic, and if we secure our own halyards properly, no clanging mast “music”. Within a couple months of our return home last time, we invested in a state-of-the-art 18kg Rocna anchor as an essential factor in the sleeping exceptionally well equation. So far, it has been holding us securely through all conditions, and we’re getting uninterrupted sleeps.

In about 6 week’s time, we are hoping to be able to enter the US. Not for any length of time, mind you, just for the occasional rest and provisioning as we make our way south. Sailing from Canada to the Caribbean non-stop is a little beyond our experience and ability level. Here, in the Thousand Islands, however, we moved freely in and out of American waters, thanks to the cross-national agreement allowing vessels of either country to transit the St. Lawrence Seaway. If only it could always be so easy! No formalities required, and in fact, our first notice that we had strayed outside of our own country was Bell Canada texts advising that roaming charges were now in effect. Borders! Such arbitrary lines.

We did get comfortable navigating by our paper and electronic charts once again, although hardly necessary in these waters. The St. Lawrence Seaway is generously marked with charming light-houses and seagull roosts otherwise known as buoys. Just keep red to port and green to starboard, and all is usually well. Favourable currents, as the waterway empties out the Great Lakes, gave quite a boost, at times, allowing us to almost double our usual speed.

Did you catch the all is usually well? The opening photo in this post of freighter vs sailboat, was not just a showdown at locks. It was initially quite intimidating to share the waters with these behemoths. So incongruous to be lazily sailing past cottages, with tour boats and seadoos as companions, to then notice one of these beasts bearing down on us. That’s when we’d move out of the marked channel tout-de-suite, and let the big-boys have it all to themselves. The violent wake-induced rock ‘n rolling we’d be hit with a few moments later was their parting gift.

When we did stray (or rather, escape!) outside the marked channels, we did have to keep a hawk-eye on the electronic charts to avoid the plentiful shoals. Much of these waters were dredged in the late 1950’s when the St. Lawrence Seaway was created. Freighters needed sufficient depth for to move freely from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. So in addition to the natural shallows, there’s all sorts of unlikely piles of dug-up debris. Although we have a plentiful armory of getting ungrounded strategies from cruising 5 years ago, we’re hopeful that this time, we never need to use them, and certainly not in our first week out! The fear of grounding was a minor concern, though. It’s so disturbing to consider how opening the “industrial and agricultural heartlands” through creating the Seaway did so at the expense of the people whose land was expropriated and lives turned upside down, and the harsh impact on nature. Tim tells me 250 square kilometers of land was flooded. I’m not sure of his source, but anyone who knows Tim knows he’s up on environmental facts!

So I guess that’s a good segue to the contrast between the natural landscape and the human-made structures along the way. When googling the St. Lawrence Seaway to learn a little more about it, we saw that it has been grandiosely described as the 8th wonder of the world. Yes, canals, dykes, dams, bridges, and locks abound. Lots of engineering feats bending nature to capitalist purposes. Here’s a selection:

We lost track of how many bridges are on the route. Most we passed smoothly. They were either high enough to sail under or we arrive right on schedule and the bridge lifted on time. Not all were smooth, though. We arrived at the Laroque Bridge to a green light, signifying permission to pass. As we approached it turned red and without any regard to us barrelling toward it, fueled by a strong current, it lowered. We were less than 2 minutes off in our timing. We were able to do a quick gybe and head off to the side of the channel to drop anchor and wait a couple hours for the next opening. Frustrating, but not a big deal. Nap time!

Another bridge passing though, got our hearts racing. Our guidebook indicated that the Kahnawake Bridge, when closed, is 12 metres. That’s 39 feet 4.44 inches. We knew our mast was close, but had never measured height from the water, so here was a chance to do so. Before we weighed anchor that morning, we pulled a rope up the halyard to the top, then held our grab hook level at the mast base and measured from there to the water, adding another 6″ for the VHF antenna and wind direction indicator. We came up with 40 feet 1 inch. So close! Some sailors will hang weights (or crew) off the end of the boom to force the boat to heel over. With the mast angled, they are able to sneak under bridges that are just a little too low. Should we be so daring to try this? Nope. We’ve said it already, but will say it again. We intend this voyage to be notable for its lack of mishaps. We’d managed at that point to be 5 days into our voyage without major incident, and we wanted to hold on to this new record. Tim, get off that boom right now!

Our charts, both the official Hydrographics Canada paper version and our electronic Navionics, however, indicated that the bridge was 48 feet high. We would make our decision once we arrived and could eyeball it. As we approached, we both agreed. There’s enough height for Ariose. Forty-eight feet must be accurate. No need to hail the operator or wait for a scheduled opening. Our confidence waned the closer we got but we continued as we knew from experience that almost any bridge looks deceivingly low as you pass under. There’s a strong urge to duck, even with the 100 foot bridges, as you look up your mast to the girders above. We were speeding along at 6 knots (that’s fast for us), and just as we were about to go under, we spotted a sign posted on the bridge: 12m. Panic!! Too low! I was at the helm as Tim shouted “turn around!” Sailboats need water passing over the rudder to be able to steer them. When it’s the current pushing the boat from behind as it was for us, the boat is moving along with the water, not through the water. I didn’t have enough steerage. We readied ourselves for a hard impact and all the worst case scenarios flashed before us. Hopefully we would get away with just losing the antennae not the mast crashing down on us. But we made it through. Unscathed. We had enough height after all. Breathe. Kahnawake is an indigenous community, well known for standing up to colonial injustices. Was this their way of messing with those using and abusing these waters? I wouldn’t blame them if it was.

We needed to transit 7 locks on the voyage from Kingston to Montreal, as we dropped 570 feet from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence. Two are American; five Canadian. Interesting, yes, but inconvenient. Each lock required prior booking and payment, but it was impossible to know when we needed to set out to make that actual reserved time until 7:30 am, when the actual daily lock schedule is posted on the Seaway website. Sometimes there was only one downbound passage in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and to complicate planning, some have lengthy canals between locks, as much as 12 nautical miles (that can easily take 4 hours to sail), where overnight stopping is prohibited. Anyways, we did have some lengthy waits, but otherwise made it smoothly though all. The many New York Canal System locks we transited on our southbound voyage last time, and then again on our return (I think it was 39 each way) prepared us well for these.

The locks are set up for their main customers, the freighters, but at some, there was a waiting area for pleasure boats. I think they wanted to keep us out of the way and we were happy to have a place to be out of the way. We would dock, and then attempt to follow what seemed, according to our guidebook and to the signage, a clear process. We laughed with the absurdity – check out the first instruction, then what we found at the phone booth:

We’d try unsuccessfully to hail them on our vhf radio, pace the dock, peer through locked gates, and eventually would be acknowledged by the lockmaster. Sometimes they’d let us know we’d need to wait for a freighter, and sometimes they’d let us know we could proceed. Here’s a slide show to take you through a sample canal transit:

The night before arriving in Montreal, we tucked in behind a tiny island on Lac St. Louis for another peaceful night. The next day as we sailed across the deeper channels of the lake, we caught sight of Oratoire Saint-Joseph perched on the slope of Mont-Royal. A very different first view of the city from the usual highway access. Another canal, a couple bridges, and a couple locks, and we emerged in the city.

We glimpsed the Montreal’s signature Olympic Stadium, made a hard port turn to St. Helen’s Island and we were right at La Ronde amusement park and its marina where we had booked for the next two nights. From tranquil anchorages to an amusement park? You might be thinking that’s not a great call for sailors seeking peace and calm. No worries. The marina was open but the park was closed. The price at $1.70/foot, we thought, was very reasonable. Upon getting the invoice, I realized my rusty French had failed me. That was the day-stay rate; we had to pay a more typical city fees of $2.50/foot. Most importantly, though, it was conveniently located near my Montrealer offspring’s Hochelaga neighbourhood. An unprecedented two precious visits in less than a month! My heart was happy. Our backs and legs were pretty pleased, too, to have car access for provisioning and other heavy errands.

For our first week of sailing, we had remained exclusively on Ariose. Our feet never touched ground. It was with wobbly legs that we disembarked in Montreal. For me, the sensation of being trapped in the the amusement park’s fun-house diminished over our 48 hours there to a mere feeling of having consumed one glass too many of red. Tim always gets his land-legs more quickly, and regained his usual stride within a few hours.

Even with the park closed, it was a rather bizarre place for us to dock. Roller coaster backdrops, and needing to navigate a maze-like route through parking lots, past security booths, and under rides to exit onto the main road and the Jacques Cartier Bridge was just weird. Not our usual habitat. On our last morning, as we prepared to do our final errands, we noticed empty-seated park rides in operation. Strange. Then we hopped in the car and as we attempted to head out, encountered people streaming in, in a very unpandemic fashion. We needed security’s assistance to part the growing crowds so we could pass. Quite the celebrity experience. My rusty French had also not picked up on mention of the park’s opening day.

There. That’s all for this ArioseNote. Hope you’ve enjoyed coming along with us on our very diverse first week. As promised we’ll end this post with the adrenaline-fueled screams – not ours! – that served as background as we untied the lines and bid adieu to Montreal.

Screams of excitement as we depart from Montreal!

10 thoughts on “Sailing Kingston to Montreal: A week of contrasts”

  1. Hi Daria, nice to hear from you! Sailing really is a powerful teacher. Have to be ready learn though, at times when you may not be up for it. Hope all is well with you.

  2. I am in full agreement with Keetha (publish!) and Nancy (“As you were!”) So happy that you’re able to be back on the water with Ariose. Thank you, Shirley, for your imaginative story telling that lets us travel with you (and give an education on sailing)… and Tim, I certainly chuckled and hummed “Early One Morning” as well! Very much looking forward to the continuation of your journey…

  3. Hello Shirley
    I love receiving you wonderful updates and feel you should seriously consider publishing a book. I am hooked and look so forward to the next “episode”.

    Take good care and have a blast!!

    1. Thanks Keetha!
      Pulling off a mere blog post every couple weeks is all I’m able to manage, but, yeah, it could be fun someday when I have the time & motivation to try to pull our experiences together in a book. Complementary copy to you!

      1. I want one too so you know 😉 Great writing as always Shirl and I always look forward to your next posts, even though it is a little anxiety provoking lol, I don’t know how you do it! 🙂

  4. I for one hope your future attempts at fewer words is a complete failure as I love every little detail! Pictures are super. Can hardly wait for the next episode!

    1. Thanks, Nancy, Appreciate your supportive words. I’m going to keep trying to tighten up the text, but don’t worry, if my past efforts are any indication of future success in this, I expect to continue to fail! LOL

  5. Hi Shirley! I love sailing vicariously with you! These updates make my day! Hope you and Tim continue to have smooth sailing!

    1. And I love having you and others along. Reconnecting with friends from the past has been such an unexpected bonus of creating this blog. Looking forward to our next chance to catch up in person again, whenever that may be. Long overdue. In the meantime, smooth sailing to you too!

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