It’s been 2 weeks since our previous ArioseNote. We left off, on the last day of our 2021 voyage, adrenaline surging, as the wind threatened to push us, motorless, toward a menacing rock breakwall on Montreal’s South Shore Canal. I trust that cliff-hanger hasn’t kept anyone awake, because we are now home safe & sound, with Ariose tucked away in her boat shed for the winter.
For Tim and I, unpacking and reconnecting with family and friends have taken priority over blog writing. It’s now late November, we’re comfy beside the woodstove and it’s a good day to get this final post out. Time to close the journey.
First, if I may, a preamble. I’ve mentionned a few times that our intention was to have fewer incidents this time out than we had on our maiden 2016-2017 voyage. We were new to cruising then, and our 9 months aboard were peppered by many incidents… umm … learning opportunities. If you take glory in other’s misfortune, or would like to feel superior (yes, we know, you would never have made that decision), or want to do some of your own learning to avoid the mistakes we made, you’re welcome to have a go at past posts. How about the near catastrophic rudder shredding, keel grinding grounding with coast guard rescue within 24 hours of setting out? Or freezing our transoms off late November in the New York canals? Or, being challenged on our 1st overnight passage on the Atlantic? Then there were many gentle groundings, soft on Ariose but hard on our egos like the one at Green Turtle in the Bahamas. And gasoline in our diesel as we attempted to cross the Gulf Stream. We went from novices to earning a post-doc’s worth of expertise in that 9 months on Ariose. We had so many, umm, learnings, that the Great Lakes Alberg Association awarded us the annual “Bent Fork” trophy, honouring (or was that roasting?) us as the Albergers who had messed up the most but lived to tell the tale. This year, we did not want to be in the running for any such tributes. Of course, there’s always more to learn, and the universe has a way of throwing you into refresher courses from time to time. Like it did on our final day.
So back to mid-October on this 2021 voyage. If you haven’t read our previous Rimouski to Montreal post, and would like the (very!) full lead up to the dramatic “perfect storm” that I’m about to relate, pour your favourite beverage, get comfy, click on this link, and then come on back when you are up for more.
For those who were with us for that ArioseNote, a brief reminder. The day had gone smoothly as we motored through the 14 nautical miles of the canal, taking us westward from Montreal’s port through 2 locks, to Lac St-Louis where we would be hauling Ariose out. When we rounded the final corner and were spilled from the canal’s protected waters into the open lake, we were hit on the nose by strong winds and waves. Ariose bucked and bounced and the sloshing of the small amount of diesel in the tank starved the engine and causing it to die… just before we cleared the rock breakwall. I feel a tightening in my chest even as I type.
Sailing has a way of elevating emotion from 0 to 100 in an instant. Tim and I burst into high-gear. We had 60 litres of diesel in jerries stowed on the deck, enough fuel to motor for days, but unlashing a jerry and refilling the tank in these buckin’ conditions would be impossible. We’d get water in the fuel tank or be on the rocks before we managed the manoeuvre. But we’re on a sailboat, after all. We don’t need an engine. Tim was at the helm and together, in record speed, we unfurled the genoa, untied and raised the main and were under sail… but not out of danger. Lac St. Louis is full of shoals, left-overs from dredging the St.Lawrence Seaway, we presume.
We had to sail westward to get in, and stay in, deeper, safe waters, but it’s impossible to sail directly into the wind. So we started our upwind zig-zag. With the first tack, we narrowly avoided rocky areas just beneath the waves, and on our 2nd tack, Ariose came frighteningly close to that nasty breakwall. I could see Tim staring with some alarm at the IPad, obviously trying to process the danger that the electronic chart was communicating.
I had spent lots of time pouring over the chart for Lac St-Louis, and knew it well, or so I thought. In preparation for this day, knowing we’d only have a brief time between exiting the canal and dark, I had marked 2 suitable anchorages, just a short distance away. I had also scoured the chart in detail for longer-term anchorages. We had squeezed through the locks on the last weekend transit was permitted, but now needed to bide our time for two weeks until we’d be hauled out. I had noted several anchoring options that we could choose from, depending on wind direction, for that wait.
I typically take the lead navigating aboard Ariose, but we usually make sure that Tim is also familiar with the chart and the plan before we set out each day. We had become rather complacent this last leg. Tim hadn’t looked at the chart in advance and I hadn’t shared or checked plans with him. And to compound matters, when we were last here a couple months before, Tim, battling a migraine, spent most of the passage resting below. These were new waters for him.
Tim stared, and in typical Shirley-nearing-panic-mode, I started to fire questions and commands at him. What’s our depth? How close are we to the shoals? I think we should tack now. Now! Tim’s brain can need a moment to process spatial details and verbal directions, so absorbing the information on the screen, and reacting to my barrage was not exactly conducive to quick action. I like to think that my childhood sailing experiences help me respond more instinctively at the helm when under pressure – and – I knew what we were facing in these waters better than Tim. Naturally, I asked (insisted?) to take over. Tim stepped aside from the wheel. Was this the right decision? At the time, and for the next few minutes, it seemed so.
We had a couple close calls as we regained control. Later, we examined our track, and saw that we travelled only .1 to .2 nm on each tack – that’s less than 2 minutes before needing to come about to head in the opposite direction. Racers might be used to this pace. For us, it was hectic. Our confidence began to return, though, as we zig-zagged our way toward… where?
Where exactly are we going?, we asked ourselves.
As I’ve mentionned, I had selected an anchorage, just outside the canal knowing we wouldn’t want to be navigating these tricky waters in the dark. It would offer some protection if the forecast westerlies had even a slight northerly angle. But no. We had dead-on strong westerly winds! In these conditions, Plan A was a lee shore and if we dragged, we would be on the rocks. Our Rocna anchor had done us well so far, that for a moment, we considered risking it, but decided to not to tempt fate on our last night. Plan A was a no-go.
I also had a Plan B marked that promised some protection. But (why is there so often a “but”?) it required navigating through a narrow path between shallows. That would be easy if we could motor, but we couldn’t. Let’s head to Plan C, we thought, one of the “wait out 2 weeks” spots. All of these were several miles away and felt too risky to sail to in the dark. Ok, Plan D, then. But we had no Plan D.
In the minute or so between tacks, we stared at the chart willing an anchorage to make itself known. It was nearing 6pm, sunset was at 6:07pm, and the already grey skies were darkening. We stared ahead in the fading daylight. Where can we sail to an east side of land?
And like magic, it appeared. There, in front of our eyes – I couldn’t believe we hadn’t noticed it before – was a treed island.
I always pay attention to islands as possible anchorages as they often offer shelter regardless of wind direction. How could I have missed this one while poring over the chart so many times in the preceding weeks? It looked to be within a mile or so. (During our debrief the next day, we determined it was in fact, .7 nautical miles away at that point.) Tim and I located it on the chart, a lovely inviting beige oval, and agreed, it would be perfect. (During the next-day debrief, we determined that what we thought was the charted island was only.35nm away.) You may guess where this is going…
Ready to come about? Yes. Hard alee! As we tacked and made our way upwind toward safety, I continued to puzzle about why the island appeared so close on the chart, but seemed farther away by sight. How peculiar. And a navigational buoy just to port wasn’t in the right spot. It must have dragged. Strange that a marker as important as one on the St.Lawrence Seaway wouldn’t have been corrected. Well, perhaps it just moved today in these heavy winds.
Struggling with the contradictions between my eyes and the chart, I decided – too late – to trust the chart. I asked Tim to quickly get to the bow and prepare to drop anchor. It seemed like we were too far out from the island, that we would have no protection, yet I could see on the chart we were almost on top of it. What sort of optical illusion was playing tricks on us? (Maybe Tim’s not the only one on Ariose who needs a bit of time to process information.)
We were sailing at over 5 knots and the bottom rose shockingly quickly. “I’ll head us into the wind the moment we are at 10 feet of water under the keel,. Be prepared to drop anchor then.” I said
As usual, as helmsperson, I called out depths to Tim who would be releasing the anchor.
“Thirty feet, 20, yikes, 5, we’re at 5! Drop the anchor NOW.”
“Are you sure?”, Tim questionned. “We’re nowhere close to the island.” (And he was right, the island looked to still be a 1/2 mile away.)
“Yes, NOW! We only have two feet,” I shouted, “point 7!!!”
We stopped dead in our tracks, the impact reverberating through our bones. Ariose tipped upward balancing high for a sickening slow-motion moment, and then fell to her starboard side, toe-rail under water and mainsail wetted by the wave-tops. That unmistakeable crunch of keel on rock, last experienced on another fateful autumn day, 5 years before, is just as dreadful second time around. We heard/felt scraping below as Ariose was pushed backward a little, and we pivoted and righted slightly.
Fortunately (?!?), we have plenty of experience with liberating Ariose from groundings. Most, though, have involved sandy bottoms and tides that rise and float us off if we can’t manage to free ourselves. This time, we were on the wrong side of the locks for tidal help.
I pulled in the main and foresail sheets as tightly as possible trying to initiate even more heel so that we might slide off the rock. Tim and I moved to starboard hoping that would help. We weren’t sure if this was a wise strategy or not. We were already sitting at about a 60 degree angle, and not only would further incline put more stress on the rigging, our sails might fill with water and and pin us on our side. Regardless, it didn’t work nor did it cause any harm. We stayed put.
The dinghy. Maybe we can use it to pull us off or at least swivel the bow to allow the wind better purchase to push us deeper. Tim pulled Poco in close and began to release the painter as I wrestled the electric outboard out of the cockpit locker – not an easy feat working at a severe angle, and with it buried in a chock-full locker. If the motor wasn’t strong enough, we had other tricks in our grounding book. We could use Poco to head out midship with a halyard (a rope attached to the top of the mast) to initiate more heel, or kedge out an anchor and use a winch to pull us off.
Thankfully, we didn’t need any of those manoeuvers. As Tim stepped off into Poco, Ariose lifted ever so slightly, and we felt the glorious sensation of Ariose sliding off into deeper water, as she righted herself. I never realized how valuable that 140 pound of ballast, otherwise known as Tim, could be!
It was getting quite dark. We drifted a minute or two into deeper water, and quickly opted to drop anchor. There was no shelter from winds and waves, but we were out of the freighter channel and safe. This was good enough. We did not get much sleep that night. I’m not sure which source of punishment was more severe: the choppy waters bouncing us about all night long, or the beating we gave ourselves for messing up.
Well, what would an Ariose voyage with Tim and Shirley be without a grounding? Sometimes we start off our adventure with a bang; sometimes we finish that way.
So what happened? As everyone reading this, sailor or not, probably has figured out, we had mis-read the chart. We had really mis-read it. There are 2 shades of yellow-ish brown in Navionics, the electronic chart we use. One shows actual land above water; the other, shoals just under water. The oval on the chart that we took to be the island that we could see ahead, was in fact, marking an underwater shoal. I had sailed us right smack dab onto a rock less than a foot under the waves. (Follow our path, the pink dotted line, right up onto A4 shoal). And I hadn’t done so tentatively. I had done it with good speed despite my gut telling me that something was wrong.
What have we learned? Lots! Here’s our key takeaways. You may have more.
1. Keep fuel topped-up. Because we were about to haul out and tow home, we wanted to keep Ariose as light as possible so were intentionally letting our diesel fun low. Intentionally! So unwise. That rationale did not warrant putting us at risk and we should have known better . We had lots of fuel with us and had we added diesel before departing that morning, we would have avoided this whole cascade of events. We could have easily siphoned the extra diesel from the tank once at the marina.
2. Self-awareness 101. We know the importance of being attuned to our mental state and thought processes when sailing. We know our judgement always seems to slip a little at day’s end, and especially when we’re particularly drained, whether by vigorous conditions, or by the incessant noise of the engine. The weather had been miserable for most of the day, and we had motored almost 10 long hours. Overlay that with feeling rather demoralized. Our long anticipated cruising adventure, much truncated, was at an end. We know ourselves well enough to know that these are conditions that could lead to poor judgement, and should have considered that before acting on quick decisions.
3. Self-awareness 201: The Adrenaline Factor. We’ve been through enough adrenaline moments in our lives, and on board, to be very familiar with adrenaline’s physical effects, like racing heart, blood to muscles primed for action, you know, the fight or flight response. Then there’s the effect on cognition. Although adrenaline helps elevate awareness, it also tends to narrow focus, giving tunnel vision, so to speak. That rabbit escaping the fox is likely not paying attention to the tasty new shoots it passes as it races toward its den. We would never score drugs, get high, then take control of our vessel (we’re not into getting high at any time, but just trying to illustrate a point here). Yet there we were, high on adrenaline, and making quick decisions. Running out of fuel in such a treacherous place had us elevated, and with the tricky sailing required, we had yet to settle down. This incident has been a valuable reminder to be hyper-vigilant about the likelihood of poor decisions when operating in that post-adrenaline zone.
4. If possible, create breathing space. Once we had sails up and had searoom between us and hazards, we could have – we should have – dropped anchor, even just for 15 minutes to calm ourselves and re-evaluate the situation. The lake was shallow enough that we could have easily done so just about anywhere. Ironically, we did end up dropping hook, not just to calm ourselves, but to spend the night, in a fully unprotected spot, just east of the grounding shoal and 100 metres outside the freighter channel. Had we decided to do this one hour before, we would have been spared “the” incident. A month later, as I’m writing this account and checking details with Tim, we realized that we hadn’t even considered what was likely the best/safest option once the engine died. We could have sailed back into the protection of the canal, anchored, and taken as much time as we needed to confidently plan next steps.
5. Trust your instruments. They are far less likely to deceive than are our own brains that so easily play perceptual tricks. And if the instruments contradict your senses, and you are like me and lean toward being rather stubborn in your opinions, pay attention to the source of information that’s suggesting the greatest risk. If the electronic chart shows you are about to run aground and your eyes say, don’t worry, that island is at least a 1/2 mile away, believe the chart and take measures to avoid possibly running aground.
6. AND listen to your gut. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed and marked this island as a possible anchorage. In hindsight, I realized I had seen it and because it was surrounded by shoals, I had dismissed it as a possible anchorage. I had perused this lake’s chart at least a dozen times on different days. I would not have missed a good anchorage that many times. And as if that wasn’t enough, I found it strange that a buoy seemed so far out of place. It wasn’t. We were. I ignored strong signs and my instinct, that we were making a mistake.
7. Share roles and information. Even on the last day. Tim and I, like many cruising couples, divvy up responsibilities according to our strengths and interests. That doesn’t mean the other can’t step in as needed, though. I’m the navigator but we are both responsible for being familiar with the day’s route, hazards we may face, and we discuss and agree on key decisions. We had become dangerously complacent on this final stretch. I had left Tim in the dark and he was fine with being there. Knowing that Tim had no familiarity with these waters lead to my lack of trust in his ability to helm us to safety. That was quite the job I did helming us to safety! Tim’s lack of familiarity also lead him to hastily agree with my poor decision on our Plan D,
8. Local knowledge. And finally, if you are so fortunate to encounter a Danny in your sailing life (a sailor with more experience + expertise + local knowledge), listen to them! Danny – if you are reading this… In 2016, we think it was you at Collins Bay who warned us of the limestone shelf at Main Duck Island and advised to never anchor there. Through a series of novice errors, we ended up not following your counsel and faced near disaster. And this time, you had cautioned us to pay close attention to the charts when crossing Lac St-Louis. Well, obviously, we didn’t. Next time, be assured that we WILL heed your wise advice.
What did we do well? Quite a bit, in fact. We kept our heads and in the end, stayed safe. We responded incredibly quickly. We drew on past experience to deal with the grounding.
We also ran aground in the right direction. If you are really determined to run aground, do so, as I did, while heading into the wind. The wind was our ally, helping to push us off into deeper water. Had we grounded down-wind, we would have been blown further aground and may still be there!
Other things we feel we did right? We had invested in good anchor tackle before setting out, allowing us to spend a night securely (albeit not restfully) unprotected mid-lake. We also feel good about making the decision to do so, rather than continue on and risk another grounding. And finally, our decision years ago, to buy a classic well-designed, over-fibreglassed, full-keel boat that easily withstands our abuse, was a good one. A lesser boat likely would have suffered serious damage. Ariose, we were relieved to discover, emerged with easily repairable, relatively minor gouges.
Ultimately, we are better sailors than we were when we emerged from that canal.
The next day, we decided to head straight to our final destination. Heavy winds were forecast for most days in the next couple weeks, and having now exhausted our appetite for adventure, the anchorages I’d found no longer looked appealing. We had lovely conditions for sailing the back-and-forth channel to Dorval, on the north side of Lac St-Louis, but we uncharacteristically chose to motor. We were only an hour or two from our final destination, and just wanted to get there in the least stressful manner.
A 2-week yacht club stay while waiting for our haul-out would take too big a bite from our budget, so we dropped hook nearby, between posh shore-side homes and the unique Dorval Island community. We dinghied in the following day to introduce ourselves, and finalize arrangements. The Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club manager offered us a very reasonable rate, so we happily moved Ariose to the marina docks behind a beefy breakwall. Usually, we prefer to be at anchor. Now, voyage over, and facing a couple weeks of stormy fall weather, we were ever so grateful for the security.
We drove home to fetch Ariose’s tri-axle trailer. Tim elected to stay for the week and I returned to get in a little more precious family time. Serendipitously, the timing coincided with my Torontonian and his partner also being in Montreal. The mothering compartments in my heart were almost full… I was just missing my 3rd offspring and his partner.
Staying at the private RStLYC was an unusual experience. Dorval, with origins as the summer homes for Montreal’s wealthy, still seems to hold an elitist flavour. The manager of the club was great, and a few members, like our dock neighbour Brian, friendly. Between the sideways looks we got from other members, the posh patriarchal clubhouse, the megayachts, and thieving rodents, it was not a marina where we felt overly welcome. Nasty weather didn’t help. But we were sure grateful that they did take us.
A mix-up with the rental truck forced us to forfeit our November 1st haul out date. I appreciated having even more time with my Montrealer, and time on board to pack and prepare Ariose for returning home. Those days alone on Ariose provided an anti-climactic end. It’s strange how the quarters can feel too close when Tim and I are living aboard, yet feel so lonely when not together.
Tim returned. We removed sails, unstepped the mast, and disgorged the tons (literally) of gear and provisions, loading them into the truck.
Haul-out day came, and as the sun rose, Ariose did too. Treacherous icy conditions at dawn further validated our decision to not be out there sailing.
Everything went smoothly. No slipping straps. No damage to the rudder. We were relieved to see that the grounding had caused little more than cosmetic gouges to the keel. With my new-found fibreglassing skills, I’m confident I will be able to erase all signs of this voyage’s “learning”.
Our drive home – as always – was anxiety inducing. Towing a high-riding, 10,000 pound boat feels incredibly vulnerable. As usual, we travelled under 80km/hour, with lots of stops to check on Ariose and the trailer, turning a usual 6 hour drive into 11 hours. Somewhere near the end of the trip, likely on the bumpy, hilly road we live on, the trailer’s bow pad broke off, causing the metal bracket to gash Ariose’s pretty nose. More fibreglass and paint repair added to the to-do list.
Although this voyage from Kingston out the St. Lawrence to Rimouski and back to Montreal was not the voyage we had planned, we don’t regret making the effort. We met some wonderful people, we explored new waters, many of which we look forward to returning to, we had some adventures that make for entertaining story-telling, and we have come away with some valuable learning and wonderful memories.
Thanks, everyone, for being aboard with us.
A mere four days after arriving home, the US water border opened. The news was bittersweet. It’s good to be settling in to our solid shelter,with the luxury of way more living space than Ariose offers, where we can head out the door with no thoughts of donning pfd’s. We’re contented to be grounded. I have spent a special week with my parents, sprinkled with heart-warming get-togethers with friends. Even so, quiet “could have made it” thoughts linger. But the Caribbean isn’t going anywhere and Ariose and her crew are pretty much ready to launch again when the time is right. Hopefully, the pandemic will soon release it’s grip on us all, although recent news doesn’t bode well for that wish. And hopefully Tim and I have many years of health ahead of us for realizing more sailing dreams.
For now, the winter lies ahead and we look forward to enjoying it.