Island Bound Traveller Writer, Storyteller
Gary Grieco is a freelance writer, avid reader, sailor, and motorcycle enthusiast based on Texada Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Memories of a Prairie Sailor
by gary grieco - email@example.com
1981 was a watershed year for my wife and me. We tore out our lifelong personal anchor embedded in the mud bottom of Winnipeg, Manitoba to pursue our dream of island living, and to sail the briny seas of West Coast British Columbia. Our destination was the 'Bahamas of Canada', nestled between the mainland, and Vancouver Island, that great barrier reef, which separates the B.C. mainland from the open Pacific. Victoria is its most southern point, and Cape Mudge the most northerly. In between is the 20 mile wide Strait of Georgia, called the 'Gulf' by locals. This inland sea is a sailor's paradise and contains the American San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Countless islands, snug anchorages, and balmy weather make this a summer destination cruising ground that first mates love, and captains find frustrating. Our nautical adventure began when we pulled away from our family home in the old west Winnipeg suburb of St. James on an early July morning. The five ton, 30 foot sailboat I had originally designed and built for Lake Winnipeg was destined to sail only in salt water. It sat on our triple tandem 20,000 lb trailer like a miniature liner in dry-dock, dwarfing our '69 Ford 3/4 ton with its matching eight foot camper. Our prairie schooner cleaved the dust of the Trans-Canada Highway on a westerly compass course. We not only felt guilty about forsaking family and friends, but also regretted leaving Lake Winnipeg's waters. This seventh largest body of water in the world had been our sailing haven for the past twenty years. Advice from friends and family at the party the night before rang in our ears. Opinions were rife with dire warnings.about the west coast seas we were soon to sail upon; with giant waves, fierce storms, and maelstroms that could suck down a fifty-foot trawler in the blink of an eye. There was also talk of horrific currents in swift running passages that even the Orca, or killer whale respected by biding its time, waiting for slack tide. Seven days later, in our prairie schooner after many adventures on the flat plains, and climbing mountains with an overheating, underpowered truck, we drove onto an ocean-going B.C. Ferry at the Tsawassen terminal on the mainland. The 'Queen of Sidney' carried our small caravan across the Strait of Georgia, through the constricted, fast moving waters of 'Active Pass', and into the protected waters of the southern Gulf Islands. On the horizon loomed the emerald green island named Saltspring. Our new home. I cringe when I remember the arrogant 'prairie sailor' remark I made on the ferry as we approached Salt Spring Island. On this sun-drenched summer's day, as I watched the sailboats motoring along with sails neatly furled and covered rather than tacking into the gentle breeze, I called them 'covered wagons', only afterward realizing that fluky winds reigned in these pastoral islands. Later experience taught me that when sailing in the Gulf Islands you cannot count on constant winds, or even on winds maintaining the same direction. One minute we're crashing along with all sails flying, and around the next point of land encountering a head wind, or worse, travelling in reverse because of the tide, or worse yet, becalmed. Sailing Lake Winnipeg with my lifelong friends, Wayne and Bob was always a challenge. There are few calm days on this big, empty lake. Reefed mainsail and storm jibs are the norm when the afternoon winds began to gust. Squalls can come and go in half and hour, and woe to the sailor who cannot get his sails down in time. We were amateur prairie boat builders. We knew little about marine design, or even nautical nomenclature. But, we did build sturdy boats with watertight hulls and shallow keels to overcome the average fifteen foot depths of the lake. Our 17' to 25 foot boots with snug cabins were meant to withstand capping waves and the yearly routine of being blown aground at least once onto the silica sand shores of Lake Winnipeg. The only damage was to our dignity, and a few scratches to the outer fiberglass hulls. While waiting for the lake's storm surge to abate, we took a cool dip to push and shove heeled-over hulls back into chest-high deeper water. Our crafts were anchored amid bulrushes in a small bay off an unspoiled narrow river on the edge of Netley Marsh, surrounded by pungent prairie oaks and poplars. The Brokenhead River empties into Lake Winnipeg's south basin on its eastern shore, creating a broad estuary buoyed with fishermen's marker poles. Its a sailor's nightmare when the winds from the north drive capping waves into the shallow, shifting channel extending a half mile or more onto the lake. In profound ignorance of the lake's nature and power, we sailed our home-built boats on Lake Winnipeg's brackish coloured waters from early spring until fall. This vast fresh water sea was our own playground, where wind and waves sprang up in minutes. Trepidation was not in our vocabulary. We routinely ignored the commercial fishermen's warnings about going out to play on the lake's stormy waters, bringing new meaning to the old adage, "ignorance is bliss." Lake Winnipeg fishermen are a hardy breed. Mostly non-swimmers, and without lifejackets, they hauled pickerel and whitefish into their leaky, wooden, open boats in all kinds of weather. Every year a couple of fishermen lost their lives in the lake's shallow, angry waters, when their overloaded boats would be swamped by towering waves. And they thought we were loco. Lake Winnipeg does not have tides or currents like the ocean, but in the shallow waters of the south basin there is an abundance of wind that can push up waves to a maximum height of four feet measured from lake level. Their overall height is determined by the 100 mile fetch extending from Hecla and Black Islands in the north, to the mouth of the historic Red River in the south. These wave heights may not sound like much to Lake Superior sailors, but waves four feet high, and four in the trough, equals eight feet of capping waves with powerful curling white beards, on a lake that averages a fifteen foot depth. It can be very wet and exciting. With fishermen's nets strung for miles with only Javex bottles hiding behind capping waves to mark where one net begins and another net ends, and it's like sailing through a watery slalom course complete with white capped moguls. Is it any wonder that our long-suffering young wives stayed home with the babies ? Our feelings were, these experiences had to count for something when sailing the ocean blue. I had left a successful career in the corporate world to pursue my twin passions of writing, and sailing the west coast of British Columbia. We set to work that first year on the coast to completing the interior of the 30' sailboat I had designed and built, while also building our new island home. By June of the next year we were ready to launch the newly named sloop,'Island Bound'. My Lake Winnipeg sailing partner, Wayne came out from Winnipeg for the grand launch, and Island Bound's maiden voyage around Saltspring Island. The boat's name came to me as we traveled through the Rockies bound for Saltspring Island. We realized that not only were we bound for an island, but would be bound by an island. Names on small boats on Lake Winnipeg seemed superfuous due its minimum marine traffic, matched only by its lack of rules and regulations, and radios. Busy west coast marine traffic and a strict coast guard make identification of boats a necessity on the inland coastal waters where commercial and pleasure boat traffic is heavy in the summer. There is a yearly migration of American cruisers entering Canadian waters heading for the Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound, and Alaska. The southern Gulf Islands include Saltspring, Galiano, Mayne, Saturna, and Pender Islands. These clear blue waters promise pleasant days amid tree-clad islands and in sheltered anchorages. The only sounds heard may be the splash of a diving loon or the squawk of a heron, and the gentle ripple of water along the beach. The Gulf Islands are a gentle paradise, and the sailing is easy, but we still miss Lake Winnipeg. It's where the prairie meets the 3.5 billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian Shield. Lake Winnipeg is the geographic heart of Manitoba; the jewel in its crown. There were few sailboats roaming Lake Winnipeg in the 60 's and 70's when I sailed her waters. The lake is an immense and relatively uncrowded, diverse waterland. But today, Lake Winnipeg is home to hundreds of pleasure craft. A good number of them lie sleek and sharp in their berths in the historic Icelandic fishing village of Gimli. The solitary main pier that we once tied up to and were considered and oddity, continues to exist. Commercial fish boats still tug at their mooring lines, but the energy now emanates from the pleasure craft warped to dozens of new docks. Their owners sail the warm waters in the summer, and their craft do double duty as week-end cottages. An ocean of water has passed under my keel since those early sailing days on Lake Winnipeg, where we gunkholed in the natural hideaways that dotted the lake's meandering coast. Island Bound II tugs at her mooring, while a cosy wood fire warms her cabin on this dark, damp, west coast winter evening. Nostalgia and a glass of wine turn my thoughts to the good old days of sailing Lake Winnipeg's warm waters under a blistering sun. Images of soaring, graceful pelicans, squaking sea gulls, and glistening white sand beaches issue a siren call to this prairie sailor.
Published in Gam on Yachting - April 2005