by Ida Little
By 1974 we had enjoyed sailing, backpacking and canoeing in our efforts to get away from it all. They all worked, but each had distinct disadvantages. On our 40-foot ketch only the riskiest of anchorages allowed us the privacy and solitude we sought. The safest harbors were populated by curious natives or shared with other boats and ships. What we needed to find was a way out that combined the advantages ot camping and the mobility of sail, but excluded the disadvantages of each.
We found a way. And for three years of canoe sailing and camping in Canada and in the Bahamas we’ve been perfecting a life style that offers sailing, swimming, fishing, shelling, contact with wildlife, and most importantly, solitude and privacy. But if you are interested in this way of life, first you must develop the necessary skills and then decide where the best places are to cruise-camp.
Because this kind of cruising demands back-packing, camping, and canoeing skills as well as sailing, you must practice these. Canoes are available for rent near most inland watery places. You must do some beach camping, al least until you learn to keep the sand out of your food and bed. We found the summertime shores of Cape Hatteras, Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands good places. In the winter, the Florida Keys and the Baja California peninsula are well suited.
By way of special equipment you will need a back-pack, a tent, and a small stove. You’ll usually cook on a wood fire and stainless-steel grill, but a small stove is necessary for those woodless places and rainy times. Although any tent is better than none, our demand for comfort and lightness has led us to use a four-man insect-proof tent that weighs only five pounds and packs into a 6"x12" roll. Thus it travels well between Canada and the Bahamas. Without proof against the insects, prepare to suffer. We started with a two-man tent, but the play-room in our new tent better suits those rainy days in Canada when we spend more time indoors. It’s made by our friends the Stephenson family of Gilford, New Hampshire.
Once you’ve discovered that you enjoy beach-camping and canoeing, as well as sailing, then you’re ready to combine them in a way that dismisses the hardships of each — no burdensome yacht investment and maintenance; no shoulder-aching paddling (though you’d better know how); and no back-straining hiking. The sea supports the load. And the wind moves it it along. But it does take skill to choose and use a sailing canoe.
The most common, and cheapest, canoes available are made of aluminum. We tried these during our rental stage. We found them cold to our flesh, and noisy on the water — not what we’d want for sneaking up on a moose in Canada. Aluminum is too fragile for rock and coral, and difficult to repair in the field. Then we tried fiberglass canoes. These are warmer and quieter, but still fragile to puncture and sand abrasion. Wood canoes are good but wood needs more maintenance than we are willing to give it. So we called on an expert — Mr. Deane Gray of Old Town, Maine. He had just produced a 17-foot Chipewyan model made of ABS plastic. He made a full deck cover for it and rigged it with a 55-square foot lateen sail, and leeboards. We named her Manatee. As a plus, this model has the highest bow (25 inches) and the most center freeboard (15 inches) of any commercially available canoe.
Manatee has proved herself in the tropical waters of the Bahamas, and Weasel, the same model, has proved herself in the lakes and rivers of Canada. She needs no maintenance. She won’t sink even if we could break her into little pieces. With a crane we’ve picked her up by the ends, fully loaded with 1000 pounds of gear. She has spent one night banging on sharp coral reefs, fully loaded. Yet she showed only minor dents and scratches when the tide left her drying on two sharp coral spikes. And, if she is ever holed, the ABS plastic is easily repaired with an inexpensive field kit.
Once we had decided on the sailing canoe and had accumulated the necessary stores and gear, we set out for the Bahamas where we figured we could find plenty of privacy among the 500 or so mostly dry, barren and deserted islands.
One late afternoon neither of us knew just where along the westward Exuma coast we were. The Bahama Guide, worn and wrinkled from daily handling, lay exhausted-looking beside the bleach bottle bailer. I suggested that it didn’t really matter as long as Great Exuma appeared to port. And that was true except that we needed to find the small channel between Great and Little Exuma to make the easiest route into Georgetown. But we were getting tired. And Manatee, though drawing only a foot or so with the boards down, was beginning to touch bottom. So we headed away from Exuma toward a string of islands on which we might be ab!e to make camp. They turned out to be low, scrubby little things with mangrove skirting the lee shores. It was getting into cocktail hour so we decided to make do.
We tied Manatee to a couple of mangrove roots while we unloaded the evening’s necessities. Michael unsnapped the cover, and I lifted out the five-gallon plastic jugs of water. It took us about a half hour to unload the pack, duffel bags of food, rum, Nalgene plastic containers with radio and matches, and the hammock, which we strung between two stunted gumbo-limbo trees. We found one flat area that had enough breeze to discourage the awful cloud of swamp insects. I gathered some wood while Michael scraped out a small fire pit in the sand. When we had a fire going we rinsed off with some of our fresh water so’s not to salty up our bed linen. We were of necessity very stingy with the fresh water but we could console ourselves with visions of deep, cool, freshwater Canadian lakes.
As the sun set over the Banks to our backs we watched the bright red lighting effect on the faraway western shore of Great Exuma. We hadn’t seen a boat all day cruising in the shallow areas as we were. We were cozily alone and peaceful. The 151-proof rum was warming and relaxing and we felt lucky to have found such a beautiful way-out spot. So after eating our toasted crawfish fritters, prepared in quantity the day before, we put up the tent, crawled in and passed out without our customary reading. Cruising 10 hours in an open boat under a tropical sun is very exhausting. Now we rarely sail longer than three or lour hours at a stretch.
This night we didn’t sleep long. Michael woke me with a jab. “Hey, Ida, you’d better gel up!” For a minute I thought I was back on our ketch and we were dragging anchor. Michael’s voice had that same edge. It was almost as bad. During this particular night it just happened that the tide was climbing to its once-a-year highest. Our tent was afloat but leaking fast. We slashed out, gathered all the soggy things together, climbed up into the mangroves and waited for the tide to recede.
In Canada, where we cruise during the summers for a change of scene and climate, we enjoy more often the remote isolation we found on the western banks of Great Exuma. Along the wilderness lakes linked into long chains by connecting rivers we cruise between high granite cliffs topped with stands of white birch and pine growing out of spongy green moss. For us it’s like living in the mirage we see on hot, dry days in the Bahamas when the few coconut palms are yellowed and dying and we haven't bathed in fresh water for weeks.
Last summer our train left us at Wapicam Lake at 1:00 AM. There was no place to camp so we moved on. At 5:30 AM we still knew exactly where we were. The large-scale topographical map was becoming visible in the dawning light. The rapids we could hear ahead of us were the first of many we’d have to get through before reaching Big Sunray Lake. We wouldn’t expect to see any human evidence for the several weeks we’d be out. In the Bahamas we can cruise for months on end, always within an easy day’s sail of some small settlement. In northwest Ontario we have to get to a road or back to the train tracks before we can buy stores or share human company.
Michael set out the trolling line as we sailed into Little Sunray Lake. I steered for the shoreline where the pickerel hang out. I was surrounded by enchanting beauty which made angling as entertaining as diving, but much easier. Michael felt a bite and in his we’re-dragging-anchor tone of voice told me I’d better slow down. I luffed up until the fish was hooked good, then steered for a small rock island in the middle of the lake.
The islands are the trickiest part about navigating in the Canadian lakes. Unless you know exactly where you are, the points of land and the islands look alike and very soon you are lost. The shoreline is very intricate with deep bays and peninsulas. Here we never dare lose touch with the chart as we do so often in the Bahamas, where it’s enough to know about where you are. This demand adds to the fun since there’s no anxiety involved in sailing right up to the shore of some bay to see if you are where you think you are. We’ve landed in a lot of bays.
We cooked our pike lunch over a wood fire on the rock island, and ate while a little rain squall passed over. On a neighboring island we watched a cow moose with her calf feeding on the shallow water reeds. Then the black flies came out and we had to move on even though the weather looked unsettled. Except for cutting across bays, we stay along the shore in case anything comes up. We have been (literally) caught with our pants down. On a hot day, crossing a large bay a sudden hail storm lashed us with golfball-sized ice. It’s the instantaneously changing Ontario weather that causes us to prefer the lateen rig as opposed to the Class C sail. The lateen can be dropped in a flash whereas the mast sail is slow to lower. In the Bahamas, in the steady trades and slow-moving vast weather, a less handy rig would work. But the lateen rig is what we’re used to—and it’s no slower.
When we walked out of the woods we put into 20-mile Long Lake. The wind was swinging around and once again we would be tacking into an increasing wind. As the bow cut through the choppy waves, water lifted up the fore topsides with enough force to squeeze between the cover and the gunwale. As we got sloshier and sloshier in the water a particularly evil bow wave unsnapped the cover. With that we headed for shore. Our solution was to put on a spray deflector as we’d done in the Bahamas. This is made of an eight-foot length of two-inch diameter PVC pipe cut in half lengthwise. The resulting eight-foot C sections are screwed and glued to the topsides just below the cover snaps, along the forward half of the hull. This spray deflector also holds down the edge of the cover and keeps hard winds from unsnapping it. Using a continuous cover fastening rather than intermittent snaps would also work. But the deflector helps to keep us dry, too.
When we made camp on a rocky island that night, we were relieved that in the rough sailing we hadn’t suffered any losses. The most despairing times have been in the Bahamas. Starting out on a long crossing from Eleuthera to Ship Channel Gay, a passage of 30 miles, before we’d sailed 200 yards we heard a scary snap! and looking around saw our windward leeboard floating astern. I quickly retrieved it and we made our way back to land paddling and sailing. Mostly paddling. The cast aluminum angle iron which supports the three-loot dagger leeboard wasn’t strong enough to hold up against modest 10-knot winds and two-foot seas. It fatigued and fractured. Old Town came up with steel angle-iron brackets. We designed shorter, triangular boards which cause less strain on the bracket, and installed hull brackets that hold the boards against the topsides, thus bracing the leeboards against the hull. Now we've gotten through 20-knot winds and six-foot seas without damage. A little tension, but no damage.