This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue
Whitecaps kicked up by a strong southwesterly wind churned the St. Lawrence River between the New York shore and Grindstone Island. A fierce gust hit, forcing me to goose the throttle of the little single-cylinder diesel that powered Elizabeth, the Bristol 24 my wife, Liz, and I sailed for more than a decade throughout the Northeast.
Our travels had taken us up the Hudson River and through 31 locks on the Erie and Oswego canals, across Lake Ontario to the broad headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, and deep into the Thousand Islands, one of the best cruising grounds in North America. Having sailed before primarily in New England, I had always wanted to cruise the sweet water of the Great Lakes and of the Thousand Islands in particular.
The chance to sail back and forth between Canadian and U.S. waters with no hassle beyond making a telephone call to check in with customs was intriguing, and so we went to experience the Thousand Islands for ourselves. Along both shores we explored quaint towns with good restaurants, full-service marinas and fascinating museums. The islands, islands and more islands studded with inlets and bays were ideal for day or overnight anchoring. The rugged landscape reminded us both of Maine, but without the fog.
With an eye on the chart, I bore off to let more wind fill the mainsail. The boat picked up speed. All around us the scenery of the Thousand Islands revealed the exquisite beauty of the region, appropriately named for its plethora of large and small islands. By some counts, there are more than 1,700 of them in the river and along the shores of eastern Lake Ontario, and many are designated as U.S. or Canadian parks that have moorings or docks for cruising boats.
Once we cleared Grindstone Island, I put us on course for a swift sail to Canada, carefully following the markers to stay off the rocks until we reached Gananoque, called “Gan” by locals on both sides of the river. We took a slip at the municipal marina and rode the shuttle into town to look around. Gan has a quiet feel to it, a laid-back and friendly ambience that’s comfortable and welcoming.
I noticed a lot of stores had home-brew beer kits for sale, and when I stopped to buy a six-pack, the reason why became plain. Alcoholic beverages are much more expensive on the Canadian side. While we were in Clayton, New York, we saw lots of Canadians loading “smuggled” cases of beer and cartons of cigarettes into fast runabouts.
Clayton is a major tourist destination and a wonderful place to visit on a sailboat. Many of its picturesque buildings date back to the late 1800s. One highlight is the Antique Boat Museum, which features a collection of more than 100 classic wooden boats with brightwork that gleams in the sun. Smooth leather upholstery and trim lines make the boats showpieces. The exhibits are interesting, too, depicting all manner of pleasure boats from the past.
Downriver from Clayton is Alexandria Bay, or Alex Bay. Our cruise to Heart Island and the famous Boldt Castle, which has docks for pleasure craft, revealed to us the unfinished palatial estate of millionaire George C. Boldt, who was once the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. In 1900, Boldt began building a 120-room castle for his wife, Louise. But when Louise died in 1904 Boldt stopped construction. He was so devastated he never returned to Heart Island, and the castle fell into disrepair until restoration efforts started in 1977. Boldt Castle, an amazing specimen of the Gilded Age, is now a very popular destination in the Thousand Islands.
After spending some time in Clayton, Alex Bay and Gan, we sailed upriver along the Canadian shore to the city of Kingston, Ontario. A gentle breeze filled our jib and mainsail as we glided among the large and small islands, some of which were mere rocks with some scrubby trees clinging tenaciously to what little soil there was. The warm sunshine took the chill out of the early morning.
“I wonder if we’ll see a loon,” I said to Liz. “Loons live up here, you know.”
She picked up the binoculars and pretended to search. “No loons,” she said, “except you.”
As the morning turned to afternoon, the river widened and Lake Ontario lay ahead. About 15 miles across, the head of the St. Lawrence is like an inland sea within the larger inland sea of Lake Ontario. With no fog and no big tides, I was liking the sweet waters of Canada and New York, liking them a lot. Soon Kingston hove into view. I followed the channel markers into the city-run Flora MacDonald Confederation Basin. The majestic limestone building housing City Hall was an impressive sight. We were now practically on Lake Ontario at the head of the St. Lawrence River. The Rideau Canal, which snakes north to the Ottawa River, flanks the city.
The attractions at Kingston include 20 museums. We most wanted to visit the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes and the icebreaker Alexander Henry. The exhibits were fascinating and provided an enlightening look into the storied past of the region. Fort Henry made for another intriguing foray ashore. We walked the grounds, admired the views, and pictured what it must have been like when red-coated soldiers garrisoned the fort in the mid-19th century, back when Kingston was a strategically important trading town.
We lingered in Kingston, enjoying the cafs and seeing the sights, not wanting to leave. But the weather looked great for a sail east across the north end of Lake Ontario to historic Sackets Harbor, or so I thought at the time. We set sail early, the boat heeling to the gentle breeze. The sun was out, its light sparkling on the lake like so many little stars.
Then the wind gods threw a switch somewhere and a blast from the south put our lee rail under. I spilled air from the mainsail. “Jeez,” I said, trimming the main. Another gust hit and this time the wind kept blowing. It cranked up to over 20 knots and sent me scrambling to tuck in a reef. The seas came up fast off Cape Vincent, building to three feet, then four, then six.
“They say the Great Lakes can be tricky,” I said, raising my voice above the wind.
Liz didn’t answer.
The VHF radio crackled with voices on Channel 16. A sailboat off Duck Island had lost its steering. The skipper sounded like he was about to panic, but it turned out a good samaritan came to his rescue. I tucked in a second reef and fought the tiller to stay on course, searching for the green mark we had to round before scudding in to Sackets Harbor.
And so it went. Lake Ontario showed its teeth, and I felt a newfound respect for Great Lakes sailors and tried not to replay Gordon Lightfoot’s song Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in my head. It didn’t matter that the ship sank in Lake Superior. A Great Lake is a Great Lake, regardless of which one you’re sailing on.
On finally reaching Sackets Harbor, we pulled into a slip, wet and tired and glad to be in a safe place. The wind screeched through the rigging of nearby sailboats and halyards slapped aluminum masts. “Well, at least we don’t have to hose salt off the boat,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” Liz said. “There is that.”
Sailing the sweet water. There’s really nothing like it.