Next best to being a millionaire: live like oneon a boat
That's what we do — and a million other Canadian boat owners know why we're hooked. If highways leave you limp, cottages bore you, then here's how to escape into a peaceful little world that moves on whim to where the living's best
Philip Freen as told to Janice Tyrwhitt
ON SUMMER AFTERNOONS, when city dwellers simmer like beans in molasses, I head north out of Toronto to the little port of Lefroy at the southwest tip of Lake Simcoe, where my wife and children are living aboard our thirty-foot motor cruiser Pooka. By the time our winter neighbors in North York are pouring their homecoming gin-and-tonic, we're drifting on water gleaming with late sunlight or picnicking by a sleepy inlet.
On Friday nights we’re back in harbor, moored for the night while the cottagers are still coursing the back roads of Muskoka and Haliburton. Once in a while, if I’m late leaving town on Friday, 1 find myself hurtling up Highway 400 bumper to bumper with the weekend pack and, as a trip that ordinarily takes me an hour stretches to two, I can't help wondering how the four-hour drivers stand it.
Like thousands of other Canadians, we’ve escaped from the highways by taking to the water. No one knows how many boats there are in this country, but a million seems a conservative guess when you consider that Canadian manufacturers sell about thirty thousand a year, mostly powered pleasure craft. In British Columbia, where summer lasts eight months, one family in four owns a boat, and in eastern Ontario there are nearly a quarter as many cruisers as there are cottages. Even in the prairie provinces, yachtsmen hold regattas on the city reservoir in Calgary and on the lake in front of the parliament buildings in Regina. Like camping, skiing and backyard swimming pools, boating flourishes in a society that has cash and leisure and a feeling that the whole family should tag along.
Though boats still make excellent status symbols,
they're no longer a rich man's toy. Nowadays the millionaire yachtsman exists chiefly in the minds of a few backwoods tradesmen who see every passing cruiser as a source of largesse. The heroes who brave Atlantic gales with a pack of kids aboard are even less common. At one time or another most ol us have the crazy idea of building a boat and escaping to the South Seas, but nine out of ten who actually try it seem to get discouraged before they get out ol the St. Lawrence.
Though my wife and 1 have been in Canada since 1949, 1 grew up in Torquay on the Devon coast ol England where every small boy dreams ol sailing beyond the Scilly Isles to lost Atlantis. Like most men, I had a hankering for a sailboat, but a power boat is more practical for a family with three children and a dog that hates getting wet. If the wind falls, or a child is ill, you like to feel you can get to shore in a hurry.
I suppose that Marion and I, thirteen - year - old Louise and her two younger brothers are pretty typical of families who find a cabin cruiser beats a summer cottage by a sea mile. We cruise every weekend from May to October and when school closes we lock up the house and move aboard. While I’m commuting, w'e’re moored in Lefroy Harbor, and when I go on vacation we set out for the Trent River or Georgian Bay. By autumn we're totally relaxed.
It hasn't always been like this. When the children were small we used to take them on motoring vacations. Each morning we’d hit the road full of hope and good humor, and by afternoon we'd be screaming at each other. My memories of all those trips have blurred into a spinning pattern of throughways, dreary main streets and the insides of motels. In a boat you approach towns from their most becoming aspect and, instead of the roadside greasy spoons that usually greet a traveler in Ontario, you find such places as the old inn where they cooked us a wonderful meal with homemade bread and pie the last time we docked at Wiarton on the Bruce Peninsula.
We weren’t attracted by resorts littered with pop bottles and candy wrappers, or the sort of hotel where you dress for dinner, but we did consider cottages. We found that, year by year, vacationers are going farther and paying more for waterfront property, and when you add even a jerry-built shack you're approaching the price of a cruiser. In a cottage you’re rooted to the spot, a sitting duck for rowdy neighbors, water pollution or any other blight that strikes the area. When you’re in a boat, friends and relatives can’t descend on you at weekends. What settled our minds at last was the cottage we borrowed from friends the year before we got the boat. With its kitchen full of appliances and its floors muffled in broadloom, it was a showplace, and we found ourselves working harder to keep it tidy than we do at home.
Of course there are chores on a boat but they seem less arduous. We’ve learned to be neat and when we all pitch in we can houseclean in about an hour. Louise dries dishes, twelve-year-old Russell swabs the outside decks and eight-year-old Paul vacuums. In winter I go up once a month to recharge the battery by plugging it into a power outlet on the dock, and to catch / continued on pape 30
The Freens - Marion, Philip, Paul, Russell, Louise - go where fancy takes them in their 30-foot Pooka. It cost $10,500-but some sink more into a cottage, and must say good-by to travel.
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up with small chores I won’t spare holiday time for.
Last winter, for instance, I had some parts of the head (toilet) rechromed and replaced a shabby piece of paneling. In spring we paint her white, the only color that suits a boat. After you spend the best part of a day sanding and filling in, you can roll on the paint in less than an hour. Varnishing cabin sides takes another two days. At the start of the season, when the bottom is freshly painted with red anti-fouling paint, Pooka goes faster and uses less gasoline. In a summer we burn $250 worth of gas cruising 1,500 miles and pay $180 for insurance. Our $300 mooring fee includes getting her in and out of the water in spring and fall.
Though even boaters who could afford to hire help seem to like doing their own maintenance, and a good many sailors build boats, not many people build power cruisers from a bare hull as I did. Nowadays you can get a good used boat for perhaps seven thousand dollars, but when we started looking in 1957 the secondhand boats we saw were battered and unseaworthy. So I paid thirty-five hundred dollars for a hull — steel, because it’s stronger than wood and less susceptible to rotting as hulls do in fresh water. I chose thirty feet as an ideal length, big enough to house us comfortably and small enough to explore nooks and crannies.
There’s a kind of practical limit on Lake Simcoe where a boat bigger than forty feet is awkward and expensive to run. Even the Pooka uses a gallon of gas in two miles, cruising at seventeen miles an hour. People don’t realize that as the length of a boat goes up her size increases in three dimensions, so a forty-foot boat is enormously bigger than a thirty - footer, and costs perhaps three times as much.
When the hull arrived in I960 I parked it behind my factory in Rexdale where I owned an electronic equipment manufacturing business and spent all my spare time over the next year fitting it out with galley, bunks, a head and other amenities of life. The inside of the boat is about eighteen by ten feet. The forward cabin has two permanent bunks for the boys and the main cabin has a settee that folds into two bunks for Marion and Louise, and a dinette table that folds into a bunk for me. We use sleeping bags and stow our pillows into corduroy covers by day. On board we wear shorts, slacks, sweaters and canvas shoes. Marion hasn’t packed a skirt since our first summer.
The galley has plenty of cupboards, a sink with hot and cold water set in a stainless-steel counter, and a four-anda-half-cubic-foot refrigerator topped by a steel shelf where we keep a two-burner electric stove. Though we have a generator on the engine, we use an alcohol stove when taking long cruises and an hibachi for cooking on shore. The motor is two hundred and eighty horsepower, gasoline because it’s cheaper than a diesel en-
gine and takes up less space in the hull.
Not counting my labor, we’ve spent about $10,500 on Pooka. Many people begin by buying a twenty - five - foot boat for six to ten thousand dollars and trade up every few years. If you get a bigger boat than you can afford to run, you’re in trouble, especially if you buy it on time. There are people paying five hundred dollars a month for a cruiser not much bigger than ours. On the other hand, a well-maintained boat doesn’t lose much value over the years. There are fifty-yearold yachts still sailing the lakes and even a power boat doesn’t depreciate as a car does.
The fact that a cruiser isn’t a car comes home to you when you first slip behind the wheel with six tons of boat under you and twenty feet of deck stretching ahead. A boat has no brakes and unless you keep her going you’re at the mercy of wind and weather. Out on the lake even Paul can drive, but steering into a slip is tricky. Backing out is hard, too, because in a single-screw boat you have no control in reverse. I’ll never forget my first ride in the Pooka. On a dark rainy night in May 1961 we launched her from Keswick and I drove her six miles across the bay to Lefroy. It had taken all day to load her on a tractor trailer in Rexdale and haul her up to Lake Simcoe. I’d given up smoking two years before but I started again that day. When they dumped me in the lake and left me on my own, I didn’t have any charts and I’d never even started the motor. Luckily, a man from a Keswick marina was kind enough to guide me in a runabout and I reached Lefroy before Marion and the kids, who got lost driving the twenty land miles.
How to go - where you want to
Next winter Marion and I took the Canadian Power Squadrons’ piloting course, a basic course in seamanship and navigation, for which we paid about twenty-five dollars to cover the price of textbooks. There are ninety squadrons with sixty - three hundred members, ten times as many as there were a dozen years ago. Though we haven’t taken the advanced courses offered by CPS, we’d advise any boater to take the basic course. When you’re first confronted by all those great rocks and buoys in Georgian Bay, the only thing that gives you heart is knowing you can read your charts. As we go up the canals we tick off each buoy, and keeping a log from year to year gives us some idea what to expect. As well as standard safety equipment such as the device that checks the presence of gas fumes in the bilge, we carry binoculars for sighting buoys, a radio for listening to weather reports, and a general radio services band, which most of us call by the U. S. name, citizen band. A third of the power boaters we know have these transmitter-receivers, which work over a thirty-mile range on water and cost about two hundred dollars.
Teaching boaters to drive properly seems more sensible than trying to license operators, but I have to admit
there are a few simpletons who give the rest of us a bad name. Why is it that a man who won’t hand over the family car till his teenager takes driving lessons, will roar off in a motor launch without knowing port from starboard? We’ve seen people navigating the Trent with a road map, and others so drunk they couldn’t read their charts. Occasionally a boatload of picnickers will leave an island strewn with trash, but I don’t think anyone who plans to enjoy boating for years would throw it anywhere but in a dockside garbage can. Our particular pests are water skiers whose wake rocks dinner off the table when we’re moored at mealtime.
Steering a cruiser is like flying a plane because one second’s inattention can result in an accident. Bad accidents are rare, but you can spoil your holiday by damaging your propellers or shaft. Lake Simcoe is a dangerous lake where storms blow up very fast, and we’ve towed in three capsized sailboats. Most of the time sailors regard our “stinkpots” as a lower order, reserving their rivalry for racing boats of their own class. They give their craft such names as Jetsam III to show they’re old hands, and treat us with much the same good-humored scorn the driver of a seasoned MGTC bestows on the owner of a Pontiac. By their exacting standards I suppose we’re pretty unenterprising. While we take pride in the latest equipment, they pride themselves on how little they can manage with, on escaping the tyranny of machines and challenging wind and waves singlehanded. Certainly it’s easier to drive the Pooka than to sail the nine-foot dinghy we use to go ashore where we can’t dock the big boat. Russell sails her like a master but I dump her nearly every time, feeling like a fool as my watch and wallet and pipe sink slowly to the bottom.
Even on Lake Simcoe, which isn't a hospitable lake for big yachts with their deep keels and soaring sails, we see more sailboats every year. Bored with scorching up and down in outboards, people turn them in on allpurpose dinghies and the unsinkable fibre-glass sailboards that swarm like butterflies on any lake warm enough to make dumping tolerable. The fastest craft under sail are the new multihulled, water-skimming catamarans and trimarans, which make good family boats because they don’t roll and heel in rough weather.
Nowadays the Trent Waterway is crowded with houseboats, big square cabins that give you more living space than a cruiser but arc unwieldy to control in a puff of wind. Renting a houseboat or cruiser is a good way of finding out whether you like living on water. Booth’s Marina in Keswick will rent you a twenty-five-foot cruiser for two hundred and fifty dollars a week at the height of the season, and for an extra twenty-five dollars you can drop the boat at another port and find your car waiting for you.
Our favorite journey takes us out the Severn, which has only two locks but more than its share of other hazards: two bridges across the Narrows between Simcoe and Couchiching, which have to be opened for boats and can trap you on the wrong side if you reach them after the operator
quits for the evening; a railway bridge at Severn Falls where the night trains nearly blow you out of your bunk; and the marine railway at Big Chute, installed as a cheap makeshift fifty years ago and long overdue for replacement by a lock. In this Stone Age device your boat is held on a trolley by giant clamps while it drops fifty-eight feet on a two-hundred-yard railway, a hair-raising experience for the driver who sits helpless in the cabin like a yokel in the Tunnel of
Love. The marine railway is a bottleneck because it takes ten minutes to transfer each boat from one stretch of river to the next, while as many as sixty boats line up behind. An averagesize lock will hold about twelve boats, and on holiday weekends they’re packed in like cars on the MacdonaldCartier Freeway.
It’s an exhilarating moment when you steer out of the green Severn into Georgian Bay, where the wind sweeps across fifty miles of brilliant blue
water and the land is stripped to its skeleton ot grey rock islands and sand gleaming like silver. In the ports, no longer bustling with commercial shipping, the docks loom high above your boat because the water level falls ominously lower year by year. I like to go at dawn when the rest of the family are still asleep and the water is calm. When a storm blows up. the Bay is no place for a green sailor.
On our first trip we followed a more experienced fellow who prompt-
ly went the wrong side of a buoy, sheared off his bottom and had to be towed into Honey Harbor. Most of our mishaps seem to have occurred up there: the time we bent our propeller on a sunken log at Port Severn, the time Russell put a fishhook through his finger on Beausoleil Island, the time he fell overboard off Griffiths Island. He falls in regularly but this was more awkward than usual because he had a cast on the arm he'd broken the day school closed. And we spent our most dismal holiday in a lonely bay south of Manitoulin Island in 1963. We were making for Tobermory when rough weather forced us to put in at McGregor Harbor where we lay marooned for three days of icy cold and steady downpour.
In a boat there’s nothing more miserable than rain, yet oddly enough the children settle down better than they do at home. There’s no room to be mad at each other, and we're more relaxed with no telephone, no television and no timetable. If we don’t eat at six we eat at seven. We go to bed when the kids do and, after a few days aboard, we sleep like logs. I’ve driven in a thunderstorm with the boat bouncing like a cork — and the children fast asleep in the cabin. The one who suffers most in bad weather is our dog Susie, who slides back and forth as the floor rocks.
Some of our city friends think we’re softheaded to buy a boat to get away from crowds and then moor it alongside three or four hundred others in Lefroy Harbor. When we want privacy we head for some remote backwater, but for a family with children it’s often more comfortable to share lunch with friends or tie up together for the night. For our children, Lefroy
serves as a summer colony with a sand beach, a restaurant and the same friends every year. The harbor holds about three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of power boats ranging up to palatial forty-seven-foot yachts, some with bathtubs and one with a Hammond organ. Our neighbors are a photographer and an engineer, and once when Paul was running a temperature of one hundred and four a doctor appeared from a nearby boat, looking very unprofessional in shorts and tee shirt and with his supplies in a tackle box. Some are retired couples who cruise south to spend their winters in Florida. There are at least fifty poodles, and enough musicians to make up a band every Saturday night. Most of the time we all talk about the boats we have and the ones we hope to have some day.
For our own part, we’ve already chosen our next boat. She'll be a forty-four-foot cruiser with three staterooms, two heads and a huge galley. Perhaps I wasn’t quite accurate when I said we were too prosaic to fall for the old dream of sailing off to faraway islands in the sun. We're so hooked on boating that we've decided to live afloat all year round, moored off Miami where I'll get a job and the children will go to school. I’ve sold my business and house and now the Pooka is up for sale. If only she were ten feet bigger we'd take her, but for a year-round home we need more space. By the time you read this, we may be cruising down the intracoastal waterway to Florida, or exploring the Bahamas. The only thing I’m sure of is that we'll be enjoying ourselves, because boating is the only pleasure that’s always as satisfying as you expect. ★