Floating through life

What Canadians will do to stay above water

John Aitken July 10 1978

Floating through life

What Canadians will do to stay above water

John Aitken July 10 1978

Floating through life


What Canadians will do to stay above water

John Aitken

You can always tell the men from the boys By the difference in the price of their toys

There is an ancient law, unwritten but immutable, which states that whenever two sailboats are within sight of each other, they are racing. Surreptitiously, perhaps, like bus passengers vying for the same seat, but locked in combat nonetheless. It’s one of the lunatic imperatives which have made of boating in Canada a multimilliondollar madness.

We are talking here of men and women who will spend $10.000 to $50,000 or much, much more for a boat which will carry them at speeds rarely faster than seven or eight miles an hour—a fairly respectable pace for a reasonably fit jogger. These are the most flamboyant of boaters: irascible when racing; obsessed and often condescending toward those who do not sail.

Which is silly, because most sailors can readily identify with a man like Bob Waldon, a 44-year-old Winnipeg publisher and amateur inventor. Waldon built himself a floating patio, a 12-by-16-foot Styrofoam and plywood raft to carry him through central Winnipeg on the shallow, sometimes sluggish Assiniboine River. He has no sail, but neither does he carry an engine. A traditionalist, he uses a barge pole when he disagrees with the current.

“We exchange conversation with people in their backyards as we float by,” Waldon says. “We shout things like Ts Mackenzie King still in office?’ or ‘Would this be August?’ and they come down with drinks in their hands.”

Boating attracts the most delightful of eccentrics. There’s a group called the Small Ship Society in Vancouver which offers plans for converting eight-foot dinghies into miniature square-rigged brigantines, carrying -a full complement of 10 sails. Doug Simpson, also of Vancouver, has designed and built a kayak which, when folded, becomes acusable packsack. Intended for wilderness travellers, it weighs 25 pounds. And there’s a “crazy boat race” held just outside Georgetown, Ontario, after spring breakup of the ice on the Credit River. People lash together in-" per tubes, chunks.,of Styrofqam. plywood and lumber—anything which will float—* and try to navigate over rapids. Most of the craft disintegrate, dumping captain and crew in the icy'waters.

Canadians’ fascination with water jakes many forms, ancj,if there is4‘nothinf^gbsolutelv nothing—half so • fntich worth doirtc as messi mi about,jh boats” there is

also nothing—absolutely nothing—so expensive. “It’s like buying a hole in the water and trying to fill it up with money,” the wags are fond of saying. But there are many ways of floating without forbidding cost. And where investment is required it’s generally worthwhile. It must be, for people are buying more boats every year, despite galloping inflation and the plummeting dollar.

This year an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 boats of all types will be sold in Canada, ranging from canoes to 50-foot gold platers—fancy Fiberglas yachts on which a single winch may cost several thousand dollars. The biggest single item—which will account for 65 per cent of the $200 million spent this year—will as always be the 12to 16-foot runabout, equipped with a 50-horsepower outboard engine. Business peaked in 1974. then slumped for awhile because of inflation, especially the rising costof Fiberglas.“We’ve had two bad but we’re optimistic about this year,” Bruce Harrower, general manager of the Allied Boating Association of Canada, a trade association of boat motor and equipment manufacturers.

C & C Yachts of Oakville, Ont., the largest and most successful Canadian sailboat manufacturer, sells 60 per cent of its boats in the U.S., and has opened plants in Rhode Island and Europe. “But it’s been a tough year,” says chief operating officer Bob Forsey.

People generally pay for a small, opencockpit day sailer out of savings. But a cruising sailboat—the highly successful, Quebec-built Tänzer 22, for example— can sleep four people and therefore doubles as a substitute summer cottage. Such craft are often bought with borrowed funds, like a car, and these are the sales that have been falling off.

The same thing is happening in the powerboat industry. Doug Dawson, of Dawson’s Marina on Lake Simcoe, says “the market is very poor for an under-$ 10,000 package.” But he has sold three used 40footers at more than $ 100,000 apiece, and a new 46-footer for $250,000. In Halifax, Michael FitzGerald of White Knight Marine Sales says “people are price-conscious but they’re not looking for economy. They’re still buying larger engines and more expensive boats. Those who have money are spending it.”

Vancouver, and other parts of British Columbia, have it best: one of the finest cruising grounds in the world, and a 12month season. On any day, at any time of year, there will be people mucking about in boats. Racing sculls—those long, slender torture machines—put out from the

Vancouver Rowing Club and there is a steady drone as powerboats set off for anywhere between Seattle and Honolulu. Near the Bayshore Inn there are barge homes and even offices and further up the inlet are the houseboats which the government of North Vancouver is trying to have

removed because of sewage problems. In English Bay, the windsurfers skitter back and forth off Kitsilano Beach and a sailboat race is underway. There are a dozen yacht clubs, and two years ago Statistics Canada reported 152,000 households in the province had one or more boats of one kind or another, meaning fully one-fifth of the population could take to the water at any time. There are more powerboats than sailboats but this has been changing, and with some of the larger stinkpots consuming gasoline at the rate of four gallons per hour the balance may shift to the puff boats.

There are, as well, several rafting companies which will joyride people down the Fraser and other white-water rivers. Brian Creer, 63-year-old veteran kayaking enthusiast, says there are probably 20,000 canoeists in the province. One of them is Colin Gabelmann, who, to rid himself of office tensions paddles up Indian Arm, northeast of Vancouver, or takes his 18foot Fiberglas Chestnut canoe to Wells Gray Provincial Park in the Interior. “Canoeing is simply very relaxing,” he explains. “You have more freedom and flexibility than with power or sailboats, and it’s better than hiking.”

Manitobans are as boat-happy as any of us and. not content with their own 100,000 lakes and rivers, spill happily over to waterways in Northern Ontario, and even paddle up to the Northwest Territories. “Voyageurs had to come through Winnipeg since all the waterways funnelled into here,” says Harry Stimson, 33, a Winnipeg canoe dealer and enthusiast. “It’s the finest canoeing country in the world. Ontario has the lakes and Manitoba has the white water. It’s a dynamite combination.”

Canoeing is demanding and can be gruelling, but its rewards are great. About 20 Manitoba groups are expected to set aside two months this summer for the 1,255-mile return trip between The Pas and York Factory on Hudson Bay. Some will push on into the N.W.T. “It’s rough, mean country,” says Stimson. “You’ve got to have your act together to paddle up there.”

There are larger craft on Lake Winnipeg but the trend seems to be toward smaller boats for fishing and family picnics. No one is saying that the big motorboat has gone the way of the dinosaur, but it’s “levelling off because it’s getting too expensive,” according to Garth Merkeley, manager of Pier 7 Sports Marine in Winnipeg. “The average family cruising outboard, with a 70-horsepower engine, averages $5,000.”

Stimson observes that it’s unlikely the motorboaters will hobnob with either the sailors or the canoeists. “It’s like snowmobilers and cross-country skiers,” he says. “They find it hard to coexist.”

Sailboats, for some reason, have always dominated Toronto’s harbor and, to some extent, the whole western end of Lake Ontario. There are many powerboats, including several expensive ones based at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, but on a Sunday afternoon there may well be a thousand sailboats cavorting near shore, with many more out on the lake itself. The major problem is getting a local berth and that can take several years.

Sailing was, not many years ago, a rich man’s hobby ranking close to maintaining a mistress in both cost and upkeep. It was also—and still is—one of the most chauvinistic of fraternities. Wife was crew, mate, galley slave or whatever and himself, of course, was skipper or captain. Peter and Leslie Finch are working in Toronto on the hull of their vintage Nova Scotia sloop. Both are using power sanders but Leslie is annoyed. “I’m an equal partner,” she says, “but the stereotype is evident in remarks of passersby.” Such remarks, inevitably addressed to her husband, are along the “you’re-going-to-make-a-sailor-of-heryet” variety. Leslie was sailing before her husband took it up.

It was the discovery of Fiberglas which democratized sailing, making mass production possible in what had been a painstaking and costly crftsmanship. Hulls and topsides could be turned out like cookies, and on top of that they seem to last. This is a post-war development, and there are still diehards (purists? traditionalists?) who stay with elderly wooden boats, some of them—Dragons, Tumlarnes—40 and 50 years old. They’re liable to dry rot, they’re expensive to maintain, but there’s no denying their beauty. The change to plastic boats brought changes in design, some of them unfortunate. Boats became chunky, designed for great cabin comfort rather than a sleek profile that so many of the old wooden boats have.

They also became faster and, with windtunnel tests and computer designs, more efficient. The problem facing yacht designers is “hull speed,” an arbitrary and arithmetically computed speed beyond which a given hull cannot go. It has to do with simple physics, the mass of the hull and its water-line length and the interaction or interference between hull and waves. Modern sailboats such as George Hinterhoeller’s Shark and Johann Tanzer’s 22footer will in certain conditions, rise out of the water and plane, giving them speeds beyond “hullspeed.” These are moments of high excitement. It’s an exhilarat-

ing thing when a ton and a half of sailboat takes off.

In Georgian Bay and on Lake Simcoe powerboats dominate and many great “cruisers” are moored at various marinas. They are badly named, though, because the one thing.they rarely do is cruise: they are floating cottages in the $40,000 and up class and depend on shore-connected electricity to operate air conditioners and freezers. Sometimes they’ll lumber out of harbor, travel a few miles to a shallow spot, drop anchor and captain and crew will swim and sunbathe until it’s time to get back to start the barbecue.

And then there’s windsurfing, or sailsurfing, or board sailing—whatever it’s called it’s probably the hottest thing on the water this summer. For something like $800 you get a surfboard with a sail mounted on a swivel, a centreboard, a grab bar and—skill and coordination assumed—away you go to speeds possibly over 20 mph.

“Its a high-speed, high-skill sport,” says Stan Louden, 35, president of Surf-Sailing Canada, a new Toronto company producing the boards since March. Business is good but Louden doesn’t expect many converts from the sailboat fraternity—

“they don’t like the indignity of falling in the water.”

There are no officially sanctioned boating communities on Lake Ontario yet, but there are growing numbers of people who live on their boats during the summer. John and Coral Kingwell, with their 11year-old son Wayne, and cat. Nelson, have been living on their 28-foot sloop for a little more than a year and hope to do some cruising in the Caribbean. For the moment John, a former credit manager at Sears (“We can’t have a credit manager floating about”) is at sea, qualifying for his Master’s Papers.

“People don’t understand people who live on a boat,” says Coral. “They think you’re a bit strange.” But then there are people who think anyone who owns a boat is strange, and sometimes they're right.

On the East Coast boating isn’t just a pastime, it’s a tradition. There are few

places in the world that can match Nova Scotia either for its locale or for the integrity of its sailing and boat-building tradition. Without the Bluenose, what would Canada put on its dime?

With a resurgence of the fishing industry there is new vigor in the boat-building industry and currently 50 yards are active. But ship designer and builder James D. Rosborough of Armdale, N.S., wonders how long he’ll be able to continue his range of luxurious cruising boats. He contracts the work out to three or four yards, but the men doing the work are in their 60s and once they’ve gone he thinks it will be the end of the tradition of boat-building.

For owners willing to spend anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000, however, a Rosborough-designed, handcrafted yacht is a home as well as globe-girdling ship. His boats come equipped with everything from sophisticated navigation equipment to chandelier and queen-sized bed.

And the beauty of it is that if you can’t afford a Rosborough, why, you can dream of the day you will. You can dream in the cockpit of a smaller craft, or in the stern of a canoe or on a raft in a river. That’s what sailing—any kind of boating, for that matter—is all about. O