“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.” Gilligan’s Island
“I’ve sailed my whole life,” said Michelle Boyce.
A native of London, Ontario, where she grew up, where her father worked for the Board of Education, Michelle raised her own children in Aylmer, a half hour down from London and less than a half hour from the north shore of Lake Erie. There is plenty of sailing from Port Dover to Long Point to the Port Stanley Sailing Squadron. It is Ontario’s south shore.
It isn’t Margaritaville, but it’s laid back. In Port Stanley, on the shoreline, making yourself at home with lemonade or a cold beer on GT’s Beach patio, making time is watching the town’s drawbridge go up and down. Lift bridges can get stuck up, but that’s the only thing stuck up in town.
“At one time we owned five sailboats,” she said.
“The kids and I used to sail across the lake to Cedar Point every summer. My daughter and I are roller coaster fanatics. We would spend a week in the harbor at Cedar Point and then sail back home.”
During the day cannons can be heard when pirates attack riverboats at the amusement park.
Although she still calls her neck of the woods home, where she spends half the year, the other half of the year she now spends on Prince Edward Island. The country’s smallest province, PEI is almost a thousand miles east of Canada’s seed corn hinterland.
“Sailing to PEI, it got really bad before it got really good.”
It started when Michelle, her kids, and her partner, Monika Chesnut, went to Prince Edward Island in 2008. They went for a wedding. They liked what they saw.
“We fell in love with the island. We felt at home there, so on the way home we tossed around ideas about how we could spend more time on PEI. We’re an entrepreneurial family. We dreamt up the sailing business.”
The sailing business is Atlantic Sailing PEI, weighing anchor out of North Rustico on the north-central coast of the island. The three-hour cruises start at the dock, boarding the only sailboat in the harbor, turning out to sea, looking for dolphins and whales. The sunset sails are on the romantic side.
It’s OK to bring a bottle of champagne and get cloud nine.
Two years after first setting foot on PEI, Michelle and her daughter Jessica took the first step toward turning their dream into reality. “We knew nothing about the marine industry on PEI, but we went ahead,” said Michelle. The person with a vision is often more single-minded and hale than somebody with all the facts.
The facts can be helpful, though, sooner or later.
“We went on a sailing trip, from Lake Erie, across Lake Ontario, and up to Montreal. We spent a couple of weeks there and went up the river to Ottawa. Near there we stopped at a marina and found a 38-foot boat we fell in love with.”
The name of the boat was Folie. It was going to be the boat Atlantic Sailing PEI would sail the starry-eyed to idyllic sunsets on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It wasn’t meant to be, however, maybe because folie is a French word meaning, more-or-less, delusional.
“It can also mean crazy mad person,” said Michelle. “The gentleman we bought it from was 90-years-old. He had sailed it to the Caribbean and back. He had pictures. I don’t know how he did it without dying.”
Folie is a 1960s-era strong as an ox medium-sized cruising yacht capable of offshore passage. It is a serious no-nonsense boat. The first fiberglass sailboat, the Chinook 34, was built in 1956. “Who built the Folie had no idea how thick they had to make the fiberglass,” said Michelle. “They decided they had to make it as thick as wood. The thing was built like a tank.” Since indestructible is what they ended up needing, indestructible ended up standing them in good stead.
Michelle Boyce knows her ragtops, from stem to stern. She knows what makes them go, and she knows the free enterprise end of them, too. “When Detroit was going down, I used to buy sailboats there, sell them, and sail them all over the Great Lakes to the people who bought them.”
The first thing she did to the Folie was replace its engine. “Everything on that boat was end of life.” The engine was a Universal Atomic 4, last manufactured in the early 1980s. The Atomic 4 used to be the Utility Four, used extensively during WW2 to power lifeboats.
“I found a brand new one in a barn in northern Ontario, still in its shipping crate from the factory,” said Michelle.
After the new motor was installed, she and her daughter set off for Prince Edward Island. They planned on the trip taking two weeks, sailing to and around the Gaspe Peninsula, down the New Brunswick coast, and landing on PEI at Northport. They began accepting on-line reservations for summer cruises.
They got to Northport seven weeks later.
Halfway down the channel out of their first harbor their new Atomic 4 started to overheat. “She was red-lining on the temperature gauge. There was nothing we could do. I couldn’t stop in the middle of the channel.” They raced the boat out to the St. Lawrence Seaway, shut off the engine, and threw out the anchor.
“We spent the next five days in the middle of the seaway fixing the boat.”
The engine was undamaged, but the hoses carrying the coolant to the engine had melted. “The gentleman I bought the boat from had used crappy transparent hosing that you use for fish tanks. Fortunately, I’m anal about repairs, and I had another boat on the boat.”
One rule of thumb on the high seas is, whatever it is, if you can’t repair it, it probably shouldn’t be on board in the first place. The other rule is always have spare parts.
No sooner, however, did they make it through the Iroquois Canal lock, when the boat floundered again. This time the impeller melted. “The old gentleman was also anal, and he had left spare parts scattered all around the boat, so every time we broke down, it was a scavenger hunt. We knew he had one on board, but where?”
They found it, because they had to. In the event, ‘Regulations Governing Minimum Equipment & Accomodations Standards’ state that the owner, or owner’s representative, the captain, “must ensure that all equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew know where it is kept and how it is to be used.”
After replacing the water pump, they sailed down the seaway, staying on the cruising side of the buoys, cruising the wide river. They kept the engine quiet, not dousing their sails, keeping them set to the way they were going.
It was a windy day, the waves like rippled potato chips, leaving the last lock outside of Montreal, when their steering went. “The boat would only turn right. It wouldn’t turn left. We were heading for a sandbar. One of the locals in his boat beside me was screaming, ‘Turn, turn, turn, you’re going to hit ground.’ We hit ground and came to a stop.”
“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground,” observes Dan Bamford, a veteran sailor. “One never left port and the other one was an atrocious liar.”
“A cable fastener broke,” said Michelle, “which was a minor happening of all the happenings. We plugged a hand tiller on, but we were still stuck on the sandbar.”
She took a low-tech approach to the problem. Michelle had lowered the sails, but now got them back up, and when the wind blew into them it threw the boat over. “The wind in the sails took the boat off the shallow water,” she said.
“The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself,” John Rousmaniere, one time editor at Yachting magazine, has pointed out.
They pulled into a marina, filled their tank, and got started, except they couldn’t get going. “They filled our tank with dirty gas. I got it running off a jerry can, running a hose directly from the carburetor to the can, bypassing the tank on the boat. But then, we weren’t twenty minutes out of the harbor when we picked up a rope on our prop.”
She was done with problems for the day. “The wind was going in the right direction, so I just threw up the sails and we sailed from Montreal to Quebec City.”
They ended up floating in one spot off Quebec City for five days. “The wind died and we had no propulsion,” she said. “Our cooler went warm and we were eating dry reserves. We didn’t have any idea the tides were going to be 24 feet. There was either a 10-knot current going this way or a 10-knot current going that way. The current was so crazy there was no rowing our dinghy to shore. We couldn’t dive under the boat to get the rope off our prop, either, too much current.”
When the wind finally picked up slightly they slowly hove into a marina on sail power.
“My daughter chickened out, and so even though my holding my breath under water days are long past, I dove in and got the rope off the prop.”
At the next marina they followed a friendly local in. He had a sailboat similar to theirs. He waved to them. “We’re fine following you,” she shouted across to him. “You’ll be safe,” he shouted back.
He got stuck.
Then they got stuck.
“Fortunately we were stuck in mud and stayed afloat,” said Michelle. “He ended up on dry land. “
The next day, having gotten unstuck, back on the St. Lawrence, they fought a following sea all day. “The waves behind you throw your boat this way and that. It’s hard to steer. At the end of the day I was exhausted.”
It might be why she misread her charts.
“I thought I was in 25 feet of water at low tide. Actually, I was in 25 feet of water at high tide. The water all disappeared in the middle of the night. My daughter and I were sound asleep when, all of a sudden, BANG! We were sideways.”
Waking up with a start, she saw their cats, Cali and Pablo, jump from the bed to the wall, which was now the floor. “They were totally confused.”
Keeping her wits about her, she remembered a story the man they bought the boat from had told them, about the same thing happening to him in the Caribbean. “He just went to sleep when it happened, the water came back, and it was fine. So, that’s what we did. We made a bed on the wall and went to sleep.”
In the morning the tide came in and the Folie floated up and away. “It is a tough, tough boat,” said Michelle. ”It was fine. We had pretty much worked out the bugs by then.”
At least, she thought so. “A tale of a fateful trip, aboard this tiny ship, the mate was a mighty sailin’ lad, the skipper brave and sure.” Assumptions, on the other hand, are like termites.
They picked up Monika, her partner, at Riviere-du-Loup, a city near where boats turn towards Atlantic Canada. One of the best places for whale watching in the world is at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park offshore from Riviere-du-Loup. Beyond the small town are scattered even smaller towns hugging the coastline, and lots of forest.
“Every so often you’ll see a town and a church steeple. There were almost no other boats around, just the three of us on the Folie, when a superfast black Zodiac came on our horizon. He circled me until he got behind me, and started coming up my wash.”
There were no markings on the Zodiac. There were four men, clad in black, on the boat. Michelle got on her radio.
“Vessel approaching, please identify yourself.”
There was no response.
She tried again. There was no response. She tried the Coast Guard. “I have a vessel of unknown origin approaching me, unknown intent, mayday, mayday.” There was no response. She grabbed her flare gun.
“He was coming up my tail. Pirates are a real thing,” she said. “Since we’re a floater, our decks were lined with water and gasoline cans. I had a pirate plan, which was open a gas can, throw it at them, and shoot the flare gun, lighting them on fire.”
It was when they came within range, the flare gun cocked, that the blue lights on the boat blinked on. It was the police.
“Slow down,” one of the policemen shouted.
“Whatever,” Michelle muttered.
“Where are you going?”
“Prince Edward Island.”
“Where are you putting into next?”
“There,” she said.
“Where’s the man on board?”
“Pardon me?” The man on board was news to her.
“You guys are by yourselves?”
Michelle. Monika, and Jessica looked from one end of the boat to the other. “The cops finally left us alone.” The Zodiac sped away and the Folie got back on track. Time was their enemy.
“The whole time we had all these bookings in North Rustico. We were booked solid. Every single day I wasn’t on the island I was hitting the refund button.”
They hadn’t got much farther when their alternator blew, stuff started to seize, belts got red hot, and smoke filled the boat, which ended up sideways to the waves. “We instantly got into our deal with it mode.” Jessica ran the jib up, Michelle stabilized the boat, the smoke cleared, and they found a spare alternator, although they were starting to run out of the other boat on the boat.
By the time the Folie flooded a few days later she was already starting to wonder what the difference is between an ordeal and an adventure.
They had dropped Monika off near Dalhousie, New Brunswick, so she could pick up her car and rendezvous later on PEI, when they noticed with a jolt that the boat was half full of water.
“It still wasn’t over!” said Michelle. “One of the grease fittings, a cap at the prop shaft, had popped, and water was shooting into the boat. The bilge pump was pumping like crazy, but it couldn’t keep up.”
It was sink or swim.
She grabbed a length of rubber hose, some clamps, and a broom handle. She stuffed the handle into the rubber and stuffed the works into the hole. “I clamped it tight so water would stop coming into the boat.” They pumped the seawater out, but by then it had gotten into the engine oil. “It turned it into chocolate mllk. It was like a chocolate milkshake.” They sailed to open water, threw the anchor out, and the next day replaced the oil.
They could see the oxidized red of Prince Edward Island in the far distance.
Taking it easy in a bay one morning, having coffee, they watched baby belugas approach the boat. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their high-pitched twitter. Big whales were blowing in deeper water. A herd of seals slipped in close to the sailboat.
“The cats were running around the boat,” said Michelle. “The seals were lined up beside the boat, their noses stuck up, and the cats were on top of the boat with their noses stuck down, trying to figure each other out. It was like first contact.”
When they once and for all pulled into Northport on the west end of Prince Edward Island, they were beyond a shadow of a doubt on the island.
“I’m not a quitter,” said Michelle.
That is when they found out the harbors they were going to sail in and out of were too shallow for the Folie’s keel. They also found out there wasn’t a crane-lift big enough to lift their sailboat out of the water. It couldn’t stay where it was. Boats on PEI get winterized in the fall and summerized in the spring. Setting and forgetting your pride and joy from January to April in the water is leaving your boat on the frozen hot seat.
The first thing Michelle did was to channel the Professor, one of those marooned on Gilligan’s Island. A science teacher, he could build anything, hammocks and houses, so the castaways could live comfortably. He rigged up washing machines, supplied water, and generated electric power, using nothing but indigenous coconuts and bamboo, although he was never able to repair the Minnow.
“The hole on that boat defies all of my advanced knowledge,” said the Professor.
Michelle built her own 10-ton hydraulic trailer with which to back up, get under the Folie, pick it up, and carry it away.
“There must have been thirty guys standing around there watching being brutal.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“That’s not going to work.”
“You’re going to kill yourself.”
“Are you sure that’s going to work?” asked Monika, who had joined them, getting butterflies.
When she had the boat on the trailer and the trailer hooked up to her pick-up, and was driving the boat away, to be stored away safe and sound and out of sight in Summerside for the unforeseeable future, none of the bystanders were there anymore.
“They scattered like flies,” she said. “Not one of them was there for I told you so.”
The second thing she did was drive home to Ontario, pick up her 29-foot sailboat, the Calypso, and haul it back to land’s end, across the Confederation Bridge, and to North Rustico. To this day the Calypso is Atlantic Sail PEI’s bread and butter, three cruises a day, private charters, and special events.
“Awesome experience,” said Donna Burgoyne.
“Monika and Michelle were fabulous hosts, very knowledgeable,” said Andre Pelletier.
“Elle nous fait decouvrir la faune marine et les magnifiques paysages de PEI,” said Sabrina Bottega. “Avec Michelle, c’est super capitaine.”
“The Folie drained us, in more ways than one,” said Michelle. “It almost bankrupted us. We had to refund tens of thousands of dollars, although we ended up doing some tours at the end of the season.”
Before landing at Northport, they spent the day anchored off West Point. “It’s where all the windmills are,” said Michelle. It’s where ship yards built sailboats long ago. It’s where sightings of a sea serpent still happen. It is where buried treasure is reportedly buried, still a secret.
Michelle made herself at home on her back in the sun on the deck while Jessica lolled at the stern.
“There is nothing like lying flat on your back on the deck, alone except for the helmsman aft at the wheel, silence except for the lapping of the sea against the side of the ship,” Errol Flynn once said.
The three-bladed wind turbines on West Point go around and around. There are 55 of them, rock steady as long as the epoxy sails stay full, at the West Cape Wind Farm. Tilting at windmills is quixotic, like running in circles. But if you can stay the course, and square the circle, making your energy making it a go, you might end up where you wanted to be all along.
When Michelle Boyce stepped off the plank she landed on the sure-footed red sandstone of Prince Edward Island.
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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.