Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our Georgian Bay/North Channel Rules for Navigation

No need to read this post unless you’re a Looper or a Future Looper, as it’s all about the things we’ve learned about navigating these challenging northern waters.


We made friends with dozens of Looper boats as we traveled  the Atlantic coast and through New York and the Trent, and for one reason or another, most of them are now a week or two behind us, at the gateway to the Georgian Bay. Five of them (that we know of) had the unfortunate experience of hitting rocks toward the end of the Trent Severn or on entering Georgian Bay.  Luckily none of them suffered really extensive damage, although all of them were in for more than a couple of boat bucks.


Above, not an actual Looper boat, but conveys our worst nightmares! This, of course, is everyone’s biggest fear in this segment, including us. While we’ve been lucky so far, we don’t feel any assurance that will continue. Sometimes it’s simply “your turn”, and a moment’s inattentiveness or bad luck means you don’t get away with it this time.


Since we’re a little ahead of some others, we are now the so-called  “experts” (not!).  We’ve gotten inquiries from several Looper friends about what channels we’ve taken and  whether we think their boat is ok to make the trip through various segments of the  the Small Boat Channel.  So we thought we’d summarize our “observations” and “rules” we’ve made for ourselves in navigating this terrain, hopefully safely.  Many of them go back to the basic training we received from Captains Chris and Alyse Caldwell of Captain Chris Yacht Services in Florida; others are derived from Waterway Guide’s introductory chapter to the Georgian Bay, or from Dave (of Orillia in Georgian Bay) and Ken (of Killarney in North Channel) who have been so generous with their local knowledge. Some are just things we decided on our own made good sense. Here goes:

1. We’ve not seen any boats bigger than ours on the Small Boat Channel (SBC).  We’re officially 42’ with a 14’3” beam and draft of 3’7”, but our length at the waterline is 39’ and we consider our draft to be 4’ when we’re full of fuel and water. Our overall length counting bow pulpit and swim step is 46’.  We HAVE seen many larger boats in anchorages.  They may have taken the SBC, but we’re guessing they  traveled outside on the Bay, not the SBC, sound their way carefully into anchorages, then travel portions of the SBC in their dinghy, as we’ve seen many larger dinghies in the SBC.  This is not a practical plan for us as our dinghy only has a 4hp motor so we’re somewhat constrained, but many Loopers have more powerful motors and could cover a lot of the SBC by anchoring at half a dozen locations along the way for two nights each, then exploring the SBC on non-travel days.  This could easily be a less stressful way of seeing this spectacular territory.


2. On the advice of locals, we skipped Big Dog Channel, Canoe Channel, Hang Dog Channel and Parting Channel in Georgian Bay, as well as Beaverstone Channel/Collins Inlet into Killarney. We think there’s a chance we could have made it safely through each of them, but the advice was that it would be risky, and we didn’t think it was worth it. The scenery is much the same throughout Georgian Bay, so it’s ok to skip parts.


Whenever we travel narrow, shallow, winding channels:

3. Both of us are on the flybridge and working on either driving or navigating, the whole time. We travel slowly, including at idle speed in very tight quarters. We have twin engines (but no bow or stern thruster) and our boat travels about 4-5 mph at idle.  Sometimes we put one engine in neutral to slow us further. ANYTIME we’re unsure where we are in the channel, where the next mark is, or if we’re where we mean to be, we STOP the boat. Both engines in neutral. And we don’t move again until we figure it out. This rule applies even if one of us thinks he/she knows where we are; we have to both agree! We’ve both been wrong at times, so this rule has been a boat/prop/shaft saver.


4.  We try to focus on the real world in front of us more than the electronic or paper chart. In low water years, like this year, marks get moved, added or removed. While the charts (both paper and electronic) up here are more accurate than they are in areas where there is constant shoaling of sand, they can still be wrong, just enough to get you into trouble.  We keep the handle of a magnifying glass pointed toward where we are on the paper chart all the time, and move it as we move; in tight quarters we do that for each mark we’ve just passed and move it to the next one when we get there.


We find EVERY mark, EVERY time, or don’t move until we do. If either of us is unsure, we consult the other. “Is that mark ahead green or red?”  “Do you think I want this “alternate channel” or that one?”    “Do you agree that’s the red mark I want to go to, or that other one over there?”   Lots of alternate channels, solid red lines, dashed red lines, solid black lines. It gets confusing at times.


5.  The only marks that REALLY matter here are the ones in the water, and because they’re skinny stanchions, they’re often hard to see. The Canadian Hydrographic folks have tried to help us find them by placing larger red triangle or green square marks on steel posts on the rocks nearby, but those are just to help us find the ones in the water. Sometimes they’re the only ones, but usually not.  If we see a mark on a rock, we look for a corresponding mark nearby in the water. If we can’t find it, we slow down and look some more to be sure.

6.  While we haven’t had this problem, we’ve been told to avoid traveling through the skinniest, shallowest, most winding channels, like Hangdog Channel, when it’s very windy. The wind can blow you onto the rocks only a few feet away. In these cases we are advised that it’s best to either go out on the Bay or wait until the wind dies.

7.  Whenever we have the chance, we take marks wide. We don’t turn the boat right adjacent to a mark if the distance between the red and green mark is 100 feet, or 200 feet, or more. In a low water year like this year, the mark can be in water that’s too shallow, or the wind can blow us onto a rock nearby. We only turn close to a mark if the channel is so narrow we have no choice, and there have been more than a couple of those!

8. Before entering the narrowest blind channels, we make a Securite call on the VHF radio. The little boats don’t use their radios much, but they’re the ones that can go outside the marks and be okay. We will not move outside the channel to pass an oncoming or small fishing boat of any kind.


9. When we sound our way into anchorages, they’re often  charted fairly well but don’t have any red or green marks at all. There are definitely some uncharted rocks. Some are marked by locals with white plastic milk jugs on a floating line. Many are not. We post one of us on the bow, travel at idle speed (or less, on one engine) and work our way in slowly, constantly eyeing our depth. And we always wear polarized sunglasses as you can see the rocks so much better through the water that way (as above photo). With polarizing sunglasses, brown-looking water means rocks!


We apologize for the long-windedness of this post. And there are no interesting photos of close calls! We aren’t sure these rules will keep us safe, or you, but it’s what we’ve been doing, and we’ve been told it’s the prudent way to operate. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it! 

We’re in the North Channel now, and the books say we can relax a little bit because the channels are bigger and deeper than in the Georgian Bay. We’ll hope so!

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