By Judy Cook with Bill Jelinek
“Water, rocks and trees or… trees, rocks and water… or sometimes, rocks, water and trees” is the description we heard from a cruiser describing the Canadian North Channel and Georgian Bay. Bill and I discovered much more in a vast panorama populated with fascinating people, charming towns, assorted wildlife and challenging passages. Some of those passages are part of the Small Craft Route which is detailed in Canadian strip charts (2202, 2203, 2204). In The Sweet Water Sea, Marjorie Brazer tells us the present day routes were identified from original passages marked with painted rocks, strategically placed branches or rock columns, verbal knowledge from local watermen and aerial photographs by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, The efforts to create the routes were urged on by members of the Chicago Yacht Club and the Great Lakes Cruising Club in the 1960s. Some of these original marks remain, but have been updated to standard red and green spar buoys and the triangular red and square green beacon day marks to guide the mariner through the islands, rocks and shallows.
After easily transiting the route through Collins Inlet to Beaverstone Bay (the western portion of the routes), and a few days at anchor in the Bad River, we felt Whisper, a Tartan 34-2 with her 4.5’ draft was the perfect boat for the middle passage (recommended for boats with less than 6’ draft and 40’ LOA) through the French River to Byng Inlet, on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay. A few weeks into our nine week vacation on August 12th, we were comfortable with our boat and our sailing skills and ready for a challenge.
1: Whisper at anchor, Bad River Outlet of the French River
From our log: “We weigh anchor after breakfast to do the next leg of the Small Craft Route, hoping to find one more great anchorage along the way. We pass Obstacle Island, then work our way through Parting Channel, where the spar buoys appear to corkscrew through the passage (we read the channel is
appropriately named ‘to separate the men from the boys’). Our 11’ beam seems awfully wide with only a few feet on either side of the rock-enclosed channel.
2 It takes close attention to navigate through Parting Channel.
Roger’s Gut is our next challenge, a short passage but with very thin water. The outside Free Drinks Passage appears to have more water, but is not buoyed. We note the buoys on the chart do not appear in the Navaids list on our GPS. More disconcerting, our chartplotter tracker sometimes shows us on the opposite side of the buoy we are currently passing!
3 A good example of the Small Craft chart
At the last spar gate before Key Harbor, we check the chart for potential anchorages. With wind direction from the north/northwest, we don’t find anything with sufficient protection. The islands are mostly low-lying rocks, with little tree coverage. We follow a channel of the French River but the water is too deep for anchoring (we have 20’ of chain attached to 150’ of rope so we look to anchor in no more than 20’ of water). We try another channel with a small bay behind Island #13 but we can’t hold anchor in 15’ of water over rock. We go further up the channel to Fox Bay, which is not charted, but we have no problems with depth as it is rarely less than 40’ in the center of the channel. We go for miles up the channel which gets more beautiful with each mile, but provides no suitable place to anchor – except for one spot off to starboard, where a sailboat, the first we have seen all day! – is tied off to shore. We try several spots but can’t get the anchor to hold. We conclude the bottom is the same smooth rock we find at the surface.
4 A typical view of some of the30,000 islands of the Georgian Bay
It is now after 3pm and we need a safe spot to anchor for the night. None of the spars are lit, so there is no safe passage here in the dark. The Bustard Islands are about five miles west, and we believe the anchorages there have good holding. We retrace our route through the Small Craft Route (hello Roger!!) and head offshore for the northeast anchorage in the Bustards. We arrive just before dark.
We find calm water, great protection and only one other boat in the anchorage. We set anchor off the west end off Tie Island surrounded by fir trees and, of course, rocks. We note we logged 32 miles today, a bit more than usual. Safe and secure, we settle in for our evening cocktail and another gorgeous Canadian sunset.”