The day Toronto's Outer Harbour was quiet
Alone on a Sunday morning in Canada's biggest city
It was so quiet I could hear the water gurgling under our hull. Usually I would only hear that on a canoe in placid waters.
Not a single power boat had set out yet -- and we were the only sailboat in Toronto’s Outer Harbour that Sunday morning.
The elements all came together for us on this early morning sail. The human elements that is. Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway was closed for its annual maintenance program. Plus there was a threat of a thunderstorm in the early afternoon. Both seemed to keep people at home.
The breeze blew steady but faint. At one point the few paddle boarders on the water glided along faster than us.
Normally, the Outer Harbour is packed with long-distance swimmers, paddleboards, canoes, kayaks, kite boarders, fisher folk, yachts, cruisers, sea doos, rowing sculls, dragon boats, multi hulls. But not today.
With a gentle wind and so few boats on the water I had time to take it all in. The cormorants diving for food and then surfacing a few feet from our boat. This one surfaced with a writhing fish in its beak. The sun gleaming off the blades of a kayaker as it crossed the harbour to get to the Leslie Street Spit.
The sky was empty with not an airplane to be heard or seen. Silence overhead courtesy of the pandemic, instead of the every ten minute buzz from a Porter Airlines turboprop heading into or leaving the Island Airport.
It’s a big sky out here. No skyscrapers, billboards, or even trees (of which Toronto has lots of -- over 10 million). Just sky and in the distance Mississauga, Oakville, Hamilton and if it's a clear day we can see Niagara-on-the-Lake where the lake curves around to the southeast. Cloud formations stretching off into the distance, or flocks of a thousand plus waterfowl winging overhead. Or, this time, a scattering of Monarch butterflies waiting to find the perfect wind to whisk them south to New York State and ultimately Mexico.
We sail out of the Outer Harbour Centreboard Club, near the eastern end of the Outer Harbour. Our club is one of eight small community clubs plus a marina, sailing school and sailing camp, that were formed starting in the 1970’s to take advantage of a newly created and empty harbour. The Outer Harbour was built starting in the 1950s because the Toronto Port Authority thought--without a lot of study--that the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway would make Toronto a busier port. After all, Toronto was an industrial city back then. But a thriving port didn’t pan out because many shippers started using Containers that were offloaded onto trains in Halifax or Montreal, suddenly leaving Toronto with a massive waterfront park that is still under development today.
Our boat, a 14 foot Flying Junior, was built in the U.K. in 1964. We still have the original mainsail, and imprinted on its bottom corner is the sailmaker’s name -- W G Lucas & Son Ltd, 1964. This family business has been making sails since 1884 in Plymouth, one of the world’s most famous naval ports.
I inherited the boat from my parents after they stopped sailing in it 15 years ago. On what turned out to be their last sail on the FJ, they set out from their home in Hudson, Quebec, crossed the Lake of Two Mountains, and then tipped. Unable to right the boat, for the next few hours they floated in the lake clinging to the FJ until someone rescued them. That ended their love of the little boat, and that’s how I came to inherit it.
Our FJ is not a fast boat, and it’s not a fancy boat, it’s a lets-get-the-hell-out-of-the-city-for-a-couple-hours boat.
It weighs about 400 lbs., heavy for such a small boat. Most things that could have gone wrong with it, have. The centreboard rotted away. In search of a piece of hardwood big enough to replace it, I landed on an ingenious idea: using an extra leaf from our dining room table. Rot also got at the rudder where the brackets attach it to the boat. The fibreglass hull under the mast step started to go soft -- I somehow conjured up long-forgotten fibreglassing skills from my teenage years and pulled off a decent repair job. Just a few weeks ago, a bolt popped out of the automatic bailer in the floor and a 2 inch spout of water suddenly appeared; prompting a hasty return to dry land while I kept one finger pressed down over the hole.
At the Outer Harbour Centreboard Club, no boat is longer than 16 feet. The club has about 150 boats in 16 almost neat rows, a small clubhouse, washrooms and two large BBQs. We dry sail, which means we put the boat into the water before we go sailing, and take it back out when we are finished. Taking it out is the hard part. Hauling 400 lbs. uphill up the ramp becomes even harder if the boat took any water on board (and it usually has) -- and if I haven’t balanced the boat properly on the two-wheeled dolly (which I usually haven’t).
The club is home to several kinds of sailors. We've got the racers, and a few of them are quite good. The racers tend to sail Albacores and Contenders. We've also got the “my boat is a project” group. They usually have older boats, like ours, but these folks want to turn their beaten up vessel into a finely tuned racing machine -- or at least a good-looking boat. Then we've got the occasional sailors, who don't turn up often because, well, they live up to the category of occasional. I can only guess that family or work obligations get in the way -- or that they just don’t have the same deep-seated craving to be on the water that some of us do. Our final bunch of members is made up of people from all three of the other groups: the social group. These folks turn out for the Tuesday night $5 dinners (yes $5 -- including a glass of wine) and always show up for projects that require a crowd -- like putting the docks in when spring finally arrives or taking the docks out in the fall rushes up at us.
The club is also home to several kinds of wildlife. Rabbits have the run of the place and don’t seem too concerned about the two-legged types wearing wide-brimmed hats. An otter who lives in the concrete siding of one of the launch ramps waddles out from time to time. And oh yes, one can’t forget the raccoons. At least I can’t. Probably once a year I have to rescue one who has trapped itself in a garbage can.
In the winter the coyotes visit the club from the Leslie Street Spit, looking for food. We don’t have the $5 dinners during the winter, so I’m assuming the coyotes' idea of supper involves the rabbits who run amok on our grounds. One year when the harbour froze over completely, I saw a coyote picking it’s way across the uneven ice heading home to its lair on the spit. Just this last year I heard a few of them growling in the brush behind the parking lot early one morning. That gave me a start.
Our club is also home to a growing flock of swans. This year about eight cygnets were born and now an even dozen of these imposing waterfowl give us a daily show of grace.
And who can forget the ever present Canada Geese. I’ll say no more on that "productive" group.
But they are merely a living backdrop against the purpose for our being there. Once we set sail out of our little harbour, which protects the sailing and rowing clubs, we’ve really only got one option -- heading west. Our clubs are at the eastern end of Cherry Beach. It’s a busy place, especially since the COVID 19 lockdown. Toronto has three million residents and only 6 beaches. Cherry Beach is bracketed by the windsurfing club to the east and an off-leash dog park with its own tiny beach to the west. In between is about 300 metres of pebbly sand, washroom facilities, a food truck, a lifeguard station (designed by the same people who designed the Prince’s Gate at the CNE) and parking for about 100 cars. Oh, and during this pandemic summer, a number of homeless people living in tents tucked away in the back bushes. This same lick of sand was made infamous in the 1980’s song “Cherry Beach Express” by the Pukka Orchestra. Back in the day it was reported that a few Toronto police officers used the desolated area at night to rough up people under their control.
After you sail past the off-leash park you come to what is called the Eastern Gap. This dredged out channel allows all manner of boat traffic to reach the inner harbour between the Toronto Islands and Queen’s Quay. Every day a parade of freighters, barges, coast guard and policy launches, tall ships, party boats and any number of yachts pass through, looking to access Lake Ontario.
It’s at the Eastern Gap that our westerly tack usually comes to an end. It’s here that we begin to experience the power of Lake Ontario.
Once we ventured out past the lighthouse on the western tip of the Leslie Street Spit. Rolling swells of 3 to 4 feet and a whole lot of choppy water quickly made our little 14 footer feel small and insignificant.
Only once in our 7 years of sailing our sturdy little FJ has the wind changed perfectly in mid sail, meaning we set the sails once heading out and just once more when sailing back. But usually when we head back east toward the club, we cross our fingers hoping for a steady wind to carry us past the pungent odor of the cormorant breeding grounds on the spit, past a few small beaches with kayaks and canoes pulled up, past the view of the city rising up behind the green of the Toronto Islands that makes the city seem so far away. Then a last look at the expanse of water and sky before negotiating our return to the dock, dry land and the city.