Wind Wars : Sailing the North Channel to Meldrum Bay
by Terry Lynn Johnson

Meldrum Marina's net shed made for a handy meeting area. Photos by Terry Lynn Johnson. "We'll just go where the wind blows us," I had said the night before. I was trying to reassure everyone this would be fun. But we had a plan. A destination. And seven days to do it.

"Dad's looking a little green, Terry," said Rebecca, my 12-year-old stepdaughter. I glanced over my shoulder at Denis while I wrestled with the tiller of our 26' Tanzer. Anything over 3 foot waves and my husband became dead weight. Not the best trait for a sailor and certainly not a great start to our week long expedition.

Victoria, my 10-year-old stepdaughter and our blue-eyed husky/lab cross made up the rest of our intrepid team. We'd been talking about sailing to Cockburn Island, west of Manitoulin Island since we bought our boat, Logs and Frogs. This year we called up the courage, booked the time off work and had just left Little Current. The forecast of strong west winds all week had us nervous.Despite my assurances, it would be man against nature all the way westward.

We tucked into Gore Bay our first night just before vicious 35 knot winds came up to interrupt the trips of all sailors in the area. We watched a 40-foot catamaran get tossed around in the whitecaps like it was a toy boat in a tub. The crew were wearing full foul weather gear and feverish looks in their eyes when they docked. "Pretty big seas." I heard one of them say to sum up their day.

There were at least ten other sailors gathered on the dock to help lasso the Cat. One of the best things about sailing is the easy friendships you can make. Our conversations usually started, "How do you like your Tanzer?" Or, "Our first boat was a Tanzer 26. Man that was a great boat."
That night we visited in the cockpit of the 31' Bristol of our new friends while the kids played cards in the V-berth with their new friends. Gore Bay had lots to offer with hikes to the lookout, walks to the lighthouse and of course, rock hunting.

“Well…we call that Rattlesnake Island,” he said with a little grin.

Little Current bridge is seen in the distance.

When the wind calmed a little we charged ahead, heading west, battling for every mile.The storm jib taut and snapping, the dog sliding on her nails across the slanted seat, the reefed main alternating full then limp as we pinched too tight. Cold waves roared up and soaked us as the wind screamed through the rigging.
After several days, we came exhausted to Vidal Island. The crew was near mutiny. We were wind burnt, sun burnt and stressed along with being a little nauseous.
"Let's go exploring," I suggested. We dinghied to the rocky, south shoreline and hiked for over an hour. The dog zigzagged in frantic glee, nose to the ground and tail waving high. All the walking made me and the girls hot and hungry.

"I'm going to start supper," I said. But Denis was on a mission to scour every last tussock for some hidden treasure, so we left him the dinghy. We shucked our clothes and left them in the Zodiac and tiptoed and squealed our way into the icy, clear aqua water. A short swim and fresh clothes over tingling, clean skin never felt so good.
We discussed our options for the next day. Do we go to Meldrum Bay, or head straight into the winds once again and battle it out for Cockburn? We were so close to our goal. But after days of fighting Mother Nature, we were feeling a little fragile.

Cooking supper, we discovered we had run out of water in the fresh water tank, and the holding tank was full. Meldrum Bay it is.She took a self-portrait.
Docking at Meldrum was a nervous and awkward experience. Sharp rebar jutted out of the wall near the Marina’s gas dock. Wind howled down the bay and bashed our shiny hull dangerously close.Denis leaped to the dock and held it off just as we were about to crunch down on a nasty spike.
More stragglers were blown in out of the choppy seas. “There’s six footers out there,” said the Hunter 35 owners, as they attempted to get a pump out without scratching anything.

The welcoming marina staff and Townies made up for the dilapidated docks. We spoke with a grizzled local and told him of our adventures on Vidal Island. His eyebrows shot up in shock as he took in our two young girls. “Well…we call that Rattlesnake Island,” he said with a little grin. He held out his arm, “Snakes as long as your arm, and just as round. They’re all over that Island.”

The whites of Denis’s eyes flashed and I chuckled at the memory of a past hike along a rocky shoreline when he had shot up straight in the air with a distinctly girly scream when he nearly stepped on a water snake. We looked at each other over the girls’ heads as we recalled traipsing across Vidal Island blissfully unaware of it’s inhabitants.

The Marina’s net shed made for a handy meeting area that night. A gentleman from the boat beside ours walked down the dock towards the shed carrying a mysterious box. We all followed like children from the Pied Piper. To our delight, he pulled out a shiny accordion and told us modestly that he “played a little bit.” For hours we clapped and stomped at our first ever Polka Party. Perky music and singing filled the musty room. Even the mice showed their appreciation, dancing up and down the walls.

Back on our boat, we decided that tomorrow we’d better start heading home. Colburn would have to wait another year. But had we been defeated? In our efforts, it was the stops and the people that made this trip memorable. And if we turn around tomorrow, at least we’d finally have the savage winds to our back.

After the girls went to sleep, Denis and I sat in the cockpit, listening to the stars and watching a beaver swim around the docks. He seemed to be trying to tell us to go with the flow.
The next day, we woke to the news on the marine radio that our adversary, the Evil Wind, still had some tricks up it’s sleeve. It had shifted East.

For five hours we struggled and whipped and bounced our way homeward. No one spoke much in the six foot seas. We were completely bagged. Just to get out of the waves, we tucked in behind the Cape Roberts peninsula and dinghied to dry land. We found a hiking trail system and decided to spend the rest of the day stretching our legs. Anything to stay off the bouncing boat. The girls and I tormented Denis describing the different colours of grey that had spread across his face. Truth was we were all pretty tired of fighting with the wind.

Denis and girls. Photos by Terry Lynn Johnson

At five a.m., we woke to find the winds had finally relented. But a thick bank of fog had rolled in. The dog kept me company as I sailed on a beam reach while everyone else slept below. I kept expecting ghost ships to appear before me out of the mist. For a wondrous, peaceful two hours of surreal sailing, I watched the compass and listened intently for the sounds of other boats. I could not see shore in any direction. A little part of my brain niggled in worry as I hoped I was on the right track.Did I calculate the right compass bearing? Perhaps we’re going faster or slower than I predicted. I looked at my watch. As suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted and I was proud to see we were right on the bouy marking the channel to Clapperton Island.

As we motored into our home berth in Little Current the next day in the pouring rain, we stood on deck in our rain gear and vowed to each other our new sailing motto. We will go where the wind takes us. For real this time. No more man vs. nature. Our future trips will be man with nature. It’s not the destination, but the journey, and all that. Much more fun that way and less nauseating. The wind had taught us surrender.

Terry Lynn Johnson sails the North Channel of Lake Huron with her family in their Tanzer 26'. One day she hopes to circumnavigate Manitoulin Island. Visit her at