Shane St. Clair's Voyage Through America
Note: Shane Started his voyage in a Sea Pearl 21 named aptly enough... "Voyage through America" on May 15, 1986. Six months, over 5000 miles, and many adventures later, he was back where he had started at Marine Concepts in Tarpon Springs Florida. Shane shared his adventures in the Small Boat Journal issue #63 published in November of 1988.
Seething black water folds over the gunwale as I cut a white scar across a wave. No stars, no moon in the midnight sky, just clouds, and waves, and wind, lots of wind. North Carolina's Beaufort Inlet, the next stop, lies 30 miles ahead, the beach is 20 miles to my left, and astern through the dashing spray, I see a glowing pair of red "eyes!"
A slight acceleration and feeling of weightlessness as I drop down another swell, then an elevator ride to the crest. The red eyes are gaining.
I shake my salt-caked hair and smile an idiotic smile. Here I am, barreling down waves wing and wing at 7 knots in a 500 pound sailboat being chased by a "villain" with red eyes 20 miles offshore at 1:30 in the morning. Is this a movie? no, the cramping of my right hand and the Atlantic trickling down my collar lets me know it's very real.
I shine a flashlight on my sodden chart (It's funny that the ocean looks so calm on paper). Am I inside or outside the Naval restricted zone? Whoosh! Another bend of the sea breaks in my lap.
The red eyes are closer. They're square, possibly 20 feet in diameter, and have black shutters across them. "Something like a fly's eyes," I think.
My two-masted open boat pauses before plunging two stories down, then with a splash, shoots skyward. The red eyes have picked up a hypnotic rolling motion.
I'm in the general vicinity of Cape Hatteras in a region known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." With this cheery thought, I again drop violently into the trough.
Finally, my exhaustion-dulled brain puts two and two together: I must be in the Naval restricted zone and the red eyes are a surveillance ship. Logical, but why are they following me? Are they trying to catch me or just watch me? Do they think I am a Russian attack boat? Unlikely, for though I have all the stealth in the world, my fire power is extremely limited. they are probably wondering what a kid in a dory is doing sneaking past their zone in a 40 knot blow! It's funny that I am wondering the same thing. So under the watchful eye of the United States Navy, I sheet the mizzen hard, head into the wind, and collapse below for a nap.
At the false dawn, I awake and the only red eyes around are my own. I munch a cold pop tart and resume my dance with the sea.
Two hours later, I hit a shark with my leeboard, then cut right down a wave to avoid detection. The ploy works, and the last I see of Mr. Shark he is swimming in circles looking for his adversary.
At 9:30 AM, the beach is a 1/4 mile to my left; I scan earnestly ahead for the inlet. At 10:30, I see it. Foolishly, I lay a course straight for the entrance. Fifteen minutes later, a wave larger than the rest rears skyward. As it starts to break, I shove the tiller leeward and aim up its face. Tons of water roll down my side decks and slide me almost out of the boat. I quickly clear the cockpit and furl the mainsail. With the mizzen, I gently sail over the shoal and through the pass backwards, limping into Beaufort.
A week of good food, warm weather, and pretty girls heals my failing courage sufficiently for me to continue, but I resolve to stick to the sounds and bays rather than head offshore.
All this took place just one-quarter of the way along my "Voyage Through America." In early 1986, I was looking at an atlas dreaming of all the places in the world I'd love to sail. The Great Barrier Reef caught my eye as did Norway and Thailand. Then I thought to myself, "You really should see the country you're from before you venture around the world," and I turned to the map of America. I'd already sailed and enjoyed the West Coast, so my eyes scanned the East. "Coral reefs in Florida, pine-topped islands up North. Wouldn't it be neat to see it all?" And a month later I was.
Marine Concepts of Tarpon Springs, Florida, provided me with a Sea Pearl 21, which is a cross between a whale boat and a dory. (see SBJ #26 and 45) With only a 6 inch draft, it was ideal for this cruise up the East Coast, across the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi to my starting point in Florida. I named the boat Voyage through America, appropriately enough.
A few weeks after my surreal encounter with the Navy, I was sailing up New York's Hudson River. I'd been on the Intracoastal Waterway about half the voyage; now I was headed inland. The changes were quick and dramatic. It was only mid-August, but already the nights became colder and the scenery more spectacular - The Palisades, West Point, the first McDonald's with a dock, an island with a castle - all that happened in the first two days on the Hudson.
On my third day, I hung a left at Albany and ascended the first flight of locks into the Erie Canal. Though old and in need of repair, the locks were easy enough to navigate, but I was very glad to have an outboard to propel me quickly through the canal.
Leaving Oswego, New York for the northern shore of Lake Ontario, I began my first open water passage since entering the Hudson. I soon discovered a major advantage to freshwater sailing. Crashing to windward in a 25 knot breeze, I slipped on a pair of sunglasses as the sun began breaking through the clouds. Sailing to windward on the ocean usually encrusted my glasses blindingly with salt in about 30 seconds. Today, however, each splash just made them cleaner. I even thought it had healed my slight nearsightedness when I saw Main Duck Island about an hour ahead of schedule. My unballasted cat-ketch had averaged over 6 knots close hauled on the 30 mile passage!
It was early afternoon as I rounded the eastern point of the island and headed for the 20-foot-wide harbor entrance. Any boat with more than a foot of draft must line the ranges up carefully and proceed with caution. I learned later that I caused quite a stir when I barreled in at 7 knots and kicked the anchor over the side in 11 inches of water. The gracious Canadians quickly recovered, though, and welcomed me to their soil with excellent company, a delicious supper, and a barrage of questions about my trip.
The next 500 miles of Canadian cruising was my favorite leg of the trip. Over half was on the peaceful Trent-Severn Canal traversing the spur of southern Ontario, and then 200 miles among the myriad islands of Georgian Bay.
On the canal, my mornings started with a quick breakfast aboard or ashore; then I'd start the outboard for a day of sight-seeing. Cows grazing on riverside fields, homes built on islands in crystal clear lakes, early morning sunlight dancing on the capillary waves. It is truly the best way to experience the rhythm of a place - slow enough to see it, fast enough to always be seeing something new.
It took me a week to wind through the canal, and on September 4, I sailed out into Georgian Bay. It is said that 30,000 islands dot this 200 mile cruising paradise - an average of 150 islands per mile! Big ones, little ones, some inhabited, most just waiting to be explored. The islands are of glacier scarred granite, many with trees growing out of cracks in the rocks. Some have beautiful grassy meadows and almost all have a natural harbor for a shallow draft craft.
On my first day sailing the Bay, the wind was cold on the nose and after beating about 4 miles from Port Severn, I decided to pull over for a break. Most of the islands are unnamed and as I sailed close to one, a natural breakwater with a shallow cove came into view. I eased the main and threaded the 7 foot wide entrance with inches to spare. One hundred feet from shore, I tossed my anchor astern, gradually applied tension to slow progress, and cleated the line 2 feet before colliding with the island. I quickly ran forward, grabbed the painter, jumped the 2 feet to land, and tied up to a young tree. A glance around showed that "my" island was uninhabited, so I claimed it for the day.
The lush vegetation blocked the wind, making it a very still and peaceful harbor. After setting my sleeping bag out to air, I went ashore for a hike.
I walked over the large boulder beach and then headed through the inland trees. After walking about 700 feet, I turned around. Panic hit me. Though I had walked only a short distance, the dense forest had perfectly hidden any clue as to the way back. Every direction looked the same, and thoughts of wandering aimlessly for days trying to find Voyage flashed through my mind. Carefully, I retraced my supposed route, and just when I was about to give up and try a different direction, I spied my footprint in the mud. My heart relaxed. Another couple of minutes saw me safely back "home."
Silently promising never to go wandering without my compass again, I set about making a fire, drying my belongings, and warming my bones. After it was burning, I sat back and enjoyed my surroundings - the clouds rushing by overhead, the trees sprouting out of the bare rock, my boat gently pulling on its tether, birds whistling on branches, my jeans drying by the crackling fire. As I looked across the channel, I saw 15 other islands beckoning to be explored. "I'm going to like this place," I thought with a smile.
Canada has blasted a 6-foot deep "inland passage" through the bay, and the next few days saw me weaving in and out of the channel past hundreds of islands and a few small towns. Every 50 or so miles there is a major town with a grocery store and a restaurant. Many people own little vacation houses on some of the islands, so good company is usually available. The Canadian government has also put in small docks and rest areas about every 30 miles, making island cruising convenient even for large boats. Usually, I picked harbors a bit off the channel to spend the night and would anchor astern and tie to a tree as I had on the first island I stopped at.
The voyage's most memorable day's run was from San Souci to Parry Sound. A young Canadian lady had joined me for a bit of island hopping up to Killarney, and with the wind dead astern, I knew we were in for an exciting passage.
We left about 9 AM and quickly found the narrow tree lined channel. The wind was puffing at 25 knots, but with so many islands close by, the water was virtually flat. We played tag with the channel, sometimes in it, more often taking "short cuts" through narrow island passages. At times, we sailed so close to shore that our mainsail ruffled the branches. For three hours, we sliced first in front then behind boulders and islands; all the while the channel funneled the wind in the direction we were going, and the bent evergreens pointed the way.
I had been watching the chart, but somehow I missed the biggest surprise of the passage. We were driving hard full sail wing-and-wing, and had just banked around a tight turn, when a bridge with a 15 foot clearance came into sight. Both masts on the Sea Pearl are 20 feet tall, and a vision of permanently reduced sail area caused me to halt our progress with more suddenness than grace. I quickly got her hove to, furled the sails, and dropped the masts. With a good 50 feet to spare, I started the motor and headed into town.
Parry Sound is a comparatively large town with many stores and restaurants, but after spending a day and night enjoying civilization, we headed out for more wilderness.
Canoe Channel is a half mile long passage between the mainland and Squaw Island. The problem is that in places it's only 20 feet wide, limiting access only to boats under 40 feet. Since my "yacht" was really just an overgrown canoe, we shot through without a hitch. As we made the last turn, the wind fell on the beam, the sails were unfurled, and we had a comfortable reach up Shawanaga Inlet.
Amid this unimaginable plenitude of anchorages, I believe the most beautiful was the circular cove on the northwestern tip of Shawanaga Island. The entrance was so shallow that I had to raise the rudder and paddle in, but once inside, the landlocked haven with fall colors mixed with evergreens seemed like nothing less than Heaven on Earth.
It was almost TOO perfect, TOO quiet. A slight breeze was blowing, but the trees were silent. Not even the birds made a sound. Then a large animal charged past in the underbrush. The spell was broken. The water lapped at the rocks, the birds sang in the trees, and even the boat made its familiar noises. Had I disrupted its home (whatever "it" was?) All night I expected a bear to jump aboard, but in the morning, I convinced myself it was probably a beaver trying to frighten me. It worked. I left at dawn.
I ghosted down Middle Channel and through the narrows. As I passed Armstrong Rocks, the wind hit and it didn't stop for three days.
The first day, it was almost favorable, but the offshore leg from Meneilly Island to Byng Inlet at times became a little intense. As I was making the dogleg at Raft Island, a quick jibe and a gust put my unballasted craft on its beam ends. Quickly, I eased the main, but over 5 gallons of the bay came aboard.
The next day's course was dead to windward, so I motored. Literally thousands of islands lay within easy reach. There were some particularly intriguing ones past Rogers Cut that someday I'll explore more thoroughly. But it was late September and the thought of being frozen in the winter ice pressed me on.
My last morning on Georgian Bay, a cold polar wind kept urging me back to the thousands of islands left unexplored. Ignoring its siren's call ( and my outboard's racket), we made it to Killarney at 7:30 that evening.
Beverstone Bay, 20 miles from Killarney, was about a mile away, and I was looking forward to its protected waters after a rough open crossing. The passage is rather tortuous, with several quick turns, exposed rocks, and worse, unexposed rocks. It was windy and cold as I entered the passage, and as I looked ahead, I saw a large powerboat that appeared to be anchored a little off the channel. As I drew closer, I realized it was lying broadside to the wind, and rather than bobbing up and down, it was as stationary as a stone! I approached even closer and noticed several rocks barely awash directly behind and beside it. I realized then that it is a lot more dangerous to miss your turn here than on the freeway. Later, I heard the story of what had happened.
The yacht in question, a 38 foot Hatteras, had approached the entrance just as the sun was setting. Either through a miss sighted or misplaced buoy, the skipper had wandered off the channel. He had turned back toward the channel when he realized his mistake, but moments later had collided with a submerged boulder. The strut collapsed, and the prop cut a neat 18 inch hole in the hull. Within seconds, the boat came to rest on the rock garden.
As I tied up at Killarney that night, it occurred to me that every paradise has its serpent. Georgian Bay's is the many islands that lie below the water's surface. Still, it keeps navigation interesting, and the hidden hazards often form private, protected coves, concealed treasures for shallow draft boats. That's why I found Georgian Bay's 30,000 island paradise the most inspiring section of my voyage through America.
Winter was fast approaching as I left Canada for a quick passage down Lake Michigan, Fall flooding had raised the water level of both the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, which increased the current in places to 10 knots! Fortunately, it was going my way, which helped me get back to the warm South in no time. I used the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway to get to Mobile Bay and, 6 months and 7 days after I began, I slid back up on the only familiar beach on the trip. "5,000 miles is a long way to go just to get back" someone joked from the beach. "It's true," I nodded, "but you should see what's out there!" — Shane St. Clair - 1988
SMALL IS INTENSE
It's amazing how little one actually needs to live on a boat for months at a time. The important thing is to get out there and actually do some camp cruising. You'll soon discover that Henry David Thoreau's advice is still the best for planning and making a successful voyage - "simplify, simplify, simplify."
My standard gear consisted of five changes of clothes (two nice shirts to avoid looking like a bum), one foul weather suit, a Polarguard sleeping bag and foam pad, a hand bearing compass, a one burner stove, one pan, a small anchor (my Bruce worked well), a small light (I used an "ultralight" backpacker's lantern), a couple of buckets, binoculars, lots of books ( I carried everything from the Bible to Kon Tiki), my camera, a toothbrush, and a bottle of Joy (great for shampooing, dishwashing, and hull cleaning).
Food was never a problem. I carried a two week supply of bread, cheese, V8 juice, Poptarts, spaghetti, and donuts. Fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants, and I made lots of friends along the way, so I usually had a full-course dinner three to four times a week. When I ran low on provisions, I just sailed into a town to stock up.
Regarding finances: It cost me just under $2000 for food, fuel, and dockage for the entire 6 month voyage. (Much cheaper than living on land). Nothing broke on the trip! But if it had, repairs are always cheap on simple boats.
In choosing a cruising boat, I'd get the BEST boat you can afford, rather than the biggest. An unsinkable and self-rescuing 16 footer would be a better value than a 30 footer, especially since the 16 footer is easier to transport and can get to many more secluded places.
Many people think it's such a hardship to travel by small boat. It's true. At times it is miserable, but the smaller the boat, the more intense the experience, both good and bad. If the popularity of adventure films and roller coasters is any indication, I'd say people are looking for a little excitement, and small boat voyaging provides it in its purest form.