6 Sailing up the Falls

The subject of the river came up about two-thirds of the way across the lake. That could have been eighteen nautical miles. The course divided nicely into three at roughly twenty-seven miles total distance, but we had only one good bearing over our stern and nothing off the beam. We were dead reckoning − guessing our speed and assuming our steering was a straight line in the direction of our compass course, less a few degrees of variation, and a couple for devation. Twenty-seven nautical miles was buoy to buoy miles; you still needed some time to get from the lead buoy and through the harbor gap. Sometimes that’s where the wind died and the current made you work for your lunch.

At about mile eighteen we seemed to be keeping our time despite the waves. The wind had been steady all day in the west, blowing right out of Hamilton so we were reaching and moving as fast as a boat with a twenty-foot waterline could possibly go, except for the wave effect. I knew that was the square-root of 20 times 1.34 and I let several minutes pass working it out again, “roughing-in” to one decimal somewhere between four and five, seeing all the numbers against the blue sky. With more wind than you needed and flat water it came out to about six knots. “Figure in the waves,” my Dad said, “and maybe you’re doing five-and-a-half...” That was the difference between getting to the river mouth at twelve-thirty in the afternoon or one because the three of us − Donald, my Dad and I − had been down to the boat before seven and leaving Toronto, passing the Gibraltar mark before eight.

The current wouldn’t be much to worry about on a day like this. Even though it was a whole river full of water and everything that went over Niagara Falls, by the time it reached the mouth at Lake Ontario it seemed wide and slow. Some people said it sank down to the bottom and circled the lake as it rose up again, sweeping sand off the north side and piling it up on the Toronto Islands. Other people said it just flowed out. In any case on a day with no air you might fight with it as you snuck up on Niagara-on-the-Lake − you’d take a sight on a river mark against a white house among the trees on the American side and watch yourself slide back out into the lake until you coaxed the boat through a tack into a little cat’s paw and climbed back up the current. You could do that all morning if you didn’t have a motor. Our nine-horse Merc was forward on its side on the cabin sole, padded with an old lifejacket. We liked to keep it off the transom because it was ugly. If it was just my Dad and Donald and me, we’d do almost anything to avoid dragging it out and cranking it up, and that sometimes meant getting home at 11 o’clock on a school night.

Today we had as much westerly as we could hang on to. Too much and a little too far forward to bother getting the spinnaker out. So we were braced in the cockpit watching the wake rush off the quarter. I was steering, easing up and over the waves, but keeping the compass rose swinging not too far one side or the other of 185. My Dad crouched down on the leeward coaming every few minutes craned his neck to peer around the headsail for other boats. There wasn’t much to see he said, “...for about a 130 miles. But we’re going to cross the shipping approach to Welland and they can close in on you pretty quick.”

My brother was short enough to stand on the edge of the companionway and brace himself against the waves. His favorite spot, the forward hatch with his head poking out, was too wet that day and even in the companionway he got splashed when I’d force the bow up a little hard and pick up a green wave over the blue canvas deck. We’d both chime “Oops” when it splashed back over the mahogany cockpit.

We started to talk about the river then. “Imagine you’re in a big room with a slippery wood floor and you’re sitting on a big carpet, and people grab the edge of the carpet and start pulling it across the room at one knot.” We had all the time in the world to work our way through the variations and as I steered, I drew the vector triangles in the clear sky. “Now if you crawled from south to north on the carpet at two knots as they were pulling the carpet from east to west at one knot your path over the floor would be at an angle to the walls.


“Cowboys. I’m not going to bail the rest of the trip. Try to slide over those ones. Now the problem is that it’s hard to know how fast the current is − how fast the carpet is being pulled and in what direction. You have to guess at that.” I wanted the hard pencil line on the chart to be true and I was annoyed by the guessing and the assumptions about the variable wind speed and changeable direction and the deviation of the magnetic compass at different angles and the effect of the waves and a badly steered boat. And then old Mister Thompson had told me that he figured sails were more efficient on a really cold day. You had to know the temperature as well.

“Let’s sail all the way up the Falls,” yelled Donald.

“You can’t dummy.” I yelled back.

“If you had a huge, huge wind and you just went zoom and up!”

“Your boat would be smashed up first,” I said.

“I doubt you’d have enough wind to get within even a few miles,” my Dad smiled. “But you could try.”

“Let’s do it!” he yelled, “Right up to Niagara Falls and we’ll get rained on.”

That’s when the decision was made though none of us knew it for sure. When later we had sighted the lead mark and closed in on Niagara-on-the-Lake “in lickety-split time” it seemed to have been assumed that we would sail past the town, then past Gillingham’s dock and continue up the river. Donald and I wouldn’t miss the walk around town − “Doilyville” as my Dad called it. We could get ice cream later; there was lots of time and we had bread, cheese and tomatoes. “We can survive for weeks on bread, cheddar and tomatoes!”

And the wind held despite the gradually narrowing and rising slope of the river valley. Instead of streaming straight down the river forcing us to sail close-hauled and tacking across and back, as we had expected, it seemed to flow over the edge, down the slope, gathering speed despite the trees, and straight across, carrying us on an easy, fast reach straight into the oncoming flow of the current. My vector triangle wasn’t a triangle at all -- just our six-knot forward progress less the increasing but still moderate speed of the river.

Now that we had good bearings off the beam we played with the geometry. We sighted across the top of the hand-bearing compass, timed our run for five minutes and sighted again. Then Dad worked out the angle between the bearings and reported what we already knew − we were sailing at top speed and three miles up the river. Tomato sandwiches, making them, getting the crumbly cheese sliced thinly, the right amount of salt, passing them round and taking turns at the tiller so we could all eat, all of that distracted us for another couple of miles.

The current increased steadily and when lunch was all packed away we began to feel that running-up-the-down-escalator effect. Sighting the top of a winch against a landmark, we could see the laboring gradualness of our progress while the boat, with the wind holding strongly, heeled and flew against the stream, casting a deep bow wave that curved downward along the whole length of the waterline then swept up behind the transom and flattened out into a white streak. Queenston was within sight around a slight bend in the river and I checked my watch wondering whether the wind would hold and whether we would gain it within the hour. Donald had disappeared below and must have been stretched out in his favorite spot in the forepeak against the spinnaker bags, asleep. My Dad was braced against the windward coaming, content to let me steer again, checking our position on the chart board and easing or tightening the mainsheet as the wind pressure varied.

Our speed through the water was undiminished, but gradually slowing over the bottom, we crawled past the dock at Queeston a few minutes after the hour. “How far do you think we’ll get?” my Dad asked.

“Another couple of miles maybe.”

“We’re down to about a knot-and-a-half over the bottom, so that’s going to take ... well, how long?”

I took a minute talking to myself and nodding to carry the remainders, dividing fifteen into twenty and then fifteen into fifty, seeing the answer and turning it back into time. “An hour and twenty-three point three, three, three, three, three, three, three minutes.”

“Close enough.”

“How long do you want to push it?” he aksed.

“Until we stop!”

“Until we stop dead? That may take some time. Unless the wind drops.”

Donald called from the forepeak, “Did we stop yet?”

“Not yet kiddo. Did you get some sleep?”

He appeared in the companionway, a little bleary-eyed. “Where are we? Can we see Niagara Falls?”

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Falls today,” said my Dad.

“Yes we are! We’re going to zoom right up to them and get rained on.”

“We’re trying,” I said. “We’re getting there one tree at a time. Look at the shore.”

Donald slid down to the leeward coaming and explored the American shore. “OK,” he said. “We have to get to the place where the gravel road has a bend.” He pointed and held his arm out-stretched as we crept forward. After a few minutes, he rested his arm on the cabin roof but kept his aim by sighting across his finger tip. The boat was now heeled as far as it would go − he leeward gunwale was under and water washed over the ports. We were carrying all the sail we had, and easing the top of the main to keep everything under control.

“If the wind goes forward on us we’ll have to take in a reef.,” my Dad said. “We don’t need to get into trouble this close to the rocks. Or we can just turn around and slide back down to Doilytown.”

“No!” Donald yelled, still pointing, “We’re going to go until we stop. OK. Now the bent-over tree.” He had shifted his pointer finger forward and was still sighting like a sniper.

My Dad cautioned, “The river narrows about a quarter mile from here. I’m sure the current speeds up and this wind will have to come right down the gorge. It’s going to be tough to make any gain over the bottom.”

“What happens when we stop?” asked Donald.

“We just stop.” I said. “Maybe the wind will drop and we’ll go backwards.”

“Then what?”

“Then it will be just like Old George says when he gets to the weather mark first,” I put on my old George voice, “‘We’ll twist like a startled stag and bolt through the forest.’“

As we talked we had gained on the bent-over tree and with a slight bend in the river the arch of the first bridge appeared over the gorge ahead. “That’s the Niagara Falls Bridge!” my brother yelled.

“No we’re still at least seven miles from the falls,” I said. “And the wind’s going forward.” In fact it had. I cracked off to keep everything full, we seemed to slip several trees, and my Dad, who was the only one of us strong enough to handle the headsail, put the handle on the winch and cranked it up tight. We both glanced up at the spruce mast at the diamond spreaders then at the near-straight line of the forestay.

“What do you think?” my Dad asked.

I knew he meant, Let’s call it a day and get you kids some ice cream. “Feels OK,” I said. “I’d like to see how far up we can get.”

“We’ll need to work a little harder with the wind on the nose.”

“No!” I laughed. “Dad’ll have to work a little harder! Ready to tack?”

“Donald you slide into the companionway, please.” The sheets were too heavily loaded to let Donald do the release. My Dad braced one of his long legs against the leeward side and said “OK give me a slow easy one.” I let the helm down at the ends of my fingers. The boat rounded up easy. Dad threw off the leeward sheet and the sails started to snap and clatter against the rig. I held it just off the nose on the new tack so Dad could get most of the sheet in without the winch handle, but there were a few last cranks with the boat on its ear gaining some way on the new tack. We set the sheet, dumped some air off the main and cleaned up the port sheet ready for another tack. We glanced over the rigging. I turned to look back at the wake. My angle was pretty crisp, but we were loosing trees in the background.

My Dad examined the shore then turned back to advise me. “You might get a little back eddy in close, but you won’t have any air. Probably best to do it early. I think we’re only good for one more anyway.”

“Are we going to get ice cream?” Donald’s sudden new interest threatened and annoyed me.

“Check your landmarks Donny-boy,” I said. ‘One tack! More like three’ I thought. “Ready?” I yelled.

My Dad shifted his stance and said, “Ready.”

Round we went with another snap and clatter and over on the other ear. At this close angle, the boat was laboring and moving as fast through the water as it would ever go. But the surface was flat − we weren’t bashing through four-foot waves so things felt pretty solid. And on the new tack, we started making some ground.

“You know we could do this all afternoon ...” said my Dad.

“I want ice cream -- chocolate ice cream.”

“OK but let’s just see how far up we get before we really stop. OK? Just one more tack.” If I talked enough I’d stretch out the new this tack and get another try. “See we’re past those two tall trees and we’re still moving up. Ready to tack?”

“OK let her go,” said my Dad.

Trees started to slip again. The our speed-made-good vector arrow was pointing down, but we only had to get across and in position for another climb. Dad was looking for the right way to say, “Your brother wants ice cream and even though we’ll go back down the river like a toboggan on ice, we still have to get tied up for the night.”

“Look at that black one I yelled.” To windward, bearing down on us like a freight train was the ugliest patch of angry dark-blue water you’d ever see. “Let’s grab that one. Ready? Here we go.” I put the helm down and turned through smartly, giving my Dad just enough time to struggle the sheet home. We were set up and already rail down when it hit. I flipped the mainsheet off and Dad grabbed it and paid it out just as it ran over us. It was hot and fast. The mast pumped and the main crackled. The boat hesitated for a moment, then Dad hauled the mainsail back in and we started to climb up the river. My arrow ticked upward.

“Donald, look right across the bulkhead and tell us if we’re gaining.” He knew the drill. He crouched a little to sight along the back of the cabin at ninety degrees to our course.

“Gaining, gaining. Two trees, four trees, five trees.”

“We’ll mark this spot on the chart,” said my Dad. “They’ll be mighty impressed in Toronto.”

“Seven trees.”

“When this gust lets up I’m dead,” I said.

“They never last forever.”

“Ten trees.” And the end of the train was in sight only a few yards ahead. It passed in the same moment. The boat eased up and the headsail gave a little flutter. “Eight trees. Three trees. No more trees. Ice cream.”

My Dad smiled at me as he leaned over to begin easing the sheet. “There’s your cue.”