Trip to Main Duck Island, 2007

Summary: Sailing from Port Credit to Main Duck Island in Lake Ontario aboard "Al Hoceima", our 41' French-built Petit Prince steel ketch.  Interesting conditions were encountered that made use of the jacklines, had us heave-to for a few hours, and got us to the destination fairly quickly.

You may want to check out our Selected Books section under the Cruising - Handling Heavy Weather category for books covering some of the "interesting" wind/waves conditions mentioned in the article below.


Thousand Islands Vacation August 2007.

We had planned a three week trip to take us from Port Credit to Main Duck Island (about 135 nm), Kingston, the Thousand Islands and back. It was to take us about 38 hours to get to Main Duck and then everything else was a few hours here and there, save the return trip.

 Click to enlarge the route map

Malcolm was working, so he couldn’t take time off. Since we were moving his home, he found alternate living arrangements with his father. This involved lots of train travel to and from work.

Dave and I were sailing alone, so someone had to be alert and on deck at all times. I find being on watch alone at night incredibly boring and count the minutes until the shift is over. We were doing four hours on and four off and when I was on shift, Dave tended to stay in the pilot house with me, all covered up and semi-awake in case I had problems. I don’t think he slept at all.

We sailed all night long and encountered a terrible storm front, which had us rocking from side to side and front to back. Some of the waves were 15 feet or more. A trip which would ordinarily take 38 hours, took 28 (even with a four hour break near the end).

We had ourselves tethered to the boat, couldn’t eat or drink because we were sick. (The only time I tried to get a glass of water, the boat heaved just as I opened the cupboard and the dishes went flying on top of me as I hit the floor. I left everything where it lay and went up top.)

I managed a couple of hours of sleep below during one of Dave’s watches. I’ll let him explain what happened while I slept:

Dave: I actually really enjoy the night watches (during normal weather!). There’s no need to stare at the compass continually if it’s a clear night – just get the boat on the correct heading, pick a star that’s conveniently lined up with a shroud or mast, and off you go. Just check the compass periodically to make sure you haven’t accidentally swapped stars, and pick a new star every hour or so since the heavens rotate above you over time.

I really like the quiet and peacefulness of night sailing, the stars (much brighter than when in the city!), and glow from distant cities if near enough to shore.

But the night Angi is describing wasn’t so serene. I believe I had the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, and while AJ was down below trying to catch some sleep, the winds and waves built and built.

The barometer was dropping, and from the clouds gathering to the south-west of us, I had a feeling we were going to encounter some weather.

We were sailing under full press (main, mizzen, Genoa), and making hull speed constantly, so it was time to shorten sail.

Since we don’t have roller furling, I decided to just drop the Genoa and continue on main and mizzen alone until the approaching weather presented itself. It’s a pain to swap sails alone at night, and since we weren’t racing (we never do), I didn’t mind losing a bit of speed for the sake of convenience and safety for a short while.

Angi – Dave, please describe the contortions, etc., to actually get the Genoa down.

Dave – Usually it’s really easy – I like to put the boat on a heading that will allow the main to blanket the genny, or face right into the wind, so that it just slides right down onto the deck when the halyard is released. But it was a bit more interesting that night for a few reasons.

The boat was rising and falling about 10’ every few seconds, the foredeck was wet, and we were healed over about 15 degrees, and it was completely dark. Plus, at the time, the wire portion of the halyard was attached to the rope portion with a thimble and eye, making a lump that got jammed quite solidly where the lower shrouds attach to the mast. I’ve since spliced the rope to the wire properly so it won’t get jammed again.

So some crawling on all-fours on the foredeck was required along with a fair bit of cursing and yanking (the cursing actually helps, I find, to motivate the stuck part to free itself) to get the halyard unstuck and able to run free again. Once the genny came down, I didn’t bag it but temporarily lashed it along the deck to the lifelines on the leeward side in case we needed it after the front rolled by (we didn’t!).

It was definitely a bit of an effort in those conditions, alone on deck, in the dark, with the extra encumbrance of being tethered to the boat via jacklines and safety harness.

I only had to wait about 15 minutes. We wound up sailing for the rest of the night under main and mizzen only, on a broad reach, before waves, which eventually built to 4m on average, with winds steadily in the 40 – 50 knot range, still making a constant hull speed. Not dangerous conditions for Al Hoceima at all (It wasn’t that way for everyone though - I monitored about 10 separate Mayday calls during the night, and we heard a number of them the next day – none were in our vicinity though, so we weren’t involved in helping out), but not comfortable either, especially with the short, steep waves you get on the Great Lakes.

We were both somewhat seasick since it was our first night out (it usually takes me 1-3 days to get my sea-legs, and it was only Angi’s second open water trip of any distance).

We basically continued that way the rest of the night, and when it was time for Angi’s turn at 4 a.m., we decided to just heave-to and wait for dawn because we were nearing a position for a planned course change that would put us on a dead, or near to dead, run. With the size of seas, darkness, and Angi’s being new at this sailing business, it was just too much to ask of her and too dangerous should we have an accidental gibe.

So I put us on a starboard tack, dropped the main, hauled the mizzen in hard amidships, and secured the helm to keep us pointed into the wind. The boat has a long underwater profile and is perfectly happy hove-to on mizzen, as well as the more traditional backed-jib method. We then both tried to catch some fitful rest until morning.

Angi – Dave, why choose a starboard tack to heave-to?

Dave - Being on a starboard tack would make us the “stand on” or “privileged” vessel in case another sailboat happened across our path – in other words, approaching sailboats would be required to keep clear of us according to the ‘rules of the road’. Starboard tack means that the wind is striking starboard side of the boat, and the mainsail would be carried to port.

When morning came, we were still snugly hove-to, and finally got to see the waves we’d been feeling all night long – pretty impressive for a lake! Still in the 4m or so range (13-15 feet) with the occasionally larger one, with breaking but not plunging crests. We were riding over them quite happily, taking them on the starboard forward quarter.

We then plotted a new course to steer for Main Duck, got under way again, and had quite a wild downwind ride for the rest of the trip, hand-steering to avoid broaching and accidental gibes since the conditions were a bit too much for the autohelm.

We made Main Duck with no difficulties other than fatigue (Angi is correct – I really didn’t sleep at all for the entire trip) with the winds and waves finally abating, and tucked in to the lee of the island just to the west of Schoolhouse Bay.

The total passage time was 28 hours – 10 hours better than my previous best. Not bad considering Al Hoceima is a heavily built, heavily laden live-aboard cruiser with very old sails, we were trying to be conservative with the sail area, and took 4 hours off while hove-to!

Angi: We reached the lee side of Main Duck and anchored. After that storm, it was amazingly sunny and gentle there.

Angi - Note: Anchoring at Main Duck is an experience. You are basically anchoring among smooth slabs of rock on the windward side and boulders on the leeward side unless you are quite a distance from shore. Dave, any comments?

Dave – True – it doesn’t have the best holding ground because of its rockiness; the better-holding mud bottom starts in fairly deep water on the leeward side (where it’s safest to anchor most of the time), and even the leeward side can get quite rough in N, NE, NW winds (prevailing is SW). I’ve anchored on the SW side of the island for the day before and was lucky enough to land the anchor in a patch of boulders – much of that side of the island’s lakebed is very smooth granite with no holding opportunities at all.

The water is shallower on that side, so I actually swam down the 20’ to the anchor and made sure it was well wedged in. We had a trip line attached to the back of the anchor to make retrieval easy later, and weren’t planning on spending the night as it can get quite rough on that side.

The NE side of the island is generally more protected, but outside of Schoolhouse Bay, the anchoring depths are on the 40' – 60’ range. Schoolhouse Bay is a terrifically protected spot and even has a small dock, but is very small and shallow – I managed to squeeze in there in my previous boat, “Belle Argo”, with an inch or so to spare beneath her 4’6” or so deep keel. The dock is even shallower.

There is another small bay just to the W of Schoolhouse bay that is good for 2 or 3 boats to fit in to, and is in the 12 to 20’ range for depth. It is just as exposed to N winds as the rest of that side of the island though, and if your anchor drags there, you’ve got little time to correct things before winding up on a rocky shore.

If memory serves, it took a few attempts to get our (slightly light for this boat, I think) 45 lbs CQR anchor + 230’ of 3/8 BBB chain to hold. We’ve since added another 200’ of 5/8 nylon double-braid spliced onto the end of the chain.

Angi: I wasn’t afraid during the trip, just nauseated and tired. Dave said in the years that he’s been sailing, those were the biggest conditions he has been in, and so chances are I’ll never experience a storm like that again. Also, I survived. Yippee.

As we lounged the next day, making up for lack of sleep and food, after cleaning up the mess below, we listened to a number of Mayday calls again over the radio – the lake was still a bit rough. It sounded as though most of them were small open power boats.

Main Duck Island is in the middle of nowhere at the east end of Lake Ontario. It’s about five hours to Kingston from there in our boat (going an average of 5 knots, with mainsail, mizzen and main jib).

Fishermen and their families began living there in the early 1800s and some families still lived there during fishing season (and a few hardy souls through the winter) in the early decades of the 20th century. The Island is now part of the Parks Canada system and may become a marine ecological sanctuary in future.

The old buildings are still there: a schoolhouse, a tiny stone house and a few others. You can walk a good part of the island in a couple of hours.

I found Main Duck amazing: Even though it is relatively small – 209 hectares or 518 acres - it has different climate zones. The water is clear, the shoreline, lovely; close to the windward shore there is what feels like a mini-rainforest, humid and over-grown and then there is a large arid savannah-like area in the interior.

Windward Side of Main Duck

Leeward Side of Main Duck

Beach made of Zebra Mussels!

Settler's Cabin on Main Duck

Main Duck Grasslands and Anchorage

Click to visit Parks Canada's St. Lawrence Islands National Park page.


© Copyright 2008 David S. Malar and Angelika Jardine. All rights reserved.
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