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Chapter One – The Idea

The idea was born on a very cold and bitter night in January.  We were sitting around the wood stove and watching the snow pile up around us. As usual, we were scheming about not having to go to work and living in the sunny south where we’d never see another snowdrift again. Getting up at six a.m., scraping off the car and driving 67 kilometers to get to work was no longer paradise. In fact, I wondered if it ever were?

So, an idea eventually turned into a plan and five years later, we escaped the cold and the jobs in exchange for heat at freedom. There is a saying, “Be careful for what you ask, you might get it.” Well, we got what we asked for.

Being a teacher has many advantages. One of them is being able to have a year off without losing your job, seniority, or pension. Now, perhaps all school boards don’t have this plan, but my school did. It is called a “deferred salary leave”. For four years, I only received four fifths of my salary. The remaining one fifth each year, was set aside. During the fifth year, I would receive all of the money that had been accumulating interest and I wouldn’t have to work. I would actually be paying myself. It is a wonderful plan! Not only was it good for me, it was good for the school board. They could hire my replacement for less than half of my salary (if they hired a brand new teacher), give this person a year’s experience, and get me back all refreshed and ready to teach decimals and fractions with boundless enthusiasm. I lost nothing except that I would not be guaranteed my exact job back. Ha! Who were they trying to kid? I taught Grade 7! Twelve and thirteen year olds all day long! Living on a sailboat could not be worse than that. On the other hand, children do go home at 3:30, unlike the boat. We’d be on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week – but I didn’t want to dwell on that negative thought. So, we signed up for the deferred salary leave and started making plans.

We owned a 27 foot sailboat named Hetarae and sailed on Georgian Bay and the North Channel during the summers. Well, we sailed on beautiful summer days, with perfect wind – enough to get somewhere and also to keep the bugs away. If the weather started getting less and idyllic, we went home. We were very rarely far from the umbilical cord commonly known as “the dock”. We had wonderful times exploring Huckleberry Island, Regatta Bay, and Killarney. We would swim during the day, sip wine on deck during the evening, and skinny dip at night. Then, after a few days, we’d go home. Nick, our son, would be ready to see his friends again. I’d be thinking I should probably exercise, and Dennis figured he should probably earn some money and go back to work for a few days. (He isn’t a teacher – he’s much too practical for that!).

So, who wouldn’t want to lead a life like that? We had the boat, the opportunity with very little risk involved (we didn’t have to sell everything we owned), and the inclination to try something different. And, when I look back, even though it didn’t go according to plan, I would do it all over because I’d always want to know what it was like.

So, for three years, we planned, thought, and dreamed about the trip. We would say to each other, “I can’t wait until our year off. We’ll probably never want to come back!” Or, “Look at us. We’re so lucky to be doing this. It will be the experience of a lifetime!” Well, it certainly was! Just not quite what I had envisioned…

During the third year of planning, things began to break down. Namely, the boat engine. It stopped working. It was a OMC sail-drive and every time we mentioned that to knowledgeable boaters, they would shake their heads in sympathy.

We had already spent $2000 the summer before getting the engine repaired, so  we had to do something. We did not want to be in the middle of nowhere waiting for engine parts from Canada. We could have repaired it again and take our chances, or we could have put in a diesel engine at the cost of $10000 or, we could install a new motor mounted on the outside of the boat for $4000. With the trip looming closer and closer, we decided on the $4000 option. Dennis went scouting around for an engine that would push 7000 pounds of boat through the water. He settled on a 9.9 four stroke Yamaha gas engine with an extra long shaft at a local dealer, and spent numerous hours twisted in the stern of the boat, installing it.

When the engine was ready to go and Hetarae was launched, we coul not believe the difference. No more blue clouds of smoke down below, no more rattling and banging. It also got great gas mileage but best of all, the new engine was QUIET! We could actually hold a conversation without shouting.

Now, it turned out that there were some drawbacks to the engine. Minor things such as not being able to steer properly was one. Because the motor was mounted on the back of the boat on one side instead of underneath, it made steering a real challenge. However, we adjusted and with much advance planning, we could drive in and out of some pretty complicated slips. Of course, we were probably the only people with an “inboard-outboard” engine on a sailboat. The original engine eventually found its way into our basement where it is still sitting.

It wasn’t until the fourth year, that we actually did some serious planning. We learned first aid, sat through the Power Squadron courses, bought out of country insurance and received permission from the school board to home school (or boat school in our case) Nick for the year. We also ordered many necessities for the boat.  We bought a new dinghy – an eight foot rubber Nissan dinghy with 14 inch walls. I would recommend one with higher walls because the only time we didn’t get splashed was when the water was dead calm. Since we splurged on the dinghy, we kept our two horsepower Johnson which my father had obtained by trading a power saw for it some years ago. He should have kept the saw!

We also bought safety gear – life jackets, harnessess, a floatation suit for Dennis (why Nick and I each get one is beyond me), some serious wet weather gear, a depth sounder, and a handheld GPS.

After we spent all of our money, we started getting Hetarae ready for launching. Dennis painted, caulked, sanded, and generally made the boat seaworthy. He slaved for days in the boatyard. When I offered to help, he declined after I spent the entire afternoon waving my arms around and complaining loudly of the mosquitoes that plagued me. So, Nick and I practised out roller-blading skills instead. We knew we could skate faster than the bugs could fly.

We had our shakedown cruise in early July. It was quite pathetic since Dennis was the only one on the boat. Nick and I drove the car. We watched him skilfully maneuver the boat in the slip, gracefully jump off and tie up the lines. I was most impressed. I myself, had never mastered jumping off the boat. But, I could learn.

We spent even more time readying Hetarae. I cleaned, organized, and cleaned some more. Dennis made bookshelves, installed good reading lights and got everything in working order. We began to load up the boat for our journey. Besides all of the complicated extra boat parts, we had charts, guide books, games, books, food, clothing, bedding, warm clothes, rum and wine. I had several batched of wine made up at the local wine brewing store and had so much to bring on board that I had to bring it down to the boat at night so that people wouldn’t see!

The summer heat was upon us and we spent many hours diving into beautiful Georgian Bay in between work shifts trying to keep cool. We were ready to go but had to wait for one last addition to the boat – the bimini, awning, and dodger. We had ordered them in May and they still weren’t ready in mid July. We were set to leave on Monday, July 14th and on Saturday, July 12th, the canvas work had not yet been completed. Dennis then made the fatal mistake of paying the guy in CASH. He thought that maybe that was what he was waiting for. So, at one o’clock in the afternoon, Dennis just happened to see the man in the beer store buying up the place! However, by four o’clock and several not so pleasant phone calls later, all the pieces (so to speak) were in place!

On Sunday, Dennis drove the boat over to the town dock. It sat so low in the water, we were forced to remove some of our supplies. We did end up doing this several times along the way. I really did not need to have five bowls. What would I cook on a two burner stove and no refrigerator?

On Sunday night, Dennis slept on Hetarae and Nick and spent our last night in the house. We planned on departing the next morning at 11:00 a.m.. We had the house rented and cleaned. We put the car behind the garage and had only the minimal insurance left on. We had learned by chance, that if you don’t carry car insurance for a year, you will pay the premium when you want insurance again. Yikes!

So, after four year of planning, we were ready to go! Finally…..

We woke up on Monday, July 14th to very hot, humid, and hay weather. We couldn’t wait to leave. We had some last minute things to do but were as ready as we could be. We said good-bye to the cats and the renters, closed the door, and walked down to the boat. I had to stop at the bank to get some cash since I only had a small amount with me. The line-up though, was enormous! I would have had to wait at least twenty minutes and being so anxious to go, I thought I’d just use an ATM in the next town and get the money there. I had twenty-two dollars. What else did we need? We had enough food and wine to last until Chicago, so I didn’t bother with the bank after all.

When I arrived at the boat, it was total bedlam! There were well-wishers drinking champagne and all sorts of children running through the boat. Other friends had arrived in their boats to see us off. After much delay and finally getting rid of all the children (except one), we cast off the lines and set off. With thirty-five dollars between us, we had begun our cruise!

We should have left Parry Sound until full sail, but the winds weren’t cooperating, so we motored to our first anchorage – Mowat Island. Our first travel day was only two hours long but we were just glad to go. We’d had enough of the last hectic few weeks and wanted to relax and enjoy ourselves.

The weather was very hot and after we dropped anchor, we went swimming. I thought exercise would be a problem on the boat, so I made everybody go swimming and play water tag. I figured we’d also build up an appetite for our first live-aboard supper.

Dennis and Nick went exploring in the dinghy and to get ice at the nearest marine – about a half hour away by small boat. I finally cracked open the book I’d been dying to read for weeks and started working on my tan. Two hours later, I began to feel anxious becuase Dennis and Nick had not returned. I peered through the binoculars and finally spotted them in the distance. Much later, they finally arrive. They had run out of gas and Dennis had to row most of the way back. He had blisters on his hands and was not too please. The skies had begun to threaten rain and he’d been worried.

During the evening, the skies cleared up and the stars came out. It was a perfect night, except for the mosquitoes but even they went away at 9:30. We sat out in the cockpit looking at the stars. We went to bed early, overwhelmed with relief that we had actually begun our trip.

At two o’clock in the morning, we woke up to thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. Everything had been left open. Canvas flapped frantically, glasses rolled out the cockpit and into the water, cushions and towels got soaked. We climbed out of the cabin, scrunched under the dodger, and waited out the storm. It was quite a show and if I hadn’t been so naive, I probably would have quit right there. The thunder and lightning had surrounded us! For an hour, the storm continued, the wind howled, and we huddled together. Finally, finally, the storm moved on. We went down into the cabin and promptly fell asleep until morning. There was no turning back – our trip of a lifetime had begun!

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