by Katharine Sandiford -- For years, the sailboat was tied up on the steep pitch of the sand dune. It pointed down at a 45-degree angle, its nose towards the lapping waves of Marsh Lake like a dog straining against its leash. But this poor boat had been straining too long – since 2004 – and now it was numb to the pain. Clumps of thick moss grew around the wooden railings, the small windows of the V-berth were darkened with layers of cobwebs and twigs. Hairline cracks in the sun-bleached fibreglass hull threatened to split the boat into decomposable parts.
“Is she seaworthy?” I asked its owner, Peter, a 65-year-old carpenter with hair as white as the yellowing hull. He avoided answering the question. “Come out and use the boat whenever you like.” Right then, I’m sure I saw it shift slightly in the sand.
My pal Michelle and I were planning a good fall weekend adventure. We considered an overnight hike in the Ibex Valley outside Whitehorse, a paddle down the Wheaton River from its shallow start at the Skookum Mine all the way down to Bennett Lake just outside Carcross, or a weekend of berry picking at White Pass. All good options, but the thought of the sailboat hanging there on the banks and Peter’s offer to take it out nagged at me. “We’re going to do an overnight sailing trip on Marsh Lake,” I said with a pirate’s authority. Michelle had never been in a sailboat. I had sailed dinghies at the lake as a kid, understood wind, but had never been skipper on a multi-day, big-lake voyage.
We loaded up the small cabin with drybags, dogs, beer, comic books and camping equipment. No we weren’t going to sleep on the boat. About 18 feet long, it was big enough to fit all our stuff – in a pinch, the two of us would have fit in the V-berth side-by-side, dogs as pillows – but small enough it didn’t have a keel so landing the boat on some far off sunny beach would be possible. And that was our plan: to sail five kilometres up the far shore of Marsh Lake to a spot on the map promisingly labelled “Sandy Point.”
Well, we didn’t make it to Sandy Point. We spent three hours tacking back and forth in front of Peter’s dock, fighting a strong current. This was McClintock Bay, where the lake ends and the river begins – where glacial melt-water begins its 3,700-kilometre trek down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea.
Peter came out in a motorboat and towed us a kilometre up the lake. “I forgot to tell you about the current,” he said. Out there, the wind was mild but steady, we cruised forward, our hair blowing, the ropes and sails taut, the dogs wakened from their afternoon naps. But the boat was unwieldy. It didn’t like to point upwind. The tiller, made from an old hockey stick and a plywood board, didn’t have muscle. And there were pools of water at our feet and in the berth where small leaks were sprouting. That, and the sun was setting; the big slab of White Mountain at the end of the lake was turning orange. We hadn’t made it more than another kilometre from where Peter had dropped us off – we could still see his small house in the distance. Plans revived, we ducked into a small cove, found a pebbly beach where we could land the vessel and set up camp. “Tomorrow the wind will be great,” I said pointing at the sky that matched the colour of the salmon steaks sizzling on the fire’s grill. “Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
The boat was completely flooded when we went to load it up in the morning. The small cracks had swelled overnight and now our cozy cockpit was sloshing with a gazpacho of cold green lakewater, bits of potato chip, tomato slices, dog hair and plastic wrappers. As soon as we had it bailed, loaded, sails up and off the shore, the water resumed to seep, slowly and steadily. If one of us sponged and bailed, and the other could manage the sails, the boat would stay dry. Then we discovered that one of the bench hatches, a space the size of a coffin, filled completely within a half-hour, and no matter how fast we jugged the water out of there, it filled up. But it was too late to turn around, we were already out in the middle of the lake where strong winds were lapping up whitecaps previously out of sight from our campsite. If I turned the boat around, tacked it around the other way to return to our safe cove, the water ballast would be on the wrong side of the boat. We were already hiking out, leaning our bodies out over the water to keep the boat flat, and the water-filled hatch was on our side, a welcome ballast. If we switched sides, however, the strong wind would tip the water-loaded boat right over. We weren’t wearing wetsuits and the two mutt huskies on board trembled in fear; not even a recessive Newfoundlander or Golden Retriever bone in their deranged genetic makeup could save us if we tipped. So I kept on course, intending to sail directly across to the far shore, find shelter and wait out the wind. But the far shore was windswept and littered with log jams from last summer’s flooding, a gnarly trap of trunks and branches.
Long story short: we crashed into the logs, pulled down the sails, squeezed into our wetsuits and waited an hour – just enough time for the wind to double its intensity. Huge breaking whitecaps now crashed along the length of the big lake. Not even Peter could come out and rescue us, had he spotted us through the binoculars in our hapless plight. My big dog Wilbur looked miserable. He couldn’t even leap to shore to water the bushes – the pile-up of woody debris between us and land was impenetrable. There was no choice. We had to go on. A favourite line from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot came to mind: “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
We pushed the boat loose, raised the small jib sail and surfed the waves all the way back to Peter’s, the mast and hull creaking, the frayed metal stays threatening to snap, the sad dogs lying in a half-foot bath of sloshing cold water, Michelle and I shivering in our damp wetsuits.
We’re planning another trip. It’s a dreamy adventure to sail these Southern Lakes, to towns like Atlin, to abandoned mining camps like Engineer Mine, and to the abandoned castle of Ben-My-Chree at the far end of Tagish lake. But next time, we’ll leave the boat we named “The Heckler” behind. Too waterlogged to pull back up the sandy dune-banks, it will likely rot out its remaining days among the log debris on Peter’s beach.