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Sailing on Lake Ontario

Little Ship on Lake Ontario
by Ryan Tir

Sunny days under the mast, sail billowing above and the only sound is the water washing past the hull of your sailboat.  Lake Ontario in summer is a sailor’s paradise.  With deep water, and interesting harbours to visit, the lake hosts a large and diverse sailing community.

Although Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes, it is still the 14th largest lake in the world measuring 300 km (185 miles) in length and 80 km in width. (50 miles)  Sailing from one end to the other in a 30 foot boat will take about three days at a relaxed pace.

The lake is also very deep, with an average depth of 85m (245 ft) and a maximum of 245m (800 ft), so once away from the shore there are few obstacles to navigation.

There are many yacht clubs and marinas along the shore.  Some marinas are run by the towns, others are private marinas.  Facilities vary widely with all types of docks and moorings represented.  Most marinas also offer haul-out facilities, winter storage and a boat yard where owners may perform their own maintenance.

Many of the clubs host spirited racing communities, and weekly races are a common sight along the shores of the lake. Sharks are a particularly popular racing class, although there is a class for everyone participates including the cruising boats.

Cruisers have many destinations to choose from.  For longer trips, the Thousand Islands area where Lake Ontario empties into the St Lawrence River provides an idyllic water playground with many small islands, sheltered coves and lazy summer days. Other favourite spots include Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the yacht clubs around the Toronto Islands.  Customs procedures are streamlined for sailors crossing between the Canadian and US shores, so popular US ports such as Youngstown, NY are also easily accessible to Canadian sailor.

Inter-club regattas occur throughout the season, ending with Bronte Rocks – a weekend long party of racing, music and fun that happens each Labour Day Weekend hosted by the Bronte Harbour Yacht Club.

Sailing in Ontario is seasonal, with the prime season running from mid-May through late September. Boats begin each year sitting in their cradles in the boat yard covered for protection from the snow and ice.

Spring brings a burst of new activity each April as boats are unwrapped, repaired, cleaned and launched. It is a busy time and there is a spirit of camaraderie and sharing among the owners.  By the end of May, the boats are once again rocking gently in their slips and the summer sailing season begins.

Summer days in Ontario are long, with sunset later than 9:00pm for the summer months, so weekday evening club races are common from June through to September.

Pleasure boats would not stand the winter ice in the lake, and so each October the boats are once again hauled out and set in their cradles for the winter.  This also allows for bottom cleaning and bilge draining, and the fresh water systems and engine cooling lines are flushed with an anti-freeze solution for the winter.  Batteries are removed to a warm place and the entire boat is either covered with a tarp or shrink-wrapped in plastic.

There are two routes connecting Lake Ontario to the ocean – the St Lawrence Seaway which is also a commercial shipping channel and the Erie Canal which leads from Lake Erie to the Hudson River and then empties to the ocean at New York City.  Boats can be imported to Canada, but there may be taxes and fees associated with importation.

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Sailboats generally fare better in fresh water away from the corrosive salt.  Standing rigging is replaced less often, and even after 20 years of use, boats show little evidence of corrosion. Boat hulls also foul much less, particularly as they are hauled out and cleaned each fall.  Generally a few minutes with a pressure wash will remove all of the season’s slime and a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint on the hull before the spring launch provides a worry free summer.

Sailors worrying about moving inland need not worry. The Great Lakes provide enough scope and variety to ensure new sailing challenges for many years.

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