The Life Aquatic: Cruisers dish on the delights of sailing and safety in the legendary North Channel

By Isobel Harry, This is Manitoulin April 2021

For thousands of years, the spectacularly beautiful waters of the Georgian Bay and North Channel of Lake Huron have served as major transportation routes—a lifeline for fishing, hunting and trade for this region’s first inhabitants, the ancestors of today’s Anishinaabek. Much later, beginning after European contact in the early 1600s, the waterway, coursing between Killarney and Sault Ste. Marie and nestled by the weathered two-billion-year-old rocks of the Canadian Shield, saw the huge canoes of the French fur traders, the commercial traffic of the booming lumbering and fishing industries and of shipments of iron ore, grain and limestone.

By 1850, the steamboat ‘Gore’ was taking passengers between Georgian Bay and Sault Ste. Marie via Manitoulin Island. But it was when the Owen Sound Transportation Company, founded in 1921 (its 100th anniversary is this year), began to accommodate passengers and ever-increasing numbers of cars on their new ferry service between Owen Sound and Sault Ste Marie, that tourism really took off in this region.

Boating as a leisure activity on the waters of the North Channel gained momentum then too. Today, Lake Huron’s North Channel is “the jewel of Ontario,” considered “magical” and “intoxicating” by those lucky enough to cruise its 160-nautical-mile length and “the world’s best freshwater cruising” by leading nautical magazines and boating aficionados the world over.

“We’re mesmerized by it,” laughs Becky Middlebrook over the phone from her home in Owen Sound. For the last 25 years, Becky and Paul Middlebrook have sailed in Georgian Bay and the North Channel and are current vice commodore and past commodore, respectively, of the “wonderful Georgian Yacht Club” in Owen Sound. 

Their first trip was “part-terrifying,” explains Becky. “Unlike Paul, I was not a seasoned sailor; it rained for three days solid and it was very intimidating!” The following year, they went back with experienced sailors; that trip whetted their urge to return ever since. Starting out with an “entry-level” 24-foot vessel, they now sail the 34-ft ‘Nyala’ – “just the right size for the North Channel” – west to Spanish and beyond, staying in favourite anchorages like the Whalesback Channel. 

The Middlebrooks cite tranquility, outstanding natural features and wildlife as the main motivators of their annual pilgrimage, and the social aspect of meeting up with other boaters. “We enjoy being by ourselves, too, and every morning we love the smell of the bush, we see deer on the shoreline, the mountains in the distance,” says Becky. Adds Paul, “You’re in your own oasis on your boat; we anchor and go swimming and kayaking. The water is so clear and fresh. It’s almost surreal.”

Becky usually sails up the Bruce Peninsula with her “girls’ crew” first, while Paul works a little longer in the city, joining her later. They chart a course to Cabot Head for an overnight, then up to the north shore to spend a couple of days in Fraser Bay near Killarney. In the summer of 2020, Becky made the journey alone. “It was perfect weather, I took my time, it was all very controlled. Paul came up by ferry and we spent four weeks on the boat.”

The Middlebrooks took this photo of their 34-foot cruiser ‘Nyala’ at anchor in a North Channel cove as they hiked onshore. By Isobel Harry.
The Middlebrooks took this photo of their 34-foot cruiser ‘Nyala’ at anchor in a North Channel cove as they hiked onshore. By Isobel Harry.

Keeping boaters safe on the North Channel is the number one mission of the Cruisers’ Net, broadcasting from Little Current on VHF Channel 71. During the pandemic’s much quieter summer of 2020, with lower than usual numbers of sailors in the North Channel, for Roy Eaton, the anchor of the daily summer marine broadcast and boaters’ help network for the last 17 years, it was business almost-as-usual. 

The biggest change was staying home instead of walking to the station in the Anchor Inn. “The antenna at home is the same height as the one at the Anchor Inn, 110 feet,” says Roy. 

When Becky Middlebrook sailed solo last summer, she says, “I’d call Roy to let him know I’m leaving, where I am and when I get there. At 9 am you get the news, weather and the opportunity to connect with people and help each other.” 

The two-hour broadcast and call-in begins at 9 am five days a week in July and August with the question: “Any emergency, medical or priority traffic?” As a fully licenced shore station registered with the Canadian and American Coast Guards and the Air Search and Rescue unit out of Trenton, Cruisers’ Net mobilizes “ready assistance” in case of trouble on the water. After the marine forecast for the North Channel and northern Georgian Bay, local and world news, sports and local events, boaters call in with their locations and itineraries. Volunteers at the station record all the calls, questions, concerns and relays to fellow boaters who are out of range of their yacht’s transmission.

“I set up a site on Zoom last summer,” says Roy Eaton, “so people could tune in. About a dozen boaters would log in for the broadcast, and some were calling in from Alabama, Michigan or Missouri just because they missed the North Channel so much and wanted to say hello.” 

The increased camaraderie afforded by the screens accessed on iPads, laptops or phones has convinced Roy to continue using Zoom “from now on.” After each broadcast last summer, sailors on Zoom would show their paintings, for instance, or hold up the phone in a game of ‘Guess That Anchorage.’ 

Cruising veterans Bob and Kathy Hall of Orillia have been sailing together since 1978 and wax similarly poetic about their North Channel experiences. While Kathy grew up with boats, Bob tried out his first sailboat at age 40, a 22-ft craft that took them to the North Channel for the first time. The now-annual tradition first lasted two weeks, “while the kids were at camp,” since expanded to the entire summer aboard the 36-ft ‘Georgian Mist,’ berthed in Little Current.

“It just blew us away,” says Kathy of their first sighting of the North Channel at Killarney, to which they’d driven their boat after Bob had read about it in a boating magazine, “despite the bad road at the time.”

Bob and Kathy Hall’s grandsons, Emmett, left, and Owen, clamber ashore in the spectacular landscape of a North Channel cove. Photo by Isobel Harry.
Bob and Kathy Hall’s grandsons, Emmett, left, and Owen, clamber ashore in the spectacular landscape of a North Channel cove. Photo by Isobel Harry.

“It was just so beautiful. One great anchorage after another. We were amazed—why on Earth didn’t we know about this before?” Now, favourite spots include Hotham Island near Sagamok First Nation and breathtaking Baie Fine, North America’s only fjord, Covered Portage Cove in Killarney and the stunning Benjamin Islands “when the anchorage is good.” They visit Manitoulin marinas by boat and tour the Island by car, once taking in the Wiikwemkoong Cultural Festival, and seeing the sights.

Greatly enhancing their comfort on the water, the Halls check in with Cruisers’ Net, “almost daily when we’re in range and by email with Roy if we’re not. Roy takes check-ins from certain areas at a time. There’s a community out there that is ready to help, and thanks to the Net, the fellow boaters in the North Channel are friends, some of whom we just haven’t met yet!”

“The North Channel stacks up against anywhere, and we’ve seen a lot—the Bahamas, Chesapeake Bay, Florida, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland,” say the savvy sailing couple. Swimming in the clear, deep blue water of the North Channel and “poking around” in a dinghy, “visiting very dear summer friends” anchored in coves among the picturesque islands dotted between the North Shore and Manitoulin Island to the south, and so summer drifts along, gently bobbing on the waves under the dazzling sun, moon and stars.

No boat? No Problem!
North Channel Tours’ 2021 boating excursions will put the wind in your sails:
Sailboat rentals: Canadian & Yacht Charters (CYC):
Cruisers’ Net: VHF Channel 71

Sailing away with the CEO on the 45thanniversary of the MS Chi-Cheemaun

Expositor file photo.

By Isobel Harry, This Is Manitoulin April 2020

Boarding the Chi-Cheemaun in Tobermory or South Baymouth always signals an adventure. Casting off our attachments to terra firma, we gaze to the boundless horizon as we float majestically for almost two hours on the inland sea known as Georgian Bay, part of mighty Lake Huron, in a primordial panorama unchanged for millennia.

Now in its 45th year of service, owned by the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), the ‘Big Canoe’ has been announcing its arrivals and departures with those familiar horn blasts for almost five decades. The ferry serves as the seasonal second means of transportation off or on to Manitoulin Island, a vital link for residents and visitors, offering closer access to points in southern Ontario and the US. In winter, the Swing Bridge in Little Current becomes the only way to enter or exit the Island – both methods add more than a little ‘magical mystery tour’ to the journey.

The MS Chi-Cheemaun began her rule of the waves in the fall of 1974, built by Collingwood Shipbuilding at a cost of $10 million, a state-of-the-art ferry capable of transporting 638 passengers and crew and close to 150 vehicles with a crossing time of less than two hours. She ended that season as her “shakedown” period before going into full service in 1975.

The Owen Sound Transportation Company’s CEO, Susan Schrempf, first saw the Chi-Cheemaun in January, 1984, on her first day on the job. After more than 30 years, she’s on intimate terms with every part and operation of the ship. Photo by Isobel Harry
The Owen Sound Transportation Company’s CEO, Susan Schrempf, first saw the Chi-Cheemaun in January, 1984, on her first day on the job. After more than 30 years, she’s on intimate terms with every part and operation of the ship. Photo by Isobel Harry

Ten years later, at the precocious age of 23, Susan Schrempf, now CEO, was hired by the OSTC – one of Ontario’s largest ferry operators of passenger, vehicle and cargo transportation services on northern and southwestern Ontario waterways. First in purchasing, followed by stints in budgeting, labour relations and business planning. That was back in December, 1983, when, Ms. Schrempf recalls, “I did not know what the Chi-Cheemaun was. I first saw the ferry when I started in January, 1984.” By 1996, “learning on the job,” Ms. Schrempf had won the general manager’s position.

The buck always lands on the CEO’s desk. Today may be desk-free as we chat in the ferry’s redesigned dining lounge but Ms. Schrempf’s obvious passion for her profession is never far from her thoughts. She seems to know every crew member – their quarters are underneath the car deck, by the way – and nut, bolt and operation of the ferry.

In her 35 years with the OSTC, there’s been a lot of water under the big ship’s hull, and the experience and knowledge accumulated during a long career means Ms. Schrempf is on intimate terms with all the mitigating factors of sailing the Chi-Cheemaun – the weather, the huge machinery, the rules and regulations, the safety of all aboard. “Nothing’s ever the same every day” is her operating mantra. The watch system ensures there is always an engineer on board, directed by the chief engineer; four engines (only two are used for crossings) ensure that two can act as ‘spares’ – the ship is its own mechanical back-up. There are safety management systems and a reporting ladder and everything looks trim and neat, the very definition of ship-shape. “The ship is never on autopilot,” adds Ms. Schrempf, oddly comforting in this age of VR and AI and what-not running things as we climb up enclosed stairways and down narrow passages to the pilothouse for proof.

At the wheel, behind a curving wall of cantilevered windows giving onto a commanding view over the lake, sits Able Bodied Seaman Blaire Leeson, a Manitouliner by birth, with Chief Mate Kelsey Wade standing nearby, their eyes rarely wavering from the watery expanse ahead. You’d half expect a whale to breach in this infinite vastness, but no, neither has ever encountered anything unusual out these windows, although you can see how the Ojibwe legends of the underwater monster Mishebishu got started out here in the deeps.

In the pilothouse, Able Bodied Seaman Blaire Leeson, a Haweater, at the wheel, and Chief Mate Kelsey Wade ensure safe, on-schedule crossings of the Chi-Cheemaun to and from South Baymouth and Tobermory. Photo by Isobel Harry
In the pilothouse, Able Bodied Seaman Blaire Leeson, a Haweater, at the wheel, and Chief Mate Kelsey Wade ensure safe, on-schedule crossings of the Chi-Cheemaun to and from South Baymouth and Tobermory. Photo by Isobel Harry

The Chi-Cheemaun was re-engined in 2007, good for another 15 to 20 years, says the CEO. “This is a very solid design with high-quality construction. It would cost close to a hundred million dollars to replace this ferry.” Maintenance is carried out at night, vibration analysis and non-invasive infra red tests; in winter, inspections and more maintenance take place in Owen Sound (sometimes the ship is hired out as a movie set) and every five years the boat goes into dry dock for intensive checks. “The ship is extremely healthy,” says Ms. Schrempf, “It operates in fine weather and fresh water, reducing wear and tear, for six months of the year, including the 13 weeks of high season. Structurally, there’s no degradation – we saw that when the machinery was replaced and we did a complete ultrasound of the hull and, more recently, the rehab of the interior.”

The interior rehab took place “in response to passengers’ desires since the ‘90s not just for a ferry ride, but for an experience,” says Ms. Schrempf. Experiences came on board (along with the wrapping of the exterior in Anishinaabe-inspired graphics) and a new marketing brand -‘Travel in Good Spirits’ – from sunset dinner cruises to stargazing evenings with the Royal Astronomical Society, to concerts on Sundays and Indigenous stories and drumming workshops – and are now an embedded feature in high season sailings. “The entertainment and the experiences are all-Canadian,” she says, a fact that carries through to the ‘Boatique’ gift shop with its Canadian-made gift socks, hats, outerwear and books selection. The chief overseer is delighted to hear that most of the well-chosen merchandise – the season is ending soon at this writing –is almost all sold out.

With things ticking along so well on the Cheech (as she is known locally), what’s in store for 2024, the 50th anniversary of the beloved vessel? “Well, we have to think ahead 10 or more years – customer needs have changed since the ship was built in the early seventies. Comfort was not part of the equation back then, but today passenger accessibility is an issue, for example. The elevator was built for freight, not for people; the car ramps were built for smaller cars and don’t serve today’s models as well; there’s been a big increase in motor home traffic that we need to accommodate.”

The fathom five lounge aboard the Chi-Cheemaun.
The fathom five lounge aboard the Chi-Cheemaun.

Also of concern in planning is the type of fuel that will power the ferry of the future – beyond the ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel currently in use. “They’re testing hydrogen fuel cell engines in Europe right now – we stay abreast of these tech developments; we’re already using artificial intelligence and electric cars, these trends have a big influence on how the new generation of ferries will be designed and run.”

As we dock, Ms. Schrempf is off to inspect the effects of a recent storm surge on the shores of South Baymouth. Disembarkation is seamless as the able CEO steps lively onto the deck and into Manitoulin’s bracing autumn air.

Owen Sound Transportation Company – • Chi-Cheemaun Inquiries: 1-800-265-3163