Gentleman's Portion

A good helping of life, love and whisky


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OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD

Charming Annex style houses abound

Charming Annex style houses abound

If we live in a city, we all live in neighbourhoods. We are each in our own neighbourhood as soon as we step outside our front door. We seem to know organically where our neighbourhood ends and the next one starts, although some of our neighbours will always disagree if they perceive that our neighbourhood is better than theirs.

So it is in the Annex, where we live. Those to the west of our Bathurst Street boundary like to think of themselves as living in the West Annex, clearly annexing our neighbourhood’s name to gentrify their own. We think of them as living in Seaton Village or Koreatown, if we think of them at all, that is. Dupont Street is our northern boundary, Avenue Road to the east and Bloor Street to the south, making a nice convenient square.

Shortly after the city annexed the village of Yorkville in 1883, a developer subdivided the land to the west and named his new suburb the Toronto Annex, which itself was gobbled up by the city in 1887. Then and now it’s a place where people want to live.

When we walk along the Annex’s quiet leafy streets, we admire the gardens that flourish and the individuality of them all. Many residents have annexed the grassy verge in front of their homes and converted them into vibrant flower gardens. Diane was the first to plant in front of our row of townhouses and now the former strip of ratty grass is alive with flowers and bushes as neighbours have emulated her effort up and down the street.

Madison Avenue Pub

Madison Avenue Pub

We can tell immediately which buildings have student housing by the weed-filled gardens, or the multitude of bicycles chained to the railings. We abhor the lack of discipline and tidiness in student housing and fraternity houses, while admitting that it is inevitable with the vast University of Toronto campus sprawling to the south of Bloor Street. The only benefit is that there are lots of young people in the neighbourhood and fewer cars. The Madison Avenue Pub is famous as a hang-out for this younger generation. The pub is a pseudo-Brit affair, started in one house at the lower end of Madison Avenue in the 80s, and expanded to fill three of the traditional old Victorian houses.

Further up Madison, at number 37 to be exact, is the house that started it all a century before the Madison pub. In the late 1880s the prominent Toronto architect E.J. Lennox (he of Old City Hall and Casa Loma fame) designed a home in a style that would be copied and emulated for many years. The houses have two distinctive style elements, which can be seen all over the Annex. They usually have large Romanesque arches above doors and windows and often have fanciful turrets. They are typically red brick buildings, with the addition of some reddish Credit River sandstone decorative touches.

The splendid York Club typifies Annex architecture

The splendid York Club typifies Annex architecture

On several streets rows of these houses survive, though apartment buildings and condos have cut through the neighbourhood destroying fine examples of these lovely old homes. The wretched politicians and planners at City Hall are allowing monster buildings to nibble as the edges of the Annex. One of the worst examples of the desecration of this fine building stock can be seen where St. George Street meets Bloor Street West. On the north east corner sits the lovely and elegant York Club building, awash in Romanesque detail and carved stone cornices, turrets anchoring the warm red edifice to the earth. Next door is the hideous Royal Canadian Yacht Club building, a concrete and brick hulk of a bunker, where only parts of the original garden wall survive. It’s populated by very nice yachtsmen and women, but what were they thinking when they approved the plans, one wonders.

Can the turret hide a damsel in distress?

Can the turret hide a damsel in distress?

Three of our favourite Toronto restaurants are in the Annex. Bar Mercurio is on Bloor Street, not far from the corner of St. George. Joe Mercurio is the welcoming owner and host, where we often drop by for one of their specialty thin crust pizzas. Another Italian offering is Cantine, on Avenue Road nestled between the flower markets, where another Joe, Bersani in this case, has been a presence for many years. In the past few months, Cantine has undergone a splendid renovation, undertaken by the prestigious design firm of Powell and Bonnell, whose offices are just around the corner. I’m giving them a plug because they now manufacture and market Diane’s beautiful line of mirrors and mirrored furniture (see my blog THE ART OF REFLECTION April 13, 2013), examples of which can be seen in their showroom window on Davenport Road.

A different sort of renovation is underway at Le Paradis, on Bedford Road, a block west. Here French bistro owner David Currie has been ambling through a months-long refit. The place has been repainted and some of the older bits and pieces removed to update the place. Refurbished and upholstered bar stools and chairs have just arrived, much to the relief of our bottoms. Tables and floors have been refinished in such a subtle manner that most patrons haven’t noticed the changes. The menu has stayed much the same, to our relief. The hideous mural, which we have disliked for 25 years, has survived, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some guerilla staff or customers don’t paint it over when David isn’t looking. In spite of it all, we love the place, and the bartender pours a gentleman’s portion of scotch. The other night we spot Canadian author and icon Margaret Atwood dining there. She lives just round the corner.

Many other celebrated Canadians live or have lived in the Annex. One of the most curious was my late friend the eccentric explorer and horseman Norman Elder, whom I met through riding. He later appeared as a regular guest on several of my television shows. I helped him edit some film footage of one of his Amazon explorations, which showed him tussling with a massive anaconda. His home on Bedford was stuffed with curiosities, including several stuffed animals, a live 100-year-old tortoise and two very large pythons. Norman died in 2003. His house was renovated and sadly no trace remains of the decorative railings he rescued from the polar bear enclosure at the old Riverdale Zoo.

Another strange acquaintance from my early days in Toronto lived on Brunswick Avenue. William Ronald was even more eccentric, an artist in the abstract field, and we met when I was asked to direct a pilot for a television series he had dreamed up. It was weird and did not get picked up for production, but we had a lot of fun making the show. I have one of his colourful works hanging in the living room and one of his ugly nudes tucked away in a storage room. Bill liked to hold court in his massive bed, while his long-suffering wife Helen produced food for a crowd of admirers and acolytes. I lost touch with Bill when he moved to Montreal. He died in 1998 still painting and lived long enough to title his final work ‘Heart Attack.’

Diane entertains the movie SWAT team

Diane entertains the movie SWAT team

Noted urban activist Jane Jacobs lived in the Annex for 37 years until her death in 2006, and former television host and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson still lives in the neighbourhood.

Movie folk love the Annex, and there are very few days when a base camp of equipment trucks and star-filled mobile dressing rooms aren’t to be found parked somewhere in the vicinity. Our own row of townhouses doubled for Washington brownstones in the USA Network series, ‘Covert Affairs,’ filmed in Toronto and around the world. Our house exterior was cast as the home of a passport forger who comes to a sticky end. Diane couldn’t believe how long each scene took to shoot, but as a veteran of the biz, I wasn’t at all surprised when they finally wrapped at midnight.

That’s our neighbourhood, where we actually know and speak to our neighbours, and know the restaurateurs and shopkeepers by name. It’s an old-fashioned world and we like it that way.


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FÊTES AND ICE CREAM HEAVEN

Betty, Vintage Scoops restored ice cream van

Betty, Vintage Scoops restored ice cream van

There’s been a lot of chat recently, in the old fashioned print newspapers that I read, about artisanal ice cream and the crazy and interesting flavours the hand-made ice cream crowd dream up. Me, I’m a chocolate ice cream guy. Diane is ready to try any new flavour, but I stick to my old favourite, and I’ll always head for the richest, darkest, chocolatiest chocolate offering. She’s convinced me to try mango ice cream (President’s Choice mango ice cream is pretty good) and as I love mangoes, that’s a natural fit. Sometimes we have it, on top of sliced ripe Ataulfo mangoes, topped with the mango coulis we buy at the Chatsworth Farm Shop near our cottage in England. Not for me the gin and tonic, or elderflower flavoured stuff I read about today in The Globe and Mail.

Home made chocolate ice cream

Victoria serves home-made chocolate ice cream

At a summer fête in the south of England in June, I came across a wonderful 1950s style restored ice cream van that was selling home-made mango, rhubarb crumble, mojito and other flavours. But when I got to the head of the line, the adventurous spirit left me and I asked for a scoop of chocolate on my cone. And what heaven it was: rich, smooth and essentially chocolate. And with my scoop, I got a smile from the girl with huge blue eyes, a Betty Boop hairstyle and an armful of colourful tattoos. Turns out the van is called Betty, the girl is called Victoria and their business is called Vintage Scoops. I hope Victoria, her mum Jo and Betty have a wonderful season at fêtes and fairs across the south of England this summer.

Fêtes are a wonderfully English institution, often held in a small village on the green, or a field next to the church or some such public area highjacked for the day. They are usually organized as an annual fund-raiser, for a local charity or the church restoration fund and are as much a part of summer as ice cream.

DSC01441The fête I am attending on a glorious June day, when warm weather has finally arrived in damp old England and it looks like a Brit is actually going to win the men’s tennis at Wimbledon, is in aid of the Waterloo Bonfire Society in Lewes, East Sussex. Diane and I have just become members, but I am alone for this visit. The morning starts with a fortifying whisky at The Lamb, where the Society meets. Already at the bar are some large men in kilts. I assume, correctly as it turns out, that this is the core of the Waterloo Bonfire Society Pipe and Drum band. They welcome me as a new member and I chat about this and that with Pipe Major Hayden, drummers Sean and Donald and bass drummer Paul. After a pint or two of the local brew, they head out to the courtyard to practice. Sean is a true Scot and I like him immediately. His wife Sharon is kind and gives me all the inside scoop about the Society and what’s what.

The Waterloo Bonfire Society Pipe and Drum Band

The Waterloo Bonfire Society Pipe and Drum Band

As the formal procession starts to form up, I realize that although I’d just come for information, I’m going to be in it. A banner carrier dressed in the Society’s official smuggler’s uniform of red and white striped sweater and white pants, leads the way, followed by the band. The Mayor and Councillor come next. It seems the Major is also the head of the Society, a useful political connection. Then there’s a rag tag bunch of followers, some in costume, many not, with most of the latter wearing red. I’m wearing white, so I suppose I’m half right. I walk with Sharon and she tells me who’s who. We process down the lane, round through the centre of town, back past The Lamb and along to the Paddock behind Lewes Castle. There are more people watching and taking photos than are in the parade. But we attract a good crowd, who follow us into the fête, where two smugglers with donations buckets extract entrance fees from the public in a good spirited manner. Tents and marquees have been set up on the grass and the band leads us straight into the refreshment tent, where I have another whisky and pour a neat one into my Scottish drummer friend.

Leaping Morris dancers

Leaping Morris dancers

In the centre of the field is a performance area and stalls have been set up around the perimeter. All types of foods are on offer, goods are for sale and there are rides and slides for the kiddies. For the adults, there’s an old-fashioned test-your-strength machine, a coconut shy and a booth where you can throw hard wooden balls to smash plates and work off any residual aggression. After walking around and trying an assortment of sausages, veggie patties and the aforementioned ice cream, I return to the refreshment tent and spend much of the afternoon in the company of a very merry local dentist. His wife is cross with him for being drunk, but to me he just seems mellow. Perhaps I am too.

Together, we watch another performance of some traditional pipe tunes from the band and demonstrations from local groups such as teenagers showing off their martial arts. We have a lot of laughs, especially while watching the Morris Dancers, who are in black, a Welsh border style, not in the more typical white of Dorset dancers. Sussex boasts no indigenous Morris dancers of old, though this troupe hails from a local village.

Busy beer tent

Busy beer tent

By mid-afternoon the grounds of the old Paddock are filling up nicely, the bouncy castle is at capacity and the beer tent is doing exceptional business. A very young girl folk singer and her not much older guitarist are entertaining in the tent and it seems like a good time to make an exit. My last task is to pick up (and pay for) our smuggler’s costumes, custom hand knitted for us by a Bonfire Society lady. I buy official knitted red hats as well and only have to get a couple more items to complete the authentic look.

Having a smashing good time

Having a smashing good time

When Diane and I return in November, we’ll join in the fun on November 4 at The Lamb and walk in costume in the Bonfire Night parade on November 5. Officially those dressed as smugglers are called Bonfire Boys and carry flaming torches. The pioneers break down into several groups, including Mongols, Greeks and Romans, Tudors and Victorian Military. The Society will have two floats, one with the effigy of Guy Fawkes, who once conspired to blow up Parliament and was burned at the stake for his efforts. The other will be a closely guarded secret until the night. A few years ago the effigies of Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein were burnt. I wonder who we’ll roast this year?

The six bonfire societies in Lewes put on five separate colourful parades with up to three thousand people taking part and up to 80,000 spectators attending, in a town with a total population of about 15,000. After parading together through town, the different societies split off to their bonfire sites for a grand burning and spectacular fireworks. If I survive, I’ll be reporting back.


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SUMMER SALADS

Hungry sailors ready for the feast

Hungry sailors ready for the feast

We’ve been invited to a pot-luck supper, and because there’s a sailing trip involved, I want everything prepared in advance, with no cooking on arrival. Just some last minute assembly, which I can organize in the cramped galley on the my sailboat. I’ve had compliments on my potato salad before at Harbour City Yacht Club events, so why mess with success? But I need another quite different salad as a companion. Hunting through my tattered and stained recipe card collection, I come across two recipes, one for a spinach salad and one for a beet salad. I’m torn between the two, so I decide to take a risk and incorporate the best of them both into one salad.

The key ingredients for salads will overnight in the fridge, allowing a good time for the miracle of marinading to work its magic. Then, with well secured lids, they will travel to the boat in cooler bags packed with ice, thence into the boat’s ice box until needed. Anything with eggs and mayo needs to be handled with extra care, and kept quite cool, or there’s a risk of spoiling.

The potatoes and beets are prepared and cooked first and then completely cooled before being incorporated in the recipes. The spinach is sorted and washed and re-bagged and taken separately. The mayo and sour cream sauce was made and integrated with the potatoes overnight, but the dressing for the beets and spinach was left until last minute. Hard boiled eggs, chopped spring onions, chopped candied walnuts and chopped goat feta were transported in separate containers and added at the last minute.

Since the outward bound journey threatened rain squalls, nothing was packed in glass. Smart salad bowls were left behind, in favour of a couple of 5 quart stainless steel bowls, which cool better and can withstand rough handling, possibly banging about in the icebox.

Pot-lucks are always a challenge for the organizer, as one never really knows what to expect, but club social director Lynne managed brilliantly. A waterfront gazebo had been set aside for our party, which in the end numbered more than 30 people travelling on 11  boats. A propane BBQ had been borrowed from The Oakville Club, kindly organized by their outstanding dockmaster Larry. Long tables were set with pristine white cloths and the food was brought ashore from the assembled fleet of boats. Fortunately there were no burgers to tempt us (we are off red meat at the moment) but plenty of delicious chicken. I counted chicken prepared four different ways, but there may have been more, all delicious. There were appetizers galore, plentiful salads, and cup cakes and butter tarts for dessert. Stuffed, and quite tired after an exhausting sail through the squalls, I hit my bunk unusually early, but the rest of the party went on until the small hours.

Red Skinned Potato SaladSalad 2

Serves 12
Preparation time 15 min
Cooking and chilling time 3 ½ hr

Ingredients
3 lb (about 15) unpeeled cooked red potatoes, cut into chunks
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp white vinegar
4 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1 dill pickle, chopped
2 cups celery stalk, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
1 dash hot sauce
1 tbsp dried dill weed
1/2 tsp garlic powder
black pepper to taste

Preparation and cooking
1. Place the potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork. Do not overcook. Drain, and transfer to a large bowl to cool. Cut into cubes.
2. Place the fresh eggs in cold water, salt well, and bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the hot water for 10 min. Cool the eggs and leave in their shells until ready to garnish.
3. In a medium bowl, mix the sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, pickle, celery and hot sauce. Season with dill, garlic powder, onion salt, salt, and pepper. Pour over the potatoes, and gently toss to coat. Chill at least 3 hours in the refrigerator before serving.
4. Garnish with chopped eggs and chopped green onions.

Beet and Spinach Salad with Goat FetaSalad 1

Serves 12
Preparation time 10 min
Cooking and chilling time 45 min

Ingredients
8 medium cooked beets – scrubbed, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 cup chopped walnuts
6 tablespoons maple syrup
2 (10 ounce) package mixed baby spinach leaves
1 cup (295 ml) frozen orange juice concentrate
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces goat feta

Preparation and cooking
1. Place beets into a saucepan, and fill with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until tender. Drain and cool, then cut in to cubes.
2. While the beets are cooking, place the walnuts in a skillet over medium-low heat. Heat until warm and starting to toast, then stir in the maple syrup. Cook and stir until evenly coated, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice concentrate, balsamic vinegar and olive oil to make the dressing. Add a little dressing to the completely cooled beets to allow them to marinade.
4. To assemble, put the spinach in a bowl, add the balance of the dressing and toss well to cover. Add the beets little by little and mix in well. Garnish with the goat feta and broken up candied walnuts.


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LAKES, GREAT AND SMALL

Windswept pines on Lake Huron's shore

Windswept pines on Lake Huron’s shore

When we tell friends in England that we sail on a lake, they imagine something like Windemere in the Lake District, or a pond like the local gravel pit near Oundle, Northamptonshire, where as a schoolboy I learned to sail dinghies. Hardly.

The Great Lakes, consisting of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario form the Earth’s largest group of fresh water lakes, with 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water at 94,250 square miles (almost a quarter million square kilometres). Our own Lake Ontario is one of the smallest at merely 7,340 square miles (19,000 square k.)  Its about 190 miles long (311 k.) and 50 miles wide (85 k.) and is about one third the size of the English Channel, so there’s plenty of opportunities for cruising.

Like the English Channel, the lakes can throw up some mighty storms. and the waters abound with shipwrecks. Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in song. It disappeared in a November storm in 1975, on Lake Superior, the last major freighter to be lost with all hands on the lakes.

Peccavi, my 27 foot sloop, is a tough and seaworthy boat and I would trust her in the vilest weather, though we don’t venture out later than September. This trust is based on experience, for she has seen out a few storms on the lake. On one occasion, returning from Wilson, NY, a nasty line of black appeared on the horizon to the west. Nothing serious had been forecast, but little line squalls can pop up any time when the weather is hot and humid. I had time to take down my jib and stow it below – in those days I had not yet invested in a roller furling affair which does the job in seconds – and put a couple of reefs in the main sail. I asked the crew to go below and pass up first, my foul weather gear and second, my life jacket, but before I could get anything on, the squall had hit.

To put things into perspective: we had been sailing along in what the Beaufort Scale describes as a moderate breeze, or about 15 knots, when in seconds the wind speed grew to about 30 knots, or a near gale. I had two options, run into the wind, fighting the waves that were sure to arise, and rely on my tiny eight-horsepower single-cylinder diesel engine. Or change course before things got worse, run before the storm, and hope it blew past me. As I was turning the boat, still on a relatively flat lake, the wind speed picked up again. Now it was blowing at more than 35 knots, described as gale force winds.

The definition of a gale on the scale, invented by and named after a Royal Navy Admiral a couple of centuries ago, is as follows: moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift; well-marked streaks of foam blown along the wind direction; considerable airborne spray. Not to mention the driving rain hitting my face and stinging like hail. With our handkerchief of sail let right out, we roared along, quite surpassing our normal top boat speed as we surfed down the waves. For about half an hour we just hung on and toughed it out. My boat has a tiller rather than a wheel and the pressure on it from the following waves was immense, but I dare not let go, for to do so would allow the boat to turn sideways to the wind and broach. Sounds better than capsize, but that would be the result if the wind blew full strength on the side of the hull.

Eventually the squall passed, the sun broke out, I put on dry clothes, and checked the GPS for our position. We had been blown nearly 30 miles off course. We resumed our journey to the Ontario side, eventually found land as the afternoon wore on and then on engine power alone, slogged into the much disturbed lake for what seemed like hours, to get back to safe haven in Toronto harbour.

Cooking soup with the boat at a 15 degree heel

Cooking soup with the boat at a 15 degree heel

The facilities on Peccavi are well organized, but a tight fit. In the bow (pointy end) there is a V-berth arrangement, which sleeps two in a very cosy manner. Under the bunk is a fresh water tank and a sewage holding tank. Nothing gets pumped into the lake, which has improved water quality enormously over the years. Then there is a little space with a head and washbasin to port (left) and a hanging locker to starboard (right). To get some privacy the locker door folds out one way and the head door folds out the other. Then coming aft again, there is the main cabin. A bench down the port side makes up into a decent single bunk, and a bench on the starboard side works for small people in an emergency. One of the cushions comes off and they have to sleep with their feet in the base of the hanging locker.

A complex folding table is fastened up against the bulkhead, but comes down and provides a decent eating space for four. The main cabin is tall enough to walk around if one is under six feet. The aperture between cabins is much lower and has a brass sign on it: No bloody swearing. My Dad gave it to me when I was about 20. He said I would need it one day. Aft (towards the back) of the bunks there is a small galley with a two-burner gimballed alcohol stove, much safer than propane, where one can make a cup of tea or heat up some hot soup on a long watch. On the other side there’s a deep ice-box, that keeps things cool the old fashioned way, with a new block of ice every couple of days. Everywhere one looks, behind, below and underneath, there is storage, wonderfully arranged to stow everything we need for a short overnight trip.

Heeled over, toes nearly touching the water

Heeled over, toes nearly touching the water

Of course, we have the full complement of life jackets, our own and extra foul weather gear for guests, spare dry clothes, towels, safety flares, a full tool bag, spare GPS, spare VHF radios and much more. In the cockpit at the stern (back) there’s not much room when we are sailing. Sometimes the boat tips at an angle of more than 25 degrees and the leeward rail touches the water. That’s when things get interesting. We sit with our feet propped on the opposite locker so we don’t slide off the benches, though Diane finds this a struggle as she’s not very tall. In the four lockers we’re sitting on, there are more supplies, spare sails, mooring lines, fenders and  bailing equipment. We feel confidently equipped and we have never, touch wood, had to use any of our safety gear.

I’m passionate about sailing. Even now, when I get on the boat, the indications of age magically melt away. I plan to keep going until the funeral pyres are burning.

Have a look at my You Tube video: you’ll see a man really enjoying himself sailing in Toronto Harbour.

CREDITS: Many thanks to Ron Shaw of Magnacom, who did the fine camera work, David Barkworth who skippered the chase boat Dab Hand, and Amy McConnell of Femme Cachée Productions, who re-edited the original footage down to a minute and found the ideal piece of music on the Forrest Gump soundtrack.


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CRUISING UP THE LAKE

Cruising in a nice breeze

Cruising in a nice breeze

Tomorrow, the weather and sailing gods willing, we set out for our annual sailing cruise to The Oakville Club. As we have for the past couple of years, we will have a teenage crew to do all the leaping around. Andrik, who stayed on the boat last summer and is living in our house this summer, has become a sort of surrogate grandson. He’s grown like a weed in the three years we’ve known him and is very handy around a boat. These days I leave the clambering up to the foredeck to him.

Flying the spinnaker

Flying the spinnaker

The cruise is organized by our little island club, the Harbour City Yacht Club, founded in 1972. Usually a half-dozen or so of the members make this cruise, one of four organized by the club during the season, but it all depends on the weather. Our members are definitely fair weather sailors. Our Rear Commodore and Fleet Captain, however, is made of sterner stuff. Matt has sailed across the Atlantic, for a decade lived on his 42 foot ketch, and still sails it superbly in all weathers. Of course he has a centre cockpit arrangement, with a completely weatherproof wheelhouse, so he can be safe and dry while us open cockpit chaps get to experience weather as Nature makes it.

On our cruises up the lake we have had some flat days and some windy days. The best we can hope for is a stiff breeze out of the south or west to send us home. On one occasion the wind was so strong that we made it back in record time, only to find we couldn’t get the sails down. So we sailed right around Toronto Island to the eastern or sheltered lee side and doused the sails in relative calm.

A warm welcome and a tight fit in Oakville

A warm welcome and a tight fit in Oakville

Last year, we had an ideal wind to fly our colourful spinnaker on the outbound trip. This is the big balloon-like sail that billows out in front of a boat and pulls it along at a good speed. I let Andrik fly the ‘chute, as it’s known, and he did so very well. I believe it was a thrilling if tiring experience. The spinnaker is yellow and black, the boat’s colours, with a red stripe for fun. This year I have a new sail, called a drifter, to try out. If the winds are light it will help us more in airs that would hitherto have left us drifting, hence the name. The drifter is green and orange, not boat colours, and I call it my Irish sail. Let’s hope we have the luck of the Irish on our cruise.

Leaving Oakville with cruising burgees flying

Leaving Oakville with cruising burgees flying

When we arrive at The Oakville Club, we are always welcomed by Larry, the dockmaster. The Ports Cruising Guide names him the best dockmaster on the lake and it’s true. He finds us a good spot on his crowded docks, gives us full access to the club’s facilities, which are splendid by the way, and arranges a little tent for our pot-luck arrivals party. If it’s been a hot journey down, we have a plunge in their lovely pool, and certainly we always enjoy a swim before we set out for home the next day. Their restaurant serves a splendid eggs Benedict, which I look forward to every year for our Sunday departure breakfast. The changing facilities, showers and so on are what you’d expect of a top quality sports club, although last year they were closed for renovations. We didn’t mind. We’re sailors and used to roughing it. But it will be good to see what they’ve done.

We hope to go on at least one other club cruise this season, but in any event will earn another cruising flag for our efforts. Each year the club awards those who engage in cruising a special colourful burgee to fly on dress-the-boat days and I have nine on the flag halyard now. Ten will be a nice round number.


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ISLAND LIFE

Island 6

Beach fun (slightly illegal) on Toronto Island

Living as we do in a mid-city townhouse, it’s nice to get away on hot sunny days.

It almost seems like we have a private cottage on Toronto Island, just a 12 minute ferry ride from Queen’s Quay, much more convenient than a four hour struggle north to the Muskoka Lakes in dense traffic. Of course, it’s not really a cottage but our little sailing boat, where we can sleep over if we choose, although we seldom do. The view of the city is sublime. Through the trees we can see the tall bank buildings, the omnipresent CN Tower, the Dome and a forest of cranes building high rise condos, but without the noise, the crowds or the hustle and bustle.

As we step onto the Toronto Island Marine private tender (we have season passes, but the ticket is only $5 for the public) and greet one of the friendly boat drivers, the tension seems to slip away. Moments later we are pushing off the dock and chugging across the harbour on a short ride to another world. From the island dock it’s a five minute walk to our boat. We might stop at the Upper Deck bar for a refreshment, or just pick up a bag of ice at the chandlery, but within minutes the lure of the boat beckons.

The Upper Deck: best kept secret on the island

The Upper Deck: best kept secret on the island

Along a narrowish long dock and then onto an even narrower finger dock, Peccavi awaits at her slip. She’s a yellow hulled 27-foot long Canadian Sailcraft sloop, or CS 27 for short. These boats were well built in the 70s and 80s before the CS company slid into oblivion, and the fact that there are plenty of them still sailing around the lake is witness to their sturdy construction. Most of them come with some colour on the hull, the fashion in those days: two friends have CS 27s on the same dock and they are white hulled with a blue stripe. There’s another yellow-hulled CS27 in the harbour and a couple more down the lake and we sometimes pass with an ironic wave. Our stripe is white and the sail cover and mooring lines are black, making the overall effect a bit like a striped tiger — her original name was Tigger.

Peccavi dicing with the ferry in Toronto Harbour

Peccavi dicing with the ferry in Toronto Harbour

I changed her name to Peccavi for purely whimsical reasons. Ever since I discovered a delicious quote by an ancestor in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations when I was about 15, I had been set on using Peccavi as a boat name. “Peccavi” means “I have sinned” in Latin (Benedice me, patre, quia peccavi in the old Roman Latin rite or “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”) Sir Charles Napier, a general in his day, sent a one word punning telegram – Peccavi – to his boss, Lord Ellenborough, on the conquest of the city of Sindh, in what is now Pakistan, during the Indian Mutiny in 1843.

The little house martins like to sit on the lifelines and leave me presents. The damned geese leave bigger offerings on the dock, but five minutes work with the hose cleans all away. Half an hour with a scrub brush and a bucket of environmentally friendly soapy water and the whole boat is gleaming again. I love working on the boat. In the spring we have a yard worker polish the hull while it’s still on the hard, and then after launch I get a teenager to wax the topsides, but apart from that I do all the work. When all is clean and dry, the sail cover comes off and we motor out of the harbour. The 35-year-old single cylinder eight horse power diesel engine starts first time, every time. I say: Good girl. Boats are girls and like to be complimented.

Depending on the wind, we can leave the harbour from the east or west gaps, and then we are out on the lake and headed for wherever we want to go. Together Diane and I have sailed to Port Credit, Oakville and Bronte, and I’ve single handed across the lake to Lewiston, Wilson and Olcott, NY, as well as Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Dalhousie. Not long cruises, such as we undertake in the Caribbean, but pleasant enough, with a day or two spent in another harbour, before the return sail. Our next cruise will be to the Oakville Club where the pool and excellent dining room will be a welcome diversion. Our little island club, Harbour City Yacht Club, organizes the cruises. It has a floating club house in the marina and is entirely self-help. If work needs to be done, volunteers are organized and do the work. At the moment the club house is undergoing renovations. Last year we built a huge deck. A few years ago we rebuilt the bridge from the land to the club, as the old one had sunk without trace. For a few years it was my privilege to be the Commodore, an elected position which means you get to do even more work. Diane thinks we should have a T-shirt which reads: Definitely not the RCYC. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club is old, big and expensive, but a lot of their members come to our marina bar, which is clearly more fun, with no rules and no stuffy behaviour allowed.

HCYC's floating clubhouse welcomes sailors from other clubs

HCYC’s floating island clubhouse welcomes sailors from other clubs

Sometimes we just sail around the island. Diane can’t really see the attraction of doing this again and again, but I point out that whereas powerboating is the act of going somewhere by water as fast as possible and by the most direct route, for true sailors, sailing it’s the act of going out on the water that’s important and the destination is irrelevant. Every time we go out, something is different and that’s what makes each journey interesting. At the moment the lake is very high, so there’s little risk of running aground. But last year, towing a teenager (of the boat polishing kind) on a line behind the boat, we ran smack dab into a sandbar near the beach at Gibraltar Point. We backed off easily, but it’s smart to pay attention the whole time when out sailing.

Diane's pink bike on a blustery day

Diane’s pink bike on a blustery day

When there’s no wind, we get on our bicycles: mine is a bit rusted and silver, but still works quite well, and Diane’s is pink. My silver bike is my third on the island, the previous two having been borrowed by local folk and not returned. My own fault for not keeping them locked up. My present security device is indestructible aircraft cable almost three-quarters of an inch thick with an integral lock. No one has borrowed this one yet. Diane’s pink bike attracts attention and compliments whenever she’s out. When I ride it down to the island at the beginning of the season, I get comments too, some of them not so complimentary.

We cycle off to The Rectory Café for lunch, or down to the Queen City Yacht Club, where I’ve been made an honorary member, for breakfast. Or down around the quaint little clapboard houses on Ward’s Island, which have all been handed down within families. The ground under them is owned by the city and the waiting list to buy is years long, and that’s only if you are inheriting one. The community is vibrant and survives through the winter. The houses are quirky and the gardens luxuriant. The community centre, where I’ve been to some wild music evenings in the past, boasts a new café. The nearby beach is the best on the island, being sheltered by the long Leslie Street Spit.

The old lighthouse

The old lighthouse

In the other direction, we ride over the Centre Island hump back bridge and turn right down towards the lighthouse, long abandoned and reputedly haunted. Then we continue through verdant parkland until we come to Gibraltar Point beach. Good swimming territory. Close by is the nude beach, mostly gay, they say, though I’ve never been there. Diane walked her bearded collie here, once, and Amy had a lot of fun sniffing various things, and I don’t mean doggy things.

A Porter plane leaves just a trail in the night sky

A Porter plane leaves just a trail in the night sky

While we admire Porter Airlines, we despise their efforts to bring jets to the island, in direct conflict with their tripartite agreement. They want to extend the runway into the harbour, and no one in the boating community likes that idea. They might as well fill the whole thing in and make it a parking lot. Even though they claim their planes are quiet, you should sit in a silent sail boat under their path as they come in. May I observe that they’re not really quiet. Jets would be worse.

Back at the marina, we close the boat up again, put on the sail cover and lock the hatches. At the end of the dock other boaters have established gardens, picnic tables, lounge chairs, BBQs and more. Almost cottage country for them. That’s not for us, but we smile and chat on the way out.  We head for the Upper Deck, where we’re always welcome and where we run a weekly tab. They carry my brand of bar Scotch and they serve a Gentleman’s Portion. What could be better?


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A CANAL DISCOVERED

The tranquil canal

The tranquil canal

There are 2,200 miles of navigable canals in England and Wales, and a few in Scotland. The English and Welsh canals are mostly interconnected, but the Scots, as is their way, have kept themselves separated. This is the story of 46 miles of that network.

We first became aware of the local Chesterfield Canal when Carol in The Parish Oven pub pointed out the retired lock keeper at the end of the bar. There’s a canal here? I ask. Oh, yes, she says. You can walk down to it at the end of the lane. So off we go one sunny spring morning, until at the end of a long lane we come to this piece of water: well charitably I would call it a ditch. Not much impressed, we trudge back to our cottage in the village.

Ready for the lock

Ready for the lock

The next day, newly aware, Diane points out the canal running alongside the road into another local village; slightly larger than our village, it has shops. And sure enough, round a corner comes a narrow boat, in this case very narrow. There’s traffic so I can’t stop to take a photo, and in a moment it’s gone. Little by little we become more aware of the canal, being lovingly restored by a bunch of volunteers.

Barging into the lock

Barging in

About three-quarters of the two century old canal runs from the River Trent, but it stops short, near the Kiveton Park railway station. Here the canal was damaged by mining subsidence and filled in. At the Chesterfield end, a new marina has been built and the canal runs for about eight miles up to Stavely Hall, a stately home, where the canal was filled in and partly covered with development. In 2003, the Worksop to Norwood Tunnel stretch of the canal was reopened, with 30 restored locks, one new lock and three new bridges. The stretch from the tunnel to Stavely will be the toughest to restore, and the canal may be rerouted, with new locks being added if the tunnel cannot be repaired.

The hard work begins

The hard work begins

People say, though I have to take their word for it, that the Chesterfield Canal is one of the most beautiful waterways in England. It runs through green fields, lush forests and verdant farmland, with a couple of towns on the way. There’s no sign of the former collieries and industry it once supported. We spot little bits of the canal when we go shopping in Worksop, or to catch the London train in Retford, but mostly it meanders through lovely English countryside. For hikers, ramblers and strollers — like Diane and I — the towpath can be walked the entire route, although I have not checked out this assertion myself. I’ll take the guide book’s word for it. Almost until the end of the canal’s industrial life, horses were used to tow the boats. Now, small engines do the work. The speed limit is four miles an hour.

The lock begins to fill

The lock starts to fill

Near our village of Thorpe Salvin there’s an impressive series of locks which lift the canal boats up the hill.  On a recent hot summer’s morning, I’m taking garbage to the local dump when I spot a narrow boat coming up the canal. I park at the side of the road and wait at the lock to speak to the skipper and crew. The skipper drives the boat fearlessly into the narrow entrance to the dock, while his lady crew darts off and unlocks the sluice. Then she takes a winch handle they have carried with them and releases the water in the lock until the lock and the canal are level. With a great deal of effort she pushes the first lock gate open and the skipper uses the nose of the boat to edge the other one open. Interesting technique, which accounts for the dents and dings on the front of the barge. I wouldn’t like to try that with my plastic boat. The locks are so tight to the boat that there’s no room for fenders.

Almost ready to leave

Almost ready to leave

This boat is even skinnier than a traditional narrow boat, as the barges on the Chesterfield Canal developed independently from other systems. They were as wide as they needed to be for the work at hand.  There was usually only a crew of two, who slept ashore in their own homes. These boats do not come with the colourful decorations associated with those on other wider canals, where barge dwellers had time for fanciful works of art.

While the lock fills with water to lift the barge up to the next level, I ask the skipper if his good lady always handles the locks. She doesn’t like to steer, he replies. However, when I chat with her she’s more than happy to let me help with opening the other end of the lock. My word, it’s hard work. By the time I have one gate open, I’m exhausted. I’ve been pushing on the long lock arm from an almost horizontal position, toes dug into the rough bricks usefully positioned in the arc of the swing. The skipper barges the other gate open and I tell the lady crew to hop on and that I’ll close the lock after them. Once they’ve gone through, it’s slightly easier to close the gates, the water levels now being even and the current helping me rather than fighting me.

Only three locks to go

Only three locks to go

Their destination is the Shireoak Marina, with only three more locks to go. To get to the top and final stretch of the canal there are 20 or more locks. Some of these are double and treble staircase locks. One of these stairs, though I don’t know which, is among the earliest ever built in England, over 240 years ago.

The canal was once used to haul away coal from the extensive local mines, and good Yorkshire limestone from the quarry in South Anston, returning with corn and timber for Derbyshire. The quarry supplied the stone for the Houses of Parliament in London.

Marina full of narrow boats

Marina full of narrow boats

The Chesterfield Canal Trust has three narrow boats available for charter. Details are on the links. The John Varley operates on the Chesterfield end of the restored waterway, running the five miles between Tapton Lock and Stavely. The Seth Ellis is based in Retford and can be taken upstream to the head of navigation at Kiveton, or downstream towards West Stockwith and the junction with the River Trent. The newest boat, the Hugh Henshall, is based near us at Kiveton. It’s named after a famous canal builder.

We missed the Thorpe Salvin Lunch Club charter just before our last visit, but on our next visit to UK we’ll get more organized and sign up for one of their tours. I look forward to visiting some of the old pubs along the canal: two are called the Lock Keeper, then there’s the Canal Tavern, the Rum Runner, the Boat Inn and the Waterfront Inn. All aptly named. I think we’ll enjoy a beverage in many of them soon.