With a cloudless sky and the wind at our backs, we sail from Toronto on the idyll of a late-summer evening. One of the world's most dramatic cityscapes, T.O.'s skyline looks best from the waters of Lake Ontario, and tonight it's a postcard silhouette rising from a smouldering horizon.
On deck, skipper Eric Holden, team leader of Canadian Ocean Racing (@OceanRacers) and Canada's first-ever winner of a global circumnavigation race, splits our group of ten into two three-hour watches. My pod draws midnight to 3 a.m., which means we should already be below in our miserly, military-style hammocks catching some rest. But sleep seems anathema on the cusp of this starlit sojourn, with an inky sky bleeding into blue-steel waves and the atomic glow of the Golden Horseshoe — Canada's most populous region — shrinking behind us as we put off for an overnight haul to Kingston. Besides, there's much ado to get one of the massive mainsails from the hold and up the 30-metre mast. Ropes are rigged, levers opened and closed, pulleys threaded and engaged. People scurry, haul, winch. The work is intense and physical, its coordination key to not losing time. You see immediately where the sport in this lies. And the company is good, oh-so-skilled, and brimming with maritime yarns.
Holden is Canada's premier ocean yachtsman, winner of the 2013-2014 Clipper Round the World Race with the boat Henri Lloyd. His @OceanRacers co-founder Morgen Watson served as one of Holden's trusted watch leaders in that race while Meg Reilly, a marketing and communications pro, quit her day job to join them as Media Crew Manager. Then there's Aspiring Offshore Athletes Sandy Macpherson, sailing since the age of nine and logging some 20,000 nautical miles including a solo sail around Lake Ontario, and rigger Daniel Gaw, with 18,000 nM under his harness and studying nautical science at the Marine Institute in Newfoundland. From them, we hope to learn the ins and outs of offshore ocean sailing on the 60-foot sloop O Canada (formally Spirit of Canada). The first thing I learn, however, is the definition of the IMOCA (International Monohull Ocean Classes Association) Open 60 class in which she runs: the requirement is one permanent forestay, in our case the J2. If you know what that means you're probably a sailor. I claim no such a title, which also begs a question: what am I doing here?
To answer, let's go back to 1877 when a certain 35-year-old Norwegian named Helly Juell Hansen began producing marine jackets, trousers, sou'westers and tarps from coarse linen soaked in linseed oil. Having been at sea since age 14, Hansen knew a thing or two about the cold and misery faced by sailors and fishermen on the North Sea. Perhaps that's why he sold some 10,000 pieces in his first five years. After his death, son Leiv Helly-Hansen, already an experienced merchant, took over. With the new materials and textile innovations of the 20th century, the company became synonymous with Nordic waterproofing. Though a range of other outerwear, mid- and base-layer technology saw it enter the ski and outdoor worlds, Helly Hansen has never forsaken its seafaring roots, and advertisements in outdoor mags depicting sailors clinging to boat decks washed over by titanic waves were indelibly imprinted on my youthful mind. So when a call came from Helly to join @OceanRacers athletes for a little promotional shakedown sail, I was all in. I even expected a face-wash from a wave or two. Instead, it was more a celestial slap in the face.
Night shifts on a boat can be difficult — or magical. Fighting to stay awake after only one hour's sleepless lie down, my bobble-headed mates and I are reanimated by the annual Perseid meteor shower. A prolific, month-long light show associated with the comet Swift–Tuttle, the Perseids are so called because the point from which they appear — referred to as "the radiant" — lies in the constellation Perseus. That's in the lower northeast quadrant of the Eastern Canadian sky this time of year, precisely the direction we sail. This year the Perseids peak on August 13, today, at which point the rate of meteorage should be 60 – 100 per hour. We're in the perfect place at the perfect time for an unheralded show. Cradling the tiller, one eye on the digital readout that relays our speed and heading, shooting stars kick in above me. Around 1 a.m. they pour from the heavens like tinsel from a bowl, hot streaks against the cold black of a moonless night. Surprisingly, several reach the lower atmosphere, exploding in balls of light that briefly illuminate the boat, leaving a visible vapour trail with the Milky Way as a backdrop, as if someone set off a cosmic firework. So real is the effect that my nose twitches in anticipation of the smell of gunpowder, but all that comes on the breeze is algae.
Unlike other boats this size that are heavy fiberglass with a lead-weighted keel and steel fittings, O Canada is carbon light and gets pushed around mightily by the water; as a result you really have to stay focused on the tiller, especially when she picks up speed. But it's hard to stay focused after you haven't moved for an hour and you need to pee. I hand off.
Men pee overboard and women in a makeshift portable head filled with lavender kitty litter recently set up between two bunks (no one wants to be first to poo in it — racers normally use a bucket on deck — and so everyone fights off the urge right through to the next afternoon, despite snacking all night and scarfing the racers' freeze-dried food like champs in the day). While life can be Spartan on a racing boat, it's offset by the frequent beauty and strange goings-on over water, like a bat that arrives to slide down a sail and takes refuge in the ropes. It's obvious that offshore sailing isn't just a sport, but a lifestyle. One that might be hard to adjust to for most, and the only one for others.
From 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. my pod sleeps, lulled by the rhythm of open water. Sunrise is even more spectacular than sunset. A lake freighter passes between us and the molten orb, a ship-shaped dot emanating from somewhere amidst crushed velvet bunching on the horizon, the verdant green of Prince Edward County, just to the west of Kingston. Wind rises with the sun and somewhere in there, we hit a steady 15 knots.
Next week: Prince Edward County — Canada's new "it" destination?
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.