June 18, 2022

Boating the Small Craft Route of Georgian Bay to the North Channel

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Cruising to Killarney, Little Current, Manitoulin Island and Drummond Island MI

At Port Severn, on the eastern end of Georgian Bay, some Loopers turned off to attend a Loopers rendezvous at Beacon Bay Marina in Penetanguishene; others, like us, entered the Small Craft Route. Still others shot across the bay to Killarney. Here was our experience boating Ontario’s Small Craft Route in Georgian Bay in our trawler.

High Life in Canadian cruising waters

We used the Ports Cruising Guide (see Resources) and government paper charts of the Small Craft Route to take us through the 175-mile passage from Port Severn to Killarney. Many veteran cruisers consider this region, which includes the thirty thousand islands of Georgian Bay, to be the most beautiful cruising waters in the world.

A good source of information about Georgian Bay is Visit Georgian Bay


Rocky Waters Await

As we entered Potato Island Channel, we were immediately faced with a maze of rocks—lots of them—jutting out of the water and many more we knew were lurking below. We slowly got accustomed to reading the new Canadian Small Craft charts and adjusting to the beautifully clear blue-green water as we followed markers that made corkscrew turns in narrow, rock-lined channels. Maneuvering was dicey, and we were fortunate that the wind was down and there was no bright sun to cast shadows.

Navigating with rocks lining the Small Craft Route, not exactly a relaxing passage

We hadn’t been underway long when we heard a distress call from a forty-four-foot cruiser behind us, a boat that had hit a rock in Potato Island Channel. To say it was an intimidating place is an understatement.

We watched in awe as we passed massive rock formations and granite cliffs covered with white birch and lush green pine. As we trekked along, we noted the heritage of names like Beausoleil Island (French) and Musquash Channel (Native American). It didn’t take long to realize boating Ontario’s Small Craft Route in Georgian Bay was different from what we expected.

We approached Honey Harbour with plans to anchor there for the night and passed the activity on the beach at the Delaware Inn. It was mid-week so there wasn’t much traffic in the channel, but we mused how uncomfortable the docks would be on a busy weekend. About a mile up the lovely shoreline we found our way to a cove where we wanted to drop the hook.

Saved by friendly folks

Friendly Canadian (unseen below our bow) came out to help dislodge our anchor from seaweed

The anchor went down but wouldn’t bite so we dragged across the cove. While the windlass grinded the anchor up we saw it encased in a block of seaweed, so thick that Gene’s attempt to dislodge it with a boat hook would take forever. A fishing skiff with a man and two young boys came out from one of the cottages. The guy slowed his boat to an idle and pulled out a machete saying, “My brother-in-law tried to anchor here last month, and this was the only way I could get his anchor free of the grass,” as he proceeded to hack away with a vengeance.

While he worked another boat appeared with a young woman who said, “If you’re looking for the marina, it’s just up the cove a little way,” and off she went. As the Good Samaritan was freeing our anchor from the weeds, we looked in our Ports Guide and saw an ad for “South Bay Cove Marina.” We didn’t want to attempt anchoring in the seaweed again and our call to them on the VHF assured us we were welcome.

Finding safe haven from a small tornado

South Bay Cove Marina

After profusely thanking the man with the machete we were on our way and just a few miles beyond we saw a large marina tucked in a secluded tree-lined cove. We got docking directions and were told to proceed down a long floating dock lined with boats. Two young women arrived on a golf cart to catch lines, and we were quickly secured to the dock. They adjusted the cleats to our length with a wrench on a wood and metal docking system we’d never seen. “Do you need a pump out, want satellite TV or a Wi-Fi connection?” one of them asked. What a place we lucked into! As we walked ashore to register and see the place, we joked we hadn’t the foggiest idea where we were in Ontario, but we sure liked wherever it was. The grounds were lushly landscaped and maintained with bright red and pink flowers in hanging containers and planter boxes. The explosion of colors punctuated the pinky salmon and gray granite boulders that outline the walkways. The main building had a wide wraparound porch filled with Adirondack chairs where we had an ice cream bar and pondered our good fortune in finding this place. It was at least ninety degrees when we returned to the boat and heard a revised weather update—a severe thunderstorm was headed our way.

And severe it was, a small tornado in fact, that came in after dark with lightning strikes surrounding us and wind thrashing every which way. We watched a DVD on the laptop, Six Days, Seven Nights to take our minds off the howling winds and rain pelting our cabin top. While Harrison Ford and Anne Heche were being tossed about in an airplane, we were watching lightning hits around us that sucked power out of the laptop; we finished the movie on batteries.

The next morning electrical power and the water system were brought back online at the marina, and fortunately there was no damage done to boats or buildings. We found the morning newspaper delivered on deck and took it to the clubhouse where we enjoyed coffee and cookies with several other boaters. The tornado or microburst—there were conflicting reports—was the topic of discussion.

Back on the Small Craft route we stopped at marinas and anchorages along the way, the weather being the primary determining factor. If high winds were forecast, we’d stay at a marina; in clear and calm conditions, we would anchor in a protected cove.

Henry’s Fish Restaurant in Parry Sound

It was early morning when we passed the popular Henry’s Fish Restaurant in Parry Sound, so we continued onward. We tried to set the anchor in Snug Harbor but couldn’t find the reported good holding. Instead, we moved and dropped the hook at Thistle Island, a lovely anchorage across from Regatta Bay.

TIP  Our firsthand experience using binoculars on a boat: Binoculars are vulnerable on a boat. An unexpected roll from a passing boat wake can send binocs onto a hard deck surface or worse, bouncing off the boat. To protect binoculars, stow them near the helm so they’re readily available but tucked in a safe cubby that prevents them from being damaged.

While we were there (mid-July), boat traffic seemed light. But we were happy to see a surprising number of beautifully maintained woodies, Chris-Crafts and Pacemakers, among others, along with numerous aluminum skiffs that skimmed across the waters.

Hangdog Channel without a working GPS

When we passed Pointe au Baril lighthouse, we found ourselves in a nasty situation near Hangdog Channel. Here we were surrounded by open water exposed to the full fetch of Georgian Bay. All around us were boulders jutting out of the swells of choppy, three-foot seas. Suddenly our GPS showed a large blank, white area where the paper chart indicated a channel. Confused and worried, we came to the same conclusion: “Let’s get outta here.” Gingerly, we turned around in the narrow channel and retraced our path through the markers to Pointe au Baril; then we headed out the channel to the relatively safety of the bay.

In retrospect we could have avoided the trauma if we had taken a better look at the fine print on our charts. The Small Craft charts had been updated because of the low lake water, while our electronic chart had not. If we had compared the two the night before, we would have noticed the difference. We still would have turned back, but at least it would not have been such a surprise to see the plotter screen go blank.

Wright’s Marina in Britt, Ontario

 After a brief sigh of relief, we set a course to Byng Inlet, where we found shelter at Wright’s Marina in Britt. All was good that afternoon when the local bakery lady walked the docks with lemon tarts and brownies, which the fleet bought up in record time.

The North Channel

The sky was overcast when we ran from Byng Inlet to Killarney, at the western end of Georgian Bay. But the sun came out and cast its light on the rugged pink granite of the LaCloch Mountains as we approached the channel between the town of Killarney and George Island.

In the early 1800s, Killarney was a trading center on the voyageurs’ route to the Northwest; today it’s a popular cruisers’ stopover between Georgian Bay the North Channel.

Destination: Little Current, ON

The run in the North Channel to Little Current was short but choppy. After passing Strawberry Island Light, we slipped under the bridge to the town pier and were assigned a slip at one of the fifty new floating docks.

Little Current, Ontario

The next day dawned with strong winds and rain, so we used the time to do laundry and boat chores, readying ourselves to push on and explore places we’d never been.

Cruising past Clapperton Island, we encountered a maze of sailboat masts sprouting from the Benjamins. The place looked crowded, and since we’d been there in the past, we headed to the north shore of Manitoulin Island. Our first stop was Gore Bay, a small harbor town with sandy white beaches fronting aquamarine waters.

Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario

Tied to the dock was a forty-four-foot trawler that had sunk in Clapperton Channel during a bad storm a couple of weeks earlier. We had heard rumors about the boat, which had been chartered by a family of five who, fortunately, survived the ordeal. Just seeing the boat was a sobering reminder of how dangerous cruising in this region can be.

Manitoulin Island

Skirting the Manitoulin coastline we found Meldrum Bay, a little harbor with a nice anchorage, a small marina and not much else. We met other cruisers and invited them for drinks, all of us enjoying the quiet and peaceful setting. A good source of visitors information is Explore Manitoulin.

Meldrum Bay, Manitoulin Island

We were in route to Drummond Island, Michigan, when we heard our friends on Sea Time and Just Enuff call the marina on the VHF; so, we followed them in and shared our Canadian adventures over dinner. Clearing U.S. Customs was as simple as filling out a form and handing over twenty-five dollars for a decal, which we could have purchased before we left had we known we needed it. With more threatening wind and rain in the forecast, we laid over before heading across Lake Huron. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to go to Mackinac Island. While we have fond memories of partying there after many Mac races, we had heard that tourism had overtaken its charm, so we decided to keep our recollections intact and instead head for Mackinaw City on the mainland.

Dark clouds were ominous as we passed the marina at Detour Island, our last opportunity to tie up before crossing the lake. While the sky looked threatening, conditions were expected to be benign so we pressed on. We loved our time in Canadian waters, but it felt good to be back in the States.

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Gene and Katie Hamilton are veteran sail and power boaters and award winning boating writers. They are authors of Coastal Cruising Under Power and Practical Boating Skills. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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