What I Did In This Summer -- Dock Masters In paradise


By Tom Morkin

Without a doubt, Liz and I continue to cruise after 23 years because we’ve established a pattern of getting off the boat at fairly regular intervals, sometimes to go someplace to play (summer of 2006 we motorcycled to western Canada, and summer 2007 to eastern Canada) and sometimes to work (American Samoa, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, China).

Well, in the summer of 2008, we left Feel Free in Malta, and took off to the North Channel of Georgian Bay in the Great Lakes to work as dock masters in the marina of Killarney Mountain Lodge, one of the premier resorts in northern Georgian Bay.

Killarney Mountain Lodge, our place of employment and enjoyment during the summer months of 2008, is a rustic yet elegant wilderness resort on the North Channel of Georgian Bay.

Killarney Mountain Lodge is strategically located on the northern shores of Georgian Bay, sometimes dubbed the sixth Great Lake. It lies on the eastern end of the famed North Channel, a favorite for those who like a touch of wilderness in their cruising grounds. It’s in the land of pre-Cambrian Canadian Shield where the famed “Group of Seven” -- Canadian artists during the early 1900s -- came to capture on canvas the essence of Canada’s boreal wilderness. It’s a land of pine, birch, and maple forests, precariously surviving on pink granite and white quartzite bedrock. A more magnificent place to mess around on a boat would be hard to imagine.

After being customers of marinas for years, I’ve often thought what a perfect job this would be for a pair of inveterate boaters. After all, what could be better than to be paid for messin’ around boats, especially in an area of crystal waters proclaimed by many to be one of the finest freshwater cruising destinations in the world.

Good friends Dave Allester and Eileen Quinn, former BoatU.S contributors, and Captain and First Mate of the Lodge’s sailboat, Stormy Night, take Lodge guests for day sails and sunset cruises.

“How did you land such a great gig?” our friends asked. Well, through the cruiser network, it just so happens. While motorcycling around Canada last summer, we visited our good buddies and former BoatU.S. cruiser-log contributors, David Allester and Eileen Quinn. Dave and Eileen are Captain and First Mate of the Cal 246 Stormy Night owned by the Lodge; their job is to take guests for day sails and sunset cruises.

During our three-day visit with them, we were blown away by the beauty of this part of Canada. Liz and I had heard and read about it in sailing magazines but never actually seen it for ourselves. Later in the summer, when it was announced that Murray and Heather, the dock masters who sail their C & C 40 in the Caribbean in the winter, and had been the dock masters for the past eight summers, were retiring from their positions, we quickly made ourselves available.

The crew of the Boat House at Killarney Mountain Lodge’s Marina.

Our job description as dock masters was basically to manage a 25-slip marina that caters to transient boats. We also rented out canoes, kayaks, aluminum skiffs with outboards, pumped fuel and waste, and even ferried hikers to nearby George Island. All this we did with a staff of six.

 Killarney Mountain Lodge is and has been lovingly owned by Maury and Annabelle East for the past 47 years. They are referred to respectfully as the Mr. and the Mrs. by the populace of Killarney. The care and attention paid is duly reflected in all aspects of the lodge, from the gardens to the cuisine to the maintenance. They’ve built a first-class resort that provides the quintessential Georgian-Bay experience to guests who’ve been returning for decades.

A close look at a chart quickly reveals that this part of Ontario is a watery place. Apart from Georgian Bay, countless bodies of freshwater abound. Once off the bay, yachts are replaced by canoes and kayaks. Not surprisingly, a significant percentage of yachts carry kayaks in addition to their inflatables. For me, the summer of 2008 was the summer of the kayak. The simple, minimalist elegance and efficiency of these sleek craft have long appealed and this summer allowed me to indulge in that fascination.

Maury and Annabelle East, of Killarney Mountain Lodge.

Life on a cruising sailboat is a life of constant maintenance, endless problem solving, and continuous vigilance of things mechanical, electrical, electronic, hydraulic, and even chemical. By contrast, the low-maintenance kayak asks only that you provide the muscular propulsion and that you keep your head up and the bottom of the kayak down. I can’t imagine a more intimate way to explore hard-to-access waterways. Repeatedly, unseen and unheard, I could approach loons, merganser ducks, blue herons, cormorants, even a cow moose.

Kayaking -- my latest addiction

Comfortably wedged in the kayak with the skirt tightly fastened around the cockpit and only inches above the water, you feel a unique connectedness with the water. Half the body is below the waterline, half above. It’s a sensation of half boating, half swimming as you stroke your way through a watery wilderness -- far cry from negotiating a 51-foot-sloop with 12,000 pounds of lead attached to its bottom some 8 feet below the waterline.

I hope that as Liz and I move along that sailboat/powerboat/motor-home/rest-home/funeral-home road, there will be a lot of kayak time. Maybe during the power-boat stage, when deck space isn’t such an issue, or maybe they’ll let me keep one at the rest home.

More than three months into the job, in September, things were quickly winding down and we took time to reflect on the summer. As expected, it was interesting to be on the receiving end of a dock line rather than the throwing end. To see the marina from the eyes of a dock master rather than the boater was enlightening and entertaining.

I got to observe an amazing variety of wildlife while in my kayak. Liz’s personal bear-sightings count amounted to 31 by the end of the summer -- a couple of them a bit too close for comfort!

Here’s my list of top ten things I learned from being a dock master:

1 - Don’t try throwing a 10-foot bow line 20 feet to a waiting dockhand

2 - Secure one end of the dock line before throwing the other end.

3 - When taking on fuel, don’t tell the dockhand to ‘gas her up’ when you really want diesel. You might get what you ask for.

4 - Put the fenders down before approaching the dock, not after crashing into it.

5 - Don’t tell the dock master your 40-foot boat is 40 feet overall when it has 6 feet of dinghy and davits hanging off the transom and a 5-foot bowsprit forward of the bow. Even the best of skippers has a hard time putting a 51-foot boat in a 40-foot space.

6 - If the marina personnel are nice enough to give you permission to tie alongside the marina’s service dock for 10 minutes, try to be considerate enough to be gone at least within the hour.

Josee, one of the dock hands, always had a smile, even when pumping out waste.

7 -- Be nice to the person who’s pumping out your holding tank. Some of the pumps can pump two ways.

8 -- Don’t tell the dock master that you need to go bow in because your sailboat doesn’t back up. He only hears that about 10 times a day.

9 -- When opening the deck cap of the holding tank on a hot day, if any sound of escaping gas is heard, politely tell the skipper to remove the cap himself and retreat from the scene until the cap is completely removed.

10 -- On a less flippant note, I learned that that long-term cruisers may not always be ideally suited to perform all duties of the dock master, especially in dealing with the more demanding clientele. “Why is that?” you may ask. “Surely all that experience with boats would be an asset in the marina business.”  Yeah, but maybe one can have too much experience. Let me explain. Most cruisers spend a lot of time engaged in labor-intensive activities. We schlep water, diesel, gas, and food; we often do our own laundry, maintenance, and so on. Furthermore, we rarely get to plug into shore power. We often go weeks and even months without visiting a marina. Case in point: From January 2001 to May 2002, 16 months, when Liz and I sailed from Hawaii to Gladstone, Australia, not only did we not visit a marina, we never even brought Feel Free alongside a dock.

A more beautiful cruising ground would be hard to imagine.

After years of boating in this relatively Spartan and self-reliant manner, coping with the demands of some of the marina clientele we met was challenging, to say the least. In one case the owner/skipper of a $2 million  boat complained that the marina was only able to provide him with enough electricity to run the stove, fridges, freezers, entertainment center, and only one of his three air conditioners. Keep in mind that this is northern Georgian Bay Canada; we’re not talkin’ hot here. To show how severe was the situation he moaned he might have to use his generator to get all the aircon units operating.

At times like these, I had to block out the memories of sweltering, sweaty, sleepless nights in the tropics when the 4-inch,12-volt fan didn’t move enough air to get through the mosquito netting draped over the berth. Best also to block out memories of the old days when we had to put the book down and go to sleep early because the draw from the light was draining the boat’s batteries.

Inside the Boat House of Killarney Mountain Lodge, Liz attends to some of the dock master’s clerical tasks

Then and only then could I look at the skipper  and summon the required mournful expression and do my best to not  tell the offended party how little sympathy I really had for his “regrettable circumstance.” Sometimes, long-term cruisers carry too much emotional baggage to the dock-master’s job. All in all though, those instances were rare, and for the most part, who better can understand how to take care of a boater than a boater?

The fact of the matter is we met lots of terrific boaters with interesting stories to tell, including a surprising number of long-distance cruisers. At least two dozen boats were “Loopers,” a term I just learned this summer. For those not in the know, The Loop is the boat trip that takes in the Caribbean, Eastern Seaboard, and some of the Great Lakes. Two European boats, one French, one German, were both circumnavigating, and three boat crews were just setting out for a multi-year cruise to who knows where.


This young family visited our marina in the early days of their multi-year cruise

This couple has two boats -- Whatknot for cruising during the summer months in the Georgian Bay area, and another boat in the Bahamas, on which they live while teaching in the winter months

When September arrived, the leaves began to change color. Although the Lodge was still attracting guests, the boathouse was not. We began to look out on rows of boatless docks. The boats from Southern Ontario and Michigan departed, taking their crews back home for school or work.

It should have been a depressing sight, however behind the row of boatless docks was the beautiful pink-granite cap rock, aglow in the setting sun. The now fire-engine-red maple trees of autumn almost perfectly reflected in the mirror-like Killarney channel. It was just too sublimely serene to be depressing. The empty docks also meant that our Canadian summer was over. 

It was a great hiatus from cruising, but after four months we were certainly ready and eager to get back to Feel Free. We had the boat on the hard with the usual boat projects awaiting us, but this separation from the boat provided a renewed enthusiasm for our cruising lifestyle. For us, leaving the cruising life every now and again is good. We just gotta get off the boat once in awhile! That way, the beaches don’t start looking the same, stunning sunsets continue to stun, dolphins cavorting in bow waves still captivate. Life maintains its freshness. It is all a question of balance.

What an end to an extraordinary summer.
We explored the entire region with kayaks, and have become addicted.

Killarney Mountain Lodge, from the air..