Algoma Sailing Club
St. Mary's River,  Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

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Sailors sobered by low water levels, weighing their options.

RICHARD PLAUNT, Special to Sault This Week.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012 12:07:24 EDT PM
SAULT STE. MARIE, ONTARIO - Members of Algoma Sailing Club walked on what-used-to-be-water again on Saturday, the day of the annual haul-out ritual.

Diverse forces had colluded for the second time in less than a week to present an historic low, if not in Lake Huron-Michigan, certainly in the lower St. Marys River and in the sailboat basin at Bellevue Park.

A week ago Sunday-Monday, Oct. 14/15, club members noted with dismay that they could cross to the island east of the clubhouse without even wetting their feet. This boded ill.

Their boats remained at the moorings and some of the craft rested precariously on their keels, or floated barely off the riverbed. Approaching the dock had proven touch-and-go during the summer, the “high-water” season, so with the level so low, how could they move close enough to shore for the crane coming on Saturday to haul them to their cradles and trailers for winter storage?

Brian Christie, commodore of the sailing club, said members did react to the “impending crisis” but had a trick up their sleeves.

“We decided that we were going to bring in as many of the big boats sooner and if necessary raft them up and that’s what we finally went with,” Christie said. “It was a decision taken on the weekend.”

The raft, in the end, was a construction of eight sailboats all tied together with soft bumpers, “fenders”, between them so they wouldn’t damage one another.

Water levels fluctuated throughout the week. The deepest draft sailboats -- drawing from four-and-a-half to more than five feet -- by Thursday were nestled at the dock, nearby a deep hole within reach of Sterling Crane, contracted by the club for Saturday’s haul-out.

For sailboats with shallower draft, “It was a matter of timing for folks,…finding time to get down here and pick your time to get to the gin pole when the water was up to get your mast down,” Christie said.

A “gin pole” is a permanent fixture at the clubhouse and at most marinas that cater to sailboaters. It’s like a flag standard but with an arrangement of lines and pulleys and a winch that sailors employ when they must raise or lower their masts at the beginning or the end of a season.

Gerry Neave was among the owners whose boat was rafted. His boat stood keel in the mud last Monday. He expressed concern during the week that the water level on Saturday would take another dramatic plunge at least partly because Brookfield and Cloverland during nights and on weekends, hold back water above the power plants upriver from the sailing club and that winds might shift again from northwest, a combination that typically lowers the water level in the river below the rapids.

This compounds the effect of water levels in Lake Huron-Michigan that have dropped to near the historic low, according to the International Joint Commission.

The record lows for Huron-Michigan were set in the 1950s, Neave said. “We’re almost there.”

“Monday definitely set a new low,” said Chuck Holgate, a member of Algoma Sailing Club for more than 30 years. The trend over the years has travelled “lower and lower and Monday certainly reached a new extreme in that regard… Between Sunday noon and Monday morning there was probably a foot to a foot-and-a-half drop.”

He ascribed the phenomenon to air pressure and winds and by Thursday, “We’re up approximately two feet from Monday morning. We’re not used to that kind of a swing in a non-tidal area like we are.”

The “mud-flats” of Monday contrasted with conditions in the mid-1980s. “The water was one inch or so above our parking lot, over our seawall and it is now more than six feet below that seawall… Obviously there’s up and down variables involved but we’ve lost more than six feet in the last 25 years or so, six feet of water that has just not returned and one must assume is not likely to [return] in really short order,” Holgate said.

Saturday, haul-out day, at 7 a.m. Christie saw a return of the mud-flats. “The guys walked out… Somebody picked up a coke bottle, an old-style coke bottle in the mud. (One of the club members) walked out around the island and back.”

But the water came back. “We actually saw the water start to come back,” so the haul-out became “as routine as you can expect under the circumstances,” Christie said.

A bystander could see the water, almost miraculously, creeping up the shore throughout the morning.

Planners reconfigured the order of the lift-out as the water rose, so everyone got out by noon, on schedule, the commodore said.

This year’s experience has “spurred members to start considering longer-term options if the (low—water) trend is likely to continue,” Christie said.

Dredging is costly and has its drawbacks, “so, is there a third alternative, that’s sort of where the thinking is at right now – what are the possible options?”

Club members will mull it over during the winter.

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