Pass Me a Cold One: Early Season Boating on the Bay

Springtime on Georgian Bay and I am launched, prep’d, provisioned and most importantly out on my boat enjoying the Bay, and for the 3rd weekend in a row!

Boating in the early season can be one of spectacular beauty, quiet solitude, great fishing and no fuel dock lineups! However it also comes with a few challenges. Overnight frost warnings, water temps in the low 50’s, navigational buoys off station, and shore debris in the water can make this a difficult time for Captain and Crew! And don’t forget the dreaded chore of climbing out of bed in the frigid morning to greet the icy toilet seat! 😱

All kidding aside, this is a critical time to ensure you are well prepared and have a good safety plan in the event of an emergency.

My worst early season boating experience to date happened about 15 years ago. It was early May and my partner and I were bringing our new-to-us power boat home to Georgian Bay from Sarnia. It was our maiden voyage and while on Lake Huron, about 2 hours south of Tobermory, the port shaft snapped in half. The lower half dropped and luckily lodged against the rudder which kept it from exiting the boat and leaving a gaping hole! We continued for two terrifying hours on one engine to Little Tub Harbour where we were hauled out so repairs could begin. We ended up staying on the boat on the parking lot at Tobermory for 5 very cold, rainy days in May! But we appreciated that parking lot – oh yes! – as we shivered and pondered what might have happened to us had the shaft dropped out of the boat! Better a cold parking lot than the bottom of Lake Huron!

And regardless of that one event I still love the early season boating and the serenity that comes with being one of the first few back on the Bay after a long winter!

Here are a few tips we try and follow to keep ourselves safe and maximize our enjoyment on the water early season:

1. Check Canada Coast Guard NAVWARNS:

During the winter some of the navigational buoys get pushed off their station which can be very confusing to boaters who are unprepared or trying to navigate unfamiliar waters. Canada Coast Guard posts alerts for these buoys and has an online interactive map you may access to check the area you will be traveling through for navigational issues. Here is the link:

They also have a subscription service where you may sign up for Navwarn emails based on the area you boat. Here is that link:

2. Help will be slow to arrive!

During April and early May there are not many cottagers or other boaters on the Bay so if you encounter an issue don’t wait for a passerby. Your first call should be to Canada Coast Guard on vhf channel 16 (or *16 on your cell) and then 911.

The IRB (Inshore Rescue Boat) Stations, located at Britt and Brebeuf Island, are open from mid-May until early September. They are staffed by Canada Coast Guard trained university students and have fairly fast search and rescue vessels. Also, depending on the nature of your emergency, a call to the closest marina would be prudent. Most marinas on the Bay start opening mid-April and would likely have a vessel in the water they could use to reach you if needed.

Me passing an IRB, Indian Harbour

3. Reboarding and PFD’s:

It is essential to have a quick and easy re-boarding plan and ensure all on board understand and are comfortable with the method to be used. A person will not last long in 50 degree F water and the faster they can be removed the better.

We wear our PFDs the majority of the voyage and, upon arrival at our destination, will also wear them when we go out on deck at night or in the early morning, at least until the water temperature warms.

4. Equipment:

After our shaft episode I don’t like to travel too far from shore over cold water without a dinghy! And when traveling in the dinghy, I try to stay near shore.

And unless you are a cold weather survivalist, spring boating is most comfortable with a generator on board or some source of warmth. And don’t forget that spare impeller!

5. Communication:

File a float plan with a reliable friend and check in occasionally.

If you see a navigational buoy off station, report it to Canada Coast Guard on vhf channel 16.

6. Added warmth:

One of my necessities for sleeping on a cold boat is heated throws! We have two for the bed and one hour before bedtime we run the genny with them on high heat. That really helps take the chill out of the bed!

7. Lastly and most important – follow the expert’s advice!:

One of my personal favorites is the Canadian “Cold Water Boot Camp”put together by the Canada Safe Boating Council, Transport Canada and National Search and Rescue. If you haven’t visited this website it’s a must if you are planning to be out on the water this month. They provide a wealth of information about surviving cold water and what to do in the event of hypothermia. And it is presented in a fun and easy-to-follow format. Maybe you will even want to volunteer to be a future “camper”! Here is the link:

And an added note about this website – check out their graph on chances of surviving cold water based on body mass! Those of us with a few extra curves will survive way longer!! 😁

And although these tips won’t cure you of the cold morning toilet seat blues, hopefully they will give you the resources needed to extend your season! And then you can look forward to visiting the typically popular and busy summer anchorages when they look like this….

Frying Pan Bay, May 18, 2023

Below are some further links to information on the stages of hypothermia and what to do should you become immersed:

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