Old man will be in a boat, soon, hopefully

By Mike Williscraft

At the first opportunity, Ian Robertson is going to be doing what he loves – sailing – but his next voyage will be decidedly different.

The Grimsby resident has charted out a route which will take him around the Great Lakes on a sailing/rowing expedition – the Old Man In A Boat Tour – with a goal to raise $10,000 for the World Wildlife Fund as part of the plan.

While his initial plan started about four years ago was to develop a route to sail a European tour – including along the Danube. A bout with cancer set those plans back and now COVID-19 impacts have affected travel, so his plan has morphed into a localized rendition.

And like the route itself – unique and one of a kind – so too is the craft in which Ian will execute his plan.

“Rudder fittings are one of the only standard pieces, but this boat has never been designed before. It’s different,” Ian says.

Ian Robertson planes one of his boat components on a work bench at his Nelles Street North home. Williscraft – Photo

“The sails are different. We’re trying lots of new stuff, actually. It’s a little scary, but I have enough experience that I feel it will work. We do not have a blueprint for some of these parts.”

There really is no prior design to go by at all, save for a drawing Ian once saw from a Swedish craftsman years ago.

“These things are all untried. Now, I didn’t invent that idea. I found it on a sailing canoe that a Swedish guy drew but has never built. I wrote to him, but he was too busy with other projects to suggest how to build these mast supports, so we’re having to make that up as we go along,” said Ian.

“He has built it for larger boats, so he knows the system works but we are left with how to make it strong enough to support things at an angle because you’re counting on a lot of strength. We’re improvising.”

And that is very much how the retired math teacher has lived his life, ready for change and prepared to adapt.

“My parents started me in a sailing program at the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club when I was 10. I came home and said, ‘That’s what I want to do’,” he recalled.

“I went through their junior program and then was an instructor. Then at 17 or 18, I ran their programs for them for a couple of years.”

Then it was off to university to study physics and chemistry before getting back involved in sailing by taking on a brand new program Hamilton Harbour Commissioners were looking to develop in 1974-75.

“They wanted to set up a sailing program with the big difference being this would reach young kids who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to sail,” Ian says, noting he ran the program for nearly 15 years.

One of the students who came to that program through the Boy Scouts, is now the director of the Ontario Sailing Association.

From there, while enjoying racing boats, Ian headed “over the pond” to enlist in the Royal Navy for a five-year stint.

While back home visiting his parents, he noticed an ad for a math teacher.

Ian Robertson on the water. Submitted photo

“I spotted an ad for Appleby College, so I wrote them. They got back to me and said we have a teacher who is on an exchange in England. Why don’t you meet up with him at the pub and we’ll see if he likes the cut of your jib. That’s how I got hired,” Ian say, adding he also ran a sailing program for the school.

After leaving Appleby for Ridley College, it was at Ridley where Ian connected with the WWF’s annual hike up the CN Tower fundraiser.

Now, Ian hopes to tie all that together for his journey around the lakes by combining his love of sailing and his charity of choice.

“I have asked WWF that proceeds go to watersheds – research and work on improving the water, protecting areas which feed other areas, tributaries.

People can donate right on my website – oldmaninaboattour.ca – which will take them to my World Wild Life page, so all donations get accredited to this tour, “The Old Man In a Boat Tour”.

Once restrictions lift, Ian will be going to Grand Bend to work “flat out” with builder Skip Izon – who has been integral – with the initial plan to launch the tour in mid-July.

Ian Robertson outlines the plan for his voyage

The plan is to complete, possibly in sections – a loop from Grimsby, along the north shore of Lake Ontario to Presquille – with luck, sailing most of the way.

From there the Trent-Severn Waterway will take me up to Port Severn and Georgian Bay. This part is where the rowing features of the boat will probably be used a lot more – especially when going through the locks!

Once into Georgian Bay, I will sail along the south shore until the Bruce Peninsula and the town of Wiarton.

Here, I will put the Greta T up on its wheels (a neat launching and retrieving device that stows in the boat, called a “C-Tug”.

It’s only about 11 km. across to Lake Huron at this point versus a long way around the peninsula via Tobermory with very few safe harbours on the way so as a precaution I am going to haul the boat (it’s pretty light) overland to Lake Huron.

I see this as being the half way point and hopefully the sail down the Lake Huron coast to Sarnia and then through to Lake Erie will be relatively straightforward.

Arriving back to the Niagara region at Port Colborne, another haul-out and walk with the boat on its wheels is needed to get back into Lake Ontario at Port Weller.

Fortunately, the path alongside the Welland Canal is pretty flat. From Port Weller, with favourable winds, it’s a day’s sail back to Grimsby.

Total distance?

It’s hard to judge too accurately as sailing sometimes won’t let you go from A to B directly, but I would say at a minimum it’s going to be about 1,300 km. and possibly up to 1,800! If everything goes well, I think it will take up to two months to complete.

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