Messing about in boats

Want to get a piece of Hatfield's action? Chuck in the cottage and chart a course for open water.

As far back as I can remember, I've had gas. Don't get me wrong–I'm no bathroom baritone. I'm talking internal combustion of the motorized kind. I grew up with power boats, mini bikes and snowmobiles. Even my favourite toys spit out exhaust. That's why my nickname was Hazzard. Flat U. Lance was my brother.

Gas was supposed to play a major role in my adult life. After buying a sports car, I set out to acquire a wife, house and cottage in Ontario beer-drinking country–where I expected to raise offspring on planet-killing recreational vehicles.

I bought a slick twin-engine jet boat (and an SUV to pull it around)–back when a barrel of oil cost less than half what it costs today. Since then, my wife and I purchased a house in Toronto, where the average home now costs more than $360,000. Spending that kind of dough on a big-city fixer-upper pretty much nixed any hope we had of owning a cottage. It didn't, however, stop a kid from turning up. I now live with a 19-month-old slave-driver, whose many needs rank higher than fuel for my jet-propelled baby.

What's a working stiff to do? Turning my back on my power-boat pals, I took a vow of silence and joined a cult that thinks rope should be called a sheet. In other words, I became a sailor, which is why I now have a floating cottage 10 minutes from home.

Take a good look at Open Season (pictured above). It's a Wally 94.3 super-yacht built for Thomas Bscher, CEO of Bugatti Automobiles. I couldn't afford anything like it. Anybody with a credit rating, however, can get a sailing vessel that offers the same thrill and seaworthiness–thanks to the wonderful forces of supply and demand.

Waterfront cottages may be in record demand, thanks to all the baby boomers getting ready to live the life of retired Riley. But old age is also forcing boomers ashore, where they're selling lots of boats. Sailing is still popular, but it isn't growing like in the early '70s, when the OPEC oil embargo helped turn consumers onto the sport, and the introduction of fiberglass spawned a building boom of long-lasting boats. In the U.S., the number of active sailors dropped to 2.8 million in 2001, from 4 million in 1992. In Canada, empty slips at clubs and marinas indicate a similar trend.

According to Ottawa-based market expert Michael McGoldrick, the strong Canadian dollar makes it worthwhile to look for large boats in the U.S. But under 30 feet, he advises, “stick with the Canadian market.” Either way, boat broker Ewan Campbell reports prices range from about $5,000 for entry-level sailboats to about $120,000 for well-kept 40-footers, some of which have stainless steel ovens, not to mention fireplaces.

My family owns a 1972 C&C Shark, a 24-foot keelboat. Caliban, named after the pleasure-seeking monster in The Tempest, was an entry-level purchase that lacks all the luxuries Open Season boasts. But it is a racer that rich sailors respect, and it has a V-berth fit for a king (providing that king is a tired kid). It also has couches that serve as beds for two full-sized adults, plus a toilet, stove, sound system, DVD player and a GPS-compatible VHF radio that will bring the coast guard with a push of a button.

Whoever said the shortest distance between two points is a straight line was probably a landlubber. Sailors zigzag. Depending on wind, it takes anywhere from a few hours to a whole day for my crew to work our way from a marina in the east end to a weekend mooring on Toronto Island–where you can wine and dine with the best skyline view imaginable. We hit the beaches, zoo and amusement park, and our daughter can run free as there isn't a car to be found.

We used to take day trips to the island with my jet boat. It took 15 minutes, which was good because it is a small craft with no place to pee and the screaming engines make every minute on the water feel like a decade. In the Shark, I could run the engine and cut travel time to any destination in half. But I don't. When sailing, you don't look at your watch, unless you're racing. You arrive when you arrive; nobody blows a gasket, because the medium is the vacation. (Think of that next time you hit bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to the cottage.)

We bought our boat before learning to sail. “That wasn't a great idea,” says Neil Gillespie, who runs Nautical Escapes, a sailing school out of east Toronto's Bluffer's Park. Gillespie's right. Sailing isn't complicated, but it is a science, and a little knowledge will tell you a lot of things to look for in a used boat. Sailors, for example, use different sails for different weather conditions, but not every boat will have them all. And since not everyone can stomach boats designed to tilt, Gillespie suggests couples first take a course and try out a sailing club before buying.

When shopping, don't think too hard about aesthetics. “If you're looking at two similar deals,” says Mike Macdonald, a salesperson with the Rigging Shoppe in Toronto, “and one boat is everything you imagined and the other is a funny pink boat loaded with tons of electronics and gear, buy the pink one.” After all, one of the best things about buying used is that someone else paid for all the bells and whistles. My boat, for example, came with an autopilot that makes life easier when sailing alone.

An autopilot, of course, can also be used under power–which means it can free my hands anytime I need to open a beverage or change a diaper. Gas isn't an issue. My neglected jet boat has enough in it to feed Caliban for about five years.