By Paul and Sheryl Shard 

My Happy PlaceBig Chute Marine Railway – Boats transiting
The Big Chute Marine Railway is Lock 44 of the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario. It works on an inclined plane to carry boats in individual cradles over a change of height of about 60 feet (18 m). It is the only marine railway of its kind in North America still in use, and is overseen by Parks Canada. It rolls into the water so boats can float over it, then they sit on the platform or are hung in slings to be carried out of the water and down to the slope to the water on the other side.
Photo by Sheryl Shard

It’s funny how a body of water can shape you. Shape your mood. Shape your friendships. Shape your future.

Since you’re reading Canadian Yachting, then I’m pretty sure you have a sense of what I’m talking about here - a favourite lake, bay, pond, river or ocean that, when you’re near it, in it or on it, it makes your heart sing and good things happen.

For me, this is Lake Simcoe and the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario. Although my husband, Paul, and I have sailed over 100,000 nautical miles in the four sailboats we’ve owned and have been blessed to visit awe-inspiring destinations around the world, we always return to “the lake”.

It’s where, as kids, we learned to swim, how to catch a fish, handle boats and where our love for the water and for one another developed. From a young age, we both spent wonderful times with our families on Lake Simcoe and the Trent-Severn Waterway which is managed by Parks Canada. Lake Simcoe is part of this 240 mile (386 km) inland waterway that runs from Trenton on Lake Ontario to Port Severn on Georgian Bay. Times in, on and near the water here strengthened our sense of who we are and, as teenagers, we developed self-confidence by participating in the many enjoyable activities available up at the lake – canoeing and kayaking, waterskiing, houseboating, camping and cottaging.

From a boating perspective, we learned how to start an outboard motor, how to row, how to dock, how to read a nautical chart and navigate, how to manoeuver boats of various sizes, how to transit a series of locks on trips through the rest of the Trent-Severn Waterway, how to handle all kinds of weather and ultimately to appreciate nature and wildlife. Lake Simcoe is indeed a body of water that shaped us and our future together. It was a shared love of boating here that brought us together and the skills learned on the lake have since helped us cross oceans.

Lake simcoe 2Although Paul and I are now blessed to spend most of the year living aboard our sailboat in the tropics (we earn our living as sailing authors and travel documentary television producers and videographers), Paul and I always come back to our roots. Our home base is on the lake where we and all our neighbours have a dock at the back door.

Lake Simcoe was called Ouentironk, meaning "Beautiful Water", by the native Wyandot (Huron) people in the area at the time of the first European contact in the 17th century. Its beautiful clear water and clean beaches have always been part of the lake’s appeal. It is just a 90 km drive north from downtown Toronto and city dwellers, who find the city beaches on Lake Ontario less appealing, can easily make the trip up.

Trent Severn 4Lake Simcoe was once known as Lake Toronto a derivation of taronto, an Iroguoina term meaning “gateway or pass”, which initially referred to The Narrows, a channel of water that connects Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching to the north. The Mohawk phrase to describe The Narrows was tkaronto which means "where there are trees standing in the water" so the name Toronto appears to be a derivation of these terms. The “trees standing in the water” refer to the fish weirs the native peoples placed in The Narrows due to the current flowing through here between to the two lakes. They drove wooden stakes into the water to create the weirs. Radiocarbon dating of surviving stakes found at The Narrows reveals that the weirs here were in use more than 4,000 years ago, at around the time the pyramids where being built in Egypt. This lake has been loved by many for a long time.

The terms used to describe The Narrows eventually became applied to the lake and also to a portage trail that led south to what is now the city of Toronto, which was named for the trail! Lake Toronto was later named Lake Simcoe by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lietuenant-Governor of Upper Canada, in memory of his father, Captain John Simcoe, Royal Navy.

Lake SImcoe 4Lagoon City, Lake Simcoe – The Shards with Rob and Sandra Gregory
Paul’s cousins are also based on Lake Simcoe so Paul and Sheryl often join them for power boat cruises aboard M/V “Life’s II Short” through the Trent-Severn Waterway when the Shards’ own boat is down south.
Photo by Paul Shard

Lake Simcoe is 30 km long and 25 km wide at its maximum width and is quite a shallow lake – 15 m average depth and 41 m at its deepest point – so it can kick up into short choppy dangerous seas in bad weather. Boaters planning to cross the lake need to heed that, even at its shortest distance from the Trent Canal in Beaverton to The Narrows at Atherley, they will be traveling 15 miles (24 km) across open water. It is prudent to check the weather before making the run and have a plan to come off the lake into one of the marinas or yacht clubs if the weather turns foul.

It is also prudent to heed the charts and pay attention to channel markers. It is a shallow lake with many shoals. The bible for boating on Lake Simcoe and the Trent-Severn Waterway is the Ports Guide to the Trent-Severn Waterway. Information is also available on the waterway website at

Lake SImcoe 5Popular restaurant along the waterway
Many restaurants along the Trent-Severn Waterway have docks to tie your boat to. 
Photo by Sheryl Shard

Because of its relative proximity to the city, the shoreline of Lake Simcoe is developed with many private cottages and beautiful homes. There are few protected bays. So if you love cruising you will find more natural places to anchor in other parts of the waterway especially up in Georgian Bay at the north end of the Trent-Severn Waterway. However, there are lovely natural spots for day anchoring in Lake Simcoe especially off the little islands in the lake (Thorah and Snake Island are favourites). Anchoring off the public beaches for swimming and sunning is also a great way to spend a day. Choose from several good marinas and yacht clubs for a secure place at night. You can find information online in the Ports Guide or at

In 2008 Paul and I brought our Southerly 42 sailboat home from the tropics and travelled from Lock 1 in Trenton on Lake Ontario to Lock 41, the lift lock in Gamebridge, which is the last lock before coming out onto Lake Simcoe. Due to the bridge restrictions of 22 feet we had to take the mast down and travel with it on deck through the system. We stepped the mast again at the city marina in Barrie, the only one large with a mast crane large enough to lift our 62 foot mast. With the mast up you are restricted to the lake so most boat owners find power boats are the best vessels for enjoyment on Lake Simcoe since you have the freedom to easily access rest of the Trent-Severn Waterway.
However there are 5 yacht clubs on Lake Simcoe with regular social events and racing schedules for sailing enthusiasts. When we’re home, we really enjoy the very friendly sailing scene here and are members of the Lagoon City Yacht Club.

Lake Simcoe 6Port Severn Lock Dock – Lounging in the water
The water in the Trent-Severn Waterway is very clean and clear, great for swimming or lounging in the water.
Photo by Sheryl Shard

When we were kids we travelled through various parts of the system with family and friends by houseboat. There are many charter companies you can rent from and houseboating is a good introduction to boating. It got us hooked on cruising.

Paul’s cousins are power boaters and are based on Lake Simcoe as well, so we have enjoyed lots of fun power boat cruises with them through the Trent-Severn Waterway. For most people traveling the system, the lift locks at Peterborough and Gamebridge are always highlights but I think everyone’s favourite is the Big Chute marine railway which is like a railway car that drives you down a steep slope. Your boat is secured to a platform and off you go like a fish out of water.

lake Simcoe 7Swift Rapids Lock – Highest lift of conventional locks
The Swift Rapids Lock is a modern hydraulic lock built in 1965. It replaced the old marine railway constructed in 1919. The large hydraulic power plant adjacent to the lock was built in 1917. It has the highest lift of all the conventional locks in the system – 47 feet. It is a popular overnight stop since it is very remote. The locktenders commute to work by boat. Sandra Gregory on deck of M/V Life’s II Short.

There are many little towns along the way with restaurants, grocery stores and little shops to peruse through as well as interesting museums and other attractions. We always have a great time. Transiting the locks (there are 44 total in the system) is a cooperative activity we all enjoy. Swimming, relaxing, walking and talking. Beautiful sunsets. Great meals on board and ashore. What’s not to love about this special waterway?

All of us who love to spend time on the water or long to have special watery places that make us happy. What’s yours? I hope you are there now or are planning to go there soon…


Canadians Paul and Sheryl Shard have now sailed over 100,000 nm and have completed 8 ocean crossings as well as many hundreds of miles of offshore passage-making on the three boats they’ve owned. They are currently having their 4th boat built, a new Southerly 480, which they helped design. They take delivery this spring and will be heading for the South Pacific. The Shards are award-winning filmmakers and television producers. Follow their adventures on the Distant Shores YouTube Channel at

Lake Simcoe 8Distant Shores in the foreground at Lagoon City Y.C.

Lagoon City Yacht Club on the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe is one of the 5 yacht clubs on Lake Simcoe. It is a friendly club with many social events and welcomes visitors.
Photo by Paul Shard