Story and Photos By John Morris
Lake Erie always feels somehow older, more mature ..It’s been the cradle of boating and summer pleasure for years. Port Dover is a time-honoured port with an established feel, high spirited traditions both old and new and a real character all its own. Fishing and sunning have been going on for a couple of centuries although the town’s best known institution, PD13, the spectacular motorcycle ride-in that occurs every Friday the 13th and has put the place forever on the map – only began in 1981.
Named for Dover, England in the early 1880s, Port Dover evolved as a fishing port and has been loved by generations as a long established summer resort pretty well ever since. Its atmosphere is infused with flavours of beach sand, fishing boats and music for which it is renowned. The musical tradition includes huge names like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie played at the Summer Garden where Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians were the ‘house band’ for some time. Later, by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks bred Levon Helm, Rick Danko and the others who evolved into The Band. An arsonist reportedly torched the Summer Garden in January 1979. The whole history is fueled by hot dogs from the still famous Arbor, one of those authentic frankfurter stands that clearly has been spreading yellow mustard for decades.
But back to boating; Lake Erie is blessed with a lot of interesting cruising ports and Dover is undoubtedly one of the most accommodating. As a visiting boater, you’ll be in the heart of the place; it’s compact enough that you don’t even need a bicycle to enjoy a town rich with everything you could want from a cruising destination. Besides the visitor attractions, there’s a fine array of convenient shopping, chandlery, boat repairs and fleets of boaters to befriend. Fun Fact: the local Junior C hockey team is called the Port Dover Sailors.
The 450-slip Port Dover Harbour Marina, built about 25 years ago now makes the town a very active pleasure boating centre. The long seawall that creates the harbour out of the lake provides a well-sheltered waterfront complex offering great docking with easy access to Port Dover’s humming town centre. There’s a prominent lighthouse on the end of this wall with a red marking the entrance. The marina monitors 68. For 1.55 per foot per night (2014) you get a serviced dock plus a substantial shore facility with showers, repairs, fuel, Wi-Fi, and barbecues.
The Lynn River, which flows right through the heart of the community, creates a large natural harbour a quarter mile to the west of the marina. There’s a town dock to port and a turning basin that is home to the fishing fleet and a few transient spots to starboard as you come in off the lake through the breakwaters. Boaters targeting the Port Dover Yacht Club will head up the river under the lift bridge north of downtown. Also on the way up the river is the Bridge Yachts with a well-stocked Ship’s Store and just before you get to PDYC is Jack Matthews Marine Service with a travel lift and full-scale service facility.
Upstream, the Lynn presents a horseshoe-shaped inlet to starboard that creates a point of land with slips up both sides and the PDYC clubhouse on the point in between. With almost 70 years of tradition, PDYC is an active friendly place with a sailing school, keen race program and busy social sched. Its only shortcoming might be the depth fluctuations that plague the Great Lakes. Visiting boats pay $1.50/ft./day although boats from reciprocating clubs receive the first night free. PDYC is a small club with all the pluses that implies – its super friendly members know each other and have for years.
PDYC maintains a close relationship with Erie, PA’s EYC and the other active clubs on the lake. The Lake Erie Interclub Cruise in June visits Port Dover along with other ports on the Lake. The Annette Cup has been raced from EYC to Port Dover since 1907 (When the Yacht Annette won it.)
More than just a boating stop, Port Dover is that pretty Ontario town you’re looking for. The Lynn’s route right down the middle creates a riverfront panorama with picturesque banks. The town’s building cluster, although tiny, has an old-fashioned centre and some interesting history to go with it. Lake Erie was a key nautical battlefield for the War of 1812 and the Americans torched the place in 1814. Subsequently it was rebuilt to host a healthy fishing industry that survives today. All this is commemorated in the Harbour Museum, just beside the town pier. It’s tourism tradition lives on as well – tourist shopping abounds and it’s a fine place to just wander. You can even play old school mini-golf at the Arbor course across from the hotdog landmark.
Spending time in Port Dover you cannot escape the claim-to-fame that shouts at you from most store windows whether you’ve arrived on Friday the 13th or not. You’ve undoubtedly seen footage of the huge invasions of motorcycles and riders that sextuple the town of 6,000 each Friday the 13th. These family friendly land cruise-ins have been going on since 1981. Perhaps surprisingly, the town embraces the biker culture, even celebrates it (check the Mayor’s gushing message on pd13.com.) This is the land of the “mid-life biker” rather than those of the Hells Angels variety. CBC’s Rick Mercer Report has even visited the event – clearly mainstream stuff!
If the Harley culture is your second love after boats this is the place for you. There are a host of biker paraphernalia shops; our visit occurred shortly after a PD13 on the 15th of the month and business was still very brisk.
Perch and Dogs
After you’ve had your mandatory dog at the Arbor, check out the many other Lake Erie eateries many of which prominently feature the legendary Lake Erie perch on their menus. Callahan’s Beach House is overlooks the scene (including a couple of summer long palm trees!) while Knechtel Foods is a takeaway place right in the centre of the action. Just behind these is Fisherman’s Catch, another respected beach resto with lots of fresh catch. A block from the harbour the Erie Beach Hotel also serves up fresh perch that’s worth the trip. Further up Main St, if you want a change from perch, Jasmine’s Foodery has a nice contemporary menu.
Also up on Main Street across from Powell Park in a historic storefront, Schofields Bistro has a bit more of an urban feel replete with exposed brick and beautiful hardwood. The Schofield Brother’s erected the neighbouring building in the 1850s and operated a grocery store until the 1920s. After a yummy lunch you can explore your inner biker in those Friday the 13th outfitter shops that take up much of the adjoining block. Port Dover’s visiting boaters, while very welcome, are clearly a smaller fish in a big sea of tourism.
Whether you come to buy a Harley t-shirt, to admire the still active fishing fleet or to enjoy a timeless beach resort that echoes the charm of Erie shores past, you’ll love Port Dover as a port of call. If you’re coming on a Friday the 13th, be prepared to share the town with a lot of newfound two-wheeling friends.
Although there are rusty industrial cities on the USA side – Erie, Cleveland and Toledo – the Canadian side of Lake Erie remains a small town paradise especially compared to the Big Smoke crowd on Lake Ontario. At the same time it offers comparatively sheltered cruising with a chain of abundant ports (compared to Lake Huron) and lots to see. Port Dover offers visiting boaters a lot to do and see. Perhaps this is the summer to investigate.
Photo Captions (above)
Photo 1 – The Port Dover Harbour Marina has 458 slips including a dozen for visitors.
Photo 2 – PDYC is small but extremely friendly.
Photo 3 – A tourist destination with a small town feel.
Photo 4 – Dover’s portside shops are filled with curios and tourists.
Photo 5 – The Lynn river provides picturesque mooring alternatives north of the lift bridge.
Photo 6 – A tourist destination with a small town feel.
Photo 7 – Perch fresh from Port Dover’s fleet.
Photo 8 – “Make me one with everything.”
Photo 9 – PD 13 is a destination for bikers every year.