Reservations are recommended for the nicely situated Thornbury Harbour, which can accommodate boats up to 85 feet in length with a 7-foot draft. Dining, shopping and services are just steps away from the harbour.
To borrow a line from Monty Python, “and now, for something completely different”.
Normally, our boating adventures are spent weaving our way amongst the picturesque backdrop of the 30,000 Islands of eastern Georgian Bay aboard our Sea Ray Sundancer 268. This time we’ve traded power for sail as friends welcome us aboard their 38-foot Irwin for the Canada Day long weekend.
We’ve set our sights on a decidedly different destination for this journey, charting a course for Thornbury. This small town, located in the southern reaches of Nottawasaga Bay, is an oft-overlooked area of Georgian Bay – but it shouldn’t be. Although we’ve explored this shoreline on countless road trips, this will be our first visit from the waterside.
Land ho: We spot the rugged ridges of the Niagara Escarpment through the haze on a hot and humid summer day heading for Thornbury.
It’s a gorgeous morning, another in a long string of hot, hazy, humid days that will earn the 2018 season the title of a scorching summer. By July 1, there will be more days that pushed the mercury over 30 degrees Celsius than in the entire 2017 calendar.
We’re off the dock by 6:15 a.m. with sails up and underway by 6:30 a.m., meeting our companion boat at M20 in Midland Bay.
The 34 km Georgian Trail connects Collingwood and Meaford and cuts right through Thornbury; it’s a perfect trail for walking, jogging or biking.
A convenient nine to ten knot wind from the stern makes for a quick run up the gap at a steady six knots. We pass cormorants decorating the shoal by Gin Rocks, but not much else moving on the bay at this hour. It’s a space eating pace, so by 8:45 a.m. we’re tacking by the south tip of Giant’s Tomb and considering our options.
Winds are shifting and our skipper opts to sail around the top of Hope Island, with an aim to catch the changing winds for a straight sail down the bay to our day’s destination.
The ever-changing minutia, flotsam and jetsam found at Peasemarsh Nature Preserve makes for some fun photographs.
It truly is a different world on the water. While those ashore are boiling in the steamy temperatures it’s comfortably cool under the bimini top, especially with the wind climbing to 16 knots and streaming through the cockpit.
Emerald Night responds to the freshening wind, and the vibrations beneath our feet and seat make her seem alive, and connected to her crew. That crew comes quickly into play as the approach to Hope Island brings strong gusts over 20 knots. We’re overpowered and need to drop the mainsail till we’re past the unpredictable gusts and back to smooth sailing.
As we sail out into the open, the horizon ahead lays shrouded in haze. It’s an eerie feeling, like sailing into oblivion on the old maps where the edge of the world simply disappeared and travelers were warned with words like ‘Here Be Monsters’ or other signs of uncertainty and possible impending doom.
My drifting thoughts are swiftly startled back to the present when the depth sounder suddenly shows just six feet, although we’re still hundreds of metres off shore and well outside the red mark. A quick power reset has the instrument showing a more realistic 162 feet of depth. It’s a reminder of why you should never rely solely on electronics – and always know exactly where you are.
With a beach and pier adjacent to the marina, Thornbury is the perfect place for swimming, kayaking, and paddling SUPs.
After the blustery excitement of 20-plus knots, the wind has dropped to a steady 14 knots. The scorching sun hidden by haze and the shrouded green islands look strikingly like magazine shots of tropical destinations – no passport required. I am reminded yet again how fortunate we are to have fabulous freshwater boating literally in our backyard. There’s nothing in the world quite like Georgian Bay.
The beauty of sailing is it can be about the journey, not just the destination, but there’s nothing beautiful about the clouds of biting flies that invade the boat. We become distracted by hunting them and soon the cockpit is littered with their lifeless bodies.
By 1:30 p.m., we’re finally spotting land peering out of the haze as the rugged ridge of the Niagara Escarpment and the Blue Mountains poke through the muted horizon.
Uncooperative (actually non-existent) winds force us to start the engine and begin cruising into the easy approach to Thornbury – you can spot the town’s white water tower from about ten nautical miles out. There is little along the southern reaches of the bay to concern sailors, except if you’re planning to head east to Collingwood (about 13 nautical miles from Thornbury), in which case you want to give the Mary Ward Ledges shoals a wide berth.
We will stay at the 250-slip municipally-run Thornbury Harbour. It’s an easy approach. Paired markers offshore line up the channel to the left of the pier where a landfall light shows white when on course, red if you’re to the right, and green if you are too far left. Amenities here include gas, diesel, pump-out, washrooms, showers, water, and power at the slips. Maximum length is 85 feet with a seven-foot draft. Transient slips are available and we reserved weeks ago, which is highly recommended as there are limited options for anchoring in this area of the bay. Our two slips along the wall are perfect and we set our chairs up under the shade, mere steps from the boats.
Canada Day in Thornbury comes complete with a one-man air show right over the harbour
First order of business – a swim. Choose from a convenient beach adjacent to the marina or jump off the pier. You have to be hearty to swim in the early season at Thornbury as the water is toe-crampingly cold. However, with the mercury topping 35 degrees, it just takes two or three jumps off the pier to drop your body temperature a few degrees and keep you cool enough to endure another hour or so of the unrelenting scorching temperatures before it’s time to dive back in again. We will spend a lot of time in bathing suits during our stay.
What to do next? Browse the eclectic boutiques and galleries, enjoy delicious dining options, sample cider or scotch, or ride the trails. There is plenty to choose from in Thornbury (see the sidebar for some suggestions).
Explore the fish ladder in the middle of town that helps trout and salmon move up the Beaver River to spawn. Or wade into the lower river where it joins the bay and try your hand at fishing – always be aware of the seasons, check licensing requirements, and respect the environment when angling.
Looking to stretch your legs or have a bike on board? It’s about three km to Peasemarsh Nature Preserve along the easy Georgian Trail. We’ve seen rainbow trout in Indian Brook in the spring and the rocky beach always provides for interesting photographs of the flotsam and jetsam that washes ashore.
Sandwiched between the bay and the Blue Mountains, the Georgian Trail is 34 km of hard packed crushed stone connecting Collingwood to Meaford, so there’s plenty of opportunity for longer bike rides or jogging.
The town served up a magnificent microcosm of typical traditions for Canada Day celebrations. There was a Main Street parade, a Farmers’ Market on the lawn by the municipal office (complete with the intoxicating aroma of freshly-picked strawberries), and an air show. It’s a one-man acrobatic demonstration over the harbour provided by Gord Price from the Dam Pub. The view from the deck of the boat was fantastic as Price presented nausea-inducing flips and rolls, stomach tightening straight-up stalls to a dive, and fly-pasts just above the water entertaining the gathered crowds who lined the pier and breakwall.
The two days pass quickly in a blur of walks and swims, excellent coffee, and fantastic food – all with a backdrop of relaxation and laughs with family and friends.
Monday dawns clear – and gusty. We experiment with the gennaker sending stuff tumbling below decks and then opt for mainsail and jib and enjoy easy sailing at a steady seven knots.
For the return journey, we cut through Christian Island and the mainland, we’re moving to the rhythm in a well-choreographed dance much like an urban dweller sways rhythmically and knowingly to the motion of a subway car.
The soothing sounds of the waves under the boat coming off the starboard side on a beam lull my skipper to sleep. Suddenly I am alone at the helm watching the wind, the sails, our course, the GPS – the snoozing skipper showing more confidence in my sailing skills than is merited. It is a day to file away in the memory banks for those chilly winter nights when you dream of boating.
We put the gennie, a bright yellow kite, back up for a speedy run through the gap. Rounding Midland Point by Snake Island some strong winds make for an exciting finish as we heal over to put the edge of the genie in the water. We are all awake now!
By 5:30 p.m. we’re safely tied up and packed up after another memorable Georgian Bay experience. Remember, it doesn’t matter where you go, just get off the dock and explore.
A few Thornbury favourites to explore:
Gyles Sails and Marine at 4 King St. West. Walk up from the water on Bruce Street and turn into the store for charts, hardware, electronics, fishing tackle and bait, rainwear, and nautical knick-knacks.
Thornbury Village Cider House at 90 King St. East (Highway 26). You’re in the midst of apple country here so sample some cider made from local fruit. They’re always experimenting and you can try a flight of sample sizes. Beer and wine is also available on the patio or the indoor tasting room.
The Cheese Gallery at 11 Bruce St. South. For palate pleasing cheeses, olive oils, baked goods, and other delicious treats, stop in here to restock the galley with local and international cheeses. Also features local art.
Ashanti Coffee at 39 Bruce St. South. If crafted coffee and tempting treats are your thing, be sure to stop in at Ashanti for your morning caffeine.
The Dam Pub Gastropub and Whisky Bar at 53 Bruce St. Set in an 1870s house, the walls of the bar are lined with scotches, hundreds of them (over 900 at last count), waiting to slake the thirst of tired travelers. If you’re a group of six or more, best to make everyone’s lives easier and make a reservation.
Bruce Wine Bar and Kitchen at 8 Bruce St. South. Tucked away behind the TD Bank, the two-storey restaurant serves wood-fired pizza in an open kitchen as well as delectable dishes featuring locally-sourced ingredients.
Farmers’ Market at 30 Mill St. Sundays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the summer.