My son giving us a tour of the canals of Anna Maria Island / Photo- Steven Bull
By: Steven Bull, Host – Water Ways TV
Boating is one of those magical activities that can make your worries melt away the moment you cast off.
You can find true serenity in the quiet of an anchorage far from it all, or you can hammer the throttle down and get your adrenaline pumping if that floats your boat. Whatever you do on the water, you do it because you want to. Because it’s fun.
That being said, it can become monotonous over time as many of us end up stuck in the same routine. The same loop from the dock around your local waterway, to the same spots, with the same people, and usually at the same time of year.
I’m 100% guilty of that, too. I still enjoy it, but when we have visitors to our boat that want a tour of the Toronto Harbour, islands, and beaches, it’s the same route with the same points of interest.
I’m lucky that my job for five years from 2014-2019 with PowerBoat Television sent me all over North America to test out different boats. My new show, Water Ways, has me travelling and exploring the best destinations, meeting locals, and learning about the “same but different” aspect of our boating worlds — everywhere from Comox, BC to the Florida Keys.
What I took away from all all my travels is that I need some of that “outside-of-your-comfort-zone” (OYCZ) approach. I take some of those work experience and try to apply them to my personal life.
Here are three ways I went “OYCZ” last season, and I hope they can serve as inspiration for you.
OYCZ 1: Switch up the Vessel
This year marks the 10th season my wife and I have owned our 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer. We love it as much today with our son as we did when we were newlyweds and childless. But, bigger boats have as many limitations as they do advantages — namely that you’re limited to where you can go based on bridge clearances, water depth (draft), and moorage options.
So, last summer I pulled up my big boy pants and said to my wife: “Listen here. I’m the man of this house and I want to try your kayak.”
Kayaking through Toronto Island wilderness / Photo- Steven Bull
Luckily she was away for work and didn’t hear any of that, but the good news was that her beloved kayak was available and I had lots of personally-unexplored wilderness amongst the Toronto Islands to discover.
I’m a bit of a history nerd, so I love the backstory of places that I come across. The Toronto Island story is as fascinating as they come.
Until 1858, it was a peninsula but a storm blazed a path through the eastern side. After realizing the potential of this new landscape, it was eventually widened and is now called the Eastern Gap used by tour boats and freighters who deliver sugar to the Redpath refinery.
Today, it’s a bustling place with a massive park that welcomes more than one million visitors annually. There are a few hundred homes that remain from the once thriving community that stretches from Wards Island in the east (where the houses are) to Hanlan’s in the west (where Billy Bishop Island Airport now resides).
Tucked amongst all these people, planes, and commercial activity are places offering surprising solitude. With the kayak I could slip into the shallows between islands that have been left to nature to reclaim. Birds flying overhead, turtles skittishly slipping into the water, and even minks and beavers.
It’s a place I’ve considered my second home for 10 years. One I know very well, but one that I discovered I didn’t know nearly all about. I’m not saying I’m a total kayak convert (yet?) and will be joining my wife on her weekly multi-hour excursions with her paddle club, but it was an amazing experience and one I intend to do more.
OYCZ 2: Extend your Season
Fall colours on Pen Lake
The Toronto Islands may be my current boating headquarters, but if we slide the timeline back to the late 1980s when I first fell in love with being on the water, you’d find me in Huntsville, Ontario.
My family bought a cottage near Hidden Valley Highlands Ski Area which gave us access to a local beach. But that wasn’t quite enough water access so we got our first boat. To this day my, Dad isn’t 100% sure what make it was, largely because it didn’t matter. It was from the 60s or 70s (probably), and it was small and well-loved before we got it. But, as far as eight year old Stevie was concerned, it was a private yacht!
Fast forward 35-years and they’re still in the same area, but have moved to a waterfront place which gives me access to the same chain of lakes I boated on during my childhood. My son has explored them now, making it three generations of Bull on Peninsula Lake, Fairy Lake, and Lake Vernon. Perhaps this year I’ll take him through the Brunel lock into Mary Lake, but the main three are where it’s at for me.
When you talk about the routine of boating routes, this is a perfect example. Downtown Huntsville is fantastic as they have public docks, waterfront restaurant options, and a walkable downtown with shops just steps from the river, but most of the lakes are private property with the vast majority being cottages.
However, there is also one of the oldest hotels in Muskoka right on Pen Lake — Deerhurst Resort. From its humble beginnings, its grown over 125 years to become a massive resort with golf courses, condos, and even Yamaha adventure rides.
My ATV adventure at Deerhurst Resort
Admission time: I’ve never driven an ATV or a snowmobile before. I’m all-in on water from spring-through-fall, and then it’s skiing and hockey until the return of boating season. But someone told me the ATV rides were amazing, so I figured why not?
When I began my day I thought: ‘this will be neat perhaps but it won’t have the wow-factor it does for tourists who’ve never explored these woods. I’ve seen the trees, the wildlife, the stunning rock formations of the Canadian Shield underscoring everything out here, what more can I see?’
I was wrong. As it turns out, it wasn’t what I would see but how I would see it that made the difference. With a perma-grin like a kid who was told every game at Chuck E. Cheese was free to play, I followed my instructor Bob up and down the trails, through puddles, and between trees. By the time I was done, I felt like I had to call everyone I know and tell them what a great day I had (but I didn’t because I hate phone calls like every millennial. But I seriously considered sending texts!).
My big takeaway was that if I could be so blown away by a different experience in an area where I literally grew up, then there had to be a way to translate that to water so I could fall in love with these lakes again.
So I bided my time, asking my Dad for daily updates, and waited for the right window when the leaves were at their peak colour in the fall. When the timing was right, I borrowed a WaveRunner and splashed it in Pen Lake at the public ramp.
Apologies for the click-bait sentence, but, what happened next blew my mind. It was honestly one of the greatest days I’ve ever had on the water. Anywhere. Ever.
Because most people haul out not long after Labour Day in August, and certainly before Canadian Thanksgiving in early October, there were only a handful of boats around that could have joined me. And even if they all did, it would have still been a ghost town on the lake. In four hours of riding I think I saw three boats, one of which was a canoe.
Flat as glass on Pen Lake / Photo- Steven Bull
I had brilliant colours for my backdrop and for the first while there wasn’t even a gust of wind — the lake was flat as glass. If you’re a skier or snowboarder who’s ever ridden fresh, deep powder, you know that it feels like some sort of heavenly experience. It was just like that.
Sure, I cruised the same bays, went through the same canal built for steamships to reach Deerhurst that I’d gone through since 1988, but it all felt fresh. It was the same, but different.
Admittedly, it took some timing and weather cooperation which might not always fall on a weekend, but if it does: trust me. Untie the lines and get out there. Fall boating can be incredible!
OYCZ 3: Green Means Tow
My third suggestion for getting outside your comfort zone is arguably the least accessible of the three, but it’s something worth considering nonetheless.
Take your boat with you on vacation.
We aren’t going to tow our 380 ‘Sundancer from Toronto to Tampa, but we did decide last year to take our 13-foot RIB on our annual vacation.
Most years we rent a pontoon locally and squeeze in all of our fishing adventures, trips to the sandbar, and dolphin photo-hunts into a relatively small window. It means we feel compelled to boat every day, lest we not get our money’s worth, and if the weather turns, bundle up and stay out there.
This time we – and by “we” I mean my father-in-law because we flew down later – hitched up the RIB and drove it down. It was a genuine game-changer, largely because we rented a place on a canal where we could leave the boat tied up.
Want to go for a short little cruise around the sheltered canals at sunset? Sure, let’s go!
Bored of playing in the pool and want to go fishing in the Intracoastal for a bit? Sure, let’s go!
The forecast changed and tomorrow looks amazing — should we load of a cooler and picnic on the sandbar? Sure, let’s go!
There’s more tension and stress when you boat in new waters, but just check out the charts/GPS and go slow until you’re sure you’re in the right area. You’ll pick it up fast!
Much like my Huntsville experience in the fall, this felt like a whole new world had opened up to us.
All three experiences got me out of my usual boating “rut” which, let’s be honest, is no rut! But it was routine. It doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic routine (heck, I have about 10,000 photos of the Toronto skyline and I still keep snapping them because I love it more every year), but it’s more of the same.
Try something different. Go for a sail with a friend if you’re a powerboater. Zip to a waterfront restaurant for dinner with your powerboat friend if you’re a sailor. Extend your season. Give paddling a try. There’s a million and one ways to step outside your boating comfort zone.
Trust me. It’s worth it!