Crossing Lake Ontario

By Phil La Borie

Crossing Lake Ontario

An advertisement for the upcoming Wooden Boat Show in Georgetown this fall put me in mind of my own wooden boat adventure, or as it turned out, my misadventure.

The story goes like this:

One of my high school friend’s dad had a glorious wooden speedboat. He periodically took the boat out on Lake Ontario near Rochester, New York, and my friend and I served as his passengers/crew with all the benefits thereof, namely preparing the boat for departure and cleaning up afterward.

The boat was a Century Arabian – a beautiful runabout built in the mid-1950s. For those of you who are unfamiliar with runabouts, they are small motorboats, usually with an enclosed engine and hold between four and eight people.

So much for the facts.

But the facts don’t begin to describe the majesty of this craft. The Arabian was a sleek, sculptural masterpiece. It was capable of very high speeds and seated in one of the comfortable rear seats, dancing across the waves, you felt like you were the king of the world.

As you might imagine the boat was also very expensive. Something my friend’s dad often pointed out to us. The owner also admonished us to always treat the Arabian with the utmost respect, because it could be fickle and become unstable if not handled carefully.

But leave it to a couple of teenagers to figure out a way to disregard wise advice from our elders.

One hot summer day (it was always either boiling hot in Rochester or freezing cold), my friend suggested that we take the Arabian out for a spin.

Well, a little more than just a spin. He had the bright idea that we could easily motor straight across Lake Ontario to Oz, or if not to Oz, at least to Toronto, a mystic city that we’d heard much about but had never visited.

“Look,” he said, pointing to his handy McMillan road map, “it’s just 60 miles straight across the lake to Canada, and this boat can do 45 mph. We can make it there and back before my dad even knows it’s gone! We’ll be home in time for dinner!”

At this point I have to pause in my story to reveal that neither of us really knew how fast the boat could go, what the lake conditions could be, had no idea of seamanship and worst of all, were somehow able to overlook the fact that Toronto actually lies more than 90 miles to the northwest of Rochester.

But why should all of that stop us?

I quickly agreed with his idea, and we began to make preparations for our sea voyage.

A proper lunch was a necessity, of course, so we built two towering baloney on white bread sandwiches. We’d need something to drink, so we packed away two bottles of soda. A box of cookies completed our larder.

Naturally, we would want extra gas, so we found two empty ten-gallon cans and planned to fill them the next morning prior to our departure.

Did we think to include a nautical chart of the lake, extra sunscreen or perhaps even a compass? Sissy stuff, no need for any of that. We’d just head somewhat west of north (the Arabian had a small compass mounted on the dashboard) and in a couple of hours, we’d be sampling the wonders of Toronto.

Early the next day we met at the dock, gassed up the Arabian and the extra gas fuel cans – all under the suspicious eye of the dock-master, which, as it turned out, proved to be very providential.

The day was sunny, there was no wind and the lake was dead calm. Of course, we couldn’t actually see Toronto, but we could feel the city’s magnetic pull.

To the throb of the mighty Arabian engine, we set out. Once past Charlotte Harbor into Lake Ontario, my friend opened the throttle and we soared away. It was a glorious feeling. At least at first.

Settling back to relax, we decided that some lunch was in order, so we wolfed down the sandwiches and drank a good portion of the soda.

Big mistake.

Mistake number two occurred sometime later when we encountered massive waves.

Looking out from the shore, Lake Ontario appears to be flat as a pancake. However, this proved not to be the case as we approached what we later learned were the lake freighter lanes.

As the Arabian rose alarmingly high on the wave crests, teetered on the top and then plunged down the far side with a velocity we’d never known, our stomachs did the same.

Lunch soon went overboard, and we felt like going with it.

But our worries were far from over. As we experienced a combination of terror, vertigo and seasickness, we suddenly heard a loud, authoritarian voice shout, “You there in the runabout. Come about immediately and return to shore.”

We were scared to death.

The voice came from the Coast Guard who had arrived like some Deus Ex Machina from a Greek tragedy in a helicopter, having been alerted by the dock-master who had anticipated what the two numbskulls were up to.

The consequences of our stupid sea voyage included learning that the lake freighters would have no way of seeing our small craft wallowing in the waves and that it can take up to a mile to bring one of the monsters to a complete stop.

We simply would have been run down and smashed to bits, ex-baloney sandwiches and all.

That might have been a preferable fate to the wrath of my friend’s dad. There’s anger and then there’s really angry. Not pleasant to say the least.

The Coast Guard was not pleased either, considering the amount of time and money they’d spent rescuing our sorry behinds.

Bottom line: The next time anyone tells you can easily cross 60 miles of open water in a small boat, just tell them they’re full of baloney. At least temporarily.

About this writer

  • Phil La Borie Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at

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4 Responses to “Crossing Lake Ontario”

  1. What an adventure! Enjoyed your story.

  2. Phil La Borie says:

    Linda – Many thanks! Always enjoy your work!

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Great story and even better memory. Brings back all those “I can’t believe I did that” tales.

  4. Phil La Borie says:

    Thanks, Rose Ann – I know all too well what you mean, and best of all, we actually lived to tell the tale!

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