UPDATE: Despite approval from the federal government through assurances from CFB Trenton that the boat could remain tied up at Navy Hall dock for the winter, the Local Parks Canada office called the Niagara Regional Police, who told John he had to leave the dock. The NOTL man who is trying to help John tried unsuccessfully to convince the police and Parks Canada to allow the boat to stay, and it is now anchored about 30 metres from shore, while efforts continue to convince Parks Canada to allow him to dock.
For those who have seen a solitary sailboat anchored in the Niagara River and wondered why it was there, the mystery has been solved, at least in part.
After weeks of not moving, the sailboat disappeared from its usual spot last week, and on Saturday was tied up at Navy Hall dock.
A local humanitarian who has been helping the lone man living on the boat spoke to The Local on a couple of conditions. He didn’t want to be named, and he couldn’t stress enough how important it is that the man on the boat — he called him John — be left alone.
The story he and his wife shared is of a man who prizes his solitude above all else. If he is approached, he may feel threatened and decide to head back out into the river, and the good samaritan who has taken him under his wing says that’s the last thing he wants to happen, after all the efforts to get John safely to shore. “At this point he’s safe where he is, and should be able to stay there all winter.”
Going out into the river could be disastrous, not only for John, but if something happens to him, for anyone who tries to save him.
The couple who are helping him describe John as a man who seems a genius from the way he talks, but definitely struggles with mental health issues, and lives in his own reality.
He and his wife haven’t been alone in his efforts to help. The U.S. Coast Guard, authorities from CFB Trenton, and the local police have all been involved. They know about the boat’s existence, and in order to keep John safe through the winter, they are all onside with him having it tied up at the dock for the winter.
John’s shoreline helper tells the story that he has gleaned from John over weeks of talking to him, in person, but mostly on his cell, email or through texting. John also has a tablet, all of his devices charged by a battery powered from a small solar panel.
He first went out to check on the boat and its inhabitant on Dec. 23, when it had been anchored in the river for about four weeks. He learned that John, who has an apartment in London, Ont., bought a Grampion 26, without a motor, from the St. Catharines Marina earlier this year, and that it’s his third such boat since 2018 — the other two were both run aground on the bottom of Lake Erie, in a shallow area in the same location near Long Point, where they remain.
As John’s local shoreline supporter says, “he’s a horrible sailor, very inexperienced.”
He spent about four weeks at the Dalhousie Yacht Club, where some people who came across him referred to John as a savant. He quickly wore out his welcome, though, and after continuing efforts to get him to move on that involved the Niagara Regional Police, the Department of Transportation and the RCMP, he finally left. His plan was to sail to Pickering, to anchor by the nuclear generating station where the water wouldn’t freeze, but he didn’t get as far as Niagara-on-the-Lake without hitting the shore and damaging his boat. The day he had chosen to leave Port Dalhousie wasn’t a favourable day for sailing, so he decided to take refuge anchored in the Niagara River, where he stayed until late last week.
Our local humanitarian, who had been in touch regularly with John in recent weeks, had let him know that he had received permission for John to tie up at Navy Hall Dock, and he had made plans to go out and help him navigate to the dock on Saturday, a day with a good forecast for sailing. But John decided to take things into his own hands and set sail Thursday, a day with no wind, to get to the dock himself.
Instead, he ended up being carried out into the lake about three to four miles, and eventually anchored at the green marker at the bar where the lake meets the river, the most turbulent place to be, says our local, who contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Friday. He couldn’t reach John himself — he discovered John had been using his autohelm, an autopilot device, to sail Thursday, using all the juice in his battery, so he couldn’t charge his cell phone or tablet. The coast guard took a few hours to get to John and told him he was too close to the U.S. side, and instructed him to either head back up the river or out toward Ryerson Park, which is the direction he chose, where he remained overnight.
Saturday, the local took out a small boat and found John off the shore of Ryerson Park, helping him sail to the Navy Hall dock, coaching him all the way.
“When we got to the dock, he was so happy. He said it was the first time he’d sailed from point A to point B without incident.”
Our local humanitarian called CFB Trenton to let them know John was safely tied up, and he was assured he would not be hassled by the Canadian Coast Guard or the Niagara Regional Police. When he passed that message on to John, impressing on him the importance of staying where he is, he said, “we’ll see.”
Weather-wise, “if it’s an odd year, there can be a lot of ice come down the river, but that hasn’t happened since 2014. So far that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” said the local, noting lower water levels above Lake Ontario.
The biggest threat will be if John feels bothered by authority, or by anybody approaching his boat, he says.
His wife, who hasn’t gained John’s trust, says, “you might think he needs help, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want the kind of help we might think he needs.”
If a passerby sees him on deck and shouts out “ahoy,” he might like a bit of a conversation, but he doesn’t want small talk or offers of help in the traditional way. He might ask for information, or for people to contact others on his behalf, but not the kind of assistance most people can or want to provide, as the folks at Port Dalhousie soon discovered.
He has expressed an interest in talking to a Catholic priest, if there is anyone who could wander down to help in that way — he is a religious man who “identifies with John the Baptist.”
John recently ordered about $300 of food from Niagara Wholesalers, which his local friends went to pick up, and they say it should be enough to last him through the winter. They delivered cases of water, cases of industrial-size bottles of mustard, large jars of ranch dressing, and dozens of frozen, cooked meatballs. Also hot dogs, which John calls cold dogs, since nothing he eats is hot, and multiple boxes of mashed potatoes, which he mixes with water, as well as some sliced ham. He also likes oats and lentils. He has a particular order of eating his supplies, going through the meatballs before the hot dogs, for example, which will last longer.
“He asked for no alcohol or drugs, and he is totally non-violent. Within five minutes of talking to him you know he’s safe,” says his shoreside supporter.
“You want to take him home and give him something hot,” his wife, says. “But you know that’s absolutely the last thing he wants. He wouldn’t accept it.”
Along with the food delivery, his supporters have dropped off warm clothes, and a survival suit in case something happens to the boat and he ends up in the freezing water — there are few avenues for help at this time of year, and those who can put a boat in the water for a rescue, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Niagara Regional Police, would not be able to get there in a hurry.
The couple debated talking to The Local, worried for John’s safety if people hear about him and decide they want to help, possibly driving him out into the river, which would put John’s life in danger, along with anyone who might try to go out to help him.
They decided to instead take the opportunity to explain a little of what they’ve learned about him, and hope that readers will respect his wish for solitude, and help keep him safe over the winter.