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Sailor enjoys 75 years on the ice

By Marta Iwanek, Justin Tang, and Patrick Callbeck

“Come on,” says ice sailor Red McGillivray as he brings in the sheets on his red ice boat. The pulleys make a clicking sound as he threads the red rope. His boat named Red Baron bumps to an almost stop in the middle of the frozen Bay of Quinte.

“Catch it,” he says in an almost whisper. Gusts of wind pick up snow in the distance on the lake that’s now under six inches of ice. “Catch it,” he says.

The Red Baron begins to accelerate steadily.

“There we go,” says McGillivray. He knows the drill. After all, he’s been ice sailing for over 75 years.

Flecks of snow start bouncing off the boat. The wind drives us back as the boat is carried forward. Trees and houses on the lake’s edge begin blurring. The horizon begins to curve until what’s mainly left to see as the boat sails by at 60 miles an hour is the bright, blue, open sky.

But the speed is relaxed for the 85-year-old who has twice hit Mach 2 while in the Air Force.

“When you’re cruising along at 70 miles an hour and you get hit with a gust of wind, the boat accelerates like a rocket. There’s nothing like it.”

The feeling isn’t far from the kick of a jet’s afterburners, McGillivray says.

And it doesn’t get old: McGillivray was only seven when his grandfather brought him on the ice for the first time. Sydney Harbour in Cape Breton seemed much bigger then, he says.

“It scared the hell out of me,” he recalls, but he was hooked.

Work as an Air Force engineer took McGillivray around the world, often to places where sailing wasn’t an option. There was the glacier in Alaska and the time in Snag, Yukon, where the temperatures reached 84.6 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Too rough and too cold, McGillivray says.

McGillivray and his wife Sheila have lived in Carrying Place near Trenton since 1976. The ice is good there, and on a good day, a sail to the Bay Bridge that spans Belleville and Prince Edward County can take a blistering seven minutes. McGillivray points towards the east. The bridge is a mere speck from the launch point.

The bay is a way of life for the couple of 58 years. In the summer, the pair’s 29-foot sailboat becomes home. Their bungalow becomes their summer cottage: it has air conditioning.

It’s solidified friendships too.

“He started me off,” says Jim Stanley, a friend of 28 years and ice boating partner for five. “He won’t go without me.”

The two men ice boat in the winter, sail on the water during the summer and work on projects together in between seasons.

It’s brought them close — too close for comfort a few times.

“We’ve had some fun,” Stanley says with a laugh, thinking about the collision he had with McGillivray last year. “Things happen and they happen with such a fast pace. You’ve got to be on top of your game every time you go ice boating. A puff of wind or a shift of wind and you never know what’s going to happen.”

The thrill is one that McGillivray wishes more young people would share.

Like his grandfather did nearly 75 years ago, McGillivray is taking his own grandson, now 12, out on the ice.

“I asked him, is this fast enough?” McGillivray recalls of their first outing.

The grin on the boy’s face told McGillivray all he needed to know.

“He said, ‘No, no, go faster!’ We just sheeted in and we put it to the bottom. And we roared.”

McGillivray is convinced others will be hooked if they just get a chance to try.

But there’s one rule, he says: “Your first ride can be in my boat but your next ride is in your own.”