Corrie Hoeflaak pushed her walker down the narrow wooden dock of the Port Dover harbour marina, determined to get her first look in decades at the sailboat her husband built 45 years ago.
As the trim 29-footer came into view, Hoeflaak stopped, her gaze fixed on the gleaming white hull.
“Beautiful,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “Just beautiful.”
At 95, Hoeflaak’s mind is a storehouse of memories of the many sailing trips she and her dearly departed Arie took around Lake Erie on their boat, fittingly named the Aries.
The family’s flagship is now skippered by Hoeflaak’s grandson, Ben, and his wife, Monique, Norfolk County residents who bought the boat in the fall of 2020.
“Now it is back with us,” said Hoeflaak, still smiling.
These days Hoeflaak’s home port is Heritage Green Nursing Home in Hamilton, the city she and Arie called home for more than 50 years after emigrating from the Netherlands following the Second World War.
Arie was a welder in his homeland, repairing bridges damaged by the Nazis, and he brought that skill to Canada.
“What the eyes saw, the hands could make,” said Hoeflaak, who still wears a bracelet her husband made for her from a piece of titanium pipe.
Building a boat posed new challenges for the master craftsman, but Arie took his time, spending three years on a sturdy craft that would visit every port of call from Colborne to Rowan after first launching in 1977 from the Port Maitland Sailing Club, a pleasant country drive south from the couple’s Rymal Road home.
“The neighbouring harbours,” Hoeflaak said, describing a wide circle that encompassed Erie, Pennsylvania and the New York ports of Buffalo, Barcelona and Dunkirk.
“Lake Erie is a tricky lake,” Hoeflaak said, proudly reporting her husband never ran into trouble on the famously choppy waters.
“He played it safe. Never had collisions or ran aground,” she said. “And we could afford to stay over if a storm had come up during the night.”
An extended stay in Port Dover in 1979 due to persistent thunderstorms coincided with the town’s centennial celebration.
“A good place to be,” Hoeflaak smiled.
As first mate, she carefully recorded each journey in the ship’s logbook, a family heirloom that tells the story of the Aries from its construction to the present day.
“For us, they were 20 lovely years of sailing,” Hoeflaak said.
More important than itineraries and weather reports were fellow sailors on both sides of the border who became lifelong friends.
“Along with the sailing, you build up friendships,” Hoeflaak said, reminiscing about many happy evenings spent on and around each other’s boats.
Part of the fun was racing against other sailing clubs, with trophies and bragging rights on the line.
“We have a cup. We came in second one time,” Hoeflaak said.
The closest relationships continued through the winter months and even after the couple stopped sailing.
“The sad part is, I am getting older, and of the four couples that we chummed around with all the sailing years, I’m the only one left,” Hoeflaak said.
In the late 1990s, the couple decided to sell their boat and explore more of mainland Canada as campers. They found an eager buyer in Andy Hoekstra of Hamilton, a fellow sailor who had long admired the Aries.
“Andy ruined his wife’s savings in the bank, but they enjoyed the boat,” Hoeflaak laughed.
The Hoekstras remained family friends, and years later Andy took Ben Hoeflaak out on the water. Memories of childhood sailing trips came flooding back, and Ben reiterated his offer to buy the boat should Hoekstra ever want to sell.
Once the deal closed in 2020, Ben spent a pandemic year renovating the Aries — sanding and painting, staining the cabin furniture his grandfather made and installed, and adding creature comforts like cupholders. Monique made new cushions for the cabin.
“We know how to get in and out, and how to dock,” said Monique, adding she and Ben have not yet braved the spinnaker, content for now to trim the mainsail and jib while they learn the ropes.
Hoeflaak said she is elated her family’s boat is back on the water. And how would Arie, who died in 2017, react to seeing his pride and joy again helmed by a Hoeflaak?
“He would be in tears,” his wife said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator