Sailing the Labrador coast, and past it, throws many challenges at voyaging yachts: icebergs hiding in foggy murk, scarcity of chart soundings and, at the higher latitudes, unpredictable weather and currents. However, there are ways to make the passage to these ultimate challenges, and the return, easy on the vessel and crew — some routes to a northern adventure are better than others. For boats coming from the east coast of the United States or Canada, the time to decide which course to take comes at Cape Canso, Nova Scotia. Here are some options to reaching the great north.
Let’s assume that Red Bay, Labrador, about 450 miles ahead, will be your first port in Labrador. The most obvious route to Labrador leads along the east coasts of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, across Cabot Strait and then along the west coast of Newfoundland. Expect fog all the way.
There are two western Newfoundland ports in particular that can provide easy escape from the weather and offer repair services. It only takes about a mile from the sea to reach protection in both Bonne Bay and Port Saunders. Other western ports, such as Corner Brook inside the Bay of Islands, demand a long trip in; whereas, the outer anchorages closer to the entrance often suffer quite violent squalls during southwesterly gales — the prevailing wind direction during summer.
Within Bonne Bay, yachts will find the best anchorage in Neddy Harbour, a protected cove off the village of Norris Point, highly esteemed by no less a navigator than James Cook, who surveyed the area in 1767. Only during southeasterly gales, very rare in summer, is this cove walloped by ferocious squalls from the nearby mountains, more than 2,000 feet high. The cove makes it easy to leave the boat and explore the Tablelands of the famed Gros Morne National Park looming across Bonne Bay. Jaundice-colored peridotite, which makes up these hills, surged to the surface from the very core of the earth millions of years ago, when the European and North American continental plates collided. To reach this savage territory, take the morning ferry from Norris Point to Woody Point — the park guides aboard will take care of the whole trip for you. You would rather cruise the surrounding fjords? Sail into the East Arm and the little bay at the end of it — a veritable hurricane hole. Steep fir-clad hillsides and a gurgling salmon brook will make you want to linger.
While Bonne Bay lies about midway up the west coast of Newfoundland, a visit to Port Saunders brings boats about 70 miles farther north. Port Saunders nestles in one arm of a complex of elongated bays. It offers shelter, a welcoming public wharf and excellent supplies — from marine hardware to propane bottle refills. A busy boatyard, with skilled mechanics and carpenters, can haul out and service yachts of all sizes. Anchor way up this long bay, and you may see grazing moose at low tide.
Only a long day’s sail (50 miles) separates Port Saunders from the first port in Labrador, and should the weather turn, one can still escape to St. Barbe Bay, the Newfoundland terminal for the car ferry to Labrador. Forteau Bay, the southernmost notch in the Labrador coast, looks like a good anchorage, and it is as long as the wind stays in the north. When it blows from the west or southwest, rollers enter all the way to the town basin &mdash the result of strange current swirls in the Strait of Belle Isle. Entering or leaving, avoid the tidal race off the southern headland &mdash waves build up and do strange things. The best port for shelter and supplies in southern Labrador is Red Bay. Be sure to visit both museums commemorating the Basque fishermen of the 1500s and displaying the artifacts &mdash a shallop and a full-size partial replica of a wreck found in the harbor. The Basques hunted cod and whales and managed to keep this fishy place secret for centuries. While cod stocks have collapsed, expect to see whales every day along this shore. Humpbacks, with their extroverted behavior of waving fins and high breaching, are common. So are icebergs, especially early in the season and any time after mid-August. The smaller ones and growlers do not show up on radar, so avoid night sailing on the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle.
Many northbound yachts go through Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes &mdash easy to enter from the south through St. Peters Canal Lock, as long as the boat’s mast can sneak under the 100-foot power line and the beam is less than 45 feet. The narrow, marked channel out of Great Bras d’Or at the northern end has a bar of about 11 feet, and strong currents often sweep through it. Within the Lakes, calm seas, moderate winds and freedom from fog prevail. Baddeck, the main town and port, has all facilities a boat may desire and a chance to refresh the crew, too. Bras d’Or Lakes make a very attractive cruising destination by themselves, and surely a few cove anchorages will slow the passage north somewhat.
This route, which passes right by the southern entrance to Bras d’Or Lakes, utilizes the Strait of Canso, separating Cape Breton from Nova Scotia. There are no limits to the yacht size that can pass through Canso Lock, which is equipped to handle freighters. Once in St. Georges Bay, on the west side of Canso, the weather changes abruptly, the sea is much warmer, and fog is very rare. This slightly longer route may discourage yachts hurrying north while the summer lasts. It is, however, the best possible course on the way south from Labrador when the early fall depressions begin to fly.
Let’s assume you are sailing back home from Cape Chidley, the northern tip of Labrador. The land to windward helps keep down the seas until you come round the corner of Labrador around Battle Harbour, where the prevailing southwesterly will become a dead header. It is fall now, and the lows rush through &mdash the wind swinging into the northwest after a frontal passage, which is good. Normally, though, it will back to southwest and blow hard within hours, which is bad. A yacht heading west should make haste in the fair wind in order to reach the Quebec coast west of Blanc-Sablon. From there, for the next 120 miles, a boat can beat to weather in waters partially protected by numerous islands. The routine, at least for us, was to daysail and anchor for the night in protected bays &mdash many of them. The detailed Canadian charts, which precisely locate islands, islets, everything above water, are stingy with soundings. An eye on the depth sounder for uncharted shoals and a lookout for rocks awash help navigate these coastal waters. Check each chart for its geodetic datum and adjust your GPS fixes, too. All along this coast &mdash berg-free in the fall and out of reach of the frigid Labrador Current &mdash the weather is much warmer, and the air stays clear except on the days preceding an imminent frontal passage.
Lower north shore
This stretch of the coast, called the Lower North Shore of Quebec, has two major harbors serving fishermen. In Harrington Harbour, yachts will find supplies, skilled mechanics, fuels and basic services. Another port, La Tabatiï¿½re, has all that, plus a 75-ton travel lift. People in both towns primarily speak English, other villages alternate between French and English. Yachts will find a warm welcome in all communities. The coastal landscape varies between barren red granite on the outer islands and coniferous hillsides along fjord-like bays on the mainland. By entering Petit Rigolet, a boat can sail southwest in totally protected water bordered by a wilderness of rivers and mountains.
Cape Whittle, far enough west along this coast, makes a practical departure point for an overnight passage to the Magdalen Islands, about 150 miles south. To make this trip fast and pleasant, you should wait for a northerly wind in some interesting anchorage nearby. We visited three such harbors, all uninhabited, wild and wonderful. Watagheistic Bay, about 18 miles northeast on the mainland, gave us shelter and long walks in the woods broken by waterfalls and even black bear encounters. Ouapitagone Islands, nearly at the Cape itself, were all rock, with migrating birds and lots of wind. Seven miles northwest of Cape Whittle Baie Coacoachou opens up, easy to approach on a lighted range. Either of its arms, Lac l’Ours and Tertiary Shell Bay have plenty of deep water. Both bays are good enough for a couple weeks of cruising, their hills filled with cloudberries, blueberries, wild strawberries and partridge berries, all ripening fast. As a departure for points south, Baie Coacoachou is perfect.
The Magdalen Islands, located about in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, had more in the way of attractions than we expected. Cap-aux-Meules, the main port and town, greets yachts in Club Nautique, a small craft (up to 60 feet) basin and a spacious harbor for larger vessels. Leo LeBlanc at Fils yard builds fishing boats and yachts of their own designs, and repairs others. They also run a complete chandlery. The harbor hosts the local headquarters of the Canadian Coast Guard, which operates a self-righting Arun-class vessel, an English-designed and Canadian-built cutter. Its captain, Normand Briand, a 19-year veteran of search and rescue, runs about 50 missions annually in winds up to 65 knots. He recommended yachts visit from mid-July until the end of September.
The islands deserve an extended exploration on land. The 40-mile-long, sickle-shaped archipelago of four main islands is joined by long, sandy spits enclosing shallow lagoons and offers spectacular views. Precipitous
s of bright-red sandstone mark where the sea meets the solid land topped by green toupees of meadows. On the northeastern islands, one can wander alone through the high dunes and beaches of Pointe-de-l’Est National Park. Up to 325 fishing boats are based in various harbors, most too shallow and crowded for a good-sized voyaging yacht. However, La Grave, once a vibrant fishing port, is now a trendy place. We found it best to explore by a rental car after leaving the boat in Club Nautique, Cap-aux-Meules.
After the Magdalens, a fast-sailing yacht can proceed southward in day trips &mdash it is only 50 miles to the east coast of Prince Edward Island, with the best anchorages in Cardigan Bay. There, a visiting boat has some choices: a commercial basin in Georgetown, a protected anchorage off Lower Montague or continuing up Montague River to the town docks and facilities, groceries, etc. All approaches and channels are marked. It takes another day trip from there to Cape George and the harbor in Ballantynes Cove, which has a deep dock for yachts, too. Anywhere south of Magdalen Islands, the fall weather stays warm &mdash this is where Canadian Maritimers come to swim and play on beaches.
After a short hop from Cape George to Canso Canal and locking through, yachts often stop in Port Hawkesbury at the town wharf or at the Yacht Club floating docks. The warm air from St. Georges Bay will cool off in Chedabucto Bay and become even colder in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia, where the fall months bring clear weather and the increasing frequency of fair northerly winds. The wealth of harbors on this coast makes a passage southward easy, but stay alert for tropical disturbances, including hurricanes, which sail up the Gulf Stream and may stray ashore to Nova Scotia as late as November.
Tom Zydler is a freelance writer and photographer who lives with his wife, Nancy, aboard their 37-foot 1961 Pearson Invicta (hull No. 1) Mollymawk.