|More Down East than Maine
Saturday, July 7, 2007
The early morning is foggy. The winds are light southwesterlies but the forecast has them increasing late in the day. I don't want fog and I don't want those strong winds, but the fog should lift and the winds are not expected until evening. Kobuk and I will leave today, but exactly when is not yet clear. We plan to cross Chedabucto Bay, over to the town of Canso at the easternmost point of Nova Scotia's fabled Atlantic shore. The distance is about twenty five miles; the voyage should take no more than five hours. As long as there is a reasonable of chance of getting to Canso before the stronger winds set in, we will go when the fog starts to lift.
The St. Peters Lions Marina is at the very southern end of the Bras d'Or Lakes system. It looks northward across an arm of protected water, but immediately behind it is a narrow neck of elevated land that separates these lakes from Chedabucto Bay and the open Atlantic. We will transfer from protected lakes to the open Atlantic by passing through the very short, single-lock canal close by the yacht harbor. Since a broad sweep of Chedabucto Bay is visible from the Tim Hortons parking lot up on the main street in the town of St. Peters, I cycle there in late morning to take a look at the conditions on the bay. It's a go, so its back to Kobuk and last minute preparations before saying good bye and pulling away from the dock.
Although the lock on the St. Peters Canal only has to accommodate a very small water level change, its engineering is complicated by the fact that water is not consistently higher at one end of the waterway. There is a range of tidal action at both ends of the canal but when the tide is ebbing at one end it often is flowing at the other. Thus the lock has to be able to operate regardless of which end has the higher water. To accomplish this, the engineers have installed two gates at each end of the lock, one of which is forced into the shut position by water pressure from outside the lock and the other of which is compressed shut by water pushing from within the lock. During any one locking operation, only one of the two gates at an end of the lock does any work, but which one depends on where the water is high.
As we set out across Chedabucto Bay, the gentle southwesterly pushes little wavelets at us, so undersized that even Kobuk can crush them into submission. Farther out in the bay, smooth-sloped swells from some earlier weather come in from the open ocean to the southeast, but they are long spent and far apart and carry Kobuk up and down at a funereal cadence. As we leave the southwest tip of Isle Madame off the starboard beam, a dark cloud rolls up from the southwest and announces its arrival with a distant stab of lightning. Kobuk and I brace for a slap in the face, but the storm when it arrives has little of the force that might be expected--and none of the lightning. What it does have, though, is first class rain. Rain comes down so hard that it beats the open water into submission. Whatever the wind whips up, the rain knocks down. Kobuk is like a kettle drum when the rain is like this. Rivulets of water rush down the cabin windows so frantically that nothing can be seen through them but the vague outline of distant shores. The windshield wiper sweeps a single swath of glass through which the scene outside can be viewed, and each sweep of the blade offers a momentary glimpse of the dancing raindrops. They seem to bounce of the surface of the ocean, shatter into mist, and suspend a smoky haze on the surface of the water. As quickly as it came, the little storm is gone, and Kobuk soldiers on under clearing skies.
Getting off the ocean and into harbor is often the most demanding task of the coastal navigator. There will be many harbors to make in the coming months, and Canso is, therefore, something of a training drill for me. Entry on this day is reasonably straightforward because the waves are small, the wind is down, and visibility is good. All the same, the profile of an unknown shore is always confounding and when you start into a harbor it rarely looks anything like what you might have pictured by looking at the chart. Generally, it becomes clear that, yes, that buoy is this one here on the chart, and that island is indeed the largest of the three shown strung along the eastern shore, and that jetty is most likely the one marked as extending out about a hundred yards. For me, all the tension and all the pressure are wrapped up in that phrase "most likely." Most likely is simply not good enough. Getting lost or displaced on land is less distressing because you can just stop for a while and think about things. Not being sure of your position near a harbor entrance, however, is much more stressful because things like tide and waves and wind often don't allow for the "stop and consider" approach.
With good visibility and calm conditions, Kobuk runs confidently up to the entrance of the marina, but there is a new storm approaching and just a short time after having tied off in harbor the rain begins. It starts as giant droplets cast down individually with eerie intervals of time between them, but then their size diminishes to merely large and their incidence becomes a blizzard. In fact, we are struck by a cold blast of wind and in very short order the rain has turned to hail. It rattles down forcefully, clattering against the windows and bouncing off the forward deck. It saltates along the dock and buries itself like buckshot in the harbor waters. The noise is nearly deafening and I would worry about the cabin windscreen breaking if the attack were not from the rear. Kobuk's canvas shakes and vibrates under the beating.
Canso Marina: 45* 20.098' N / 60* 59.073 W
Distance: 25 miles
Total Distance: 5,253 miles
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Canso does not look well. Granted, it is Sunday, but the few small businesses here look as if they wish to retire rather than merely have a day of rest. The high ratio of homes to businesses suggests that the residents don't have much money to spend. Empty streets and pitted pavement reinforce the notion. You know a town is in trouble when its sparkling civic gem is a gravel path around a headland: good views but not much of an investment.
Just as with a person, a town is susceptible to sudden and unpredictable changes of fortune. Canso had a promising early history but then it was dealt a string of bad hands. During the colonial period, the French and the English coveted its strategic location and good harbor but all that changed when settlement moved toward the interior of the continent and the colonial era drew to a close. Its situation as the easternmost point of reasonable access in North America made it the site where the first transatlantic telegraph line came ashore but revolutionary changes in communication technology have long since negated that early advantage. All along, Canso thrived as a local center of fishing and fish processing but North Atlantic fish stocks have collapsed in our lifetime so that now there are no fish to catch or process. All the earlier advantages have disappeared; what remains is a town looking for turn of luck at the table.
On a sunny morning when a southwest breeze is chipping the calm waters of the harbor, I take Kobuk out past the rock breakwater and turn right to head around the easternmost point of land. From there, the run down to Halifax will be a string of hide and seek days, Kobuk sheltering when things turn bad and venturing out when the waters are favorable. Today looks good: there is a headwind but not a strong one, and the risk of fog looks slight. The coast is a maze of islands, headlands, reef, bays, and estuaries, so my thinking is that progress can be made against the wind by taking a convoluted course that keeps us in the lee of land as much of the time as possible. This whole northeast end of the Nova Scotian peninsula is very thinly populated so the settlements along the way will be few and small. This is a region so remote that even in the relatively large town of Canso there was no marine weather forecast on the VHF radio and my cell phone reception at the marina was a single bar. Until reaching Halifax it probably will be necessary to do without both.
The ragged coastline here is all rock. Jumbled and fragmented boulders litter the tidal zone more often than do glacially scoured swales of bedrock. A northern forest crowns the land, the scrawny firs projecting skinny tops of dead branches up to crowning peaks of ill-proportioned pompoms. This subArctic look suits such a place, so wild and unsettled. Wiggling in and out along this complicated coast must at least double the straight-line distance between villages, but the rocks and reef and islands that on the one hand are a sobering navigational hazard also give a little protection from the rougher waters.
Occasionally it is necessary to go outside and run in the open waters for a few miles. This is the case when rounding Snorting Rocks offshore from Little Dover Island. There is nothing but open ocean beyond here and the swells coming in are small hills that lift Kobuk and set her down with the rough gentleness of a giant playing with dwarfs. The swells are ribbed and ridged with the waves of the southwest wind, so Kobuk's ride is not particularly placid. Still, the conditions are manageable and we carry on under a patchy sky of blue and white. After White Head Island, the shoreline curls away from us and a distant string of rocks and islands screen off the entry into Tor Bay, a large bay shaped like a discus that can only be entered by getting past a complex screen of islands and reefs running along its seaward side. I have decided to bypass the bay on a straight line course a couple miles out from the islands and we carry on towards the next promontory that is a dozen miles away.
Part way across the open water passage, the sky clouds over and the air becomes hazy. The entire coastline disappears from sight. Only a few minutes later we are enveloped by fog. The run of the swells gives some sense of direction, but I discover to my amazement how easy it is to become totally disoriented. Without visibility, the waves knock us way off course before I can realize it and each time it is an extended struggle to get the ship on bearing again. This is a serious situation and I cast around for a way to get off the open water. There is nothing for it but to find a way into Tor Bay where the water will be calm and feeling around in the fog can be done without a lot of commotion.
With a three foot square nautical chart flopping around in my lap and Kobuk constantly wanting to veer off course, I steal seconds to look at the chart and find buoys. There is one out in the ocean beyond the entrance into the bay and another pair of them marking the actual passage into it. There can be no mistakes: aside from the channel, the thick band of islands and rocks is virtually continuous from one side to the other.
To find the actual coordinates of the offshore buoy and of the green buoy in the entrance channel, I use pencil length to ascertain how far a buoy is from shown lines of latitude and longitude, and then use the scale around the perimeter of the chart to calculate the precise position. The procedure is clumsy without a chart table and the measurement is hindered by the vigorous motion of the boat, but eventually I manage to write down the coordinates of the two buoys. I enter their coordinates on the GPS and set our course for the offshore buoy. I cannot head directly for the entrance channel because there are hazards in the way. By going to the offshore buoy first, we get a straight shot at the channel as long as we do not get off course (on the starboard side we will have to pass invisible offshore rocks no more than a couple hundred yards away).
When the GPS registers only a tenth of a mile to the first buoy, there is still nothing to be seen. Eventually the GPS switches over to measuring in feet and still no buoy. Maybe I made a mistake transferring the coordinates of the buoy--but then it appears like an apparition in the fog, straight ahead and only dozens of feet away. Starting from as close to it as the lumpy conditions allow, I alter course for the entrance channel buoy and head in. Now with the waves behind us it is easier to stay on course, and that is a very good thing. As the moment of reckoning approaches, I try to ignore how easy it would have been to inaccurately measure the buoy position or incorrectly transfer its coordinate numbers to the GPS. The work was done quickly and in distracting conditions, under the influence of an adrenaline rush that surely is good for physical performance but may not be so effective at increasing mental acuity. This line of thought which afflicts me at the time shows how unsuccessful I am at putting aside such a futile line of thinking.
The green buoy comes at us out of the fog, though, and we slip through into the protected bay. Now the same problem remains, but it can be addressed at leisure on relatively still water. I use the same approach, identifying buoys within the bay and using them as a breadcrumb trail leading us to the public wharf at Larry's River. The expansive bay is a few miles of open water and as we move across it the fog begins to lift slightly. Just as we are leaving one of the breadcrumb buoys headed for the nest, a great hulking superstructure emerges out of the mist on the port side. I have a momentary start until it becomes evident that it is not moving towards us. We pass along beside it and as we get closer it can be identified as a Coast Guard vessel at anchor. With that behind us, and the fog beginning to dissipate, the entry into Larry's River comes into view and we are, at last, safe.
Larry's River: 45* 13.080' N / 61* 22.428' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 5, 285 miles
Monday, July 9, 2007
What if I hadn't gone to Sydney to get those nautical charts? What if I had made a mistake transferring the buoy positions? What if the GPS had decided to quit at the wrong time? I am not sure we would have made it to shore unscathed. From now on, along this devilish coast, before starting each day I am going to set a few buoy locations in the GPS.
Larry's River is a scattering of homes along two sides of a small river's estuary with a wooden foot bridge running across it from one side to the other. Downstream, the fishing boats moor at an old wooden wharf that extends out into the river on its western side, and there is where I tied Kobuk. The tide went out so much at night that I was awakened when Kobuk started to complain about being hung by her mooring lines. Fortunately, the problem was nipped in the bud: I was able to get the lines untied before the weight of the boat became so extreme as to leave no choice but to cut them.
In the morning the fog has lifted although the sky continues to be mostly gray. Winds are a little more out of the west than usual and so once we are at sea the waves are nothing but small chop running counter to the inevitable swells rolling in off the Atlantic from the south. All day I am afflicted with a headache and a vague feeling of nausea. I don't know what it is, but as the hours pass I feel more as if I am simply getting through the day than actually having a lovely cruise. When at last we run in to port, it is a seven mile retreat up the estuary of the Liscomb River to the dock of the Liscomb Lodge. In the last mile, the estuary begins to look more like a river: It becomes narrow and has an obvious current running against us. Fir forest presses in from both sides and overhangs the river. White scud streaks and swirls in eddies near the river banks and the river water itself, so black when looking ahead, churns to the look of watered down blood in our wake. Farther down the estuary, farms and meadows and homes dotted the hills to either side, but now all signs of human occupance vanish and a sense of wildness sets in. But then almost immediately we come to the Liscomb Lodge where the emphasis has been on creating unpretentious comfort in the wild.
The Liscomb Lodge dining room has a continuous row of large picture windows opening out on a stand of fir trees that discreetly screen the river from being too baldly visible. To see the river running beyond the trees is more appealing than to see it unobstructed. I could draw a parallel here, but won't. The staff at Liscomb Lodge has maintained multiple bird feeders in the forested strip outside the windows, and birds by the dozens swoop, dive, and dart in plain view as you eat your dinner. They have as a backdrop the fir forest and the suggestion of the river. It reminds one of an earlier time when the American wilderness was unbroken and wildlife was everywhere.
I expect that this type of resort will become much more popular in the upcoming decades. Its appeal is simplicity in a natural setting. There is no golf course and what recreational facilities as do exist are peripheral accretions that suffer from neglect. The people who come here use the lodge's kayaks to paddle up the river, use the lodge's old bicycles to explore the paved road that runs by the place, or use the nearby footpaths to walk along the riverside. That's it, really--not much considering the diversions made available in most resorts nowadays. Still, a class of people is emerging who find this sort of pared down retreat a real break from the complexity and pressure of modern life. It is ironic, really, because this sort of place was mainstream a half a century ago. Even after World War II it was the norm for people to vacation at pleasant places where there was nothing to do. That sort of simplicity began to disappear in the sixties as resorts became more and more preoccupied with forms of entertainment and distraction. It looks as if some people are beginning to recognize the worth of an earlier mentality: a vacation in which there is nothing to do is a vacation indeed.
Liscomb Lodge: 45* 00.711' N / 62* 06.181' W
Distance: 51 miles
Total Distance: 5,336 miles
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The headache and nausea have not gone away so Kobuk and I stay put. The morning slips by with nothing much happening and I suppose Liscomb Lodge is beginning to work its spell. The personnel here must think I am a queer duck, a shabby castaway coming in off the water and spending time sitting in a lobby easy chair like a retired old man on his front porch. Occasionally I do arise, but it is only to go to the dining room to have a cup of coffee and watch a few birds. Well, whatever it is that has had me in its grip, the symptoms finally ease in the afternoon.
I tell Wayne that I think I will leave late in the day. He is the marina attendant, a round-faced man with eyes that are small candles in a large room. He is pudgy in the middle, but this cannot be from inactivity for he is constantly moving from one small project to the next, many of them passed on to him by the front desk staff who seem to call him whenever there is anything that needs doing. Wayne helps me plan where I might get to with such a late start, and sometime around four Kobuk and I set out.
Leaving Liscomb is motivated by a double desire: to escape paying slip fees for a second night and to find a good starting place for the morning. Liscomb charges a flat fee for tieing off at the dock and this disadvantages a small craft like Kobuk that takes up so little space and requires no electricity. Last night, for example, the only other overnighter was a 55' power boat with a superstructure that stood a couple stories above the level of the dock. Ordinarily, being small brings lots of advantages in yacht harbors. Sometimes harbors will not even bother to charge for something that looks like little more than a runabout. Here, though, Kobuk and I are put in the same league with the couple from Delaware that fills the gas tank of their yacht by putting 1,500 liters of fuel in it.
As for finding a better starting place for the morning, Liscomb Lodge is typical of many protected places along the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine: they can be gotten to from the open ocean only by making a journey of many miles inland. In the case of Liscomb Lodge, it is about a seven mile trek. Almost always these harbor entries are lovely cruises up a calm water inlet with luscious scenery on both sides, but a journey of seven miles is not insignificant. Considering the fact that Kobuk generally cruises at six to seven miles per hour on the little Yamaha, this is equivalent to someone driving sixty miles off an interstate to get a room for the night, knowing that in the morning it will be necessary to drive back that whole distance. Of course, the whole idea with Kobuk is to see the country, so these detours are really part of the fun. Still, when you do the math it becomes evident that forward progress suffers considerably from such detours. I typically spend six or seven hour a day on the water at a cruising speed of about 6.5 miles per hour. That means that a typical day passage of about 40 miles really only advances us along the coast about 25.
Hawbolt Cove: 44* 57.937' N / 62* 04.752' W
Distance: 13 miles
Total Distance: 5,349 miles
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
When fog moves in it leaves all surfaces ripe with beads of moisture. In the morning it is so thick that the boat moored in front of me is half enveloped in mist and when I step outside Kobuk's canvas haven the disturbance rolls water rolls off the canvas top as if I were standing under edge of a roof shedding rain. A walk up the highway and around the point of land carries me through a mist shrouded world in which sounds become exaggerated by the lack of visibility. Out on the water I can hear a fishing boat motoring past and the conversational voices of the crew carry ashore, unintelligible but sufficiently distinct that I can tell from their tonal peculiarities when different individuals speak.
By the time I return to where Kobuk is moored, the atmosphere has begun to thin and after a couple hours have passed the entire bay can be seen along with the details of the forest and the three houses on the far shore. Overhead, there is blue sky and the sun seems to be burning through the white gauze. It is a windless day and for the next twenty miles Kobuk will be able to work through a maze of islands close to shore, protected from whatever might spring up out at sea. The islands will be a challenge to navigate because there is an abundance of drying rocks and submerged reefs throughout this region. With the perfectly still waters, however, Kobuk and I can get a little practice at navigating in fog that presumably will disappear soon. There is no need to hurry and whenever the fog chooses to thicken we can just move that much more slowly.
In fact, the fog does not burn off. For some time it continues to behave as if it is about to lift, but then after a couple hours it clamps down again and reduces visibility to a hundred feet or so. I do not worry about collision with another boat since I cannot imagine anyone being so foolish as to motor at speed in these conditions. Besides, a working boat surely would not venture into waters like these where movement has to be so slow. As for pleasure boaters, why would one choose to navigate this scenic passage on such a day. I presume that my tastes are not widely shared.
Last night I entered into the GPS a complicated trail of waypoints and this will be a chance to test the reliability of using them for navigation. Once the designated route is entered, the GPS has a screen that shows a highway running in straight lines from one waypoint to the next. By moving forward, always in the middle of the highway, it is possible to progress with reasonable assurance that if the track is a correct reflection of the line on the paper chart then no hazards will be in the way. Perhaps practice of this sort could be considered the nautical equivalent of training for an instrument rating in aviation.
The biggest problem with the system is that if Kobuk moves through the water at a speed of less than about five miles per hour the GPS occasionally loses its ability to properly establish the track being followed. If Kobuk stops, the GPS is completely unable to give direction. In other words, Kobuk has to be moving forward at a good pace for the system to function. Whenever a problem arises such as failing to raise a waypoint-designated buoy when the GPS says we should, I dare not proceed until finding out exactly where we are. In these instances there is a lot of circling and maneuvering and recalculation of paper chart information before we can get under way again. It is a very slow and fitful pace of progress, but being out here doing this sort of thing seems to please me. It would be different if we were out at sea in rough water again and had to find a way to haven.
In spite of putting in quite a few hours, it is impossible to make much progress today. I decide to work the seven miles up Sheet Harbour to get tied off for the night near a small town, and this requires navigating a narrow channel between Sober Island and the mainland. The channel runs strait for a mile or two before making a sharp right turn and running under a bridge and into the long, deep water inlet of Sheet Harbor. The passage through the narrow channel happens at a time when the fog has lifted locally, revealing the configuration of both shores, but when we come to the dogleg right the distant bridge looks uncomfortably low. We motor up to it, but the tide is high and clearance under it is impossible. There is no choice but to go out around Sober Island using buoys as waypoints. The detour is indeed fog-filled and we are obliged to get out in the open ocean, but all goes well and the additional seven miles are covered without incident.
Sheet Harbour: 44* 55.418' N / 62* 32.398' W
Distance: 42 miles
Total Distance: 5,391 miles
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Last night, the Fair Winds Motel permitted me to overnight at their dock. Since Sheet Harbor is now under siege from wind, rain, and fog, Kobuk is staying put for the day and I am in the Fair Winds waterfront restaurant spending my time writing an article about why Kobuk has the configuration that she does.
For any sea wise person who sees this little boat operating in ocean waters, there are a lot of questions that arise regarding her suitability for such an environment. She is, for example, needlessly diminutive for the conditions she must confront at times. Her nearly flat bottom and very blunt bow are not well adapted to the heading into the waves, even when the waves are small. Her cabin is oversized and probably would not be able to take much punishment if caught in a storm at sea. Her freeboard is low which means she is a "wet" boat" and at higher risk of getting swamped by a bad conditions. She has a gas engine rather than a diesel, and this raises the risk of gas fume explosion. Her jet drive offers very little advantage in open water and pushes the boat less efficiently than a standard propeller would.
These are criticisms whose legitimacy cannot be denied. What is overlooked in all this, however, it the fact that Kobuk has to operate in such greatly different conditions that no matter where she might be her characteristics would be something less than optimal. All boats are compromises, of course, but Kobuk is more compromised than usual because of the trip she is being asked to make. Most of the time, perhaps nearly three quarters of the time, Kobuk will have been expected to operate on rivers and protected waterways. For much of the remainder of the time she will have had to survive on large, open bodies of water. Running rivers is her first duty; getting across open water secondary.
This means Kobuk is most vulnerable in her current environment. The North Atlantic coast this far north is a place where, on a bad day, bad decisions can sink a boat no matter how seaworthy it is. My approach to this risk is to do everything in my power to avoid exposing Kobuk to a bad day. I try to never go out of harbor if the conditions are not what might be considered "favorable." If the winds are moderate but behind us, we will venture out. If the winds are strong and favorable, we only do so after a careful calculation that the odds are infinitesimally small conditions will deteriorate. If the winds are fronting us, we only venture out if they are light and we do not plan to go far. Rain is not an issue, but fog most definitely is. We avoid foggy conditions whenever possible. Yesterday was an exception partly because I misjudged in thinking that the fog was clearing and partly because I thought that in such calm conditions we would be able to cope (and could therefore benefit from the practice) if the fog thickened. As it happened, the fog did thicken and we did cope. Although we will continue to avoid fog, yesterday's experience has diminished my deep-seated fear of its treachery. I hope it doesn't undermine my unwillingness to venture out in it but perhaps it will have helped when we get caught by it.
And getting caught by fog is something that I now know is going to happen no matter how assiduously we try to avoid it. It happened on the St. Lawrence last season and already this week it has happened twice more. I have to learn to deal with fog and not just avoid it.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Bunking forward up under the bow, I can see the aft interior of Kobuk but little outside the boat. The filtered rays of morning light give no highlights, leading me to believe that the heavy fog of yesterday has not entirely dissipated. When I arise, however, the fog is gone and it is only a gray overcast that is keeping the sun from shining. There is no wind. Of course, Sheet Harbor is six miles from the open ocean but even out there it should not be very windy. Today we can travel. While eating breakfast, the clouds part, the sun comes out, and the sky becomes a blue plate. I hurry through my breakfast and get ready for departure.
The day looks good, very good, but I try to not get too excited by it. I would like to get to Halifax because the Tall Ships Regatta starts today. All the vessels arrived yesterday and will be the focus of harborside festivities for the weekend. Halifax is rather far away for me to hold much hope of reaching there today, but if we could get most of the way then cooperative weather tomorrow would make Saturday noon a reasonable target. But hold on, Spike, hold on--don't let the city lights blind you: if the weather cooperates you will get there; if it doesn't you won't. Leave it at that.
But anyway, today is good. In the long arm of Sheet Harbor, the water is calmer than we have seen since leaving the Bras d'Or Lakes so for the first few miles we fly along with the big engine rumbling and the jet drive whining. The hull scoops a deep hollow in the water behind us and Sheet Harbor quickly disappears from view. Once out on the ocean, progress is turned over to the little Yamaha, and even before we have cleared Taylors Head to turn right along the coast the fog has rolled in. It is not thick, though: visibility is sufficient to see the next wave or two coming at us and overhead the sky is often blue. I resolve to keep moving. We already are out in the open water and no matter what we do we will have to get into port somewhere before the day is done. But since the fog is not so dense as to be disorienting it seems reasonable to keep moving. If it gets worse, well then we will have to find the nearest protection and play the breadcrumb game with buoys once again.
We motor on for a few hours with the swells rolling by but not a lot of wind blown waves. In conditions like these, I think to myself, the main engine could drive us at speed and we could cover real distance. As if to encourage the idea, the fog begins to lighten and visibility increases to a couple hundred yards. We have coming up the many islands and reefs off Ship Harbor and Clam Bay. I don't care to get many miles off shore in foggy weather, but if we were to go outside all these hazards we would be less likely to encounter one. Not only that, if we were to do it with the main engine we might cover the twenty miles of circumvention in an hour instead of taking three or four. This is a particularly appealing thought because the odds are high that as the afternoon develops the wind and waves will too, making progress with the main engine an exercise in futility: the water conditions determine Kobuk's top speed and if it starts to blow at all, she will not be able to manage at any more than five or six miles per hour anyway.
After setting a route using offshore buoys, I fire up the big engine and away we go. The seas are relatively calm, but still we are heading into them and Kobuk's hull complains at anything faster than around seventeen miles per hour. This pace of progress, however, is heart thumping after coming all the way from Canso as if doing the breast stroke.
Out we head, farther and farther to sea, when the fog strips away and we are under a sky washed clean of everything but its color. The rugged shore shows in the distance off to starboard, the first real view of the coast since leaving Canso five days ago. Offshore, in the intervening waters, spray is popping spray off countless islets of rock, each looking like an uncorked champagne bottle. Near at hand, the swells and waves surrounding us are delighted with the appearance of the sun, so much so that soon there is a harsher component in Kobuk's bounding motion. The maximum speed at which she can move without being self-destructive gradually diminishes to around thirteen miles per hour. At this point, we reach the outermost buoy and head diagonally back to shore, a bearing that allows us to be somewhat less confrontational with the seas and thus permits continued progress at this speed even though the conditions are obviously getting rougher.
Off the entrance to Musquodoboit Harbor, it is time to turn things back over to the Yamaha. With this twenty mile run, we have moved within striking distance of Halifax and in the process left astern the last of the hazardous offshore reefs. Now, however, it becomes clear that I should have thought twice about closing with the coast. A promontory and Shut In Island some nine miles ahead require us to angle out to sea once again and Kobuk finds herself having to punch through increasingly rough seas. It is a long slow slog, that nine miles; it takes us a couple hours. Finally we make it, though, and angle more westward towards Hartlen Point, the last headland before Halifax Harbor.
When the long channel up to Halifax opens up around Hartlen Point, it is the most glorious of late summer afternoons and boats of all kinds are out enjoying it. since leaving Canso two hundred miles back we have not seen more than a half dozen boats on the water. Now of a sudden we are staring at dozens of them. Like a country driver intimidated by freeway traffic, I find myself overly concerned with the unpredictable trajectories of all these cruisers. There is plenty of space in this grand inlet of the sea, however, and we make it without incident to Armdale Yacht Club at the head of Northwest Arm, next to Halifax.
Actually, it is not completely true that we made it without incident. In Northwest Arm, with just two or three miles to go, the Yamaha's jerry can went dry and rather than refilling it on the water I started the main engine to motor the remainder of the distance. As Kobuk came out of the pocket and started for the barn, I heard a large clunk aft and looked around to see what had caused it. I had left the binoculars on top of the seat back and the sudden acceleration knocked them off. I pick them up and look through them and the lenses have not been damaged. They no longer look in the same direction, however; one looks up and the other down.
Armdale Yacht Club: 44* 38.104' N / 63* 36.744' W
Distance: 78 miles
Total Distance: 5,469 miles
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Yesterday evening when Kobuk made it to Armdale Yacht Club the place was hopping. A couple dozen boats were moored off, and the yacht club piers were filled with boats. The late day sun was still warm and with no wind in the harbor people were lounging on the yacht club deck that sits high above the water. A few boaters were preparing to push off for evening cruises and cars were coming and going. I looked around for a gas dock but did not immediately see one, and then sighted the end of a floating dock that had no boat tied to it. A plastic molded step ladder there suggested that this might be someone's designated slip, but other no boats appeared to be coming into harbor right then so I figured I could tie temporarily and quickly check out the overnighting options. Cruising guides indicate that Armdale does have designated slips for visitors and I needed to find out whether they were all taken.
The office for the marina is on the lower level of the yacht club building and in the process of locating it I asked directions of a young man who had that employee look. He was indeed an employee; he was the bartender, temporarily away from his station upstairs. He said that the woman who handles my concerns had left for the day and would not be in again until Monday morning. He didn't know what I should do but when I showed him through the window where Kobuk was tied he looked at the spot and then looked at me and then said that the 49' Beneteau that moored there had gone off to the Bras d'Or Lakes for a few days. He knew the names of the owners and he spoke confidently about their absence so I decided to take a chance and just leave Kobuk where she was until Monday when the office would open again. If the wealthy owners of the 49' Beneteau return there will be a minor scene, I should imagine, but that does seem to be a long shot.
The Armdale Yacht Club commands a site that I should think is near perfect for a marina. It is an island at the very head of Northwest Arm, in a bay that curls away from the main reach of water to give protection on all sides. A causeway links the island to the mainland but otherwise there is water, and a continuous network of floating docks, all around the island. Early in the morning I walk around all the docks, looking at the assortment of boats and checking (unsuccessfully) for where visiting boats might be tied. The island from which these docks project is nearly circular and has a diameter no greater than a couple hundred yards. Most of the way around the island rises abruptly from the water and ascends steeply to a hilltop that is a few tens of feet higher. The Armdale Yacht Club building occupies the crest of the hill and affords a birds eye view of all the yachts in the harbor.
I spend much of this sunny day in the dining room at a table next to a window that looks down on Kobuk out at the end of the floating dock. My waiter is named Candace and she keeps me supplied with coffee as I do my work. Candace, it happens, is one of those people who always find a reason to be happy. She recently graduated from university where she specialized in Latin American studies. She is fluent in Spanish as a result of having gone to Mexico and taken intensive language training in Cuernavaca and Guanajuato. With freckles and a creamy complexion, she has the look of a country girl and indeed she did grow up in a small Manitoba prairie town. Eventually she plans to return to university to become certified as a secondary school teacher, but between now and then she hopes to spend a year or two teaching English in Korea or Japan--a common way for young people of her orientation to simultaneously see a bit of the world and receive sufficient income to pay off student loans. Coming to Halifax to work for the summer is her way of seeing a part of Canada that is new to her. The restaurant is not particularly busy and whenever she is not otherwise occupied she comes over to continue our installment-plan discussion. I like talking with someone like Candace: her philosophy and her attitude give me hope for the future.
Late in the day I cycle into Halifax to see the tall ships. In the golden light of late afternoon, the waterfront is a fretwork of masts and spars, most of them varnished natural wood or wood painted a buff color that suggests the same. Ropes and lines, blocks and bobstays, crowned teak decks and scuppers the size of sleeping cats--these and other reminders of bygone days snag my attention while hordes of weekenders stroll the promenade and bands play in the distance. What could be more romantic than these seagoing craft? Their toughness and fragility, so remarkably blended, and their capacity to go unaided to any place in the seven seas keeps me enthralled. What they are is beautiful, but what they represent is why I have come to see them.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Halifax is situated next to an inlet of the ocean that at its outer end is partly plugged by McNabb Island. This long arm of water narrows as it pierces to the interior, and then opens into Bedford Basin, a spacious, deepwater haven that from high above must look like the head of a giant pollywog. Shipping facilities concentrate in the Bedford Basin, but the city fronts the water where the arm is narrowest, in the passage that all large ships must make coming and going. The main streets of town run parallel to shore following the contours of a steep hill that overlooks the water. McNabb Island shields Halifax from the open ocean, but a certain amount of slop and roughness can make its way in when the wind comes straight out of the south.
Halifax has an historic waterfront studded with piers of ample dimensions to accommodate the ships of yesteryear but inadequate for modern commercial needs. The docks are now a part of the historic waterfront district where nearly a century ago masons and craftsmen built elegant commercial establishments in red brick and where in recent years the more enlightened forces of progress have inserted a scattering of parks and museums. Only two blocks back up the hillside from the water are the larger structures of the city's central district. Halifax is small enough that one need not think of the waterfront and the commercial zone as separate districts; they are side by side and one grades into the other so subtly that the mind resists the idea that there might be a boundary between them.
A broad boardwalk promenade edges the water and connects the docks one to another in such a way as to make them part of a single organic unit. It is here that the tall ships are tied and on this sunny afternoon I join the gawking crowd. I have returned today because there will be time to go aboard some of these vessels and feel they way they float in the water. I walk aboard the Bluenose II and the Sherman Zwicker and the globetrotting replica of the Bounty. Many others, too, I walk aboard. Each is distinct. Each is an individuated creation.
The demands of the sea are uncompromising; to ignore them is to tempt fate. To be seaworthy, a boat must be able to live with the various moods of the ocean. And if a ship is a sailing ship she must be able to use the wind even when it is light and yet not be overwhelmed by it when it is strong. Considering the fact that when the wind blows twice as hard its destructive power becomes much more than twice as great, the adaptation is not an easy one to make. One might expect that survival at sea would have enforced a selection process so terrible in its absolutism that all oceanic sailing craft would evolve toward a single ideal solution. That did not happen, though: a glorious diversity of shapes and forms evolved, resolving the problem of survival at sea in a multiplicity of ways. In spite of the iron law of tradition that governs so many aspects of life aboard sailing ships, the configuration of the ships themselves is quite remarkably diverse.
There are commonalities of course; good ships share many common design features. But when you step aboard one of these old sailing vessels there is a distinctive character to it that sets it apart from all others--just as each person has much in common with every other but is at the same time a unique individual. This mysterious personality turns a classic sailing vessel into a living thing. She has been quickened by the breath of life, and this of course means that her life can at any time be extinguished. She may be fast, she may be tough, she may be endowed with heroic endurance--but somewhere in the soul of this living thing there is a trait or an attribute that can be exploited by the sea to bring her down. She is as vulnerable to tragedy as any human and her demise can often resonate in the memory far more effectively than the lost lives of those who went down with her.
When I step aboard the schooner Virginia, I am greeted by a mild man with a twinkling eye who looks to be in the youthful stages of the retirement years. His name, if I recall correctly, is Jack Hart and he is a local volunteer who does not crew on Virginia but dedicates his time to answering people's questions about her. Jack was a Torontonian. Many years ago he left behind the prospect of urban affluence there to pursue the less complicated pleasures of the Maritimes. He took up sailing and spent many years messing around in boats before finally reaching the age at which more sedentary pleasures began to beckon. Jack is by nature friendly with people and I am sure that he believes his volunteer effort is motivated by his love of people. I cannot help suspecting, however, that he is really here because of his love for Virginia.
Monday, July 16, 2007
When I was at the Charlottetown Yacht Club this spring preparing Kobuk for the season, a stranger came up to me and asked if it was true that I planned to voyage down the eastern seaboard and get to Florida by winter. I responded affirmatively and we discussed the route and strategies of such a journey. He eventually said that a book written by Silver Donald Cameron relates the experiences that he and his wife had had taking their boat Magnus along this very same route. He thought I might find the book helpful and promised to lend it to me. The next day after shopping in town I returned to Kobuk and found on the engine box a book entitled Sailing Away from Winter. Over the next couple days I read it and it did indeed contain an abundance of useful information. I liked the book and ended up sending an email message to its author telling him so and explaining that I was about to do a similar journey. He wrote back and that led to an exchange of more emails and a vague plan to meet whenever I happened to make it to Halifax. Now I am in Halifax and such a plan has been made; Donald lives nearby and is going to come to the yacht harbor at noon so that we can have lunch together.
Donald arrives on the dock at the appointed time. Silver as a first name is actually a description of his hair, adopted to differentiate him from a number of other famous Donald Camerons who trace their roots to this province that was widely settled by Scottish immigrants. Donald's physical and mental agility are anything but geriatric, however, and over lunch in the yacht club restaurant we discuss boating and writing and the good life. Donald is an established author who knows that I am an aspiring but unpublished writer so it is very good of him to meet me like this and give me a little encouragement. We part with expressions of hope that our paths will cross again someday.
After lunch, I cycle once again to downtown Halifax because I want to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. I am keen to see its exhibit on Halifax's great disaster.
December 6th, 1917--that was for Halifax the day of sorrows. The Great War was being waged in Europe. Materiel and manpower were being transported across the Atlantic from Canada and the United States. Canada had been in the war from its start, of course, since her status as a dominion of Great Britain committed her at the outset, but by 1917 the United States was involved as well. The strategic location of Bedford Basin made Halifax a favored marshalling yard for convoys crossing the Atlantic and on that fateful morning a French ship named Mont-Blanc was coming through the narrows to join the fleet in Bedford Basin. She was loaded with munitions and explosives. An exiting Norwegian ship that was not part of the planned convoy collided with her and shortly thereafter fire broke out aboard the Mont-Blanc. The accident drew city residents down to the waterfront to watch even as the Mont-Blanc was drifting over towards them. The inevitable explosion was so great that two square kilometers of the city were totally destroyed and thousands were killed. That very day, the worst snowstorm of the winter arrived to lay a blanket of snow on the deadened landscape. Halifax eventually recovered from this catastrophe and today there is no obvious sign of the devastation wrought on that one day, but the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has assembled artifacts and personal narratives that dramatize the magnitude of the disaster.