This is the First Part of Nerys and Rob Kimberleys adventure (most definitely not a microadventure) of sailing her boat from Canada to Pwllheli
Subject: Sackets to Halifax
Phyllis joined us, flying in from San Diego via New York where she had been catching up with friends and relatives, to be greeted at the train station in Watertown. I don't think she knew how relieved Nerys and I were to have someone with us, to have someone we trusted, but also to have someone who spoke the language with enough experience to know what was right or wrong in a situation. It was a bit daunting to set off, but we had worked up momentum and had the sails up 50 yards from letting go. I still wasn't used to the sail plan, with the jib cut high in the foot and not the deck skirting No 1 that I was used to racing on Bob's J46 or Dave's Columbia 50 (friends we used to sail with in San Diego). I was itching to make as much ground as soon as I could and kept looking around for signs of more wind. We had a decent enough breeze, 10 knots to start with but I could feel it dying and was debating getting the green spinnaker ready. Instead I was instructed by the crew to conduct some training. Outnumbered and seeing the complete sense of it, we started doing man overboard drills as soon as we were in open water and I had reassured myself of the sea room I had.
Man overboard drill are not just about the risk of losing someone over the side, they get you used to how the boat handles, teach you skills and build confidence. I struggle to have a hand off approach, and generally force myself to either stand right back behind the helm for the first approaches to the man and then when the basics are there become just another crew. With only three of us it meant the girls had to do all the work initially and that meant they learnt quickly. After going around in circles for a good hour we continued on towards Kingston and sure enough the wind died and we had to motor the last hour.
First stop Kingston, and our first bridge to get past. There is a distinct lack of pilotage publications for this part of the world, and it was down to google to find out the information I needed to plan a passage, that and local advice (which was plentiful). I had read about the St Lawrence and squirrelled away as much information as I could, and so felt reasonably confident as we set off that I knew where we were going, but I had yet to plan any real stops other than Montreal and Quebec. The river looked wide enough to stop and there were several promising looking inlets along the way, but without knowing what speed I could make and with delays due to bridges and locks to factor in where we would finish up every day was a little uncertain. In all honesty it was the least of my concerns, I was more worried about the engine running and my ability to nourish it with filters and oil. So arriving in Kingston, in a weedy lagoon with lots of geese and ducks on the wooden pontoons, I was keen to make the most of the visit and glean some more knowledge of the river, locks and currents. It was my hope that the pilotage guides I craved could be found in Canada. This was the point where I found out how experienced Phyllis was. Sat on an old bench under a weathered phone booth talking to the polite Customs official, it sank in that we were no longer in USA and had in fact started getting closer to UK. When I read out our passport numbers, names and date of birth there was a 20 second break in the conversation as my mental arrithmatic was exposed to the unexpected.
After a short stroll ashore we found somewhere to eat and drink, a very cosmopolitan style place, outside with lots of people watching potential. Just no people. So showing our age we decided to retire. That was the last we saw of Kingston, I was sure there was more to it, but the drive to press on had been reitterated the night before when Phyllis told us her hopeful return date from Halifax. The next stretch up to Montreal took us through the "thousand islands" as we sailed down river at about 9 knots, we were lucky with the wind direction and the flow from Niagara kept us clipping along. We broke into three watches, two on at any one time with the third taking a break, sitting on the spinnaker bag with just the jib up to take us downstream past all the beautiful real estate and the gothic Singer Castle. It is a beautiful part of the world in summer, lots of speedboats and people generally making the most of the benign conditions. The hats that we were given as a joke by Andrew Sweeny ( a friend we used to sweep row with) were indispensible as the sun beat down on us and we sipped gin and tonics with lots of water in between.
The first lock, Iroquois, was a learning process, reporting in and waiting for the next opening which was timed for the next big ship coming up or down the river. The web site would have been indispensible, but our American sim cards proved intermittent at best. In our rush to press on there were two things I should have stopped in Kingston for, better pilotage publications and Canadian sim cards. The lock itself was a good introduction to the canal system and we soon became more relaxed about what on paper were fairly strict directions. Luckily for us Phyllis was keeping in touch with our progress and the weather on her sailing ap. Typical American. But instead of us getting caught out in the some strong winds we motored through a weedy marina, dredging a nice little furrow all the way to the berth in Crysler Park Marina. Met on arrival by the marina staff who tied us up with efficiency we were then introduced to some local Brits who questioned us mercilessly but promised information to assist our safe passage. Within half an hour there was thunder and lightning all around us, and then the rain. Snug below we switched on our solar powered lights and broke open a bottle of wine. The next day peace had been restored and so was my faith in humanity as a local marina guide was thrust into my hands as we set off. Without it the whole trip would have been considerably more difficult as it listed not only marina prices and facilities, but useful data like minimum draught and maximum length for every marina in Quebec.
As we coasted on with the sun in full attendance a quick study of the guide made me realise that my options were more limited than I had hoped, but not as bad as I had feared. The wind was still in the same direction and as the river narrowed we were getting faster. The drop in the locks was getting progressively bigger and we were relishing the opportunity to talk to the line handlers about the next bridge or lock. We breezed through the locks south of Cornwall, where I had meant to stop. It was all going far too well. My concerns over the engine had been pushed to the back of my mind as the wind had been so favourable and in fairness it hadn't missed a beat. The locks had been easy to navigate, the bridges had opened on time and everyone we had met had been cheerfully helpful. So it was a bit of a surprise when we approached a bridge (Salaberry-de-Valleyfield) at 1430 with a scheduled 1500 opening that the big flashing neon sign said somthing in French amounting to "come back tomorrow next opening 0900". The problem with being stopped in your tracks, unexpectedly, on a river, is that you have to find somewhere safe to stop before you get swept under the bridge or run out of good holding ground for the anchor. So we nudged as close to the river bank as we dared and put the anchor down for an hour, then went back to see if anything had changed. It hadn't, but I didn't feel comfortable being just a few hundred yards up from the bridge in 2 knots of current, so we moored to a buoy instead. There were large buoys designed to anchor the ice booms, well serviced and more than up to the task of holding a relatively light boat, nevertheless I looked around for any sign of a cross official and relaxed. Sometimes it is easy to forget where you are and then it hits you, you are a quater of the way down the St. Lawrence and the bridge is closed for traffic, we were in for a peaceful night.
Next day we slipped from the buoy and in the company of a big pleasure boat passed under the bridge at 0900. The next set of locks (Beauharnois, which I keep pronouncing Beaumaris) and bridges would see us in Lac St Luis and approaching Montreal. There was a town quay berth to the SW of the city, but the route in and back was depth constrained and would mean a long trip in and back to the start of the canal bi-pass around the SE side of the city. So we entered the bi-pass canal with the aim of getting to Vieux Port de Montreal. However the boat had other ideas and half way to Notre Dame the oil pressure guage start fluctuating. We were in the canal with very little room to manoeuvre and the engine had decided to play up, typical, so I reduced revs and rushed down below to see what was what. Engine covers off I dipped the engine and it looked low. Up to now all the engine instruments had behaved themselves, but apart from crossing Lake Ontario we hadn't really run the engine for very long. Now it looked like I had lost some oil, so I asked Nerys to shut it down and whilst we had steering way I checked for any sign of an oil leak. In all honesty, if I hadn't been so nervous about something going wrong it might have helped my diagnosis, but as it was I decided to top it up with oil and get up to the berth by the next dock or at least into a wider stretch out of the way of any merchant traffic. Either way I decided to radio in my concerns to the canal authority. As we continued on, stressing over the needle dropping further and further, a Canadian pleasure boat coming upstream asked if we needed some oil. A quick U turn and coming up alongside he passed over about 5 gallons of engine oil in plain containers and with profound thanks from me I turned the boat around to get to the lock. Another 30 minutes and were alongside at the last lock before Montreal. I reported in as usual and waited for the lights to change and a call to say the lock was opening. During that time I covered myself in engine oil from the bilges as I cleaned under the engine so I could see if there was a leak, checked the level of the engine and then tried to relax. After about 45 minutes the call came and we made ready to set off again. About 15 feet hathe berth the engine burped out a big cloud of grey smoke and stuttered, so I threw it ahead and cut the engine and coasted back alongside. I was not happy. My engineering skills were obviously lacking and I was struggling to figure out where the problem lay. It was time for a plan of action. One thing thatwould make this easier was a phone and if possible access to the internet so I could find an engineer willing to come out to look at the engine. Of course it was a public holiday in Quebec and we were locked out of the lock and access to the city, so after a few phone calls to the dockmaster a friendly face appeared. One of the managers took it upon himself to drive Nerys and Phyllis into town and get Sim cards and provided numbers for an engineer. By now it was too late to get through the lock and with no means of leaving the dockmaster reluctantly allowed us to stay the night. The next day I rang an engineer, who obviously didn't want to come out but was being as helpful as he could, we talked through the symptoms and he explained that quite possibly it was the pressure guage that was at fault, that there was a bypass valve that would ensure the engine did not go without oil and as long as the oil level was correct it was unlikely that I would damage the engine. It wasn't long before I was once again covered in oil as I effected an oil change and replaced the secondary oil filter for good measure. The oil was black and considering the few hours I had put on the engine and that the yard had supposedly changed it before we left Sackets something did not add up. I was trying to understand why the oil pressure would drop and in all my training this was an alarm bell that I couldn't turn off in my head until I could understand the logic of it. So I replaced the oil and changed the filter and ran the engine, the oil pressure guage looked normal and there was no more smoke. I had done everything I could.
The next day we set off through the lock and for the first hour everything went well, then as we approached the turn up river to get to the marina the pressure guage decided to act as a metronome. My heart was in my mouth and I briefed Nerys and Phyllis on what to do if the engine failed and we had to sail, we wouldn't make headway against the current so it would have to be downstream where I had identified an anchorage. The current was about 3 knots against us initially as we entered the river on the inside of the bend, and the marina was 2 miles upstream. As we passed under the bridge it was increasing to 5 knots against us and I ignored the pressure guage and increased revs to make some way and keep off the ships berthed along the jetty to starboard. I still couldn't make out the entrance to the marina and used the radio for directions, it was right ahead of me behind a floating boom which required a sharp turn before we were in slack water. Still doing 8 knots into the pontoons I decided to slow down and concentrate. The marina staff directed us to an inside berth and we threw the bow off hard to starboard and reversed in. Lines were passed and before I could start breathing again we were secure and I had switched off the engine. We were out of the wind and current, it was hot and as I looked around I realised we were the only yacht berthed here amongst a hundred majestic looking power boats. Time for a shower, a beer, seeing something of Montreal, and then think about what I needed to do next, but first I needed to tidy the dock lines and look presentable. I was proud of our yacht for getting us here and since it was the only one here, with 60 foot of mast singling it out for attention, it was going to look smart.
The girls were taking their time in the showers and after enquiring about the marina fees, extortionate but justified, I decided to recce the local area for a place to eat and drink to celebrate the trip so far. So leaving instructions to meet at the first bar they came to on the left I headed into town. Montreal is a beautiful city and walking past the market along the river front, under the zip lines from the pirate climbing frames it was only five minutes before I was in a very cosmopolitan area with bars, restraunts and lots of people. I found the most prominant place to wait for the girls and ordered a cold beer and started thinking about what I needed to do next. I was concerned that I did not have enough spare filters for prolonged use of the engine, both oil and fuel filters, but I was also limited in my ability to find them. Access to the internet would give me the ability to find what I needed and give me the information needed for safe navigation. But first we needed a break, a decent meal and to enjoy the city. In the morning the girls went shopping and sight seeing and I went in search for a cell phone shop to get a Sim card with a data plan, within an hour I was back online. There were few chandlery shops in Montreal and support for yacht engines was a little sparse, but I found a decent one on the other side of the city, about 40 minutes on the bus. There were a few filters I could use, one good primary fuel filter but no secondary fuel filters and only two oil filters. Based on the length of the journey I was thinking in the region of at least 5 filters of each variety. After three days in Montreal I had exhausted every avenue and the only source of filters was in Sackets, unfortunately they couldn't get hold of primary fuel filters, so to go forward I had to go backwards and hired a car and drove down and back in a day and of course it was a Sunday. The engineer in Sackets was true to his word and had gathered all the filters and left them in the cockpit of a yacht in the marina, he even managed to get me a spare fan belt which was sitting in an old pick up outside a roadside garage on the way back. I like working with good people and with a wealth of advice I now felt more confident in the engine and my skill to maintain it.
So on Monday we fueled, watered and set off for Quebec. We couldn't make it in one day so the plan was to anchor in Lake St Piere so that night we anchored in a spot where the river was wide, had good holding, and as the wind died the river was like glass and all we could see and hear was the salmon jumping. Lots and lots of salmon, it was mesmerising. Next day we set off under Trois Riviers large suspension bridge, there was no wind so we motored gently along, letting the current take us with it towards the sea. Then the wind picked up and helped us on our way and by evening we were entering the lock in the centre of Quebec. Another beautiful city with a far more French feel and this time we did not have the pressure of fixing the yacht, she had got us this far easily, with only my own shortcomings as an engineer exposed. We were now over half way to Halifax with about a thousand miles to go around the Gaspe peninsula and out into open water to get to Nova Scotia. So we found as many fresh provisions as possible, ice for the freezer and a few bottles of wine for the evening meal.
We set off in light airs, which slowly built as we tacked down river. We were now surrounded by high ground, similar to the West of Scotland and it felt as though the constraints of the river were falling away as it grew wider and deeper. Initially we had planned to sail 24/7 to get around to Gaspe, but with the wind increasing from the South East it was not going to be possible and instead we had to settle for Baie-Comeau to get some rest. We were in 2 watches, I kept going until midnight with Nerys and Phyllis keeping each other company until about 4 am, then I would come on again. The day watches looked after themselves as we shared the chores and the helm. The chart plotter was WiFi enabled which let me keep an eye on progress and tell if I needed to be on deck, but after 2 days it was obvious we needed a break. So rather than slam into the large swell for another night we headed for Baie-Comeau, a sheltered marina on the North side. There were only a few yachts on the pontoons and the place was in the grip of yet another public holiday as we came in slowly to our berth. Phyllis and Nerys stood ready to tie us up, with Nerys on bow and Phyl in the stern. Unfortunately Phyllis mis-judged her athletic leap and twisted her ankle on landing, still managing to tie us up but wincing with pain as she did so. Everyone was tired and with nobody else around we had a very quiet night. The following day we went for a shower and re-discovered a love for coissants. This was a bit of a crunch time, as we needed to discuss how Phyllis was going to get her flight and what time we could realistically make around to Gaspe. Luckily we had met someone in the marina who knew all about the transport links, ferries, buses and trains available to get from here to Halifax. Although we needed Phyllis it was obvious that she was uncomfortable moving around the boat and we decided to land her there to get a ferry across and on to Halifax so that she could make her planned flight back rather than suffer with us for any longer. The following day we set off, with Phyllis letting off our lines and videoing our departure, it was a sad moment and I could not thank her enough for all she had done and the kind way she had done it.
So now it was just the two of us. We stayed in the same watch routine and overlaped watches when necessary to handle the sails or have our meals. Now we were out of the river the tide was having effect and the swell from the SE built into heavy choppy seas as the tide went against it. We were in for an uncomfortable week of tacking to get to Sydney and I was not looking forward to it. As we hugged the coast and finally started to go South as well as East the weather deteriorated further, we were both now cold and tired and not yet in a sustainable routine where we could get enough sleep off watch. So after another two days of battling to make progress around the top we pulled into Rivière-au-Renard. The heavy weather had again stirred up the fuel tanks and I had to change the primary fuel filter before we got to the entrance to have a chance of the engine running. We entered at night against a backdrop of bright deck lights from the fishing fleet, reducing to just the gib and then getting the engine going just as it was needed to do a U turn to get into the harbour and down to the yacht berth at the far end. Tired, a little buzzed to be out of the weather and thankfull we had rung ahead and the marina owner had left a key for the showers under a rock by the door. A shower always feels better when you think you have earnt it. Waking up the next day in what can only be described as the French equivalent of the outer hebrides, we stretched our legs and were soon back onboard for breakfast. Realising the fishing fleet would need engineering support I decided to explore for primary fuel filters, and after some international sign language, a few technical manuals and the advice of everyone in the office, I managed to buy what I hoped was the agricultural version, filters that looked nothing like the ones on the boat.
The afternoon was spent fuelling by jerry can, which turned out to be more productive than I could have imagined since the chap fueling the boat was also a sailor and had heard that Port Hawkesbury was still open. If this was true then we could save considerable time and effort going inside Prince Edward Island, avoiding tacking against the prevailing weather and out of the main tidal stream. We managed to track down a phone number and within half an hour we had talked to the Welsh Harbour Master at Port Hawkesbury who assured us that he would indeed be open as the works had been comleted on the lock and it was now open for normal business. So we planned our trip down. The weather so far had been worse than I had forecast and I needed to get this right before we pushed our luck. I had access to all the internet feeds I could hope for, but there was a difference between model forecasting and local conditions that I couldn't account for and part of me couldn't wait to get away from the land. As the weather improved the next day we set off for a short hop to Miscou Island, where I hoped to anchor, and from there onto Charlottetown before getting to Port Hawkesbury lock. Again things failed to go as planned. Out of the main current running from Gaspe to Sydney we started making good time, so good that we could be in Charlottetown by evening, so we pressed on. The wind was reducing to 15 knots, we had shaken out a reef and were approaching West Cape (West end of Prince Edward Island) by late afternoon when we noticed lots of boats converging on us. They were whale watchers, and as I shook out the last reef we sailed right through a pod of whales and past the tourist boats hounding them. Whales are more alert to us than you might think, they are in their natural domain, whilst most human interaction is predicated by un-natural noise and motion which they are surprisingly tolerant of. Nerys loves the sight of sea mammals and I have lost count of the times I have been called on deck in the past to see the whole crew muster in the bow and leave me the wheel. She was not dissapointed on this trip.
The wind kept dropping and the tide had turned, now we would struggle to get to Charlottetown unless we motored so the donkey sprung to life and we started motoring towards Confederation Bridge. As light fell I went to get some sleep and before I knew it I was awake again with Nerys barrelling towards the centre of the bridge with the main still up and the engine going, making about 12 knots with the tide. It was raining, visibility was just over a mile and the lights from the bridge and the buoys made the centre span hard to distinguish. We shut off the engine and let the jib out and kept sailing with 20 knots of wind off the starboard quater. By about 4 am we were out the other side and because the wind was fluky I dropped the main and kept the jib to make made the boat more controllable and let Nerys get some rest. As dawn broke I just kept going, I had intended to turn left into Charlottetown but the wind had remained inconsistent for the last 2 hours and I had miss timed my tack. The wind had swung all the way around and instead of SE was now Northerly so that if we were to make Charlottetown we would have to tack into the tidal stream in fairly light airs. I hate going backwards so as the wind picked up I wanted to make the most of it and keep going East. I realised the risk of pressing on when tired, but felt pretty good, I was getting into the routine and more than that my wife was building in confidence and while I always trusted her to call me when she needed, now that was less often and I was getting enough sleep. So instead of turning into Charlottetown we kept going, next stop Port Hawkesbury. We had a great sail that day and saw one other yacht going in the other direction, an ocean going yacht, well equiped and comfortably cruising. As we passed North of Caribou Island the channel opened up again and we were in open water, the seas were still a little steep for the wind conditions but we had just the right wind to make the boat move under full canvass. I was getting to know her and I couldn't have been happier. For all my worries about engines I had never really doubted her sailing ability, yes I had been worried about her rigging, but not how she was rigged and I was still a little worried about the sails, since the canvass was as old as the boat and the stitching on the jib had had to be re-sewn, but the canvass was still stiff and the shape was good. So as the wind got up and we started reefing I was still in a good mood, not wanting it to end. The canal lay at the bottom of a funnel, between Cape George and Port Hood, and as we approached Low point we had to go into wind and drop the main. The wind was howling now, coming down from the high land and along the Eastern shore where I expected more shelter from a Northerly wind. Electing to further down before dropping the main I reached the point where it needed to come down to control our approach, otherwise we would run out of sea room so we furled the jib and motored slowly into what was now a gale. I let out enough halyard to tie the boom right down and proceeded to flake the main down, bouncing and swearing in equal parts, I should have done this earlier and assessed conditions before coming in, if we had to we could have waited, now I needed to get into the lock for our own safety. The small lock was managed by some very contented gentlemen, full of good humour and pleased to see something different and within half an hour, which was filled with chatter, we were out the other side.
My plan had been to anchor at Port Hawkesbury, but when we got there and motored around the small inlet a few other options were worth considering. There was a small marina, which at a push I could fender myself to the outside of, I just didn;t think there was enough water at low tide, or I could tie up to the large barges on mooring buoys, but in the end I went for the jetty. With the exception of the small marina Port Hawkesbury seemed devoted to commercial vessels and had a training gantry set up on the jetty for lifeboat training. So I gently edged in and watched the depth and did a few calculations, then once happy tied up to the gantry under the lifeboat. We were aiming to leave first thing in the morning so I didn't see a problem, if asked to leave I could always anchor, but it also gave me the opportunity to get ashore and find some fast food. We were both exhausted and couldn't face cooking so I wandered ashore and found the most expensive but delicious fish and chips in Nova Scotia.
The following day we motored gently down the estuary, very reminiscent of Fowey river for me, and slowly out to the Atlantic, at last. Another great day sailing, beating out around Cranberry Lighthouse with 12 knots of wind on a beautiful day, setting into a broad reach on a starboard tack with the wind off the land. Beautiful day, the spinnaker made an appearance but was no faster so got stowed as evening approached, and we had made good time, almost too good, because if we kept this up we would be there at three in the morning. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and the clouds were building inshore and the swell was picking up as we neared the outer approaches to Halifax. The wind was from the NNE and was gusting up to 35 knots, then it started raining and then as I got close to turning north into the channel it turned nasty, we already had three reefs with hardly any jib and yet we were being knocked sideways with the seas building up over the shallow waters. The entrance was not achievable in these conditions so we were forced to turn back and wait for the squall to pass and hoping the waves would calm down. The rain was now horizontal, waves over 8 feet, and wind gusting over 45 knots, but we were heading away from danger. It only lasted an hour but it was cold and draining. We turned back towards the channel as the dawn approached and the wind was dropping slowly, now down to 25 knots as we set on a starboard tack in towards Herring Cove. Then the power died and the chartplotter decided to pack up. I was waiting until the sea died further before I started the engine, I wanted the fuel to settle and not require me to do another filter change, so in the meantime I was going on memory of the channel and using the binoculars to identify the leading headmarks as we went up channel, concentrating on the sailing and the basics to keep ourselves safe. Finally we got abeam of Spectacle Island and I switched to the engine battery and the donkey started, and with the power we regained the echo sounder and chartplotter, just in time to make our approach to the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club. It had been a long day, but now we were in Halifax with plenty of time to get ready for the next leg.
Part II will be published with the Commodore's February Newsletter