Path to the Bra D'Or Lakes via the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
08 June 2012
The Gulf of St. Lawrence: Path to the Bra D'Or Lakes
The Bra D'Or Lakes of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia is one of the premier cruising destinations on the east coast of North America. Most cruisers come to the Bra D'Or Lakes from the east coast of the US passing south of New England and the mainland of Nova Scotia to enter the Lakes through St. Peter's canal, the west entrance to the Lakes.
However, an increasing number are transiting the St. Lawrence River heading for the Lakes from the Gaspe' Peninsula. The most often used track passes from the Gaspe' south through the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Those on this path also typically enter the Lakes through the St. Peters Canal.
The route described here, however, passes across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, visits the Magdelen Islands, and enters the Lakes from the east via the Great Bra D'Or Channel after rounding Cape North on Cape Breton Island. Both Gulf routes are delightful as summer cruising in the Gulf is warmer than might be envisioned, relatively fog free, and almost always windy enough to satisfy almost any sailor. (A compromise route starts out heading south as if to go to the Canal, but departs across the Gulf from a port on either the north or south end of the Northumberland Strait. This strategy shortens the crossing to the Magdelen Islands somewhat.)
To understand the Gulf, it is important to distinguish between the northern Gulf and the area to the south. Draw a line from the Gaspe' southeast to the Rochers aux Oiseaux, northeast of the Magdelens, to St. Paul Island, northeast of Cape North. To the south or southwest of this line the Gulf is relatively shallow, the depths further reduced by three substantial banks. The shallow depth supports warming from summer sun and little water from the North Atlantic penetrates this area. Most of the outflow of the River trends south and east from the Gaspe' north of this line. It flows across the bay to exit into Cabot Strait between Cape North and St. Paul Island. A current of up to ½ knot may be discerned. An east wind pushing against the River's flow can kick up a visious chop and pretty much stop a small sailboat. Thus, we recommend crossing the Gulf south of the line described above (See below).
As you get closer to Cabot Strait itself, the reversing tidal flow can make the seas even rougher. In fact, caught in a strong wind against the tide in Cabot Strait can be more than a little uncomfortable. One of our crossings of the Strait was uneventful, but a second one presented us with the worst seas we experienced in 30 years of cruising. Friends of ours with more open ocean cruising than we tell the same story.
The Gulf, especially the Northumberland Strait, is said to have the warmest water north of Virginia! Warmed additionally by the prevailing breezes off the mainland, the water here permits cozy sailing. Water temperatures near the Magdelenes are in the 60's (F) by late summer. Due to the warmth of the water, fog is relatively infrequent and/or burns off early. The warm water and relatively fog free windy weather prove a delightful contrast to cruisers familiar with Maine, Atlantic Nova Scotia or parts of the Great Lakes
North of the line described above, the Gulf is deeper with upwelling of colder water. Also, Atlantic water makes its way into the Gulf via the Strait of Belle Isle. Sailing this area is somewhat more difficult due to more fog days and tidal influences. However, the change in temperature is not abrupt. The water and air temperatures only gradually become cooler. For example, relatively warm water, limited fog, and the prevailing warm southwesterlies are found on the west coast of Newfoundland almost to the Strait of Belle Isle.
In July and August, about 15% of winds come from the northeast or east. Another 10% or so comes from the SE. All the rest are one or another west wind. Thus, the bulk of the winds would fall abeam or on the quarter of any eastbound boat. Wind speeds are commonly in the 10-20 knots range and blow almost every day from early in the morning to evening. (If you have to return to the River, a convenient way to do this would be to circle through the Lakes and return to the Gaspe' by way of the Northumberland Strait thus keeping the wind on the beam or quarter much of the way.)
These favorable conditions typically prevail from roughly Mid-July to early September interrupted by weak and short-lived depressions and sometimes vigorous extra-tropical remnants of hurricanes. Gale force storms, infrequent in summer, are nevertheless possible in any season.
The shortest distance from the Gaspe' to the Magdelenes begins at Anse au Beaufils on the Gaspe' and ends at L'Etang du Nord, an overnight sail of about 116 miles. We waited out the remains of a hurricane and some easterly winds at Anse au Beaufils, finally sailing to L'Etang du Nord on a reach with southerly winds. We enjoyed this harbor for three days before moving around to Havre Aubert. Several days later we moved out to Entry Island. While visiting the Islands, we rode our folding bikes all over and rented an old car to travel the length of the archipelago to visit the northern islands which we did not get to by boat. .
Havre L'Etang du Nord--Magdelen Islands
Located on the west side of the Island, entry is straight forward. Outside of fishing season, it provides a convenient port with room for several pleasure craft. Pleasure boats usually, but not always, tie on the north side of the main wharf. Wharfage in 2004 was about $1.00cn/foot. This is a French-speaking fishing port that has adapted only minimally to a marine tourist trade. There are no official services, but if you have enough electric cabling, you may be able to reach an outlet on the dock. Water is available if your hose is long enough. But you are on your own to figure it all out. Bathrooms, (locked at night, you get a key) and shower are a hundred yards from the wharf attached to a good restaurant open from breakfast through dinner. A classy tea room serving lunch, as well as tea and pastry the remainder of the day also has creative artwork, dolls, etc. A lovely walk on the bluffs by the sea, several kilometers long, starts near the wharf. Ice is a little more than two kilometers away. The coop grocery was not open in 2004, the nearest alternative being about five kilometers away in Cap aux Meules. There is continual dock traffic, both foot and vehicular.
Havre Aubert--Magdelen Islands
A new flashing buoy, YK1, is located between YM11 and the channel entrance due to the advance of the sand shoal into the bay from the sand spit. Leave it to port going in.
No pleasure craft actually tie up at the commercial wharf anymore, we were told, even outside of fishing season, and we saw none do so over the several days we were there. The small craft harbor operated by the yacht club is very busy, but very receptive. There are two permanent moorings in place to port of the channel going in. The channel advertises six feet at mid-tide, but we observed boats go in and out at all states of the tide. The fish pier opposite Fox Point is in ruins and the path to it silted in we were told. Havre Amherst is good and frequently used in the busy season.
In addition to the usual services, there is now a bar on the dock and Internet access. Dockage was about a $1:00cn/foot in 2004. The town has numerous restaurants, boutiques, etc. Rental cars are available to tour the island.
Entry Island--Magdelen Islands
Lying on the east side of the channel from the land spit guarding Havre Aubert, Entry Island is noted for its high hills and the trails up to the top from where you get a lovely view of the Islands and Cape Breton on a clear day. The harbor is small, but has enough turning room for small craft. There is 10' of water along the docks. Tour boats come and go all day bringing hikers from Cap aux Meules. The dock nearest to the breakwater is reserved for these boats, but can be used by pleasure boats for brief landings or after the last hikers leave for the day. There is no accessible electricity or water. A poorly maintained public bathroom is at the head of the wharf. A number of English speaking families live here. Island teenagers whoop it up until about 11:00pm on the breakwater. The Island makes for a good departure point to Cape North or Cheticamp on Cape Breton.
To enter, find red channel buoy YM12. Leave it well to port. Track toward the bluff facing the water at water's edge south of the harbor until the entrance opens up, then go straight in.
Anse de Cabane--Magdelen Islands
This small fishing harbor lying on the southwest corner of Isle de Aubert is the closest point to Cheticamp on Cape Breton. The harbor makes a good interim stop enroute to or from other Island harbors. Outside of fishing season, you can find one or two spots at the dock. Wharfage in 2004 was free, but there were no services. A small but good restaurant is a five minute walk up the hill and basic groceries are about 15 minutes away on foot.
Dingwall Harbor--Cape Breton
This harbor makes a good stopping point having rounded Cape North after a long day-sail from the Magdelens. Dingwall is home to about 25 fishing boats which tie up at the public wharf and at numerous private docks in the harbor. These vessels go in and out of the entrance with impunity. There is one 40' sailboat that calls Dingwall its permanent summer home tied to a private seawall on the south side. Owners of the sailboat allowed us to land our dinghy on their ramp behind the boat.
Pairs of buoys leading to the entrance are lined up on an angle so that you are guided between the shallowest bars on either side of the entrance. We found 12' minimum depth near high tide and about 9' near low. The Morse "A" center channel marker about a mile offshore is a good starting point for entry. Three more pairs of buoys line the curving channel inside the breakwaters, one red and one green being lighted. The breakwater lights were in place and functioning.
We anchored in the bay noted in the guide just inside the channel off to the side of the track to the public wharf. Thirty knot winds with katabatic gusts accompanying a front started to blow across the anchorage, but we had little room to increase scope, so we upped anchor and traveled to the pool at the far west end of the harbor.
This nearly round, completely sheltered pool has a diameter of about 300'. A couple of Private mooring buoys are located there, but we were able to anchor comfortably near the middle in 20 feet, mud with good holding and adequate swinging room. Favor the south side of the channel going in until it narrows, then go center-channel with a least depth of about 10 feet. There is room for one or two boats. This would be a good hurricane hole in our opinion.
In 2004, a "pizza" joint a short walk from the harbor sold good home-baked bread. Ice was available nearby at another store. A vehicle would be required to acquire diesel, basic groceries, or farmed muscles about three miles out on the Cabot Trail. A gourmet restaurant is located at the Markland Coastal Resort, a ten minute walk on the beach road. The general store mentioned in the guide was not present in 2004.
Surrounded on three sides by the high hills of Cape Breton it seems like a mountain lake! The old gypsum pile and the surrounding meadow are largely overgrown with evergreens sprinkled about. We had to look twice to see that the pile was not natural. We think the harbor quite beautiful.
A few miles to the south, the wharf at White Point gives good protection if a strong
easterly swell makes the Dingwall harbor entrance uncertain. Ingonish Harbor and St. Anne's Bay both accessible to deep draft boats, offer additional stops between Dingwall and the Great Bra D'Or Channel.