Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Voyage to Ungava – progress seldom comes in straight lines (2)

Waiting for the 5 metre tide to fall

Low tide leaves the boat high and dry

Progress seldom comes in straight lines, and so it has proved throughout ‘Kuan Yin’s” 300- mile passage down the St. Lawrence river from Kingston to Quebec City.  But, as in all such cases, there’s usually nothing to do but to meet each challenge as best one can and to keep going.  No-one ever said it was easy.

Nevertheless, I’ve now reached Quebec City, almost 500 miles east of Toronto, and hopefully the problems that have made the journey so far something of a challenge of nerves have now all been settled.  Sometimes the only solution has been to take a deep breath and keep going.

In Kingston, the problem of the engine cutting out was solved by draining (and discarding!) all the old diesel fuel and flushing out both tanks. What came out of the bottom of one of the tanks was black – diesel is supposed to be virtually clear.

In addition, I discovered that the makeshift repair to one of the engine mounts had broken. The very helpful staff at Kingston Marina managed to make a brand new bracket and with 225 litres of clean fuel we were ready to go.

After a delightful dinner with my former publisher, Jan Walter, and her husband Steve, we set off through the section of the St. Lawrence river know as the 1000 islands. It was mostly motoring or motorsailing because of the winding and often fairly narrow channel between the pretty islands.

Unfortunately, Thong had to leave the boat at Brockville because of other commitments.  He has helped so much with preparing the boat and was enjoying life aboard and our passage that it was a great pity to see him go.

View from the "bottom" of the gigantic Eisenhower Lock, St. Lawrence Seaway

The prospect of handling the boat alone through the 7 massive ship locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway was daunting. But there was no alternative and after a day at anchor just above the first lock to relax and to gather my courage, I travelled through all the locks without incident. Only at the last two locks was I told I could not go through because I was alone, but a boat from Quebec City kindly loaned me a crew member and we passed through late in the day.

The real challenge of that day was only just about to begin! I’d booked a marina in Montreal by phone but when I called to check the details, I was told there was no reservation and not to go there. This put me in great difficulty. Darkness was only about an hour away. I could not stop or anchor in the channel of the Seaway. I had to steer the boat, check the chart and make a decision on the move. The alternative was to head upriver (after the end of the Seaway) to the marina in the Old Port of Montreal. This meant fighting the up-to-6 knot current.  “Kuan Yin”‘s top speed is about 4.5 knots.

Darkness fell. Even with the engine revving, the boat moved forward only one metre at a time; and often made no progress at all against the rushing current trying to wash us away.  At one stage I had to move out of the way for a huge container ship and was going backwards.

If the engine quits now…, I worried. There was nothing to do but say a quick prayer to Kuan Yin standing watch above my head on the mizzen mast and to keep pressing against the current. Though the distance was short, it seemed a very long way; it took more than two hours to travel less than 2 miles up the river to the Vieux Port of Montreal.  A concert of classical music was in progress.

After tying up and making sure the boat was secure, I was flooded with a warm glow of relief and appreciation. At least I know the engine can be trusted, I told myself.  This did not prove to be true yet.

Oops! The prop shaft has fallen off the back of the gearbox

A few days later I was downriver from Montreal and anchored for the night. When I weighed anchor at dawn the next morning and put the engine into gear – nothing happened. I quickly dropped the anchor again, thinking that the control cable had probably come loose. Instead I discovered the propeller shaft had fallen off the back of the gearbox.

All attempts to pull the shaft back into place ended in failure. I looked around the little engine room and soon discovered why. Both bolts of the new engine mount had broken. And the steel mounting plate at the front of the engine was cracked and had been for long time (the 1/4″ separation was rusty).  No wonder I’d been having trouble keeping the belt tight for the engine cooling.

The engine had been shifting and finally the prop shaft had pulled out. I also found “gold dust” where the prop shaft exited the boat. After another coffee and relaxation I realized it wasn’t gold but bronze ground off the cutlass bearing by the rotating shaft.

All this meant that I had no motor and would have to sail all the way to Quebec City.  It was only 27 miles, but I was daunted by the prospect of travelling along a shipping lane without motor backup. Getting becalmed with a ship coming at me and both of us unable to manoevre would not be good.

Bad weather was forecast for the weekend, so I decided to stay put and to put out more anchor chain. By nightfall on the Saturday, the waves were 5 feet high and “Kuan Yin” was riding up and down. With no motor backup to take the strain off the anchor, if it dragged the boat would be washed up on the mudbanks. I dropped a second anchor over the side. I’m not sure it would have done much good but it helped relief my mounting anxiety.  There was no much else I could do; enjoy a glass of wine and try not to exhaust myself with worry.

After the high winds the day before, this spectacular view from the deck at dawn

At sunrise on the Monday, I sailed down to Quebec City. Inevitably, I met a ship just at the narrowest section – where the current streams under two bridges. I sailed into the shallows and reefed the jib to slow down to allow the freighter to pass. Actually, it was a lovely sail and I realize I’ve been lazy and over-reliant on the engine.

Where to go in Quebec City for repairs – and how to get there with no engine to manoevre against the strong tidal current – was the next challenge.  I had plan A, B, and C. When I called the Parc Nautique de Levi, I was told the current was too strong at the entrance to be able to sail in (and I was not confident of being able to do so anyway) and to call the Coast Guard for assistance.  So I did and with no fuss, drama or expense, Capt. Pierre and his crew delivered me to the safely to the dock. Fantastic!

Several men were standing there who’d heard I had no engine. M. Bertrand came aboard and quickly found all the problems. Three (not two) of the engine legs were broken and the bolt securing the prop shaft had snapped inside the gearbox. 24 hours and $1000 later, everything was fixed. It seemed like a small miracle. (I’d feared a week or two or delay and an even bigger bill.)

Leaving at dawn a few days later (having visited old Quebec City and restocked on food), I was motoring out of the marina entrance. The tide was running. As I increased revs there was a terrible banging sound  under my feet. It sounded like someone had grabbed my neck with steel hands and was shaking the life out of me. I turned the boat around fast as I could, expecting to loose power at any moment, and got back (with a crash!) to the dock. It was still early.  So I drank tea until I’d calmed down and went back to sleep for two hours.

Next problem. It was not the fuel, not the water cooling, not the engine mounts, not the gearbox, not the prop shaft. This time it was the cutlass bearing – where the propeller shaft exits the boat. The vibrating prop shaft had worn away the bearing – hence the “gold” dust.

The boat would have to come out of the water. The only boat lift was not available for 5 days and would cost hundreds of dollars. If the boat has to come out of the water, then maybe I should stop here for the winter, i thought. The prospect of having to pay for the boat to be lifted out again within a few weeks was depressing. Maybe I won’t reach Halifax this year after all, I wondered.

However, the gentlemen of Mécanautic suggested that since “Kuan Yin” has a full and wide keel, maybe I could beach the boat in the bay next to the marina.  The bay dries out to three metres above water level at low tide.  The moon was full, the spring tide was 5 metres.  I looked at the grassy bay at low tide, made a mental plan of where to go to avoid the rocks and decided to give it a go.

I don’t want to sound cavalier about this. My heart was in my mouth as I prepared the boat for departure and as I entered the shallow bay. I’d never done it before. If the mud was too soft, if the boat did not settle evenly on the bottom, she would keel over onto her side and the water would be inside the boat pretty quickly. What pushed me on was knowing that if I gave up now, I’d never have the mental stamina for the challenges of Labrador next summer. Kuan Yin and I had a short conversation. Then the tide was right and it was time to motor into the bay.

I dropped fore and aft anchors, bolted in her two legs to support her on the sides and waited for the water to recede. “Kuan Yin” gradually settled gently on the bottom. I sat up for fours hours to be sure she was not going to fall over, then turned in to try to sleep. I woke several times in the night and found everything was fine. The tide went out and came in again during the night. “Kuan Yin” refloated and then settled as the water went out again. By midmorning, M. Bertrand and M. Marcel came out in their rubber boots to install a new cutlass bearing.  Everything went well. They actually had the right size in stock. (Another small miracle!) Less than four hours later, all was done and we were waiting for the tide again.

Cutlass bearing replaced - waiting for high tide to float the boat

Getting out was considerably trickier than coming in.  As soon as she floated, the strong wind would want to push her towards the rocks, but until she floated I could not  unbolt her legs. Fortunately all went well. After revving the engine and hearing – nothing! – from the prop, half an hour later I was tied up at the dock back in the marina and ready to relax.

The next stage is to see the whales off Tadoussac  and then cruise along the south shore of the Gulf of St,. Lawrence. Hopefully all plain sailing.

Free pdf download: Voyage to Ungava 1,2,3

Please check under “Ungava” for other updates of this adventure and subscribe to receive reports from Labrador this summer, 2010.

(This was originally posted in September 2009.)
© 2009 Dennison Berwick.  This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.

4 comments on “* Voyage to Ungava – progress seldom comes in straight lines (2)

  1. phoenixoftexas
    January 7, 2010

    Can’t wait to hear about Labrador. Labrador HAS to be cold! Even in the summer!


    • dennisonberwick
      January 9, 2010

      Yes! I’m expecting the temperatures to be low and the weather to be a mixture of wonderful and wicked. Can’t imagine a place more unlike Texas.


  2. phoenixoftexas
    January 9, 2010

    I think the wicked northern winter is infecting Texas. It’s been in the 20’s in Houston! I enjoy the cold, but only when I’m skiing. I may possibly enjoy it if on a yacht, dressed properly, with a proper drink in hand, but who knows.

    Do you ever sail to more remote areas? I’d like to see and hear about that!


  3. Roger Walker
    March 4, 2012

    Have enjoyed reading your adventures from Georgian Bay to overwintering in Quebec. Looking forward to the next installments. How do I access them? (I sail a much smaller Venture 22, Sea-lestial 1)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on January 7, 2010 by in Sailing and tagged , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: