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 – taking the rough and the smooth; further adventures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (3)

So much can change in just a few hours. That’s both the thrill and the challenge of sailing. There was no wind at all when I departed Lévi, across the river from Quebec city, soon after sunrise, so I motored against the sluggish incoming tide for a couple of hours.

I was now confident, after the excellent repairs M. Bertrand and others had done to the engine mounts, prop shaft and cutlass bearing, that the engine would run reliably for hours with no problems. I relaxed and drank coffee.

"Kuan Yin's" passage down the St. Lawrence, summer 2009

Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Motoring in calm water before the wind got up

The St. Lawrence River widens dramatically after Quebec city to become the Gulf of St. Lawrence so I was looking forward to finally being able to sail with enough room to keep away from ships. The water is salty and once the tide turned I was expecting “Kuan Yin”, to make goodspeed downstream towards my anchorage for the night, the only one on this section of the river.

Gradually through the morning, the wind strengthened from the west. I kept motorsailing for a few hours, with the new genoa set proudly, eager to cover as many miles as possible for six hours before the tide turned. When that happened, the speed over the ground would be cut to only one or two miles an hour (five knots of boat speed minus three or four knots of tide against us; compared to five plus three or four when the tide was favourable.)

By early afternoon, “Kuan Yin” was making more than five knots under sail alone. There was water for miles but the shipping channel was narrow between the red and green buoys because of rocks. Fortunately the day was clear and no ships passed until later.

As the south-westerly wind increased, I reefed down the genoa in stages to keep “Kuan Yin’s” speed to just under six knots (allowing for gusts that pushed us over seven knots occasionally).  The new Brazilian-made Alado roller-furler worked easily every time sail had to be taken in.

Flying along in a gale
It was exhilarating to be flying along at six knots! But, as sailors with a lot more experience have warned, it was easy not to pay full attention to how the situation was deteriorating.  Too late I realized just how strong the wind had become – “Kuan Yin” was sailing away from the wind at six knots and still the wind was very strong on my face.

The tide was now moving against the wind; two opposing forces that can create tremendous turbulence and waves. Two and three metre waves began overtaking the boat, attempting to push her sideways. I gripped the tiller and worked hard trying to balance keeping on course and keeping the boat more or less at right angles to the waves. If I sailed off course the wind would gradually push the boat towards the rocks a couple of miles away. If the boat turned sideways to the waves she was in danger of rolling.

Water poured over the decks as “Kuan Yin” rolled from side to side. I was soaked up to my waist many times. There was nothing to do but cling on and keep steering. Several times I asked myself why I was sailing single-handed but then I did not wish the conditions on anyone. I was not so much scared as anxious I’d get too tired to keep the boat straight. However, the challenging conditions strengthened my confidence in the boat.

Calling the Coast Guard – again!
Shortly before sunset, the hand-held VHF radio crackled into life – with a GALE warning. “No kidding!” I thought, glancing round at the three metre waves chasing the boat.

When I looked across at the shore, now a lot closer than it had been, I could see that although “Kuan Yin” was making six knots through the water with only a few feet of headsail out, we were not actually making any distance over the ground. The tide was holding us. I thought of starting the engine to give an extra push but worried the oil might drain from the engine as the boat rolled from side to side.

The only thing to do was to keep steering and to wait for the tide to slacken its grip – in a few hours time.  As darkness fell and I could not leave the tiller to go to switch on the navigation lights, I did radio the Coast Guard to inform them that I was out there. I didn’t know exactly where or what time I might reach the intended anchorage; I didn’t need help immediately but I know that if conditions got any worse I might be in real difficulties. It was comforting to know someone knew I was out there.

Eventually the tide relaxed its grip and we started to move forwards. The wind gradually subsided. I had to set a course across the high rollers in order to reach the anchorage and “Kuan Yin” continued to roll heavily.

Soon after 10 o’clock – some 15 hours after leaving Quebec city, just 40 miles upstream – I radioed the Coast Guard to say I was safely anchored.

The pleasures of being lazy at anchor
Next morning, I slept late but set out by mid morning. However, fog soon started to descend and having had enough excitement for a day or two, I returned to the anchorage and spent the day reading and making scones.

And on the next day, the wind was strong out of the north-east – exactly where I was going. Not wanting to face “wind against tide” again while also beating against the wind, I decided on another day of reading and eating.

Perfect sailing and beluga whales
On the third day, there was a gentle breeze out of the south-west. Perfect.  “Kuan Yin” sailed happily along, steered by only two shock-cords tied to the tiller, while I watched eagerly for whales. It was the first incident-free day of the entire passage from Toronto. Nothing broke and the sailing was routine.

Belugas are the only whales that over-winter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. All the others – including minke, fin, humpback and blue fatten up in the rich feeding grounds before departing for warmer waters for the winter. My many attempts at photographing the whales usually ended in failure – they were usually diving before the shutter clicked.

As I sailed towards Tadoussac, the distinctive white shapes of belugas began breaking the surface less than half a mile from the boat. The sight was magnificent. At last, I began to feel some reward for all the months of hard work and expense in refitting “Kuan Yin” for this voyage.

The lovely village and bay of Tadoussac onthe Saguenay R. in Quebec, Canada

Tadoussac, on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is a major centre for whale watching.  I stayed there several days enjoying the absolute quiet and deep solitude that’s possible on a boat at anchor.

After waiting out several more days of winds from the east, there was not a breath of wind on the day I departed for the south shore of the St. Lawrence. This was superb for whale-watching but progress was very slow. One of my life dreams is to see a blue whale from the deck of “Kuan Yin”. The blue whale is the largest creature that has ever lived on this planet. I kept the binoculars to hand all day but only saw the more common beluga and minke whales – the same whales the Japanese whaling fleet kill for “research”.

It’s eerie when the sea or any expansive body of water is completely flat. It seems unnatural, like a calm before the storm. It was disappointing not to be able to sail the 30 miles across the Gulf but better that than another gale.

Being Prudent – Time to Haul Out
The season was getting late. The nights were already close to freezing. The windows of fair weather would be getting shorter. I had to make a decision about where to haul the boat out of the water and store her for the winter.

I was still far short of my original destination. This was Halifax, Nova Scotia, where, with the milder temperatures I’d be able to do work on the boat in the spring and get boat supplies and services easily. However, I had to face reality and be prudent. The main VHF radio, the automatic bilge pump and the radar were not working. These were not so important in the narrow river and in summer. But in open water and late in the sailing season, these could be serious liabilities. And having worked hundreds of hours refitting the boat in the spring, I just did not have the energy to do more work now.

So after two days of wonderful sailing and some tricky anchoring in the pitch dark a little too close to rocks, I decided to stop in Rimouski, a distance of about 700 miles from my departure in Toronto. The alternative was continuing to sail north-east for at least another 250 miles before being able to find another facility to lift “Kuan Yin” from the water.

After a day of winterizing the engine, pumps and fully charging the batteries, the boat was lifted from the water and supported with her twin legs and four extra stands.  And there she waits until the spring and the next stage of her voyage to northern Labrador.

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.

© 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.

One comment on “* Voyage to Ungava – taking the rough and the smooth; further adventures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (3)

  1. phoenixoftexas
    January 7, 2010

    Great piece and I love the pics of her! I especially liked reading about your coast guard experience, being lazy at anchor and the beautiful sailing among the whales. What a life! Do you sail in the bitter cold — ever? Forgive my ignorance of that sort of thing, but I’ve not spent any considerable time on a dinghy, much less a sailing yacht!


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This entry was posted on January 7, 2010 by in Labrador, Sailing and tagged , , , , .
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