Flying over the northern coast of Nova Scotia from Halifax to Saint Pierre looking down at the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton made it hard to imagine we would soon be in a land of fjords and 1,000 foot cliffs with numerous waterfalls. My son Brian and I were on our annual summer trip to Atlantic Canada to cruise on Antigone, a Jeanneau 34 owned by my good friend Rich Feeley. Rich and I met 40 years ago in the first Capetown to Rio Race and have been shipmates ever since. Many of the summer cruises we have enjoyed have been documented in previous WindCheck issues.
This past summer was special because we would be meeting the boat in Saint Pierre, an island off the south coast of Newfoundland. It is actually part of the Saint Pierre et Miquelon archipelago, which is a French Territory. The island is only about ten miles off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula and has ferry service from Fortune, Newfoundland. It is definitely part of France; they use the Euro for currency and predominantly speak French. It’s a colorful harbor with a definite feel of being part of France, and we were able to stock up on croissants and fine wines before departing.
This year’s cruise was to cover the south coast of Newfoundland, a beautiful area with limited land access. Most of the fishing villages in Newfoundland are on the northeast coast. These are closer to the fishing grounds on the Grand Banks and have access by road from the airports at Saint John’s and Gander. The southern coast is a series of fjords with narrow entrances and dramatic cliffs, many with cascading waterfalls. Few of these areas are populated and those hearty souls that inhabit these parts survive off the sea. There is a coastal ferry service that travels from Hermitage on the east to Burgeo on the west. Both of these towns are at the ends of roadways. The ferry stops at the outback fishing villages bringing mail, supplies and occasionally visitors.
It has been our experience cruising in August that the weather is generally good. The fog seems to pass once you cross from the coast of Nova Scotia across the Cabot Straits to Newfoundland. We do pay close attention to the weather service broadcasts and have had to hunker down a few times for passing hurricanes. In September, Hurricane Igor hammered the Burin Peninsula with winds approaching 100 miles per hour. There are protected anchorages that offer safety and seclusion.
From Saint Pierre, we entered Canadian customs at Fortune and proceeded to Grand Bank for the night. These towns are both on the Burin Peninsula and have road access. We found Grand Bank to be quite an active town with a theater and ship’s captain house museum dedicated to the many fishermen who have lost their lives at sea. Grand Bank appears to have an active summer community, although most of Newfoundland’s fishing villages have lost population because of the closing of the fishing grounds. Many of the original homeowners who have moved away return in the summer to spend time with friends and family.
Early the next morning, we set sail in 15 to 18 knots of breeze from the southwest and headed past Brunette and Sagona Islands into the Northeast Arm. This is a long fjord with the town of Harbor Breton at the entrance. Waterfalls were abundant as we short tacked to the head, and we passed soaring eagles, osprey and many salmon cages. It appears that fish farming has taken the place of offshore fishing. Anchoring at the head of the fjord provided some of the younger members of the crew with an opportunity to take a swim. The water proved to be warm this far up from the open sea. We were then greeted by a group of fishermen who had been dragging for scallops. They offered us some of their catch in exchange for a few beers. Scallops poached in white wine provided a perfect appetizer for our dinner. We attempt to do mostly everything onboard except for hiking. Antigone is well equipped and there is an unspoken rotation that everyone takes turns cooking and cleaning up after meals.
The following morning we upped anchor and headed to Hare Bay. There were strong easterlies once we exited the entrance past the town of Harbor Breton and we were able to sail wing and wing most of the distance, averaging over six knots. Again, as we sailed up the fjord we were greeted by multiple waterfalls on both sides. Hare Bay actually divides into two separate anchorages at the head of the fjord. One is at the base of a waterfall from the Morgan River and is called Morgan’s Arm. This anchorage was a little too shallow for our six-foot draft so we proceeded around Sandy Point and anchored in 20 to 22 feet past Dollard Bight. The silence, except for the sound of the waterfalls, added a peaceful end to a beautiful day of sailing. In addition to trying to do everything on the boat other than hike, we also attempt to sail at every opportunity. Rich is a firm believer in using Antigone to her fullest potential. If we can make at least three or four knots under sail, we sail.
The next morning, we were greeted with some rain and a strong easterly as we headed out with only the main up to the fjord where the fishing village of Francois is located. Pronounced Frans-ways, it was the most dramatic spot we encountered. It’s a fishing village of 134 people nestled at the base of a natural amphitheater surround by mountains ranging in height from 600 to 1,000 feet. The hikes to the top of the peaks provided breathtaking views of the town and fjord entrance. Numerous waterfalls could be seen, some of which feed a lake that we hiked around. The lake provides the water supply for the town, whose residents get around in four-wheel-drive, all-terrain carts. The coastal ferry arrived while we were there and a few people got off to spend some time in the town’s one bed & breakfast. The visitors had traveled from Corner Brook, a large town in western Newfoundland, to spend a few days in this beautiful remote village.
The next day the wind had left us and we had to motor. The weatherman was calling for a blow to come in across the Cabot Straits in two days, so we had to think about when we would make the crossing into the Bras d’Or Lakes. Antigone was going to be left for the winter in the Cape Breton Boat Yard, which is located in Baddeck, a town in the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia.
We decided we would try to make the crossing the next day in order to be in the protected waters of the Bras d’Or while the storm passed through. We headed for the Ramea Archipelago, a group of islands located off the south coast of Newfoundland between Burgeo and Grey River. The archipelago doesn’t have the breathtaking fjords of the south coast, but it does have a wonderful lighthouse and a hiking trail that goes completely around the island. It was encouraging to see a series of wind-driven turbines at on end of the main island. Presumably they are a source of power for this small community.
We stayed in Ramea overnight and through the next morning, leaving in the early afternoon to cross the Cabot Straits. Our plan was to travel through the night and arrive off the northeast entrance to the Bras d’Or early the next morning. We had to motor most of the way, but it was a beautiful night. The air was crystal clear and we were far enough offshore and away from light sources to actually experience a wonderful green flash as the sun was setting. The moon was full and the stars were many and bright, which compensated for the sound of the engine.
We made landfall as the sun was coming up and the wind filled in. The sails went up and Antigone proceeded into the Great Bras d’Or. Cruising in these inland lakes has a charm all it own. Sailing past Baddeck, which eventually would be our final stop, we passed a small refuge island with eight eagles perched on a variety of tree branches and structures. It was an amazing sight.
The next few days were not as dramatic as the south coast of Newfoundland, but the sailing was wonderful and the harbors were empty. We left Antigone with Henry Fuller, the owner of the Cape Breton Boat Yard, where she would spend the winter. The crew departed from the Sydney Airport in Cape Breton with memorable visions of waterfalls and fjords. Next year will bring a new adventure down east, but it will be hard to match the south coast of Newfoundland.
Charlie Gulotta lives in Bridgeport,CT. He actively races and cruises on Long Island Sound.