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Crossing Canada and Voyaging Down the St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia

By Val Ellis last modified Mar 14, 2019 12:40 PM

Published: 2012-07-10 21:15:00
Topics: Global Yachting Services
Countries: Canada , USA

Published 31 January 2011

‘S/Y Tairua’, a Bowman 48DS, has spent some 7 years cruising the Pacific North West from a base in Point Roberts, WA. In 2010 we decided to return to the cruising grounds in the Mediterranean via the eastern waters of Canada and the USA. After much consideration of the logistics and costs we elected to have her transported by road to Kingston, Toronto and to then sail down the St. Lawrence and on to Nova Scotia.

This turned out to be a successful strategy. The following notes may be of value to others considering such a move in either direction.

Trucking Limitations
‘Tairua’ was close to the maximum limits for this exercise. Her key details are length 50ft, beam 14.2 ft, draft 6 ft, maximum height above the base of the keel 14 ft and all up weight at time of carriage at just over 41,000 US lbs. Of these dimension the maximum height was critical. To keep within the highway height limits the loaded trailer had barely an inch clearance from the tarmac.

There are a number of trucking companies that can handle this size. From initial enquiries we selected Andrews Trucking out of Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. Their price was not the cheapest but we were impressed by their attention to detail and the reports from others who had used them. We were not disillusioned, they were excellent.

Choice of Departure Point
Our base port in the Pacific North West was Point Roberts, WA, USA. This anomalous peninsula is an appendage to the greater Vancouver area and an excellent base with ready access to Vancouver airport and the Gulf and San Juan Islands. However, road access is restrictive and an alternative pickup point had to be agreed. The closest would be Blaine just across the bay but there were some concerns and in addition a border crossing would be required. We eventually settled on Shelter Island up the Fraser river. This has a large travel lift, lots of ground space and ready access to the trans-Canada highway. Smaller boats could be more flexible in this regard.

It was a pleasant days run from Point Roberts to Steveston on the Frazer river, where we cleared Customs, and then on up to Shelter Island.

Preparing the Boat for Transportation
De-rigging, removing all projections and re-arranging internally for nearly a week underway on the road is a task that should not be underestimated. It took us nearly 4 days before the driver was prepared to move off. For many and obvious reasons I was reluctant to remove the stanchions and pushpit / pulpit. Bob, our driver, coped with this by dint of loading the boat with a significant bow-down attitude. Eventually the load remained within the height limits by finally removing the wheel.

The mast and rigging were wrapped in layers of packaging film. The radar antenna was restrained within the radome to prevent movement. Internally, all movable items were stowed low with lots of bubble wrap. Items such as crockery and glass were cushioned with paper or bubble wrap to prevent wear marks due to the constant vibration. Deck winches were covered and taped to prevent loss of the cover. All projecting instrumentation was removed to prevent snagging by low branches. We elected not to shrink wrap the hull. Experience from others indicates that if this does lift then the wind (about 50 mph) will strip enough to flail the hull leaving serious marks.

Arrival in Ontario
Our chosen drop-off point was Kingston, Ontario. Andrews suggested Whitby and in many ways this would have been preferable and slightly cheaper. However it involves a bit more cruising in the Lakes. Mid-late June was tight for personal reasons and I was also concerned about depth through the Murray canal so Kingston was chosen as the alternative. The drop and re-rig was undertaken at Kingston marina which is convenient to downtown. Whilst they could lift the vessel easily the mast proved a challenge. At 70ft it was on the limit of their crane.

The boat was filthy from road grime. It took several washes and scrubs to bring the hull and deck back to normality. Despite this we still believe the decision not to wrap was correct.

Dockage at Kingston marina for a few weeks following was not possible and we moved ‘Tairua’ around to Collins Bay marina. As is common with many of the marinas in this area, dock spaces are considerably smaller than those in the North West. However, Collins Bay found space and made us most welcome. A lovely spot.

Useful Publications
For the voyage, we used several key publications as well as the excellent Canadian nautical charts. In particular we used Capt. Cheryl Barr’s “A Complete Cruising Guide to the Down East Circle Route” (ISBN 13 9780973165906) and “Cruising Guide St. Lawrence River and Quebec Waterways” (ISBN 13 2980783404). The former is well written, comprehensive and extends all down the east coast but it is well out of date, even the latest edition, and must be treated with suitable caution. The latter is a much more recent publication and in colour. It is Quebec orientated and more a marina guide than a cruising guide. We found it useful but were disappointed in the quality of the information. Clearly some dockmasters had put as much spin on their situation as they could and no one had cross-checked. There were a couple of marinas with 4 star ratings we would not recommend.

The voyage involves a number of locks controlled by the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. They have a requirement that boats using these facilities must have onboard, and have read, their publication, The St. Lawrence Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide. We downloaded the latest version from their web-site. Unfortunately, as we quickly found at our first locks, it is some years out of date. For example, fees charged were significantly different, information boards mentioned were no longer in use and some of the signals referred to were missing or replaced by different ones. Fortunately the lock keepers were patient and we were able to pick up most of the missing clues from watching the regulars on this well used cruising route.

Navigational Matters
Navigation requires vigilance, as the main channel does have shallow areas adjacent, much of it spoil material from dredging. However, the buoyage system is excellent. Although some buoys are small they are every few hundred metres and clearly numbered. They, and the church spires that are ubiquitous along the way, should be ticked off as you go. We found the most valuable aid was our AIS monitor as it alerted us to big ship movements around blind bends and islands in the narrow bits.

June through August is a busy time on this route. We used a mix of anchorage and marinas. Our normal routine was to book ahead by about 48hrs except for Montreal, Quebec City, Cap l’Aigle and Tadoussac which were expected to be very busy, and were. We booked a week ahead for these. Our overall length was a factor we had to consider. Most boats who make their home in this area are of the order of 10 - 12m in length. Most of the marinas could just accommodate us but pre-booking was vital as there may only be one dock space of such a size.

Depths were also a significant issue. The guide books gave some data but in general they were optimistic. In addition 2010 was a ‘low’ year for the lakes and seaway. We were unable to get into several marinas due to depth restrictions and in a few others we were clearly touching the high spots.

Anchorages on-route are not as frequent as might be imagined. The issue is a combination of the very rocky nature of the seaway and the shallow depths encountered as soon as you move out of the buoyed channels. We found the only reliable anchorages were on the edges of the commercial anchorage areas which are clearly marked on the charts. These areas seemed to be chosen for their soft clay bottom and swinging room away from the main channel. They may have been rather open but they had excellent holding.

Weed was a constant irritant. We would have to clean filters almost every day and in a couple of instances twice a day. The locks are particular bad in this respect but we found the issue persisted as far east as Gaspe.

The cruising guides provide information on fuel supplies. However, we found supplies limited in scope and depth for access. We filled our tanks at Collins Bay in Kingston and did not refuel till Quebec City. Our next refuel point was Gaspe marina then Charlottetown on PEI.

Port and Anchorage Information

Kingston is an excellent spot to stock up and the busker’s festival in early July is very entertaining. Our route from here was a follows.

Gananoque. Despite what the guide books say the City marina does NOT take transients. There are private marinas but shallow and open to power boat wash. The town is pleasant but limited facilities.

Update September 2012: This marina does take transients and has many docks set aside. However it is incredibly busy July and August so booking ahead is essential. Boats of 50' or more are also accommodated, though they do have fewer options. The public docks on the east side of the harbour are free but fill up quickly. Booking 48 hours ahead in peak season is absolutely necessary. The depths and shoals are a big definitely need a

good depth sounder etc. but dock availability isn't a problem if you book ahead..the

free  public docks though are often full by mid day ....also there is a very good
grocery store about 10 minutes from the harbor if you are walking, and an organic
local grocers 2mins. And a farmers market on Thursdays 5min. (Christine Downey - local sailor).




Brockville. The City marina in Tunnel Bay has limited space but a long wall will take several big boats. Picturesque but limited facilities. Some interesting historical features.

Prescott. Too shallow for us so we anchored off.

Morrisburg. Crysler Park Marina. Nice spot, shallow and lots of weed. Some tourist attractions nearby. Some distance from the nearest town.

Iroquois lock. This has good access and temporary dockage as you approach from upstream. The same cannot be said for many of the other downstream locks. You can also buy all the tickets you need for the Canadian locks at a machine. The keepers still accept cash but if you have limited Canadian currency then this at least gives you a credit card facility.

St. Regis anchorage downstream from the Snell lock. Very pleasant and once the speed boat brigade stop for the evening it is very quiet. Excellent holding.

Marina Campi at Valleyfield. The town is pretty but limited services. Otherwise very disappointing. No facilities despite what the guidebooks say. Limited space in the marina and the bay outside is full of weed that prevents anchorage.

Beauharnois anchorage. Downstream of the Beauharnois locks and in a bay clear of the power station current. Good holding and peaceful anchorage.

Montreal, old port. Excellent marina and good staff. Easy access to picturesque part of town. Lots to do. Entry to the port requires a significant push against the main stream of the river. The cruising guides indicate the best route is to starboard of the stream close to the walls but we found little relief there. The locals seem to hug the port shore as long as possible then cut across the stream. Boats unable to maintain 7 knots will have a problem.

Parc Sorel. Unable to enter due to low water levels. Excellent anchorage area just off the town in the big ship anchorage (busy, about 12 ships) but would be even better North / NE of Ile de Grace. Local thunderstorms prevented us from making our final leg into that area.

Trois Riviere. Very disappointing, rather dilapidated. Expensive access to town. If you must pause here I would suggest anchorage on the west side of Ile Saint-Quentin just below the road bridge.

Portneuf. A very pleasant marina with good staff. Excellent restaurant above the office. You do need to book this as it attracts customers from Quebec City.

Quebec City. We moored in the old city at Marina de Port du Quebec. Excellent facilities. There are no moorage facilities outside the lock as indicated by the cruising guides but the lock operates very frequently and they monitor the same channel as the marina and thus pick up your arrival call. Handy to the old town and the stunning light and sound show on the silos behind the docks. Allow 4-5 days at least. The market opposite the marina is excellent. A major supermarket is an easy walk away.

The next leg downstream is a long one (72 nm) but the river and tide do provide a lot of assistance. The cruising guides are quite clear on the best times to depart Quebec city and if you follow them correctly the run can be done in 6 - 8 hours. For the last 5 - 10 miles you have the new tide flooding in. With a careful reading of the water and watching your speed over the ground it is possible to work fingers of the old ebb tide to within a mile or so of Cap l’Aigle.

Cap l’Aigle. A small but pleasant marina in what is now proper sea water. Space is limited and tight. Booking ahead is almost mandatory as there are limited anchorages in the area and they are all exposed. The town, a short taxi ride away, has few facilities. Friday nights tend to be dock party night as many boats have Quebec City crew that come down for the weekend.

Tadoussac. Very busy, very limited space and many tourists. Rafting almost inevitable. Anchorage off is possible but tends to be crowded.

From here our route was to Rimouski on the south shore of the Gulf. This traverses the St. Lawrence Marine Park where there is an abundance of wildlife to be seen. From Rimouski we followed the coast around to Gaspe.

Rimouski. Pleasant town and marina. Dock space was not an issue. Interesting drift wood art in the marina grounds.

Matane. We were unable to get into the marina due to depth restrictions but were able to anchor in the commercial basin. Good holding. Need to keep clear of the two main ferry terminals as they are in use day and night.

St. Anne des Monts. A new dock finger provided ample space and depth. Pleasant spot though the town feels a bit quiet.

Grand Vallee. An alternative stop is Riviere Madeleine but it is a very tight spot and not well covered by the cruising guides. Some of the smaller boats travelling our way did use it but we opted for the open anchorage of Grand Vallee. It is a shallow bay and depth restrictions meant we were not able to get as much shelter from the breakwater as we hoped. It was not uncomfortable in the west wind but would have been much nastier if there had been any north or easterly to it.

Riviere-au-Renard. A large commercial harbour with a good but small marina in the inner finger. We arrived in a near NW gale and the docks would have been dangerous to attempt as they are aligned for a SW wind. We anchored in the outer harbour. The bottom is mixed holding with kelp but several boats including ourselves managed a reasonable night. The town was badly hit by a flood surge several years ago and is still trying to recover. There is a reasonable supermarket and a good fish market.

Cape Gaspe. This point projects some 5 nm SE from the Gaspe peninsular. Seaward from the end the water is relatively shallow and kicks up a steep sea even in moderate winds. In the prevailing SW winds it is long slog to round it and head up into the long bay that leads to Gaspe.

Gaspe. Marina has good facilities. Transient space is limited. A very pleasant town with good bakery, supermarkets and things to see or do. As much of the coast south from here is not easy to access by boat it is worth renting a car and driving, at least as far as Perce or L’Ainse-a-beaufils.

Ainse-a-beaufils. A delightful but small marina with a local micro-brewery and good restaurant in the port area. Shallow with the deepest water along the face of the old dock wall. You will need fender boards for this wall.

A note on cruising strategy from Gaspe to Nova Scotia. There are two alternatives for this route. From the Gaspe area head SE to the Iles-de-la-Madeleine then south to Nova Scotia. Or, head south via the Northumberland Strait with stops in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (PEI). For many reasons we opted for the Northumberland route but in retrospect that was the wrong decision.

Although the prevailing wind is W/SW the Northumberland strait adds a more southerly component to this and the course is hard on the nose. In addition the route is badly constricted by lobster pots and even when sailable conditions existed we were continually thwarted by course changes. Harbours along the New Brunswick coast are few and very shallow. We found anchorages but most were open.

If your route is north from Nova Scotia to Gaspe then the Northumberland Strait is probably the better route. The passage west from Iles-de-la-Madeleine could be hard on the wind.

We noticed that many of those boats heading to Iles-de-la-Madeleine departed from Riviere-au-Renard or Gaspe. We would suggest a better departure point would be Ainse-a-beaufils as the route down from Gaspe is interesting and the distance out to the Iles is much shorter.

From Ainse-a-beaufils to Port Hawkesbury in Nova Scotia.

Chandler. Pleasant marina with very limited space and depth. Good restaurant at the port. Supermarket up town.

Portage Island anchorage Miramichi bay. Crossing the bar at the small boat entrance is tight on depth. Good holding but very exposed to SW winds. We waited out a front going through by moving to the pool south of Bay-du-Vin Island. Very sheltered spot.

Buctouche. Too shallow to get to the marina but anchorage off in good holding in the mouth of the bay.

Summerside PEI. Good marina but limited transient space and manoeuvring room. Town looking a bit tired

Charlottetown. Marina space very limited. Town is lively with many good restaurants. Big supermarkets are out of town.

From the guide books the usual route from here would be across to Pictou and then northward with a rounding of Cape George Point. With a NE forecast that was going to be another header so we welcomed a comment from a skipper on our dock in respect of a small marina in Murray harbour on the eastern edge of PEI. From the charts it looked tight but possible. As indeed it was. Entering the harbour was straight forward with due vigilance but we grounded trying to get to the marina itself. We anchored at the edge of the channel in a wide shallow area, just east of the dredged marina channel, for a comfortable evening.

The route from Murray harbour to the lock at Port Hastings is straight forward and with a NE it was a comfortable reach. The lock is huge and the drop almost trivial. Its purpose is to stop large currents developing rather than lift significant heights. From there it is a mile or so to the marina at Port Hawkesbury. Some of the cruising guides refer to it as Canso Yacht Club or marina but it has been redeveloped and renamed which can cause a bit of confusion on the VHF.

Port Hawkesbury. Small marina with limited transient space. Some space available alongside the public wharf in front of it but the wall is rather high. The docks are a bit rough but there are new facilities on shore. Excellent supermarket about 10 mins walk up the hill. Note, the marina staff will point you to an out of town supermarket probably because it is cheaper but it is not convenient or as good.

The Last Leg
From here we transited the Lennox Passage and entered the Bras d’Or lakes via the lock at Saint Peter’s. The Lennox passage is narrow but once you have spotted the very small buoys used it is straightforward.. The lock at Saint Peter’s is blind when approached from the sea so be prepared to wait in the small bay off the town. Although the guide books say the lock uses Channel 16 we were severely reprimanded by the Coast Guard for this. Use channel 10.

From Saint Peter’s it was a leisurely passage to Dundee marina where we were to winter over.

Dick Drinkrow
SY Tairua

Update from Dick 7 July, 2012

The Dundee marina facilities in the west end of the Bras d'Or lakes Nova Scotia are now closed (as from 1st July 2012). There are no facilities there at all. St. Peters and Baddeck are currently the only marinas available to visitors within the lakes.